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WHAT IS THE ICE THINKING?


It's snowing again, and cold. Very cold. We had to pry the ice off the windshield with two scrapers; the first broke when I tried to lever up the wiper from its deathbed in a sheet of ice. The car was purring in the drive, getting warmer inside while I fought the ice-barbed wind blowing in from the west. My hands were numb, my arms ached from pressing so hard. Around me was the new snow cover, like some sheet a hotel maid had thrown over the mattress where my feet were slipping. Dreary long winter. Hard to breathe. Sky as ashen as a can of putty. Trees turning slowly into stone around me.

This is when winter gets hard to bear. We've had one cold front after another, each one bolder and more aggressive. There is no end to the wandering polar storms that have been blow off course by an altered jet stream, now bearing down on us when it used to just circle around over the wastes of eastern Canada and the even more lonesome stretches of Iceland. Now we have it; our chimneys keep puffing out the wisps of hot ashy air and trying to stay alive on our paltry diet of logs. I hold back, I try to keep the remaining pile of wood looking sufficient so I won't worry in the middle of the night. But I know I'll run out at some point, and have to call up my neighbor for another load.

Okay, I'm done grousing. I have my jacket on, a scarf pulled tight around my neck, a cup of coffee steaming in my right hand. I'll sit down in the living room and ponder my situation until I grow weary of the repetition of my thoughts. I have installed a nag at the center of my conscience that keeps telling me I need to buy more wood, clean out the flue, check the windows for leaks, pull out the wheel barrow and wobble my way to the wood pile for a fresh supply of fuel. And here it is, mid-February only. We have the March gales to contend with, and then a possibly snowy April, if we're not on the good side of the weather gods.

At this point you don't talk weather with the neighbors. They just look at you with gimlet eyes and change the subject. Unless they've heard some dire news on the radio I should know about. The phone just sounded a low-toned alarm buzzer to make us pick up the receiver and hear the weather station's latest forecast of more snow. Whoopee. Can't wait. Why can't they warn us when the sun comes out? I'd like to hear that cheery news now and then. Some gravelly voice saying, "Blue skies ahead. Wear a hat. Don't get sunburned."

It'll never happen. It's always dark news, the yin side of the cosmos. Female, brooding, cloud-choked, muffled, pregnant with storms, eyes bulging with sinister prognostications and dire threats. How this strange black half-circle should come to be thought of as female is lost in time, I suppose. I would have thought this might be the warring soul of the male at odds with everything above and below its sight. But there it is, the yin principle uppermost.

Last week, when a thaw arrived from our eastern flank, I was amazed to see the stout hill in front of the house suddenly lose its shaggy snow-beard and gaze out at the world with a freshly shaven mug. Well, not a mug exactly, more like a dirty green moss-soggy face with little streamlets of thawing snow coursing down its sides like so many tears. The gutter was running like a rapids full of tarnished highlights and chirpy little noises. It would flow down to the bottom of the road and be swooped up by a creek, also rushing along, and then whisked off to Otter Creek, and make its way higgledy-piggledy to the Connecticut River for a free ride to the Atlantic.

I have often stood on the edge of my property gazing down at the long jags of ice that have formed there. The question I sometimes pose to myself is, what is the ice thinking? Does it have a soul? Does it imagine anything while it clenches its fists and shrivels up inside its rib cage and bony arms? Are there slow thoughts forming in the little air pockets of its frozen skin? Does it want to die? Or hug the unlovable earth, the mother that disowned it at birth? It is an orphan or the eldest son of death itself? Who sired it? What has it come here for, other than to torment me and swallow every frail tendril of life until only the most stubborn animals can survive its powerful full nelson? At which point I shove my hands back into my jacket pockets and mosey off, disconsolate, needled by the riddle of ice. Back in the house, I can well imagine ice laughing to itself like some old pigeon-feeder in the park, who has weathered all the hardships earth can fling at old age, and then slumps down inside its frayed gray trench coat for a snooze.

I once tried to kiss a girl I was wild about all through my sophomore year of high school. She had long brown hair, and wore pleated skirts and oxfords, and smiled at me with meaningful large eyes. I thought she liked me, too. But when I did kiss her, as we walked home from school, she pushed me away and told me to never try it again. Never, she screeched. And I watched as she walked on alone under a fading autumn sky. Already the trees were tossing off their leaves, and the ground was beginning to harden under her slender feet. She hated me. She never looked at me again without frowning and biting her lip. She was the daughter of the ice that now puzzles me in my old age. She had its soul and awareness, and her arms were powerful rejectors of my feeble effort to taste the summer wind one last time.

I heard later that she married an accountant, a tall, very sober guy who had gone to Harvard and was already rigidly bound by his habits. He was a slab of granite that soared above her, and was covered in lichens and a peculiar grayish moss. He hardly ever spoke to anyone, least of all her. But she must have liked it. Her only son grew up in his cold shadow, and he learned early that his mom was not the hugging type. He found others to be close to, like his grandmother, and a boy he played basketball with after school. He was gay, and his starved heart flew out of him like a robin when that boy dared to kiss him. His face was frozen, his eyes stunned with the intrusion, but his soul begged him not to go away. He was in love, and it was spring, and the sun was out, and he was dancing down the street mumbling some hypnotic tra-la-la to himself. When he reached home, his parents were arguing. That was the first time he could remember the sound of their mingled voices, but not in love or friendship, in some quarrel that honed their syllables into knives.

He wrote a poem and sent it to his friend, who read it many times, he said later. He said he wanted to propose marriage to him, and that they could run away together to some place where it didn't matter what gender you were born with, you were welcomed for where your footsteps led you. But this utopia was not yet visible, and when his father sometimes mumbled an opinion at the table, it was often to condemn the sight of two men holding hands in the subway. Or walking close together down the boardwalk at Atlantic City. Or sharing an ice cream cone, lick for lick. Ice formed over his head as he spoke. Ice formed above his mother as well, and ice clouded the windows and then glazed them with a kind of steep plating. Outside, the winter roused its arthritic joints and gripped the house in its long, dirty claws and dragged it off to the polar shadows.

He knew that Greece was once the land of magic. The sun melted away all distinctions between men and women and married off anyone who fell in love with another, no matter their differences. But that Greece was always at war with Turkey, on Cypress, or on its flanks with such upstart countries as the newly minted Macedonia, an obvious plagiarism of its own sacred names. The Greece he wanted to stroll around in in sandals and laurel wreath, in a white tunic that lifted gently as the Aegean breathed out its fragrant breath, was no more than a whisper now, a pressed flower in a book of Plato's dialogs. His vision of those golden islands buried like gems in an emerald sea was no more real than the girl with long brown hair who repulsed me angrily and sent me off to wander the desolate wastes of my youth. He had no direction until someone kissed him and inspired his first poem. That was enough. That was the first sign of spring after an ice age of longing.

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