Tuesday, January 14, 2020

A JANUARY THAW - by Dallas Lore Sharp

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It was the twenty-first of January, the dead of winter ! The stubborn cold had had the out of doors under lock and key since Thanksgiving Day. We were having a hard winter, and the novelty of the thing was beginning to wear off, to us grown-ups anyhow, and to the birds and wild things which for weeks had found scant picking over the ice and snow. But I was snug enough in my upstairs study, when suddenly the door opened and four bebundled boys stood before me, with an axe, a long-handled shovel, a basket, and, evidently, a big secret.

“Come on, father,” they whispered (as if she hadn’t heard them clomping with their kit through the house!), “it’s mother’s birthday tomorrow, and we’re going after the flowers.”

“Going to chop them down with the axe or dig them up with the shovel?” I asked. “Going to give her a nice bunch of frost-flowers? Better get the ice-saw then, for we’ll need a big block of ice to stick their stems in.”

“Hurry,” they answered, dropping my hip-boots on the floor. “Here are your scuffs.”

I hurried, and soon the five of us, in single file were out on the meadow, the dry snow squeaking under our feet, while the little winds, capering spitefully about us, blew the snow dust into our faces or catching up the thin drifts sent them whirling like waltzing wraiths of dancers over the meadow’s glittering floor.

I was beginning to warm up a little, but it was a numb, stiff world about us, and bleak and stark, a world all black and white, for there was not even blue overhead. The white underfoot ran off to meet the black of the woods, and the woods in turn stood dark against a sky so heavy with snow that it seemed to shut us into some vast snow cave. A crow flapping over drew a black pencil line across the picture, the one sign of life besides ourselves that we could see. Only small boys are likely to leave their firesides on such a day, only small boys, and those men who can’t grow up. Yet never before, perhaps, had even they gone out on such a tramp with an axe, a shovel, and a basket, to pick flowers !

Suddenly one of the boys dashed off, crying: “Let’s go see if the muskrats have gone to bed yet!” and, trailing after him, we made for a little mound that stood about three feet high out in the meadow, more like a big ant hill or a small, snow piled haycock, than a lodge of any sort. Only a practiced eye could have seen it, and only a lover of bleak days would have known what might be alive in there.

We crept up softly and surrounded the lodge; then with the axe we struck the frozen, flinty roof several ringing blows. Instantly one-two-three muffled, splashy “plunks” were heard as three little muskrats, frightened out of their naps and half out of their wits, plunged into the open water of their doorways from off their damp, but cosy couch.

It was a mean thing to do, but not very mean as wild animal life goes. And it did warm me up so, in spite of the chilly plunge the little sleepers took! Chilly to them? Not at all and that is why it warmed me. To hear the splash of water down under the two feet of ice and snow that sealed the meadow like a sheet of steel! To hear the sounds of stirring life, and to picture that snug, steaming bed on the top of a tough old tussock, with its open water-doors leading into freedom and plenty below! “Why, it won’t be long before the arbutus is in bloom,” I began to think. I looked at the axe and the shovel and said to myself, “Well, the boys may know what they are doing after all, though three muskrats do not make a spring.”

We had cut back to our path, but had not gone ten paces along it before another boy was off to the left in the direction of a piece of maple swamp.

“He’s going to see if ‘Hairy’ is in his hole,” they informed me, and we all took after him. The “hole” was almost twenty-five feet up in a dead oak stub that had blown off and lodged against a live tree. The meadow had been bleak and wind-swept, but the swamp was naked and dead, filled with ice and touched with a most forbidding emptiness and stillness. I was getting cold again, when the boy ahead tapped lightly on the old stub, and at the empty hole appeared a head, a fierce black and white head, a sharp, long beak, a flashing eye, as “Hairy” came forth to fight for his castle. He was too wise a fighter to tackle all of us, however, so, slipping out, he spread his wings and galloped off with a loud, wild call that set all the swamp to ringing.

It was a thrilling, defiant challenge that set my blood to leaping again. Black and white, he was a part of the picture, but there was a scarlet band at the nape of his neck that, like his call, had fire in it and the warmth of life.

As his woodpecker shout went booming through the hollow halls of the swamp, it woke a blue jay who squalled back from a clump of pines, then wavering out into the open on curious wings, flashing ice-blue and snow-white wings, he dived into the covert of pines again; and faint, as if from beyond the swamp, the cheep of chickadees! Here a little troop of them came to peep into the racket, curious but not excited, discussing the disturbance of the solemn swamp in that desultory, sewing bee fashion of theirs, as if nipping off threads and squinting through needle-eyes between their running comment.

