Homage to the “Polar Vortex”, or as we used to call it, “The Death Spike.”

Those of you who have never experienced it have no idea.  It used come to our northern Minnesota home once a year, usually in early January.  No one can explain what 40 below zero fahrenheit means.  Nothing moves, but the stillness is lethal.  I wrote about it in my book, Native Echoes.  I encourage you to find it and read it if you’d like to understand something of what this passage through winter’s most unforgiving darkness is all about.

I’ve published this piece before on this site, but it is worth putting up once again during this time of winter showing its most brutal face:


How I go shivering. . .

Where is the sun hiding his fire?

— Iroquois ritual chant

We have not seen zero for days. Daylight is a brief spasm between darknesses. The sun is wrong and evil; like a father without love, grinning.

All the news now is of deaths. On icy roads, in frozen houses, in fires that flashed from desperate hands trying to stoke a stove to warmth.

The old are helpless, trapped. The deer are starving. There are no birds anywhere.

Midnight. I step outside. There is a crazed brightness in the sky, like the gaze of one about to die. The moon is remorseless — an adder’s eye, watching for movement, looking for death.

Trees explode, their frozen sap no longer able to endure. The lake rends and thunders beneath the frozen snows. Dogs rise from their burrows and howl in frenzy at the sounds. Their voices break the night like glass.

Forty below. Morning light, and pale. I stop at a small store beside the highway. It is a country place, part gas station, part commissary, sparsely stocked. Old men sit on cases of Coke and boxes of motor oil, telling stories of the cold.

“I need to make a call,” I say.

They gesture. A back room, tires and cardboard boxes, a pay phone hanging on the wall. A man is on the phone — thirties, ashen, missing teeth. His girlfriend smiles weakly at me. She is hunched in a corner. Their jackets are thin.

“Long or short,” I ask. I do not wish to stop for long in so great a cold.

“Our car’s stalled,” she says. “We’re on our way back from Winnipeg. My brother died.”

I soften, deferring to death.

She begins to weep. “It’s so far. We don’t know what to do. We live by Detroit. The car just died. It was my brother’s.”

I offer consolation, directions. I would help but I must go the other way.

She cries openly. I am the first who cared. The old men are cackling in the other room, full of themselves and their stories.

“His ashes are in the car. God, it’s so cold.”

Her boyfriend is fumbling with a crumpled paper, trying to find some number. “Where the hell are we?” he blurts. “What town?”

She looks at me, a request in her eyes.

“Shall we get him?” I say.

She looks around. The crudeness of the old men has no reverence. “I just can’t leave him out there in this cold.”

Her friend is shouting into the receiver. “I can’t wait five goddamn hours!”

She nods. We go out. The snow growls and groans beneath our feet. The sky is strange, copper. The car sits, naked and red, against a drift of snow.

She has no gloves. The key will not work. We bang on a door, trying to break its icy seal. The wind gusts once, cuts our faces with a thousand knives. Our lips crack. She is crying. “Your tears will freeze,” I say. It is not a joke.

In the back I see the urn.

Our breath rages from our mouths. We try other doors. I try to light a match to warm the key. The wind is too strong; the match blows out. My hands freeze. She is staring in the car. “We’ve got to get him,” she screams. Her sobs are frantic, filled with desperation. The cold is lacerating. We bleed pain.

“Just go in,” I shout. “I’ll get it open.”

She runs back to the store. I pull my hat lower. My eyelashes are covered with ice. I kick at the car and curse. Heat is ebbing from me. My legs sting; my toes are numb. The sun hangs lifeless in the frozen sky.

I feel a movement. The seal gives way. With senseless fingers I pry the door from its jamb. She sees, comes running. Past me, she dives in, throwing aside blankets, maps, fast food wrappers. She grabs the urn and pulls it out, runs back, talking to it like a mother to a foundling child.

I follow, uncertain. Her friend is still shouting into the phone. The old men are still laughing among themselves.

She has huddled on a box. Her back is toward me. She is cradling the urn and speaking softly.

I walk quietly toward the door. What gods live in a land like this, where the cold is so great that we must comfort the dead?

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