At the top of the world, winter winds take down so many you find them bent along the highway, en route to Schutte’s Bar, flannel spanning their trunks but limbs crippled, stiff on the snow, shoved off and piled in culverts like slain lumberjacks. How he made it to town in the snowstorm I don’t pretend to understand.
The ancestors say when a snake crosses your path, prepare for a visitor. Blessed be the warmth that encourages snakes! The peninsula pummels you with this cold-blooded lesson: hibernate. We who live here know how to drink, sleep, and go to work the next morning. Do it again. Do it again. Repeat. We don’t lay ourselves out in the weather. We mock the land’s cold heart, but clutch to our breast its painful beauty like a child or favorite sick uncle. We brag, “Dying is the one way we’ll leave you,” swearing allegiance to forgotten adits, Superior’s ocean, and rough history.
Beyond the miners’ ghosts’ hearing, and in local haunts, we downed Everclear and saluted the recreationists for their tunnel-vision; we took their money at the ski lifts and when they gassed up their snowmobiles. Bruno lived year-long on what he made in five months towing anything with a motor dead or stuck in the snow. Bruno bought us all a round.
I made my tongue notch into words. “But we must not dis all strangers.” I heard myself eloquent; they heard me drunk. “There may be an alternate view.”
Oh, the shout-downs. “Pour our Glenda one more,” Bruno declared, hugging my neck, affectionate big-brother-moose. The crowd of flannel and jeans and muck-a-lucks, their puffy coats piled at the door, they roared and pounded bar top and tables with their shot glasses and bottles.
“Another through the gullet,” someone yelled. I felt a foolish smile. I had a place in my heart for this bar of androgyny, no one love and an embracing fondness for all. My people. They knew me and mine, and I knew their families back to the miners’ lists, whose kin were buried where and who trudged about lugging too many memories.
“Climb a rock pile and look around,” my mother used to say, directing me by my shoulders out of the house. My friends said their parents, too, wanted them off their computers or away from TV. Mine just wanted to light up in peace.
Huffing atop the Central Mine rocks, I saw him coming from a long way, a man I hadn’t yet dreamt approaching from the west, dressed in winter gear when it was summer. Mine was a twelve year-old head stuffed with romance. No one believed my second sight when I called out about it, but if the time came I knew I’d recognize him.
At eighteen I lived in my juked-up cabin alone, mother and dad moldering in Lakeview, me with no fancy electronics, not even a cell. I had kerosene and water and a wood stove, convinced I could live off the land, one of those fools.
He walked into Schutte’s and the pile of coats lifted like they’d come to life.
Wool cap pulled down to his caterpillar eyebrows, he shouted, “Fuck, that wind!” and someone slammed the door.
Lesser men got turned round and froze in their own front yards.
He was all tree and no branches, a tall one who must have strove to light, heightened due to sun and warmth, the way things grow here in a furious blast, their days numbered from the start. I couldn’t feel my fingertips drumming Schutte’s bar.
If his totality had shot up, now the cold had sapped his energy. I had to nudge him inside my cabin even though he was the one who had come on to me. Surrounding him, I huddled the ground, yew-like, perennial. He let me wrap a blanket across his shoulders, just stood there taking it. I brought him out of his stupor with old remedies, and old tricks. I served him mushroom broth with an egg in it, salt cod boiled along with potatoes, no meat, nothing green.
“I’ll always be here,” I said. It was easy to say.
Once he’d shed his layers, he hardly moved except for his eyes and his mouth, his slow swallowing, everything a chore. I cuddled his roots, my bramble-ly hair called for his hands. And even the coldest men are predictable.
In bending to reach me, he groaned folding over. Is it smart to love a stranger? I was the tree hugger, the landscape warrior; he just a traveler. I had the urge to bring two, even three into the world, along with myself, I get lonely here, but I had to caution myself he had no interest in tossing seeds, room in his head only for the light and the way it infused him, light from inside him, throat up to crown, transforming my cabin with violet.
The plastic sheets I’d nailed to the window frames seethed, a stop-gap I hoped would hold until spring. I’d done it myself for the last two winters, and I’d do it again once he’d gone.
“Light the fire and never let it fade,” I said.
He might have had an opinion, a bent neck, faithlessness to those who gave orders, but he was the interloper, guest, lover. He’d do what I asked in the beginning. Then our dynamics would shift because things always changed, but right then he set a log where things had been dying out and flames shot up, beautifully. Cords upon cords of wood snapping around us, outside the wind howling, and with wolves panting behind that wind. My dream come true.