They, too, were grey and black, grey as the swamp beeches, black as the spotted bark of the birches. And how tiny! But...

“Here was this atom in full breath
Hurling defiance at vast death
This scrap of valour just for play
Fronts the north wind in waistcoat grey.”

And this, also, is what Emerson says he sings,

“Good day, good sir!
Fine afternoon, old passenger!
Happy to meet you in these places
Where January brings few faces.”

And as I brought to mind the poet’s lines, I forgot to shiver, and quite warmed up again to the idea of flowers, especially as one of the boys just then brought up a spray of green holly with a burning red berry on it!

We were tacking again to get back on our course, and had got into the edge of the swamp among the pines when the boy with the shovel began to study the ground and the trees with a searching eye, moving forward and back as if trying to find the location of something.

“Here it is,” he said, and set in digging through the snow at the foot of a big pine. I knew what he was after. It was gold thread, and here was the only spot, in all the woods about, where we had ever found it a spot not larger than the top of a dining-room table.

Soon we had a fistful of the delicate plants with their evergreen leaflets and long, golden thread-like roots, that mixed with the red and green of the partridge berry in a finger-bowl makes a cheerful little winter bouquet. And here with the gold thread, about the butt of the pine, was the partridge berry, too, the dainty vines strung with the beads which seemed to burn holes in the snow that had covered and banked the tiny fires.

For this is all that the ice and snow had done. The winter had come with wind enough to blow out every flame in the maple tops, and with snow enough to smother every little fire in the peat bogs of the swamp; but peat fires are hard to put out, and here and everywhere the winter had only banked the fires of summer. Dig down through the snow ashes anywhere and the smouldering fires of life burst into blaze.

But the boy with the axe had gone on ahead. And we were off again after him, stopping to get a great armful of black alder branches that were literally aflame with red berries.

We were climbing a piny knoll when almost at our feet, jumping us nearly out of our skins, and warming the very roots of our hair, was a burrrr—burrrr—burrrr—burrrr—four big partridges, as if four big snow mines had exploded under us, hurling bunches of brown on graceful scaling wings over the dip of the hills!

On we went up over the knoll and down into a low bog where, in the summer, we gather high-bush blueberries, the boy with the axe leading the way and going straight across the ice toward the middle of the bog.

My eye was keen for signs, and soon I saw he was heading for a sweet-pepper bush with a broken branch. My eye took in another bush off a little to the right with a broken branch. The boy with the axe walked up to the broken sweet-pepper bush and drew a line on the ice between it and the bush off on the right, pacing along this line till he got the middle; then he started at right angles from it and paced off a line to a clump of cat-tails sticking up through the ice of the flooded bog. Halfway back on this line he stopped, threw off his coat and began to chop a hole about two feet square in the ice. Removing the block while I looked on, he rolled up his sleeve and reached down the length of his arm through the icy water.

“Give me the shovel,” he said, “it’s down here,” and with a few deep, dexterous cuts soon brought to the surface a beautiful cluster of pitcher plants, the strange, almost uncanny leaves filled with muddy water, but every pitcher of them intact, shaped and veined and tinted by a master potter’s hand.

We wrapped it all carefully in newspapers, and put it in the basket, starting back with our bouquet as cheerful and as full of joy in the season as we could possibly have been in June.

No, I did not say that we love January as much as we love June. January here in New England is a mixture of rheumatism, chillblains, frozen water pipes, mittens, overshoes, blocked trains, and automobile troubles by the hoodsful, whereas any automobile will run in June. I have not room in this essay to tell all that June is; besides, this is a story of January.

What I was saying is that we started home all abloom with our pitcher plants, and gold thread, and partridge berry, and holly, and black alder, all aglow inside with our vigorous tramp, with the grey, grave beauty of the landscape, with the stern joy of meeting and beating the cold, and with the signs of life of the cosy muskrats in their lodge beneath the ice cap on the meadow; with the hairy woodpecker in his deep, warm hole in the heart of the tree; with the red-warm berries in our basket; with the chirping, the conquering chickadee accompanying us and singing

“For well the soul, if stout within,
Can arm impregnably the skin;
And polar frost my form defied
Made of the air that blows outside.”

And actually as we came over the bleak meadow one of the boys said he thought he heard a song sparrow singing; and I thought the pussywillows by the brook had opened a little since we passed them coming out; and we all declared the weather had changed, and that there were signs of a break-up. But the thermometer stood at fifteen above zero when we got home, one degree colder than when we started! So we concluded that the January thaw must have come off inside of us; and if the colour of the four glowing faces is any sign, that was the correct reading of the weather.

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