Supper’s Sting

It’s dark when I get home. I leave the car at the end of the driveway where I shoveled out a space for it and hike into the cabin. The stars are brilliant, my only light as I wade through the snow. The door creaks open on antique hinges and I stamp the snow off my boots onto the chipped linoleum floor. Then I push open the door to the cabin’s only insulated room and dump my papers.

Whatever warmth the cabin had in it when I left that morning has long fled into the winter forest. If the night air is 10 degrees, the cabin air is 12. Stacked under the porch is a week’s worth of firewood. I pile split spruce and balsam in my arms, put a handful of kindling on top, and dump it by the woodstove.
The stove’s cast iron sides are chillingly cold. The wood is dry, over-seasoned, and I can be sloppy building the fire. The softwood catches easily.

In the kitchen, the dishes I washed that morning haven’t dried, they’ve frozen—and stuck together. I break them apart. The water in the water buckets is also frozen. I keep a pot of water on the cook stove; the frail heat from the pilot light is enough to keep it ice free. I start supper.

Thirty minutes later, amid great billows of steam, I spoon rice and beans onto a plate. Next to it, also steaming, sits a mug of tea. The salad is frozen, its greens ice-rimmed and crunchy. In the living room, I put the plate and mug on the top of the woodstove, the salad on the floor, and feed the fire. I press my hand against the cast iron and feel a distant promise of warmth. I sit in the chair, still burrowed in my jacket, and snug up to the stove. With gloved fingers I pick up my supper plate and eat.

When the rice and beans are half gone, I pull off my hat and gloves. When the salad’s gone, I shed my jacket and, when I’m scraping the plate clean and draining my tea, I push my chair against the wall to escape the heat blaring from the stove.

I make plenty of money. I could have an apartment in town—one with central heating thermostatically controlled—and come home to 72 degrees, running water, unfrozen lettuce, and nicely air-dried dishes. There would be no wood to chop, no fire to make, no twigs and bark to sweep, daily, off the floor.

I put the supper dishes on the counter next to the sink. If the kitchen is any warmer for the heat seeping through the wall, I can’t feel it. The cold air nips my ears and fingers. I stop for a moment to revel in its sting.