The days are warmer now, nearly forty degrees! I hauled wood today in a t-shirt, sat for a moment in the sun on an old log. The snow is wetter, glowier, it shines like white glitter in the mornings. River says the birch trees look more alive but I haven’t noticed, I don’t know this place so well. The creek is thawed now in spots, it steams in the places there are warmsprings, milky mud-holes in the snow, not really warm, just warmer than freezing, or whatever temperature it is that flowing bodies of water freeze at- which is somehow lower than freezing. And they thaw now, these waters, when it is still ten below zero in the dead of night, the shrunken snow turned to Styrofoam, again, the stars hard and bright.
I tried to walk on the river one day, one week ago. I was out by myself, had never walked on a river before. It seemed cold enough, an ice wind was blowing, my face was wrapped in grey wool herringbone, the cheerless, smart color of 19th century institutions. The river was sculpted drifts of blown snow, with a hard crust on top just thick enough for me. In places I would punch through, but it was only more snow underneath, and I imagined the river a clear brittle mass, frozen all the way to the bottom, fish trapped inside. I was looking for a cabin upriver an old man had told me about, he’d drawn me a map with a ballpoint pen when I was doing sudoku at the community center, waiting for River to get done filling out her energy assistance paperwork, a check every month cuz she cuts her own wood, carries it stick by stick through the woods in a black plastic sled. The old man wore suspenders and a big tight gut and tried to get me to eat pretzels from the big plastic barrel, offered me a soda. When I didn’t want the pretzels he told me about the cabin, drew me a sort of map- one line for the river, the other creek, a box for the cabin. Now I was out to find it walking up the river, punching through the snow in my boots, the bottom of my pantlegs pulled down tight over their tops. I didn’t get far before the sucking gray wind discouraged me, tried to dry my lungs up, freeze their moisture into an icicle for its cruel endless heart. I climbed the riverbank up into the woods, floundered around in the deep loose stuff, stuck my mittened fingers on the bare wild rosebushes when I grabbed out for them, reminded myself to ask River to teach me to snowshoe, walked back down the river to little house.
We went back again a few days later, River and I. She wasn’t so sure, said it was dangerous to go walking on the river in March. She told me about the warmsprings that ran from the creek, the fast moving water that never froze, the fishes. I dug down deep with my boot to show her it was frozen and instead I found wet slush, some creeping water. We walked back the way we’d come. I was glad I hadn’t fallen in the river.
Apparently soon it’ll melt, nearly all at once, and crack and scream and break and flood and for a week or two all the world will be ice floes and we’ll be stuck on either this side of the river or the other one. And then we’ll cross in River’s little motorboat with the imperfect engine that gets wet by magic and then she sets the sparkplugs on fire to fix it, and it works.
Just watch the river, says River, and be careful. And if it’s sketchy one day and you really need to cross just cut a really long pole, and carry the pole horizontally like you’re walking a tightrope, as you walk across the river. That way if you fall in the pole will catch you, and you’ll have something to hold on to. And if you fall in you’ll need to THROW yourself up on the bank, you can’t really pull yourself up. Just think of a seal, and THROW yourself up onto the ice.
Yesterday we went into town, a few hours’ drive, so I could get old embroidered hankies and workshirts from the thrift store, and a pair of faded realtree overalls. We went to the bookstore afterwards, got books on gardening in Alaska, animal tracks in Alaska, ending rape culture, and sex magick, respectively. We also bought food supplies- pinto beans, sardines, mayonnaise, precious celery, precious cabbage, precious carrots, one sprig of broccoli, and delicious prunes. And a roast chicken, to eat in the snow. It felt like Christmas on the drive back to little house, all our new things piled in the car, and River was telling me about growing up on trapline, about eating the crispy fat of beaver tails, about her mother washing diapers in snow she had melted and boiled, about evenings by kerosene-light dipping strike-anywhere matches in candlewax to waterproof them. They had film canisters of these matches, said River, stuck in everything- their coat pockets, the dogsled, the bag they took trapping. In case we fell through the ice, said River. You should have one in your pocket, she said, looking at me. You should always carry a canister of waterproof matches in your pocket. So you can build a fire, if you fall through the ice.
I have a job till the end of May, now, it’s not full time but time enough, enough time to get me thinking about things I can do with the money when I have it- buy a car off craigslist, and old Subaru with a red body and a blue hood, maybe, or something I can live in, although where I want to live is here. River’s been working on resetting the timer in my brain, that little ticking hand that gets stuck on the three-month place and goes off, again and again, like a broken watch. She’s been doing it via this sort of hokey-pokey acupressure energy therapy that I can’t even get into here because the sheer woo-wooness of it would break the internetz. Truth is it’s not hokey, it’s amazing and some dude thought of it once and it totally works, but my heart is not up to the task of defending something so crackpot-sounding and hard to explain. But basically I try and conjure up the feeling I get when three months have gone by and my alarm goes off and suddenly I’m so sick of everything and life has no color and there’s no point in doing anything I used to like and the only thing that makes me feel normal again is quitting everything and leaving. I squint my eyes and conjure up this feeling and put my arm out and River pushes down on it like in that playground game where someone holds your arms down at your sides while you try and push out and then when they let go your arms float up by magic. And then she does it again, only this time my arm just goes down right away. And then I tap on my upper lip. And then I do it again, only that feeling of restlessness is a little harder to invoke this time, and after my arm goes down I tap on my collarbone. And then the third time I can’t hardly feel even the smallest bit of wanderlust, that part of me just feels so faint and far away, and I tap the ridged bone under my eyes. And then the fourth time I can’t think of it at all, and then we’re done and I start to sob uncontrollably, and all I can think of is my mother, and a gray and silty beach, and the sound of seagulls. And after I stop crying I feel like my brain is filled with sunshine, and for the rest of the day I am incapable of having a single negative thought.
River learned about this form of therapy when she was in college and had PTSD so bad she thought she’d go nuts. She went to this man who taught her to tap on every bad memory she could find until all the bad memories were dull like unpolished metal and she was cured. She’s going to try and cure my bearanoia, next, so I’m not so afraid to go out and pee in the snow at night, and only time will tell if my wanderlust is gone forever, my clock come unstuck.
The dog’s tongue is sticking out, just a bit. He likes to lay on River’s bed with the tip of his tongue out, all pink and dried up, like it’s too big to fit in his mouth. We put some moose cartilage in his dish earlier, from the roadkill moose stew that River made. There were vertebrae in the stew, and an esophagus, and some arteries, and spinal cord that looked like bright white worms that River tried to get me to eat, and a femur full of marrow. We put the last of River’s frozen vegetables in it too, turnips and purple cabbage and soft dirty carrots from the galvanized tub in the floor of the shed. There’s a whitefish in the shed too, one last whitefish, lying frozen on a plywood table in the dusty light from the window. We’ve got to eat it all up, says River, before all the world thaws and ceases to be a great freezer. I can’t wait for the snow to recede so I can see all the junk that’s lying behind the cabin, the old wooden boxes and metal tubs and cracked plastic buckets. I can’t wait to see the forest floor, the leaves on the birch trees, I can’t wait to see summer come hot and fast like a fire of dry spruce wood with the damper and the vent wide open.