BY LISA CORMIER
This is the first part of a two-part story. Come back tomorrow to read the conclusion. Copyright is held by the author.
ONE CHRISTMAS morning, long ago, my two younger brothers, Phonse and Clint, and I woke up to find sleds under the tree. Now these were not your ordinary sleds, these were Flexible Flyer sleds: wooden slats, steel runners, and, most importantly, steering capability. Our mother had ordered them from the 1977 Sears Catalogue as soon as she received the catalogue in the mail in early November. Of course, I knew they were ordered from the catalogue, I was twelve, I knew Santa was a spirit and not a real person, but my brothers however, still held on to their jolly, bearded hero. Phonse, at 10 years old, was starting to get suspicious, but Clint, at eight, was still a true believer. And, boy, could those sleds fly, especially on the days when ski-doo trails did not snow over; the snow would still be packed, better for steel-runners. We would start out on one trail and keep going through the woods, flying down one hill after another, following the ski-doo trails until hunger pangs would force us back home. Those sleds were amazing. The steering was so simple and the speed! It was exhilarating, it was fun, and it was freedom. No winter would be complete without a sled.
At the foothills of the Long-Range Mountains of Western Newfoundland, the country was vast, with rolling hills and boggy marshes, but to the people who were born and raised here, it was just our own personal playground, and our parents taught us about the dangers as soon as we were able to walk to the clearing’s edge and into the forest. We lived in Robinson’s Junction, a small community just off the Trans Canada Highway. It was a forty-minute drive to the nearest town of Robinson’s, and a ten-minute drive, to the nearest neighbour with a phone.
One Saturday morning, I awoke early, and while everyone lay sleeping, I decided to go out on my own. It seemed like Jack Frost was calling me to go out and enjoy the snow, and I could always do my chores when I got back. I got up and got dressed then headed for the mud room to put on my snow clothes. As I was putting a leg inside my snow pants, someone coughed. I held my breath, waiting. Silence. Then, sloppy footsteps.
“Where are you going?” said Clint, rubbing his sleepy eyes.
“Shhhh,” I said, placing a finger upon my lips. How I wished we lived in a two-storey house, where the bedrooms were upstairs. “I’m going out sledding. Go back to bed. And tell Mom I’m sledding on the main trail. Tell her I’ll be home after lunch. Tell her later, when you get up. And tip-toe!”
He nodded, then turned around, tip-toeing back down the hallway to the room he shared with Phonse, and back to bed.
I slipped the other leg into my snow pants, put on my boots, grabbed the rest of my clothing — and a pre-packaged chocolate chip muffin — then went outside. It was bitter cold. I zipped my coat, wrapped my scarf around my neck, and finished up with my woollen hat and mittens. I went down the porch steps and looked around, admiring the uncanny stillness of the woods.
I stood still, admiring my cloudy breaths. Looking around the twenty acres of cleared land gave me a strong sense of freedom. I took a deep breath and gazed into the sky, exhaling my breath into the heavens. Stars twinkled, and shadows abated as the horizon brightened. I glanced at the other two houses in the community: my uncle and his wife owned the first house on the lane, and an old, cranky fisherman owned the next one. Our house was the last one on the lane. Wispy smoke came out of the chimneys, but there were no lights on. I sniffed; my nostrils stuck together. It had been too cold to snow, which meant the ski-doo trails would be perfect for sledding.
Our sleds had been lined up against the house when we went inside, but now were no where to be seen. I went over to check the shed — our father always made sure things were locked up for the night. The snow crunched under my feet. When I opened the door, I saw that each sled was hung up on a nail. I grabbed mine — our names were etched into them—and then headed for the trail across the back field.
Walking across the field was quite a trek when you had snow boots on. Ordinarily, I would have been winded, but there was just something about being alone in nature that made me feel alive. When I got to the trail at the edge of the field, I noticed that the snow-covered trees looked like a giant fence. Everything was crisp and sparkling as the morning sun came up. The entrance to the trail was like a doorway into a magical snow world, one with dunes of windswept snow, trees dripping with frozen icicles, and caves full of furry creatures. I closed my eyes and stepped through.
