What I might have once called a rare winter thaw seems to be increasingly less rare the longer I spend in western New York, where the weather changes rapidly and everyone loves to talk about it.
The change from negative-degree temperatures and wind chills and nights where the snow squeaked painfully beneath booted feet as I hurried from car to house began on Monday as snow, then ice, then rain fell over the hills, turning what had been clearly-defined slopes of white snow and black trees into softer hues of rose-gray and slate, ice coating each individual twig and branch, setting the trees to crackling every time the wind so much as puffed. Hills upon hills faded into the sky, the clouds hanging low and the roads turning to slick slush as evening fell.
Fog rose in thick patches, floating up into the warming air from dense patches of snow in the darkest parts of the forest, veiling the roads at the highest points, hiding the passage of trees and trees until it was impossible to tell if I was moving at all, the headlights illuminating a wall of cloud all around me. For split moments the fog cleared to reveal a glimpse of the yellow line on the road, a tree cased in ice, a mailbox with reflectors.
Along the Vandermark road the fog drifted, loose and thin, layers moving on layers until I took my foot off the gas quickly, seeing a deer moving elegantly in the shapes of mist, the car coasting as I adjusted my vision to the fog that contained no shapes at all, no deer of white and silver as I had thought I had seen, starting to accelerate again until I saw a real deer, a flesh and blood deer, watching my passage from the ice-encased shrubs at the side of the road.
And then dropping down the backside of the big hill as I began my descent into the valley, a sudden clearing, back into a world so clear that the colors of winter night seemed saturated, the blackness of the woods even more hollow and cavernous, the remaining piles of wet snow whiter and brighter. In the first moment of clarity I caught out of the corner of my eye a towering moose just feet off the road.
Not a moose, after my heart stopped for a beat–just a pine tree, laden with snow, looking nothing at all like a moose on second glance. Just a tired mind seeing a ghost from mountains and mountains ago, shapes taking the image of the dwellers of wet snow in late spring, the gray and green of pine forests in the last snowfalls of June, the clouds hanging low over the river valley, blending with woodsmoke from the great loft chimney.
This evening the fog did not hang in thick banks but curled across the road in grasping tendrils, fingers winding along the asphalt, reaching for something they could never grasp, twining along in ways I thought only existed in film. The air hangs heavy now, fog dissipated into humidity, the fingers dissolved into the night, the ghosts all around this little house and the silent woods. The valley holds its breath, the night as thick and black as ink, impenetrable by light or sound.