In the dead of winter

In between low granite walls
Two workmen stand in snow,
Watching as the steel rod falls
To pound the earth below.

Some distance from their younger years,
I pause in my descent;
The pounding sound pricks up my ears
And echoes some lament.

Further by the frozen stream
Woodpeckers tap their tone;
In winter stillness, cold extreme,
Ice floes crack and groan.

In the distance whistling sounds
Break through this winter day;
The noontime ironhorse resounds
And bleats a hollow neigh.

Down among the bittersweet
Descending in a rush,
Bluebirds peck the russet meat
And flit among the brush.

Small warm-breasted fires burn,
Reminding me in winter’s chill —
Though every creature waits his turn —
I move among the living still.


While Reading Milton in the Parlor on an Afternoon in Winter

When Winter, in her flirtatious ways,
In part to tease, part to amaze,
Showers down her powd’ry air
Upon the Lantskip, cold and bare,
I sit amidst my books and things
And ponder idly what Winter brings:
Ice and cold and snow and chill,
Titmice on the windowsill;
Steel blue skies with ravens black,
Icy dams that groan and crack;
And in the night, while half asleep,
The snowplow rumbling down our street.
The air grows cold, the house now still;
The furnace coughs —
Then burns to break the chill.

“These pleasures Melancholy give,
And I with thee will choose to live.”


The hawk and the squirrel

The day before yesterday we had an additional dusting of snow, which has persisted mainly because of the extreme cold. There’s just enough white in the landscape to remind us that despite what the calendar might say, winter has arrived here in New England.

I stepped outside for a walk Monday morning, carrying an umbrella to ward off the sleet. A winter mix had fallen over the course of Sunday night, leaving the driveway a bit slick. As I inched down the gentle slope, a large object flapped down by the stone wall along the front walkway. I looked up to see a big red tail hawk standing on the turf. On closer inspection I glimpsed the limp form of a grey squirrel beneath its right foot. The bird’s talons were embedded in the squirrel’s skull.

I stood stock still for nearly three minutes as the bird turned its head this way and that. Finally it took flight, slightly out of kilter with the weight of the squirrel’s carcass swinging below. It perched in a nearby pine with the limp carcass of its prey dangling below the branch, and sat motionless as I passed by below it.

Life is tenuous; every living thing struggles to survive against seemingly insurmountable odds.

Moon rise over snow-capped mountains

"Moon Rise" 2013 © Brian T. Maurer

“Moon Rise” 2013 © Brian T. Maurer

The mid-day sun shone over the mounds of snow piled beside the driveway, throwing an irregular blue shadow across the thin blanket of snow on the tarmac.

As the sun climbed higher, the edge of the snow blanket melted away, leaving a narrow residue of white in the sunlight.

I snapped the photograph, turned it on its end and voilà— “Moon Rise over Snow-capped Mountains.”

Trudging toward the river

I stand in the snow, my boots buried in white. The intense mid-morning sunlight makes me squint behind dark lenses. I turn and look back at the expanse of snow over which I’ve come. My tracks pockmark the trail broken by some unknown snowshoer days before. The air is cold this morning, but the sun has softened the snow. I break through the glazed surface with each step. Every so many steps I stop to cough. It’s hard going through the deep snow in this deserted park.

The river lies up ahead, just around the bend in the trail. It won’t be long before I reach the bank, only a short distance away. Once again I stop and cough, then wipe my mouth with the sleeve of my coat. Keep going, I tell myself. Don’t stop now. Once again I look over my shoulder. It’s a long way back to the dirt road at the park entrance. I take a deep breath and trudge on.

Finally, I round the bend. The river lies ahead, shimmering through last year’s red briers along the bank. The edges have iced up. Out in the center water flows quietly beneath the over-arching blue sky. Bare trees stand along the bank in the distance. My eyes survey the scene, then stop. There, on a distant branch halfway up the trunk, rests a dense dark mass, accentuated with an unmistakable dab of white.

I lift the glasses from my nose and strain to focus through the cold. My eyes water and the image blurs. I reach into my pocket for the handkerchief that is always there. I wipe my eyes and replace the glasses on my face. The form waxes and wanes.

