A Winter's Tale

Out on that cobalt ice I feel the same age as the children, and do not tire, and the leaps of my heart are in perfect lockstep with theirs

WHEN I consider whether anything memorable or extraordinary has happened to me up here in the Montana winter, I come up lacking. I don't have a specific winter's tale. Or if I ever had one, it has been wiped clean from the slate; no memory or even hint of a memorable winter event exists. It's as if all the winters of my life have hypnotized me, committing my memory to snowmelt, to runoff.

Mostly I remember the ephemera of winter -- the regular details, hypnotic and soothing in their repetition and their steadfast predictability, which give a peculiar sweetness to the so-short days, the steadiness of the non-events. It's possible that I'm sleeping through most of winter's memorability. (Often in January and February I sleep ten hours a night; I'm exhausted by five in the evening, wobbly by six, longing for the pillow by seven, and snoring by eight.) But I don't think so. I don't believe that it's in winter's nature to live by big events. Winter lacks the pyrotechnics of spring, the brute, strapping joy of summer, the old sugary nostalgia of autumn. It's just cold and elegant, monochromatic, somnolent. Animals are asleep or gone south. I might hear a lone raven croak or caw, and the integrity of that sound, so isolate, can seem almost shattering. For a moment I nearly awaken -- such crispness, amid a time of all-other mutedness, lures my heart up and out of its sleepy resting time. But then the raven is gone. I listen to the cloth-cutting sound of its heavy wingbeats, and then even that is gone, and it doesn't call again.

I remember the sounds in town in early winter, as the trucks go driving past with their rattling, clanking tire chains. But I'm not sure that's memorable.

I remember the sight of a swarm of mayflies hatching along the river during a snowstorm, when the temperature was right around freezing: mayflies rising and disappearing into a descending curtain of snow.

I remember the way the house gets warmer in the middle of the night when it's snowing -- as if someone had laid another blanket over me. I remember what it's like to wake briefly, feel that extra warmth, know without having to look out the window that the snow has begun again, and then go back to sleep.

I remember walking outside one day in midwinter, when my skin was already dry and tight -- going from 60° indoors to -45° outside. When the cold air hit my face, my skin contracted so quickly that the thin skin on the bridge of my nose split, as if a fine knife had been drawn across it, and a spray of blood leaped out from that split.

What I remember about winters past is the sweet and complete loneliness, and the deep rest of down time. The incredible, unyielding slowness. The purple, snow-laden skies dense over the twin humps of Roderick Butte outside my kitchen window: the same view every day.

The routine: up early, eat a bowl of oatmeal, drive my older daughter to school, return home, fix coffee, head out to the cabin to work, shuffling through the new snow, usually ankle-deep. Such stillness: to remember color or sound at that time of year, one must go into the imagination.

Build a fire in the wood stove. Work for three or four hours. Go back to the house. Only a few hours of light left, just enough time to put on snowshoes or cross-country skis and set out for a short trip, which is a necessary thing every day, no matter what the weather -- necessary for the beauty, but also to keep the blood flowing, to keep cabin fever at bay. Down in the depths of winter a fine line distinguishes euphoria from despair for the unpracticed or the extravagant. One has to move carefully, slowly, as if on thin ice above a deep emotional chasm.

While I'm out on snowshoes or skis, even with my heart pounding and my blood running strong, I find that I'll nonetheless fall back into trances, into winter states of near-hypnosis. I can stare for long moments at the stark white of an aspen tree against the day's new snow, with more falling, or at the ice scallop where a deer bedded down, the warmth of its body melting its shape into fallen snow, the cast as yet unfilled by the oncoming snow. And I can be made inexplicably happy by such staring.

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