In 1853, you might find yourself bundled in cloth, swaddled as the Christ child, on the shore of Lake Wenham, in what was then known as New Hampshire, Massachusetts. You might have known this lake in warmer climes as something clear – the clearest water, perhaps, you had ever seen, not realizing how the water bubbled up from underneath, springs hewn from mountain water traveling under your feet – yes, all this traveling – in a historical moment where a mile is measured by the amount of steps your legs take, and any miles more are measured in the days they might require to journey.
In a December long gone and drifting aimless in the past, I kiss my grandmother on the mouth and make to run along the shore of Lake Ontario, where the sand of beach is snow. My breath is a kind of sermon and it is so cold the gutter water warmed by tires freezes on my soles and chips away at my calves, bloodying my legs. I wrap a bandanna around my mouth, learn not to breathe too deep, oh how it stings my lungs. The birds that stayed sway elliptical. There is a rhythm in pain and how it warms you. It goes step, step, step, step. It goes breath, breath, breath, breath. It goes shock, settle, then awe in how it feels to be in it, beyond the line of hurt. Look at how my heart goes on humming. Look at all this sweating underneath my bundling. Look at how my grandmother, when she was still living, would touch my hands with hers, this paper-thin decoration of twisted skin and bone, this prayer of aging gracefully, and try to warm me when I returned.
It’s near night now, and there are men out on the lake with horses, and the water itself is chilled to the point of ice. In fact, a faint bristle of near-downy frost settles atop the glistening, and what sun remains sinks into all of this and lights it, you think, on fire. You have to remind yourself it is not land you are watching, but water, and, though you are schooled in faith, you know too much to believe, though even this screams a miracle, so many pounds of muscle and soul, like dancers tip-toeing across the frozen water. You are watching the harvesting of the ice. It’s 1853, and there are men out on the lake with horses.
When I am little, my father bundles me in coats and takes me to the second floor of the house. It has snowed so much and I must look like a parakeet, yellow-skinned and feathered. The snow is almost taller than my body, and my arms stick out, they are wrapped in so much. He hurls me out the window and I fall through the air and do not fly. Flying seems such work. Falling is better, not even a letting go, just an act of tumbling, a force of nature. I puff into the pile, a burst of frost before the warming. I am okay. I am alright. I will spend years telling myself this, remembering how it felt to be alive after such falling. Then, in that now, I believed in God so beautifully I spent my nights crafting different prayers to keep my life together. I memorized mantras, squinted my eyes shut, and whispered up to God from the bottom bunk. Here I am, though. I am okay. I am alright. The snow glitters all around me, and if there is a heaven, it would be this – the softened aftermath of a life of falling, the I-thought-I-would-die-and-now-this. My father rushes down the stairs to greet me. He is a smile. In him lives a warmth. I know this now. If I jabbed a knife into him, I would be burned alive.
You sit down. You wrap what coat you have around you. Everything is poetry and no one records their dreams. You breathe a steam and wonder at all this wonder, that there still exist things you have never encountered before, that even though you are a person so rigid with your expectations – of nature, of the people around you – the soft, ever-normal turning of the world sometimes curves you into a moment you have never seen. You watch the men and you watch the horses.
At a bar in the East Village, I sit outside with friends, slipping casually into a conversation underneath a summer cooled by dark. Something happens, the night shifts, other people slip into the words, alter them. I feel distant, eyes sheened, body somewhere between the point of feeling and not. I want to be a marvel to everyone, but I sometimes lose my hold. I try to think of horses, how some summers I slipped into the stables beyond the cemetery when I worked to feed apples to the animals, how they lifted their eyes wider than those of owls, and how in them I felt a stilling, and how in that stilling I felt something I had never known before. What do I know. I know so little. At a bar in the East Village, I feel part of a moment I have been a part of before. Even the clink of glass, the near-and-far chatter of strangers, the scuff of boots on pavement – even all of this feels familiar. The talk of jobs. The newest openings somewhere down the street. Where to eat tomorrow. It’s not that people can’t surprise you; it’s that they usually don’t. And by people, I mean you, too, and me. It’s not that you’re never surprised, it’s that you shut down before it happens. After leaving the bar in the East Village, I climb six flights of stairs, crawl into bed with the woman I love, tell her I am sorry, and fall asleep. I do not even touch her to say goodnight. I forgot to mention her until now, her feet against my leg, fingers stretching out across the fabric of my jeans, catch of streetlight glimmered into eye, shadow of bone to sail a love along. All along, you see. She is there all along. And at some point I do not see her. I feel sorry for this forever.
