T. Greenwood, acclaimed author of Two Rivers
and The Hungry Season,
crafts a moving, lyrical story of loss, atonement, and promises kept.
One November morning, Ben Bailey walks out of his Flagstaff, Arizona, home to retrieve the paper. Instead, he finds Ricky Begay, a young Navajo man, beaten and dying in the newly fallen snow.
Unable to forget the incident, especially once he meets Ricky’s sister, Shadi, Ben begins to question everything, from his job as a part-time history professor to his fiancée, Sara. When Ben first met Sara, he was mesmerized by her optimism and easy confidence. These days, their relationship only reinforces a loneliness that stretches back to his fractured childhood.
Ben decides to discover the truth about Ricky’s death, both for Shadi’s sake and in hopes of filling in the cracks in his own life. Yet the answers leave him torn—between responsibility and happiness, between his once-certain future and the choices that could liberate him from a delicate web of lies he has spun.
Winter came early to Flagstaff that year.
Ben hadn’t split the firewood that lay in a cluttered
heap in the driveway. He hadn’t cleaned out the chimney or
bought salt to melt the snow from the sidewalk in front of the
house. Sara hadn’t gotten the winter coats out of storage, hadn’t
taken down the artificial spiderwebs and plastic decals she’d
hung in the windows for Halloween. The harvest dummy sat
ill-prepared and coatless on the porch. The jack-o’-lanterns
hadn’t even started to bruise and rot when the first storm
brought twelve inches of snow.
They weren’t prepared.
It came while they were sleeping, as Sara dreamed of
something that made her scowl and Ben dreamed of something
that softened his features into a face he might not recognize
in the mirror. This dreaming face was the face of his
boyhood. Only in sleep did the hardness of the last twenty
years subside. At thirty, his face already bore the quiet evidence
of things gone wrong. It was etched in the fine lines in the
corners of his eyes, in his clenched jaw, and in his worried
brow. But in sleep, when he did sleep, the road map tracking
the journey from possibility and promise to anger and ennui
and disappointment almost disappeared.
The house was cold, though neither of them knew it. Sara
insisted on sleeping with a heavy down comforter year-round.
Usually, Ben slept on top of it while she lay nestled like a small
bird underneath its feathers. But tonight, maybe sensing the
coming storm, he too had hunkered down, his dog, Maude, at
his feet. The one window in their room, the one that would
have revealed the falling snow, was veiled in the heavy curtains
Sara had bought to keep out the morning sun and prying eyes.
She was worried about the neighbor, Mr. Lionel, who she
claimed looked to her like he might be dangerous, a pedophile
or worse. The one who spent hours rubbing Turtle Wax into
his old blue Ford Falcon. The one Ben made sure to wave and
nod to each time they both happened to be outside in their
yards at the same time, as if this would make up for Sara’s paranoia.
The furnace was set to OFF. The woodstove was bone cold.
Sometime during the night, as they slept, it began to snow.
And when it snows in Flagstaff, it doesn’t stop until the entire
world is sheathed in white. Ben had lived here long enough to
have experienced this, to have gone to sleep at night and
awoken to a world obscured.
Ben moved to Flagstaff eight years ago because of the snow.
He’d just graduated from Georgetown and was done with the
city, done with its grit and grime and heat. He planned to get
his Master’s, and maybe even his PhD, in history, and he
wanted to go somewhere clean and quiet for grad school.
Somewhere without steaming streets and honking horns and
subways always rumbling under his feet. Then he cracked a
tooth on a chicken bone on a Friday afternoon and wound up
in the dentist’s office, where an issue of Arizona Highways lay
buried beneath a pile of other magazines. If the dentist hadn’t
been running so late, Ben might have simply finished the article
in Newsweek about the missing girl in Utah and not even
seen the picture of the San Francisco Peaks. He might never
have seen the turquoise sky with the ocean of clean white
snow beneath. He might never have felt that strange tug in his
chest, amplified by the ache in his jaw, and decided then and
there that this is exactly where he belonged.
Here, snow was no different from air or breath. It was simply
part of the landscape, part of how one lived. And he loved
everything about it: the cold pristine white of it, the soft sharpness
of it. The crunch and glisten. He was never as happy as he
was when it snowed, each storm like a small baptism. He knew,
even after he had finished his dissertation, he wouldn’t leave,
couldn’t leave. And so here he was eight years later, an underpaid
adjunct and part-time bartender. Though all of it (the financial
worries, the late hours, the work overload) was softened
by the presence of snow. But still, he wasn’t expecting this. Winter,
while a welcome guest, had shown up early to the party.
