Fragments of winter

This year the rains were very gentiel in northern California. We saw a few days of steady downpour, but none of the long weeks of battering like last year, which left a large pond at the low point of our countryand cre" ated a wonderfully crowded and boisterous frog and toad convention.

Below the snow line, as usual, the mountains, hills and valleys turned a deep , water fed green that has the power over me -- with one glance -- to mitigate all human problems. Out the living room window, framed by a poplar tree, a fence and a weathered well house, there is a fine, craggy mountain which sits there every day of the year like the sleeping back of a paleolithic brute.

The valley sweeps up to the creature and runs over its tummy like mottled fur. To the right, another mountain, rounded and strangely bare except for a few trees, is covered with a scruffy green blanket full of holes. Once, on the coldest night, the peak was dusted with white, which disappeared the next day by noon.

We vowed to heat ourselves only by the warmth of the fireplace and made it through the winter on two cords of wood. We stopped our electric bill by more than half. The wood was no small purchase, but we figured we came out ahead. Certainly we ranked high on coziness and that indefinable warmth of the eye which comes with the crackle of flame and oak night after night.

Ghost stories were popular. One night my daughter and I turned out the lights and sat together on the couch. I filled the room with a perilous tale of a lost and hungry boy stumbling across a dark house on a steep hill on a rainy night. Danger lurked at every step he took and every creak he heard.Near the breath-stopping climax of my story, something went THUMP very loudly near ourm front door. A split second of silence, then a rush to turn on the lights.

My daughter's eyes were as a large as tablespoons. She asked how I had done that, since I was next to her on the couch and the THUMP came by the front door. I whispered to her, "I didn't do it." Her face was worth a thousand words. I turned on the porch light and opened the door slowly. Nothing but darkness for miles around. The mystery of the THUMP remains today.

Sweaters were popular, too, thick ones with high, bushy collars to pull up to your ears and nose at appropriate times. In between rains the night sky was the usual incomparable scattering of diamonds just out of reach. Cold and brilliant , they sparkled together in awesome silence. We couldn't help feeling small, and then big and safe, because we understood the orderliness of the universe, and then small again because the stars have no measures -- or switch to turn them on or off.

The odors in the wetness of winter are layered and haunting. I leave by the kitchen door and step into the coldness, then through the atrium and through the garage to the wood pile near a single light bulb.

Rain drips from all ledges and points. The wetness has coaxed a steamy sweetness from pine and manzanita and poplar. I stand still and inhale. Smoke from the chimney interferes, then drifts away. A spider crosses my hand, escaping from the wood I hold, and drops quietly to earth. "I tell you," I say to the Shakespeare in the darkness, "I would but botle this to open in the blaze of summer heat." The spider laughed and hur ried back into the woodpile.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.