The other day, while passing by the Chinguacousy ski hill, I noticed a child on a vintage wooden sled and it immediately took me back to my childhood.
One Christmas, our mother got us all sleds, which she ordered from the Sears catalogue. They were constructed of birch wood and red steel runners and man could those things fly. On really good days when ski-doo trails did not snow over, we’d just start out on one trail and keep going flying down one hill after another, going through the woods, and following the ski-doo trails until darkness would lead us back home. It was like a race. We’d see how many hills we could slide down before we had to go back home. Those sleds were amazing. The steering was so simple and the speed! It was exhilarating, it was fun, and it was freedom.
I remember one Saturday morning in particular. I got up early, got dressed, and went out on my own. It had been too cold to snow during the night, which meant that the snow on the ski-doo trail would still be packed making it the perfect condition for sledding. The snow crunched under my feet as I headed for the trail and my nostrils stuck together whenever I sniffed. When I got to the trail I noticed that even the trees seemed to be frozen solid. Everything was crisp and sparkling as the morning sun came up over the horizon.
I walked for about ten minutes, following the trail through the snow-covered trees, then came to the first steep hill. I had been pulling my sled behind me and now I pointed it directly in the middle of the trail. It wasn’t a very long hill, but if you could just go fast enough to get over the bump at the bottom you could keep going, but that only happened if you took a running leap at the top of the hill. My brothers could do it, I could not. I lay down on the sled with my legs straight behind me and gave just a little push with my feet and I was flying, steering around the turn and over the summertime bog at the bottom. At the bump, I stopped. I got up and pulled the sled over the bump and walked through the small grove of trees until I came to the fork in the road. The main road started from the front field near our house and the other road came from the back field, that trail joined the main one. I stood at the fork and wondered if I should hike that big hill and start at the top or just hop on my sled and slide on down to the river. I figured I had all day, so I just hiked up the other trail. When I finally climbed to the top—that’s the worst thing about sledding—I got on my sled and cruised. I slowed down when I got to the bottom but had enough momentum to keep it going. It was all downhill from there. On I went with the snow flicking up, and the wind burning my face, but I didn’t care because I was on my racer and I was free and I was faster than the wind.
After a few minutes, I came to the last part of the hill. I steered over the trickle of water that came from a small stream from another dimension—no one ever seemed to know where it came from—and rounded the bend. When I looked up all I saw were clampers of ice from the river. The snow seemed to fall away as the snow turned to ice and I couldn’t stop. I slid head first into a clamper of ice.
When I woke up, I couldn’t see clearly, bandages covered my eyes. I smelled wood burning and apple pie. I tried to get up but the pain was unbearable and I passed out. The next time I woke up, I smelled wood burning, apple pie, and cocoa. When I tried to get up again, pain shot across the left side of my head, and then I heard the spring hinges of a door and lay perfectly still. I heard someone humming, a woman’s voice. The footsteps came from the door and stood close to me. I heard sticks of wood falling to the floor and stoking of the fire. I was frozen with fear. I couldn’t see clearly, I had no idea where the heck I was, and the smell of that pie was driving me crazy. Then the woman came over to me and started touching my head. She spoke softly, like a little old granny would. It comforted me. As she spoke, she held up my head to take off the bandages. When she laid my head back on the pillow, I slowly opened my eyes. The only light in the room came from the flames of the fire. I tried to get up, but she held me down.
“Easy, my child, easy, that’s a nasty bump you have on your head.”
She helped me sit up. The only light came from the fireplace and as I looked around I could see that I was in a small cabin. I looked up at her, but couldn’t quite make out her features. Her hair was tied back in a bun, she wore a long skirt, and a knitted shawl over her blouse.
“Where am I?” I asked her.
“Don’t worry, my child, you are warm and you are safe. I will bring you some water, but don’t try to get up just yet or you may faint again. You’ve been out all morning.”
She seemed nice enough. I was not worried. As a matter of fact, I pulled the blanket up over me and quite enjoyed the comfort of a warm fire and woolen blankets. I had never been in such a warm and welcoming home. I was so comfortable that I dozed off again.
I woke up later with rumblings in my stomach. I sat up and remembered what the old lady had said. I took it slow and stood up. My head still ached, but I was no longer dizzy. I went to the fire and stoked it. I added another log and looked around. There were no windows and the only things in the room were an arm chair and sofa and a couple of side tables. An oil lantern on the kitchen table was the only light. I headed for the smell of that pie and just as I was walking toward the kitchen, the old lady came in.
“Well, well, you are looking better my dear, how do you feel?”
I had great respect for older people, so I answered her. “My head hurts a little, but I feel okay. I’m kind of hungry.”
The old lady smiled. “Well, then, my child, why don’t you have a seat there at the table and I will ladle up some stew.”
I did as I was told. I watched as she got some bowls from the shelf and ladled the stew. Hot buns lay in the warmer above the old-fashioned stove, and butter and jam was already on the table. As she laid the bowls and bread on the table she filled a kettle from a bucket of water. I noticed my snowsuit and boots were hung behind the warmer, drying.
I was starving. I ate like a wild animal. It was the best stew I had ever tasted, the carrots and turnip were the sweetest I had ever had and the moose meat was fresh and tender. The bread melted in my mouth and the butter tasted like it was whipped with love.
