“To observe attentively is to remember distinctly.” Edgar Allan Poe
My earliest memories are composed of winter shards.
On frosty mornings, cradling a cup of coffee and gazing through ice rime on the window, I conjure a late winter. Within the internal reel of episodic memory I view slabs of ice that beach themselves like translucent whales on frozen land. Sooner or later the tide rises and those vast ice chunks slide back into the sea.
BACK TO UNALAKLEET
And so I travel to a place located on the Bering Sea’s Norton Sound. Unalakleet is a bittersweet and compelling recollection. As a young child I am a beachcomber along a cold pebble shore.
Our world is a winter world. While blue shadows crisscross snow, village houses hunker like lumps of gray driftwood. Smoke hangs horizontally above low rooftops. Snow curls around walls, laps up to window sills. The snow ripples and swirls. Yellow electric lights wave through glass panes coated by Jack Frost on overdrive.
As a six-year-old, I imagine the Snow Queen assembling giant jigsaw pieces of ice. Every ice chunk is a challenge and an invitation. Climbing them is akin to charging up the Glass Mountain from fairy tales. The skill is to reach the summit. The trick is to not get carried out to sea.
“Memory is the scribe of the soul.” Aristotle
Then one blustery afternoon fate rocks the boat and the slab of ice my brother climbs atop suddenly breaks free from the shore. His feet slide out from under him, his arms pinwheel and he falls into freezing water.
He is about to disappear.
Once his wool mitten lands on relatively stable ice, it freezes in place. Leverage. A friend kneels near the jagged edge of ice, stretches out over open water and helps pull my brother up onto a shore as nearly as cold as the slush that had weighted him down.
However, once on solid land he has to face a powerful head-wind in order to walk home. Those ocean-born gusts of wind transform my brother from a cold soaking wet boy into an ice-robot. Arms and legs no longer bend at their joints but swung back and forth like the stiff blades of a windmill. As his clothing freezes, it encases him in a suit of subzero armor. Lips are tinged blue and his voice that shakes like a scratched record completes the transformation. Snow Queen: one. Brother: zero. Below zero.
Mom and Dad thaw him out with lukewarm water. This is a slow and painful process. His fingers and feet ache. Later, wrapped in numerous blankets and sipping from a cup of soup, he tells me about the way the water filled his boots and seeped into his clothes like fingers trying to pull him down.
THE MEMORY OF A DREAM
That night I fall asleep beneath brilliant stars embedded in the cloak of an icy night sky, cradled between drifts of snow, warm in our small house that trembles now and then with blasts of chill wind. As I drift away, I seem to hear the shivery laugh of the Snow Queen perched on her sled as it speeds out of the village.
“I think it is all a matter of love: the more you love a memory, the stronger and stranger it is.” Vladimir Nabokov
In dreams, I gaze up through the undersides of ice. Vast shadows swim through a blue as deep as the sky just before it turns into infinite space.