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Winter Mistress

It was the early 1970s and magic permeated the air on the 165 lush acres of upstate New York called Chillum Farm. The world belonged to us — a scruffy, skinny bunch of passionate hippies — and unconditional love and marijuana made anything possible. We planned to change the world by example, living simply with no electricity, plumbing or telephone, working the land and growing much of our own food, and sharing
everything. Our lives ran happily on circuits-overload as we worked and partied till we dropped. Celebrating the demise of the nuclear family we created a dysfunctional one of our own. And like the typical American family we lived with hopes, dreams, tractors, sex, chain saws, gardens, animals, births, food, nudity, singing, and ultimately, relationships that went awry.

The old farmhouse we lived in burned down the end of November and we all moved into our workshop, a tiny space for a dozen people. We built a plastic geodesic dome and attached it to the workshop for additional space. By mid-January an exodus had begun; some family members left permanently, others hit the road for the winter. I remained with another person, John. This is early February.

The winter sun faded, ushering in the all too eager dusk, turning the air in the plastic dome suddenly cooler. Basking in the natural warmth of our inadvertently solar heated house was over for the day. If I didn’t hustle, the dome, and me, would soon be downright cold. I opened Nellie, our potbellied stove, and found only gray ash, not even a spark of glowing red ember. Letting the fire go out was a little game I played with Mother Nature on clear sunny days. The temperature could be 15 degrees outside, but that old winter sun shone through the double layer of plastic and heated the place up as much as if Nellie was cranking. Often I’d be so hot I’d take my shirt off. Now I put one on. I shook the grates, dropping the ashes down to get a good draw, and rolled up some newspapers to place them in the pit of Nellie’s deep belly. Next came a layer of small dry twigs with larger branches piled on top of that — I went out and gathered both regularly, my motto being, you could never have too much kindling. I topped off the pile with a few small logs, creating a woodsy sacrificial pyramid to the goddess of warmth. Setting the pyramid afire, I watched it flame up, then closed the front of the stove and opened the dampers to increase the odds of pleasing the goddess by giving her a roaring blaze.

Next stop, the water buckets. Good. They were full enough to make it till morning. I didn’t have to pull on my mismatched Skidoo boots and parka and scurry to the well in the February freeze. I pulled the globe off one of the kerosene lamps to light it and then I heard them. I sat down, a match burning between my thumb and forefinger, and listened. This was the first time I’d heard them when I was by myself. It was always creepy hearing them, the repetitive howling, echoing over and over, coming closer. Being alone in the plastic dome intensified the eeriness. The hot flame of the match burning my flesh jolted me. Of course, nothing would happen. They were not going to come tearing through the plastic and attack me. I blew out the match, reached for the can of dubie, and rolled a joint.

The coy dogs had been a spooky presence since the fall — one night they just started howling. I’d never heard of these animals before moving to the North Country — Milwaukee had a dearth of wild animals. The locals said they were a cross between a wild dog and a coyote. They traveled in packs and they were always hungry. Their howling began around sunset and could continue on and off throughout the night as they roamed across the pastures and meadows and through the woods. None of us had ever seen them, but there was no mistaking their sound. Some nights the howling seemed really close, like tonight, like maybe they were just up the path at the barn. Wherever they were, they were definitely nearby and moving in my direction. I shivered, reminded of the distinct vulnerability that living in a plastic house creates.

I fired up the joint with a deep drag then lit all the kerosene lamps. I opened Nellie, and with relief and pleasure, saw that I had once again built a roaring fire. Congratulating myself on my success I tossed a few big logs into the stove. I’d never made a fire before the previous month and I still counted each one as a major accomplishment. Our dog Basil paced outside, barking at the marauders. “Basil! Come here sweet puppy,” I called at the door. He was the man of my house for the moment and I wanted him around, as much for me as for him.

It had been several weeks since most everyone else had hit the road for winter trips, and now it was just John and me holding it together. The desertion I’d originally felt when the mass exodus took place had been replaced by pride of accomplishment and a sense of ownership. Living in a group that didn’t believe in personal property I knew that the ownership part wasn’t cool, but it came with the territory of holding down the fort and feeling responsible for keeping the home fires burning — literally.

