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:
It freezes where they abode.
It snows where they abode.
It storms where they abode.
It is cold where they abode.
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.
11 thoughts on “Homage to a winter storm in the North Country”
No one in the world writes like you, Kent. Your voice is unique and powerful, and I hope your work continues to startle and awaken people all over the world for many generations to come!
Your writing always make me cry, but in a good way, never fails. Once again your story telling takes me to a place I’ve almost been but not quite. Old memories of a similar place, stirred ancestral memories, times past before I was born. An ache, slow hot tears.
this writing evokes so many memories and feelings, thank you Kent for sharing.
Happy New Year 2018
Taking what was intended to be a brief glance at your intro I was riveted and had to complete it. WoW Ken you so captured the feel of it all. My people homesteaded on the plains of Kansas and went through the dust bowl , grasshopper famines, and the joys and failures of working with the land that was hard to survie in….I feel them thrugh you…..amazing….
I too feel the life of my ancestors on the plains of the Red River Valley (n.w. Mn.) Thank you for this sensitive beautiful writing.
Words from the heart, words of the soul.
I wrote about the booming of the house last night – and the river – in the rapidly descending temperatures only to wake this morning to find that you had already delved into the shroud so well. I am reminded to pull out and reread “A Haunting Reverence”. I open it and an avalanche of pressed leaves the color of tobacco, cinnamon, turmeric, paprika tumble out. Seeds and a shred of birch bark, too. Bookmarks so fitting.
I read “Neither Wolf Nor Dog,” when you first released it more than a decade ago. I have given many copies to folks I’ve known since then as gifts; they always come back to tell me that no other author has made them open their eyes like you did.
Concidentally, last night, I was reading the chapters about the snowstorm you traversed in your book “Wolf at Twilight,” as the wind and snow was howling outside my window here in Proctor, MN during the snowstorm; an appropriate milieu. You painted such a realistic picture that I got chilled to the bone even though the heat was on 68 degrees!
When the woman remembered Yellow Bird, I cried.
I thank you for enriching our lives with your hard work, your openness to experience those events in brutally hot & cold weather, and candid writing style; especially, when you shared your personal hesitations yet you persisted.
I’m on my way to Barnes & Noble to get “The Girl who Sang to the Buffalo.”
I don’t write as eloquently as any of those before me, but I have to tell you again how much I have appreciated your writing and your voice. You help people understand the ideas you’re conveying like no other author I have read. My friends with whom I’ve shared your work agree. Thank you again – for this writing as well as all of your better-known works. They are blessings to us all.
You, Pam, as well as all the others, are very kind. Writing is hard work, and I work hard at it. It’s nowhere near as difficult as being a middle school teacher or a good parent or any of a thousand other tasks that do not get the praise and respect that writing does. But it is difficult. But the reward it offers is that you are working with a blank slate, unlike those thousand other jobs where you are working with given variables. So you get to pursue excellence, pure and simple. The frustration is that you can never be as good as your vision. But you can be as good as your efforts and talent allow you to. In this small piece, Copse, I was about as good as I can be. I’m so appreciative that people value it. Thanks so much for writing. It is good to know that people are out there. Writing is a lonely task until it is reflected back upon you by readers. You make it less lonely. Again, my thanks.
Dear Kent, I must thank you for your raw, powerful words. I have never been a true fan of the harsh winter season. I understand your description of the wind in the prairies. I have been in South Dakota near the hills quite a few times in winter. Your words showed me how to see, hear and love the beauty in this.