“We won’t let it go out,” I said, but I said it like a question, already expecting what was before my eyes to sputter.
Talk it up all you want, there’s no soft in winter’s grey weather that does not lift the leak from your every bone, and, Lord, how it muddles the insides of your head.
He said, “You’ll have the Northern Lights again,” as if those green waves compared to any sun. He must have known past sun to grow tall as he had, but we never together experienced September, or even the idea of September. His promises came from inside his memory; we each had our plans and hopes. If the earth wants you it wants you, it reduces you, it calls you back to that first cold embrace. No wonder so many kneel down in a snow bank.
Call us a temporary pair cutting our teeth on each other’s bark. In the wilderness, you have to do something. We could shoot; we did shoot. He brought animals he’d killed, a hare to stew, a hare with two hearts, which he nudged with the knife point, saying, “A favorable sign.”
He gave me a knowing eye and so we sat on our knives; we played nice all winter long. Slowly the thermometer rose. He said I had moxie. He said I had staying power. For sure I had sap, and when we finally made it to spring I’d over-run myself.
“Why else would I put up with your harsh winter?” he said his tongue a divining rod, his beard sticky.
My roots clenched. Underneath me lay the vast superior sea. We were sick over ourselves, cabin-sick, planted too closely.
“I’m not responsible for the climate,” I said, but honestly I felt I’d had a hand in it.
I couldn’t tell you how many days passed; we burned the calendar, which ended of course in December. But there were other ways to mark time. My stranger said he’d feed the fire with his own arms, and I laughed over his comfortable bragging. “I’m in up to my elbows,” he said, his grandest declaration of love yet.
I said, “I adore your head between my legs,” directing him there, time growing short. No shame in admitting the rivers awake in me, breaking up, but the fact I had to say it, well, you’ve heard of a false spring.
It took time for the weak sun to pierce through and melt the glaciers. We watched for a while, wavy as the world appeared through the sheeted windows.
He smiled. “We’ve made our own warmth, right?” His hair met his shoulders in a shaggy treetop of curls and kudzu for a beard.
“It took us along.” I talked as if past was past; I didn’t want him thinking I’d insist he stay. The plastic pressed flat against the window panes, outside’s light different from the last six months of gloom. I saw my uncovered forearms as I reached for my coffee cup, and hardly recognized me, thought about where my skin had been all winter.
He caught me looking at the sheeted windows just for something else to contemplate. “Want me to take them down?”
“No. If it’s not the wind, it’ll be the black flies. Always something to keep closed up from.”
His face got tough, so I couldn’t parse the expression. “You talk like I don’t know that.”
Trees grow stronger in the light; we all do. We want to prove our invincibility, and the summer months make us think we have some, or can muster some, but all we can really rally is what the world gives us — minerals we drain through our roots, our tree roots, our Finnish genes, the mine rock, the gems, the gin. We are nothing against environment. We are the die cast on felt, tumbled by gamblers, some broke-down stranger our best shot at luck, and then the most handsome’s fist offers his magnificent upper cut.
There had been enough melt and thaw that his snow mobile appeared up the road like a mirage, as colorful against the white landscape as an Easter basket.
“Can you believe it starts right up?” he yelled over the motor, his smiling voice taut with the prospect of departure.
My breath’s smoke in the air couldn’t float far enough to reach him, the true test of a thaw. “Yes,” I said. “Yes, I can believe it.”
He cut the engine and said, “I’m walking to Bruno’s and get him to tow it out of here.”
“Sounds about right.”
Turning his whole pinched face in my direction, he said, “Don’t be like that. We got to move this before it sinks and gets stuck permanent.”
After considerable time, he returned with Bruno in the cab of a borrowed tow, not Bruno’s usual truck. Cranking and winching and joshing and cussing coughed up a smoke screen of boys versus girl. Useless to try busting through it because anyone could see he was already twenty miles down the hill. Bruno saluted me amid the din of lowering the snowmobile to the flatbed, but my lover gave me only his back and the curls that embellished his coat collar in this freak warmth where we needed no gloves.
We live in a place where so much vanishes, grows over, is lost or drowned. Sometimes a hike in the woods takes you stumbling across hid graves. As I watched him fade right before me I called on my mother and father, the ancients, the miners and preachers, even the metals still stuck in the rocks, asking for help and for permission.