After taking the last batch of cookies out of the oven, Anna wanted to go for a walk. It had started snowing again. Just a few light flurries. It’s the pleasantest kind of snowfall, especially at night.
It was the winter after the record breaking snowfall, so even though there was a lot of snow outside, it wasn’t as much by comparison, so we didn’t think much of it. We bundled up: each of us with boots, gloves, scarves, hats, coats, and—out of availability, not out of necessity—snow-pants. We started out the door.
“What about a flashlight?” I suggested, as Madi was pulling the door behind her.
“No, it’ll be nice without. The moonlight will reflect off the snow and off the water, when we get down to the water” Josh said, unconcerned.
Anna smiled and wrapped both of her arms around one of his arms and nuzzled his shoulder. Madi came up behind me and playfully leaned into me as she inched her mittens onto her hands. We started down the road. The network of roads and pathways through Madi’s neighborhood never really made sense to me, no matter how many times we walked them. It always seemed like once we were out of sight of her house, every house either looked exactly the same, or completely different from any other house I had ever seen before. And each road looked like either a copy, or a mirror, or a mirage, or totally unlike any of the other roads in the neighborhood. It was like walking in a dream, but not an idyllic dream, an actual dream where your mind tries to trick you into forgetting your own memories.
I just followed the others, knowing we were safe together, we would see what we needed to see by the light of the moon off the snow on the ground.
We started walking shoulder-to-shoulder, but pretty soon, we were walking in pairs. I remember thinking about our footsteps as we made imprints in the snow, knowing by morning there would be no evidence that we had even stepped there, given the rate the flakes were currently falling. I remember thinking about snowflakes, wondering if it was really possible that there are no two snowflakes that are identical. Just think about it, all of the snowflakes that have fallen in all the world for all of time? and there are no two that are the same? I don’t believe that. I believe a lot of other things, though.
Pretty soon after taking a right turn down a hill, we reached a clearing. And a little further, we were at the beach. All the roads in Madi’s neighborhood point to this beach, or they point to roads that point to this beach, depending on which direction you take them. It’s a beach on a river which leads to another river which leads to the bay which leads to the ocean. It is tucked away, but it is broad.
At the place where we had come to the beach. It was still and quiet. All of the waves were frozen, so there was no sound of water lapping against the sands. You don’t think about that kind of constant noise that is usually at the beach until it’s been silenced by the cold. There was an extended dock that ran out over the water about one hundred feet or so from shore. There weren’t many places to dock boats in the neighborhood. This dock was designed to launch kayaks and other manually propelled sea-craft, or for jumping off the end and playing. Instead of just jutting straight forward off the beach, it jutted forward, and then left at the end. The dock was covered by an ornate roof, open on the sides all the way down, but was totally open on the end, with just a square bench looking out at the water and back at the shore.
Because of the cold, and the snow, and the night we weren’t going to jump in the water. But we walked the length of the dock, carefully, single file. I didn’t want to fall in, but I did want to step out onto the ice. I just wasn’t sure if it could hold me and I wasn’t brave enough to test it. I looked down and to my left as we moved forward. The patterns in the ice mesmerized me: how the current of the water shaped and pixelated the surface of the ice in imperfect, wavy ways. The way the water had frozen seemed to have captured some snow throughout as it fell, so that in the right light, the ice looked more like a sky with scattered puffs of cloud, than a mirror without blemish. It was swirly and salty and the opacity of the ice communicated something about the thickness and it was not constant. It made for a beautiful surface, but was hard to trust.
We trudged forward together, thin and quiet. When we reached the end, we spread out, each taking up proper space, each of us individually. There was nothing ahead to obstruct our view at the end of the dock. The moon cast her blue reflection off the dusty surface of the frozen river. Though dim as night, this remains one of my most brilliant memories.
I took a deep breath in with my eyes shut, opening them as I breathed out. I felt something as my visible breath dissipated out before me. I meant that metaphorically, but I also felt Madi’s hand against my back. It was the first time we had intentionally touched all night. Her palm met my shoulder blade and then rubbed a circle along my back.
