Writing inspired by the SWC creative writing prompt: Apricity is a noun meaning ‘the warmth of the sun in wintertime’. Use it as a title for a story or a poem.

Apricity

By Sarah Roos-Essl

(Then)

With few exceptions, 365 days a year, there was warm sun by noon and a bone-chilling fog whisked in by dinner time. Temperatures stayed between 13-18*C, day and night, July, December, no matter. The landscape was almost always dotted with orange poppies, the ocean always that same slate blue. I frequently asked myself, “Did that thing happen in February? Or August?” Photos didn’t help.

That’s the blessing and the curse of living in the temperate dreamscape of Northern California. 14 years of mushy memory forced me to pay attention to even the subtlest of seasonal changes that those in more harsher latitudes might easily overlook. But I saw them: the Japanese maples burned electric red in September, the ginkgo trees fluttered their tiny yellow fans in October, the cookie-scented heliotrope flowers bloomed in March. Perhaps the most anticipated marker of all was the arrival of lemons, which appeared on the trees in November and hung dewy and sparking, like ornaments, all winter long. Their bright sour pucker was pure apricity, the taste of the sun itself.

To ease my fading memory, I created rituals to mark the seasons and to make clearer chapter breaks in years that, aside from these few natural cues, blended very much together in my mind.

Our favorite invented ritual was New Year’s Day oysters. We would rise early on January 1st, before dawn and inevitably hungover. We’d then load up our trunks with plaid picnic blankets, bottles of champagne, wool sweaters, tin cups, runny cheese and crusty baguettes. And sunscreen. Always sunscreen. Because even in January, the low California sun would burn our winter-pale skin after 15 minutes.

Then we’d drive two hours north up the coast to Tomales Bay, the quiet saline inlet that held the region’s famous oysters. At the Marshall Store outpost, we would spread out our blankets, chill our champagne bottles in buckets of cold seawater and buy dozens of oysters right off the boats. We would take turns shucking them, a sometimes dangerous job that required a protective leather mit and an odd-shaped knife. Once they were cracked open, we would squeeze that winter-sun lemon juice in each shell, add a splash of Tabasco and slurp them down. This went on for hours and hours. Sun, ocean, lemon, oyster. Repeat. Another cork would pop into the bay, another baguette torn apart, the tin cups would clank in a hundredth “Cheers!”. That mid-winter sun cast a golden dream-light on everything it touched and our cheeks turned pink from its blessed apricity (or maybe the champagne). This was our anchor of a new year beginning, of time passing and arriving, of winter in that beautiful land. 

*****

(Now)

Sometime around December 1st, the sun doesn’t rise above the hill behind our house outside of Vienna, Austria. When we were in negotiations about the purchase price for the 120 year-old dilapidated villa, the previous owner – without being prompted – took 20,000 euros off his asking number because, “It can be…very dark in there in the winter,” he warned.

I had a decade and a half of California sunshine still nestled brightly in my soul and so I gratefully accepted the discount and beamed, “Oh we won’t mind! I’ll buy loads of candles!” He smiled a know-it-all grin.

When the sun can’t get itself above the hill, it’s more than a light change inside the house. The week that happens, I witness what’s left of our flower, herb and vegetable garden instantly wither and turn brown. The insects disappear overnight as do our shadows. The bright sun of summer, which can heat up our bedrooms to a sweltering 39*C each afternoon, goes quickly from white-hot in July, to dappled golden in October, to extinguished in December. Even loads of candles can’t protect you from the seasonal malaise brought on by the shock of this darkness. 

On the other hand, the Austrian sun’s disappearance in winter is the dramatic timekeeper I sought all those years in California. For now, as equally as I anticipate its absence in December and the arrival of the holidays, I wait with baited breath for its re-appearance in late February and the arrival of…schneeglocken.

One day in February during that first winter we spent in the house, my middle daughter Nina, then four, rushed through the front door with fistfulls of tiny white flowers dangling from thin green stems. 

“Mama, there are flowers in our garden!” she exclaimed breathlessly.

“But that’s…impossible…” I glanced out the window, not very motivated to go out in the cold and see for myself. She tugged and tugged at my sleeve and I eventually slipped into my wool-lined boots and threw on my enormous puffer jacket. Sure enough, there were flowers. Hundreds of them, all clustered together in a circle, as if gathered around a tiny bonfire. As I bent down to get a closer look, I found myself squinting. I looked up again to see the sun – that actual burning star, our sun! – peek out from the crest of the hill. I gasped, totally caught off-guard from this visit from an old friend.

“How do they know? How do they know the sun is coming back?” I whispered to myself about this tiny miracle of life when everything else was dead or sleeping.

“Because they can feel it, Mama. Can’t you?!” Nina laughed and bounded up the hill into the light.

I have to say – as beautiful and magical as those golden January days were in California, the apricity of that first February sun in Vienna feels more gratifying and more appreciated than a thousand oysters by any bay in the world.

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