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The books I read in winter are like the stone men built by the Eskimos of the great desolate tundras west of Hudson's Bay. They still stand today, according to Farley Mowat. An Eskimo traveling alone in flat barrens would heap round stones to the height of a man, walk till he could no longer see it, and build another. So I travel mute among these books, these eyeless men and women that people the empty plain. I wake up thinking: What am I reading? What will I read next? I'm terrified that I'll run out, that I will read through all I want to and be forced to learn the names of wild flowers at last, to keep awake.
In the meantime I lose myself in a liturgy of names. The names of the men are Knud Rasmussen, Sir John Franklin, Peter Freuchen, Scott, Peary and Byrd; Jedediah Smith, Peter Skene Ogden and Milton Sublette; or Daniel Boone singing on his blanket in the Green River country. The names of waters are Baffin Bay, Repulse Bay, Coronation Gulf and the Ross Sea; the Coppermine River, the Judith, the Snake and the Musselshell; the Pelly, the Dease, the Tanana and Telegraph Creek. Beaver plews, zero degrees latitude and gold. I like the clean urgency of these tales, the sense of being set out in a wilderness with a jackknife and a length of twine. If I can get up a pinochle game, a little three-hand cutthroat for half a penny a point and a bottle of wine, fine; if not I'll spend these nights caught in the pack of Franz Josef Land, or casting for Arctic char.
It snowed. It snowed all yesterday and never emptied the sky, although the clouds looked so low and heavy they might drop all at once with a thud. The light is diffuse and hueless, like the light on paper inside a pewter bowl. The snow looks light and the sky dark, but in fact the sky is lighter than the snow. Obviously the thing illuminated can't be lighter than its illuminator. The classical demonstration of this point involves simply laying a mirror fiat on the snow so that it reflects in its surface the sky, and comparing by sight this value to that of the snow. This is all very well, even conclusive, but the illusion persists. The dark is overhead and the light at my feet; I'm walking upside-down in the sky.
Yesterday I watched a curious nightfall. The cloud ceiling took on a warm tone, deepened and departed as if drawn on a leash. I could no longer see the fat snow flying against the sky; I could see it only as it fell before dark objects. Objects at a distance—like the dead, ivy-covered walnut I see from the bay window—looked like a black-and-white frontispiece seen through the sheet of white tissue.
It was like dying, this watching the world recede into deeper and deeper blues while the snow piled; silence swelled and extended, distance dissolved, and soon only concentration on the largest shadows let me make out the movement of falling snow, and that too failed. The snow on the yard was blue as ink, faintly luminous; the sky violet. The bay window betrayed me and started giving me back the room's lamps. It was like dying, that growing dimmer and deeper and then going out.
Today I went out for a look around. The snow had stopped, and a couple of inches lay on the ground. I walked through the yard to the creek; everything was slate-blue and gunmetal and white, except for the hemlocks and cedars, which showed a brittle, secret green if I looked for it under the snow.
Lo and behold, here in Tinker Creek was a silly-looking coot. It looked like a black-and-gray duck, but its head was smaller; its clunky white bill sloped straight from the curve of its skull like a cone from its base. I had read somewhere that coots were shy. They were liable to take umbrage at a footfall, skitter terrified along the water and take to the air. But I wanted a good look. So when the coot tipped tail and dove, I raced toward it across the snow and hid behind a cedar trunk. As it popped up again its neck was as rigid and eyes as blank as a rubber duck's in the bathtub. It paddled downstream, away from me. I waited until it submerged again, then made a break for the trunk of the Osage orange. But up it came all at once, as though the child in the tub had held the rubber duck under water with both hands and suddenly released it.
I froze stock-still, thinking that after all I really was, actually and at bottom, a tree, a dead tree perhaps, even a wobbly one, but a treeish creature nonetheless. The coot wouldn't notice that a tree hadn't grown in that spot the moment before; what did it know? It was new to the area, a mere dude. As tree I allowed myself only the luxury of keeping a wary eye on the coot's eye. Nothing; it didn't suspect a thing—unless, of course, it was just leading me on, beguiling me into scratching my nose, when the jig would be up and I would be unmasked, un-treed, with no itch and an empty creek. So.
At its next dive I made the Osage orange and looked around from its trunk while the coot fed from the pool behind the riffles. From there I ran downstream to the sycamore, getting treed in open ground again—and so forth for 40 minutes, until it gradually began to light in my leafy brain that maybe the coot wasn't shy at all. That this subterfuge was unnecessary, that the bird was singularly stupid, or at least not of an analytical turn of mind, and that in fact I'd been making a perfect idiot of myself all alone in the snow. So from behind the trunk of a black walnut, which was my present blind, I stepped boldly into the open. Nothing. The coot floated just across the creek from me, absolutely serene. Could it possibly be that I'd been flirting all afternoon with a decoy? No, decoys don't dive. I walked back to the sycamore, actually moving in plain sight not 10 yards from the creature, which gave no sign of alarm or flight. I stopped; I raised my arm and waved. Nothing. In its beak hung a long, wet strand of some shore plant; it sucked it at length down its throat and dove again. I'll kill it. I'll hit the thing with a snowball, I really will; I'll make a mud-hen hash.
I didn't make a snowball. I wandered upstream, along smooth banks under trees. I had gotten, after all, a very good look at the coot. Now here were its ridiculous tracks in the snow, four-toed and very close together. The wide, slow place in the creek by the road bridge was frozen over. From this bank at this spot in summer I can always see tadpoles, fat-bodied, scraping brown algae from a sort of shallow underwater ledge. Now I couldn't see the ledge under the ice. Most of the tadpoles were frogs, and the frogs were buried alive in the mud at the bottom of the creek. They went to all that trouble to get out of the water and breathe air, only to hop back in before the first killing frost. The frogs of Tinker Creek are slathered in mud, mud at their eyes and mud at their nostrils; their damp skins absorb a muddy oxygen, and so they pass the dreaming winter.