From the March/April 2007 issue
see the illustration for this story
A ski day means up at dawn. Dozy, half-awakening, drifting in and out of dreams. The flannel is warm, and the mattress is cloudy soft.
But it’s up, sliding out of the billowy world of down blankets and fleecy comforters. Feet scrunch on the thick creamy carpet, hands reach for that glass of water you never finished last night. You sip it, slowly, in the dusky corner of the blue-and-teak room where the world is hovering between dusk and dawn. You gaze out at the pines, the softly falling snow, and the moose tracks like a finger drawn through icing. The room is dark and quiet, and the chair by the window is cold. Feet curl under, and cardinal birds flap in your stomach like it is Christmas. Your hair, morning-messy, falls over one shoulder. It’s too early to think or do or say. This is the time to sit and sip and look out at the awakening world. This is the time for blue-and-teak quiet.
The snow ceases to fall, and now it’s gray, but more like the English gray. Gray like a gull’s wing, gray with snow waiting to fall. And you hate to leave the chair by the window, hate to acknowledge the fact that it’s five am and you aren’t sleeping, but you have to. So you slip on a sweatshirt, open the door to let in a slice of the rest of the house, a slice big enough for you to slip out. You walk across honey-wood floors in the kitchen, turn on the lights. Your sister Grace pops out from the pantry, making you jump.
“Never. Do. That. Again. Before. Eight am.”
“What’re you doing up?” your sister asks. She knows perfectly well, but she also knows that you are incapable of full sentences before 10:30 in the morning during vacation.
“Too. Early. Lemme alone. Pop-Tarts. To pop. Shoes. To buy. Places to ski. Move.”
She moves. Strawberry Pop-Tarts are sweet and sugary in your hand, warm and golden from the toaster. You eat them your special way, peeling the icing off, licking the jam. Gross, but otherwise it’s bad luck. Doesn’t everyone know that?
The kitchen begins to hum, and it’s still too early to talk, and you know people will tease and make fun of your inanimate self if you stay. So you go, curling up on the stairs, which is very strange, but it’s too early to care. And then, when the gray gray sky begins to let down the snow again, people—girls—get ready. Ski boots and ski pants and parkas. Masks, which you never wear because you managed to actually find a cute ski hat in Teton Village last week, which is amazing. Soon you are in the garage, dressed and warm and with both gloves on, and you have no idea how you got there. You open your mouth to object, but someone—your older sister Lindsay—crams a scarf around your neck. You sadly realize that the cute hat is not on your own head, but when you begin to speak, you get a mouthful of red wool. So you kick Lindsay, and she kicks you back, but gently, because she is seventeen, and it’s time for ski boots, ski poles, cross country skis. Someone complains about you being so still, but you don’t care as long as boots are on your feet and skis are on the boot and you actually have ski poles and you know today is ski day. Ski Day, talked about all your life, always secret, but today you find out, because it is the holidays, and the day before Christmas Eve, and yesterday was your thirteenth birthday.
“Hush! Hush!” The whispers circle around the drafty concrete garage, and boots stamp and your toes tingle. Grace and Lindsay and all the other cousins, aunts, moms, veterans of this. But for you—it is new, it is new, and you’re beginning to wake up, and the cardinals in your stomach flutter once or twice. And you feel sorry for your sister Mimi, only ten years old, stuck in bed, but that was you all your life. Until now.
And the garage door opens. Creaky, groaning, will it break? One by one the figures file out, and when it is your turn excitement is salty on your lips. Skis slip from garage to snow, and you tilt your face up to the pink-and-gray sky, and the gray snow, and you laugh out loud, and it is like a baptism, pure and sacred and holy, snow on your face and shoulders, snowflakes melting on the black leather gloves. And because you can’t help yourself, you catch one on your tongue, and the cold shocks. And you are fully, fully awake, for the first time in your life at 6:30 am, because how could you not be?
You follow everyone, side-slipping down the steep side of the driveway. She wasn’t supposed to, but Grace, fifteen and competitive and a downhill skier, has been taking you outside ever since the snow started in November, teaching you how. You hear her voice in your head, “Side, Sophie, side and back, skis straight, hold—do it right! Don’t embarrass me!” and you do it right, and Grace turns her blond head around to wink one brown eye. “Good job, Soph!” Lindsay catches on, the wink is obvious, but Queen Linds just laughs and holds her head higher.
You ski all day, across rivers and down trails and forging the trails on vast expanses of plains where you pick wildflowers in the summer. The world is different, transformed, under this mantle of powdery white, and it has been for two months but you have been too busy to notice. But now you do, and your breath is shallow. You are awed, aware of the sacred, quiet, still, pure beauty, and you want to shout. You want to shout, and run as fast as you can for as long as you can, spinning and arms spread wide, freefreefree, but you don’t because that would shatter the sacred holiness of this place, and you would never do that.
After the lunch of salami and bagels you get tired, but you don’t dare say a word. Grace is just ahead. You close your eyes, and ignore the frozen nose and toes, and the snow that lands on your nose and makes it colder. You tough it out, until you don’t notice it any more. And then you notice the gray gray sky and the pine trees tall and soft and powdered over with snow. And you are so far from all civilization, no fences, no houses or telephone poles or cars and you love it. But Grace is getting bored, so you tell her a quick funny story about school and everyone laughs. Aunt Emily, who complained about you in the garage, laughs too. “A comic,” she says.
“No,” your mother says, “a peacemaker.”
“No,” you say, “someone who is wondering when we’ll get there.” You would rather be a supermodel than any of those things.
“Soon,” Suzy says.
You tilt your head back to look at the sky, and soon it grows dark, and the stars begin to smile through the snow.
“Soon,” everyone is saying, refreshed and revived and exhilarated.
And then Amy and Sybelle and Mia whip a blindfold around you, and you scream, the world mutted to your eyes. Hands touch your feet, and socks are jerked off and on, and your feet recoil in the cold air, your red toenails very red.
“Come,” says your mother. “Come.” And she and the aunts take your hands, everyone else following. You’re turned around, and the blindfold is taken off, and you look back into the corridor of pine trees down which you came, candles stuck in the snow, and it is so beautiful, so achingly beautiful as some things are, that the cardinal moves into your heart and fans his wings. And you’re turned around to face where you’re going, and oh my lord!
An ice-skating rink is in the middle of nowhere, a pond really, iced over, with candles all along the edges and in the trees, and it is so crazy, so beautiful, you cannot believe what you’re seeing, and the cardinal in your heart soars into song. Unconsciously you begin to skate, and you circle around and around, one leg following the other, effortlessly. Everyone else skates too, and you tilt your head back to laugh, but you stop mid-smile because the stars! The stars are glinting through the black night sky, the cold hard black diamond sky, so sharp, so clear that you have to wrap your arms around you so you don’t fall apart with all the raw, pure, wild beauty. Arms around yourself, skating in a circle, you don’t know why or how or when you’ll get home but for now all you need is this. This is enough, this is what you need. This is vital. And you hold yourself, and you shudder, and you finish your laugh, head thrown back, and drinking in the cold hard black diamond sky.