near St-Emelie-de-l’Énergie, Quebec
Late afternoon. The long dark blue shadows that stretched across the snow from the base of each tree, each little shrub, each delicate sapling when I came upstairs to take a nap have disappeared now, an hour later, into a sea of the same dark blue, and through the round window high in the wall to my left, I can see the sun's final flares between tall pines.
We arrived at noon, having delayed the trip from the city by a day because of a snowstorm. After shoveling a path to the door we brought in the luggage, the bags of food and wine, a carton of twelve bottles of Boréale, the cheese we’d bought at Fromagerie du Champ à la Meule on the way. We added my snowshoes to the pile already stacked in the garage, and changed from boots to slippers. G. quickly built a fire in the big stone fireplace, and put out a half-kilo of peanuts for the bluejays, to whom she whistles on arrival (they come in about two minutes, she confided to us, grinning,) while S. set about unpacking the groceries and poured each of us a beer, which we drank with crackers and pickled herring while the fire began to spread its warmth.
Lunch was a salad, with breads and oatcakes, followed by grapes and cheese: a soft, round triple-crème, a firm wax-covered wedge from the fromagerie, and a Sablot de Blanchette - a sablot is hoof or a clog – a small, square block of aged goat cheese. While we ate, the birds did too, coming and going from the trees to the feeders just outside the windows that G. keeps full all week: chickadees and blue jays, pine grosbeaks, and a beady-eyed hairy woodpecker.
I love it here; the silence and the presence of nature, the light which streams into the many-paned windows all day, making patterns on the white walls and the woodwork. The house is Shaker: meditative and simple. But conversation has been a strain for me. I’m tired and drained after many days of dealing with people, of listening too much, and I’m tired of feeling entrapped by winter. Maybe I need to be alone, or to get away to someplace warm. Or maybe I just need this.
After we’d cleaned up from lunch G. went into town to do a few errands, and the rest of us fell quickly asleep. When I woke I felt considerably better; how much of my mood is merely fatigue? The others are downstairs; I can hear J. and G. hauling wood into the porch outside, and I know no one will press me to come down before I’m ready. The light in this north-facing room, above the garage, will only last another half hour at best, and then perhaps I’ll sit and meditate, or turn on a lamp and read before dinner. There’s to be Quebec lamb, they said, and probably sherry and west coast smoked salmon, from S.’s mother, before that. For dessert, crab apple jelly with whipped cream. Perhaps I’ll ask if anyone wants to sit with me. Or be sociable instead, and have a cup of tea.
(I went down, and had the tea.)
I woke at 3, after four hours of sound sleep, and rose quietly and went downstairs. The fire had died down to embers. I put the tea kettle on the stove, added a dry log to the fire, and made myself a nest on the sofa in front, under a fleece throw and a Scottish wool plaid blanket. The house was absolutely still. Even without my glasses I could see that the night sky was perfectly clear, and studded with millions of stars. The log caught and blazed, and I shut the door to the firebox, and came back to the sofa with an oatcake and my hot mug of tea -- tilleul, linden – it seems appropriate somehow that I should be drinking tea made from a tree. I was happy sitting there in the darkness, the fire in front of me, the frigid silent woods encircling the house like a mystery, and stayed awake with my thoughts until five or so, when my eyelids finally closed and sleep came again.
My friends came downstairs, S. first, then G., shortly after I woke at 7. I had rejuvenated the fire already, and S. made coffee. Now G. is preparing scones which she’ll bake over a wood fire in the bread oven, next to the fireplace. On the porch, the little red squirrel is defending his own pile of peanuts from six bluejays, who sit in the nearest tree, their white breasts fluffed and shining in the sunlight. The temperature is minus twenty-eight C.
We’re about to go snowshoeing, after a very leisurely morning. The bright sun has warmed the outside air to -8 C. (about 18 degrees F.) and the animals and birds are busy gorging themselves. During our own breakfast, a glossy black squirrel appeared – look, it’s Balthazar! G. cried, saying they hadn’t seen him for two years. He was quite gorgeous, fit for a nobleman’s hat if there were still French trappers searching for prize pelts. After a brief moment of reticence, he sprang up onto the brick wall and craned his neck to get a good look at the strange inhabitats of the interior, refusing to jump down even when we peered back at him, close to the window. Finally he began burrowing for seeds at the base of the feeder, bringing his head up every now, his black nose covered with fine snow, and eventually bounded away into the far trees, leaving a definitive trail of leaps in the pristine snow.
The shadows shrink as we approach midday. Because I’ve seen both sunrise and sunset in the past 24 hours, I’ve marked out the arc of the sun’s appearance and setting along the ridge of pines; it’s still short, this east-west wedge, and the sun isn’t even halfway to the zenith as it makes its transit.
Back from a long trek on showshoes, around the new lake that was dug in the fall, and then breaking a trail through the deep snow into the woods, past the cat cemetery, up the hill and down again to the old sandpit, where we stopped to take some photographs and catch our breath, listening to the silence. Then we retraced our path. A strenuous hour and a quarter, under an absolutely clear sky, the snow and the paper birches brilliant white against the blue. Twice I stopped to scoop up a small handful of fresh snow and eat it, feeling the fine crystals melt on my tongue. How I’ve missed being out in the woods in winter!
Now we’ll have lunch, and then a few hours of quiet before leaving around 4:30. I think the city will feel like a shock.
A last round; watering the plants, checking the bathrooms and living room for stray clothes, cameras, books. G. has given me shoots of a large, spotted angel-wing begonia, and her lemon pelargonium, which is quickly taking over the upstairs bathroom. Fortunately it’s a warmer day so I’ll be able to get the cuttings back to Montreal without risk.
The sun disappeared during our late lunch, but the northern shrike made her appearance, just as G. had predicted, sitting high in the little aspen and frightening all the other creatures into immobility or disappearance. She's a beautful bird, the first of her species I've ever seen, with a lightly striped white breast, a soft grey head, a strong beak and a slender black mask like an elegant Carnival figure of dubious and possibly alarming intention; everyone steers clear. At length she flew off, the sun came out again, and with it the chickadees, who seem to be the mascots of this house at the edge of the wilderness, always cheerful and hopeful, waiting for the next appearance of the humans.