Ground fog hovers out the back kitchen window, warm air over snow. We set out to walk before coffee. From the home of dear friends, we make our way down the dead-end road to the muddy grass path that leads us to the turn (right) down the rough-cleared way (duck under the fallen tree) to the fields owned by the nearby church and leased to the farmers. In a pair of borrowed rain boots and hooded sweatshirt (in late December), I feel a warm sweat rising.
We visit these fields on our visits here. Today, the lower field – a semi-ordered mess of mud, fading snow, and rows of dried, broken corn stalks – is strikingly cooler than the road. The lower field is a basin of clearness held in by the thick of trees and brush in front of us. Through the stand of bare trees to our right more fog hovers over fields farther on. Our steps high and uneven, we make way toward the fog, turn to the path opening in the far corner – careful not to slip on the crushed, mud-softened stalks.
Up the path arching to the higher fields, we enter a sticky heat, held close, dense with the smell of organic matter in varied stages of decay. We crest the hill and turn right, stop and look: the gray sky spread, the roll of open ground, a flow of texture, area, and line. We make our way down the small slope, walk along the fold of one field into another, intersecting the occasional and unexpectedly cold zone of air, sudden and invisible.
We round our way back but are not backtracking. We find the same ground different. I grab a shoulder, point: a flock of birds (too small to be geese) in flight find their way toward organization in formation. As they pass above, their amorphous mass slowly shifts to something like:
but softer and more full of life. It’s an ordinary sight deepened by the expanse before us. Their path a glimpse of ordering motion, destination unknown.
That evening at a dinner party (deep, hearty borscht, pierogies, red wine) the host’s father asks me about my ‘great ambition.’ Where do you really want to be? he says, amid our small talk. Or something like that, not demanding that I arrive at an end point but insisting on the need to reach toward some thing or place. Not to be shared or reasonable. I know. You must have your personal dream. I don’t know.
He is older and of German descent, now lives with his wife in the Catskills – a new home for them, having sold the place in Philadelphia. I confess to the (American?) dream of home ownership. We discuss the general importance (or is it benefit?) of living near a body of water. Out front the Delaware River runs wide and quiet. The mere sight of water is wholly agreeable. Isn’t it? A calming, something large and other. And that is what’s important: to live in a space we find deeply agreeable, that works toward our benefit. We all sit outside around the fire for hours, the night relatively warm with brief rushes of cool air coming in, and as we leave he insists again. It’s important. There is a sense of importance in the very occurrence – in being asked the question. I’ll work on it. I want to hear it next year.
When the cold returns completely a day or so later, the broken stalks creak under foot. In the afternoon light they spread before us a silver array. A few stand tall, their spare curled husks like muted yellow Birds of Paradise.
On Christmas day, as we head to the upper fields, we pass the carcass of a deer: glassy-eyed, body mostly eaten, in a clearing. We head on, further out into the fields. The dog roams. He knows this land. We hear the most urgent barking, howls echoing far, think it can’t possibly be him, so close. We run toward the sound and find: his right foreleg clamped, an ugly steel trap. Fast and careful: press, release. In the end a hand bit (not too bad and not mine) and the dog no worse for the wear, though certainly wiser to such threats. His thick, brown, curly coat stinks of dead deer. After he’s been washed he curls, wet, in his bed, haunches covered by a damp towel, as though luxuriating at the bathhouse.
We leave the next day, after one last walk in the newly snow-dusted fields. Gathering in all our views, all the air we can. Where do you really want to be? And how. To dream big, selfishly, unreasonably. To travel toward something that is also moving. To hold what changes. What we share: our way across the horizontal, climbing the rolling hills. We load the car, cross the Delaware, up the road, 78 to 287 to 87 to 84 (cross the Newburgh Bridge) to 90, all the way home.
Elizabeth Witte received her MFA in poetry from the Bennington Writing Seminars and is Assistant Editor of The Common.