I walked for about twenty minutes, following the trail through the snow-covered trees, and humming to the beat of my crunching footsteps. I stopped short and smiled. In front of me lay the first hill. I had been pulling my sled by the rope 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 belly down on the sled with my legs straight out behind me and gave just a little push with my hands. I started off slow, but then I was flying, steering around the left turn and over the summertime bog at the bottom. At the bump, I stopped. My father had dug out an irrigation trench to let water run off from the bog and left the dirt there, creating the bump. I hated that hill; it was a tease because you would just start to feel the coldness on your face, then it was over. It was like the Crazy Chair ride at the fair; just as you would start enjoying it, it was done. We meant to fix it during the summer, but never did. I got up, pulled the sled over the bump, and walked through the small patch of shrubs and wild rose bushes and came to a fork in the road.
There were many small trails going through the woods, mainly used for rabbit snaring in the fall or for moose hunting. You could tell where you were by the layout of the land, some roads were marked, some were not. I was on the main trail that led to the river. There was another wide ski-doo road that led to where my father, uncle, and the old fisherman cut firewood. It led to the deep woods, a place of endless tall trees, thick underbrush, and abominable snowmen. That trail was off limits.
I stood looking up at the road that led to the deep woods. There was a steep incline and it seemed like my sled was vibrating, calling to me to make the climb, even though I was not allowed to venture that way. My sled vibrated again, I imagined, so I decided to hike up the hill until it leveled out. When I got to the top, the hair on the back of my neck stood on end. I had the strangest feeling that I was being watched. I never looked around to see what was beyond, I just got on my sled and coasted back down the hill. I slowed down when I got to the spot where I had just been but had enough momentum to keep it going. It was a steady decline from there. At some places I would slow down, get off the sled for a bit, then slide again. On and 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, I was free, and I was faster than the wind.
I came to the last hill before coming to the river. In the summer, the walk to the river was almost an hour, but took less time on a sled in the winter. I steered over the slush caused by a dribble of water that came from another realm — no one ever seemed to know where it came from — and rounded the bend. Halfway around the bend all I saw were chunks of ice and rushing water, which had not been there the Saturday before — my family and I had been ice-skating across the 30-foot body of water. There had been mild temperatures during the week which must have caused the water to burst through in some places and cause large chunks of ice to form along its banks. I dropped my boots on the snow to try to slow down. It was impossible to judge the distance; the snow seemed to disappear as it gave way to the chunks of ice. I tried to stop, but the trail was too icy, so I rolled off my sled to avoid the water and slid head first into a chunk of ice.
When I woke up, I couldn’t see clearly. I felt my head — bandages. I thought that my brothers must have found me and took me home. I smelled wood burning and apple pie. I tried to get up, but the pain was unbearable, 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. We never had spring hinges. I heard someone humming, a woman’s voice, not my mother. Footsteps came toward 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 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 it an odd way. I was no longer scared, and I thought, how bad could this little old granny be? 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 put a hand to my shoulder.
“Easy, my child, easy, that’s a nasty bump you have on your head.” She helped me sit up.
Even though the light was dim, I could see that I was in a small cabin. I looked up at her but couldn’t quite make out her features. Her white hair was tied back in a bun, she wore a long skirt, and a knitted shawl over her blouse. The little cabin was made of logs, with a stone fireplace. There were some pictures on the walls, but I could not make out the images. An unlit oil lantern lay beside the hearth, along with the sticks of wood she had just brought in. The sofa I had been sleeping on was covered in colourful woollen afghan blankets.
“Where am I?” I asked her.
“Don’t worry, my child, you are warm and safe here. I will bring you some water, but don’t try to stand up just yet, or you may faint again. You’ve been passed out all morning.”
She seemed nice enough. I was not worried. I knew I should have been concerned, but I wasn’t, and I couldn’t think of any reason why I wasn’t. As a matter of fact, I pulled the blanket up over me and quite enjoyed the comfort of a warm fire and woollen 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 sat up. My head still ached, but I was no longer dizzy. There was a glass of water on a side table. I drank it in slow gulps. I slowly stood up and waited to see if I would get dizzy. I felt fine. I went to the fire and stoked it, then added another log and looked around. There were no windows and the only furniture in the room were an arm chair and sofa and a couple of side tables. There was no electricity and no kitchen sink, only an old-fashioned stove for cooking and a pantry in the corner. An oil lantern on a round wood table was the only other light. There was a small window in the door where snow was swirling around. When I peered through it, I could tell by the light that it was around lunch time. My stomach rumbling was another clue. I headed for the smell of that pie and just as I was walking toward the stove, the old lady came in from outside with a small bucket of water.
“Well, well, you are looking better my dear, how do you feel?” She placed the bucket on the table. She started coughing uncontrollably and for a moment I thought that she might not catch her breath. I felt relieved when she finally did. She took a handkerchief out of her pocket and wiped her mouth.
