WHEN I WAS SIX OR SEVEN, I dug a deep hole into the snowdrift in my grandma’s front yard. Bundled up in a too-small navy snowsuit that pinched my crotch, I was out there alone, and that’s the way I liked it. I could make up stories. I could say swear words. Shit, shit, shit, I chanted as I dug, daring one of the adults inside to hear me. I dug and dug with small mittened hands. I dug from the top down, two-handed, flinging snow behind me like a dog in sand. I dug because I was weird and my sisters hated me and the sun was out. I dug because I had nothing else to do on a Sunday in February but disappear into a silent, white hole. I dug because I loved the cold and the way I could survive in it already. So skinny my doctor thought I was anemic, yet so fierce I could withstand winter’s harsh slap across my face for hours and hours. On ice skates. On skis. On anything. I felt at home in the cold and snow, learning early on to love the way winter cleaned and covered and silenced the world, to love its icy grip.
IN THE PAST TWO WEEKS, my sons’ school has been canceled five times. It has been very cold. There has been a lot of snow. My chickens’ eggs crack and freeze the moment they hit the ground. Ice dams threaten our roof. It’s another February in Minnesota, and much of the Midwest is colder than the northern Arctic, some cities reaching temperatures of fifty below. Seventeen people have died. The city has declared a snow emergency, and no one can park in the streets. After each school closing announcement, my two boys bounce around the house screaming in ecstasy like they won a box of fucking puppies and I can’t get any work done. Laundry piles up. I have to wear the small underwear that cuts into me, leaving an angry red line across my stomach.
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A HUMPBACK WHALE IS discovered in the Amazon rainforest, dead.
I SIT AT MY COMPUTER editing dialogue an hour before dress rehearsal, and I hear my older son say to his brother, She’s probably just on Facebook. He’s mad because I won’t play cribbage with him. I’m mad because I can’t play cribbage with him. My play opens in three days, and I still have so much to do. My husband is directing the play, and since it’s tech week, he is always at the theater. Our theater. A small theater in a small suburb of Minneapolis that we founded together twelve years ago. A passion project that we began on a whim after leaving New York with our new baby. At first it was exciting. Now it pays the bills. I look out my kitchen window where snow falls and falls, blanketing my street flake by white flake, burying cars and trees and fire hydrants, forcing small birds to huddle inside pine trees. Piles and piles of heavy wonderland for all of us to move through.
I have twenty-five minutes to get dinner into the three of us, pick up the sitter, and get to rehearsal when I receive an automated call from the school district: due to the extreme cold, school will be closed for the next three days. I crack store-bought eggs into a pan on the stove and push them around with a wooden spoon.
APPARENTLY, IT IS UNUSUAL for a humpback whale to be anywhere near the northern coast of Brazil in February. Experts are baffled as to how it got there. Very rarely do humpback whales travel that far north this time of year. Sea levels have been rising, and rough winds may have flung the whale to the swampy mangroves, where local biologists found it.
THIS IS NOT NORMAL WINTER. We haven’t seen cold and snow like this since the ’90s. One night, after staying up late watching a dumb romantic comedy, I find myself on the toilet crying uncontrollably, a wad of soggy toilet paper in my lap. Sobs coming in waves, my ribs aching. I just can’t get my shit together. Maybe it’s the cold pressing into my bones. My husband and I haven’t touched each other in weeks. The news cycle has been sickening. Hundreds of families seeking asylum at the border and children being ripped from their parents’ arms. And somehow, it’s the fault of the endless snow. I use the last of the toilet paper and reach for a hand towel. I tell myself not to crumble, but I crumble. Our house is small, and the bathroom is the only place to let it rip.
When you get to this phase in your crying, there’s no untangling anything. It exists in one big rolled-up yarn ball of hot pain under your rib cage, like a sock full of rice that’s been in the microwave. You see your dog’s shadow under the bathroom door and know that his big fluffy body is pressed against the wood. He must be wondering what’s going on in there. This scene is upsetting him. He’s not going anywhere. That’s his girl in there.
THE WHALE, AN ADOLESCENT, is estimated to weigh ten tons. There is no way to remove the body because bulldozers can’t cross the swamp. I watch the video footage over and over again. A man and a woman in tan windbreakers and hiking boots walk around the dead whale. They have clipboards and speak in loud whispers, as if they are afraid of waking it up from his nap. They think it may be a calf separated from his mother during migration. They are planning to let the carcass fully decompose, and then they will dismantle and display the skeleton in a natural history museum.
