Alexandra Marshall

Excerpt

Still Waters

Winter

A day at the pond in winter is a short one telescoped by the long dark on either side of it. Dawn heads up a pale dusty-rose, turns to yellow, then a thin orange, thinner gold, again yellow, and then loses itself through diffusion into gray and behind low-slung clouds.

I squat against a tree back from the cattail marsh and decide to try and pick up color through the binoculars. Color on a gray immobile day like this is anything that isn't brown for bark or olive for pine needle. Eventually I locate a pack of deer back through the trees. They are redder than the bark and furry with a winter growth that mostly hides the fact that they are skinny. One forages, kicking back the snow with a foreleg in a stiff-legged sideways motion. Another stretches up to peel bark from one of the younger trees, a tree already stripped up to the point within comfortable reach of an adult deer.

This day ended early, which is another way of saying that it justifies a day to have seen something, anything. Otherwise, I read dozens of books all at once and console myself with the testimony of others that winter is not the season one wishes long life.

Spring

March in the pivot month. Winter's grip begins to slip, and spring, which is not yet in place, begins to gather its forces.

The important thing to keep in mind is that once the ice retreats, what is most vital is exactly that which we are incapable of seeing: the infinitesimals photosynthesizing, turning what looks like water into an oxygen broth.

Eventually of course, because spring would have to be called something else if it weren't at some point a coil sprung open, eventually there are visible signs.

The fat buds on trees pop open one overnight, opening into lime-colored parachutes.

The skunk cabbage that appeared through the mud as yellow-streaked purple knots when the trees were still in bud are winding open now into green spiraling leaves that unfurl, as if each leaf were a rolled-up flag.

All around the pond all spring and into the summer, the young of the year are being born.

But what a risky business spring is. A wood-duck mother takes its brood cruising, and seven miniaturizations paddle after in file. A pickerel grabs one of them by the feet and jerks it under, and then there are six. A den is burglarized, nests are robbed, and jellied globs of eggs are gobbled routinely. It is staggering to think that spring has any survivors, given that it is the feast after winter's relative scarcity.

Spring is presided over by a stone-faced croupier, raking in the chips with passive disinterest. The house will win in the final accounting. One knows this and bets in order to play. And risks and loses nothing, or everything.

Summer

At night in summer the pond makes a foreign-sounding music with its frogs, an atonal drone that persists from dusk until nearly dawn.

Then by day the frogs are baskers, and the frenzy belongs to the dragonfly, who swoops to capture its midflight meals of mosquitoes and other insect succulents.

But summer isn't only continual motion, isn't only eggs and sap and seeds and pollen, isn't only abundance. Summer is also shortage. As the water warms, its capacity for holding dissolved oxygen decreases, and the pond's aquatic life has trouble breathing.

Later, as the long afternoon light slants and seems to be finite after all, activity resumes. The cooler water again holds sufficient quantities of oxygen to support the demands of pond life, and there is a sort of general evening resurrection. Birds buzz the pond again for insects, beavers cruise, turtles flop back into the water, fish jump through the surface and leave behind concentric rings, and a water snake darts its sinewy body in and out of parentheses, swimming.

The sun is a redder orange in setting than when it comes up. Persimmon-colored, it drops, each notch its own diameter, dropping a notch each minute until, in a minute, disappearing.

Fall

The autumn-morning mist turns cobwebs into crocheted doilies spun from glistening threads. They hang between uprights, suspended like hammocks, and billow like spinnakers.

Beavers begin in fall to gather branches for the food cache and limbs for the fortification of the lodges and dams. Tree felling begins in earnest in October, and from the edges of the pond back sometimes a hundred feet there are the scattered trunks that look like the sharpened ends of pencils.

The trees are beginning to bald, and as a man does, they lose their leaves through thinning first on top and then at the sides. The colors have appeared slowly with the gradual withdrawal of sunlight and lowering of temperature, which cause a breakdown in chlorophyll.

All fall there is a downward migration at the pond. In the water, the migration is also downward: insect nymphs creep lower down the stems they live on and are joined by the surface-dwelling beetles; fish leave the shallows for deeper waters or to burrow into the bottom. Cold-blooded animals can't regulate their body temperatures internally and therefore remain barely active, hibernating on land as do salamanders and snakes, or underwater, as do frogs, and turtles..

Warm-blooded animals either adjust, or hide, or flee.

The pond gets its first thin skin of ice the first night the cold is bitter enough. This earliest ice is clear and perfect.

It snows for the first time. There has been the pelletized ice of frozen rain, but not yet the crystallized water vapor snow is. The pond is utterly silent. Snow forms and falls and lands and never makes a sound.

What it means specifically is the end of my year. The pond goes on endlessly repeating itself and will deepen into the fullness of winter and then decline, and then burst into spring and enrich itself with summer and fall, and then again submit. The first ice and the first snow are the acts of submission, and they are also signals to me that I, who would have to repeat myself were I to stay, am on my way. It's the fundamental difference between the observer and what's being observed.

I have already seen each season entirely full of itself and leave with the coming. It has been mine in a funny way, this place in which I don't belong. I give it back.