A winter's walk
All night the relentless wind drove a steady gale against the shutters, setting up a fearsome banging that persisted until after dawn, burying everything in a blanket of swirling snow.
It's all I can do to open the storm door, and there's a crunch and a squeak as my boot breaks through the icy crust and makes that first full imprint on the top step.
As the chill air rushes suddenly into the warm kitchen, the cat peers up at me between bites of chicken liver, wondering why anyone would leave such a cozy place and go out into such a terrible day. I leave her to contemplate the vagaries of human nature. By the time I have made my way around the corner of the house, over the slippery, snow-covered rocks, she will have cleaned her whiskers and chosen a nice overstuffed chair for a quiet, undisturbed nap.
Leaning against the side of the house, which is encased in ice and snow and overhanging icicles from an earlier thaw and freeze, is a broken broom handle. It leaves a trailing mark as I pull it from the drift. A good walking stick.
Flopping ears and a lolling tongue bound up the driveway, or what there is left of the white outline of it, and my neighbor's dog leaps over the small hedge and lands heavily against my leg, nearly knocking me over. It isn't a miscalculation. His ecstasy is contagious.
''Run! Get it, boy!''
His tongue laggles out the side of his mouth as I throw the broomstick as far as I can. It's a poor aerodynamic shape for such a toss. It lands about a yard away. A better walking stick. The dog lands on it in a scrambling heap.
Lifting my boots high, I try to make even footprints in the crust, but the icy coating sends out splinters and streaks all around my foot, no matter how carefully I step. The dog grows impatient with this silly game. He buries his nose in the snow and suddenly hurls a mouthful of the white stuff into the air.
Oh, is that so, I say, and stoop over to make a snowball. The moist fluff packs quickly, and water oozes into the fingers of my woolen gloves, but the excitement of the dog as he springs ahead is worth a moment of cold hands.
Snow and ice cover everything. The stone fences that run as far as the eye can see, and the trees that shivered during the long night, now stand straight and serene in morning's glow. Each twig is decked in a gleaming coat of transparent enamel, and some of the smaller branches bow under the weight.
But we are not bowed.
We romp through the woods and invite the birds to join us. One feathered onlooker betrays his presence by scuffing down some snow from an overhead branch. Then a sudden scampering in the bush dislodges a tiny cloud of snowflakes. We've interrupted some small individual out for a morning stroll.
As I climb over the stone fence, I gave a whistle and a ''Go get it!'' and toss a small branch into the meadow beyond the fence as far as I can. It's a mighty heave - all I can muster - and it cartwheels against the sky, just making the edge of the clearing. The dog leaps and grabs the awkward limb in his mouth and proudly prances around me in a circle, his head held high, holding the branch as loftily as possible. But the snow is too deep, and the dog knows little about balancing a branch; one end of it traces an erratic line in the snow, slowing the dog down as he runs. The sun streams brilliantly across the glistening hard meadow and chips of broken ice are caught by a fresh breeze and skitter end over end along the slick surface.
Across the meadow now, we follow a path that leads through the trees and shrubs to my neighbor's farm. I stop for a moment to study the strange designs made by the storm. I glide my bare hand over a smooth ice-clad branch. As the sun strikes it, little jewels appear.
The dog has his own ideas about a walk in the woods on a snowy morning. There he is, running in a snowdrift, chest deep. He stops and pants and looks at me intently. So I throw the stick for him again and again.
I surreptitiously reach into my pocket and pull out a sugar doughnut - I hadn't expected company for breakfast - but it is like the clanging of a Chinese gong. The dog drops the stick and his eyes glisten with anticipation.
Yes, I say, I know you're there. I break the cruller in half, getting sugar all over my gloves, and the dog bolts his half down in one gulp. Hey, I say, but he bounds back for more. I take a small bite and give him the rest. Next time I must remember to eat my half first.
We're nearly to my neighbor's farm. There he is, in fact, dressed in a red-and-black plaid shirt with trousers jammed into knee boots. He's pulled the earflaps down on his cap and looks a trifle embarrassed. When I came upon him, he was standing by a stone fence, staring out over the ice field.
''Out a little early, aren't you?'' he says, with half a smile. He feels uncomfortable that I have found him admiring nature's beauty. Suddenly I feel as if we are the only two people in the whole world.
''Morning,'' I say cheerily, but not too cheerily. My neighbor nods his Yankee earflaps and walks away toward a woodpile. All that is necessary to say has been said. The dog runs after his master and leaves me alone again with the morning.
As I trudge back to the house, shafts of pink sunlight follow me, dodging in and out through the trees, lighting the snow field beyond. My fingers are feeling the cold now, and as I stamp the snow from my feet and open the kitchen door, I hear a pan sizzling on the stove and the air is sull of frying bacon.
I wonder if I could ever live anywhere else but in New England.