An Ode to Cold and Snow: Scenes from Winter’s Tale
Incantations of Ice from Mark Helprin's Odd Epic of the North
Mark Helprin’s strange fabulist epic, Winter’s Tale, is a unique and unexpected book, set in a world that’s almost but not quite our own. Helprin, who grew up in the Hudson Valley, does his title justice with odd and perfect descriptions of an icebound New York that may soon be the stuff of pure fantasy. In honor of the first day of the season (should it ever come), we present our favorite passages from this singular wintertime book.
And sometime not too deep in winter, each year, the Lake of the Coheeries would surprise everyone by freezing over during the night. In the second week of December at the latest, the inhabitants of Lake of the Coheeries Town sat by their fires after dinner and stared into the darkness around their rafters as Canadian winds rode in hordes and attacked their settlement from the north. These winds had been born and raised in the arctic, and had learned their manners on the way down, in Montreal—or so it was said, since the people of Lake of the Coheeries hadn’t much respect for the manners or mores of Montreal. The winds ripped off tiles, broke branches, and toppled unwired chimneys. When they came up, everyone knew that winter had begun, and that a long time would pass before the spring made the lake light yellow with melting streams that fled from newly breathing fields.
[ . . . ]
The lake had frozen in one night, which meant that a harsh winter was due. Just how difficult it would get could be forecast by the smoothness of the ice. The finer it was, the harder would be the succeeding months, although—in the days before it snowed—iceboating would be unlike anything on earth.
It lay there almost laughing at its own perfection. There was not a ripple, streak, or bubble to be seen. The terrible wind and the incessant castellations of foam had been banished and leveled by the fast freeze of heavy blue water. Not a flake of snow skidded across the endless glass, which was as perfect as an astronomer’s mirror.
“The monsters must be sealed in tight,” Mrs. Gamely said. Then she grew silent in contemplation of the winter to come. The ice was airless, smooth, and dark. For two weeks the sun rose and set on Lake of the Coheeries Town, low and burnished, spinning out a mane of golden brass threads. A steady and gentle breeze moved from west to east on the lake, sweeping the flawless black ice clean in a continuous procession of chattering icicles and twigs that fled from wind and sun like ranks of opera singers who run from their scenes gaily and full of energy in a stage direction stolen from streams, surf, and the storms which fleece autumnal forests.
Even though the air temperature never went above ten degrees, the weather was mild because the wind was light and the sky cloudless. With their wells freezing up and their world nearly still, the inhabitants of the town took to the ice in a barrage of Dutch pursuits that saw the sun rise and set, and gave the village the busy and peculiar appearance of a Flemish winter scene. Perhaps they had inherited it; perhaps the historical memory deep within them, like the intense colors with which the landscape was painted, was renewable. A Dutch village arose along the lake. Iceboats raced from west to east and tacked back again, their voluminous sails like a hundred flowers gliding noiselessly across the ice. Up close, there was only a slight sound as gleaming steel runners made their magical cut. A little way in the distance, they sounded like a barely audible steam engine. Miniature villages sprang up on the lake, comprised of fishing booths ranged in circles, with flapping doors and curling pigtails of smoke from stovepipe chimneys. Firelight from these shelters reflected across the ice at night in orange and yellow lines that each came to a daggerlike point. Boys and girls disappeared together, on skates, pulled into the limitless distance by a ballooning sail attached to their thighs and shoulders. When they had traveled so far on the empty mirror that they could see no shore, they folded the sail, put it on the ice, and lay on its tame billows to fondle and kiss, keeping a sharp eye on the horizon for the faraway bloom of an iceboat sail, lest they be discovered and admired to death by the younger children who sailed boats into the empty sections just to see such things.
