It was a hard winter. Everything became further away and darker. The roads battered cars; they buckled and heaved and slowed everything down to the point that I stopped wanting to go out. Every time I got in the car, I imagined my own death. I asked myself, Is where I am going worth sliding off the road into the cold water, into a dark tree, into another frozen, creeping vehicle, into the smooth blade of a state plow? So I cut back. I worked from home. I did my grocery shopping once a week, on Sunday afternoons, although by the time I left the store it was already getting dark around the edges of the mountains and I had to follow the lights of my high beams up the valley road. Other things were cut away, visiting friends, going to dinner in the bigger town, seeing a movie, shopping, going to the gym; all these were non-essentials. I imagined that that winter was like the start of the end of days, all of the good things, the extra of civilization falling off.
I saw death everywhere. People were freezing in their homes, the news channel reminded us to check on elderly people, our oil bill asked for a donation to help those who had no money for heat. People got thinner, tougher, and meaner. I didn’t make eye contact in town. I pulled my coat collar up and my hat down over my eyebrows. I kept safe at home.
Joe and I started to lock the doors when we were out. I don’t know if we ever spoke about it, or if it was just something we both felt at the same time. We locked up the poor, little cabin, and all of our poor, broken things inside of it. People were stealing dogs and selling them. People were taking the copper and gold out of the underbellies of cars. They were even carrying off firewood. We watched the long driveway for strange headlights in the dark and looked in the snow for tracks, for footprints, for signs.
The cabin we were renting sat at the base of a cliff covered with tall, straight spruce trees. A swift stream ran between the cliff and the house, always in white water, stumbling over huge boulders. The stream rattled and spilled down through the rocks, collecting in big pools, bottomed with smoothed bedrock or soft sand. Just below the house the stream flattened onto a broad flood plain, mingling with another mountain brook. The two waters came together and raced along, white, towards the Connecticut River.
The cabin was heated by a cast-iron woodstove. There was a backup propane heater in the living room and another in the bathroom downstairs, but we could never figure out how to run them because the instructions were in French and the pilot light would not stay lit—it would flicker blue and then vanish back to air. The stove ate through wood, burning fast and hot. The place had been a summer home and, looking to make money quick, our landlords had done almost nothing to winterize it. There were gaps under the doors and where the windows met the wall. There was a hole in the ceiling above our bed through which wasps spilled in the summer and in the winter the cold would come in and hover over us as we tried to pull the blankets up. Worst of all, the house was built on stilts because the stream flooded often. They had surrounded the stilts with black plastic and fencing but still the cabin sat on air, a freezing pillow of winter that reached up through the floor. The dogs would refuse to get off the couch; the cats would walk the backs of chairs, over lamps, across the windowsills to avoid having to touch it. The stove fought the cold, but the heat wouldn’t stick—it would just slip away so that even as the stovepipe glowed amber the cold sat in the bathrooms and the laundry room and the downstairs bedroom. The cold was more comfortable in that home than the heat.
That winter I lived heavily, wrapped in layers. I wore two pairs of socks and walked the floors in slippers. During the day Joe and I rationed wood. The winter was so long and cold that we were worried that it might not end, and we would be left with no fuel. We’d keep the house right above freezing, so cold that the olive oil became solid in the pantry. I lost all sense of my body. I was never naked except for the brief moments between the shower and my towel. I felt like I gained twenty pounds, but, I don’t know, it could have just been that my body became alien to me, strange, a buried thing.
I stayed inside and watched TV wrapped in a fleece blanket on the couch. I cross-stitched Christmas stockings for Joe and me and for each pet. I went to bed early and slept late, following the long darkness. I walked the dogs with a headlight. The trees rose like bodies, and the shadows behind the trees became monsters and thieves. The winter made us animals. It took away everything nice and human. We were cut back down to size by it; we were bodies that needed calories and warmth. We could have slept for days, like skunks and bears. We stopped dreaming for anything besides this life. We became smaller that winter, and less beautiful. I lost things I never got back from that cold.
