|Written by N.D. Wilson|
|Wednesday, 14 October 2009 20:27|
I see my grandfather walking between shoveled mounds of snow, moving slowly beneath the load of life. He is a block away from where I stand at an office window, and still I can see his lips moving, unable to swallow back the hymns and prayers within him. This is my ancestor, father to my father, an old jug, cracked and spilling warmth along his path.
Wipe two decades off my age. Put me in pajamas and place me at another window, a window in my grandparents’ aging, sagging, cracking, yellow house. It is New Year’s Eve, my parents’ anniversary. Outside the world is cold, and the night has most likely passed its middle, easing into the first dark moments of a young year. But in the winter, midnight darkness takes a different flavor. Deep, white, shimmering swarms of crystals are mounded on the hills and piled perfectly on every tree branch. I stand, shivering, looking out the window at a pearl-world beaming beneath the face of a moon as bright as it is silent. A forest of thick icicles stretches down past the side windows, bending and muddying the moonlight.
My grandparents are long asleep, but my two sisters watch me, bundled in their sleeping bags beside popping embers in the living room fireplace, protected from the sparks by a tired, wire screen.
My grandfather is like his house. Once strong and young, now his beams and timbers sag beneath the weight of long use, heavier even than the piles of snow on his roof and the fanged ice stretching down from the gutters. The Nebraska farm boy rowed for Navy. He served well in Korea. He turned a sharp mind and a bulldog jaw to a lifetime of chasing souls. Though many of his victims now carry on his work, he will not stop until his roof collapses beneath the winter.
At the window, back in my youth, I shiver again. My skin rises up in mountain ranges, but I savor the cold. This cold, this bite, and the draft I can feel ghosting through the old glass panes are all preparing me for the beautiful sleeve of warmth that is my sleeping bag. The fire pops, tempting me, but still I stand, staring at the creeping cold, marveling at the icicles. In this house, they are the winter’s front lines—a Berlin Wall raised up (or down) between hibernating life and the killing cold. This house is like its occupants. It has never held its heat selfishly. Heat is its gift to the world, and the icicles form in retaliation. Yearly, on this one winter night, when our parents leave, my grandfather stokes a fire, blocks it with a screen and throws our bags on the floor beside it. Sometimes he tips the couches onto their faces and shoves them together as a fort. Always, we are allowed to burn inappropriate things in the fire—trash mostly—and the strange dancing colors entertain while we lie on the floor, whispering.
The moon peers through tree branches, and the knobbed icicleshafts snare its light. These are icicles that threaten to reach the ground, winter fangs gnawing at the house, straining the eaves.
I move to the door and slip thin feet into oversized boots. I will not need a coat. I am cold already.
My older sister sits up. The door opens and the winter lunges in, snapping cold at my shins and arms and face, rolling invisibly across the floor to the sleeping bags.
I am outside, the door is closed, and my skin is the color of moonlight.
I cannot shiver. My joints are hardening. Lunging off the sidewalk, I hurry toward the corner of the house, to ward the greatest of the ice teeth. Snow avalanches into my boots. Needles of air, thorns of cold dig into me as I grab at the biggest icicle. A third comes away in my hands. The rest drops to the ice carnage in the drift below. Picking up a chunk, I hurl it at the remaining row of gaping teeth. A jaw breaks. Fangs tumble.
Turning, quaking, I run back to the house, back to the heat.
Flippancy toward winter, petty sneers and disrespect for the cold were important for us in those days. Cold could not be our master.
My children have a name for my Grandmother. She is Chi-Chi-Pa. They named her for the Japanese song she sings, a relic of her missionary days, a time when she could walk without struggling, and pain was not such a part of her existence. She smiles and laughs when my children steal her walker, when Spring borrows a prop from Winter.
As far back as I have memory, she has had her own funeral hymns chosen. She has love and warmth and joy, but she can’t help but anticipate the end. She is eager for the ice to fall away from her joints, for her eyes to burn bright. She has labored long. She has sons and a daughter who love and honor her. She has seen the rich harvest of fifteen grandchildren, and already thirteen great-grandchildren. She is happy, but she is eager.
When the final collapse comes, when the ice triumphs, she at least will have no truck with grief. Let the Winter come. It is the only path to Spring. The house is battered with cold, but inside there is a warmth that cannot and will not die.
Both of my sisters are up, talking, whispering to me and laughing quietly as I shut the door and kick off my boots, as the icicle shard drips in my hands.
Inset into the old fireplace, there is a strange little stove with open iron doors and a smooth iron cap. The dripping icicle goes onto the cap, and we three huddle to watch. The winter fang spins and sizzles and twists in pain while it shrinks, leaving a dark, fast-vanishing trail.
We watch until not a trace remains, until the winter’s bite has taken invisibly to the air. Then, triumphant, we shovel ourselves back into bags and stare at the fire, sure that we will not sleep before the embers do, unafraid of the winter, lulled into comfort by the warmth, lulled into sleep by its whispers.