Blazing fires on shore ringed inward bays and harbors like necklaces. At each one, there was steaming chocolate, or rum and cider, and venison roasting on a spit. Skating on the lake in darkness, firing a pistol to keep in touch with a friend, was like traveling in space, for there were painfully bright stars above and all the way down to a horizon that rested on the lake like a bell jar. The stars were reflected perfectly, though dimly, in the ice, frozen until they could not sparkle. Long before, someone had had the idea of laying down wide runners, setting the light-as-a-white-weddingcake village bandstand on them, and hitching up a half-dozen plough horses with ice shoes to tow the whole thing around at night. With lights shining from the shell, an entire enchanted village skated behind it as the Coheeries orchestra played a lovely, lucid, magical piece such as “Rhythm of Winter,” by A. P. Clarissa.
When the farmers all along the undulating lakeshore saw a chain of tiny orange flames, and the shining white castle moving dreamlike through the dark (like a dancer making quick steps under concealing skirts), they strapped on their skates and pogoed through their fields to leap onto the ice and race to the magic that glided across the horizon. As they approached, they were astonished by the music, and by the ghostly legions of men, women, and children skating in the darkness behind the bandshell. They looked like the unlit tail of a comet. Young girls twirled and pirouetted to the music: others were content just to follow.
[ . . . ]
The lake was covered with snow by the time Virginia and her baby rode along its length in a huge troika pulled by horses heavy enough to shake even the thick ice of the Lake of the Coheeries as they pounded down the snow road. By afternoon, they were in the mountains, ascending steadily, turning on hairpin terraces from which they could see a world of white and blue. Now and then a snowy hawk rose from the background camouflage of glistening bone-white fields, and navigated the ocean of air, slipping sideways on the wing more gracefully than a skater.
As they neared the top of the range, they watched the effects of high winds upon the accumulated drifts. Powerful continental gusts burst upon cornices and sculptured ridges, sending up vertical jets of loosed snow. Behind these white silk curtains were glowing rims of gold where the sun shone through their crests. There was so much screaming and whistling that the bells of the troika could hardly be heard. The sleigh driver halted on a round cakelike knob, the summit. Resting there, they saw a landscape of ice and snow crossed and covered by hills and ridges from which white powder rocketed into the air. The horses dipped their heads and shook their ice-encrusted manes. “From here on,” said the sleigh driver, shouting with difficulty through his muffler and the blasts of mountain air, “you can’t see the lake, but only the east and, soon, the Hudson. Take one last look, for we are now on our way to a different place.”
The road led not through fields and past overlooks, but deeper and deeper within an untouched forest, between rock cliffs a thousand feet high, near ice-covered gorges where falls and flumes pounded like jackhammers and covered hundred-foot oaks in freezing spray. They glided over dimly lit roads, springing upon shocked families of deer that had an air of offended innocence, and which they sent white-tailed into the forest, carrying their solid sixfoot horns like little battleaxes with which they smashed down waxy bushes bloody with red berries. They drove through vaulted mahogany-colored courses made by trees and snow, and the horses leapt ahead, swallowing the space in front of them and effortlessly compressing the air of the cool snow tunnels. Virginia held her baby to her, inside her coat. His name, for the moment anyway, was Martin d’Anglas, which seemed very apt for a swordsman who swung on ropes, or a legionnaire, and much less apt for a little newt all wrapped up in blue. His mouth and nose stuck out of a navy cashmere balaclava, and he took the cold air like a puppy. Virginia threw back her head to look for hawks and eagles, and was surprised at the many she saw perched in gothic nests high in the trees. They watched, unconcerned, as the troika slipped past. “Look at all those dignified eagles up there,” she said to the driver.
[ . . . ]
She dreamed of skating, and (as so often happened) the next morning she found herself replicating exactly what she had imagined.
For hours and hours, she skated nearly in a trance, centered between the mountain banks, on a road of white ice. She was one of those women whose legs seem to come up to everyone else’s shoulders. It would have been impossible to keep her in jail, since, no matter how far across the room the jailer hung his key she would have been able to hook the ring around a toe and bring it to her with one sinuous fold of thigh and calf. So she was a natural speed skater. One long push was good for fifty yards: and she could push for hours.
[ . . . ]
With Martin bundled up and riding on her back, she skated downriver, rounding its curling bends and keeping her eyes upon the converging shorelines and ice. She would stop every now and then and put Martin in front of her, kneeling to check on him. He was so well wrapped that he slept as if he were at home in a cradle. Then she would hoist him up and begin again, more and more powerfully. Though the wind was at her back, she was going fast enough so that her hair was pushed from her face.
