‘A woman's whole life, in a single day, just one day, and then that day, her whole life.’ ~ Virginia Woolf, The Hours
She comes out of the house into the dazzling crystal morning. It snowed again last night, not too much, just enough to keep the mounds of it everywhere brilliant white and even the activity of the city had yet to diminish its brightness. At this moment there are endless possibilities: the hours of the day before her. Minerva comes out of the gate and turns left, away from the university, and towards the gardens by the river. Those she had traveled with would notice a change in her this morning, but they have not seen her. Those in the city would merely note she had returned. Perhaps someone who had not traveled, but still knew her well might mark the distinction. She is still pale, with bright grey eyes, a black curl has escaped and hangs along her cheek, though her hair seems to fill the shape of her hood differently than before. Her cloak is the same winter cloak as always, soft grey and fur-lined, but the shape of that is changed too, and it moves in rhythm with a new bounce to her step, a lightness of spirit that carries her along.
It is still early and not many people are awake and moving, which suits her mood. She walks quickly, down familiar streets, no longer drab, but made fresh and new. So often are her footsteps first to mark the path and she takes a silly, childish delight in making patterns that the traffic of the day will heedlessly march over. It doesn’t matter, Minerva will remember them.
She passes the little shop that sells the pastries she is fond of; she could have breakfast, but no, not now, not yet. She feels too clean and pure, quick and clear-headed, to weigh herself down with food. She has never felt this way before and is wary of anything that may disturb it. If she is especially careful, it may last a lifetime. Onward down this street and across the next, she shies from the main roads, too many people, too much noise, and walks solitary down the parallel lane where there are only glimpses of a bustling day beginning.
A final turn and the garden spreads before her, an unbroken expanse of white that spreads until it meets the river, not grey; today it steals and gives back the blue of the sky. She bends, curving her spine, arching her back, strange and delightful, and stands with her hands full of soft powder, which she then smells. The scent of the snow matches her feelings today, and gently she licks it. Sharp and cold and fresh, she is one with the snow, it will not harm her day.
She walks through the garden, makes her own path. Whether she stands on roses or stones it matters not, for they are under the snow. The garden shifts, leaving the flowerbeds, becoming the park, this last stretch of wild that clings between river and city. In other seasons colour riots here with children; last spring she sat under these trees, bought a candied apple for him, the day before he was her fiancé. She smiles at the memory and then buries it in the snow inside her mind.
Continuing along beside the river, through the pattern of shadows laid out by the trees, leaving footprints and the swish of cloak behind, but she doesn’t look back to see. The exercise warms her and she throws back the hood of her cloak, pulls off her gloves. She runs her fingers through her hair, loves that she can do so. It was only this morning, not long ago at all, when she plaited the extravagant length of it, tied it top and bottom and went out of the house with the plait still on her dressing table. The curls bounce when she shakes her head now. The park widens, begins to spread out into the meadow, the common, and children old enough to find their way home run through the powder. Morning is farther along than she thought.
Minerva watches the children darting here, there, kicking up plumes of white, tumbling down and coming up looking like little snowmen. Would someday children of her own be out there? She chases, buries, that thought as well, it has no place today, she is too in love with this moment, the crisp freedom of a winter morning, to waste herself in the past or bind herself in the future. There is life in this moment, such life, and she is part of it.
She stands watching a few moments longer and moves on, circling the children, keeping her distance, she does not want to risk exposing this day to the petty catastrophes of children. It is fragile, she must protect it, make it last.
Out of the park and back into the city she walks, still keeping from the main roads, though it becomes harder to keep solitude now the city is awake. She smells coffee from somewhere, it smells good, different than the snow, but on its side. She smells them both at the same time, the contrast in each making the other more wonderful. The little shop is ahead on the left, she slips in, orders. No cream, too heavy, too thick, no sugar either, too sweet, a confectioners mockery of the beauty outside, she’d rather sprinkle her coffee with snow. She pays with the change from her pocket and carries the precious mug to a chair, away from the fire, where she can watch the window. The chair is a good one; she curls into it, tucks herself into it, holds the mug with two hands and takes the first sip. It is midnight in summer, a trace of bitterness lingers, it will make what is outside all the more wonderful by showing everything it is not. It is delicious. She drinks it slow, savours each sip, prolonging the moment she returns to winter, the crystalline day, exquisite torture, increasing the power of the pure, snow cleaned air.
