In the pitch black darkness of what theoretically is morning, the clammy cold of my gumboots embraces my bare feet. I curl up my toes in an effort to minimize the unwelcome contact with old foot sweat and stumble outside to heed the call of nature, the feeble glow of my head lamp an insincere stab at the dark. There is no sound except for the faint whisper of falling snow.
It’s 5:30 a.m., a stupid time to get up when you live in the bush and the grey smudge of daylight is still three and a half hours away. There is no workplace for me to be at by a certain time other than the daily string of chores: refilling the water buckets, feeding the chickens, cutting more firewood – all of which are better accomplished when it’s light. Our chickens in particular don’t appreciate a visit in the darkness, not when I have the headlamp on. Unable to reconcile my voice and the gifts of feed and water with the miniature moon on my forehead, they regard it as a visitation, flinging themselves hysterically through the confined airspace of the chicken coop like so many feather dusters. Better not to disturb them when it’s dark.
The light of my headlamp catches on the delicate puffs of snow on the spruce branches outside the outhouse. I stare at them bleary-eyed, vaguely aware that my feet are getting cold, but mesmerized by the intricate shape of the individual snow crystals. It is this that really wakes me up: the snowflakes. Every morning, I get sucked into shifting the beam of my lamp this way and that, comparing different snow crystals, amazed at the intricate lacework that water can turn into: the original trickster. And always, my chilly feet finally urge me back to the cabin, too awake now to go back to bed. In front of me, a tiny slice of the world appears, carved out by the pale LED light, and falls away again as I walk, zipping shut behind me.
I perform the ritual of lighting the oil lamp, its mellow light an instant illusion of warmth, and rid myself of the winter gum boots. Out of the blue bucket, I tip water into the kettle and set it on the propane stove, then go about stoking the fire, hunting out wool socks and more clothing in the meantime. I hear Sam rolling over in bed – this early morning schedule is mine alone. My body is keeping its own rhythm. After all, there is not much difference between sitting wrapped in darkness for hours in the morning or doing it at night instead.
Daylight has been squeezed out by winter, the days wrung dry of it save for a few weak hours that serve perhaps as a token reminder. I don’t mind it, this annual shrinking of my world. I curl up by the stove with my coffee and cold feet, the fire and stove pipe chattering busily away now, and listen to the soft breath of the sleeping dogs. Every morning I get annoyed with myself for waking up so early, and every morning the beauty of the snowflakes and the stillness of the cabin reconcile me to it. A three-hour breakfast is not a bad thing, after all.
My mind wanders, sluggishly at first, then a bit more perky as the caffeine hits. I hug these hours to myself where the outside world is still a dark illusion and reality seems concentrated in this cabin alone. Time, which is so poorly measured by clocks, drips, whirls and eddies around me until ever so slowly, the reflection of the golden logs and the lamp in the dark windows becomes more transparent. I begin to discern the ghostly glow of snow outside, the blurry silhouette of trees that will condense later into more sharply defined shapes.
Eventually, the sun that lingers still well beyond the horizon pushes a little bit of watery light above the mountains, halfheartedly tinging the bellies of the clouds a faint red. Like Sam, the sun is reluctant to rise. After these long hours, it seems to me as if I’ve coaxed them both into being again with my offerings of lamplight and fire.
Lisa Hasselbring is a writer who lives at the headwaters of the Yukon River south of Whitehorse.