On Grandad’s birthday I wake to a snap of January cold. The rocking chair beside the fire invites me to settle in for a cozy start to the day, while I wait for the old house to warm up. We are in the thick of winter now, submerged in its muffled folds. And in another lockdown, too. When will it end?
The temperature is -29℃ this morning. I look at the screen which tells me this, then out the window, where the sun shines deceptively. There is ice on the tidal river, unusual except for these rare cold days. The fire roars beside me, but the snow sparkles on the other side of the glass. I look at the forecast once more. No wind. A glance at the motionless trees outside confirms it. There is an edge to the world out there, and yet, beauty beckons. I could use some fresh air. The window wins. On goes the puffy blue parka.
In the yard, a brave bobbing head peeks out of the chicken coop. Keep those wattles in if you know what’s good for you! I warn, cutting through the side of the yard to the top of the packed snow-blown wall that borders the road. I wait for a car to pass, then clamber down to cross over. My nose tingles at the tip, cheeks stiffen. I tug down my toque and pull up my neckwarmer to meet it, till my face is only eyes. Nose and mouth snug, I breathe through this buffer of warmth.
Something strange comes into view as I turn up Millboro Road – a rising plume of white from the base of the snowbank. Like a dryer vent in the ditch, or snow queen’s cauldron bubbling, a mist ascends from a mysterious source. Peering closer, I see a portal through the snow, down to the dark of the drainage ditch below. There is water running beneath, and this is ice fog rising.
The snow crunches decidedly under my boots. I can see my tracks from yesterday afternoon’s walk, the snow untouched by plow or wind. It is mercifully calm this morning, and dressed as I am, I’m comfortable for a long walk.
Today I will head up to drunk skunk’s hideaway, then down into the next little valley of the watershed, where a big stream flows under the road. The farmer is doing chores up at the open sided barn on my right, and the cows gaze out at me with placid, prisoned faces. I wonder what it’s like to be penned up all winter? I’m feeling a little bulky myself in all this protective gear.
I puff my way up the hill, breath escaping between my layers. I can feel the blood pumping through my body, bringing oxygen to my brain, expanding my curiosity. Frost begins to form on the top ridge of my neckwarmer, and soon I can see my own eyelashes blinking white in the sun.
Easing into descent, I can’t help thinking of Grandad out here. It’s his second birthday in heaven. I miss him. He would have been out ice fishing on a day like today, or maybe getting the old skidoo running. I miss the grieving we should have done together as a family, laughing over memories, letting our love reach out to hold and heal. Time has passed strangely these two years. In some ways it has seemed like one long, cramped winter.
Where the road curves into the final dip of the valley, there are dozens of crows perched in the trees of a yard. They are still as the sky, feathers fluffed, waiting for I know not what. Next to their silent gathering, a sparkle catches my eye. Just past their bare perches is a small tree entirely covered by hoarfrost.
Attention is the beginning of wonder. Crunching boots slow, and I blink the crust from my eyes. I love hoarfrost, the way it transforms trees into crystal palaces, and straw into diamonds. None of the trees so far on this walk have been so graced. I scan the stream and frozen-over marsh that feeds it. More diamonds. Now I see – the trees and bushes that line the water are the ones which have been enchanted.
Under the narrow bridge, the stream pours out of a giant culvert, and the quiet roar breathes slow roiling mists that swirl above the surface. The same magic of the ditch is at work here. I stand and stare at the rush beneath my feet. The warmth of moving water exhales its vapour to the crisp air, bestowing icy kisses on the trees in reach.
The beauty is in the breath.
Where the branches hang over the stream, a crystal cavern has formed. Even the barbed wire stretched across the channel, remnants of an old cattle fence line, has received the touch of this charm.
Suddenly I am aware of how stiff my neckwarmer has become. I yank its frozen folds down and gulp in the winter air, sharp at the back of my throat. I want to taste it, this living breath. If there is a portal here, I will fill my lungs till I find it. I feel the sharp in my chest as the water pours and the crows lift, searching.
Oh Breath, are you here, rising from the valley?
I need more than my lungs can hold. I need oxygen for the soul. I press close to the guardrail, leaning over the edge till my breath intertwines with the ice fog. I am the spellbound crow.
Listen, listen, the water whispers. There’s something below the frozen layers – hidden and deep and moving – and where it bursts out in ditches and drainage pipes and right through rusty fences it touches our bare and waiting branches and brings beauty to them. Beneath the blizzard, God is still alive, still in movement, not frozen out by the troposphere’s temper tantrums.
The stream keeps flowing, even in the always-winter. In unlikely, mysterious places, He is still breathing.
S. D. G.