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Since the cold weather came, I am almost always in this house. In these pandemic days I have nowhere to go, and my long daily walks in the woods have paused. Sometimes I feel the walls are a skull, and I am the thoughts bouncing around inside. The windows, of course, are my eyes. These days white light shines up from the ground, as though I live on the surface of the moon. I love the stern white, but I would not want light like that inside my home.
I throw some seeds onto the snow and the dark-eyed juncos are here, very busy. Dark all over, not just the eyes, except where their white bellies duet with the snow. Two song sparrows pick at the seeds, carefully outside the circle of juncos. When the juncos and sparrows see me moving inside the house they flee into nearby branches. Sometimes I look outside and there are crows instead, different dark birds, the contrast of size so funny.
I go to the piano and play Debussy’s Prelude, “Des pas sur la neige.” The noteheads on the page look like juncos on the snow. The black keys on the keyboard are like crows. The words are always translated “Footprints in the snow”; I like “Footsteps” better. You hear the footsteps, soft and even. I am not sure what Debussy was thinking. I look through the windows near the piano, and what I see outside has nothing to do with these sounds. I see stillness and calm. The music is human, with emotional descriptions at specific points in the score. “Expressive and dolorous … especially animating the expression … expressive and tender … like a tender, sad regret.” These instructions are paradoxical; the lean composition gives the pianist so few notes to accomplish these effects. The harmony is often severe; sometimes it warms and softens, but always with austerely restricted means.
I wake up at 3 AM. Light is coming in through my blinds. I am sure I left one of the outside lights on, and I go to check. It’s sunlight that ricochets from the full moon to the snow and back up into the air. I could read a book outside in this light, but not in this cold.
When I was a child, my father told me that when someone freezes to death, it’s like falling asleep. This has haunted me, an image of gentle release. White snow fading to inner darkness. I go online to fact-check. It’s not true: dying of cold, before you lose consciousness you have terrible shaking. I was told other false things as a child; we all were. For example, that birds do not think, are not conscious, but are just machines of pure stimulus and response. Birdbrains. Outside at the feeder I see cooperation, competition, alert observation, relaxation, caution …
My unscientific fantasies of death by cold meld with Debussy’s piece—fragmented flickers of warmth and feeling before the music settles into its last hollow chord. S’endormir dans la neige, falling asleep in the snow.
Copyright 2022 Fred Everett Maus
Fred Everett Maus teaches music at the University of Virginia.
Common Raven (source: Pixabay)