She smiled at me the whole time. Her eyes were dark, but warm, and her hair was silver, but I still could not see her face clearly, there were just too many shadows in the dimly lit cabin. She ate heartily as well and when we were done of stew and bread, she made some cocoa, and took the apple pie out of the warmer. She led me into the living room, back to the sofa and the warm crackling fire. She sat in the worn, ragged armchair with doilies hanging from the back and placed her cocoa and pie on the side table.
I placed my cup and plate on the other side table and made myself comfortable on the sofa, pulling the blankets up to my chest. I had never felt so content in all my life. The apple pie was to die for, and the hot cocoa was heavenly: not sweet, not bitter, and lots of milk. As I was eating and drinking I had the funny feeling that I was in dream. It was perfect.
“How did I get here?” I asked her when I had finished my pie.
“I was checking my rabbit snares when I saw you sliding down the hill into that ice clamper. I thought you were dead. I dragged you here on your sled, which is outside, undressed you, and washed and bandaged your head. You were passed out the whole time.”
“It was all ice and I couldn’t stop.” I told her.
“Don’t worry, you have quite a bump, but just a little cut. It will heal fine.” She finished her pie and reached into a basket. She took out knitting needles and wool and began to knit. “Would you put another log on the fire, child, I don’t want us to get a chill now.”
I did as I was told and was glad to do it; I loved to watch the flames do their fiery dance.
“My name is Liisa,” I told her as I put another log on the fire.
“I am Maggie,” she replied.
I made my way back to the sofa and under the warm blankets. I must have dozed off again because when I woke up it was almost dark. The fire was dying down. I called out to the old lady and heard a murmur coming from a little room just off the kitchen. I got up and went to see.
The old lady was lying in bed with thick blankets pulled up to her chin. The room was warm and cozy with an oil lantern lit on the bedside table.
“It’s time for me to sleep now, child. Perhaps you should be getting along home now, before your mother starts to worry.”
“Yah, I just noticed that it was almost dark. My sled is outside?”
“Yes, on the porch. And your snowsuit and boots are hanging by the warmer.”
“Okay,” I said and left the room.
I got my snowsuit on and was about to put on my boots when I realized that I did not know where I was. I went back into the room and asked her for directions.
“When you walk out, you will hear the rushing of the river, just follow the path to the river and then turn left; the path will lead you back to the bottom of the hill. And child, would you please put some wood on the fire for me before you leave?”
“Yes, Ma’am, and thank you for taking care of me, can I come to visit you again?” I asked.
“Anytime, my child, now hurry before it gets dark.”
I hurried to the fire and piled on some logs. I went back to the kitchen and put on my boots, scarf, and mittens. I closed the door tight behind me making sure that it was secure and grabbed my sled. I thought that I would not make it home before dark, but I hurried anyway. I went to the sound of the river and turned left, not bothering to look back. There was no evidence of ski-doo on this trail, there was a single foot path leading into the woods along the river. I quickly found my way back to the ice clampers and had to detour around the ice. The temperature had dropped and I was chilled. My sled became too much to bear and my head began to throb, so I decided to hide it in the bush and retrieve it the next day. It seemed like a long walk up hill and shadows started to appear in the woods on each side of the path. I came to the fork in the road and was glad that I was at least half way there; it seemed I would make it before shadows in the darkness moved in. My heart pounded in my chest.
When I finally came out of the woods, I saw my step-father and uncle working on the ski-doo. My step-father spotted me as I got closer and yelled out to me, “You better haul your ass in there, your mother’s got supper on the table, and I wouldn’t say too much if I were you, she’s in a foul mood.”
I thought, “What else is new? She’s always in a foul mood.” I went in. She gave me a stern look, but did not say anything, just continued to dish out food. I got undressed, and fluffed my hair in a way so that no one would notice the cut. My mother had cooked stew and buns, and it was nothing compared to what I had earlier that day. I kept my mouth shut and my eyes down.
I dreamed about the old lady that night and was so excited to go see her again that I woke up early and went to find her. It was still frosty out, but it seemed to be a bit warmer as the snow didn’t crunch under my feet. I trotted to the river, found my sled just where I’d left it, and took the detour around the ice. The river was roaring and the ice clampers seemed to multiply overnight. I found my way to an opening in the woods, but could not find my footprints. I walked on through what appeared to be a trail, but the snow became deeper and was hard to get through. I stopped, sat on my sled, and thought, “This isn’t right, it can’t be the way I came.” I got up again and left my sled where it was and walked through and around the area for hours, trying to find my footprints from the night before, but all I found was my sled and my current footprints. I was dumbfounded.
After a while, I grew weary, but I didn’t give up. I walked directly along the river, along the clampers of ice down to what was called Cabin Pool. I fell over the ice clampers and beat myself up trying to get through the icy mess and then I sat and listened to the sound of the river, hoping that I could hear the same tone as I did the night before. But I felt lost, even though I knew exactly where I was. I searched up and down that stretch of the river most of the day and did not find a thing, no cabin, no trail, no footprints, no old lady. By the time I got back to my sled, I was tired, I was hungry, and I was cold. I sat down and listened to the still of the winter and cried. I dried my eyes when I heard my younger brothers coming.
I hung out with them and our cousins for a while and then I went home, puzzled and sad.
For the next few months I spent my weekends searching for the cabin and the old lady, but never found anything. Not one sign. It was like it never existed. Winter gave way to spring and spring into summer, summer into fall, and by the time another winter came, I had forgotten all about it.
The only thing that remains of that day is the scar that I still have on my head.