I was raised to have respect for older people, so I answered her. “My head hurts a little, but I feel okay. I should be heading home now, but 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. It will give you the energy you need to get back home.”
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 were already on the table. She laid the bowls and bread on the table then filled a kettle from the bucket of water. I noticed my snowsuit and boots were hung behind the warmer and remembered the muffin I had put in my coat pocket, probably crumbled.
She sat down across from me and started buttering her bread. 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 eaten, and the moose meat was fresh and tender. The bread melted in my mouth and the butter seemed like it was whipped with love.
She smiled at me. Her eyes were dark, but warm, and sparkled by the glowing light. However, 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 cut an extra-large piece for me and a smaller piece for herself. She led me to the sofa and the warm crackling fire. She sat in the worn, ragged armchair with doilies hanging from the back and armrests 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 sweet with just a hint of cinnamon, 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. The sight was something out of a book I had found in the school library about a painter who was called the Painter of Light. I had checked out the book for weeks and dreamed about all the places that were printed in the book, especially the ones with Santa placing gifts under the tree. In the pictures, there was always a fireplace in the background with varying degrees of light coming from it to add to the ambience of the scene.
“How did I get here?” I asked her when I had finished my pie.
“I was checking my rabbit snares when I saw you roll into the ice. I thought you were dead. I dragged you here on your sled, took off your snow clothes, and washed and bandaged your head. You were passed out the whole time.”
“It was all ice and I couldn’t stop,” I said as I finished the last mouthful of the rich, creamy cocoa. “So, how far am I from the river? Is it far from where you found me?”
“Oh, just a little way from the river, not far, and don’t worry about your head, 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.
“How long have you lived here? I’ve never noticed any cabins along the river.”
“I have lived here for quite some time, my child,” she said.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“I am Maggie,” she replied, busily knitting the wool. “Would you kindly put another log on the fire, child, I don’t want us to get a chill.”
My name is Lisa,” I told her as I put another log on the fire.
I made my way back to the sofa and under the warm blankets. I thought, five more minutes then I would head back home. I watched her knit, mesmerized by the movement of her hands, the stitching of the needles, the way the light played with her features. I must have dozed off again because when I woke up the room was cool. The fire had died 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 her. When I passed the table, I noticed that there was dim light coming from the little window in the door; it was well after lunchtime. I stood at the entrance of the bedroom.
The old lady was lying in bed with thick blankets pulled up to her chin. The room was cozy with an oil lantern lit on the bedside table. Something was wrong. Her breathing was shallow and crackling. I went closer to bring her face into focus, but she opened her eyes, startling me, and I stepped back.
“I better be going now, Maggie. Are you okay?” I wanted to ask her why she let me sleep, but I realized she was sick.
“Yes, my child, I am fine, I just need my afternoon nap.”
She closed her eyes and her whole body seemed to heave with each breath she took. She was shivering, despite the blankets and warmth in the room. I knew the look, it was the look of pneumonia. She opened her eyes again.
“Your sled is on the porch. And your snowsuit and boots are hanging by the warmer.”
“Okay,” I said, and left the room feeling uneasy.
I got my snowsuit on and was about to put my boots on 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 through the gate, turn left and follow the path until you hear the rushing of the river. Then go toward the river and follow the embankment. It will lead you to where I found you and the trail home. 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?”
“Anytime, my child.”
I went to the fire, stoked it, and piled on some logs, then went back to the kitchen area and put on my boots, scarf, and mittens. When I opened the door, I saw that it was snowing heavily. Tall snow-covered trees surrounded the cabin. I closed the door tight behind me making sure that it was secure and grabbed my sled. I thought that I would hurry home and tell my mother and father. Surely, they would come get the old lady and bring her to the hospital. When I went through the gate, I looked back. There was nothing else in the area, only a small fence surrounding the cabin. For a second, I thought it looked like a picture. I paid no attention, I didn’t have time to think about it, I needed to get home. There was no evidence of ski-doo on the trail, just a narrow, single foot path, which was filling in fast. Tall trees surrounded me on both sides, with heavy snow causing branches to bow. Visibility was poor. The temperature was dropping. I was angry at myself for not leaving sooner; I quickened my steps. I had no idea how far I had to go, all I could think about was how one of our uncles had passed away from pneumonia, and he was a young man, strong and virile. He never survived the fever and died in his sleep. I hiked on.
The conclusion of the story will be posted tomorrow.