Category Archives: Winter

moon with spiky tendrils in a dark sky with silhouetted tree branches

Short Essay: Duet

I fell asleep watching a mindless show on my iPad, woke up an hour later, turned off the iPad, and the light. Eleven p.m. The cat was curled against my side like a cake hot out of the oven. 

Sometimes the cat’s heat wakes me from an initial doze but this was different. I heard a sound outside, an almost-music. I listened and waited until it came again — an owl, a female Great Horned Owl. Her mate joined the song with his lower, darker voice.

The owls must have been just above my room in the tall white pine tree that crowds this side of the house. Even with the windows closed against the cold, their calls were loud through my chronic tinnitus and the glass. I lifted the quilt and sat on the side of the bed to hear better. It was like lowering myself onto the first step down into a swimming pool as the cold wrapped my legs and arms my bare feet whispered on the floor.

I pulled the window shade aside, and looked up, trying not to make a sound. The lower tree branches were black silhouettes against the starlit sky. I couldn’t see the owls, but I imagined they could see me.

Also invisible in the dark, the virus washed over the world, buzzing like a Dremel inside human cells and on hard surfaces.

But what a gift — the wild voices and unconcern of night predators, the thrill of being close without fear in the certainty that I was not their prey.

 

March 22, 2020, Freeville, NY, USA. ©Patti Witten, all rights reserved.

Crow landing on a snow covered field

Fiction: Hospital

This is an excerpt from Lowlands, a novel in progress.

Phil could see the dials: speedometer, clock, RPM. But his arms and legs were pinned under something dense and heavy, dragging him down. Someone pinched the back of his hand and his senses spread. Light, sound, confinement. He swam up to consciousness, sharing a bed with his old enemies, old friends — pain and hospital paraphernalia. 

A bright light shone behind his head but the room was slippery with nighttime. Buzzing voices came from the hallway beyond the open door. A monitor beeped, out of sight. The pinch was an IV needle in the back of his right hand. The rest of his body was a maze of dread. 

A female nurse came through the door trailing a breeze that wafted over his face. She reached over his head and the beeping stopped. She turned his wrist and looked at her watch. 

“Are you dreaming, hon? You awake now? How’s your pain? On a scale of one to ten, ten being the worst pain you’ve ever felt.” 

How’s your pain? Phil tried to answer but it came out in a cough. He watched the nurse lower his hand and close it around a thumb button on a thick cord. 

“It’s a medication pump. Press this if you have too much pain. Can you do it? You have a catheter so don’t try to get up. Do you understand?”

She held a plastic cup and a straw for him to drink. He discovered that his bottom lip was bruised. Something about the straw bothered him and looked at her over the cup. He had a question.

“You’re OK,” she said. “You were in an accident. You have to stay in bed now.”

He pushed the straw from his lips. “I know,” he croaked. “What time is it?” Then, “How bad am I? What’s wrong with me?”

“Your left arm is fractured, and your pelvis. Your right knee is sprained and you have some cuts and bruises. But you’re going to be OK. It’s very early now. Go back to sleep if you can. The doctor will see you in the morning.” The nurse straightened and pointed at a whiteboard hanging on the wall next to the bed. “That’s me, I’m Becky. Oh, let me change the date because it’s tomorrow.” 

She pulled the top off a marker with a pop, and the felt tip squeaked on the board. “I’ll be back.” Becky left the room in a puff of wind.

She had written “Sunday, August 17, 2008.” Because it’s tomorrow. It almost meant something and he tried to puzzle it out. His left arm was wrapped in layers of thick bandaging. A light blanket covered his hips and legs. He wanted to look, to be sure everything was still there. But when he shifted experimentally the pain took his breath away. He found the pump and pushed the button. He pushed it again in case it didn’t work the first time. 

The next time he woke up it was day and there was a lot of noise out in the hall. A man wearing hospital scrubs was fiddling with something below the edge of his bed. 

“Hello, sir. How we doing today?” The man didn’t wait for an answer and left with a bag of dark yellow urine. 

A doctor wearing a white coat and a tie came in, exchanged a few words with the nurse — a new one, not Becky, and asked him how he was feeling while he looked at the chart. 

“We need to perform a surgical procedure on your broken arm to fix the fractures, OK? You’ll be asleep. OK?” He uttered some medical jargon and offered a clipboard.

