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Homage to a winter storm in the North Country

I see that my old home country of northern Minnesota is under another blizzard and winter storm warning.  Those of you from the north know what this means.  Those of you who have never experienced a blizzard on the plains or prairies have little sense of how unique and haunting such an experience can be.  In honor of this storm, I’ve decided to post a piece from my new book, Native Echoes.  It is about a drive into high prairie country in winter.  If you like it and want to read more like it, you can order a copy from wolfnordog.com or pick one up through any of the usual outlets.  I hope you enjoy this glimpse into our northern world:

COPSE

It freezes where they abode.

It snows where they abode.

It storms where they abode.

It is cold where they abode.

—Delaware saga

         The horizon is a line across a phantom sky. The windblown fields stretch towards infinity. Fragments of cornstalks — brittle shards —stick through the snow and bend and rattle, and the wind is the largest thing, the only thing.

In the distance, copses of trees stand like battlements — isolated, alone, small islands against the prairie sky. On the far horizon, purpling night has started its descent, too soon. There will be no sunset, for there has been no sun, only pale light — weak, and without source. Snowblown, blinding, aluminum, it leaves without event, giving way to dark.

The wind rises up, sensing an ally. It is filled with banshee howls, screams, and distant laughter. Amid the copses single lights go on in farmhouses, miles apart. One, then another, as if in signal.

Fingers of snow drift across the road. “Lose the road, lose your life,” the old farmers said, and the snow is drifting, drifting.

Attention takes a fine edge, now. There is no room for error. A man was found last week but a half a mile from his car, frozen. Two weeks they had searched. A gust of wind had revealed his hand, as if clutching, or waving.

 

It is the swing that stops me. It hangs and twists by a single strand from the arm of a great oak, far back amid a shadowy copse. Behind it, almost lost in darkness, I see the house, abandoned, swaybacked, empty. I should not stop; this is not a night to challenge. But something cries out for witness.

The wind screams in outrage as I step outside. The shadows of the trees grasp at me as I walk.

Movement is hard. My steps punch through the frozen crust. I sink to my knees. The wind lashes my face; my chest heaves. Snow burrows in at my ankles, sending waves of pain as the icy wetness cuts the flesh, then begins to freeze. So little time, so little time.

The door is heavy — rude planks covered by torn tarpaper — wedged half-open. Drifts have heaved against it in a frozen wave. In a weathered eave a wasps nest rattles, grey and ragged.

I push hard. The door scrapes open. A froth of snow whisks across the floor. Wolf tracks, or dog, mark a single line to a far corner. Scat covers the floor. Is he here?

Holes have been punched in the walls. The windows are gone. A sink hangs from its plumbing, kicked, perhaps, or hammered. In a corner a stove stands covered with dust and mouse droppings. Its oven door is open, a cry into the night.

On the floor a book is flapping. The pages turn and rustle in the wind, then settle for a moment. I touch it with my foot. It is brittle; pages detach and scatter. One flies up against a wall, where it flutters, like a dying bird, desperate to escape.

Through an empty window I can see the swing, twisting in the winter dark. The wood is grey as bone, and frozen.

 

That someone thought there was a life to be lived here. That for one brief moment hands were joined in common effort, and from each hammer blow, each chop of ax, rang out a song of hope.

I see them rise before me. The father, planting shelterbands of trees and planning yields and harvests. The mother, at the stove, cooking dinners, baking bread. And the children, at the swing, called in for dinner from summer play.

Did they have bicycles? Did they ride horses down the road to that next far house among that next far copse, that next small island in this eternal flatness? Did they camp out on warm summer nights, counting the stars and finding messages in an owl’s call? Did cicadas sing them to sleep?

Did their father take them aside, in a moment of fine hope, and tell them, “Someday this will all be yours,” and mean it as a gift? And did they sit there, listening, thinking in the simple colors of their childhood, how good it would be to someday work this land? Or did they, with each visit to a city or some nearby town, say, “Someday I will leave.”

And what of the night that it was decided? At the table, amid long silences, who was it that said, “Enough, we cannot go on.” Was it the woman, wide-eyed and hysterical from too many days alone in this too awful space? Or was she the happy one, hanging clothes in the summer air and gathering her children to her in the evening, while her husband sat vacantly, adding up figures, projecting yields, cursing bankers and God? Did he one day walk in and say, “It is finished. There will be no more.”?

Or was it something darker that broke their will? Is there, beneath these snows, a tiny grave, a tragedy too great to be borne? Or did they all, like the pages of the book, simply turn frail, and blow away?

 

I step among the boards. It is wrong to be here. There is no humility in this defeat, only shame. This is life that wants to be forgotten.

The darkness has risen now, and looms across the land. There is only the great cold, and the shadows, and the wind. Whispers of snow have almost hidden the road. The copse, the house, are disappearing. Darkness is folding them in, like sleep, like death.

I retrace my steps. Already my marks are being erased; they, too, have lost their shape.

I drive in silence, listening to the wind. In the distance, a church stands lonely in an empty field. It is small, white, boarded up against the winter dark. By its side, a tiny graveyard sits inside a wire fence. There are no tall monuments — such presumption would be unseemly — only a few low stones poking humpbacked through the swirling snow.

Far behind, almost lost in shadow, a single cross stands half buried in the winter night. The wind swirls angrily around it, as if to hide it from my view.

I squint my eyes, as if there is something I have not yet seen. But there is no life anywhere — only the wind, and the dark, and the stark arm of the single cross, protruding, beckoning, like a frozen hand above the drifting snows.

 

 

Reading this Wednesday, January 25th, at Annie Bloom’s in Portland, Oregon

voices-coverI hope to see many of my Pacific Northwest friends at my reading from Voices in the Stones at Annie Bloom’s in Multnomah Village here in Portland next Wednesday at 7 p.m. This is my first public event in Portland in many years. Annie Bloom’s is a wonderful independent and an intimate venue. It would be great to see many of you.

http://www.annieblooms.com/event/kent-nerburn-presents-voices-stones-life-lessons-native-way