Sunset bison

Sunset bison
Sundogs

Thursday, December 20, 2007

World on ice, world on fire

White world, black world, world of glass. World of strange nocturnal sounds never before fallen on these ears: The dull hollow boom of boots breaking through hardpanned ice into softer snow below, the brittle patter of freezing rain pelting a world already armored and glazed, already bent and bowed, already dripping with icicles and dripping yet more. That selfsame frozen rain unstoppable and shudderingly constant, unrelenting in its wintry assault.

I had walked outside to check conditions before committing to the workday. Inside, coffee was brewing and lights warmed the windows, but outside lay an icy wasteland, though how wasted it would become was lost on me at that moment. The car was heavily sheathed and the road as well, and in the light of streetlamps trees stooped glittering in tormented shapes.

As I stood there entranced at the terrible beauty of the scene, watching the play of light on the gathering ice and my jacket steadily encrusting into a crystalline carapace, there came a dull crack and a muffled whoosh, sharply truncated, like a rifle shot fired into a pillow. Another followed, nearer, with a spray of ice shards jagged as broken glass scattering at my feet. On all sides in the darkness trees imploded and cascaded down, each report a bell-note of escalating hopelessness and panic.

Time was short but I used what I had. I kicked the thermostat to high, turned on all space heaters, made extra coffee and, finally, woke Lori. “You have to hear this,” I said.

We went outside to a changed world. The rain still fell and trees dropped with frightening regularity, as if it were their destiny and none other. The thought came that if this continued nothing would be left by daybreak. Adding to the din was a new sound—the flash and sizzle of arcing transformers.

While Lori cooked breakfast, I gathered candles and flashlights and installed batteries in my headlamp. By its cold bluish light I went back outside and stomped to the shed, where I’d stored four gallons of kerosene. A tree blew apart and fell across the shed and other branches hung precariously above, but I took my chances and entered. Outside sounds seemed louder, sharper, accented by falling ice and branches scraping the roof, as if I stood in a sort of echo chamber. But I did not linger.

The kerosene heater, stored downstairs, hadn’t been used in years. I dusted off the spider webs and carried it upstairs, where I checked the condition of the batteries. Unbelievably, they worked. So we would at least have heat when the power went, which I expected at any moment.

Lori served the last pancake when the lights snuffed out. We ate by candlelight, which would have been romantic under other circumstances but now only served to increase the dread awareness of what was happening outside.

After that, all we could do is sit in the dark and listen to trees falling in the front yard, some exploding against the house. We stayed away from windows. And still the freezing rain drummed on the roof.

There was no dawn, only a minor paling. It served merely to illustrate the extent of the damage. Trees were shattered and broken, leaning crazily, or bowed like white-robed monks in prayer. Fences and power lines hung heavy with ropes of ice. Other than falling branches and toppling trees nothing moved in that icescape, not mammal nor bird nor vehicle. It seemed the end of civilization.

The day passed slowly. Freezing rain continued unabated; the house slowly cooled. We rifled the camper for matches, sleeping bags, an extra thermos and a coffee pot. By mid-afternoon the rain relented and I went outside to inspect the house. There was no damage though several huge limbs had fallen perilously close and several more sagged over the porch. What we now feared was wind, and even as the thought came so too did a shifting in the air, a whisper and a creak, a brittle groan. Trees suddenly twisted like arthritic geezers needing hip replacements. The old willow across the street keeled over in a roar and others followed in its wake. It was the cruelest blow of all.

More freezing rain in the afternoon and light snow at dusk. I grilled pork chops outside while Lori cooked on the kerosene heater. After that we read by flashlight and turned in early. What else was there to do? Without electricity we relived the days of our forefathers, and yet the comparison was inapt. We at least had indoor plumbing, and hot water, insulated walls, high-tech winter clothing and a pantry full of food. But darkness has a way of superseding all other things, and cold, too, and the energy drained is not merely physical.

Gray and bleak and long was the second day. Survival mode reminded me of a propane lantern downstairs, which I resurrected. Simple hot meals were provided by the kerosene heater. Lori left for work in the afternoon and I napped and woke to a darkening house and felt the darkness in my bones.

Night was longer still, and another cold dark morning, alone this time. I started the heater and set a pot of coffee on top and ransacked thermoses for warm dregs. Sheba shied away from my dancing headlamp until I lit the lantern, and then she shyly came to me. The both of us desperate in the pre-dawn.

And what would the day bring? More grayness, I feared. The absence of power is a soul-sucking void. As I jotted notes, I searched for paling on the horizon. At first a faint glow, a saffron and peach slash impaled on ice-honed splinters, the slash blossoming into a sky mercifully clear, blossoming into blue, blossoming into something like hope. The red rising sun ignited the ice into a million bonfires burning bright. I went outside—I could do no less—to step lightly through the ruins.

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