The Winter Garden

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Garlic chives
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Garlic chives
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‘Coronation Gold’ yarrow
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Oriental ornamental oregano
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Grau samtp;oma
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Money plant
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Grau samtp;oma
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Bird feeder
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Bird Bath
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I wanted to write of dark earth singing, of spring’s ease and soft mouth flower, of birds in light step. But sometimes it is not spring we need, but winter, how it calls us from the walnut dark of our rooms to kneel in the unplowed gardens, carrying our stick leaf, musk thistle, hound’s-tongue.

When my father died, it was not yet winter’s solstice, the sun trembling at the brink of the southern sky. “What do you believe in?” my husband asked me. And I thought of the white river of the Milky Way and the bitter coins of the dark river everlasting beneath the tongues of the dead, and the tears of Myrrha turned to a tree and weeping the holy resin. My father gone, I did not know what I believed, seeing only the snow pieced over the skeletons of my garden.

My family lived always on the edge of belief. Somewhere in my mother’s past were litany and incense, holy water and the body of Christ resting on the tongue. But if I think of her in prayer, it is of her alone, in the blue light of evening, in the darkening woods, birds around her singing while she weeps or is glad.

And as I think back, I realize that my father’s side of the family knew, too, the healing power of the woods and nature. My father’s grandfather was a homeopathic doctor, gathering from fields and woods the herbs that heal by inducing the symptomatic dance of disease. But because my father was a doctor of this modern world, I grew up surrounded by white lab coats and black medical bags–science filling the cabinet above our refrigerator with sterilized medicines encapsulated in plastic and white cardboard. That any of these might come from what my great-grandfather picked by hand, I never imagined. If there was healing, it was far removed from anything of earth or heaven–prairie willow or yarrow or the blessed hand of the healer pressed against the beleaguered soul. It was a world of reason, of the rational, of man hoisted above the green world by a chain of angels he could never quite touch.

Once, our ancestors believed that the very gods who smote them down or clutched them to their feathered glory lived in the bodies of plants that this season of winter takes, sown forever and again. Yes, there has been a tearing apart from that time, a tearing of heaven from earth, of what is holy from what is concrete, of what is the god’s body from the stamen of the plant. But as I stood at my father’s side and watched him die while doctors rattled off a catechism of pills and treatment like ancient Egyptians singing the will of gods, I thought, What can we say, really, but the old words disguised, holding our staffs of snakes like promises of renewal as the bitter skin of the world peels away?

I said we lived on the edge of belief. I understand now my love for the fields and woods, for the green plants in the light evening. I understand now my father’s refusing his last days, and long before his last days, to take the offerings of his fellow doctors. When I was a child, he would come home from the office, still wearing his white lab coat, and go out to plow the dark silent earth for seeds, chaff of the holy clinging to him. I thought then it was what he did to forget the sick and the broken, dust returning to dust. But I think now he was moving through the gods, through the goldenrod and the milkweed, saying his prayers, his incantations to heal whatever body he had touched that day. I hang the roses of his grave like herbs from my kitchen ceiling, watch them stiffen into something I might crumble, take into my body, feel turn West to East inside me.

What is grief? Is it winter’s domain? I stand in my winter garden, which I let stand all winter like the Indians who did not shear the earth at the end of a season but let everything bend and go under where it stood. All around me, the dead beneath the snow quiver–dried moons of silver, nickels of the heart’s wing. What will I take from this garden? What will I rub into my skin, boil down into tea, sprinkle into food?

Once, our ancestors believed that the very gods who smote them down or clutched them to their feathered glory lived in the bodies of plants that this season of winter takes, sown forever and again. 

My daughter stands beside me. My husband has been teaching her the ways of the Jews, and I am sorry for her that I have not sat shivah, covered mirrors, done the edges of ritual that might save us.

Already my daughter forgets my father. Already she does not recognize who I was when young, in the same the way these plants bent beneath the snow have turned what once was to dreams unrecognizable. I want to tell her that my father walks the Milky Way now, which I once showed her spread through the mountain dark like a living tissue. I want to tell her that someone has weighed his heart and that now he is happy.

Around us, lunaria and thyme quicken at the root. We stand beneath the new moon past winter solstice, and only snow fills the air with its light.

“Here,” I say to my daughter, and hand her a pod, closed as the heart. Inside, it is all damp spider skein and cusp of seed, which the air cannot yet hold.

“What is heaven?” she asks me. Beneath their stones, the long and the newly dead gather, listen.

Kathryn Winograd’s poetry has appeared in numerous literary journals, including TriQuarterly, Wilderness, The Journal, The Antioch Review, and the 1995-96 Anthology of Magazine Verse and Yearbook of American Poetry.

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