Waking the winter house

Russell Wangersky
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It is sun, fading to snow. The morning, salmon-pink on its shoulders of horizon, is shifting up into a blue lighter than robin’s-egg. Special winter colours, those; they are like mountains that you can’t remember completely until you actually see them again, and then it’s “of course; I remember this.” The weather report’s calling for evening snow: it’s a long run out, things can change, and there may be no chance to outrun the weather. There are worse things than being stormbound there.

The right-hand swing up the driveway over shallow, hardpacked snow — melt-and-freeze snow — and something about that pair of tire tracks behind you, seen in the mirror, just parallel dents in the white, catching the sideways light so that the indentations glow slightly blue.

The house is as it was: that’s the best thing. It is as it was, everything set down, still in the place it was set. Tools between jobs, dishcloth on oven door. The line that connects broken pieces of time: the dishes in the dish rack, left from the last time, so that you can play the simple memory game of remembering what you ate, when you ate it, whether everyone laughed. It has a magic, like going into a living room and finding knitting after the hands that held the needles have left; a direct connection with things past.

The mechanical chores: turn on the water, open inside doors, light the woodstove. One, two, three: a simple remembered pattern, the kind it’s easier to do than to explain.

Paper, splits, junks: your hands do it unbidden, while your memory darts back to other fireplaces, different woodstoves.

See your breath, blow on your fingers to warm them enough to get the matches from the big Seal matchbox. Your father, he who is long dead now, telling you as a child to build the fire, back when it was more magic than familiar construction. Listening for the first few sharp snaps that mean the kindling’s caught: bright flames mean nothing, they can be but a moment’s flare of burning paper. You’re looking for more constant combustion. When the wood catches, that’s when you know it’s done. Set the draft: hear the long, in-drawing breath heaving into the stove. Check the declining woodbox.

Out to the woodshed for more. Think again how the economy of a large box of matches is overcome by the inevitable failure of the striking strip on the side. Summer’s clapboarding project is just inside the shed door, the last of the green-painted 12-foot claps, the fat bundles of strapping, waiting for the next wall and the next block of available time. The big square box of galvanized nails. Scrap pieces of wood gathered up in a cardboard box: a pile of sawdust, swept into a cone that’s defined by that most lovely of terms: the angle of repose.

Everyone deserves their own angle of repose.

There is a red-ochre bench out in the yard, angled toward the sun as it has been since summer, its only occupant a round-topped drift of snow, slouched over.

Back inside, there is the clock. The comforting regularity of it. The house, solid and old and used to such things, creaks and flexes as the heat wanders up the stairs and around into the living room where the answering machine held precisely, exactly one message: a sharp, hard click and the grey-static hiss of empty wires. It is the technological equivalent of Dylan Thomas’ “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” when the thready voice from a frightening house joins in on the chorus of “Good King Wenceslas.” You don’t erase the message — you don’t play it again, either.

The fridge shuffles on, shudders off again with its unique little death-rattle double thud.

You can hear the stove pipe steady now, see the heat shimmering off the flat top of the stove. Your face is warm, but feet, still cold, cold enough that your toes hurt.

There’s no wind yet, but plenty of it forecast.

The sky, heavier with each passing moment. The sky lowers, and you know it’s only a matter of time before, if you hope to outrun it, you have to be on the road.

Would it be so bad — so terribly bad — to pile the woodbox high and batten things down, close yourself in with the hook through the eye on the inside of the last outside door so that nothing short of brute force could join you?

Maybe get a chicken first — surely, you can find a chicken — and stuff it with a quartet of the small onions from the garden, onions that have been hanging to dry their papery sleeves in the kitchen, flanked by the upside-down bunches of marjoram and oregano. The chicken into the oven in the big cast-iron frying pan.

Potatoes; the dented and imperfect spuds shaped by a garden with too many rocks.

How fine that would be, the onions pearl-white and steaming, the pan gravy thickened up while the wind howls around the sharp edges of the house, the winter knocking but not coming in.

Would it be so bad to welcome the storm and season with open arms, shedding more complicated responsibilities like the sweatshirt the wood stove has now made delightfully unnecessary?

A sturdy ship in a stormy sea, turned hard into the face of the wind and fine, fine snow.

Let it come.

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s

editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.

Geographic location: Wales

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Recent comments

  • Bill Murphy
    December 21, 2013 - 20:15

    This is extraordinarily beautiful. Thank you.