THE HOLE, MY HOLE, was too straight down. I should have come at it from the side, more of an angle. I dug and dug until I hit bottom and then I fell in headfirst. I remember a quiet thud and then stillness. Nothing. With my arms pinned to my sides and my face pressed against frozen ground, I could do nothing. It was quiet. I was upside down, my pink Moon Boots sticking out of the snow above me. I didn’t move because I couldn’t. I should have panicked but I didn’t. I felt calm, like I was in a kind of secret hug.
A WHALE IN THE RAINFOREST seems like an important discovery, but I suppose anything being in a strange place seems important. A polar bear wandering inland. A snowy owl nesting in California. A little girl upside down in a hole of snow. All of us unmoored by the movement of water. All of us suddenly thrust into places we don’t belong.
I find it just a little bit sad that even though a whale can travel thousands of miles and give birth and sing and even love, we decide its being dead in the forest is the thing that makes it strange. Already. Already we have moved past the singing.
THE NEXT-DOOR NEIGHBOR had warned us about ice dams. Hanging in front of our living room window is a row of freakishly long, sinister icicles. Deathly sharp, they jut medieval from the roof, like fangs of a very toothy, very abominable monster, threatening to pierce our snow-piled window boxes at any moment. They are so large, so very attached to the gutters, that whacking at them with a shovel would be too dangerous. We don’t have one of those long rakes to shovel the roof. We don’t have a snowblower. We could buy two plane tickets to somewhere warm, or we could buy a long rake and a snowblower, and although that argument seems valid enough, we don’t ever actually buy two plane tickets to go anywhere warm.
I Google ice dams and learn that they are caused by the complex interaction between heat loss from a house, snow cover, and outside temperature. For dams to form, some parts of the roof have to be above thirty-two degrees and other parts of the roof have to be below thirty-two degrees. The dam grows as water from melting snow above feeds it. On the way down, water may find its way into cracks in the roof and seep inside and make your ceilings into wet cardboard, and if that happens on a Monday, it will feel extra worse because you have already sworn off drinking wine on Mondays and now your ceilings are soggy and yellow and cracked and you have nothing left to live for. The article goes on to discuss conduction, convention, and radiation, but I lose focus during that part because the cat has the hiccups and it’s kind of hilarious.
My husband sends me to the gas station a block away for ice melt. I have to ask what ice melt is. Salt, he says. Oh. We have never bought salt before. It’s bad for the dog’s paws and for the environment in general. But now we have to buy salt and put it on our roof and hurt the dog and kill the environment because we have to save our house from being swallowed by ice and the neighbors are beginning to talk. I’m not sure if dumping a large bag of salt on our roof is going to help. I’m pretty sure most of it will just slide off and end up on our flower boxes and also destroy any chance of flowers coming up in spring but that’s what the bearded experts on YouTube say so that’s what we do.
IF IT HADN’T BEEN FOR BIRDS circling overhead, no one would have known about the whale. He would have just lain there, decomposing on his own, free from experts and their windbreakers, their assessments. The thought occurs to me that he could have been alive when the giant wave brought him there. No one knows, of course, but it’s possible. I wonder how long it would take for a whale to die on land. Can he see through the dry air? Can he smell? I wonder if a whale can even sing on land. I want him to be able to.
I AM SITTING AT MY KITCHEN table writing and I see a truck pull up across the street. Two men wearing bright yellow jackets and pants drag red hoses from their truck to the front of the neighbor’s house. They circle the house for fifteen minutes, looking up, assessing the situation. One pulls a ladder from the truck bed, drags it through the snowdrift, and sets it against the roof. He climbs to the top and begins attacking the outside of the little yellow house with steam from the end of his hose. Icicles the size of human thighs crash into the snow below him. The whole house disappears inside a bomb of steam.
For a while I watch them melt and chisel the ice, until I have to turn away. I don’t like the way they’re beating down the ice with their hoses, fighting water with more water. Turning water against itself like that.
DISTRACTED BY MY OWN SUDDEN disappearance, seconds turn to minutes. It is very quiet and I am breathing fine, though all the blood is rushing to my head. I see stars. There is a sense of solemn wonder down here. A sense of me and only me. I imagine this is what it feels like in the womb, serene and silent and stilled. Whether I am being gently cradled or slowly crushed, I do not know. Winter has begun to claim my small, skinny body and I don’t even mind. It doesn’t feel wrong.
