Uncle Bob’s cabin in December is the coldest place on Earth. The temperature might get lower somewhere else, it even gets lower here later in winter, but the shock of the first frost, in the heart of the longest nights of the year, puts a shiver in my bones that nothing can relieve except another warm body.
As the logs give themselves over to the flame, the frozen contents of my head thaw, the congestion melts away, and air begins to circulate through my skull again, filling it with familiar aromas. It isn’t just the smoky fireplace that triggers torrents of memories, it is mothballs, and cedar, and something that comes out of the cold stones when they are transformed with warmth. There is moisture locked in these rocks that has been waiting since prehistoric times for this particular fire to draw it out. Traces of an incense that I’ve only ever smelled at Uncle Bob’s linger in every room of his house.
Small sounds – dripping and clicking and ticking – take on their own familiar life and I realize that I’ve been carrying pieces of this cabin around in my head for pretty much my whole life. I get up from the fire and stand in the middle of the great room, arms raised even at my shoulders, eyes closed, and I listen to myself breathing and pulsing. When I find the space and the silence I have been looking for, that I promised myself would set me free, I open my eyes. None of the things I came to escape were left behind, least of all Christina.
Waves of memory pull me under, and even though my treasury of Uncle Bob’s Cabin Memories stretches back to childhood, the only memories that come to me are of Christina. The first time I brought her here we made love in front of this fireplace. The floor was too hard for her back so she got on top. When a spark from the fire popped onto her flesh she let out a yip but barely broke her rhythm. I gently rubbed the welt on her side while we finished together. Her sweaty hair was all over my face. I smell it.
The shadowy images of our fire-lit bodies fade with the last of the logs. The wind breaking against the windows and doors sends a chill through every part of my skeleton. I have a strange premonition that I have been sentenced, or that I have sentenced myself, to the intolerable cruelty of solitary confinement. The deepest horrors live in emptiness.
I step out onto Uncle Bob’s deck to get some more wood, to get some fresh air, and to get stoned. The air is fresher but is filled with just as many memories. The air is thin and too cold for any trees except the evergreens, still, undying memories fill my nostrils with a sweeter aroma that only comes in the Spring. I smell the thaw that sends rivulets of water, so pure it’s almost cruel, down the sides of mountains that were created to carry them. I see Christina in the water. She is barefoot, in a bathing suit, under the Kaaterskill Falls. I hear the sounds of her splashing and laughing. I see her little fingers stretching up through the Falls to Heaven and, from my perspective, touching it.
That was the last time she came here.
I see now that it wasn’t very long in the grand scheme of things before I became, of necessity, ordinary to her. Ordinary was the one thing that she couldn’t stand. I don’t blame her; I knew what an ordinary life had done to her. She told me that she loved me – it wasn’t that she didn’t love me. It was that the way she loved me wasn’t the same way I loved her. Hers had limits. She persuaded me that the longer we stayed together, the harder it was going to be for both of us, on the unavoidable day when we woke up from our sweet dream.
I see the moon poke its face out from behind the clouds. In its soft light float the first few tentative flakes of a storm that will cover the region in a layer of white that can be measured with a yardstick. I don’t add any more wood to the fire. Instead I go inside and close the doors, close the drapes, close the fire’s flue and grate. I take the two fattest quilts I can find, because I knew the bed will be ice, and lay them lengthwise and sideways across the empty bed. I slide between the frozen sheets and rub my spreading goosebumps. From the bed I can hear the fire dying and the house contracting without its warmth. I brought a collection of English poetry with me and try to concentrate on the flow of its words while my skin warms the sheets. I absorb the blows of each poem, waiting for my mind to grow weak enough to drift into dreams. Finally, I land on this one, by Louis Macneice:
It being in this life forbidden to move
Too lightly, people, over-cautious, contrive
To save their lives by weighting them with dead
Habits, hopes, beliefs, anything not alive,
Till all this ballast of unreality sinks
The boat and all our thinking gurgles down
Into the deep sea that never thinks.
Which being so, it is not surprising that
Some in their impatience jump the rails,
Refusing to wait the communal failure, preferring
The way the madman or the meteor fails,
Deceiving themselves to think their death uncommon,
Avid to possess the unpossessable sea
As a man in spring desires to die in woman.
I turn off the light and let the darkness take over. I feel dreams moving in, anxious to have their say. Then I sink into that black silence so familiar to poets and undertakers.