VALBONA, Albania—A week ago, it started snowing.
This isn’t so unusual. Already this winter, I’ve trudged through thin flakes, swirling flakes, fat wet blobs of stuck-together flakes that stick again, flakes so light you can barely tell if they’re going up or down, dull flakes, mysterious flakes that appear overnight where there definitely weren’t any flakes the night before, flakes that melt as you watch them, unable to stand up to the light of day, flakes that come, flakes that go. All sorts of flakes, really.
What strikes me as odd about this snow is how you couldn’t tell when it started that this wasn’t just any flakes, more flakes, but a dull white unapologetic, unremitting, end-of-the-world sort of a snow. The snow is gentle—soft little flakes descending, and descending—falling in soft swirls. And it isn’t so much that they’ve covered everything, and covered it again, covering themselves as fast as they can. It’s that the whole world is disappearing into it. The snow isn’t rising, the world appears to be sinking. Falling away, swallowed up under a cold new white horizon.
One of the things we’ve been most famous for is having a particularly charming rabbit. She was handed to me, a dark and snowy January night one year ago, when we were passing through town. A tiny little baby ball of a rabbit, which I was permitted to keep. I wasn’t really sure what to do with her, so I stuffed her inside my coat, where at least it was warm and the snow (because there was snow then, too) kept off. She nestled her nose in my neck, and slept as we drove the long and torturous road home.
Sometimes the snow here is blue. Well, not all the snow, but when it’s wet snow, and your foot slides down against and through it, making a slushy hole, when you pull your foot out again the hole has a weird blue light. It’s a shadow of the bright blue color of the river that threads a ribbon through the valley. Not now though. This is dry snow—this is snow that has come to stay. Or so the snow thinks, anyhow.
I didn’t really know what to do with the rabbit, so we brought her inside the hotel which, last year, was our home in winter. For the first two or three nights, we shut her in a shoebox while we slept, but it wasn’t long until we gave up on this attempt at discipline, or boundaries, or hygiene or something. She grew up romping around at liberty inside the hotel. The two or three nights in the box seemed to train her, and she was very clean and tidy. Made hardly any mess. She liked to leap on laps. While we were having meals, she often sat on a third chair, stretching her nose up to peer over the edge of the table, sometimes planting two feet on the edge of the table to get a better view, as if absolutely bewildered by what we were doing, but determined to be a part of it.
My quiet shock at the disappeared world is mirrored by the birds. There are birds, as there are always birds, at normal times. But now they are small birds, perhaps only two or three, who flutter helplessly through the snow filled air. It seems that every time I open the door one flings itself onto the air, and flaps a small black scrap to collapse nearby, on one pile of snow or another. The whole world is nothing now but piled snow. They fly hardly any distance at all and seem to look back at me, confused. Where is the ground? Where are the trees? Gone. All gone. Eaten by the snow. I read once that little birds have to eat one, or two, or perhaps three times their own body weight in food, every day in winter, just to survive the night, when they shiver it all off again. There is no food here now, and they will not stay still for me to give it to them.
When spring, and then summer came, and the hotel was open again, the rabbit discovered Outdoors. She preferred to be out. And although at first we would bring her in again at night, as time went by she became harder and harder to catch. At first, it was her preference, but later, after a brother kicked her across the room (the brother so chose this way to teach her not to come in) it became her firm decision. So she lived outside. In the early morning, when there was no one else around, she came and loitered around the door, waiting for a piece of bread, or better yet, a piece of cake. Although by the end of summer, she tended to let no one near, she did remember certain people, and, for example, came unasked and leapt onto the lap of a biologist she’d met before.
There are other funny things about this snow. The hillside to the south of the hotel is normally covered in trees. Now there is no ground or sky, but simply one continuous white. The black skeletons of three trees appear to be hanging in midair. They look as if they have no roots, as if someone simply drew them there. This is how a tree goes, slash slash slash. And silently they stand. Or hang, rather.
After a while, we began to forget about the rabbit. She was around, always, a sort of spirit of the place. But visitors noticed her. One time she invaded the tent of some campers—cuddled up at night, then made havoc in their clothing, and then neatly chewed—snicker-snack—through the guy ropes of their tent. Mostly though, she was just a gentle presence.
I have figured out now to put rice and bread crumbs out for the birds. I leave them on the snow that is piled up under the balcony, the snow that’s slid and invaded what ought to be safe space. I have no idea what they do at night, these birds, in this world that is nothing but white. But I see them now in the daytime, they sit waiting on one claw-like foot, the other crossed on top, looking like small children too cold to stand upright. And when the rice has run out, they hurl themselves against the windows making dull little thuds, until I put out some more.
