Above me, the net of boughs and barren branches,
below, the earth cloaked in robes of snow, in silence.
For a season my life, winter courted me.
Upon winter’s altar, my heart broken wide open, I was altered.
In winter’s parlour, I listened becoming its messenger of shadow and shine.
WINTER claimed me at the edge of a great boreal forest, near the Big Waters of Gichi gami. Below the three feet of fresh snow, and the thick crust of Lake Superior Sandstone - the bones of our ancestors reside. I came north to the deep silence of January and for two winters a small hand built primitive cabin was home. Carried by an ever widening river of loss and grace, under the sea of stars and a thatch of branches winter became holy to me. The cathedral of birch and their black all seeing eyes, the wind’s winter mouth music and the crystal rimmed arm of Four Mile Creek championed and companioned me in a black-bright winter of my own story.
Then and there I learned a broader tongue of the elements. The language of fire, of water and ice bloomed within, as did a mighty respect for the unseen, the non-human, for the stardust we are.
Daily, I hauled water from a well a hundred yards from the cabin in five gallon containers, set in a blue toboggan along a show-shoed path. Under the soughing bared black branches of oak, birch and maple, I split their kin, coming to know their inside songs, the old world weight of an axe in my hand, and the deep empowerment of splitting wood to make fire, to warm my own sad, still willing bones. Bless. Blessing. Blessed. I came to know the deeper stories of the winterland, like the blueness of fresh snow, the wide wild- eyed curiosity of white tailed deer fauns wrapped thick in their winter coats. I came to know more of silence, of spirit and the shadows that shift. I came to know more of the sticky, dark-light, sweet-sweet of that winter world and of myself.
PRIOR to my arrival the cabin had been sitting empty and unheated for months. After days of feeding wood into the stove, glowing warmth spread, honey like into the frozen space as I unpacked belongings of books, woolen blankets, treasures of bone and stone and art leaving only a lingering chill in the shaded corners.
I was unthawing too from one long ass haul of my humanity and a blessed melting into long awaited solitude. Ah, but that was short lived as the warm rafters gave birth to scores of flies. Each day as the fire warmed the nooks and cobwebbed crannies blackflies awoke to jig on the sunniest window in my bedroom loft. Their loud staccato hum tapping on the mesh windowscreen that first month was a reminder that I was far from being alone.
One afternoon in my second week of homemaking and being quiet with myself for the first time in nine months I came in from hauling water, runny nosed, red cheeked, feeling alive. I peeled off layer after layer of wool and fleece, then clambered up the ladder to the bedroom where I heard the stirring rat, a- tat - tat of the flies on the windowscreen before seeing them. Stepping into the loft I looked toward the window bright with sun and snow and saw the flies. There was something else backlit on the screen and recognition dawned as I came closer. It was a butterfly whose powdered wings opened and closed, mesmerizing me.
A live butterfly. On the inside. In the loft. With me. On a January afternoon. At 46.6733° N.
I realize now that is probably not an uncommon experience among the winter cabin porn folk of the northern world but at the time (and still is) it was great and holy wonder to me.
What happened next is between myself and this delicate being. I can say that it was a Compton’s Tortoiseshell, common in Wisconsin… in the summertime. That it must have been slumbering in the rafters or a crack in the wall. That the heat of the wood stove triggered its transformation. Its emergence.
For days it lived with me in the bedroom loft fluttering the length of the screened window, drinking in the sun, wanting out, wanting freedom. Wanting nectar….like me, like us all. It was heart-breakingly beautiful.
It reminded me, in a goose fleshy and eye stinging way of a butterfly kite I had flown with a beloved man, my lover, along the shoreline of Lake Michigan last autumn, a week before he shifted shape into an unseen form.
THERE was one evening in my keeping company with this winter guest I sat curled up in by the fire watching a much adored film – Waking Ned Divine. He had loved this film, even sent me a CD with a song from the soundtrack. He’d sent it to me partly because we’d discovered that we both loved the bagpipes. He sent this particular track after my Dad’s death when I was considering music to play at his memorial service and he thought this piece, When Angels Cry, would be a good choice. He’d written the title on the CD with a comment "the pipes on this track, take me away”. In the film it plays during Ned’s funeral march. It turns out, I did not play it at my Dad’s memorial service – I went with the one song my Dad actually requested, Mull of Kintyre by Wings. My Dad loved the bagpipes too.
Three weekly after my Dad’s service - the unimaginable - I brought the CD that this lovely hearted man had made for me, with the song, When Angels Cry, poignantly, to his funeral. The angels did weep that afternoon in Hayward as the haunting drone of that piece filled the small space of the funeral home. I told the story of how I came to have the song and together we wept and wept for the unspeakably sadness and beauty of it all.
Back to that night, by the fire, watching the film all goose bumps and streaming eyes. As the pipe tune, When Angels Cry spilled out filling me with more than sound, the butterfly flew down from the loft and into the room with me.
The first and last time I saw it fly
Resting in a window that it never left
feeding on apple slices and fresh water
Living out the remainder of its nine day life
with a view into the pine studded winter.
And I – far from being winged settled deep into winter’s womb, neither caterpillar nor butterfly but something in-between. Something becoming.