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AN ODE TO SNOW


It wants to snow, it just can't. The sky is like an invalid trying to get out of bed. Oceans of heated air loiter overhead, vast as the ignorance that for three long, smoky, begrimed centuries put it there. Now we watch the feeble snow dribble like thoughts out of the parched heavens. There was a time when the black rivers here choked on a glut of melting ice, and threw the debris of broken trees and crushed houses onto the banks. The rivers trickle now, and the once frightening force of waterfalls hums like a boy's choir. I am sorry for the rivers. I am grieved that the snow is not enough to fill the hungry slopes where skiers go to relieve their stress.

Skiers are in love with fear. They welcome it into their flabby legs, their trembling knees. They clamp on their equipment and edge toward a white abyss that could leave them paralyzed if they mistake a rock for a hump of frozen lace. Down they go, racing an inch ahead of death, feeling the thrill of destruction from deep inside the mesh of nerves. Now the hills stand idle, the sky locked into a stony embrace like an old vault-ceilinged prison from the age of kings.

A mug of steaming coffee would taste good now, if the world were spinning on the axis of sanity. But the earth wobbles, and its skirts of blue ocean whirl out into the bleached periphery of the sky. Heat forms a rash around its middle, swelling the sun-tortured equator where animals are dying of thirst. The zebra moves slowly, like one of Pasolini's martyrs, across the dead expanse of Sub-Saharan veldt. He has no questions, only a mute sense of wonder that so much grandeur and stark beauty no longer sustain him. Things are falling apart faster than the monks can meditate on God.

A blue sky means nothing. It spreads out like so much silk stretched on poles over the rich, who have swimming pools. They don't count on the rain to varnish their gardens. They import the little moisture that is available, and for a stiff price. But money is no object. They have deep pockets that make a numismatic jingle when they walk to their cars. I've danced with the rich and know how feeble their hands are when they touch an ordinary human being. Intimacy shames them into looking the other way. I am in the arms of fabulous wealth and my breath of onions and mustard disgusts the body that could have been my lover once. But her hair is the color of a drought, and her breasts are flat. Her thighs slap against the expensive stockings she wore to the party. She is as vaporous as a dust devil and swirls with aching dryness out of my arms and into the desolate future.

Children are asleep as I write this ode to snow. They clutch their stuffed bears and unicorns to their chests. They trust that the past still has watered roots and can spread a canopy of soft green leaves over them in the spring. I envy their delusions. I would gladly pay for one and wear it on my head like a winter cap and go skiing on the artificial hills of snow. I would sit with my steaming mug of coffee and talk about the future as if I owned it. But children don't share their Persian carpets with anyone but other children.

The sky emits a harsh metallic glow where the clouds have parted. There is nothing above them but the cold dead fires of space, whose light only now makes itself visible after billions of years of falling through the dark. The light we see is like startled snow flakes unable to carry their petrified water to our eyes. The sky is as dry as the ground. It will not snow today, or tomorrow. It will remain a world of stained enamel sinks and broken dishes; the future is a maze of water pipes filled with rusty air and particles of lead. The future was bought and sold a dozen times in my own lifetime, and the old price tag still dangles from its hem. An antique store I sometimes frequent has a jar of medieval breath from a bishop's lungs. It is invisible but for a tinge of red where a cough interrupted his prayers. It's possible such a jar might contain the seeds of rain or snow that would have filled Vermont's rivers and upholstered the mountains with iridescent ice. But the jar is dusty, and the lid has rusted shut to the glass threads. It can't be opened without squandering its memories.

I am drinking my whiskey in a corner of this long room. The lamp illuminates my knees and my shoes are polished. I have an appointment with the dentist later in the afternoon. The whiskey rots my cavities and leaves me numb. I know that the gathering darkness at my windows means one thing -- a false weather is moving in and setting up camp under the moon. The thickening air is like a song an old woman might sing before she gets up; her newspaper has fallen to the floor and her skinny legs are spread apart. Years ago she was a girl romping in the dewy grass, teasing a boy who carried her books for her. She was opening like a hollyhock on the little dirt road leading to her house. The blossom of her youth was as pink as watermelon, full of the sweet water of a world of endless surprises. She laughed like a polished lute, and he followed her, offering his bass clarinet in an ephemeral duet. Now she pulls herself together with great effort, and hesitates to descend the stairs. Below is the grim reality of empty rooms, and a carpet that has never felt a single snowflake melt into its dusty wool.

The world is a study in black shapes, some of them starkly delineated by the cold, shivering aridity of afternoon. A man walks by with his dog, headed for an arbitrary point in the field before him. He has no plot to guide him, no dramatic soliloquy to deliver to the empty theater. I wish him well. I would ask him for his newspaper but he's not carrying one. It might contain a weather report on some back page, next to a map of the United States. The usual isobars to indicate a front will be missing; the fronts are now lying on the surface of space like old seashells. A child with a bucket of sand could well be a prophet of the epoch we are now entering, with governments drifting further to the right and hordes of enemies massing at the horizons. We must be careful, and not speak our true thoughts to strangers.

My heart is sound, and the pulse in my arm tells me I will go on living a while, even in this heat, this absence of change. I can handle it, I think. I wish I had the company of an old friend to console me, but most of them have gone. I've left more love behind than I can find in front of me. Where do we go when we have run out of purpose and merely stand here, at a window, say, with the blinds pinched, the curtain parted an inch or two. Outside, beyond this glass membrane, is the only news that doesn't lie to us. A fox left his prints in the black ice of the driveway. I throw the crumbs from my bag of stale bread onto the earth, but nothing emerges from the shadows to eat them. Even generosity is, for the moment, unappreciated. I wish I could find a beggar who needed my money, but even he is gone. His daughter has learned a trade and works in a factory in Bangladesh. She's happy, I'm told, but never seems to eat her fill when she gets off her fourteen-hour shift. She wants to taste snow on her tongue, and rush down a precipitous hill. But where? The trees are like the police standing in her way, and each has a nightstick raised should she come too near.

I'm wheeling an old wooden barrow through the streets crying out my wares of winter squash, soft potatoes, stumpy little carrots with the dirt still clinging to them. The old women come down slowly out of the sleep of their afternoon naps to paw my produce and offer up coins from a knot in their handkerchiefs. I charge too much, but if I didn't, I would starve to death. I have one small snowball hidden under some dry grass from last summer; a curious old crone discovers it and everyone gathers around to observe its mystical glow. I grow angry and yell at them. But they push me away and smell the ancient magic still emanating from its skin. "It's mine," I shout. "Mine! Mine! Mine!"

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