by emily brisse

Look at it Like this

You go to bed, the night inky black, aware that there is a field below the window full of dusty blonde grasses, dried clumps of goldenrod, scratchy patches of sepiaed clover. There is wind, so their brittle bodies rattle against each other like reluctant bones, or swish down and back up—thin, dilapidated flags of the retreating autumn. You do not consciously think of any of this. It just is, like the woods are beyond the field, hundreds of brown arms reaching into an open sky, and you rest with this image buried in your dreams.

But when you wake, you tug open the blinds, and the easy belief you held the night before of ordinary, of familiar, of something known is shocked out of your hands. No matter how many northern winters you have experienced, the first snowstorm of the season is always new, is always completely bewildering in its power to transform the recognizable into something other, something that is sudden, and total, and white.

You cannot believe how much has fallen while you slept.

You cannot understand why you didn't wake, why some sound no matter how soft did not alert you.

Standing at the window, you watch the quarter-sized flakes swirl in sometimes beautiful, sometimes ferocious, circles.

You go out on the deck and put your hands in the stuff, making snowballs until your flesh stings, until your husband brings mittens, and a hat, and a coat, and a grinning shake of the head. You tell him, "I'm going on a walk, now." And he kisses your red wet nose.

 And off you go, walking, the snow still flying, though a bit more slowly. You discover a landscape that did not exist twelve hours before: ground that sinks and crunches, wind that forms solid ledges where before there was only air, air that is crisper—studded with fireplace smoke. A few old friends poke out from that other, earlier world. That colored world. Today, you peer ahead at a thick and heavy pale ocean.

You clomp along. You swim. Waves upon waves of white.

When you come across the berry trees, a thrill shoots through you, the opposite of a shiver, because of course there is color, and of course it is small and concentrated, at the ends of wands, full of power. Each one is dripping with water, bright like embers of a fire. You think the snow clings to the branches for as long as it can to stay near them.   

You step. You stroke. Your eyelashes catch a dozen snowflakes.

A bird, dark and glistening, hops branches. You wonder about the fish in streams, the pheasants in fields—were they surprised, too, this morning? That season ago? Were they, like you, amazed at the white, the new spaces that extended out from every side? Because all that was small and light has been laid flat, and the things that are visible now are strong and ancient: two red granite boulders, an old gnarled oak. You imagine them as sentinels, guiding the deer home.

And when you tramp into the woods—stepping over downed logs covered in ten inches of snow; crouching under and around branches and plants that have thistles and barbs that catch on your clothes; noticing animal tracks, bird song, snow slipping from the higher branches and thunking into the soft earth or smacking the top of your head—you see yourself there, alone and ecstatic and full of a wonder that others would tell you is disproportionate to what is not white, what is not pure, what is the stuff of cities or newspapers or unalleviated pain, and you think, What am I—five?

But then you look up—the branches a tangle of filigreed fingers—and down—a little leaf fallen right at your boot-toe—then within—because ever since you were small, the natural world has always been not an escape as much as an absolute answer—and you realize the only thing that makes any sense is to keep walking.


Emily Brisse

Emily Brisse's essays have been published widely, and have recently appeared or are forthcoming from Creative Nonfiction's True Story, River Teeth, and Sweet. A recent recipient of a Minnesota Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant, she teaches high school English at Breck School in Minneapolis.