New Year's Eve is winter's antidote. It burns the frosty night with dazzling lights. It lures even quiet homebodies into the damp, breathy warmth of sudden crowds.
On the eve of 1995, when family friends invite us to go skating on a remote pond, doubts prick my holiday anticipation. When the shortest days fade to black, the temperature in Vermont plummets. The arctic darkness - devoid of lights, the crowd of warm bodies, and the music of noisy cheers - seems an uneventful exit from the old year and an unpromising entry into the new. I can romance the cold with the hardiest of Vermonters, but a New Year's Eve way outdoors - in the chilled hollow between the Adirondacks and the Green Mountains - requires Olympian resolve and a technology well beyond down jackets and reflective silver space socks.
Nevertheless, with bodies mummied-up in layers of sweaters and long underwear, our two families waddle out into the black pitch of winter's moonless night. Heading away from town, we drive toward Shelburne Pond. For a week, it's been too cold for snow. But the old, tired snow still glistens as the car lights pass over the fields. We turn down the gravel road that leads through woods to a beach now frozen into concrete.
Pulling as close as possible to the pond, we leave the headlights on to illumine a patch of ice. With the slam-bang-slam of the car doors reverberating behind us, I reluctantly give up the heated cocoon and put my mind on the fire, the marshmallows, the s'mores, and the skating - in that order. As the boys and fathers lace up their skates, Bonnie and I grope in a thicket to gather scrub wood. Under our boots, the condensed snow squeaks like loose pine flooring. Ice in hollowed depressions shatters. When brushed by our shoulders, low branches crack. Twigs snap. But all this snapping, crepitating wood already sounds like what it will become: a crackling fire.
As we emerge, arms laden with odd bits of wood, I notice the boys have escaped the patch of light and are skating off into the darkness. I shout a warning, unheeded; they call back, laughing. Over the hard, black-as-flint lake, the sable heavens settle like the shake of a blanket over a bed. My eyes grow accustomed to the sky. High above, millions of tiny ice crystals reflect in a haze the light from the town. Now the darkness seems light enough.
The sweet smell of roasting marshmallows pulls the boys to the beach. They comb the woods for sticks to poke in the fire. My son returns with a lance-sized beam. When its tip turns red-hot, he skates off into the darkness and waves it like a flag. Surprised, we all whoop and holler at the neon loops and squiggles. When the tip grows dim, he strikes it on the ice to knock off the burned portions. A fist-sized ember breaks loose, and one of the boys kicks it. As it speeds across the ice, it flares in the wind. A single thought pops into three minds: The boys grab their hockey sticks. The rest of us stay by the fire, tantalized by an unexpected sound-and-light show. In slow rhythms, steel blades cut the ice and rip the dense stillness. It occurs to me that I have never heard this sound in the rink. It must take the combination of brittle cold, silent night, and the muffling of pine woods to accomplish this kind of music.
As visual accompaniment, a phantom ember blazes over the lake, thrust by an unseen force. It slows, fades as it gasps for air. Then, taking flight again, it reignites. I try to think back on all my New Year's Eves. Surely, I have never seen light do this. When one ember dies, the tip of the burning stick bounces against the ice and produces another glowing puck.
Before we spectators are ready to quit, the hockey game falls silent. Just as we start to protest, the stick begins to wave in the air again. This time, it does more than squiggle and loop. It writes. The first letter wanes before the last can appear. But in the darkness the images linger in our minds longer than they float in the air.
One by one, we see our names materialize: "Rob" over the rock on the left, "John" in deep center, "Bonnie" drifting toward the pines on the right. By the time "Susan" appears, the sky seems to me a place crowded with unseen names - infinitely more than our own.
Too soon, the fiery pen and writers are spent. We let the beach coals die down. Then we douse them with snow and gather up the leftovers: a few stiff marshmallows, cold hot chocolate, and something to keep - images of fire on ice and our names burnt together into the first night.