Breathing snow

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The blustery powder of yesterday turned into wet, slippery slush overnight and pretty drops of condensation dripped off the trees and branches, making pointillist designs underfoot. It was still dark at few minutes after seven when my dog and I headed out the door, and when we entered the woods, the dawn filtered its insipid light through the bare trunks and naked branches of the forest. The white coating of snow reflected cold and gray, helping me see the path.

The dog didn’t need to see the path. She knows the path and can follow it with her nose alone, around the deadfalls and through the trees and down the little hill toward the creek. The boggy part of the path is firm when it freezes, which meant she got her paws good and wet in the mud. She minded less than I did. Cold, wet shock of muddy water seeped through my sneakers, soaked my socks and shocked my skin. Wet feet, in the woods, with snow on the ground.

We plodded up and down the little hills, the dog running ahead and back and taking in the exciting morning air, reading it like an open book. My eyes didn’t stray from the path. Why is it that when I slip, it’s always the right foot that flies out? Is that what makes my right knee twinge? A thick bed of oak leaves that had covered the ground with a dry, loud, rustling mat only weeks ago was flat and sodden under the remaining frosting of wet snow. The dog read the air, but I read the spoor underfoot. A human had been there, and it was a woman with a shoe size smaller than mine, and if the melting outlines of her footprints were any indication, she was there maybe an hour ago. She had a dog with her, a dog smaller than mine and she led it on the leash. Its petite paw prints stayed to the left of her, polite and obedient.

We crested a hill and rolled down the path when I saw a deer path, its soil and snow freshly churned by split hooves. Did they pass an hour ago? Sooner? They crossed the path and headed to the right – and the wind picked up, and I scented their fresh scat, musky and earthy, riding on the moist air and the melting snow. And then my dog ran down the path, and I saw them ghosting through the trees with their tan coats and white tails and fat flesh not yet preyed upon by the bitter winds of winter. Four deer froze, then sprang into a run through the trees. And the dog ran up and down the path, not giving chase, yet excited by her fragrant discovery.

We looped around, reading the book that was the snow-page underfoot. Footprints of a rabbit that hopped across the path just minutes ago. And a cat. There had been a cat, probably feral, and a rabbit that was cagey enough to survive the summer, and I wondered if the rabbit was still afraid of the cat, and if the cat considered the rabbit easy prey.

And more human footprints from earlier on, with their unleashed dogs and rugged soles, and another deer path with fresh spoor that spoke of the daily movements of the local herd. Then it was just us, and our old, lumbering tracks, and me slipping down the hill in the silence of the morning. It was so still, so warm, so wet. Warm, wet feet and snow too dirty to eat, and mud ahead.

And fog. Rising from the valley and over the creek, its patches drifted uphill, ghosting through the trees like the deer. Fog that used to be snow, and now I could inhale it and breathe it and wonder at its clean taste with a terroir of leaf mold and deer scat and mud.

Breathing snow.

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