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The Dead of Winter

The coldest air yet of this erratic winter has settled down over the house and the little stand of trees beside us. I came out this morning to get the papers and some pastries from the Provencal bakery. The thermometer read 0 degrees. The ice on the front step was as hard as pig iron. My heels were slippery on it. I crunched through the shallow snow to the pick-up truck and cranked the engine. For the first time since I bought the truck, the engine hesitated. It usually leaps to life with a snarl; this time, it hung there like a man hesitating to answer an embarrassing question.

The windows were laced with a splatter of diamonds and silver filigree. Above us, a blue sky spread out like so much isinglass, hard, brittle, not quite transparent. You could feel death in its blunt look down at us. I backed out of the drive and headed into town for our errands. Not many cars out. The fields were quiet and hypnotized by the frost. No creature was evident, not even a single hearty crow perched on a low branch looking for a snack. Bare empty trees, a landscape so bereft of hope even Pascal would cry out for a little mercy.

We have no idea how powerful nature is. “Might half sleeping on its own right arm,” as Keats would say. One swipe of the hand of this great force would send us sprawling into outer space, legs flailing, arms without a grip on reality. The sky is blistered along the edge of the mountains, a kind of white skin puffy with the residual moisture of last night’s frozen seizures. You couldn’t pry a stone loose from the grip of this freeze; not even with a hammer. This was the first chapter in the book of the dead, I was thinking as I drove along the crepe-paper fields, and regarded the immoveable density of ordinary things like stop signs, lamp posts, rural mail boxes leaning into the heartless wind.

This is how the dead are taken to their rest, in silver satin tufted and pleated, with the metal door suspended on hinges over the unresponsive face as mourners pass by, whispering a few words. The satin was everywhere draped upon the world, pleated by the shadows of trees, and tucked here and there where curbs broke open for a driveway. Cold, unspeaking distance loomed over the houses, as if to frame the shallow faith we had in existence. No cars, no pedestrians in town, just the few bleak objects that the hardware store put out on the sidewalk to say it was open for business. Snow shovels, a pile of fire wood wrapped in tiny bundles, five dollars a bundle. A wheelbarrow, glazed with ice, but no white chickens, only remnants of soiled snow too small to shovel out to the curb.

The truck hummed along, and the heater poured out a comforting flow of summery balm. The radio played some strains of an unoffending orchestral suite, as if a flock of birds was confined to a cage and sung aimlessly of its alienation. Last night, we sat before our fire and watched the Republican debate, the ninth in their unending series. These were angry men speaking harsh words to each other, each daring the other to go further in their vitriol against Obama, and Hillary Clinton. They were in suits and ties, tall men behind lecterns on a brightly lit stage, before an audience of South Carolina faithful who cheered when the language got rough or extreme. Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court justice, had died earlier, and now the talk was about thwarting the White House from appointing a successor. Everyone wanted Obama to hand off his constitutional obligation to the next president. It was a gamble, a high risk strategy to believe that it would be better to let the decisions of lower courts stand rather than add a ninth judge to the highest bench to adjudicate. The political world was as frozen and deadlocked as the natural one.

In the supermarket, the racks were full of newspapers – from Rutland, and Burlington, alongside the Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, The New York Times. I tossed copies of the Times and the Globe into the cart. I bought whole milk for my wife, some whole wheat tortillas for breakfast, a Florida avocado already suspiciously soft on one side. Usually the cashier teases me for wasting my whole morning reading newspapers, but this time, he just cashed me out without comment. The high school girl, Grace, put all my purchases into plastic bags and loaded the cart. “Have a god one,” she said. Her cheeks were red; the doors to the outside opened and shut automatically, each time letting in arctic air. She had on a thin sweater. She might have been happier growing up in Germany, I thought. Not so cold, though for all that, the skiing was about the same in Vermont. I soon forgot about her as I drove to the bakery.

The oven-heated room of the bakery was heavy with sugar smells, cinnamon, the odor of baked apples. Cases were loaded with heart-shaped cheese cakes, each with a chocolate-covered strawberry and some scribbles of melted chocolate dribbled around the edges. I bought one and it was too high to close the white lid properly. It made the purchase look more important, with its half-open top curving over the hump of strawberry. I felt good about it. It was Valentine’s Day, and my wife has a sweet tooth.

Outside, immediately to the left of the row of brick storefronts are the falls of the Neshobe river. It’s a strong river and the force of its descent over slabs of black granite and slate sends mist rising twenty feet or more in the spring. But now it bore the toothless face of an old man, a man whose beard was a series of frozen whiskers clumped together, with only a tiny jet of water still loose enough to flow under the great craggy formations of the ice. If the cold held up much longer, there would be no flow at all, just the confusion of stalagmites heaped up where the water once tumbled. Where do the fish go, I wonder? Are they alive still?

The road back to the house was carved out of the abrupt silence of the day. It was a canyon within the pack ice, blue at its base, bruised and fractured along the edges where the weeds drooped. You could well imagine how a god might be fashioned out of this weather, a cold, resentful god brooding on the sins of avarice and lust, the worship of false idols.

Here we were moving slowly through the encrusted cold visions of Luther and John Calvin. I visited Calvin’s church in Geneva one afternoon many years ago and sat there in a state of anxiety. As a Catholic I had feasted my eyes on the images of saints and the Crucifixion, and had toured the European churches to study their frescoes and vast stained-glass rose windows. I nourished my soul on allegory and symbols, but Calvin’s church was so plain and white, it was like being seated inside a refrigerator, with the door ajar to let in light. Only the Holy Book could guide mankind; no other instruction could lead you to redemption. I flung myself out of the pew and ran down the streets until I found an outdoor café and sunk into a chair with an espresso. When I looked up, a plaque announced that in the house facing us was born Jean Jacques Rousseau, the great liberator of the soul in the Romantic age. He embraced the whole psychology of symbols and divine mysteries. He knew we needed to remember Eden and the taste of forgiveness in our dreary lives.

Cathy lit a fire in my absence and when she saw the little box with its bulging roof, she smiled. The cheesecake turned out to be nearly perfect; the croissants went well with the omelet I made. We sat in the dining room reading our papers, feeling warm, relieved, somehow given a dispensation under an ice-hard, merciless dome of sky, with all of nature condensed to a catatonic blankness outside.

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