Housekeeping was never my thing, in fact, my ex-husband, the dry cleaning king, used to complain about my lack of interest in that area. But living in a plastic dome during a North Country winter awoke my latent skills and added many that were seriously more practical for survival. There was so much to do just to function on a regular basis: water to carry, wood to split, kindling to gather, fires to build and tend, grain to grind, bread to bake, meals to plan and cook, kerosene lamps to clean and fill, dog and cat to look after, holes to chop in the ice, horses to feed and water, stalls to clean, and walks to take to see a landscape that looked entirely new in its winter nakedness.

That’s when I fell in love with the North Country — when I saw it naked. In the months before winter I grew to love the family, the way of life, and living in the lush country of late spring, summer, and early autumn. I was taken with the fullness and the brightness of it all. But the true lay of the land only revealed itself in winter. Starkly bare, covered in white or brown, it stood in its splendor, exposing clearly the rises of the pastures; shadowing the lines of the rocky outcroppings; setting in stark relief the islands of trees in the meadows; opening the woods to exploration; displaying the shapes of the trees — lithe and lean, wide and gnarled, grand and glorious, or dried and decayed; proclaiming the vistas that full-leafed greenery hid. That first winter I knew I had found home. In mid-summer when I talked about this being home I meant the family, and even though I loved the countryside, I never felt the affinity that seeped in during these winter months. Now I was filled with a sense of belonging — a connection to land and life — that I had never experienced. Every day was a thrilling challenge.

Suddenly, it was dark. Once the sun’s short winter arc hit the horizon that was it, dusk was brief, dark was long. Earlier in the day, John had taken the van and gone to Kelly Road, where he used to live in a green army tent before moving in with us, to cut wood with his former neighbor Sky Simmons. The Simmonses ate early so I expected him home any time now. Food came to mind. We’d eat the bread I’d baked that morning — sesame with cracked millet. It’s nutty flavor and texture made it my favorite recipe from the Tassajara Bread Book, which had become my bible. I believed totally in the author’s admonition that “The most delicious food is made by someone who really cares about what they’re doing.” I had learned to care deeply, so much so that even grinding the wheat berries to get ten cups of whole wheat flour, (14 cups if I had no unbleached white to use), the sesame seeds to get eight cups of meal, and then the easy part, loosening the grain grinder to crack the millet to yield three cups, was no longer the arduous task it used to be. Or perhaps the length of time behind the grinder led to delusion. Lem had built a counter for the grain grinder before he left, so thinking of him, and wondering how he and Midge were doing in that big evil place, New York City, I had learned to hit my stride, leaning into the grinder and turning the handle with nice even strokes. I barely even got blisters anymore. Of course, there were days when I wouldn’t bake bread unless I could solicit grinding help. But today I’d been on my own and gotten my workout and four tantalizing loaves that would keep us for a few days.

A pot of lentils with carrots, potatoes, and onions, all survivors from the root cellar, had been cooking for a while. It was ready to eat and I was hungry, but John wasn’t back yet. I started getting worried. They would have long since stopped cutting, and there had been no new snow for the van to get stuck in over there. I sat down at the flour grinder counter, which doubled as a desk, and started a letter to Midge. The howling of the coy dogs had let up so my concentration would be decent, but just to make sure, I took a few hits of the dubie I’d left in the ashtray.

“My dearest Scorpio sister,” I began, and had soon filled a page with stoned ramblings. Still no sign of John. I decided to have a small taste of lentils to quiet the rumblings of my stomach. I ate slowly and without gusto — although the lentils were delicious — because worry had turned to serious concern. Alone with no vehicle, I sure as hell didn’t want to have to put on full winter gear and walk the mile down our darkened road – with lean hungry coy dogs – so I could use the neighbor’s phone to call the Simmonses and find out where the fuck John was.

