Solstice Countdown

Thu, 12/10/2020 - 5:00pm

It is the time of year when the sun drops the earliest, and darkness lasts the longest.

A little more than two months ago, now, I came home from the hospital, a thankfully clean break high in my right humerus held together by what I somehow presumed to be a couple of pins — which I later saw to be a forest of screws. My arm was thankfully in a sling, not a cast, and in my brief three night absence, the longest I had been off island in I am now thinking may have been a decade, and the cowgirls/Valkyries/angels who keep and ride the horses in my fields and beyond, had somehow managed to bring a semblance of order to my living space.

Among the changes, I was — thankfully — relocated from my upstairs space with its wide views of the south end of the island and the ocean and old, steep stairs. I hadn’t fallen on the stairs but why court disaster?

It was something I had tried many years ago, moving downstairs, when my first Shad was a fluffy little puppy who got up on the bed and barked at the mirror on the closet door. I’d thought he was barking at his own reflection then I realized I was seeing him in the glass so he must have been seeing me. Then I was bitten by some insect, and I knew where and when — a most unlikely place in town — but still I scooted back upstairs in some illogical over-reaction.

In early October, back downstairs, I slept with my arm carefully positioned, terrified I would somehow undo the surgery, which would probably have taken some doing, grateful that the weather was warm enough that the heavy cold pack did not chill me as it would today.

One morning I realized I had lost neither the sun nor the ocean, that both were there beyond the east facing window of the room. In early October, first light shone on my pillow, as if seeking my face, an annoyance given those initial days of partly self-imposed immobility, then it did what the sun does in the fall, it moved southward, the bright patch of morning creeping along the wall, and I found myself doing that annual arithmetic, days to and from the winter solstice.

We’ve technically passed the first hurdle; the weatherman last night announced the sunset was a second later than it had been the day previous. My mother never complained about the early dark, usually choosing to say something like “imagine living in Sweden” as if her father’s family had left the country for a mill town in Massachusetts for nothing more than more sun. She added, always, a reminder that the afternoons began lengthening before the solstice, acknowledging the still shrinking mornings only when pressed.

By sunsets measured only by whole minutes we are gliding along the plateau of December, locked into 4:17 p.m. from the second to the fourteenth when it makes the great leap to 4:18, a sort of pre-Christmas present to the Northern Hemisphere.

It has gotten cold, there has been ice on the grass of the north pasture, shining in the late day sun like so many sharply edged sheets of isinglass. At first I thought they were frozen puddles, in an unusual place but the rain has been so heavy the swales filled, the pond by the gate reached out into the field, anything seemed possible. Then I remembered the water in the horse trough freezes, despite being held by double layers, with the space between the thick black walls filled with insulation.

And that triggers another image from long ago, when the land was clear down to the pond, and my older brother was sent down with an axe to open a drinking hole for the cows.

In the way we remember those rare rainy days of summer, I remember the rare stillness of calm winter mornings, and even more flat winter afternoons, short and blue, when, again, the land was clear and the views wide, and the sparse lights of the harbor shone golden across the bay.

It is, technically, autumn and while the temperature has dipped below freezing and the coats of the Icelandic horses have gone from summer sleek to winter shaggy, while the deep cold has not arrived on Block Island, the air has held — between rains — that crisp dry that speaks of the turning of seasons.

And between storms, the ocean off the east beach lies flat, leaving the flaming glory to the water to the west. From the wide sandy shore, empty of scores of umbrellas and legions of bathers, the water is like that mirror that made my puppy bark, but it reflects the sky and offers calm, holding the last light of day as resolutely if momentarily.