It is very cold today, so cold most of the schools in the state are closed. The tea in the mug in my hand was steaming wildly as soon as I was halfway out the door, its warmth being called out to fill (a Sisyphean task) the vast void of the cold. I choked on my first breath, the air was so dry, and I quickly stuck my nose into the warm exhalations of my honey green tea. Sharp air and sharp light. I heard the jingle of a dog's collar; I couldn't see with the light in my eyes; I turned the other way, to walk round the shadowed side of the house, away from the neighbors.
To the River.
En route, the glister of white ice crystal snow not deep enough to quite bury green and flax grass blades--washed-up fossils of summer--caught my eye so that I stopped and stooped. The light so pure, the air so clear, sight in the cold is dazzling. All matter's sharpened edges glint.
The River on our side is almost totally frozen over and is smoothly strewn with white snow like the sand or sawdust of a rustic floor. For weeks a narrow channel of open water, about six feet across, had remained, strikingly straight, in which Baltic blue water, chilled and cleared from its sultry summer brown, forged along in its course to Hannibal and New Orleans, rippling against the sheaths of ice that were its banks like a worker humming at his work. The River is so quiet here, human development so spare and inconspicuous, that I almost always catch glimpses of the ghosts of Native oarsmen gliding under the eagles down the pulsing central artery of this wild, young land, and in the cold, I pictured Eskimo-like fishermen at home in the austere white expanse traversing this channel.
But today all that was left of the channel was a long narrow gash, the water exposed by it coursing beneath the ice like lifeblood. The fingers clutching my warm mug were starting to sting as I made my way to the Front Stoop, as I call the metal stairs that finish the descent from the top of our bank to the water begun by a narrow grassy descent, bower-like. You duck down this sort of tunnel formed by valley-shaped ground and arched-shaped branches and the River reappears. You stand or sit down by it, engulfed by a world that stretches from river bottom to sky top with wooded land in between, the plane on which you stand. Birds stitch the realms together, rising from branches to skid their wings against the sky, swooping to break the water's gliding surface, settling back into the trees.
The unleafed branches on our bank were being knocked about by little furry woodpeckers whose work sounded just like the knocks of the construction workers' nail guns that used ricochet from rooftops, bouncing between the walls of houses and off of the asphalt street, when we lived in the city. Vaster knocking sounds came from the stripped trunks and branches on the island creaking in the quiet like ship's rigging. Then I heard not just a knocking but a rustle and turned to see a little woodpecker quite close to me jabbing its beaked head at twiggy branches so small they seemed unlikely to me to hold any insects. (Is that still what they're looking for, in winter?) I had wondered earlier this morning how the birds would fare today, when the skinned humans all planned to stay indoors. Were their wispy feathers enough to keep their pattering hearts from freezing? If this guy was any indication, they were going to be fine. He was as fuzzy as a baby bobcat, a shaggy version of his well-groomed summer self, downy white feathers spotted with black wisping from beneath his black and white pinion overcoat. A spot of red sat on the back of his head, like a hard hat, I thought.
Because we live across from an island, the portion of river we are used to seeing is really only half of it. The island's upper end isn't too far past the end of our property, so upstream we can see the whole width of the river. The far bank at this point is the Clear Lake SNA (Scientific & Natural Area), so it is wild, and I love gazing at the stand of white-barked trees that slope down from a high ridge to the north. They often catch the sun when the rest of the river is already in evening shadow, and they glow golden with the light of the sun invisible to the rest of us. I was looking at these, and then noticed a sort of mist at the level of the water--steam rising from open water, I ascertained soon after from a higher vantage point. (From the same prospect I noticed tracks I couldn't see before. They were small and round. Cat, I thought. From the window yesterday afternoon I'd seen one of the neighborhood feral cats picking its way along the ridge in the neighbor's yard and then disappearing over its edge. The tracks, sure enough, descended from that part of the bank before they led right up to the edge of the bit of open water, and doubled back. Was it seeking fish, or only a glimpse of its own reflection?) It is only our side of the island that is frozen and snowed over, it looks like. There is a broad space of open water toward the far bank, and it was steaming in the sun on this cold day.
Like my tea, which by the time I returned indoors was positively chilled along with my numb red ears and hardened cheeks. But the cold, dry air wettened my eyes and sharpened my sight, and it made my blood sing loud in warm veins, as my pulsing arteries keep my young heart beating under winter down in this frozen northern homeland.