December 28, 2009

A Winter Scene

On the Ice, By Verlyn Klinkenborg
Published: December 27, 2009; New York Times

The school buses have already left, and now the first teachers are heading for their cars and trucks, the day over, the afternoon thick with relief. The bitter cold of the weekend has lifted. Out on the ice, just past the school, there is a precise rectangle of banked snow, the outline of a skating rink that was carefully shoveled and swept clear when the snow was deep. But now, after a few warm days, the entire pond is clear of snow, all but the boundary of the rink, where a solitary man is lacing his hockey skates.

He skates away from his shoes, stick in hand, puck before him on the ice. He isn’t thinking about speed or a slap shot. He skates just bent enough to clap the blade on the ice, urging the puck forward and yet boxing it in. The whole pond is his. He is holding himself in, making the ice last, measuring his possession of it by the slowness and grace of his movements. Behind him the snow peaks rise, for this is Livingston, Mont.

He worries the puck a little — chivying it from side to side, like a fox toying with a vole. Or perhaps it’s a gentler motion than that, as though he were domesticating the puck, showing it the limits of its freedom. You must imagine the slow sweep of his legs, the clacking of the stick, the deep-night blackness of the puck itself on the dull gray ice, which is soundless except for the gnashing of his blades.

Now he skates down the pond, and now he rounds back, as if to revisit his shoes. I think of Wordsworth’s midnight ecstasy on the ice. But this is a spot in time every bit as moving. The light is tumbling out of the sky like a snowfall of dusk. The school buses are turning homeward again. Before long, the houses along this pond will spill an amber glow through their windows into the night. But for now there is more than enough light — reflected by the ice — to keep skating. There is nothing prepossessing about the man out there except the grace of his movement and the way he keeps house with his hockey stick.

To be walking past a pond while a man skates across the afternoon is to feel suddenly stiff-gaited and woefully destination-bound, even though this is just a leisurely walk. The best I can hope for out here, on the pavement, is a stone to kick ahead of me. But inside I am skating through the fading light too, feeling the depth of the ice under me, the poise of my blades. Like the man on skates, I know that now is the precious time. Out on the ice, he is guarding the moment, keeping it close with his stick.

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