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Russell Wangersky: Winter house

Wood burning.
Wood burning. - 123RF Stock Photo
Russell Wangersky
Russell Wangersky

The winter house means collecting fresh snow for the teapot, because you don’t want to go through the 39 steps of draining the pipes before you leave.

The lonesome peep of the upstairs smoke detector, battery failing, has probably been echoing through the hallway for days.

The windows on the sunny side of the house wear a robe of condensation: on the back, and on the side away from the sun, frost flowers totally obscure the glass.

The stock of fire-starting newspaper is getting low — today, it’s the weekend review section from the Globe and Mail, Saturday, August 15, 2009. I’d stop to read that eight-year-old news, but I can see my breath in the kitchen, and that’s not going to change until the fire’s going.

It’s -9 C outside: by the time the kettle is whistling on the electric stove, the wood stove has crested 200 C, (400 Fahrenheit) though I can still see my breath inside.

The clocks are yelling ticks, and the spruce in the wood stove is providing counterpoint.

There is, of course, no internet in the winter house. There’s tea, the winter outside in the trees, your own exhaled breath rising up in front of you like you, too, are some kind of working furnace, and in some ways, we are.

The snow outside is looking for words: what do you call the repeated, shallow sculpted c-shaped miniature cornices that show the direction of the wind by the deepest curve of their bellies? Cornice is too formal and large an image for that winter’s plasterwork. Is there a word for the arc that bent grass draws in flat snow? I know there’s a word for it when the architects are sedge grass and beach sand — they’re called scratch circles or scharrkrise — does the same lexicon hold for seed-struck timothy grass and fine snow?

The snow’s fresh from last night — fine, light deep-cold-air snow that’s filtered down over hours. There are no tracks, not yet. No cats or small birds, no rabbits or mice. No ordered lines or repeated messages.

There’s tea, the winter outside in the trees, your own exhaled breath rising up in front of you like you, too, are some kind of working furnace, and in some ways, we are.

My tea smells like spruce, but the stove — a battered Defiant with crackle in its dark-blue enamel — has moved on to other windfall: slick-barked split poplar and sandpaper-skinned maple, the first, burning fast and not hot, the maple, throwing out heat and declining into red embers with even rows of coals like teeth.

I want to go upstairs and crawl into one of the frost-chilled beds, just for the touch of the sheets and the weight of the blankets and comforters, suffer through that first round of chest-heaving cold shivers until body heat catches up and I am both pinned down and warm, the air still cold on my face. But wood will have to be brought in soon, both to burn and to be sure the kindling basket and the wood box are full for anyone who might stumble in and need warmth.

I decide to leave the matches out in the open, obvious.

Turn the damper down, watch the flames go milky or even oily, writhing now instead of tearing upwards the way they do in an open burn. The cast iron of the stove is tinging now, a changeable pattern of clanks and pings.

Outside, at the very edge of my vision, I see a white dog with a red jacket. At least, I think it’s a white dog with a red jacket. I blink my eyes, and it’s gone. I’m prepared to believe most things, which is perhaps the source of rural legends — unlike urban legends, rural ones are founded on one person’s honestly held experience.

And you can see absolutely anything when you’re alone.

Russell Wangersky can be reached at — Twitter: @wangersky.

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