When I raise my hand to my mouth to stifle a cough, the black form drops from the branch. Two long lines shoot out from the bulk, pivoting on an invisible point. Suddenly, in this graceful spiral of descent the lines become wings, the dab of white becomes a head. The wings beat down, and as the bird rises against the grey backdrop of naked tree trunks, I see the white triangular tail flare. A few strokes more and the thin silhouette fades into the blue sky.

I pull my shoulders back and stand up straight. I stuff the wrinkled handkerchief into my pocket and thrust my fingers into the glove. I lift one foot, shake off the snow and take another step. It won’t be long now.

Soon I will reach the river.

"Winter River" 2013 © Brian T. Maurer

“Winter River” 2013 © Brian T. Maurer

Evening Descent

The only other sound’s the sweep
Of downy wind and snowy flake. —Robert Frost

I sit on a wooden stool by the window in the kitchen, watching the snow come down. Across the street in a yellow cone of lamplight tiny flakes swirl about as though encased in a snow globe. Each one in its own time descends to rest against the frozen earth.

Forty years ago after the last bell of the day, I sat on a similar stool in a high school classroom, listening to my teacher reminisce about his boyhood. Outside the second-story windows snow lay along the sills in fluffy mounds, muffling the sounds from the street.

“I never had much direction in life,” my teacher mused, taking a sip of coffee from his thermos. “Maybe that’s why I eventually ended up following in my dad’s footsteps.”

He was a tall man with reddish-brown hair that hinted at his Scotch-Irish ancestry.

“My dad was raised on a small farm across the river. My grandfather continued to live there after my dad left home. When I was a boy we would visit my grandfather on the farm. It was tucked away back in the hills off a winding blacktop road. You turned off onto an unmarked dirt lane and followed it a quarter mile to the farmhouse.

“My grandfather was a big man. He and my dad didn’t always see eye to eye. When things went well, the two of them would sit on the porch and talk. Sometimes they took a leisurely stroll out to the orchard, leaving me behind to play in the yard. When they had words, my dad would quietly walk me to the car; and we would head back out the dusty lane to the road.

“One winter day we made the trek to the homestead. The fields lay buried beneath a thick white blanket of snow. It started to snow again shortly after we arrived, and by late afternoon it was coming down heavy. My dad decided we had better go before the roads got bad, so we headed out in the old Chevy down the lane. The plow had already gone by, throwing a big mound of snow at the entrance. We couldn’t get through, and we couldn’t turn around.

“My dad left me in the car with the motor running and the heat on and walked back down the lane to the house. After what seemed a long time, he appeared with my grandfather. Each of them carried an old coal shovel. In the yellow beams of the headlights I could see them working together to clear the pile of snow from the end of the lane.

“When they finished, my grandfather reached out his hand for the shovel my dad had been using. My father hesitated, then surrendered it. Together they disappeared into the darkness through the swirling snow.”

My teacher stood quietly by the lab bench, thermos in hand, staring out through the high vaulted windows. I shifted on the stool. “What happened?” I asked.

“It wasn’t long before my dad came back. He dusted himself off as best he could and slid in behind the wheel. He gave it the gun and we broke through onto the plowed road.”

After a brief moment of silence he said: “That was the last time I saw my grandfather alive. The darkness had swallowed him up; he disappeared into the falling snow forever.”

Although he was a chemistry teacher, we had been talking about writing, how to craft a story, an impression. He was very interested in writing and had managed to produce several stories and the beginning of a work of science fiction.

Somehow I managed to find the words: “Maybe one day you’ll write that down, just like you told it to me.”

Sitting on the stool by the kitchen window this evening as the snow swirls down in the light across the street, I wonder if he ever had.

Today the river called me, Come

Today the river called me, Come,
My counterpane’s spread white:
A frozen mold
Formed by the cold
Of winter’s icy blight.

Today the river called me, Come,
Let chores and toil rest;
Browse through my book,
Come close to look
At nature’s wintry vest.

But ice was on the doorstep
And further down the drive;
I laced my boot—
Lips pursed and mute—
Determined to survive.

I spent the morning, afternoon,
And part of eventide
Chipping ice and clearing snow
Opening the paths that flow
Around on either side.

Today the river called me, Come,
Don’t waste this precious day!
The winter snow
Won’t last, although
For now it’s on display.

Today the river called me, Come—
I hovered close to home;
I made my choice,
Ignored her voice,
And turned my heart to stone.

2011©Brian T. Maurer