I walked out on the lake ice last night in the darkness. I'd been too long laid back in my recliner, hiding under a blanket full of snowy prints of deer and elk, drinking copious amounts of water and chaga and trying to kick the last shards of this cold. Even over Netflix, even over Pandora I could hear the lake speaking. It's amazing when the temperature starts to drop and the ice begins to crack; the sound reverberates across the landscape impossibly basso profundo, or cracks like a whip across the withers of a watery horse. It distracts like an intruder, demands to be heard. So I bundled up and walked out on the ice.
Cresting the ridge of sand down by the boathouse, walking by feel as my toes through pac boots found the waterline, then the flat ice that I could not see, I thought of Wendell Berry's poem:
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and learn that the dark, too, blooms and sings
and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
Yard lights and headlights and Christmas lights across the far side of the ice didn't illuminate the snow in front of my feet, so I was walking by faith -- faith that it's been cold enough for all those open spots to freeze over, faith that the seven or eight feet of frigid water below me would stay below me and I would be allowed to walk on the water, faith that I would in fact return to my recliner this evening. There are no guarantees in this life.
I stood out there for twenty minutes, I suppose, and the ice went silent for a long while. Then a crack started far on the south end of the lake and I heard it travel, heard it work its way north, then east, until it came right across the entrance to my bay. A couple times the cracks came like rifle shots immediately under my feet, which made my heart leap and the hairs on the back of my neck stand straight out.
At one point I looked upward and there, working its way west, was Cygnus, the Northern Cross. That constellation and I have a long history, and it makes me smile to see it hanging above the earth, to see the change of seasons evident in where that swan is flying this month. It's an odd perspective to stand like that, to see my life in proportion to the endurance of that massive cross, the shape that hung in the evenings over Homer when he was writing the Iliad, over Abraham when he was first seeing Canaan. I'm a spark flying up from the fire, glowing for a few seconds. Cygnus hangs like eternity overhead.
I'd been restless all day, restless with unfulfilled longings and unrequited dreams and old wounds, restless with the shards of this slowly retreating cold hanging like lead weights in my chest, restless with questions about futures and possibilities. I'd been wishing for phone calls and emails and text messages, for unexpected visitors showing up at the door, but my day had been silent and solitary in a necessary but uncomfortable way. I turned back to the shore and through the oaks I could see the lamp, my reading lamp next to the recliner, like a beacon through the picture window, summoning me to warmth and life. By starlight I walked back along my tracks, stumbling up the shore, unused to uneven ground, climbed the hill through the trees by feel of the rising ground, the dry leaves and roots under my feet. In the yellow glare of my porch light I saw pressed down on top of the impermanent snow a fresh set of prints, a coyote that had walked alongside my cabin, hunting alone in the snow. Stared a moment toward the forest, pondering his trail.
The front door opened into a rush of warmth and welcome, the smells of a cabin in winter. Unbundle the necessaries -- overcoat, hat, gloves, boots. I stood at the sink, surveyed my kitchen, washed the day's dishes, stood peering out the glass into the cold, looking over that coyote's tracks, stood perched between temperate summer indoors and the December cold on the other side of my windowpane. Turned off the light of my reading lamp. Turned toward the lake again, looking out my living room window. Stood for just a moment feeling the ice through the darkness, hearing again its boom and crack, and went content to bed.