The brook between the cabin and the cliffs had been frozen for months. Early in December I could see running water between the icy banks, but then I could only hear it, dark and rough. The ice grew and grew in the cold of those days. It was the only thing that got bigger. It grew like continental plates. It changed color. Sometimes it was clear, others it was white, or gray. When there was enough sun, it was blue. The blue ice looked like a blade—it was the ice of the freezing days, when the sun appeared but had no heat, just light in which to cast the world in shadow.
When I was out in daylight, I walked the dogs along the ice banks. It was so thick that it made no sound to walk upon it. Underneath I could hear the water, rumbling. The dogs were afraid of crossing the ice in the center of the brook, where they could hear the water. The ice made sounds of its own. It groaned. It creaked and snapped, brittle pops and long breaks. It shuddered like a fallen tree settling into the earth. There were other sounds that were harder to describe, hums, wavering tunes like Tibetan chants that sat right between two notes and seemed to be trying to break the world at its weak parts. Sounds rang along it, down the cracks, through the broad flat shelves. Dripping and grinding.
That winter the animals became restless. Fox and deer and coyotes stood in the yard and locked eyes with me through the windows without fear. The cats scratched at all the furniture. On the warmest days, I would try to let them outside, but they refused to step into the deep snow. Instead they tore away the legs of our couch. They peed secretly on the loveseat in the back room. They shredded it too, turning the canvas into threads. The dogs pulled apart my books. They got onto the couch and attacked the cushions until there were no cushions left; they had all been emptied of their stuffing and flipped inside out.
By the time the dogs completely destroyed that couch, it was early spring. The light was a little longer in the morning and the evening. The sun has some force behind it. I could turn my face to it and feel something in the sky. There was a day of rain, cold, steady rain that beat the snow down. That night we dragged the couch and the loveseat outside to the backyard, tired of living with those tattered things, tired of flat pillows and torn fabric. We had to pour gasoline on them to start the fire. We waited until it was dark. The gas burst and then snaked inside the forms of the furniture, under the skirts and up the backs, twisting along the wood inside it, slow at first then smoking. Smoking horrible thick black smoke that joined the dark sky. It burnt up the smell of that winter, the animals’ fur and our skin cells, our hair.
Joe and I stood back and watched it. The light from the house stretched out to meet us like an apology. We didn’t touch, we gave each other space like the one, or the both of us might burst into flame too. The snow melted out to our feet. The flames came through from the inside of the furniture, wearing the fabric thin and then bursting out hungrily into the air. We watched it in silence. The fire ate up everything and then, gnawing on the bones, the wood, the springs, the bolts, shuddering and collapsing, like skeletons in a mass grave, all the parts mixed up. We kicked the pieces that fell out towards us back into the fire. We watched the sparks rise into the black smoke pillar, following the raindrops back up. Shivering wet through all our coats and boots and hats, we walked back up the hill to the bright house. The fire lay in coals behind us, gnawing on the hardest bits.
The ceremony of it all stayed heavy between us. That winter had been hard. Joe had picked up smoking again, standing on the porch just an arm’s length from the door as if it might be warmer near the house. When he had quit, I thought we might be moving somewhere good together. With each night he shuffled in the cold, sucking on those menthols, I didn’t know, maybe we weren’t going anywhere at all because I was slipping too. I started seeing things at the edge of light, in the shadows. My fear of driving at night was a real fear. I saw things, my death, the death of the dogs, of my sisters, huge dark primal monsters made of the hills and spruce and rock. I was scared of little things, headlights in the night. I had to understand every sound I heard, place it, or I rocked myself to sleep, trying to rationalize my terror. The ritual of burning the furniture felt like our first attempt at ridding ourselves of these things, casting the devil out. The house was emptied. We sat at the dining table, looking at where the couch used to be. It reminded me of when we had first moved in, all the blank spaces and how tender we had been with each other.
In the morning, the fire was still smoking. I took the dogs down to look at it, the bent nails and twisted springs, the feet and rollers and joints of metal all blackened. I kicked some half-burned pieces into the coals. The snow was melted, and the grass was brown around the fire pit. The morning was warm; there were invisible walls of heat in the woods and along the driveway. The sun was rising, laying a thick haze over the cold water. It was the sort of day when you are excited for no reason. I went out to lunch; I didn’t eat what I had packed for myself. I bought a $20 bottle of wine for dinner.