The last of the coffee is cold when she drains the mug. She unfolds herself and rises from the chair, adjusts her cloak, makes certain she has two gloves, leaves her mug on the counter before stepping back outside. Streets are busy now as the people try to fit all they must do into the scant hours of daylight the time of year allows. They are too crowded; there is too much noise. The freshness, the crystalline purity is drowning under so many feet, she escapes back to the park and the river, protecting the feeling of this day, letting it spread around her once more when she is safe by the river. She tastes the sharp, cold air, feels it mix with the aftertaste of the coffee, she made it out here in time, she was quick, the clarity in her mind is not diminished. She makes her way back through the park to the garden, manages to avoid people, though it becomes harder. Somewhere else must be found, a place to slip into for the afternoon hours that will not harm these feelings. The books come unbidden to her mind. That’s it then, of course, somewhere where there are books.
Not the library, she chooses the shop people walk past without seeing, inside there is hush and dust and peace. The city fades as she steps through the door, it is silent inside, the absence of noise that books command, the reverence they are due. She approaches carefully, she does not want to offend the books, she loves them as she loves life, hopelessly and with all her being. When the moment feels right she reaches forward and touches the first book, feels it welcome her. It is as easy to be lost in a book as a snowstorm.
Minerva runs her fingers along the spines of the books, feels the smoothness of the leather, hears the soft tap-tap noise as her fingers flow over the curve of the spines and down into the space where two books meet. She walks slowly along the shelf, to be certain she has not missed one, that not one book should feel neglected. It doesn’t matter that she has not come for a particular book; she comes for all of them. To see them, to preserve this day where it is possible to live, to re-affirm that the knowledge and dreams of the world can be contained in the black and white of ink on a page, like shadows on snow. It is the greatest magic of all, greater than any that can be learned or taught, for where else can you capture everything that it is possible to think and feel and hold it until the reader comes to free it and embrace it. They are the physical embodiment of life. All books should be read, at least once, as she believes, it comes suddenly, but she feels she has believed it her whole life, that every life must be lived, even if only for a moment. Minerva stops her hand then, and slides out a tiny volume that has been trapped between two larger ones. She holds her hands palm to palm with the book between them, warming the leather, before she gently, reverently, opens the covers. This is it then, this second of eternity before the first line is read, before the infant draws its first breath.
It has begun to snow, it luminescence keeps night from coming, and as Minerva steps into the street it feels that the hush of the books has spilled out into the world. The streets still contain people but they are peripheral, the snow enshrouds and protects her, holds her safe and apart from the world. She moves without knowing where she goes, onward without destination, she works well as a ramble. The blurs of others gradually fade and the snow falling, falling soft as a whisper or even softer spreads wider and wider about her. There is nothing but the hush and quiet and Minerva walking. The day was not wasted, she has done little and it has been wonderful, she has seen few people and spoken to even fewer, she has found peace and joy and happiness and freedom, or at least now understands that such things are possible. She stands on the bridge, the span above the icy river, now blue-grey as it swallows the falling snow. She balances on the wide stone balustrade. In fact, everything is possible, there are a million or more paths every moment can take and they all lie open for her choosing. There are no restrictions, no boundaries, she has cut herself from the past, she stands and lets the snow fall on her. It is so beautiful. It is possible to die.
The idea of it hangs in the snow before her, a choice she can make like any other, it does not seem strange. She could walk forever in this endless snow, leave all but this pure clarity behind, lose herself so deeply in it she shall never find her way back again. She wondered what everyone would think, she wondered that she didn’t care, it didn’t matter, they were not her keepers, she was mistress of her own destiny. The full range of options lies before her, it is a comfort to consider every choice one can make, to be able to choose without fear. As simple as taking a step forward. She can choose to stop living. She chooses this, to be here, this minute, this moment, to be alive, this life.
‘I choose life.’ The words are both lost in the snow and echo around her. I choose life.
Her footsteps trace the familiar path home, through the gate, up the path. Minerva stands for a moment at the door, she feels outside her self, on the step of a house she does not know. She has been away, thought of death and thought of it longingly. She could turn and walk back into the snow, dreadful and wonderful. She opens the door. It would be simple. In the hall she stops to remove her cloak and boots, to let the snow melt on the wooden floor, to not trail the wetness over the carpets. It is time for the day to be over. She hears them, in the kitchen, talking in low tones, the words indistinct, unaware of her return. She will have to face them tomorrow. Everything she ever imagined has been given her today, her life lies before her. There will be shadows in the days to come, she cannot protect this day forever, but she can cherish it and the hope there will be another.
Why does she love it so?
Here, then, she stands, she is alive.
The hours, the days lie before her, her life, a brilliant field of snow, untouched and pure. She chose to live. She is ready.