Today stands as the last day of the year, 2004, and I suppose it is a miracle that the mercury cloys out of its winter torpor to stretch up into the cloudless blue of 59 degrees F and counting. I claw my away out of my own Chicago torpor.
You need to send out your work, my voice told me; that first voice. The one which speaks first, always insistent, never consistent. The should machine. And yet, part of my work is to come to know that to work is sometimes to play, and that when I live congruently, the two – toil and play –merge in the world of the forest. I close my office door against the cats, slip on my jacket and boots, head to the river.
That river world which meanders a little muddied today beneath the gray winter trees and a sun which holds in its solstice dimness the far off promise of a spring sure to come. I plied the old familiar forest paths and decided to purposively lose myself in the shroud composed of thousands of wooden old bones, and bones they’d remain until late April at least. A vertical ossuary that shielded me in its stark shafts from the avenues of traffic. The watery rush of cars and trucks found its way through the blind of sycamore and oak.
In places, small backwaters that had frozen over began to thaw in the past two days of near Floridian conditions. The voice, that terrible voice they install in you when you’re 4 and 5 and in which in some of us masquerades as an unpleasable God, told me I should be working out at the health club. Okay, I give in. I make my pilgrimage to the other side of the jungle, where the fitness temple awaits my bodily sacrifice.
I decided to take a new way out of the woodland, down a straight path that doubles as a drainage to the river. A small creek swollen with new rains blocked my egress. The stream seemed partly frozen, partly thawed in the strange, frothy slurry called grease ice. A thicket of downed hawthorn branches bridging the creek looked just wide enough for me to take a chance at fording the waters.
I looked into the creek. Thousands of infinitesimal bubbles rose in columns, frozen in place under the ice, fizzing to the surface as if someone had dropped Frisbee-sized Alka Seltzers into freezing water and then watched the frazil froth freeze over. Ffffrrrr. Most of the bubbles suspended in the glacial glass block were smaller than dope seeds. Some swirled in a blizzard in miniature, causing near white-out conditions in some regions of the ice. I decided to spend time in examination of this giant Christmas paperweight suspended in storm.
I wanted to know how thick the ice grew. I knelt down and knocked on the diamond skin, solid to the bottom of the channel, which lay only six inches or so from the top. The ice formed thickest in the middle of the stream, where a bottleneck of twigs and leaf litter allowed the ice to precipitate like a block of mother of pearl around it, frozen to the stream bottom. I tossed a small branch beyond the bottleneck: splash! On either side, where the stream flowed wider and deeper, the waters ran ice free. Yet the shallow portion in the middle had frozen up.
A ½-inch coat of clear water over the ice lubricated it and made things very slippery. I crouched down on my haunches so that the backs of my ankles touched my ass. I inched my feet across, keeping them flat on the ice so I didn’t keel over. I peered into an underworld frozen but clear as mountain air. Mattes of leaf litter, two or three seasons worth, were suspended in the middle of the ice block, as if flash frozen. A Kirlian aura made of vertical streams of bubbles wreathed the leaves of elm and maple, ash and linden, but mostly oak. Perfectly preserved leaves floated above the forest floor, suspended in the middle of the ice like fossils petrified in amber. Around many of the leaves, a second coating of ice adhered, forming crystallized casts that fit like gloves. Ice bodies frozen within ice. Pockets of gas had enveloped the decaying leaves, and the ice fit itself in the snug pockets around the lobes, like hands that had put on gloves of glass. A generous noon sun gilded the leaves silver. Some of the carapaces, especially the air cases around the ovate elm leaves, decoupled partly from the leaves themselves as the melt liberated the leaves from their casts. This made flawless ice facsimiles of the leaves pealed back from the leaves themselves, the palmate veins carved in minute, ice filigree like Waterford crystal.
The silver and white, the clear, gleaming evanescence of water and ice and light overwhelmed the brown and gray of the decaying mattes. Sometimes, the leaves weren’t there at all anymore. In their places, clone crystal leaf casts fluttered frozen in place under the surface of the ice. The shell of a sugar maple leaf cut in glass glittered in the ice and seemed to float by, replete with the likeness of its stem attached. The empty leaf molds, mostly black oak and pin oak, gilded in pewter by the light, were suspended in empty chrysalises, their inhabitants flown off into the afterworld. Where had the leaves themselves gone? Behind me, where the ice met the meltwater of the larger stream, bubbles gurgled topside in a low moan.
The ice trapped some leaves near its surface. With the care of a surgeon, I pealed the soggy tissues of a black ash leaf from its gleaming ice jacket near the skin of the icy pond. I crouched and slid across the ice, babbling to myself like an obsessed butterfly collector, watching bubbles belch to the surface like globules of oil in a lava lamp. I swept my cold hand over the place where the air had squeezed through the column of frozen bubbles. Not a trace of a blowhole. All that frozen effervescence was a methane jet let off by the decaying vegetation trapped beneath, burbling its way to the surface. Waves of delicate white latticework, like glassy spider’s webs, rolled in crystallized waves between the air pockets that silhouetted the leaves.
The last day of the year 2004. I bounded through the riparian woodland, studying the old field succession, grateful for the warmth of the sun. Basking in the way things stood, just as they stood. I wanted nothing – a very difficult place to stand, in that field of equanimity. Yet in that place of balance, miracles are all around. They’re the ordinary course of mundane existence, if I look for them.
© 2021 by Michael C. Just
Mike’s novel, The Dirt: The Journey of a Mystic Cowboy, is available in softcover or eBook formats through Amazon.
You can purchase the book through this website. Or go straight to amazon at https://www.amazon.com/s?k=the+dirt+journey+of+a+mystic+cowboy&crid=1S40Q4BXSUWJ6&sprefix=the+dirt%3A+journey+of+a+m%2Caps%2C180&ref=nb_sb_ss_i_1_23
Mike’s other titles, including The Crippy, The Mind Altar, and Canyon Calls, are available through Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B002
Two of his short stories have recently been published online. The Obligate Carnivore has been published by the Scarlet Leaf Review @ Category: MICHAEL JUST – SCARLET LEAF REVIEW
I See You, Too has been published by the 96th of October @ I See You, Too – 96th of October