When winter takes a river

by DRM

The ice forms surreptitiously, against all probability, when winter takes a river.  The pieces form inadvertently, bound by the cold, and collide into each other, adhered by the quickening of the silky black water.  It’s like a crowd of summer lilies — but it isn’t.  The pieces of ice are jagged and uneven, thick and thin, fragile and strong.  They are nothing like lilies, really.

But I think about lilies as I tromp through the snow and slush along the river bank, how lilies deceive us with their placid flatness, how a lily wanders as far as its sinewy root allows, how it cups itself to capture splashing rain drops, buckles when a foreign weight lands on it.  I wonder what happens to the lily roots when the river ices up.  Do they curl into the frozen bank and direct their regenerative energy inward, or do they freeze and shatter in the glacial cold of the river water?

I’ve seen water captured in great freezes that extend the boundaries of the land and turn the river into a distant memory.  The Hudson River froze once and we could walk out from a low spot at 110th Street to where we thought the line between New Jersey and New York must run.  Narragansset Bay froze once and we could walk clear over to Prudence Island, shivering with uncertainty as we got farther and father away from the shore.  If the ice had cracked we would have been goners.

Frozen rivers are filled with an exceptional romance, a momentary gift in the brutal monotony of the cold months.  There’s nothing romantic about rivers that are seizing up from the cold.  The ice floats along the current like shards of glass, and the refracting sun plays tricks, bouncing its rays in every direction.

One winter I walked out into the woods with my dog.  We walked by the creek that cut a gash along the wood line.  The rapids churned white froth that froze into fleeting filaments.  We walked across a fallen log and I fell into the water up to my chest.

The shock of the cold was instantaneous.  I lost my breath.  I could feel the liquid in my body, the blood, the viscous fluids, race to the surface and bind, suddenly inert.  I took heaving breaths as I swung my leg over the log and shimmied back to the bank.

The walk home was long.  My clothing froze.  Each breath made the lining of my lungs crinkle like pieces of old cellophane.  When I undressed at home, standing close to the oil burner, I saw that my body was scarlet red.  My skin was on fire.

I remember that moment as I walk along the river.  The snow gets deeper and I veer down to the bank.  The water has licked the shore clear here:  the white, grey and black rocks are slick with a thin coating of ice.  I press my boot bottom down on the clear water.  It bends slightly, the frozen seal not yet set, a half-hearted virginal protection.  I crouch down and put my fingers in the water.  It bites at the tips.  I touch my wet fingers to my lips, trying to taste the cold, the ice, the inexorable and final chill of winter.