“No, not OK,” Phil said. “Can’t you just leave it?” He wanted to fight. The doctor remained impassive, explaining the technicalities of the fractures and the surgery. Finally, Phil gave in and made his signature — a distorted scribble on the paper.

People came and went while he dozed fitfully. It was too bright and too noisy in the room. He tried lifting the not-broken arm to cover his face in the crook of his elbow, but the IV stopped him, so he felt for the pain pump in the folds of sheet and blanket. 

 “Hey, you’re awake.” His brother Kevin. Fresh haircut, smooth button-down shirt, fixed smile. 

“It’s you,” said Phil. “Tell me what happened.” 

Kevin sighed. “Didn’t they tell you?”

You tell me.”

“OK,” he began. “So, today is Sunday and you’ve been here since Friday night. Well, since early Saturday morning, a day and a half? You’re pretty banged up but you’re not paralyzed or anything. A flood pushed your truck off the road into a ravine. A flash flood from the rain, do you remember that?” 

He remembered. 

“They said you’re very lucky you survived.”

Phil swallowed. “What about . . .” He couldn’t say her name.

“OK, this part is bad.” Kevin sighed. “The girl who was with you, she did not make it.”

People were talking in the hall. Carts rolled by, shoes squeaked on the polished floor. Kevin leaned closer. “I’m sorry to have to tell you, but, you know, you’ve been pretty out of it until now.” He waited. “How are you, are you in pain??”

Phil closed his eyes. He knew she was dead, had known the whole time, but the blackness and the sounds and the water rolled up like a video he could not shut off. The feel of his feet pushing against her body, the rage. Panic. 

After a minute he asked, “Is Mom here?”

“On her way.” Kevin sighed again and straightened. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, dropping his hip. It was the whole body equivalent of an eye roll and summed up what they both knew about their mother. “Do you want me to call anybody for you? I didn’t know if you wanted me to. Like a friend, or your boss.”

“No, it’s OK.” It was lucky that Kevin was the one to tell him, and not their mother, who was a handful. Another not-Becky nurse came in with the usual breeze and loud voice. Phil turned his head away and waited for her to leave. Then he asked, “Has anyone been here besides you?” 

“Actually, some cops, but you were still out of it. I don’t think anyone else. The funeral is on Saturday. I don’t know if you’ll be able to go, or if you want to. Do you want me to do anything? Flowers, make a call?”

“I won’t go. They won’t want me.” He tried to feel angry or sad or ashamed, but those things were outside his body and might be lying behind a curtain in a different bed with a different Phil. 

“Why not?”

“Trust me.” Phil lifted his head from the pillow, wincing. He had the idea that if he talked to Robert now he could reasonably explain it wasn’t his fault. He was looking for his cell phone and realized it was gone, of course. Kevin reached into his pocket and offered his. Phil stared at it. 

“Fuck. I don’t know the number, even if I wanted to.”

“Who?”

“Robert. Her father.” Phil let his head drop back to the pillow. 

“I can look it up,” said Kevin.

“No, don’t.” He closed his eyes and pushed the button. Once, then again.

Spring Haiku – 2011

4/8/11

now my sunrise year
of gray to crimson beauty
has come full circle

april to april
spring to spring, sunrise sunset
i’m the book between

4/3/11

remember april?
birth, death, anniversaries
unforgettable

house finches scolding
heavy cat kneading my arm
red deer in sunrise

3/29/11

the itinerant
doves of mourning have returned
for summer love songs

3/28/11

the lake is fierce
whipped tourquoise and aubergine
brave gulls time their dives

3/26/11

damn snow obscuring
stealthy black frozen puddle
ouch – i have fallen

hobbled by mishap
suddenly i see grey wings
northern harrier

3/25/11

sunrise slides northward
each day a bit farther left
Democratic sun

3/22/11

caked, stained tails and manes
the old grey mare turns to brown
mud season is here

they open the locks
far far north of here and the
lake level rises

vernal equinox
i feel a gut twinge, a cramp
like a teenaged girl

"super moon" march 2011


supermoon rises
in a cold clear sky
due east: proud blushed perigee

3/9/11

all careful plans have
larger forces at work, like
weather predictions
..
ladybug plays dead
good strategy, good for you
and good luck with that
..
cardinal treetop
bluejays in the apple trees
no bobolinks, yet

3/8/11

sugary branches
ice fog: what chilling god would
create such a thing?

