Tonight the House Breathes

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On Sunday, I woke last and felt luxurious. Lying on my side, I opened my eyes to the cat sitting on all of her feet in the windowsill. The morning light had sharp edges, and something seemed peculiar. I raised my head and greeted the cat. Her eyes squinted happily at me. Then I realized: She was sitting in the sill of a half-open window.

“Whoa! Sam and Stella!” I called, swinging my legs off the bed and arms towards the window simultaneously. I headed to find them, but detoured into another bedroom to close its wide-open window. They had tiptoed everywhere, opening windows.2015-01-08 21.40.50

The kids bounced around their bedroom like shiny-cheeked crickets, chirping about the fresh air and how they were Not Cold, in fact they were hot. Both windows in their room gaped, inviting winter indoors. I spoiled their fun and invited them to go outdoors instead, which, of course, they declined.  I can’t blame them; it really is cold out there.

All of the windows are closed tonight, though you can feel a slight breeze through the kitchen, where mud is drying on newly hung sheetrock. It isn’t the coldest night we’ve had—just zero degrees—but the wind is teaching me how porous an old house really is.

Tonight the house breathes. I can hear its inhalations with every gust of wind through the cedars that circle, hunched, beside it. The house inhales through outlets, stove vent, window edges, places behind the cupboards, the space between its chiseled grey stone foundation and our wooden floors. Like a salamander, it seems to breathe through its skin.

2015-01-06 23.41.16A cold cold night feels like a thunderstorm, beautiful and menacing. As we sleep, pipes freeze in the kitchen, despite a thermostat set at sixty degrees. Snow blows across the fields like steam. On our mudroom floor, mice killed in traps freeze solid so they must be pried free in the morning.

I am amazed that any animals are left alive outside after a night like this one, but we will see them tomorrow. Surviving with their small bodies in fur or feathers. Or we will see them in spring, if they endure winter by slowing their hearts towards death, just a few beats per minute, their temperatures guttered, their bodies nearly turned to stone.

We, the awake and naked species, require long underwear and heated rooms to make it through winter. We also make potato soups with mushrooms, flavored with marjoram, thyme, and a pinch of nutmeg, to spoon thickly into our mouths. We stack library books twenty high, and snuggle under blankets to read aloud Farmer Boy, transporting ourselves to Almanzo Wilder’s upstate New York farm with stolid barns warmed by horses and oxen. And our kids run circles around our small oak table in our big square kitchen, skipping and galloping, with Stella yelling, “I’m warming up my body!”

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