You watch the men and you watch the horses and you see how these men bend with saws bigger than any saw you know, how they, short-sleeved in the weather because of what heat they create through exertion, cut through the ice. You see a blade strapped to a horse cloaked in the steam its body creates. You watch it slice deep and down, turn along a line, and start again. Men slip and yelp, the sound a kind of gunpowder. When you see the first horse tug a cube so invisible you can gaze the glaze of near-night through its insides, you know you are watching the reaping of the ice, and it is like a song, the saws bowlike and humming the rigid string of a violin made of crystal.
In January in New York City, the snow snows and keeps on snowing. There is nothing to do but walk through it and return. I heat whiskey, add cinnamon and apple cider, drink it to warm my bones. I grow stir-crazy with all the others, feel the walls softening a slow movement toward my head. I go outside with a shovel and begin, in snow, to shovel the block. I am drunk and the world is quiet and there is the catch of shovel on cement, the scratch and churn of it. I do this, back bent and eyes down, not realizing the snow has kept on snowing. I strip off my jacket, toss it atop a pile I’ve created. When I look up, I see there is so much more block to go. When I turn back, I see how the snow has piled atop the path I have created. I want to say something here. I want to believe, despite the shoveling, that the world is more than Sisyphean, that your past will not move past your present to pile itself atop your future, that a mistake will not be borne again in different ways. What I mean is that I want to believe in goodness, in the way my skin felt in heat, the pores opening to a sweat of whiskey, my ears tuned to the hush, the quiet, the slow dancing wedding song of flake on flake, the street fossilized into an amber. The people I am with come out to find me. You were out there for so long, they say. Are you okay, they say.
When the cube is pulled, the horse huffing its puffing heat into what is now night, you witness the startling grace with which the men commence their handling, as if the ice is glass, as if the ice is fragile, as if it the ice weighs nothing more than a baby. You might not know that your blood swims in a heat close to 98 degrees, that if it were to lower by just 20 degrees, you would die, that, in the process of that lowering, you would begin to feel hot, might even strip off all your clothes, thinking you were on fire, that you are so far from absolute zero, from the slowness it inspires.
In the dark of a small town in Connecticut, my friend Michael is struck by a snowplow while running, and dies. I was not very close to him, but I knew him well enough to know he was probably wearing the tattered white shirt he always wore while running, that the only reason he was out running so late at night was because he always did this and would never change a pattern of such beautiful repetition. I hear the news in the morning and go outside to smoke a cigarette and imagine if it took awhile for him to be lifted from the street, if the snow fell like snow does and if his body cooled and if his brain worked enough to feel the warming that comes in such a moment, if there was peace there, or hurt, if there was hurt there and if in that hurt he burrowed out a peace. I do not know anything beyond what I know. If ignorance is a kind of absolute zero, we are all, each of us, in the process of stepping so small and slight out of it. I know that snow falls like snow does until it stops and I know that a body lives until it dies and I know that Michael’s mother held her tears at the wake for as long as she could until she let them run little streams in the bed-like folds her skin created. I want to know if they lifted Michael like a child, like a baby, like ice, if there is grace even in the life that goes on after one life passes. I want to be held like a child most days. I feel no shame in admitting this. That want, it goes on and on. Like snow. Like the bodies that are born. Like the hands reaching to bring them into this world. Like the hands holding them, and the rock, the rock-rock-rocking. The crying.
You are watching the reaping of the ice. It happens with precision. It happens with men and saws and horses. You want to stay to watch someone die, it is so beautiful. It cannot be this beautiful. There must be death somewhere. Each cube ascends slower than sunrise, the great gasps of beasts clouding what is left of light. If you were not sane, the haul might seem invisible, all this work for a cube of nothing. But each cube catches purpled orange and glimmers incandescent. You feel warm. You have been sitting for a long time. Your heart is beating slower. You want to strip off your clothes. There are holes the beasts leave, dark and calm. You want to jump in.
In Another Life
In another life, I tell my love I want to kill the sun. She asks if I would still kill it if it made her unhappy. I hesitate. Call me a cloud. Call me grey sky and rain. Call me the ash collected on the burning end of your cigarette. Say no. Say there is a sun inside you, love. See how it burns. Love: it burns, too. Oh, how it hurts. Oh, how it feels so good. See the horses pulling this love out of you. See her next to you. See the way the shimmer simmers, that glimmer cutting through the dim, sing-songing up her soul. Oh, how it hurts. Oh, how it feels so good. There is a rhythm to all this pulling. It goes step, step, step, step. It goes breath, breath, breath, breath. It goes kiss of hand on hand. It goes I love the way you warm me. Oh, how it hurts. Oh, how it feels so good.
Image Credit: By Zimmerman, Charles A., 1844-1909 — Photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons