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IN THE ICY WOMB OF WINTER


My wife noted this morning that the temperature gauge outside our kitchen widow read minus 9 degrees. The windows in the bedroom were frosted over with a thick rime, so nearly opaque I couldn't even see the road below. The earth was dense, dull-colored, contracted into a fist of frozen stoicism. Everywhere you looked, the ice had conquered us. The day before, as I lay in bed with my cup of coffee listening to the radio, my morning routine at 8 a.m., I heard some squawking in the trees. When I looked out the rear window, there was an enormous crow perched on a swaying limb cawing back at the taunts of fellow crows. He left, but not without pressing down his weight on the branch until it seemed about to snap, and went his way. But I liked the sight of this enormous, blue-black bird making such a fuss in his corner of the woods. He cheered me up. We hadn't had any company to speak of, and having this uninvited guest was a welcome distraction from the winter blues.

Otherwise, the season has become a vast cemetery of spirits and ghosts, a place of stony silence. Scraps of snow littered the frozen road that wound around below us and headed off into the marshy fields. A few ruts led down into the matted grass but disappeared among the dead stalks. It was not a pleasant place to walk, but one did from time to time to keep the heart happy. A breeze wandered around the last time I was there, like some furtive wraith that had lost its way and roamed the hills looking for company. A lonely, abandoned landscape too dismal to inspire a painter to capture its dark mood.

When I got back home, I made a fire and sat there with a blanket over my legs. The fire made a sluggish start, like the coal fire that sputtered in the hearth of Joyce's story, "Ivy Day in the Committee Room." A dark room, Irish political hacks sitting around waiting for the porter to bring up a case of ale from the local pub, a candle shedding a feeble glow in one corner as the dark hovered over them. Nothing could capture the desolation of winter and hopelessness so well as did those few, sparely sentences. I was consoled by my reading lamp and the sign that the logs had finally caught and were beginning to glow brightly behind the sooty doors of my wood stove. I still had a few more episodes of "Downton Abbey" to watch before the series ended. I looked forward to a peaceful night with my wife, and a supper bubbling in a pot on the stove. The last cars moved along in front of the house, heading home to Whiting and Leicester, and a farm or two. Pretty soon the hills would dissolve into blue gloom and be gone.

I'm sure the old dairy farmers around here don't think too much about the cold winter nights. They have a different consciousness from mine. I can't fathom what that kind of mind might know or feel, only that I am aware that to live here, to muck out the rotting hay of the stalls, to put up the milking nozzles and turn off the barn lights, one had to accept the adamant rigors of eternity or perish. There was no looking out the window, or reading the newspaper. There was the fatigue one felt in one's legs, the ache in the lower back from hauling up milk cans to the sterilizer, dragging a rake through soggy mounds of manure-soaked straw, and when the inventory of the body's complaints was over, you slurped up some stew and drank a cup of tea and pulled the handle on the easy chair to raise up your feet and perhaps take a brief nap before letting in the dogs and calling it a night.

I'm not sure how kids can be raised on this regime. Night has such an imposing authority once it closes in, and when lights are turned on in the old fashioned parlor and the smell of dinner is reaching a nose-crinkling climax of aromas, there is no thwarting nature's firm will that the day has ended and the options for going out are all voided. I have seen lights flickering in bedrooms of such farmhouses and know that the teenagers are pouring out their hearts to some anxious reader on the other end. But that solemn ritual of sharing anxieties and passions seems hardly enough to feed the soul. There is no garden beckoning to the young, no luxurious tropical beach opening up at the end of the road, far from the snowdrifts and the silvery islands of ice lying in the tractor ruts. There are no dance halls just opening up their doors. It's a weekday, and tomorrow has its demands at school. Maybe a math quiz awaits them, or an essay is due in English class. Who knows what pressures mount up and claw at the edges of reality.

Main Street has turned out its store lights; the gas station is closed. The silos stand in the distance in the frozen glitter of moonlight. Leaning against the shed is a tractor tire, and beside it the battered iron of a tiller that had seen many summers before it was pulled out of service. These implements are dead, but their material presence reminds the living that what was once of use now is a rusting monument to a mostly forgotten past. A new tractor stands under the flimsy roof of the equipment bay, gleaming with new paint and shiny slabs of iron over the front end. A mortgage will hang over the farmer's head for many years, but the hulking machine will grind the earth and swallow its furrow chaff and lug heavy crop wagons behind until it too succumbs to mortality and is given a brusque farewell sometime hence.

But I couldn't do it. I have to believe in change, in disruption, in the moment of miraculous surprise to lift me above the soul-fraying monotony of the seasons. I need to imagine islands out in the placid, green-blue sea, with palms swaying back and forth in a kind of hula dance. I need to hear the murmurs of tropical birds, and feel the warm breeze blowing in before thunderheads gather to drench the earth with fertile promises. Ice and gray snow and the shark's teeth of icicles hanging down from every window are beautiful at first, and fill you with a sense of wonder at how morose nature can be at one end of the year. They tutor the soul to be resilient, to weather loneliness, to hold out hope where there is no sign of it. It is the tutelage for medieval monks, for Scottish spinsters staring out of the stone window frames of their decaying castles. But I'm descended from my mother's Sicilian sunshine, and the smell of ripe olives hanging in great bunches from the trees, and the odor of newly crushed grapes being poured into oak tuns is what I call paradise, a necessary countervailing temper to winter's deprivations.

The bicycle I bought in Texas stands forlornly in my garage. The tires are flat. The saddlebag has lost one of its straps and hangs at an angle from the seat. It's a fine bike, with fifteen speeds, light aluminum frame, speed releases on the hubs. It's ready to go, but the world outside forbids it to be liberated from all the junk piled up around it. A log slumps against it, like the implacable will of winter. I feel an ache each time I enter the garage to load up my leather sling with firewood. It's like a daughter I haven't spoken to, someone beautiful and bright who has languished for many months without my hand stroking her hair, joking with her, cajoling her to go with me to the store.

The afternoon's long teeth are touching the sills of the windows. Night is not far behind. The shadows have a stealthy way of creeping forward, of being a soundless visitor inching into the unsecured gaps of my resistance. This is January, the month that bears the image of the two-faced god of laughter and sorrow. We are in the womb of the new year, in its damp recesses, feeling there is no escape from the tedium of death. But I am not lost; not yet, anyway. After the worst is visited upon us by the sky, we will stumble into February with its bony figure roaming the empty hillsides, gazing out at infinity with that look of old men who come to the water's edge to contemplate mortality. And after February, the March winds will sweep our suffering away in gusts of laughter as the edge of spring emerges. Even a dairy farmer will rejoice at the site of the first primrose, the flimsy coyness of a dandelion glowing in the splinters of sunlight spreading outside the barn.






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