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EARLY SIGNS


Scraps of filthy snow litter the pastures around here. In town, the snow has turned dark brown, even black in places, after being shoveled up against a tree or along the curbs. Forlorn remnants of a powerful snowstorm of a week ago, and looking now as lonely as a bridal gown someone had ripped up and thrown down from an apartment window. It makes you feel desolate to look at these heaps of ice that refuse to melt. They hang around like nagging thoughts. I'm told more snow may be coming tonight, but the forecast is only for an inch or two. The sky appears to be exhausted after a productive winter. My feeling is that some enormous dimension of inertia has begun to tug at its own roots and is beginning to drift away.

I know others who have talked about standing at a window trying to distinguish faint birdcalls from the hum of snow tires crunching up the mush. Just the thought of a woman standing there in the shadows with her ear out for a sound of spring makes me shiver. We're tired of the cold. Another snowfall will come down like confetti and make a mess of our hopes for a few tiny sprouts of green on the fields. I made my way through an eerie fog last night that made all the oncoming cars seem like boats tossing on the sea.

The woman bagging my groceries asked how I was feeling these days. I told her I was miserable. She said she was, too. There we stood at the checkout trying not to whine about the weather. But our faces said it all. We were as far from spring as you can get this time of year. The gaunt spikes of the hedges were submerged in dull icy foam. The cars bore their caps of old snow on roofs and in truck beds. Not far from here, milk cows stood gazing out from the overhang of a barn, planted in the soggy mud among lumps of soiled snow. They too were tired of blowing out steam from their nostrils.

We had trudged our way through the long impeachment process, and watched with panic as the Senate made good its promise to reject both articles from the House. We listened as Trump said he wanted Lt. Col. Vindman punished by the Pentagon. Clips of the round-faced war hero being escorted out of the White House by Marines in full dress uniforms was painful to behold, even if they only lasted half a minute. He had been honest, prepared, spoke carefully, read the facts as he remembered them, and was now treated as if he had betrayed his superiors. It was like the threat of a vast mountain of snow moving toward us, straining to hold its cargo of ice before letting it drift down on our little town. The lackluster debates in Iowa and again in New Hampshire gave us no hope that some laser-focused oratory would announce a new leader. The bungled Iowa vote counts didn't help our mood. Nor did the New Hampshire results lift any spirits. The pundits were trying to find something promising to say about the emergence of a real contender to go up against Trump in November. But their voices were tired and their minds were on other things.

My favorite old-fashioned hardware store closed after being in business for sixty-five years. The windows are empty except for tatters of wrapping paper and some empty cartons. The back wall that used to glitter with all the tiny drawers crammed with screws and bolts has been looted, leaving behind gouged plaster and faded paint. It felt like an old friend had died and left nothing behind for the heirs. No one was there to shovel the snow, which sprawled across the sidewalks and bore footprints that had ventured by days ago. Across the street was a bar where a few long faces gazed out at the traffic, as if the random motion of cars and a few pedestrians were some sort of theater. There used to be stacks of lawn seed piled up under the hardware windows, and bright green rakes ranged outside the door. Wheelbarrows were leaned up against the other door waiting for some gardener to come along. But the sky was dark and moody, and the sidewalk was grimy.

An ancient graveyard stood to the side of the hardware store, with leaning tombstones and paper-thin slabs that had weathered three centuries of winters. Not even crows hunted here. They were somewhere in the woods huddled under the evergreen branches, stoical and mute. The chipmunks, someone told my wife, were supposed to be sleeping, but the erratic weather woke them up now and then and they clambered over the bird feeder gorging on seeds until their cheeks bulged. The sparrows were too timid to come near, so they watched from a nearby roof eave until a chipmunk had finished his dinner.

It's getting on to five o'clock and the daylight is strong enough to illuminate our hallway. A month ago it would have been dark as night. A pot of beans is simmering on the stove, with a smoked ham hock giving off odors of rust and bacon as you entered the kitchen. Winter smells, pungent as the taste of whiskey. Some rye bread would be nice smeared with butter, and the smudged jar of cherry peppers would be welcome. These are tiny consolations for living through the aridity of the season. Creatures are asleep in their damp burrows, curled up with snouts tucked into armpits. They hardly breathe at all in their hibernation, and turn once or twice in a night. I envy their repose, their stony sleep. The coyotes wander around in small packs and let out thin yelps into the desolate night, and move on.

So here we are in the hollow of the year, the dark pocket in which time loses urgency and purpose. There is no music at this latitude, only ticks and squeaks by an errant mouse fussing over crumb in the corner. It will grope its way back to a drawer in the attic where it has shredded an old t-shirt to make its nest. I spotted a stinkbug the other day makings its painful way across the windowsill of the bedroom. I don't know how it managed to survive the cold nights, but there it was, swaying on crooked legs and moving hesitantly toward nowhere. Aesop could have made something of this little tableau, but I couldn't think of anything but the emptiness of existence.

But even at five fifteen the light was palpable on the rug. The sun still shone, however feebly through the bare branches. The strangely diluted radium fell as thin as dust on the ground below. The sun's great lungs could easily melt away the last of the ice and pull the tulips out of hiding, force all those knobby branches to swell and burst with moist new flowers. The sun was sleeping on its own right arm, but its power could be felt even now. By midnight, the new snow would be falling in erratic patterns, as if someone were tugging on the shower curtain. I stood there imagining the steam rising in the bathtub as the water fell down hard and splashed on the back of my wife. It was like an April shower full of life-giving warmth, with the power to awaken the whole of sleeping nature. What would it feel like to suddenly behold the bent head of a crocus pulling itself awake, sliding out of the crumbly earth?

It was about now that I should be building our fire for the night, so I gathered up my leather sling and went to the garage for wood. It wasn't very cold, not as cold as it used to be. I passed some windows in the mudroom on my way back and stopped for a moment. I thought I heard a string being plucked once or twice. It wasn't the sound of a guitar or a harp, but it was audible and mystifying. It could've been a bird, some robin who had landed in the scrappy maple next to the garage. It could have been a robin, but I was in no mood to fool myself and closed the door behind.

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