Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Another Idaho Sky

It happened again last night, as it does every time I return home to my mother's patch of mountain on the outskirts of Pocatello--the sky here took my breath away.

It's sad that I've grown so used to the orange-tinted halogen nights of Denver, with the low grumble of distant traffic masquerading as silence each time Duncan and I venture out to the park or climb the hill overlooking the lake. I spend ninety-five percent of the year thinking I know what quiet is, like last week when Ken and I stood on the patio at two in the morning and I marveled at the seeming stillness of the world simply because Bowles was empty and calm. And then I come home and am shaken to my core to discover I know nothing, that I've forgotten everything which must relearned before I drive away again.

We went out late last night for one last walk and a bathroom break for Roo, who has not had a Big Job since we arrived. The snow is very deep and comes just up to his chin. He loves it, of course, but there is no place to squat so we stepped down the drive and walked along the road nearly to the old highway. It snowed all day yesterday, thick, relentless sheets of the stuff, large, powdery, dry flakes which still have not turned heavy or wet. It is easy to walk through and gusts up around my ankles like a pile of loose feathers, but it clings and balls up tightly and is no easy task to wipe away from Duncan's shanks and belly. He is quite finicky and needs a nice smooth place, clear and dry with easy access, so we stuck to the road and the places where the plough moved through, pushing up frozen waves along its edges.

The sky had finally cleared and as we left the gate and turned south I looked up, right into the eyes of Orion, who was as clear as I remember but had somehow forgotten. I gasped and felt my knees buckle as they always do at the sight of the deep night and the stars over the mountain and came to an immediate stop, which startled Duncan and caused him to turn and frown at me. The dogs which mom's neighbors let run loose out here had been mercifully removed inside and the night was ours with the exception of the occasional rig speeding across the interstate. The silence was shocking and even my whispered awe seemed loud.

On our walks I occasionally play blind and close my eyes, letting Duncan lead the way. I might as well have done that for as he led me down the road, wandering this way and that, pulling on the leash, my head was craned far back, a few final flakes sifting down from the trees and the tall sage alighting on my face and stinging like the kindest, most gentle pin pricks. We rounded the curve and headed toward the old highway, Duncan taking slow and cautious steps as though he'd heard something. It wasn't until we'd gone perhaps fifty feet and he'd stopped dead in his tracks, the leash falling slack at my feet, that I looked away from the constellations and at the road where we stood.

Christmas Eve 1991 had been an adventure. My friends from the Quality Inn where I worked gathered at Kevi's house for an impromptu party which lasted until the wee hours. After it ended, my friend Harvey, who'd just bought a used pick-up truck with enormous tires, wanted desperately to show me how powerful it was and somehow coaxed me into taking a ride up in the mountains south of town between Inkom and Pocatello, not too far from where my mother now lives. He knew a trail to the top of the hill where we could see the entirety of the Portneuf River Valley covered in a new snow much like the snow that fell yesterday. It would be his gift to me for he knew how much I loved to see new places, especially places I know but in a new light. So, like the idiots we were we climbed into his truck without coats or a sand bag or shovel and headed up in the mountains, taking Harvey's secret path to the top. Halfway up we got stuck and after an hour or more of trying to back out we realized we were beat and had to walk the eight miles back to Kevi's house where Cleo, my little red car, was waiting.

The walk was not as bad as I'd thought. The air was cool but not uncomfortable and the sound of our feet on the sanded roads was rhythmic and soft, the dusting of snow in the empty fields all around twinkling and whispering as we passed. We talked at first, making fun of the ridiculous situation we'd put ourselves in, but after a while we fell silent, each caught up in the silence around us and the sky overhead. After four or five miles the road narrowed and turned under the interstate. As we passed beneath it and emerged into the bright moonlit on the other side the world fell strangely silent around us, as though the silence we'd marched through for an hour had been a cacophony. We both stopped in the middle of the road and it took a long minute to see the tall shadows standing around us in a wide circle at the center of which we stood. Harvey gasped and a smile came to my face, the air cold on my lips and gums. Somehow we'd wandered into a herd of deer, perhaps twenty or thirty strong. They'd remained motionless but watchful and I couldn't help but feel as though we'd interrupted an important meeting or were the guests of honor at a surprise party. We stood there a long time as they milled around us, never coming too close and looking up every now and then to check our position. Eventually the herd moved slowly away, off toward the mountain where they faded into the shadows cast by the moon on the sage brush. Harvey and I did not speak until they were long gone and sound returned, to the world, filling the void we'd stumbled into. "What just happened?" he whispered as we softly resumed our march back into town. Christmas that year was magical, my last before leaving for college in Lake Forest, but what I remember most was the emptiness where we'd stood holding our breath, guests of wonder.

There were not sixty deer on the road last night, only a few, perhaps the very ones who strolled through mom's yard the night before. They were huddled up tight on the corner between an unruly, gnarled elm and the street sign not twenty feet away. Duncan's ears were up, his tail straight out, and for the second time in minutes I caught my breath and stood frozen, afraid to move. Duncan, a consummate rabbit hunter, did not pull on his leash but merely stood, his mouth closed tightly, his body rigid with fascination. Eventually they wandered away leaving us there in the darkness and silence, the smiling face of Orion looking down on us from above.

1 comment:

Sue said...

WOW! Awesome post, as always. I can just picture you standing there so long ago in the midst of all of the deer. What an experience!

I hope you and Duncan have a wonderful holiday.