Monday, January 19, 2009

Above the Chena

You would need one of the many Athabaskan words for winter to adequately describe the depth of cold. Perhaps the word "heyii" will do. Some days, the thermometer outside my bedroom window barely climbed above 68 below. At noon, the weak sun threw beams above the Chena River and dashed the skies with the color of roses, but not high enough so you could see its yellow disc. The frozen river was filled with the color of blood and the trees, clad with ice for months now, took in all the available light and glimmered like glass. Then, an hour later, it was pitch black again.

I was living in a three-story log house built by a Scottish surgeon at the top of Puffin Place, just beyond Farmer's Loop Road. In the summer, you could play golf on the carpeted excuse for a course that wrapped around the birch tree forest. But this was winter, and the course presented long fairways of crusted snow where an occasional raven, fat and jet black, sat alone gazing into the fading light.

The doctor had taken the winter off. He flew away to the warm veldt of central Africa, leaving me to care for the house, to keep the furnace fueled and lit, the circular driveway plowed, and to feed the tanks of tropical fish and the doctor's golden retriever. Even the heated garage was freezing cold. Once I dropped a bottle of distilled water on the concrete floor and it shattered. By the time I returned with a mop, the water had formed a sheet of ice.

You could feel the moisture in your eyes begin to freeze the moment you walked outside, and your sinuses would crackle. You left your car running when you stopped anywhere for fear it might not fire up when you returned. Or, you plugged the car into an electrical outlet to heat your oil and radiator while you were gone. You packed your trunk with extra clothing and a sleeping bag to keep you warm in a breakdown. It was illegal to drive by a motorist stranded by the side of the road.

Steam rose out of the Fairbanks heating plant, but refused to rise into the frozen sky. It hovered like a white anvil just hundreds of feet over town. And you pasted plastic sheets into your car windows to form a layer of air between the inside of the car and the frozen glass. It was like peering out a porthole of a submarine into a foggy sea when you drove.

On days when the temperatures climbed into the minus 30s, I bundled up and took Goldie for a walk. He loved the snow and scurried around the darkened yard of mid-day after crows. You even left your garbage bags piled in the open yard. In minutes anything you left inside them would freeze, rather than rot, and had little allure for passing moose or arctic fox.

That winter we would drive up Goldstream Road far enough out of town to see the aurora without the haze of city light. We'd sit in the idling car, rubbing our hands in the blast from the heater, fortifying ourselves with Russian vodka, then risking five minutes outside to watch the curtains of blue and pink light that stretched across the entire sky from horizon to horizon. When you stood beneath the corona, the descending light seemed to originate directly overhead, with veils of particles streaming down around you as millions of glowing starflakes. Four of five minutes, then you'd hurry back into the car to defrost your eyebrows.

Some days I would take Goldie with me as I skated up the dogsled trail in my cross-country skiis. Even with layers of polypro and down, it was cold. Once, in 20 below temperatures on a clear, dark day, I had overestimated my stamina and on the way back, barely a mile from home, I was exhausted. It took another hour to get back, taking a step, then resting, then rubbing my mittens up and down my legs to get the feeling back into them, then taking another stride.

Some days were just plain stupefying and I sat in the dark vastness of the heated house listening to the bubbling aquarium, gazing out the plate glass window at the endless whited trunks of birch trees where they faded into the forest.

In the early spring, the sun crept back above the horizon like a lost friend and hovered as hope for longer days. One morning it actually occurred to me that I had survived the winter, and I fell to my knees in the snow and wept.

But the doctor had been gone much too long, and I had discovered the black medical bags he had stashed throughout the upper floors of the house, the bottles and bottles and bottles of pain pills he had prescribed in his own name, a sufficient number of bottles that you would hardly notice if a few were missing. And in the springtime, I was missing too, and it would take more than the re-emergence of a tired sun to help me feel warm again.


Mari said...

Everytime I read one of your entries, I hold my breath.

tangobaby said...

You have lived more lives in one than so many people. Your stories are so vivid and beautiful, every one.

dutchbaby said...

Tangobaby sent me to your site. This is a breathtaking entry - you write so beautifully!

Even though it is a balmy 60 degrees here, I am still going to have a cup of hot chocolate right now.

Sandra said...

Wow. I live where it's cold, so I understand those temperatures, almost. Wow.