Behind her at a distance of a mile or so came Mr. Fteley, the innkeeper, pulling a light sled. They traveled silently past sleeping settlements of red brick and slattern wood. At a bend in the river, near Constitution Island, Virginia saw an icehouse in which she decided to rest and escape the wind. Skating at full speed, she turned to stop just before the dock, the silver blades of her skates sending up an abrupt shower of fresh-milled crystals that hung in the air and sparkled.
[ . . . ]
Shouting now over the anarchic wind—they were in a widening bay—she said, “Mr. Fteley, why can’t the iceboat make it upriver? The ice is smooth and thick. I don’t understand.”
“The drift wall,” shouted Fteley.
“The drift wall!” he shouted again. “By pure coincidence, it snowed all in one place just north of Oscawana, and then the wind piled it up in a wall across the ice. It blocks the river completely, as sure as my name is Fteley, from shore to shore as high as the hills on both banks. They can’t tunnel through because they fear it will collapse as it melts.”
“Does it block the whole river?”
“Yes,” he shouted over the wind.
“As high as the surrounding hills?”
“How high are they?”
“A thousand feet,” he screamed back. “We’ll have to climb it and slide down the other side.”
When they rounded one of the alpine bends that made the Hudson Highlands look like a collection of looming rhinoceros horns, they saw the drift wall—which, unlike Rome, had sprung up in a day, and which had about it the smooth, thoughtless, malicious air of a modern skyscraper. The drift wall was a pile of snow that stretched from mountain to mountain across the solidified river. It was steep, a thousand feet high, and shrouded at the top by a tumbling mist that devoured itself and regenerated, blooming like timelapsed roses.
“I can’t climb that,” said Mr. Fteley, “not with this luggage, certainly. I thought it was lower, and didn’t know about all that stuff at the top.”
[ . . . ]
With that, she turned away from the innkeeper and began climbing. She found that by means of a chain of small steps driven into the dense snow, she soon was high above the ground, like a worker on the face of a dam. Had she fallen backward, she and Martin would have gone through the ice like a cannonball, never to be seen again. But she didn’t look back, the left foot was always forward, she breathed calmly, and she concentrated. In an hour she was nearly at the top, standing vertically in the holds she had dug in the snow, with hands and fingers stuck in as deep as she could push them and spread as wide as she could spread them to get a grip. Sleeping peacefully on her back, Martin was suspended a thousand feet above the ice. Down below, Mr. Fteley was running back and forth like an ant; amazed, afraid, and angry. Virginia slowed just five feet from the ledge that formed the top of the drift wall. Unfortunately, it leaned out. To get over it and into the curtain of mist, she would have to climb while leaning back. How?
The snow was hard to hold. She imagined herself and Martin falling, and, as she did, she felt her previously strong hold loosening. Then it occurred to her that she could reverse that effect, and she tried to do so. She imagined herself sticking to the wall, proceeding with surety and grace, losing not a second of her momentum.
When she had become agitated with that vision, she made her move, punching holes in the compressible snow while saying to herself, “Go! go!” and she moved up and out. She did hang outward for a few seconds, but her momentum took care of her and thrust her over the edge. Afterward, she thought she heard one long clear blast of a French horn, and realized that it was an illusion of her heart springing free. All Mr. Fteley saw was that she was swallowed up by the mist.
She found herself thrown about by gusts of wind and visible currents of whitened air that rushed at her from all directions. She didn’t actually walk across the ridge, she was waltzed across by the turbulence—which occasionally picked her up and spun her upside down but always put her back again on her feet. In the end it simply spat her out on the other side, having treated her with unusual and uncharacteristic gentleness (all because of the baby on her back, for whom allowances had to be made). Straightening her hair, she walked a few steps through the thinning mist, and then was in the clear again.
There, fifty miles to the south, was the city.
Excerpted from Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin. Copyright © 1983 by Mark Helprin. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.