The storm was stalking before it hit, at least a week, if one looked to notice. It was lurking. It was lying in wait and testing. December ended with tires spitting grit off the pavement and howls of chainsaws shredding the thin winter light.
I was called for jury duty December 6th. A pool of 300 jurors was ordered to report Tuesday morning. Freezing rain was forecast. My number was 286. I packed a bag as though traveling overnight, in reality, sequestered in a dim basement room lined with hard plastic chairs. I joined my peers in the American justice system, a jury pool brought and bound together by randomly drawn voter registration and driving records. Wet coats and hats dripped and puddled on the linoleum soaked from the rain slashing outside bordering on sleet. The room smelled of steam and hair. We slouched in tight rows and watched a video on the workings of the court and our responsibilities as jurors. I took out my book and ate the chicken sandwich I packed. Then we waited. This was the true beginning of the storm: waiting in the basement on hard plastic chairs to be called.
[The following week were we caught unaware? Weren’t we distracted with the coming holidays, by menorah candles, Christmas trees, Kwanzaa corn, boughs and swag, desolate and uninspired over gift lists and grocery lists, how much to tip the newspaper carrier? There was time to snap the torpor, remember the daily ritual of the advent calendar, find gifts and wrap them—festively!—time aplenty to stir walnut fudge. The weather sites posted banner advisories with backgrounds shifting from orange to red trying to flag our failing attention: pay attention, notice how dark the days, notice the stealthling cold.]
On Wednesday the 14th, it started to rain. The rain froze. The ice took hold of the trees by branch and stem. Limbs and twigs grew great ice fangs and claws. Fir trees sank. Birches bent and broke. Oaks split from their roots. Trees toppled under the weight of the ice to rip down power lines and crash through roofs and automobiles. Branches succumbed to the great weight and were rent, only to be caught and cemented in ice to their fellows. That night we watched over Amazon Creek basin as transformers exploded and power lines snapped surges of orange and white flame. The sound of exploding trees was an artillery report. The city lost power. We went to bed.
I woke in the dark and silence. I woke because of the darkness and silence. The power was out. The clock was dark. I listened to the cold. For a few moments, the power came back, then another explosion, very close. Everything went black. The dog leaned against the bed and nuzzled. I whispered in her ear. We went back to sleep.
We had no power for days. We had no heat. We kept the wood fire burning to hold a center of warmth, a bunker from which to huddle against the cold. We set up the propane camp stove outside to boil water and brew coffee. I inventoried the candles scattered around the house and set them out on the borders of our bunker next to the wood stove. The south hills were dark and silent.
There is the elasticity of waiting. There is the tedium of the cold and the strain of darkness. What are we, without light, without heat?
Day did not break on Thursday. Ice shrouded the trees and grass, decks and steps, cars and sidewalks. Dawn brought a day of vaguely lighter shades of gray, bounded in a snow globe of freezing fog. There was not enough light through the southern windows to read at midday. It was Jack-the-Ripper-weather to seize you by the throat and probe below the clavicle sheltering your heart. The fog magnified and conducted the cold emanating from the ice. Power lines and fallen trees blocked roads, limbs continued to succumb and split from their trunks. The public was advised to stay home, stay off the streets. We stoked the wood stove. We conserved the battery charge in our phones.
700 years ago, in exile from Florence, Dante wandered a dark wood. He was confronted by three savage beasts. “The Divine Comedy” is the original metaphysical guidebook, comprised of 100 cantos, leading from the dark wood into the depths of hell. The tourist must pass through Satan’s navel into purgatory to finally ascend to heaven.
It is the first book, “The Inferno,” that still tempts our distracted modern minds. The enduring human impulse to gape at suffering and torture, an inherent voyeurism mesmerized by the agony of others, ensures The Inferno will never be quaint. What interest does the present world have for the painful trudge laboring up the purging mountain, expiating sin over millennium? Or the blandishments of never-ending glory before God, the smallest possible perfect circle?
There are nine rings of hell, spiraling and descending according to the gravity of the sin, each featuring a torture uniquely tailored to the transgression against God. Poetic justice is the theme of this Comedy. In the very pit of the Inferno, sinners are imprisoned in solid ice up to the neck. This is the realm of traitors: those who betrayed when trusted most. Dante believed that eternally burning by ice was the harshest punishment possible, greater than any torments of fire. With these sinners imprisoned in the paralyzing cold, Dante watches Virgil kick at the frozen heads as they pass. I’ve forgotten much, but not the boot heel striking the frozen chin.
Our text was laid out on facing pages: Italian on the left and English on the right. Professorio instructed the intimate seminar. Though small in stature, he was a man of large and lavish gesture. As we stumbled through the Italian, he conducted with great flourish to keep the proper cadence. A professor of Romance Languages, he was in fact a Greek from Rhodes, though an Italian scholar. Twice each week we trudged along with Virgil and the rookie Dante, our fellow apprentice in this exploration of the cosmos. At the bottom of the bottom of the pit, Satan was bound in ice forever.
The McKenzie River claims the watershed down from Mount Washington, through Clear Lake, into the Willamette Valley. In December, the river is full and furious, trimmed with rime. The torrent grinds out agates from the mountain rock and sweeps them downstream. Ice edges the banks daring the water crashing over slick black rock. In my memory, it was December. I remember thinking how dark the water would be, how snow would define the banks.
Why a proud man would be so desperate to choose the black water of this river, I have pondered for many years. Professorio, a man who conducted the torment of the ninth ring of hell, leapt in to that inferno, weighted with metal chains, to be sucked down into an icy maelstrom forever.
I stoke the fire as night falls, wait and watch the flames. There is nothing else to do.