Extraordinary stories from everyday life on the edge of the world

Stories

the best thing about us is the people we know.
 

Winter Night

Bryan builds a fire the way ranchers herd cattle, the way generals study a map, the way God created the earth.

He pulls logs and branches into a pile, then collects what they have dropped along the way, pushing splinters and twigs with his fingers into a cone in the middle of the pit. Lighting the spark and blowing strength into it, he hovers over the flame with gentle concern, tapping more tinder into the sides with a violinist’s delicacy.

When the flame is healthy, he lays down bigger branches, one perpendicular atop the other. As the fire chews out the center of the X they make, he pushes the ends in closer with the toe of his boot. The growing heat cuts thin grooves in the surrounding snow that make it look like the thick pelt of an animal.

I watch him do this every Friday and Saturday night, trying to drink my beer before it turns to ice. We listen to music or to podcasts, swaying from side to side until the smoke chases us to the other side. From the outside we must look like primitive people, dancing slowly around our tiny ring of light.

 

Time means nothing in a winter like this. The sun doesn’t make an appearance until after 9am, and begins its retreat sometime around 4. Most of the time it is wrapped by layers of icy cloud, barely visible as if seen through windowpaning bread dough.

I knew to expect the darkness; what might have been fear is instead fascination. After a day or two of my mind racing, looking for something to reorient itself against, I started to relish the absence of clock-imposed guilt. Like a seed underground, I can sense all kinds of intracellular processes happening under the seeming inertia. My senses are heightened to any kind of stimuli—food, heat, smells. I sleep as if I’ve been cutting wood all day.

Unmoored from their circadian rhythms, my insides have begun a psychedelic journey. My ribs reach for the backs of walls, my hips and knees fold like origami corners, my heart drips heavily to the floor, my brain recedes the way eyeballs do when you sleep. I can feel it purring somewhere in the back of my neck. I wonder if, when summer comes, I’ll snap back to tensile normalcy and have no recollection that any of this ever happened.

 

Still, I’m a child of the golden state; my bones crave sunshine in a way that makes me weep a little when the sun finally does come out. In its long absence, I slurp fish oil, light an excessive number of candles, and hover as close as Bryan will let me to the fire. Heat, and warmth, any way I can take them, I will.

I was writing by the window and suddenly felt light on my face. I looked out and it was as if God was coming back. The world was awash in honey-tinted sunshine. Snow-covered ground and trees threw this light back at each other so that even the air was thick with it. The warmth was palpable—it penetrated the double-paned windows and held me like a tractor beam. I sat there, face upturned, frozen—but not frozen!—for what felt like fifteen minutes, insensible, until the lake effect blew in. The hole in the sky closed up and the light blizzard resumed as if nothing had ever happened. I assume that’s how the rapture will be, and the rest of us will go on trying to remember what it felt like.

 

Nothing about snow is white. Morning is a swath of rose and corn-gold, evening is aquamarine and lavender, midday is a patchwork of coral, strawberry, absinthe and mauve. At high noon, whatever you see in one moment will be filtered through the colors of what you looked at before. Turning from the sun's rays through a cedar tree renders the road in a wash of green.

The lake brings its own changes to the kaleidoscope. One day it looks like champagne-colored silk, another day it looks like stripes of gold and blue, another day it is green on top, blue in the middle and red underneath. It may one day be laughing and throwing up plumes of spray, sometimes all in succession like flash pots going off. Another day, the waves roll under the heavy pelt of ice, a lethargic ripple like a theater curtain, with groaning ice floes showing their backs like sullen leviathans, then settling heavily with a flash of phosphorescent green underbelly. Watching it is a dreadful fascination, as if we were seeing an earthquake accordion a city boulevard in slow motion.

The one constant is the clouds, piled in a mirror of the craggy hummocks of ice that are growing along the shoreline. These newly formed mountains offer a great vantage point, but Bryan won’t let me venture out to them because there’s no way to tell how solid they are. Even if you knew where the edge was and could venture there safely, one small slip would send you ten feet down into the progressively freezing water, giving you about three seconds before you are hypothermic, five minutes until you are frozen dead.

Hugging the treeline, we slog through the snow, our heavy tramping muffled to whispers. It’s funny how without sound, time seems to slow down. The once-pebbly shore has become a moonscape of ice, one that feels strangely alive despite its silence. It’s like walking over the surface of Mount Rushmore—you can't help but imagine the breathtaking consequences if you disturbed something.

 

Mythology tends to personify winter as an old man, sometimes blind, usually with a white beard. The first snowfall convinced me of the error--I will always maintain that winter is a woman.

For every harsh storm or unyielding grayness, I counter its bosomy softness, its swaddling effect, its gentle but admonitory hush. And look how it recasts the world in exaggerated, even comical simplicity. The houses and trees all sport a Seussian look with rounded corners and blunt edges, globular swoops and dripping appendages. Small things like the sight of a bald eagle overhead or the daily single-file pilgrimage of deer across our yard make us press our noses against the window. The stars hover in the Pascalian darkness with an almost threatening immediacy.

Night takes us by surprise; after hours of reading, dancing, laughing in the darkness, we are swept under a wave of sudden exhaustion. It doesn't take much to tip these heightened senses toward dread; this, too, is childlike. Often close to tears whose source I can't fathom, I cling to Bryan like a tree in the wind, burrowing icy feet into the backs of his knees, breathing the remnants of fire trapped in his beard: the sweet smell of burning maple, the old man smell of birch, the spicy smell of cedar.