I finished my lentils and relit my trusty companion, the joint. I lacked the focus to read so I paged through a seed catalogue, temporarily distracted by the bright colors of the vegetables whose seeds the Burpee Seed Company tried to entice us to purchase from them. Finally, I heard the sounds of a vehicle coming up the road, followed by the crunch of footsteps on the snow heading toward the dome. In walked John. He stamped his feet to get the snow off and hung his jacket on a hook by the door.

“Are you okay?” I asked as he pulled his hat off; the top of his dark hair was plastered to his head and his ponytail hung limply behind. He nodded. “Did something happen? You look a little strange.”

“Oh Sunshine, you’re not going to believe this one!” he said, sitting down to remove his boots.

I sat down also and waited. I noticed that he was moving his mouth funny, but John was a slow and deliberate sort, no point bombarding him with questions. He’d tell me in his own fashion at his own speed.

“On the way to Kelly Road the van began to squeal and I thought it might be the brakes,” he began. “So I cut wood with Sky for a while then decided to go to his brother Hudson’s to check out the van. Hudson has a shop in his garage.”

I got up and filled bowls for both of us and brought them to the table along with the loaf of bread I’d already partly decimated.

“Thanks, I’m hungry,” John said, taking a spoonful and chewing slowly and awkwardly, his mouth moving not quite in sync with itself. Then he went on. “I pulled the van into the garage and told Hudson and Betty that I was there and what I was going to do. Then I rolled underneath the van with a flashlight. I poked around and felt some loose screws, but I needed both hands to tighten them, so I put the flashlight into my mouth.”

“You put the flashlight in your mouth?”

“Yeah, well, I needed light, and my hands, and I couldn’t figure out how else to get it.”

“So what happened?” I prodded.

“I finish the job and I reach for the flashlight, but I can’t get it out of my mouth. My mouth is molded around this flashlight, and I can’t move it.”

I looked at him incredulously and tried not to laugh. “Oh Jesus! What’d you do?”

“I rolled out from under the van, stood up, and slowly twisted, turned, and tugged until the flashlight came out. But then I couldn’t close my mouth. I couldn’t move my jaw. I went into the house. Hudson and Betty were watching TV. ‘You done, John?’ Hudson asked. I nodded and grunted and pointed to my jaw. ‘You find the problem?’ he wanted to know. I nodded, grunted, and pointed again. ‘What are you trying to say?’ he asked. I kept grunting and pointing. Then Betty asked me why my mouth was open. So I grunted and pointed some more.”

“Then what?” I asked, laughing. Between his gestures and descriptions I couldn’t hold it back anymore.

“Finally they realized that my jaw was stuck and Hudson says, ‘Oh, that happened to my brother Bucky once, pretty funny,’ and they both go back to watching television. So I stood there for a few minutes, not knowing what to do. Then I got in the van and drove to the hospital in Ogdensburg.”

“Alone? You mean Hudson and Betty didn’t do anything? They didn’t offer to help at all?”

“No. It was weird. They’re such nice people. Maybe Bucky’s jaw got back to normal right away so they figured it was no big deal. Anyway, I went to the hospital, saw a doctor who manipulated my jaw, and got it back to normal. Then he asked me how it happened.”

“What’d you tell him?” I started laughing again.

John looked at me sheepishly. “I told him the story.”

“Yeah?”

“He told me never to do that again.”

We both giggled. I gave him a big hug, then together we cleaned up. “I’m beat.” John said. “I’m going to bed.” He headed toward the ladder that would take him to the loft. He stopped before climbing. “Thanks Sunshine.”

“For what?” I asked.

“For dinner, for being concerned, for listening – and for not laughing too hard.”

“That’s what family’s for,” I answered. “Sweet dreams.”

I loaded Nellie up for the night then slipped my feet into a pair of boots, threw on my parka, and went out to pee. I heard the coy dogs howling off in the distance, but the cold dark night no longer felt threatening. Basil trotted along with me as I walked toward the pit that used to be our house. I looked at the monolith that had been the chimney and wondered for the zillionth time what life would be like if the house hadn’t burned down. Would the others all still have gone away? Would I still be here just with John? Basil nudged me. “You’re right, Basil, no point going there again. It’s been a full day, let’s go to bed.”