She whispered: “When I was little, in order to teach me tough, my Dad used to say that it was only cold outside if I could see my breath. I used to complain all the time that it was too cold to go for a walk or to play outside, in the fall especially, but he would always say, ‘you can’t even see your breath Madeline, come on out here with me!’ And I usually would. And I loved being out there with him, I just had to be convinced that I could handle it. And I could. And it was worth it every time.”
“It’s cold out here tonight. But I like being here with you.” I said. She pulled her arm away from my back and grabbed my right hand with her left. I squeezed her hand in mine. I tried to intertwine our finger-inflated gloves, but she was wearing mittens, so it was easier to wrap all of my fingers around all of hers.
“Let’s how much weight it can support!” Josh said.
He turned his body and started to lower himself onto the ice, but before he even had one of his feet firmly on the surface, we heard a faint splintering of the ice and a rustling of water. It was far to weak to support any weight. It was not durable, but it was beautiful.
“Nope!” Josh said, hoisting himself back up onto the dock. “New plan! Let’s head back to Madi’s, get some sleds, or tubes, or whatever, and sled by the clubhouse!”
Madi had a few inflatable rubber inner tubes which we knew would slide easy on this kind of snow, especially since we didn’t have much of a hill to work with. The club house Josh mentioned was about two streets over from Madi’s house, next to the neighborhood general store. It had a small ballroom/dining room upstairs and the state’s oldest bowling alley in the downstairs.
It was a club house because there was a small golf course in Madi’s neighborhood. Right in front was a small hill that led down to the first hole of the course. This was our sledding hill, the best we could find. We took turns going solo at first before we started racing — first two-by-two, then all four of us at once. As we got out of sync with each other, our staggered going and stopping and running back to the start led to a series of crashing into each other and falling and sliding and skidding and laughing. Eventually, we found ourselves lying flat, each of us face up arms and legs spread, ten or twelve feet apart from each other, our sleds even farther dispersed, having slid even more freely without our weight guiding their paths.
Josh and Anna had landed near each other and Madi and I were near each other. We all took a minute to catch our breaths, laughing some more, looking up at the pattern of clouds and stars above. I sat halfway up to measure the distances between each of our bodies in the snow. I inched closer to Madi — only about an arms length away from her, then repositioned myself, arms and legs spread again, like a would-be angel, waiting to make his wings. I placed my hand on Madi’s. She slightly flinched, surprised by the contact, but not afraid. Her fingers bent lightly around mine. The gloves and mittens kept us warm, but kept us apart.
“I wonder how they decided what animals should live in space?” Anna said. “The Ursa’s are bears, and Pegasus is a flying horse, and then you have all the animals of the Zodiac which are a mix of sea creatures and insects and various cats and reptiles. No monkeys, though. No giraffes. No elephants, owls, penguins, pigs, or raccoons. It’s fascinating that people can look at a bunch of dots and be so sure that they’re a particular animal — so sure that they remembered them the next time they looked, and the time after that, and all the other times till now. And we can look at 7 dots up in the sky and know that’s what they meant when they said Ursa Major.”
“I can never find constellations. Sometime I see what people mean when they say, ‘there’s the big dipper’ or whatever, but I could never find them on my own. They’re all just stars to me.”
“I’ll teach you some of them. Maybe you’ve just never had someone teach them to you the right way before. I know a good way to remember them. You really just have to memorize about four or five stars, and then you can find most of the common constellations. They rely on each other.” Madi said.
I believed her. I believed that if we kept lying there, with only the stars and the tops of a few trees in our sight, and only our hands touching through warm fabric, and only a slight wind felt against the tips of our noses and cheeks, I could learn about the stars, these dead mysteries of the universe. I believed that if I couldn’t see my breath, I must not be cold and I could keep lying there as long as I wanted to. I believed that if she took enough time and enough care I could learn these patterns, I could predict the future, I could find a savior.
“Josh, do you have your watch on you?”
“It’s a little after 10”
“We better head back.”