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:

URN

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?

Posted on: January 27, 2019knerburn

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

  1. I don’t know why but I keep ‘forgetting’ what a GREAT WRITER you are !! This was brilliant !! You sure have a way of ‘always’ making me feel like I am RIGHT THERE in the room with whoever you are talking about. What a gift you have Mr Nerburn !

  2. Beautiful writing……. and description of the icy unrelenting cold of the North and its consequences.

  3. If I had been sitting at the equator, I would have still shivered; both from the cold and the personalities. I have 3 foot drifts against my studio door and ugly “corn snow” falling from the sky. The least expectation is beautiful fat flakes.

    Thanks for all you bring to the universe. Sandy

  4. Having lived in Big Falls Minnesota as a child and teen I remember when it got down to – 46 degrees below zero. I don’t think there was a wind chill, it was so cold the wind probably did not want to blow.

  5. This is beautiful, Kent, from the dying deer to the exploding trees to the plight of that young couple with the urn of ashes. I’m in Eastern Iowa this afternoon. I cancelled a full clinic on Wednesday at the hospital where I work, in anticipation of the bone chilling Polar Vortex that is on the way in. Night before last, a nearby field held 20+ deer, feeding on remnants of corn. This morning, none can be seen. I’m hoping they are burrowing into snow to wait out the coming arctic cold. By Thursday afternoon, this should all be a memory.

  6. When I was 11 I read Jack London’s ” To Build a Fire ” during the dog days of August in an East Texas summer, but reading your narrative about the cold was as brilliantly chilling and as beautifully written. Thanks for another glimpse into a world of exquisite words! Connie Grimm La Veta, Colorado

  7. In two days we here in Southwestern PA will have temperatures in the minuses. I feed a colony of cats that live in open barns and their water will freeze about an hour after it’s given. We, volunteers, try to go up twice a day so they have some water. Last year with almost two weeks of single digit temps we lost 3 to what seemed kidney disease as they withered away. Two we found dead probably from drinking a drop of anti-freeze somewhere. We can’t let that happen this time. The wind chills will be horrible and I will be double dressed to endure it there. I can visualize what you wrote and see the aching cold, much worse than I have seen. By Sunday here it will be forty-two degrees and rain. Ache for the desert which I can only see once in a great while.

  8. We move through different dimensions in life and sometimes scarcely care to concede our presence in a place as anything but obnoxiously unfortunate. Surroundings we urgently need to move through, as quickly as possible, slap at us with stark abominations. How neat that you “broke open” the door unyielding. Atop a perilously frozen, slippery tightrope, the holiest action is a forbidden somersault.

  9. Absolute brilliance constantly spill forth from the deep recesses within your spirit. You are absolutely the best teller of stories that I have encountered…and my list is long! Yes still, you remain humble in spirit. Thank you Kent, for sharing your gift with all. Many blessings!

  10. Polar Vortex is real! Here in Zeeland, Michigan, just 10 miles from Lake Michigan we are generally spared from winter’s worst wrath. Not this year. It’s so cold I act like a bear. I eat, sleep long, and wake up grumpy and frumpy ready to forage for more food. I feel the need to gain 5 pounds as a buffer from starvation. But having grown up with cold and snow, there is a part of my soul that revels in the wind, the earth’s white garb, and the vigor of the cold. I think trees need a nap too. Perhaps I’ll strap on my cross country skis and go say hello to the German Shepherds next door on my way out to the trail. And while I ski, I’ll say a prayer of thanks to you, Kent Nerburn, for speaking truths that feed my soul.

  11. I remember so well and your narrative brings it back so clearly. I grew up in Austin, Minnesota and experienced this kind of cold often.

  12. I remember my husband, he was helping out s family in by Bemidji, Mn. Once he was done our truck was not able to start, being a creative man, and willing to continue soking on starting the old truck, he grab a charcoal grill ( small one) started the the coal with a match, proceeded to put it beneath the engine, and the white coals warmed the engine, enough to start the truck, he was always my McGyver.to me I knew I was always safe, even in the unforgiving winters of Mn.

  13. I remember my husband, he was helping out s family in by Bemidji, Mn. Once he was done our truck was not able to start, being a creative man, and willing to continue soking on starting the old truck, he grab a charcoal grill ( small one) started the the coal with a match, proceeded to put it beneath the engine, and the white coals warmed the engine, enough to start the truck, he was always my McGyver.to me I knew I was always safe, even in the unforgiving winters of Mn.

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