Thirty feet past the power company building the road stopped abruptly before a clearing in the woods, as though the road crew had suddenly run out of pavement and gone home. The clearing stretched about two hundred feet, bordered on either side by tall spruces and worm-tattered pines, and then veered off to the left.
It looked to Daniel like a little world, a grand naturescape in miniature, complete with rolling, snow-crested hillocks and white fields, and an ice-covered stream meandering through its center. The naturescape sloped gently towards the stream.
Daniel glanced at his watch and relaxed. It had been years since he’d walked by himself in the woods and he felt an urge to explore, to recapture the magical quality of solitude in a natural setting. The sky was thinly overcast with a cream-colored hint that the sun was melting its way through the other side of the clouds.
Daniel stepped forward and his boot sank a few inches into the snow with a muted pumf. He smiled and made his way into the clearing. Mounds of frozen brown- and white-capped soil jutted through the even white layer of snow. Snow surrounded everything. It stuck like frozen milk to dense boughs of evergreens, pulling the trees into a winter-huddled droop. On leafless trees, it piled like smooth putty filling. In the soft light, the snow appeared warm and comfortable, a glaze molded flake by flake and shifted by wind and the contours of the land into a snug white blanket.
Daniel breathed deeply, savoring the freshness of the winter air untainted by odor, though its absence was a fragrance itself composed inoffensively of the frozen landscape. Another deep breath and he shouted.
And the woods called back to him.
His echoing name scattered his presence into the woods, bouncing off trees and careening into unseen snow banks, giving him a solid sense of affinity with everything that surrounded him. He shouted again.
“I love you!”
And the woods called back to him.
And he saw in his mind, the woods tucking his words into the beads of crystal water dripping from the trees.
“I am your voice!”
“I speak for you!”
“We are one!”
Filling his lungs deeply, he broke into a slow run through the snow and down the slope towards the stream. He laughed and shouted.
“I am free!”
And the woods acknowledged.
He stopped at the stream, amazed and breathless. The stream was no more than two feet at its widest point, but the shallow gully it twisted through suggested another six feet on either side during the spring runoff. Walking along the edge of the gully, Daniel followed the stream as it wound through the center of the clearing.
A sheet of wafer-thin ice covered the stream a few inches above the trickling water. There was a hint of ochre in the tiny glints of reflected cloud light that gave the ice a sense of warmth. In places it fluffed up, sagged further on, and then slanted from one side to the other like a long curving pane of glass.
Ahead, Daniel saw a section of tree trunk imbedded sideways beside the stream, and he felt this was the place to sit, that sitting on the trunk was a significant part of being in the woods by the stream and in the center of the rolling field of snow. It was what the trunk was for. He yelled: “I will sit here!”
And he made his way clumsily to the trunk and sat down with his feet a few inches from the stream. A long crack split through the center of the ice and portions of the glistening sheet slumped into the water. Where the ice was perched just above the water, the edges melted from sun and wind into jagged fingers so thin that the slightest breeze might snap them. A few inches below them, crystalline water gurgled over pebbles and rocks and reflected light to the underside of the ice, creating smooth patches of iridescence shimmering with lambent life.
From where he sat, Daniel could see that the clearing continued for another fifty feet to the left and it occurred to him that he was at the center of the little world of the clearing. He imagined the stream was a vein coursing through the heart of the clearing, nourishing and sustaining it, and with the snow and ice melting, the stream was beginning to flow again and to pump life into the bushes and trees and the dormant seeds. Daniel opened himself to the lucidity of the moment, a comprehension of something vital, and he was in the center of it.
He pulled the glove off his right hand and scooped up a few grains of coarse snow from the top of the trunk. They sparkled in his palm like miniature diamonds. He reached his arm out and sprinkled them onto the fingers of ice. Their small weight broke a long knobby splinter off with a plick and it fell into the water and dissolved.
Daniel picked up more grains and let them fall onto the sheet of ice, where they bounced lightly and settled like transparent pimples. His hand reached mechanically for more snow, and he scattered the tiny beads until the fragile ice clicked and sagged with a small frozen sigh. Then, he picked up a larger piece of snow and poised it over the ice and let it drop. It punctured the ice, and the sheet trembled and collapsed into the water like a two-foot blade cutting into the stream.
Where it had been attached, there was now a long, straight edge that looked out of place to Daniel. He felt remotely guilty, as though he had done something ineffably wrong. His hand was cold and he put his glove back on. A shiver passed through his body and he zipped up the turtleneck on his parka.
He stood up and looked with dissatisfaction at the blade of ice breaking apart in the water, beyond his power to repair it. He looked at his watch and remembered the forecast for snow later in the day. The cream color was lost in the sky and the clouds were beginning to thicken as he scrambled up the gully and began to retrace his steps out of the clearing.
The darkening sky cast a gloom over the woods as another breeze rippled across the ground, and Daniel hunched his shoulders. His boots were wet and his toes were numb with cold. He began to jog awkwardly to keep himself warm, and his breath came in gasps. To his right he noticed a long discarded section of power line, snaking in and out of the snow, over and around the hillocks, twisting indiscriminately through the little world of the clearing.