There had been no sign of a storm when they went to bed,
Sara angry and Ben too drunk to care. They’d gone to a Halloween
party at Sara’s best friend Melanie’s A-frame in
Kachina Village the night before. He’d had too much to drink.
Spent most of the party listening to a girl playing Jane’s Addiction
songs on an acoustic guitar. Sara was furious, but she didn’t
say so; she’d simply grabbed her coat and stood there waiting
for him. They’d driven home in silence, gone to bed without
saying good night.
And while they slept, Sara fitful and Ben oblivious, icy fingers
curled around their ankles and hips. Winter crept in.
It wasn’t the cold that woke him. The shiver through the
old window. The icy breath that skipped across his exposed
cheek. It was Maude, his seventy-pound golden retriever,
nudging, prodding. He ignored her for a moment, feeling
shaky and too hungover to open his eyes. But she persisted,
whimpering in his ear.
“Hush,” he said, and quietly got out of bed so as not to
wake Sara, whose face had softened by now, the dream apparently
having passed. He hoped that her anger also might fade
by the time she woke.
The floors were icy. He grabbed the pair of socks he’d
worn the night before, some long underwear, and a sweater
that was crumpled up on the floor. But it wasn’t until he went
into the dark living room and pulled back the curtains that he
saw the obliterated sky. His head pounded, but his heart trilled.
Maude knew too and raced to the door, anxious to go out and
piss and play in the snow.
“Hold on, girl,” he said, his voice crackling like a fire.“Let
me get the coffee on first.”
While the coffee bubbled and hissed and Maude romped
in the backyard, sinking into the wadding of snow, Ben backtracked
through his fuzzy recollections of the party, tripping
and stumbling over the conversations until he remembered the
girl, the guitar, and Sara standing over him, pissed. He remembered
that the girl was very pretty, dressed up like Dorothy
with sparkly red shoes, and that she had one slightly lazy eye
which, for some reason, captivated him. He also remembered
wanting only to curl up inside the hollow mahogany body of
the instrument and listen to the music from the inside out, and
he recalled whispering this to the girl. This is what Sara must
have seen. Shit. It was Sunday, a day that should be easy, and already
he knew he’d have to spend the day tiptoeing, making
amends for this transgression and all the others she was sure to
He knew the Sunday paper wouldn’t be there yet. Theirs
was the last house on the delivery route, he was convinced, because
the paper almost never arrived before seven. He looked
at the clock on the stove: 6:52. Maybe just this once it would
be early, maybe today would be his day.
The thermometer hanging on a tree outside the kitchen
window read twenty-five degrees. He found his winter coat in
the back of the coat closet and his Sorels buried deep inside as
well. He yanked them on and opened up the front door to the
From the doorway, he contemplated the journey to the
sidewalk for a newspaper that was likely not even there, and almost
turned around to go back inside. But then the blue sliver
of something in the distance caught his eye, and he imagined
his newspaper lying swaddled in plastic. So he pulled his hat
down over his ears, shoved his hands in his pockets, and
trudged through the snow, squinting against the icy shards that
seemed to be falling sideways.
But it was not his paper.
It took a minute before what he saw registered, before his
brain, thick with the hangover and disbelief, could make sense
of the image before his eyes. The absurdity of it was what hit
him first, and he almost laughed; this would later make him
wonder if it was evidence that he was, as Sara would suggest
time and time again, incapable of empathy and capable of the
most frightening cruelties.
At first he just thought the man was sleeping. He was
curled on his side, facing the street, hands tucked quietly between
his knees. But he wasn’t dressed for the cold: just a flannel
shirt tucked into a pair of jeans held up by a concho belt.
No coat, no hat, no gloves. Only a pair of Nike basketball
sneakers on his feet. His black hair in a braid, curling like a
snake into the snow.
There was a half inch of fresh powder covering his entire
Ben squatted down next to him and touched his shoulder,
as if he could simply wake him up.“Hey,” he said.
The wind admonished Ben, and then hit him hard in the
chest, like an angry fist. It was twenty-five degrees outside.
The man didn’t move, not even with a second nudge, so
Ben started to roll him over, pulling his shoulder until his body yielded. He was big, maybe six foot two, a couple hundred
pounds. And then the man was on his back and Ben stood up,
“Jesus Christ,” Ben said.“Shit.”
Both eyes were sealed shut, crusty with blood and circled
in blue-black. His nose was crooked, bent at an impossible
angle, with dried blood in two lines running from each nostril
to his lip. His bottom lip was blue and swollen, split in the center. And slowly, a fresh stream of blood began to pour from his
ear, the crimson blooming like some horrific flower blossoming
in the snow.