2/28/11

february gasps
trees are figured in the rain
resolving details

new winter haikus

More winter haikus on topics of love, travel, weather and the seduction of spring.

2/15/11
I betray winter
by beginning an affair
with a younger spring

1/16/11
kiss of winter dawn
leaves a rime on my chapped lips
empty calories

1/5/11
nineteen ninety-one
flashback to the new year’s eve
he didn’t kiss me

12/28/10
Irate woman rants
gate agent blamed for all problems
a day in the life

12/26/10
The wind knocks palm fronds
against the roof, mocking sleep
impossible rest

Song: When The Horses Start Singing

A deep winter song, for the longest nights, the coldest nights, when your breath opaques the air and the snow squeaks under your boots.

Video: When The Horses Start Singing

Lyrics:

On the coldest night of the year
Everything stops
No spin to the earth
No turn of the season
Words have no meaning

Black sky curves overhead
Inverse of snow
Sublime, absolute
We are mute with conviction
Then the horses start singing

We were waiting for the reset of time
We were waiting for this moment to arrive
We were waiting for it all to synchronize

On the coldest night of the year
when all the words fail
Our breath falls like diamonds
Language is silenced
When the horses start singing
We listen

Winter Haiku

The lake is freezing
seagulls float on mini bergs
crows stalk the shoreline

A half-grown cat’s tail
switches at the falling snow
winter under glass

Starlings tweak berries
from the tree’s winter fingers
oh, to fly as one

Here, invisible:
an eclipse eclipsed by clouds
better luck next time

Lyric: What I Am

Here is a song written recently, featuring water in 2 forms:

What I Am

I am a city of millions and millions of thoughts
Each one a snowflake in a storm of wars won and lost
Streets and boulevards, tunnels, alleys and towers
Neighborhoods, boroughs, parishes, heroes, and cowards

Here is the church of thinking
Here is the temple of drinking
Here is the grotto of loving
Like Venice, I’m sinking
into the sea

I am an ocean foundering drowning in wishes
Pooled ’round a melody I offer anemone kisses
Undersea mountains, canyons, shipwrecks, harpoons
Icebergs and gillnets, hurricanes, dead calm and whirlpools

Here is the current of yearning
Here is the riptide of turning
Here is the soft sand of landing
And oil rigs burning
All this is me

I am a phantom, a photograph, magnetic forces
A tracing of arteries, flock of birds, herd of wild horses
X-rays and gamma rays shot ’round a circular pattern
Throwing off photons, probing the essence of atoms

Here is the first explosion
Setting ­­the universe in motion
Here is the very last lesson
To answer the question:
what will I be?

On the Death of John Martyn

My college friend Eric Amrine introduced me to singer-songwriter John Martyn in 1976 when we were just 20 years old. We were both guitarists and drawn to mind-altering experiences. Martyn’s Scots-folk-soul was instantly addictive: full of yearning, hypnotic, melancholy, angry-yet-sweet.

Just the other day my doctor, who is British and the same age as Eric and me, mentioned Martyn and Nick Drake to me in the same sentence. We were standing in the barn as the horses came in for the night, and our breath fell from our mouths like clouds. In winter, when the air is so cold that we are reminded of the thin line between liquid and solid, this is the music we listen to: John Martyn, Nick Drake. Solid Air is the record I still own. Martyn dedicated the title track of his best-known album to the brilliant and insomniac Drake, who died of an overdose at age 24.

Eric and I went to college a mere 200 miles from Woodstock, NY, where Martyn and other lights of the music world also lived in the late 1960s. Martyn once said, “Jimi Hendrix owned a house literally over the road. He used to fly up every Thursday in a purple helicopter. He was very quiet and used to tell me how much he loved the animals.” I was surprised to learn John Martyn was only 60.

John-Martyn-770-2-600x337

My capacity for denial is selective and applies to the passage of time. Eric is forever 20, for instance, and Martyn’s music is frozen with our youthful faces at that time. Yet death looms. It always has and always will, of course, but as my own age trespasses on the territory of the daily obituary, death is so close you can touch it. Every morning during this winter cold spell I worry about the deer and the feral cat that I have seen once, whose tracks I see stringing through the snow. How do they survive? How do the birds keep warm in their tiny feather coats? How do they hold on in the wind?

I don’t know. I hear Martyn singing, I don’t want to know about evil. I only want to know about love.