essay

57777 light and snow

It is a cold day, and the milky light of the short afternoon gives the outdoor air a numbing hardness, like a plate of glass, which could shatter at any instant, exploding into a dense mist of tiny crystals. A cloud of nubiform vapor rises above a building, illuminated from behind by the low-hanging sun, so that it glows like a fluorescent tube, as if lit by its own internal sun. My shoes make quiet creaks as I step across the frozen pavement. The crows call to each other, as if to ask, “Isn’t it cold today?” and then answer “My, yes, isn’t it!”

Each breath is a pointed reminder of the frigid air as it is repeatedly drawn deeply into the body, stinging the trachea, stirring the senses. The sharp blue sky is flecked with clouds only on the horizon, though the wind is now carrying them toward me. For the moment, however, the sunlight is glassy like the clearest of lenses and the edges of things seem almost to sparkle, a vitreous scene staged in the proscenium of a great sphere. The shadows and hard lines at the edges of things are more focused, more definite than usual, and brilliant.

The human eye is like a piece of glass. It glints in the hard light of its glances, it shines like a star. It shrinks in the dazzle of this cold light, stopping down like a camera, giving vision an intense depth of focus. Everything seems sharp and brittle. An empty plastic cup makes a hollow, skittering sound as a breeze pushes it in stages across the rough asphalt of the empty street.

Soon, the sun is raining down on the river water through slots in the clouds. In the cold light the fingers of light hang like glimmering icicles soon to touch the water beneath.

It is snowing. Now calm and anechoic, the layers of soft, airy flakes dampen reverberance, robbing every sound of its richness and throat, the impression they project of solidity, of being the voice of a solid object. Speaking, walking, the rustle of clothing as I move, and the flat honesty of it all reflects the direct passage of vibrating things through the gentle air to the ear, without the additions that they would acquire on their movement through a more resonant environment.

I am passing through a rushing cloud of snowflakes as a raging blizzard pushes across my path and swallows me. The flying crystals kiss my cheeks at first, and then bite softly as the cold intensifies. I am dissolving in the cold, the heat from my face and ungloved hands dissipates in the swirling winds, my skin turning into dead leather. The surrounding landscape is drained of depth and color, and I seem to be walking through a foggy 19th-century photograph, a displaced daguerreotype on display in a snow globe. The naked trees reach up like strokes of faded ink and the wind struggles to uproot them, to make them fly like the crows who circle the chimneys and and swing around the rooftop antennas in hectic, whirling orbits.

One of my earliest memories is of snow. In a lull between blasts from a winter hurricane I went outside to find my familiar outdoor world transformed. In the wan light and the absence of a visible sun, the puffy air had the dullness of the inside of a pillow. The hush of a church or library had descended as the blizzard subsided. The surrounding air became a blanket of comparative warmth, and the sounds of the farm animals, the passing of a faraway freight train, the barking dogs, and clattering of frozen tree leaves were muffled by the airborne moisture. In the haze, none of these sounds had visible source, and no compass direction. Each of them seemed to be coming from everywhere.


A version of this essay was first published in Czech on the web site His Voice: Magazine of Alternative Music, as the 23nd post for the ongoing column „Field Notes.“