He should have run back into the house then, gotten Sara.
She was a nurse, for Christ’s sake. But he was suddenly paralyzed,
quite literally frozen in place as he realized: He knew this
Of course, he couldn’t remember his name. . . . Jesus, why
couldn’t he ever remember a goddamned name? But he knew
him. He was the kid who came into the bar almost every single
night to shoot pool. Ben knew he couldn’t be old enough
to drink, but he never carded him, because all he ever ordered
were Cokes. And because Jack’s served food, minors were allowed
in as long as they didn’t sit at the bar. The kid always sat
alone in a booth, eating cheese fries, waiting for someone to
show up at the tables. He was a good pool player. Didn’t talk
shit like some of the idiots that came into the bar. A gracious
winner and loser. Jesus fucking Christ.
Ben dropped back down to the ground, feeling the cold
wet seeping through the knees of his jeans. He pressed his
hand hard against the kid’s chest, waiting. When he felt nothing
but the resistance of bone, he leaned over and pressed his
ear against his chest, listening. He didn’t know what he expected,
but it wasn’t this. It wasn’t the silence that was suddenly
as loud as drums. And the harder he pressed his ear against him,
the louder the blood in his own ears got.
When it snows like this, the sun never rises. The air simply
turns lighter and lighter until things come into focus. Until
there is clarity.
Ben stood up again and shoved his hands into the pockets
of his coat, looking for his cell phone. Shit, where the hell did
he put his phone last night? He was afraid to leave the kid
there in the snow, as if something worse than what had already
happened could happen to him now if Ben left him alone.
He thought of Sara, sleeping angrily in the bedroom, and
knew that he had to wake her. She would know what to do.
He needed to call 9-1-1. And so as the sky filled with hazy
white light, he backed away from the kid whose head was surrounded
now by a bloody halo, back through the blizzard, back
to the house.
Even before the ambulance arrived, he knew what the
newspapers would say about this. Young Native American man
found dead in Cheshire neighborhood. Alcohol-related death suspected.
He knew because this was how too many Indians die
here. They come from the reservation to Flagstaff, looking for
jobs, for a way to change their lives. And when they get here
and find nothing but disappointment, they find places like
Jack’s or the Mad I or Granny’s Closet. Ben had worked at
Jack’s long enough to know that this was one of many, many
sad truths. He’d seen men drink until they couldn’t see, and
then watched as they stumbled out into the snow. And at least
once a winter, one of them would wind up on the train tracks,
where he would fall asleep and not wake up. Ben wasn’t sure
how many people had died since he got here, but it seemed as
if there was always some story—buried deep in the paper,
mentioned in passing on the news, whispered about at the
bars. This, like the snow, was a fact of life here.
Still, you don’t expect to walk out of your front door on a Sunday morning looking to retrieve your newspaper from a
snowbank and find someone dead on the sidewalk.
After he woke Sara and called 9-1-1, watching as Sara
made her way through the snow to the man, he started to
think that maybe he wasn’t dead after all. Maybe Ben had been
mistaken. He’d had a roommate in college who’d drunk almost
an entire bottle of vodka by himself one night. They’d found
him passed out in the bathroom at a party and called 9-1-1.
The EMTs had revived him, and at the hospital they pumped
his stomach and sent him back to the dorms with a crisp plastic
bracelet to remind him how close he’d come. But this kid
didn’t drink. At least not at Jack’s. He knew this. And besides,
you don’t bleed from your ears when you’re drunk, and your
face certainly doesn’t look like you ran into a brick wall headfirst
from drinking either. Somebody did this to him, and
when Ben had listened for his heart, all he’d heard was his
After the ambulance pulled away, he and Sara stood on the
sidewalk, watching the twirling red lights disappear down the
“You okay?” Ben asked.
Sara nodded without looking at him.
“Do you think he’ll make it?” he asked.
She shook her head. “It doesn’t look good. He had no
pulse. No blood pressure. He was bleeding out.”
Ben stared at the place where the kid’s head had been, at
the violent bloom slowly turning pink as the snow kept
Their neighbors were watching from the windows, their
faces pressed to the glass. A few had come out onto their
porches, clutching their robes around their waists. Sheila, from
next door, had ushered her two sons back inside when she realized
what was happening. Mr. Lionel stood on his porch,
nodding grimly. Now the ambulance was gone, and Ben could
hear the plow coming. In a few minutes it would barrel down
this street too, pushing away any evidence that a man had just
begun to die there.
