Silent Snow, Singing Sparrow

Daniel Sidoti knows he will be the one to find the boy and pull him from the river. He feels Kai’s cold body inside his own, cold water running through them.

Hundreds have come to search. They carry ropes and blankets, knives and chocolate, thermoses full of hot broth or cider. They have slings to throw and harnesses to lift him. Thirteen firefighters bring a sled that glides on ice or water. One wears a rescue suit, bright orange, with booties. For walking on the moon, he says. Or walking on the river.

Two hours gone. A pack of homeless kids with homeless dogs works the shore. Those with hope survive. The children know how dangerous it is to be wet, how quickly the senses go. They live by weird luck, wit, and will. Nothing is impossible.

Daniel is living proof of their belief. A boy with bare hands and tattered coat waves to him as if he knows: Daniel Sidoti is one of them, the man who died, a walking miracle. Daniel survived nineteen hours after he swerved to miss the deer on Marias Pass—and did miss her—and spun on ice, and kept spinning. He rolled off the side of a cliff into a night of no degrees and absolute surrender. Do you love only what returns love, or have you learned to love stone and silence? The boy who waves has survived a hundred nights loving stars, naming snowflakes.

Daniel climbed with numb hands and a fractured pelvis. He believed he would die before dawn. But not right now, not in this moment. He thought of his wife at home, his two little girls sleeping. Snow swirled and trees swayed. Nobody on earth knew he was missing. Seven mountain goats appeared on the hillside. He belonged to them tonight. He stayed alive in their eyes.

Daniel moves through these woods, quick and fearless. Hope is the next breath, not the next hour. Does God love silent snow less than singing sparrow? Daniel hears murmured prayers, wind through pines, surge of water. What is love? Patient cloud, you inside me.

So simply the day began: less than an hour ago, Daniel arrived at Tim Dionne’s to tune Angie’s piano. Only Angie was home—Tim’s wife, but not Kai’s mother. The boy visits twice a week, sometimes skips school to spend the day working with his father. This morning, as Angie braided Juliana’s hair and helped Roxie find her favorite socks for school—as Tim warmed the truck and burned his mouth with coffee—nobody here imagined: Kai leaping after the dog he loves, ice broken on the river.

Angie Dionne! Proof of God, she is, for unbelievers. Daniel’s heard her play, inventing music, as if she sees birds flung across a winter sky, swooping apart, rising, regathering—each bird, each note a part of all others, one cell in the great body of bird, wings and wind, clouds ringed with light, pure rapture. What man, what child could fail to love her? Daniel can’t play, but he can hear—his father’s curse, and blessing. He remembers the old man grown deaf, one hand on his chest and one on wood to feel the notes reverberate.

Daniel loves the peace of replacing strings and adjusting hammers, cleaning keys, restoring resonance. The perfect tone is not a single note, but harmonics resolving. This particular morning, he loved Angie there in the kitchen doorway, watching him work, protecting him from unseen harm, listening—listening. He remembers the light behind her, and Tim returning home unexpected—how surprised she was, how glad to see him—but he didn’t close the door or stomp his boots, and a bright whirling wind poured through the house after him, and she knew before she knew, something strange and terrible, and all Tim said was Kai, gone, the river, and the coffee she cradled slipped through her hands and the cup shattered, and Daniel thought he heard the sound of light breaking through the kitchen window.

Now three women sing Kai’s name across the water. Is there a secret chord to call the scattered parts of you back into your body? One calls to Talia, and the dog’s name rings tree to tree down the river. Talia! Hair frozen blue, heart beating wild—if Talia were alive she would bark you into being.

Daniel calls in the voice of the owl, the whoo and hoo of one who has flown far, who has left his woods to creatures walking. You—you must have seen, and might have followed. Now, if you choose to speak, you might return and take me to him.

The night Daniel died he felt owls everywhere soaring above him, holding him in their precise gaze, feeling the heat of him, body against snow, hearing every gasp and whimper. So slow he was, crippled human! So small between earth and sky—no one, almost nothing. They could have torn him apart, but chose instead mice and rabbits. He began to know them as they knew him, to sense them even without seeing, to feel their weight above, the pressure of air against his back and thighs, rushing close, then receding. Now you can die. Now you know everything. Their lightness of being amazed him. The great gray came, and Daniel saw his blue shadow on snow, a bird three feet long, wings spanning sixty inches. Imposter! He was nothing in this night but hollow bone and feather, curious enough to swoop down, but only strong enough to lift a squirrel. I will not take you off this mountain.

Daniel saw his father limp in the bed, tangled in soiled sheets, half-blind, stone-deaf, terrified and wordless. The green vines of crumbling wallpaper tangled through the old man’s skull as the tumor took one small gift and then another: a note, an eye, a pound of flesh, the sense of smell, the will to swallow. Daniel untangled the sheets, gently rolled the old man side to side—to change the damp bed, to wash him. Such peace! Afternoon light gold through gauze curtains. He lifted one frail leg and then the other, and washed between his father’s legs, and washed one more time his father’s hollow chest and shrunken buttocks. Who can touch and not love? Who can be afraid to die, after?

The old man watched him with his wild eye, amazed a son could be so tender. Was he cruel once, this helpless father? Did he shove the boy to the wall and cuff him? Did he take the rifle back as punishment for a crime so small they’ve both forgotten?

Downstairs, Daniel’s sister Laurel and their mother Joy played violin and piano. The deaf man felt the sonata rising through the floor and tried to make a sound—a grunt, a gasp—to follow it. Daniel hummed the notes to calm him, lightly lifted his father’s hand to his own chest, so the old man could feel it there, the last sound of the last day, resolving.

As Daniel spun on Marias Pass, as the world tilted into darkness, as tires lost their grip, and the truck began to roll, he was not afraid: the deer leaped free, alive in the living forest. Everything goes on here, without us.

So strange not to die, to unhook the seatbelt, to pull himself out through the shattered window, to hurt, to want to live, to crawl, to gasp, to breathe, to be so cold, to climb, to love your pitiful human life so much even now as you saw the end of it. Does God love the grass frozen under snow less than the green blaze of summer?

Daniel Sidoti climbed because there was more light at the rim of the cliff, a faint glow, moonlight on snow, and this seemed good, proof of something. He climbed because he saw seven mountain goats, white in the white world, below and then above, following or leading, curious and kind, black mouths always tender. Did they want him to climb? Did his life, his human heat, his heart matter?

He slept. Sleep was death. He knew it. Everything in the world was white: fox, stone, cloud, weasel. Soon enough snow would cover him. When does one thing become another? How many seconds does the brain live after the lungs stop heaving? Stars pierced the night. Daniel used all his strength to roll to his back and see them. That which you call death has no meaning. One mountain goat came close enough to touch. He smelled her, felt the warm nose, the heat of breath against his mouth as the animal breathed him. Do you love your own mind? Are your human thoughts so precious? He heard himself laugh. The other goats came, unafraid of him—nameless, helpless, half-human being.

He can’t prove any of this is true, can’t call owls and stars as witnesses. Only the spell of hypothermia, pain numbed by cold, brittle mind reeling with endorphins. That’s what the doctors would say if he told them about the goats, how sweetly they loved him. The boy who waved—who gathered his shivering bones and tattered clothes from a heap of rags half buried in the snow, who became human today by faith and will, by love, to search for one missing like himself—would believe every unspoken word of it. It is heat and hurt that give us the grief of hope and keep us clamoring.

Sweet child lost, hiding in this river, do you cling to pain, or have you decided to live the rest of your days as light and shadow, the blue pattern of trees on snow, the green shattered on water?