Winter is Winning

[Easthampton, Massachusetts :: December 1, 2007]

Usually it’s baseball that tells me winter is winning.

This year seemed like it’d be the same. On that first morning after the final game, the frost on my windshield was thick and the empty trees made the sky seem huge. The world felt like a fist closing in on itself, fingertips digging into a palm for warmth.

On the second day, in a downtown but out-of-the-way corner of Springfield, I came across two ragged men on a bench singing the chorus to Aerosmith’s “Dream On.” The melody turned ghost-white in the morning air.

By Wednesday the cold stuck to you like cockleburs. Walking through a downtown park, I saw a man and a woman sitting on a bench. The man, wearing a big parka, was slumping over. I walked toward them. The woman was tugging the man’s sleeve as he slid off the bench, onto his knees, drooling. The woman said to me, “I think he needs help.”

Looking around, amazed at the silence of the city, there seemed to be no doubt: winter was winning. I felt frozen, too, until I spotted a police car and waved the officer down.

It wasn’t until the last day of November, though — the day I finally got around to raking the leaves in the front yard — that I found what seemed to be the surest sign.

“Good day for it,” my neighbor said, on his way to church. “It’s going to snow later.”

Once I had the leaves in neat piles I took a break. I went into town to get a coffee. By the time I got home, sleet stung my face. I dragged the tarp out from the back yard, unfurled it on the lawn, and pulled the first pile of leaves into my truck. I spread the tarp out again.

That’s when I saw the moth.

It must have been curled up in one of the folds of the tarp; it would’ve disappeared into the brown material if it weren’t for its wings — veined mahogany, then a band of black with cobalt dots, then a ribbon of yellow at the fringe. The moth twitched its legs, shaking off a long, cold sleep.

Sleet crackled on the tarp. The moth pulsed its wings.

I forgot about my chore and knelt down and watched the moth for a long time. Did moths migrate? Or did they just die when the cold came? I couldn’t remember. Either way, I thought, this late in the year a moth must feel like the last moth on Earth. But I had hope for the moth. Every few minutes it would pump its wings a little more vigorously. If it took flight now — well, that would seem like something.

But it didn’t take flight. And then the sleet came harder, mixing with snowflakes the size of dandelion parachutes. I had to get the rest of the leaves into the truck. I slid the dead stem of a balloon flower under the moth’s fat, furry body and moved it over to the wiry grass.

I pulled the tarp over to the final pile of leaves, turned around, and noticed a little flurry of movement. There, in the grass, was a second moth.

Like the first, this one beat its wings — slowly, but purposefully. Flecks of sleet gathered around the moth’s shoulders and in the small of its back. I went inside, got the camera, snapped a few pictures. The first moth hadn’t moved from its spot. The second moth never did.

All around the neighborhood smoke floated from chimneys.

Late in the afternoon I went out to check on the moths. It was raining. Straight, cold rain. One moth — the first one I’d found — was lying on its side right where I’d last seen it. It was lying like it had just stood there, wings folded neatly, until one drop of rain proved too much and it just flopped over. The moth was still. Rain mixed with the dust of its wings, covering them in a milky film. Later in the night, maybe, the rain would turn to snow and bury the moth along with all the other leaves I missed.

But the morning — the first day of December — was warmer. The rain had washed almost all of the color from the yard. Both moths were still in the grass, lying still on their sides. I picked up the gray stem of a zinnia and tapped the first moth’s belly. One leg twitched, then grasped the stalk. I twirled the stem in my fingertips and set the moth upright in the grass.

The moth opened its bright wings.

Rain drops had beaded up on the second moth, but it, too, twitched and fiddled with the stem of a dead flower and eventually opened and closed its wings a few times.

A pair of crows chased a raven through the trees.

The moths sat like two sloops in the yard.

If winter was winning, it seemed, its victory would come slow — and maybe its reign would be short.