The police were quick. They sent only one car, and they
took Ben and Sara’s statements without even coming inside
the house. Ben was surprised by how soon he and Sara were
alone again. By the time the paper boy finally threw the newspaper
into the yard, it felt almost as though they had just
woken from the same terrible dream.
They sat at the small oak table that used to belong to Sara’s
grandmother, sipping coffee, staring at the pages of the paper.
Sara said, “I wonder if he has family here.”
Ben looked up, grateful for her breaking the silence, for her
willingness to set aside whatever it was that had transpired between
them the night before.“I don’t know,” he said.“He had
ID on him, so they should be able to find out pretty quickly.”
“What was his name?” she asked. Her eyes were soft with
He thought about the kid sitting at the booth at Jack’s. Always
alone. Ben had a problem with names. He blamed his job.
Both of his jobs. So many people in and out of his life. At the
bar, he had a talent for remembering the names of every single
patron for exactly the amount of time they spent bellied up,
drinking, tipping. But the moment they were gone, the second
they’d slapped down a five or a ten and walked out the door,
any recollection of what they called themselves was gone. It
was like this at school too. He had anywhere between forty
and eighty students a semester. He knew the first and last
names of each and every one of them until the final exam.
Then he’d run into one of them on campus (Hey, Professor Bailey!)
and there was nothing but that white-hot shame of for-
getting. Though maybe Ben hadn’t ever known the kid’s name.
It was possible that he hadn’t forgotten at all, but rather that
the guy had always been anonymous.
1. Discuss Ben’s relationship with Sara and how it changes
through the course of the novel. Why is he attracted to
Shadi? What does she represent to Ben?
2. Ben experienced two significant losses as a young boy (the
death of his sister and his father’s abandonment). How did
these two traumas shape him as a man? How do they play
into his relationship with Shadi?
3. How does Ben’s relationship with his own father affect his
decision to stay with Sara when she discovers that she is
pregnant? Do you think he would have made a good father?
4. How do you feel about Sara? Is Ben justified in his treatment
5. Why do you think Ben became so involved with finding
out what happened to Ricky? Was it a sense of morality? A
sense of responsibility? Or was it really for Shadi? Do you
think Ben would have done everything he did if he
weren’t attracted to Shadi?
6. If you were in a similar situation to Ben’s, if you had
woken up, gone out to get the newspaper, and found
someone near death in the snow, what would you have
done? Would you have dropped the whole thing and let
the police ignore an obvious case of assault?
7. Contrast Hippo and Emily’s relationship with Ben and
8. Discuss the use of snow imagery. How does it echo Ben’s
emotional state throughout the novel? What do you make
of the dream that he has after their baby is stillborn?
9. There is a great deal of injustice in this novel: from the
original crime committed against Ricky to the police department’s
initial dismissal of his death as an alcohol related
accident. At one point in the novel, Lucky suggests
that there is “no such thing” as justice. Do you agree? If
not, is justice served at the end of the novel? And, if so, at
10. The Navajo art of weaving is a central metaphor in this
novel. Discuss the different senses in which the metaphor
is manifested. How does the “spirit string” fit into each of
11. At one point, Shadi calls Ben selfish. Do you agree with
her? What does he do that’s selfish, and what does he do
12. The novel is divided into the five “worlds” of the Navajo
creation myth. Why do you think the author decided to
structure the novel in this way? How are the colors of
each part symbolic of what happens in that section?
13. How much do you think Sara really knew about what was
going on? Do you think she knew Shadi was related to
Ricky when she told Ben she wanted the rug commissioned?
Do you think she knew Ben was involved with
Shadi? How much do you think Melanie knew?
14. Near the end of the novel, Shadi gives Ben an ultimatum,
demanding that he choose between her and Sara. Is this,
ultimately, truly his choice? Do you believe he will keep his
promise and stay with Sara? Was this the right decision?
Why or why not?
15. Ben is faced with a lot of choices throughout the novel:
whether or not to go to the hospital to check on Ricky, to
go to Ricky’s funeral, to search for Ricky’s attackers, to
move to Phoenix and work for Sara’s father, to buy the
drive-in theater speaker for Shadi, to marry Sara, and the
eventual choice between Sara and Shadi. What do you
think of every decision he made? Were there any you disagreed
16. The definition of a tragedy is a story in which the hero
comes to ruin or experiences tremendous sorrow as the
result of both circumstance and a disastrous character flaw.
In tragedies, readers should experience both fear and pity
for the hero. Would you call Ben a tragic hero and this
novel a tragedy? Why or why not? If so, what is Ben’s