I was walking to the dining hall from the classroom building, just coming out the door. Some students had rushed out of class to the new snow as soon as the bell had rung, and they wasted no time beginning a small snow war. When I reached the sidewalk, first-year Krisztofér cried out, “Cassidhe!” and with a well-aimed snowball directed at my side, I was inducted into the fight. I managed to dodge the rest of the snow balls and almost hit a few other students. We were all happily brushing away snow as we went in for lunch.
A few days ago I walked the normal path to the dyke. But it was the first time I had walked it in the snow. It was actually the first time I walked in the countryside slogging through large amounts of snow. Bloomington’s countryside is short on snow, and snowy Grand Rapids is short on countryside, so I’ve never really experienced the two together. It’s near enough the solstice that my shadow length is frozen long—it looks like mid-morning all day long. And the sun shines directly into my window the entire time it is up.
Wagon wheels and bike wheels and booted feet had moved over the snow while the mud beneath it was still fresh and sloppy. But now the deep, dirty, snowy ruts were frozen, cracking under my boots and offering dry passage down the road.
Some places there were still puddles, now frozen and covered in long, skinny crystal shapes of white. I don’t know enough about science to know just what those shapes were – crystallized snow? the result of lots of moisture in the cold air? Had they fallen from the sky or been formed on the earth where they now sat? My mind tended toward the latter guess, and that was the because of the trees.
One time, in middle school I think, my project for the science fair was about crystals. I had a crystal-growing kit, probably a gift from my chemistry-teacher aunt Cheryl, complete with test tube, blue gel, a stick, and whatever substance it is that makes crystals grow. Maybe I was just supposed to add sugar, I don’t remember; it was a long time ago. I followed the crystal-growing instructions and put the tube of blue gel and future crystals on the top shelf of our kitchen’s wrought iron baker’s-rack (which was never used for baked goods) and waited. A few days later, complex and tumbled quartz-looking gems streamed down the stick into the blue goo, looking beautiful and improbable.
That is exactly what the tree branches looked like, minus the blue goo, of course. Each branch, big and small, had grown a cluster of white crystals and displayed them proudly, daring the sickly sun to melt them away.
The day was heavy with a misty sheen. (It was hard to tell what caused what: had the tree-crystals formed out of the mist or did the low cloud emanate from the be-crystaled trees themselves?)
I walked down the north road to the dyke, but I was met with an unexpected obstacle. The road dips quite sharply at the dyke, forming a gully at its base. Water had collected here, I presume, during the recent floods, and now it had turned to a snow-covered flat of ice. It wasn’t that wide—maybe 6 feet. And my memory of the gully suggested that the water below the ice, if in fact there was water, would at most come up to just below my knee. I deliberated a long time. I brushed some of the snow off the nearest edge of ice with my boot to see what sat below. The ice looked thick, maybe frozen all the way through. I wasn’t sure. I put my weight on my foot and leaned out onto the ice. I didn’t hear it crack. I put my other foot forward, again brushing off the snow, again inspecting the ice, again transferring my weight. Sometimes I just stood there trying to convince myself that I wasn’t being stupid. But really I should have been thinking, “Don’t remain stationary on an ice pack, dummy.” My indecision was likely my downfall; I weakened the ice.
I put my right food forward to what was almost the exact center of the ice. I heard a small crack beneath me, and then a response from the edge. I wasted no time whirling right back the way I’d come, ice still protesting, and one boot touched water at the edge of the ice pack where I likely landed much too hard.
Ice cracking is an unbelievably loud and echoing sound.
I turned around to look at the damage I’d done. I could now see a split down the middle of the ice, water seeping and darkening the snow like blood from a wound. My heart was beating much harder than necessary—after all, I would have walked home with wet feet fast enough to be safe from danger. But it’s that sound. The sound of ice breaking. Absolutely terrifying.
I found another way along the plowed-up fields that lined the dike, following someone’s bike trail over lumpy earth. Here the dyke met the fields with a much smaller gully and a Red Sea path through the ice puddles. I climbed to the top of the dyke and followed it to the bridge. I could hear the swollen Tisza branch mumbling along. Maybe, when rivers are talking, one should not attempt to cross ice, however shallow.
Today is my last day in Ukraine before heading home for Christmas; I have two days of travelling ahead of me. I’ve been cleaning out my room in preparation, and while I walked outside to take out the trash, Ukraine gave me a lovely parting gift. I heard, coming from somewhere down the road, the unmistakable and rather confusing sound of bells. When the sleek, black horses and the simple sleigh came into sight, I walked across the snowy yard as slowly as possible so as to watch them for as long as I could. The moment probably would have been romantic if I hadn’t been holding a trash bag in my hand.
Boldog Karácsonyt, mindenki. Merry Christmas, everyone.