I WONDER IF HE FELT SCARED, all alone and under the trees like that. Did he marvel at the soft wind on his skin, the sudden absence of water, the green leaves that floated down from the sky to settle around his body? What does it feel like to be crushed by your own weight? To be claimed by dry air? To learn for the first time you weigh anything at all?
PLEASE, I’M SAYING, PLEASE just let Mom work. My son is almost twelve. He is curled up next to me on the bed, his eyes on my screen, one hand petting the dog. The temperature outside is minus thirty degrees and the walls have closed in on us, making our two- bedroom bungalow feel even smaller. The chickens have begun eating their own eggs. A ninety-year-old woman was found dead, having accidentally locked herself out while feeding the birds. Please, please let Mom work. Just fifteen minutes. Just a little bit. I am behind. Now that my play has opened, I am catching up on other work. Readings for grad school. Essays that need revision. Grants for my theater. I am tired and my patience has waned. My son stiffens. Uncurls himself. Walks to the bedroom door. I’m sorry, I say. As he leaves, I notice a tiny blackhead on his nose.
He leaves the room. I turn to my screen and read a sentence I’ve written about whales. I try to stay focused, to write faster, but the door keeps opening. Snack inquiries. Math homework. Has the cat been fed? What time am I leaving tonight? It occurs to me I’ve already written an essay about whales. Maybe I need to diversify. Write more about land animals. Slower, less majestic things. Birds that don’t fly come to mind. Or tortoises.
EVERYONE IS GETTING BLOODY NOSES. The air inside our house is dry and I can’t keep enough lotion on my hands. I tug a freshly washed mattress cover onto my son’s bed and the static shocks me into screaming Motherfucker. A huge spark explodes from the blanket, like some kind of Harry Potter magic wand shit, zapping me on the end of my index finger where I had picked the skin away after reading the bad reviews of my play. I didn’t even notice the skin was gone until the shock.
The temperature dips even lower, snow continues to fall, and I obsess about the dog’s paws and keeping the bird feeder full. My boys haul our five chickens inside, stuffing them into the dog kennel in the basement, a complicated task that involves sequestering the dog and cat, erecting a roosting perch, and covering the kennel floor with brown paper bags. In the morning, the smell almost knocks me over. Spilled water mixed with shit mixed with chicken feed oozing over the sides of the kennel floor. After cleaning up the mess and hauling the birds back outside, I vow never to bring them in again, but the next day it’s even colder and my boys plead with real tears to bring them in. This time I don’t feed or water them, so they’re nice and warm but dehydrated, which I feel bad about until they shit all over the place again and I have to clean it all up.
On my way home from the theater, I see two wild turkeys huddled under a small awning in front of a learning center called Tinker Thinkers down the block from our house. I stop the car and roll down my window. I’ve never seen wild turkeys on Main Street before. The turkeys stand on one leg pecking at the glass desperately like they need to get in there and learn some stuff. You guys okay? I shout out my window at the shivering turkeys. They don’t answer, so I drive away. The awning will keep them out of the snow, and I remind myself my basement is already full of birds that shouldn’t be there.
I TRY TO PUT THE DEAD WHALE story behind me, but then I have a dream about him. In the dream he is not fully dead. Someone needs to push him back into the water. I’m trying to find the experts in the tan windbreakers, but they aren’t there. No one else is around. I push and push on the whale, worried I’m hurting him, but it’s no use. The body will not be moved.
I sit up in bed and wonder if I should go to the bathroom or eat a bowl of cereal. Then I wonder about the whale’s mother. If she knew where her baby was, would she try to make her way from the ocean’s edge into the forest? Wait at the mouth of the Amazon River until the ocean became angry enough again, large enough again, to pick her up and fling her in that same direction, past the swamp and into the thick mangroves? Would she defy her own migratory pattern and travel too far north? In the pictures, the whale looks ghostly and beautiful under the gnarled trees; peaceful and intact, with no visible injuries. Just there, as if he had always been. A still and silent ocean dweller at rest under the canopy. Trees and whales and things that water can do. A mother singing or not singing. Crying or not crying. Torn maybe, between where she wants to be, and where she is called to go.
