Overnight the seasons changed. Winter, it arrived on a cold wind.
The evening before, I stood at the open door, watching as the first chilly breaths of the storm blew the last dried leaves from the trees. Giant, wet snowflakes joined the leaves and together they whirled in a wintery waltz.
I arrived here in late autumn; tucked away in my mother’s cabin of a house in the little woods, I watched the world around me Novembering.
No-vem-ber /nō-`vem-bǝr/ v. to change season from autumn to winter in Iowa.
Bare branches trace the sky and a lone leaf twirls and flutters its way to join its kind on the ground. My footsteps on the lush carpet of leaves stir up the aroma of autumn, gaseous compounds exhaled by the decaying leaves. Rounding the corner of the house, I startle the matriarch of a deer herd making their daily tour of the property. I stop and hold my breath. Still, her white flag tail flicks up in semaphore warning. She turns and, as one, the group goes bounding through the trees, the white fluff of their tails like the bouncing dot above the lyrics of a televised 1950s family holiday special.
I turn and go the other way, to continue my stroll among the trees. Painterly dabs of blue jay or red cardinal stand out in the surrounding dull brown and grey. Overhead, the geese fly in V formation. Stragglers hurry to catch up. Wild turkeys steal through the brush, looking over their shoulders.
Driving through the countryside I pass pale ochre fields, fallow after the harvest. Burnished copper and bronze clumps of native prairie grasses and brown yarrow line the roadside. Although the reds and golds of leaf-peeping time are past, this time of year, this season, sends a thrill through me. My skin tingles and my heart beats faster as I look around open-mouthed at this world readying itself for bed.
I remember, as a girl, how I loved to tramp through the shorn fields and empty lots with my little poodle. Fingers trailing the dried milkweed pods, their silky fluff still clinging. Saturday mornings alone with my thoughts and the nip in the air. Early morning chill giving way to the warmth of the sun. But that was another time, another place.
I wake to a frosty, white wonderland. The outdoor world tugs at me, the oaks and ash with their snow laden branches, the pines with boughs weighed down. A perfect, pristine, untouched snow-globe world. A thought, a word, forms in my mind. Play. Like a warmth spreading through my body, this word – play – morphs into a feeling of joy and surprise.
I have no choice but to pull on my boots and head outside. Mom keeps a stash of gloves for every purpose in the cabinet by the cold and dusty wood-burning stove. I’ve found a thick wool pair, much better suited to the snow than the fingerless mitts I brought to this winter world from the land of summer.
My lungs suck in the cold, clean air. The scent has changed now, the leaves with their sharp aroma buried. The snow crunches under my feet as I make the first human footprints in this crystalline carpet, huge and awkward next to the cloven heart tracks of the deer. My toes already are chilling in fashion boots, impractical in the snow.
I haven’t seen any birds visiting the feeder I placed here days before the storm came through, yet when I check it, I find it empty. Not wanting the feathered souls to go hungry, I fill it again.
I look around, feeling the stillness and wondering how one begins to play. I make a snowball. The snow is good and wet. Memories come back. Dry flakes will repel each other like the positive ends of two magnets. I bend again, my arthritic hips complaining, place my snowball on a fresh patch and roll. It picks up the snow carpet through to the earth beneath, the crumpled sodden leaves there littering the clean snow ball. A dark track now mars the white carpet. I’ve made a mess of the this perfect ice world. I feel a too familiar irritation pricking at me.
I pick the leaves off, pack on some more snow and place my frosty man’s bottom upon a tree stump pedestal – the same stump where I found that turkey tail fungus years ago. I repeat my movements for the middle, the head.
“A corn cob pipe and a button nose.” The tune flits through my mind. I don’t have these. I remember the baby carrots languishing in the bottom of the fridge.
“Two eyes made out of coal.” I spy the grill still standing under a tree, away from the house, where my son stood grumbling last summer, grilling our independence hamburgers. Or was it chicken? Maybe brats.
