There’s a spring-fed pond way out back that’s perfect for skating because if you break through you’ll at worst get your ankles muddy.
In drier years there is no pond at all by fall, but this year come the solid winter freeze a sizeable patch of ice remained, and yesterday my younger daughter asked if I would chauffeur her and a classmate out for a skate.
My first reaction was the usual deskbound harrumphing: no time … can’t possibly … deadlines … getting the taxes together … blather-blather, etc., and then, like someone took to my wooden head with a rubber mallet, I was struck by a vision of this moment as a dot along the number line of time.
Sure, I said. Get the hot chocolate ready.
When the classmate arrived, I started our old plow truck and fetched a bucket of kindling and firewood, a snow shovel and a pair of camp chairs. Both families have been navigating strict quarantine routines over the holidays, so rather than pack into the cab, the two of them rode in the back of the truck as I bumped slowly out the trail.
When I checked the mirror they were chattering behind their masks, the cloth doing double duty in these cold pandemical times, and reminding me that this skating session was critical for them on many levels.
All my amateur psychoanalyses tend toward overcomplicating the obvious, so forthwith, a simpler report: Upon reaching the farthest reaches of the farthest-back forty, we gathered up our gear and hiked down a steep footpath to a valley and the pond.
While the girls donned their skates, I shoveled an oblong track through the accumulated snow. The ice beneath was off-and-on smooth and nubby.
As the skaters took their first turn (giggling when they hit the teeth-chattering nubby stretch), I gathered twigs and canary grass and coaxed up a fire (“coaxed” being a euphemism for blazing up a dozen wooden matches and a brace of kindling stolen from the household stash).
By the time the fire caught, the two friends were making snow angels, and ready for their first hot chocolate break.
At this point I figured the old guy might harsh the middle-school vibe, so I set out for a walk, leaving them in their camp chairs trying to avoid the smoke from my sad fire while drinking hot chocolate. My daughter had also produced a bag of corn chips coated in blaze orange cheese dust, perhaps to counterbalance all the nature.
I walked without purpose, and was that ever long overdue.
I wound up following the spring to its source. In its final approach to the pond, it seeps and dissipates through a marsh, and is essentially invisible. But as I climbed ever deeper up the cut from which it emanates, the click and chuckle of flowing water grew.
Then, at a point where several deer tracks converged, I spotted an opening roughly the size of a whitetail’s snoot, through which a wrist-thick braid of water flowed over a bed of black and white sand.
Then I heard, “Dad?” from downvalley, my daughter’s voice raised just enough to carry, and of a tone a father recognizes not as an emergency but as, “We’re cold and ready to go.”
I covered the coals with snow, and we climbed out to the truck.
Within the hour I was back at the desk, swept not with any fresh resolve or illuminating epiphany, simply back to chasing deductions, but echoing with the skate-blade scrape, youth’s laughter from a distance, and the idea of a world laced with invisible springs.
An original “Roughneck Grace” column exclusive to the Wisconsin State Journal. Audio versions may air on “Tent Show Radio” (tentshowradio.com). Read more from Michael Perry at www.sneezingcow.com.