I’M NOT 100 PERCENT CONVINCED winter is what’s making me cry so hard on the toilet. That never-ending season that punishes even as you cheerfully embrace it with cross-country skis and a sauna in the basement. A son named Winter. Reverence for the cold, silent sky and the hundred thousand million stars that burn up there like stunted fireworks. I have always loved winter, even when it pushes into me like this. Walking from the garage to the house with a load of groceries, I sometimes stop on the sidewalk and look up into the cold. My breath swirls in a quiet mist, then dissolves on its journey upward. I only let myself do this for a little while because if I stay out too long looking up at something that beautiful, I will probably freeze to the sidewalk or disappear.
I see another neighbor down the street unwrap a package on his porch. He pulls out the long handle of a rake section by section, then gingerly fits each piece together. When that’s all done, he holds it in his hands and looks up at his roof. His ice dams are the only ones as big as ours, and now he’s going to get rid of them. I wish he wouldn’t; I thought we were in this thing together.
Water starts seeping in from the seam in the living room window while I soak in the bathtub. My boys watch a blue plastic cup fill drop by drop. It becomes a game to see how many more drops can fall before water splashes over the edge. One of them shoves the overflowing cup through the shower curtain to show me. I jump out of the tub, throw on my robe, my boots, my winter jacket, and dive out into the cold. I have no plan. My boys frantically tap on the window. I know something needs to be done to stop the water from leaking, but all I can do is stand there in the snow staring up at the icicles while my hair hardens into frozen clumps of straw.
IT IS MONDAY NIGHT, MY night off, and I decide I get to drink wine. We are all at the table for a rare family dinner. Pork chops have been made. Beets have been roasted. A candle has been lit. Then my husband mentions that the kitchen ceiling is dripping. I look up and see yellow cracks spiderwebbing above me, small bubbles appearing like magic in the paint. I don’t have to get up on a chair to know that the ceiling is wet. Our neighbor was right. Water is coming in through the roof. I should be upset by this. Things will begin to crumble and rot. I should be jumping out of my chair, swearing my face off, but I’m not. I am strangely calm with my candle, my wine, my beets. I remember as a little girl, letting winter have its way like this. The cold hardening me, turning parts of me to crystal, and me daring it to finish. My face and toes and fingers tingling with pain, my body begging me to go inside or else.
AND THEN IN A MOMENT I am being yanked out of the snow. Dangling upside down by my pink Moon Boots. My uncle’s strong hands. Sudden brightness. Frost dusting his moustache. A gasp of frozen air hits my lungs. He plops me down on the sidewalk. I stare up at him and he laughs a big laugh before heading into my grandma’s house for egg bake. Dazed, I take a deep breath and check in with the sky. The winter birds are singing. The sun is out. I am alive.
I AM ALIVE, BUT OF COURSE, the whale is not. There were no arms strong enough to save him, to heave him back home. And very soon his skeleton will be neatly bound by wire and hung inside a building where people can pay to stand an appropriate distance away from his whitewashed bones. We will read of how he came to be there on a small card, and then we will step outside into the warm sun and discuss where to head for lunch while the whale remains forever suspended from the ceiling, cradled by his new home of dry air.
I DECIDE THE CRACKS ARE actually kind of beautiful. Meandering and fine as hairs, tiny yellow rivers gushing silently above my little family, bubbling and animating our Monday night dinner. Fine. I let them spread. I have spent my entire adult life trying to beat back the elements, keep things warm and dry and smooth and clean. Trying to keep the cracks from spreading, the water from seeping, the cold from entering. But water, I’ve found, wants what it wants. In the end, it will always win. A strange kind of joy happens when you allow something to become just a little bit ruined.
WE FINISH DINNER AND my husband borrows the neighbor’s ladder, trudging it through snow to the side of the house where the water is coming from. He leans it against the roof directly outside the window of my tiny office. I hear banging, and the subsequent clink, clink, clink of ice chunks careening down. He bangs something sharp and heavy against the ice dams, over and over and over, shaking the whole house and upsetting the dog, who is squashed against the door to my office, whining. I open the door and he crashes in, sliding across the hardwood floor on his overgrown nails. My boys are fighting because one is in the bathtub and the other one needs to pee. There was a time I was trying to write, but now there is nothing but the darkening sky, and the pounding at the roof, my husband beating back the thick shelves of ice with a hammer or spade or some other kind of tool, trying to stop more water from leaking into the house.
SOMETHING I’VE NOW COME to understand. Wildlife experts note that some animals end up in places they shouldn’t be simply because they are curious. Yes, strange migration patterns can usually be attributed to climate change, loss of habitat, and human interference, but some animals purposefully veer off course because they are pulled in a different direction. They want to see what else is out there.
I like this theory.