I brush away the snow and lift the lid. Ash. Wait, no. There in the corner are two unburnt bits. Setting the first charcoal into the snowman’s face, it crumbles to dust. I do the next. He looks like a hollow-eyed wraith from a horror film. His body is dusted in charcoal.
That tendon at the back of my neck is twitching again.
Play, remember? You’re supposed to be playing. This is not a big deal. Just brush off the charcoal dust.
OK. Breathe. You’re having fun. Get some fresh snow and pack it on. The snow has debris in it. Pick it out. He’s lopsided. It’s OK. Paint some white snow around his eyes. OK.
He needs a mouth. I find some bits of wood chips, probably left here decaying since the tree was chopped down. I scatter more birdseed over and around my snowman, imagining such a pretty sight.
Before me stands a snaggletoothed hillbilly of a snowman, but he’s my creation. I snap his photograph and retreat to the warmth of the house.
Bundled under the blankets, I sit up in my bed, writing. Through the second floor window, I see a deer colored lump out by the train tracks. Actually, the lump is the same color as the trees surrounding it, only softer, rounder.
Silently – to my ears – I peel back the covers and tip-toe to the window. The lump moves, raises his head. I count one, two, three, four… maybe five points. It’s hard to tell through the brush and branches. Do the small bits near the base count as points?
I wonder, why it is I never find shed antlers on Mom’s property. The deer are here in all seasons. Do two-legged creatures creep around unbeknownst to my mother, harvesting the riches of her little woods, the antlers and morels? She said she heard someone outside the other morning, before dawn. A man’s voice. A woman’s. Someone said, “well ok then,” and a car door shut.
I turn and reach for my camera. The stag stands, looks around, and pauses. He turns his head again. Freezes. He knows I’m watching. He takes silent, excruciatingly slow steps following the train tracks, stops to paw at the snow, looking for a snack. I hold by breath, hoping for a clear shot. Mentally I urge him to step into the clearing and approach the house.
He stays by the tracks, as is his habit. I only ever see him there; he doesn’t travel the daily circuit with the does and their young: the patch of trees at the west side of the house, the frozen lake of the bird bath by the front door, then across the drive and down the slope that runs to the road below. Once or twice I’ve seen a younger buck with fewer points traveling with the females.
The stag turns back toward the tracks. “No,” I whisper. “Come back.” He pauses again. Ears flick. Then, a sound heard only to him startles him into action. He moves from frozen to bounding away in an instant. Across the tracks he goes, through the trees, and crosses the field in the distance.
The sun sets earlier each day as we approach the solstice. It’s afternoon and the shadows are already gathering in the front room where I stand folding a load of towels. Mom sits at the table, gazing out the bay window.
“He’s eating your bird seed,” she says.
Expecting a chickadee or cardinal, I look up. A young deer, probably a yearling, is licking up seed from the bird feeder like ice cream from a cone. He looks up, watching my shadow as I move toward the window with my camera. He turns, nuzzles Mr. Snowman’s carrot nose, licks up more seed. He wanders off through the snow.
Through the window I spy two fawns chasing each other like happy dogs. They run a circuit from the backyard to the side and around again. They’ve worn a track into the earth. Their mothers stand by, nibbling at tree bark, and jumping out of the way when the wayward cannonballs come too close. The fawns pause to rest, check in with mama deer. They eye each other. Then one takes off running and the other charges after.
When I wake, frozen filagrees cover my bedroom windows. Each day a new pattern. The morning sun massages its way through the icy fog. The roadsides are lined now with windswept drifts. The fields are tweeded with snow woven amongst the chaff and clumps of dirt. An osprey sits high in a treetop, watching for dark shapes to skitter across the snow field. Inflatable snowmen and reindeer pop up in front of farm houses. Evergreen wreaths deck the fence posts. In the distance, sculptural columns of smoke or steam – I don’t know – hang motionless in the frigid air. Passing motorists raise gloved hands to give the Iowa wave.
Another small storm came through, a brief whiteout, enough to turn the little woods once more into a snow globe.
Just like that, this winter world is Decembering.