Snow Leopard [fiction]

New Work

By Thomas Trofimuk

Peyton Jacobs is lucky with the seating on the flight to Winnipeg. There’s an empty seat between his and the aisle seat, where a woman who is wearing a fur coat and smells like soft talcum powder plops herself down and sighs heavily. The woman only slides out of her coat – lets it fall from her shoulders, and then fastens her seatbelt. She slips out of her shoes – keeps her knees together and bends forward to reach her feet. She places her shoes – black high heels – neatly under the seat in front of hers. Black stockings. Jacobs likes to think of them as stockings – though he knows they are likely some sort of  pantyhose. She’s wearing a black suit coat with elegant gold buttons and a pearl necklace – white pearls.

She does not look at Jacobs but she does speak to him. “Please tell me you’re not a PETA member who thinks animals are the only ones who should wear fur coats but who likes their steak medium rare and their shoes made with beautiful Italian leather.”

“Medium well,” Jacobs says. “And you look good in that coat. What is it?”

The woman turns to look at Jacobs. “Grey Fox.”

“You’ll get no grief from me.”

“It’s just that my connecting flight was a bit tense. The woman in your seat was less than friendly and I think it was because of the coat.”

“Where are you coming from?”

“Honolulu, and Vancouver,” she says. “And before that, Hong Kong and


Jacobs looks at her face. Finds her eyes. They’re pale blue. Her smile is playful – at least it’s playful now. Stay in her eyes, he tells himself. Stay there. Do not look at her body. Not now that you have her attention.

“I’m Claire,” she says, extending her hand.

Jacobs slides his hand into hers. Her hand is warm and soft. “Jacobs,” he says. “Everyone calls me Jacobs.”

“Nice to meet you, Jacobs.”

“Is Winnipeg your final stop?”

“Just one night,” she says. “Then I’m off to Mexico – Cancun.”

Outside the snow is swirling, getting heavier by the second. They are scheduled to take off in about fifteen minutes. A few passengers are still finding their seats. The captain announces that they are going to de-ice the airplane and then they’ll be on their way. Jacobs squints through the portal window at the falling snow and the grey, flat landscape. It’s bleak – the heartless grey of mid-January. He looks back to Claire. He quickly thinks of her sitting next to him, in the empty seat, with the fur coat over them – she is melted into him, and he is enfolded in her and the smell of her perfume is intoxicating and…Oh stop it you idiot! he tells himself. This is a two-hour and fifteen minute flight to Winnipeg. It was a few seconds only, and Jacobs is at a loss to understand where the hell it came from. Sure, she’s a beautiful woman who apparently travels, a lot – which is exotic in a way – but he’s embarrassed. His face feels hot. Is it her perfume?

“It’s okay,” she says. “It happens all the time.”

“What’s okay?”

“You’re blushing. You seem to be blushing.”

“You’re not a mind-reader are you?”

“Just a girl in a fur coat on an airplane, sitting on the tarmac in a snowstorm.”

“I’m a nervous flyer,” Jacobs says. “That’s all.”

“Oh my. And here I thought you were thinking about me,” she whispers. She reaches across the empty seat and touches his hand. “My bad.”

Maybe she’s certifiable, he thinks.

On the tarmac, the de-icing truck is spraying the wings and the snow is pounding down. At the front of the plane, the attendant is beginning her spiel on seatbelts and emergency exits. Jacobs is captured. He feels captured by this woman and at the same time almost paralyzed. He’s not sure how to proceed.

They take off in silence. Somewhere over the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, the lights on the plane are dimmed and she asks him what he does, and he lies – he lies with gusto, with chaotic imagination, with temerity and bravado. He fabricates. He creates a story that at times, surprises even him.

“Snow leopards,” he says. “In Tajikistan, along that narrow peninsula of Afghanistan that thrusts between Tajikistan and Pakistan and points at crooked finger at China, the people in the villages call them mountain ghosts.” He tells her he’s been living in the Hindu Kush on the Afghan side for the past six years. He tells her all about the snow leopards in the Zorkylsky Nature Reserve in Tajikistan but the snow leopards are only the MacGuffin – they are a plot device – a hook in the first act of his story.

His story is about living at an elevation of 11,000 feet completely surrounded by mountains. Jacobs weaves the Silk Road into his story, because that narrow corridor was part of the Silk Road that Marco Polo travelled, and there is the ancient hidden city of Ubar under a thousand feet of sand. But this story is really about love, a woman named Driffa from Iceland, and the Taliban hunkered down in high-mountain enclaves. Driffa comes to his tent in the middle of the night and starts to tell him a story about snow leopards. She unzips the tent door, crawls inside, re-zips the doorway and turns around. “I know this is forward,” she says. She’s a dark-haired mystery with full lips and he was not about to turn her away at two in the morning. Just the memory of her scent – a heady mix of sweat and lingering incense and pungent juniper – was enough to make him light-headed. “I’m cold,” she says, “and I want to tell you a story about snow leopards.” He unzipped his sleeping bag and she slipped out of her clothes and joined him on the narrow cot. Her left breast was surrounded by a tattooed garden of flowers. “Forget-me-nots,” she says. At the end of it all, Driffa has disappeared and the Afghan government revokes his visa and so he treks the Wakhjir Pass at the eastern end of the Wakhan Corridor and is living in the village of Shaymak in Tajikistan. At the end of it, he is undone. The snow leopards don’t care about borders, or about politics or broken love – they only abide – and he, in turn no longer cares about saving the snow leopard. Three months later, he is in Canada, on an airplane from Edmonton to Winnipeg, sitting almost beside a tall blond woman who wears a fox fur and high heeled shoes.

The captain announces that the plane will be landing in Winnipeg shortly. They’ve begun their descent. The temperature in Winnipeg, he says, is a balmy minus 21C and it’s snowing heavily.

Claire nods to herself. She writes something in her notebook, a ratty, well-travelled Moleskine. She rips out the sheet of paper, folds it over, and hands it to Jacobs.

“It would be a shame,” she says, “if I was all alone tonight.”

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Thomas Trofimuk

Thomas Trofimuk’s last novel, Waiting For Columbus, has been published in numerous countries and was nominated for the 2011 IMPAC Dublin literary award. He lives in Edmonton.