Posted by: Peadar Ban | December 18, 2008

Before Majestic Light

What woke me up last Friday morning was a sound like a rifle shot.  I know the sound pretty well, having fired a few rifles and listened to them.  CRACK!  That’s the way it’s usually portrayed in print.  In the movies lately that’s followed up with a “ZIP” as a bullet goes whizzing past.  (Zip and whiz are good bullet words.)

But I knew this was no rifle shot.  I live in a nice neighborhood.  No, this was a pretty big tree limb.  Following right on after the big crack was the soft sound of the branch falling.  It must have been high up because a second or more elapsed before the final heavy THUMP!  That’s the way they sound at journey’s end.  THUMP!  Like a punch; into your ribs or your stomach.  I’ve heard them, felt them, too.

I got that feeling, too, lying there in the bed.  It was close.  There have been closer ones.  Years ago, sixteen to be exact, Sheila and I were waiting for the limo to take us to the airport.  It was about three in the afternoon and we sat in the dining room sipping a cup of tea.  We were on our way to Ireland, in February because the place is empty except for one or two caretakers and the flights are cheap.  February is a strange month, here in New Hampshire.  People are leaving or have left for Florida, and the month seems undecided on going itself or staying; cold one day and warm the next. It was a typically February strange day full of snow and freezing rain, an in between kind of day.  I felt more than heard the impact of the tree, a huge oak next to our neighbor’s house.  Everything in our house shook; us too.  The tea in the cups made little waves.  I got up and looked out the window.  There it was, huge, black and down; within five feet of the house.  “What do we do, now?”  Sheila asked.  “We go to Ireland,” I said.  “It’s not our tree.”

I knew from the direction of the sound last Friday where the tree was, and guessed which one it was.  “Not mine,” I thought, and whispered a prayer of thanks.  It was my neighbor, across the street and two doors down, and it had fallen from the big pine tree at the side of his house taking out his cable and electricity service.  The latter wasn’t necessary.  That job had been done hours ago by hundreds of other trees and thousands of other branches all across the state.

And, then, everything was quiet; as quiet as it had been before, but for the steady hissing beat of the freezing rain on the windows, the roof, the street, the whole world it seemed.

I turned away from the window and went downstairs for my first cup of tea.  While waiting for the water to hotten and the tea to brew I looked around me through the windows.  Everything was covered with a thick coating of ice.  Trees, tall oaks and pines, bushes, lawns, drives and walks and the street had been slathered in ice and polished to a deep translucence, even on this morning of unrelenting gray.  The tips of pines bowed like sagging soft ice cream cones wilting in the summer heat, their limbs like a tired boxer’s, hanging, drooping by their sides.  They looked beaten in the gray light.  And the rain fell, each little drop another blow.  If there was ever a time to throw in the towel I remember thinking, this is it.

For the next few hours, Mariellen and I sat in front of the fireplace and watched the weak daylight try to win.  It didn’t.  The best it could manage was a sort shadowless twilight bleached of color.  We left to go to Connecticut around noon time detouring around fallen trees blocking all but one road out of the neighborhood.  I had seen several more branches take the dive as morning wore on.  They reminded me of nothing so much as World War II films of bombers leaving their formations and plunging slowly to the earth.  Ice was winning. inexorable

As we drove south the sky lightened, clouds separated and at last, in a blinding glare, light won out.  Coming into Worcester on I-290 we beheld the whole earth in shining glory.  Now, Worcester is no heavenly Jerusalem, and it certainly did not come down from the sky last Friday.  But I learned, then, what it may be like on that day when, true to His promise, God will send it down to us.

There is a lake in Worcester, Lake  Quinsigamond, which lies between some low hills.  I-290 descends the hill to a bridge over the long narrow lake .  On the way down the view to the west is of the city and hills beyond. On Friday morning the lake divided the old world from the new one, shadow from light.  Literally everything was light; the buildings on the hills, the hills themselves, the roads, still wet from the sheets of melting ice, like silver ribbons gleamed, the trees at the side of the highway were slender pillars of shining crystal, and where a few miles back they had bent in gray defeat, now they bowed to the victory of light, bending gracefully to the earth, the birches like frozen dancers, the oaks and tall pines inclining in stately rows before majestic light.

We dipped down into the valley between the hills and I saw the lake itself like a fanfare in the light, a plain of pellucid brilliance, a mile long sheet of new stamped steel.  Light didn’t just shine on us.  We were in light.

Thinking about it now, almost a week later, I cannot compare the experience to anything I’ve ever seen before, but I think I know the tiniest bit of what awaits me, when the scales are at last lifted.


  1. Beautifully described.

  2. Your story reminds me of an ice storm here in Ohio while we were still at the house in Gratiot. No power, no heat, no way to cook. I don’t remember if we still had water or not; might not have since we were on a community well. Our backyard neighbor had a huge tree come down right across the power line that literally ripped our meter off the side of the house. We stayed through that first night and well into the second day. As things warmed up, sitting in the front room, all of a sudden there would be a “crack” and then a loud rumbling, as slabs of ice would come loose from the roof and slide, and then come crashing down just outside of the big front window. It was kind of like living inside a thunderstorm.

    The house got progressively colder. I was beginning to develop a cold on top of the caffiene depravation headache. No stove, no coffee. It was pitiful. I tried to head water over a candle to make some instant coffee. Yech! Later on in the day, after the sun and the road crews together cleared the roads, my step father was able to come up and get us and take us down to the farmhouse. They had no electric there either, but they did have a kerosene heater and they cooked by propane. So, at last, a little warmth and … a cup of coffee.

    On the way down, that was something else. As we drove through Gratiot, my first impression was that of a tree graveyard. Then, as I became aware of the sun, suddenly what at first seemed so destructive, turned into a crystal fairyland. It was impossible not to be struck silen by the beauty of it.


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