Cold as forever

It’s well-documented that time is like a river. But rivers freeze this time of year. Penumbras of ice appear at first around the waterlines of rocks, and the heavy water becomes more and more stubborn, turning each bend with less and less enthusiasm. The channel of flowing water shrinks, first a ribbon, then a band, then a thread. One very cold night it all comes to a halt. Ice locks in from bank to bank, and the sound of gurgling is replaced by the tinkling of crystals and the occasional moan of a pressure crack. The river is no longer separate from the land around it, and, if its route passes through a wide floodplain, it may disappear entirely, its edges scrubbed out into a featureless white expanse. Even the falls and cascades lock into place, and their directionality becomes unclear: do they begin at the top or at the bottom? In this state of extreme fixity, Heraclitus can put on his winter boots and step onto the same river twice, three, a hundred times.

Beneath the ice, the river may still be running, just as an ocean of liquid rock swirls beneath the surface of the apparently-solid continents. The known world, however, has come to a standstill. Each abbreviated day is much like the last, going nowhere, coming from nowhere, obscenely everlasting. Why is this the season in which we have chosen to locate our most jolting experience with time, the moment where the click of a second hand is supposed to catapult us, all at once, into the future? The future is never as unbelievable as it is in midwinter. Go to the headwaters of some iced-over mountain brook and the ocean seems like an impossibly far-off destination. After a thousand balls are dropped and a million champagne bottles are uncorked, the crystal river looks just the same as it did the day before.

For good reason, the best metaphorical word we have for describing stopped time is “frozen.” The only way we experience time is through difference and change; in the absence of all transformation, time is not only meaningless but unimaginable, beyond conception. A motionless river has snuck outside of time. It has cheated death as well as progress, although that’s not quite right either, because even cheating is a verb, and to be truly frozen is to be verbless, actionless. Something exceeding tranquility.

“When in the Course of human events …”—but what if there is no course, no gurgling sound, no rapids or cataracts or meanders, what if there is only a frozen river which we can walk up or down upon, from delta to headwaters and back again, zigzagging from one bank to the other, seeing our own bootprints in the snow a second time, a third time, a hundredth time?