Rolling up, through the slender columns of the Carolina forest, the little red car crunches over the untouched snow, which completely blankets the winding gravel driveway. Slowly, she creaks towards the house, tucked back behind the trees--it's a chalet dropped in the middle of the woods. The house rambles around on the inside, but looks compact and cozy on the outside--the Rancho.
They say that monks are called not just to the monastic community of brothers, but to the monastery itself: the trees, the mountain, the soil. Their vocation is to the place: to ponder forever the light of that sunrise, or wash forever in the sunsets of that latitude. They say a monk knows he's found his monastery when God calls him through the soil.
The Rancho calls to me that way, could pull me into a vow of stability. A vow to wake up each day and watch the world from the light of those coordinates' sun.
I wake up and the blue birds are singing outside my bathroom window. The woods are covered in days-old snow: it snowed on Friday and hasn't thawed out yet, though the sun begins to shine now. As I roll out of bed, I see the chickadee fluttering past the window, behind a droplet curtain of snowmelt dripping from the roof.
I watch the chickadee, some titmice, and the bluebirds gather 'round the bowl of birdseed on the small back porch. The blue bird bullies away the titmouse, the titmouse retreats to the balcony's edge, then both of them scatter, flapping off into the woods, as a black shadow swoops over the deck and onto the roof. After a moment, the shadow flies to the pole of the bird feeder directly across from me, and reveals itself as a hawk, slate-winged, with a black band across his tail feathers. He sits eyeing his backyard domain, which is eerily still, silent, no trace of bird to be seen.
I could sit on the sunporch for hours in the wicker love seat for hours, staring back at the cocky hawk. He flies off--no easy targets to prey on visible--and I pull out the birdwatching binoculars, to gaze at the thawing world of the woods, each round picture through the glass interrupted by drips of melting snow. I zoom the lenses in on the toasty golden leaves still clinging to a singular tree, then on the ridged bark of the tree trunk right behind it--cut to a snow-trimmed fallen log. Back-and-forth, back-and-forth, exerting the magic power of bent glass upon my eyes, back-and-forth, back-and-forth, guiding my eyes unconsciously between two sides of the same scene.
Each corner of the backyard is filled with endless beauty etched into it, that I could examine all day, hawk-like, through these binoculars. Sunlight dapples the backyard, the trees that border the clearing ripple with all the hidden life in the shadows of the woods. I sink back into the cushions of the love seat, watching the sunlight, the tress, the shadows moving between them, the water dripping off the roof.
Slowly, three tawny, elegant shapes emerge from the shadows between the trees, the largest leads the way, accompanied by two fawn-colored shadows in her wake. Ears twitching, the deer leads her charges to the hawk's bird feeder. The backyard is frozen, even the two tadpole ponds sunk into the hill are frozen blocks of ice. I stand, and the deer, sensing my movement in the sun porch, stiffen, staring at the sunporch's window which hides the presence of danger.
The snow slides off the roof of the sunporch, miniature avalanches, melting off into tiny curtains of beaded water.
Fog descends on the Rancho the next morning. At breakfast, I look outside the windows of the sunporch, and see that the backyard clearing is covered in a heavy, dour mist. Not even the hawk's bird-feeder is visible. The trees poke up out of the grey clouds like teeth.
We drive the car down the winding gravel trail, and we sink into the mist, just our headlights cutting through the fog, our eyes blocked by the skulking clouds. We reach the bottom, to find that the slight wind by the house has cleared the air. The snow melt is dripping into the rainwater bucket, making a racket like a miniature Niagara.
It is so dark, with only the full moon (hidden behind some higher fog) to light the driveway. It is rather eerie, to be exposed to the woods in the dark. I turn on the porch light as soon as we are inside.
The Rancho is that blessed place that is chock full of Pulitzer prize-bedazzled novels, heavy books on the dressers, magical realism and Gabriel García Márquez, anthologies of Almodóvar, and the Coen brothers film collections spilling off the shelves. I find a 1990 New York Times editorial by Anna Quindlen about her daughter inspiring her to fight for a better world for women. It sticks with me all day. I read Doerr's novel late at night in bed. That is the Rancho.
Texas blood flows in the big-boned house, and its reina is my grandmother, a woman from whom I can understand myself descending. If looking at her is a glimpse into my future, I am content, but she is most certainly not a crystal ball. She is her own story, entirely, and I am happy to be etched into her epilogue.
Late at night, I finish Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See. I imagine the inscription I will write for a friend in the front cover. I fall asleep, dreaming of Saint-Malo, snails that bob on rafts of bubbles, feeling the heartbeat of the story underneath my skin, and wallowing in the iridescent writing of the novel. I come down in the morning to discover a puzzle box on the sunporch. I laugh: what a strange coincidence. This house is never not surprising. I am not much for puzzles, but after reading of Marie-Laure's fondness for them, and remembering when Kyle first brought one to rehearsal in June, am intrigued by this one.
I stand in the sunlight and fiddle with the smooth wood box. I put it down and leave it for a bit. I will return to it later, shake it a little to listen to its secrets, and then sit down at the kitchen table to solve it. There is no diamond inside. Which is just as well. It is a new year, no need to dig up old curses.
I watch the cardinals gather at the corner of the house, chattering in a cluster. The squirrels scamper across the clearing of the backyard. I remember how green everything is in the summer, how it smells of growing things, and the woods teem with movement. Life is so abundant, no creature is cautious. I think of the hummingbirds that feed by the porch.
Winter is more still. The creatures are more conservative with their precious commodity of survival.
I walk downstairs to the breakfast table. There is a "Modern Love" essay printed out from the Times and sitting at my place. I read it. I look out the window: the world is bright and golden, and all the snow is melted. It looks like a regular autumn or winter at the Rancho, the ground thick with limp, dying leaves. The grey-green grass, jaundiced and bright peeks out from the decaying rug of leaves.
The squirrels sniff at the corn left out for the deer, gobbling up the golden nuggets before the hawk returns. The chickadees fly off into the branches of the toast-leaved tree. The creatures movements have thawed slightly with the snow.
And I sit, in the love-seat, in the sunlight, watching them all, soaking in the stability of my monastery.