The Hermit’s Story
An ice storm, following seven days of snow; the vast fields and drifts of snow turning to sheets of glazed ice that shine and shimmer blue in the moonlight, as if the color is being fabricated not by the bending and absorption of light but by some chemical reaction within the glossy ice; as if the source of all blueness lies somewhere up here in the north — the core of it beneath one of those frozen fields; as if blue is a thing that emerges, in some parts of the world, from the soil itself, after the sun goes down.
Blue creeping up fissures and cracks from depths of several hundred feet; blue working its way up through the gleaming ribs of Ann’s buried dogs; blue trailing like smoke from the dogs’ empty eye sockets and nostrils — blue rising as if from deep-dug chimneys until it reaches the surface and spreads laterally and becomes entombed, or trapped — but still alive, and drifting — within those moonstruck fields of ice.
Blue like a scent trapped in the ice, waiting for some soft release, some thawing, so that it can continue spreading.
It’s Thanksgiving. Susan and I are over at Ann and Roger’s house for dinner. The storm has knocked out all the power down in town — it’s a clear, cold, starry night, and if you were to climb one of the mountains on snowshoes and look forty miles south toward where town lies, instead of seeing the usual small scatterings of light — like fallen stars, stars sunken to the bottom of a lake, but still glowing — you would see nothing but darkness — a bowl of silence and darkness in balance for once with the mountains up here, rather than opposing or complementing our darkness, our peace.
As it is, we do not climb up on snowshoes to look down at the dark town — the power lines dragged down by the clutches of ice — but can tell instead just by the way there is no faint glow over the mountains to the south that the power is out: that this Thanksgiving, life for those in town is the same as it always is for us in the mountains, and it is a good feeling, a familial one, coming on the holiday as it does — though doubtless too the townspeople are feeling less snug and cozy about it than we are.
We’ve got our lanterns and candles burning. A fire’s going in the stove, as it will all winter long and into the spring. Ann’s dogs are asleep in their straw nests, breathing in that same blue light that is being exhaled from the skeletons of their ancestors just beneath and all around them. There is the faint smell of cold-storage meat — slabs and slabs of it — coming from down in the basement, and we have just finished off an entire chocolate pie and three bottles of wine. Roger, who does not know how to read, is examining the empty bottles, trying to read some of the words on the labels. He recognizes the words the and in and USA. It may be that he will never learn to read — that he will be unable to — but we are in no rush; he has all of his life to accomplish this. I for one believe that he will learn.
Ann has a story for us. It’s about a fellow named Gray Owl, up in Canada, who owned half a dozen speckled German shorthaired pointers and who hired Ann to train them all at once. It was twenty years ago, she says — her last good job.
She worked the dogs all summer and into the autumn, and finally had them ready for field trials. She took them back up to Gray Owl — way up in Saskatchewan — driving all day and night in her old truck, which was old even then, with dogs piled up on top of one another, sleeping and snoring: dogs on her lap, dogs on the seat, dogs on the floorboard.
Ann was taking the dogs up there to show Gray Owl how to work them: how to take advantage of their newfound talents. She could be a sculptor or some other kind of artist, in that she speaks of her work as if the dogs are rough blocks of stone whose internal form exists already and is waiting only to be chiseled free and then released by her, beautiful, into the world.
Basically, in six months the dogs had been transformed from gangling, bouncing puppies into six wonderful hunters, and she needed to show their owner which characteristics to nurture, which ones to discourage. With all dogs, Ann said, there was a tendency, upon their leaving her tutelage, for a kind of chitinous encrustation to set in, a sort of oxidation, upon the dogs leaving her hands and being returned to someone less knowledgeable and passionate, less committed than she. It was as if there were a tendency for the dogs’ greatness to disappear back into the stone.
So she went up there to give both the dogs and Gray Owl a checkout session. She drove with the heater on and the windows down; the cold Canadian air was invigorating, cleanerr. She could smell the scent of the fir and spruce, and the damp alder and cottonwood leaves beneath the many feet of snow. We laughed at her when shhhhhe said it, but she told us that up in Canada she could taste the fish in the water as she drove alongside creeks and rivers.
She got to Gray Owl’s around midnight. He had a little guest cabin but had not heated it for her, uncertain as to the day of her arrival, so she and the six dogs slept together on a cold mattress beneath mounds of elk hides: their last night together. She had brought a box of quail with which to work the dogs, and she built a small fire in the stove and set the box of quail next to it.
The quail muttered and cheeped all night and the stove popped and hissed and Ann and the dogs slept for twelve hours straight, as if submerged in another time, or as if everyone else in the world were submerged in time — and as if she and the dogs were pioneers, or survivors of some kind: upright and exploring the present, alive in the world, free of that strange chitin.
She spent a week up there, showing Gray Owl how his dogs worked. She said he scarcely recognized them afield, and that it took a few days just for him to get over his amazement. They worked the dogs both individually and, as Gray Owl came to understand and appreciate what Ann had crafted, in groups. They traveled across snowy hills on snowshoes, the sky the color of snow, so that often it was like moving through a dream, and, except for the rasp of the snowshoes beneath them and the pull of gravity, they might have believed they had ascended into some sky-place where all the world was snow.
They worked into the wind — north — whenever they could. Ann would carry birds in a pouch over her shoulder and from time to time would fling a startled bird out into that dreary, icy snowscape. The quail would fly off with great haste, a dark feathered buzz bomb disappearing quickly into the teeth of cold, and then Gray Owl and Ann and the dog, or dogs, would go find it, following it by scent only, as always.
Snot icicles would be hanging from the dogs’ nostrils. They would always find the bird. The dog, or dogs, would point it, Gray Owl or Ann would step forward and flush it, and the beleaguered bird would leap into the sky again, and once more they would push on after it, pursuing that bird toward the horizon as if driving it with a whip. Whenever the bird wheeled and flew downwind, they’d quarter away from it, then get a mile or so downwind from it and push it back north.
When the quail finally became too exhausted to fly, Ann would pick it up from beneath the dogs’ noses as they held point staunchly, put the tired bird in her game bag, and replace it with a fresh one, and off they’d go again. They carried their lunch in Gray Owl’s daypack, as well as emergency supplies — a tent and so...