The grassy clearing just up the road from my lane is
where I come to bathe in the summer. It is not
a thought lost on me as I stand in the clearing
looking out over the frozen river. Some weeks
before the ice had started as hand sized pieces.
It is a puzzling site from a distance if you
don't know what it is; especially if it snows
a bit & the little ice flows are capped with
small mounds of snow. With time & cold the flows
get larger and larger. Still soft & slushy, they
make a hissing, shushing sound as they rub up
against each other. If you were quiet,
and there was no wind, the hushed shhhhhhh . . . could be heard from the house at night. If cold air
keeps biting, the bigger flows run out of room to run & the river freezes over.
Since the last storm, the air has stayed bitterly cold and the river quit running altogether some days ago,
leaving a windswept waterscape of puzzled together ice. Some of it is clear and is the color
of the black, dark brown river. It is a broken, swirling, uneven mosaic of white, brown & black.
Deeply drifted snow, running along both banks, creates two thick unbroken white lines,
hemming in this frozen alley way, up & down the river as far as I can see.
Standing at the water's edge, looking through a clear
spot in the ice, I see water running beneath it;
the air bubbles being pinched between the ice &
water. Water and air squeezed along
like white lava.
Just down river of the clearing a beaver has been
gnawing on a large poplar tree since the fall and it
finally fell onto the frozen river the day before.
The tree lay where it fell, its upper limbs half
sunk into the ice. Large chunks of ice lay
strewn about on the river ice where the poplar
broke through shattering the pack.
The limbs going into the water are being jerked around like a pole with a fish on the line. The moving
river beneath stubbornly tries to carry the tree off down river. For now the effort is in vain.
Except for where the limbs have broken through, the tree lays squarely atop the ice. The butt of the trunk,
all gnawed, broken & splintered, is still perched up on the short, steep bank where it tore away
from the stump and rolled down the through the drifted snow toward the water's edge.
In the dwindling twilight a narrow brisk wind moves down the river pushing along a flock of old leaves who
nosily hop & skip across the ice. More & more leaves from along the banks are drawn into the flurry.
Some getting trapped in the downed poplar blocking the way. Most, though, hurry over & through,
only to build into a broad dervish just downstream of it. The breeze lifts off, scattering the flight, leaving
only the quiet rustle of falling leaves and the sound of the river gurgling as it gnaws away at the poplar tree.
Just as I turn to leave, there is a lone scratching
sound. Looking back out across the darkening
ice, one dry brown leaf is being gently pushed along.
It moves & stops & moves & stops as it gets coaxed
along by some invisible noiseless whisper.
A blue, rusty red light is all that is left of the day,
& the lonely leaf slowly scratches its way down river
like a mouse scurrying through the shadows.
Again I turn to leave, shivering at the sound of the
leaf alone in the dark.
Walking back up to the house, the smoke coming out
of the chimney is falling down into the yard
& fields beyond. The still night air holds the drifting smoke close to the ground, filling this bottom land
with the smell of burnt wood and coal. I can no longer smell such a mixture of twilight & fire without
feeling a coming winter storm along the banks of the South Fork.
As I turn in that night listening for
the building storm & coming snow,
there is a hot fire in the little coal
burner. Light escaping through the
small draft vents in the top door dance
around the bedroom walls. Drifting off
to sleep, I hear the lonely leaf scratching
along the river ice. The hot stove
pipe creaks and clinks.
I let go a shiver under the warm bed covers.
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