The hill - that rising escarpment at the back of town- where did it come from? Long ago it began to form; a thousand millenniums ago. Before people settled here, continents had slowly moved and seas and ice had risen and receded - time had pushed at those rocks and knead at that earth to form the hill. Until one day, not long ago, in winter, the earth of this formation would be covered by a layer of deep white snow and children would gather.
Boots crunched through layers of crusted ice. The snow was crisp under foot and hard to trudge through after leaving the house on Munroe Street. A sleigh was being towed along the top of the hard snow. It was night, with a full moon and stars that twinkled through the haze of artificial lights shining throughout the town. Vapors were rising from each frozen breath with the sounds of children talking excitedly as they moved through the cold night. These sounds were moving towards one singular point.
It was a large scene, spread out as if it were on a painted canvas with various parts telling a different story, like in a Lewis Parker work of the Louisbourg Fortress. This canvas moved as it was painted upon. One story was of children walking on a winter night from various parts of town. These children came from homes where parents always waited. In another part of this canvas there were people clearing their yards of snow. In an additional part there was the sound of a busy fish plant noisily going about its work into the night as plows moved snow at Jim’s gas station, Harry shovelled the walk way to his barber shop and people gathered at Jean’s for magazines and comic books; the switchboard was busy connecting homes, and people hurried to collect groceries at Lewis store. (In Lewis store there was a large stuffed panda on display with red buttons on its front.)
It was at Lewis’s where the sleigh was bought.
The crisp clean air filled young lungs on those winter nights. Each breath was invigorating as the frigid air moved through agape mouths. Puerile figures moved up an old road being overtaken by trees - this road lead from Florence Comeau’s house to the bottom of Morrisons.
(Florence’s mittens had covered our hands each winter). The cold had clung to the trees on that road to form ice that dripped from the branches pulling them towards the snow covered ground. The snow and the cold would cleanse the earth covering all imperfections to give an appearance of purity.
Onwards, moving figures continued until the bottom of Morrison’s was reached.
Snow pants made swishing sounds as one moved up the hill with feet resisting the attempt to slip, and if a foot did give way another foot would dig in. Sometimes both feet would slip and then the responsibility went to the knees to stop the fall. There were sleighs and toboggans coming down as one climbed; their occupants screaming, putting all their faith in gravity and the direction they had chosen. Success came if you made it to the bottom and stopped before the stream. Sometimes, if it was very cold, the moving water of that stream would freeze making the ice strong enough for a sled to cross over. But deceptively, persistently, there were forces at work beneath the ice that could not be seen. The flowing stream of water below the ice would tear at its frozen prison in an unending routine to return it to what it was.
On this night a full moon illuminated the hill with the snow reflecting its light making everything almost as clear as day.
When the struggle up Morrison’s came to an end a decision had to be made: where to place your sleigh? Two spots beckoned. The higher spot seemed dangerous if you were new to the hill. The experienced ones and young daredevils chose that one. Most chose the lower one. From there you would place your sleigh into the snow and line it up with the bottom, then mounted the sleigh face down and head first with boots pushing into the snow as an anchor. Hands gripped the wooden cross piece in a steely grip with blood coursing and pulsating through small fingers. When ready, the boots went up, and the sleigh would start to move; the steel runners slid on snow packed down by previous sliders. The sleigh once slow to start would quickly pick up speed and a struggle ensued for control. The crosspiece would be moved frantically to keep the sleigh going in the desired direction. To the left was brush, and to the right were trees. Snow would be stirred up and spit back into the coaster that was following. But even with all the preparation and fight for control the trip down the hill quickly came to an end.
Satisfied, you’d roll over and lay there, smiling, wiping the snow from your face. You’d look up at a sky full of stars and marvelled at the sight. And in that moment the feeling of satisfaction would overwhelm. A long deep cold breath was taken and the feet and body would quickly move upright, the sleigh grabbed, and the climb would begin again. There were many people on the hill at this time. Some moving up and others coasting down to create the balance the hill required. Sleighs would occasionally roll over and flip the occupants face first in the snow with a swishing and clapping sound followed by screams of laughter.
When the walk up the hill was done repeatedly, and the ascents more tiring, the walk to home began. The initial exuberance of the night was now deflated from exhaustion. You said goodbye to friends and everyone went slowly off in different directions as if this was the end of some grand pilgrimage that was successfully completed - a pilgrimage that would be repeated throughout the winter. Once home, snow would drip from hats and mittens in hot kitchens, boots struggled to be removed over frozen toes and then those toes were hovered over radiators to thaw. The hunger was satisfied, followed by a quick bath and bed.
Snuggling beneath homemade quilts with heads settling on soft pillows, the last glimpse of the day were the lights of the night filtering through windows of frosted glass. The wonder of the day would drift into the slow rhythmic breathing of sleep. Then the dreams came. The initial dreams were formed from the day that passed – the hill and school, of parents and siblings, of games and pets. The few dreams of the future were other worldly with not much connection to the day that passed. These dreams were obscure but full of hope and wonder. It is the nature of dreams that they will move you through the current world and into a future that is unrecognizable.
The memories of dreams disappear quickly after waking. The hill was there in the morning and the first thing seen on the walk to school. It looked as though it were waiting with a prescience that we had bestowed upon it; waiting for the school day to end and for children to dot its slope again.