Wednesday, September 15, 2010

One Day When the Snow Lay Thick on the Ground . . .

This Pillow Book entry is inspired by The Pillow Book of Sei Shōnagon, translated and edited by Ivan Morris. Sei Shōnagon was a courtesan in 10th century Japan who kept a diary of the goings-on at court and concealed it in her wooden pillow. She made lists under various categories of specific, often quirky things.

One day when the snow lay thick on the ground I rise early for my morning walk. It's January in the small town of Walnut Ridge, Arkansas. This unusually cold winter has just dug in, stretching its frosty tendrils into the ground, and warning us of the long, cold days ahead. In the wee hours of the night a real, ground-covering snow has enveloped the small campus of Williams Baptist College.

I dress in the dark quiet of our small apartment, careful not to wake my sleeping husband and 3-year-old son. I put on my winter coat, scarf, and gloves. The snow, undisturbed, glistens in the moonlight. I follow the small road leading away from student housing. The red brick buildings grow smaller and smaller until they are swallowed whole by the dark. My footsteps crunch in the snow beneath me. The only sound in a sleeping world. I pass the small park at the entrance to campus. The swings are still and the large oak's limbs sag under the weight of its load. I follow the road that leads away from the school. It is lined by corn fields long ago harvested. The dry, withering stalks crushed under tillers. Today the fields are a blank slate of snow; the white sheet masking the decay sleeping just below the surface.

I am utterly alone, trudging through a white wilderness. I am reminded of a story by Jack London, "To Build a Fire." The story of a man, alone in the Yukon, surviving. Man against Nature. The man makes a fatal mistake, but his soul refuses to give up. The driving instinct of survival, innate in all of humanity, compels him to continue, even when he knows he will not succeed.

In my mind, I am this man, or a version. I am alone in a frozen wilderness, refusing to let nature conquer. I take a deep breath of the winter air and look to the East. A pink sunrise is beginning to take shape on the horizon as I reach my mile mark. The stars are faint dots in the Western sky. I stop. I move my fingers and toes, making sure they are not frozen. Turning around I retrace my footsteps, the only thing marring the smooth, white surface.

Behind me something stalks. A beast following patiently. Its long, deep growl breaks the silence. It waits for the moment when I let down my guard or start to slow my pace. The instinct kicks in and I'm moving faster. My footsteps are unsure. My shoe slides in the mushy ice of a footprint. I am forced to slow down, but my heart still races. I can hear the hurried thump in my ears, feel it at my temples. I know if I slip the beast will overtake me, and I am not yet willing to concede defeat.

The wind breaks against my face. I pull the scarf up to cover my mouth and nose. My breath is a hot mist, wetting my scarf and melting the frost. I close my eyes against the frigid air. When I open them I see that the sun is rising over the fields. The snow catches the light: a bright, white sheet sprinkled with glitter.

I round the turn at the campus entrance, setting each foot down carefully. A low growl follows. The beast has slowed its chase. Some invisible barrier has kept it at bay, but I can feel its longing, its disappointment, its unwillingness to give up its prey.

My heartbeat slows and I count the steps . . . one, two, three, four . . . until the rhythm matches the pulsing in my neck. A robin calls out from his perch in the oak tree. The world begins to wake.

As I near my home, the sound of an engine roaring to life startles me. My neighbor's pick-up hums, spewing a blackish fog into the crystalline landscape. The spell is broken. Cold and damp, I know I have survived some great adventure. I am alive and unconquered.