Coming home, the ice along the road was still solid. I could hear the water under it from the car, running, running. At the cabin, the ice was still solid on the brook, but the water was so loud, a contained scream down the valley. The rain had loosened the sand on the hill, and snowmelt ran off it, picking up big stones and dropping them on the ice like cannon balls. The stones bounced off the ice, bounced into a tree, rattled down with the water, or punched their way through. The water ran like a trapped thing. I couldn’t hear myself think for the noise. The dogs were spooked when I took them out—the rocks had been crashing all afternoon, the water screaming, they had spent the day looking out the windows, wondering what was happening, wondering if the world were coming to an end.
The rain came again as the night settled, warm and dark in the valley. Joe and I talked about floods. Two years ago, a tropical storm had burst through these mountain streams and cut off towns for days. It took weeks to get past mudslides, washed out bridges, roads swept away. The brook we lived on had flooded; the water had risen under the house and run through the driveway. Huge rocks had bowled down the hill, knocking over trees in the front yard. Gravel and riverbed were strewn through the woods. The driveway disappeared. A big section of the hill had fallen into the river. It remained a crescent of naked sand and rock where a few trees hung. It was an ugly slash on the hillside right across from the porch; we had looked at it all summer. We also drove past a safe and a refrigerator that the flood had swept up into the trees along the driveway, mixed with river bottom and debris. The people who had been living there when it happened had been stranded; the water pushed their cars up against the pines. They had walked out over the field to the higher, paved road when it was safe to leave the house.
We talked about the cuts on the trees along the river that had been made by the flood, how high the water had been, how strong, that it would use stone and wood to cut through things like trees, riverbank, to cut away forest. All the time the noises outside got bigger. The rocks were breaking open trees on the slopes, popping, crashing, and punching through the thick ice and the hiss, the scream of the water. The dogs were looking around in terror at the noises.
We lay upstairs and listened to the ringing, crunching, breaking up. It was like a storm but not from above. It surrounded us. At some point, deep in the night, there was a strange, big sound that woke me from sleep. The dogs were sitting at the window; the puppy’s head was cocked to the side. I was too afraid to go to the window and see what they were seeing. The noise finally settled, and the night lay broad and uninterrupted after that. Sleep flattened my fear.
At dawn, we could see that the ice had broken up in the night. It was piled in tall cairns in the front yard and it pushed against the trees along the driveway. The water ran—open, seething, twisted gray and white water—so loud as to need to be yelled over. It hissed and boiled like static. With the dogs I walked around the piles of ice, some pieces a foot thick and stacked in piles six or seven feet tall. These heaps bordered the river; I had to climb to look down into the flood. Some of the ice was cut into bricks, and other pieces had been moved in huge, flat sheets, like countertops, and plowed through the yard to the distant pines. Our fire pit had been washed clean, erased; only the grass kept its char. I found pieces of the couch springs in the driveway and charcoal that had been pushed hundreds of feet away by the water.
Sometime in the night, the water had jumped out of its banks and knocked the ice back into the trees. The stream had used our driveway as a riverbed until it found its way back to the low ground by our mailbox. For some time in the night, we lived above a huge, rolling lake of ice and snowmelt, a flood, flashing through the land around us.
I found a brook trout resting on top of a stack of ice pieces like it had been placed there carefully. I took a picture of it with my phone. This beautiful, bright fish, recently dead and still colorful, six or seven inches long, ended up on top of the ice which had been its ceiling for months. I thought of its strange death, the fear of the flood, the shattering of the ice, the change of its worlds, its gasping for air in the cold night under the dark sky, raised up like an offering to the low clouds. It wasn’t transformation, the slow dawn I hoped for. The thought of the flood roaming our yard in the night scared me more than the endless cold of winter. I imagined water running under our home, under our bed, breaking through the trees, the flood erasing our coals, as if nothing we did mattered and no one would remember.