When autumn came, or threatened to come, I built a house for the rabbit. It seemed clear that she wouldn’t come in again, and clear that she couldn’t stay outside. They laughed at me, for this house I made was a palatial home, and all and just for one dumb bunny. One chilly night I caught her, and put her inside, and there she stayed, made oddly a possession. She seemed to like it all right, even though her biologist friend objected to the confinement.
I am not exaggerating about this snow. We are sealed off here now, have seen no other people—even the brother is gone. It’s been bizarrely peaceful. Now that the world is done (thanks to the snow), it’s easy enough to live and be happy.
There’s just one thing. I left the rabbit’s house by the side of the hotel, under the slant of the roof. The snow sliding off the roof has covered it, over and over again. The rabbit’s house is gone. I was told that there was no fear. That the rabbit would be able to breathe, even though the house had disappeared, days and days ago.
Today I was alone all day—my friend walked off in the snow. The idea of the rabbit, walled inside a world of snow, was stuck in my head so I put on my snowsuit and took a shovel and went outside and started to dig. I dug for an hour and uncovered a hole, but when I put my head inside, the whole rabbit’s house was gone. There was the wall of the building, in a sort of cave that had formed under the eaves of the roof. But rabbit there was none. Then I realized—it had to be further down, so I dug that way instead. After another 15 minutes, I hit the roof. By now I was in a panic. I dug some more, and found an edge, and dug some more and into the strange world of snow, and I found a wall. By now I was at the bottom of a large hole of snow that rose above me. My shovel bit and lifted the snow, almost impossible to throw up out of the depths of the hole. And then, there in the darkness inside the harsh whiteness—an edge of house, a bit more, and a small patch of mesh, and after a moment the rabbit appeared, sniffing at what must have been a sudden rush of air.
The rabbit, it turns out, didn’t need rescuing after all.
* * *
That was more than two weeks ago. After digging her out, I brought the rabbit inside. There is nothing much here—the stove is disconnected, there is only enough wood to keep one small wood stove lit, and the days, especially while the electricity has been off, are long and silent. Without electricity, there isn’t much to do. The rabbit and I lie, like two odd Ali Pashas, on a small divan (not glamorous—a folding bed covered with a thick wool blanket) we arranged in front of the woodstove. We’ve been down to flour, a few onions and some cooking oil for a while now. I’ve been re-reading books already read more than once. My friend, the only other human here, spends all day outside, shoveling snow from one place to another. He likes to keep busy. For whole days, it seems, I get up only to feed the stove. The rabbit lies stretched out in glorious luxury, and takes turn toasting one side then gets up, turns around, and thoughtfully lies down to toast the other. A small and fluffy Nero, she seems to be smiling quietly to herself, content: “Now, at last, I can live like a human being!”
The snow stopped more than a week ago. I think. After 23 days of silent while blankness, it’s hard to remember what happened when. Only once we saw a group of four or five men, small black figures with snowshoes on, struggling past the hotel on their way to somewhere—Dragobi? Bajram Curri?
Some squabble between politicians, the irrepressible telephonic gossip says, is keeping plows busy elsewhere, despite assurances two weeks ago that work would begin. Another voice chirps down the line: It is being reported on the television in Tirana that the road is open! Not only history, it seems, is written by the victor.
Above the endless snow, above the black scars of the leafless trees, the air is clear, and the sky a gentle periwinkle. For now we are here, as it sometimes feels we have always been here, buried in the whiteness, buried in the silence, with only the rising mountains to witness our existence. The rabbit, I swear, is smiling in her sleep.
Catherine Bohne is an American living in Albania since 2009. To be precise, she resides at the Rilindja Hotel in Quku i Valbones, Bajram Curri, Tropoja province—in the beautiful Valbona Valley at the foot of the Accursed Mountains between Montenegro and Albania. She has done much to bring attention to the region’s natural beauty, its people, and customs, promoting ecotourism and attempting to live sustainably, after leaving New York City. Details of her journey and her activities can be read on her website journeytovalbona.com
This essay was written during the the twenty-three days (and ongoing) of extreme weather that has assaulted the Balkans and most severely the Tropoja region in Northern Albania. She thinks that the essay will be of interest to readers not only concerned about the extremes of weather that are increasingly manifesting themselves throughout the globe but also to readers interested in the lives of Americans abroad in their search for authentic living.