Pegan Penance

Editor’s note: This piece was written during a fragile moment on the crunchy-cold day before the deluge.

I have just returned from the brisk, sun-baked driveway in front of the carriage shed, where, for the umpteenth time this winter, I brushed cordwood debris from my dingy Polarfleece shell. Dirty business, lugging armloads from the woodshed, but you can’t beat the dry, radiant heat of a wood stove, I don’t care how many times the wood warms you before it’s finally ignited.

My cats, three of them, heartily agree. You can’t get them in during summer, out in winter. They just lay there, totally decadent, by the stove, preferably in front or behind it, where heat’s most intense, and watch suspiciously whenever I pass through, thinking it may, dreadfully, be time to go out. They know the routine well. When it’s time for them to, for lack of a better term, get out of my face, I grab the plastic Iams container from the iron setkettle hearth, hold it chest-high and rattle the pellets on my way to the Griswold skillet in which I feed them. When I reach the porch door and loudly pour the pellets into the frying pan, I hope they’ll come running, which seldom happens. Once in a while Big Tom, if hungry, will come willingly, a bounce in his step; sometimes even Baby, the gray tabby; but not old Blackie, born in the woodshed loft, no penthouse to be sure, but I had nothing to do with that, just gave her a home, reluctantly. Sensing what’s about the happen, she heads for cover, maybe under the kitchen table or, worse still, beneath the cannonball bed, which really heats me to a furious boil. But I have it all down by now, a simple solution.

What I do is stamp my feet hard enough to jiggle the heavy stoneware vessels on the kitchen shelf and, sure enough, old Black-Black flees to the dining room, peeling out, leaving audible and visible scratches on the red-painted floor. She invariably winds up under the harvest table, leafs hanging, wearing a most indignant scowl. But with the doors to the front parlor and taproom closed, she can go no farther. Then, once I close the two kitchen doors flanking the wood stove, she’s at my mercy and knows it. So I reopen the porch door and again stamp my feet with feigned fury, more than enough to send her scurrying out to the flagstone walk, where, objecting to the turn of events, she pathetically shakes fresh snow from her paws each step of the way.

Yeah, right, I feel the most profound pity for the poor Satan-black, tuxedoed beast.

Once outside, old Black-Black will immediately head for the barn, walking under the roofed sheds to a small square hole at the lower right corner of an interior barn door. Inside, she walks the runway to the dark, rickety north stairs, which she descends to the dirt-floored cellar and pokes around a bit before exiting the building and cutting across the backyard alcove created by the barn and woodshed ells. She loops the back of the house and returns to the front porch, where she sits in the sun with her two feline friends, waiting for re-entry.

Exciting life, huh? these winter doldrums; just can’t get enough.

If you haven’t already guessed, I must confess I’ve spiked a raging fever of the cabin variety. I’ve fought it for weeks, but it’s really starting to get to me now. Seems nothing — not aspirin, not fluids, not succulent Florida citrus — seems to touch it. Just can’t fight it off. They must make some sort of a pill these days to soothe it, but I choose not to cure my ills with pills. The only remedy for me is the backyard brook’s roar, bluebirds in the multiflora rosebush, and crocuses along the southern foundations. But it looks like we’ve got a ways to go for that stuff after Punxsutawney Phil surfaced recently, cast a shadow and scurried back to his subterranean den for six more annoying weeks of winter. Had I been in Pennsylvania for that annual event, I would have drilled that rodent right in the gourd with a copper-plated, .222 hollow-point, I can assure you of that. Who the hell is he to make my life miserable till mid-March?

Ooops. There I go again with my insensitivity. I should be more careful not to stir up my anti-hunting critics. You know the profile of the loudest: Pantagonia jacket, Brooks Brothers khakis, candle-lit table at a local eatery enjoying veal scallopini and calling me immoral for personally killing some of the meat I eat. Go figure. What a world; hypocrites pouring out of the woodwork like ladybugs on a sunny November afternoon, preaching, pontificating, drooling venom. But let’s not digress, back to the fever that’s pushing me to delirium.

It used to be that this time of year here in this space I’d preview the outdoor shows, plugging them as cure-alls for what ails you. They’re still happening, one coming up soon, but I’m afraid I’m done promoting them. Been there, done that. Can’t continue; gets boring after a while. So here I sit, closed in my study, space-heater blowing a soft August breeze on my back as I vent through my keyboard. You know the routine, especially during these, the glory days of gluttonous big oil: close yourself into a room with a space heater and keep what money you can out of those euphoric Bush cronies’ pockets. Why contribute to filling the trough for generations of idle rich, in Texas of all places. What did the Texans ever do for me? What will they ever do?

So here I sit, toasty warm, bitter cold outside, treacherous icy driveway, another snowstorm on the way. The snow’s piled so high under the woodshed eaves that I may run out before the dump truck can get back there for my final load. You look at the snow heaped under the rooflines out back and wonder when they’ll be gone from the darkest corners. Memorial Day, perhaps? Later? By then it’ll be time for the roofer to stop for his annual maintenance, replacing the slates scattered below the buildings, victims of icy avalanches, none worse than along the carriage sheds out front, leaving me back-breaking removal issues. The chore may someday buckle my knees, drop me flat on my face. But let’s hope not. Can think of better ways to go, many unprintable in a family paper. Whisper stuff; always the best.

In the meantime, I think I’ll go out to the barn to get my roof rake in order. Snow, sleet, rain; a freakin’ mess predicted. Looks like I’ll need all three extensions out back for this storm to clear the roof around the sewer-vent pipe. Either that or lose the whole shootin’ match, flashing and all, again, necessitating a quick fix. Cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching, that’s what winter’s all about, that and work and cold and breaking through crusty snow carrying ash buckets to the pile out back. Oh, how I hate crusty snow, and so do my dogs; the deer, too.

So please excuse me as I depart for my barn chore, which will lead me straight through the dining room, where I’ll load up the soapstone stove. Undoubtedly, that project will coax me to the woodshed for a fresh armload of wood, then outside to brush off the debris, and back to the stove to sweep the floor by the cradle. The cats will be there, probably all three, and they’ll object to the broom and long-handled, pivoting dustpan. At the sound of it creaking, they’ll scramble to their feet, spewing terror, and I’ll have sarcastic words before chasing them outside. Time for a little air — frosty, healthy stuff — whether they like it or not.

It’s time to understand it’s mid-February and we’re all in it together, suffering required.

Pagan penance.

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