Happy holidays to all! This is to all the kids, young and old, who grew up sledding in the wild country.
THE SLEDDING HILL
Wind howled in the trees. She turned her back into it, keeping the stinging needles of snow out of her face. The acrid smoke of cheap coal carried on the wind, reminiscent of the radiant heat of the coal stove in the kitchen. The memory of heat did nothing for her hands, so numb with cold in her sodden gloves she could barely feel the hemp rope of her sled.
She looked down the hill. Steep, trees left and right, barely leaving a crooked passage in-between. She’d see others navigate the treacherous slope, but she’d never done it by herself. Her dad had been steering behind her.
“Coming up, left!”
She replayed the course in her mind, the way they threw their weight from side to side as he dug his heels in the snow to make the sled slip around the solid trunks of old chestnut trees.
Left, then right. Straight down through the hedge, then left, then a skidding right before the pond.
She knew to avoid to pond and the concrete flow-through on its left side.
A glance at her wooden two-runner sled was like looking at her watch, had she been willing to dig it from under her scratchy woolen sweater and short wool coat. A handsbreadth of snow had accumulated while she’d been planning. That was good – more snow on the hill would slow the sled down and give her a bit more control. Not like the icy, packed-down surface the neighborhood kids had left before two days ago.
She tipped the sled onto its side and kicked the woven webbing, popping the snow off.
She pulled the sled to the edge of the hill, where a stone lip jutted out and gave sledders a fast start. All her movements were automatic, a careful routine she’d always done before running a hill. Pull down the hat, pull up the gloves, straighten the coat. Pants tucked into boots. Slide the sled back and forth three times, no more and no less. Sit.
She sat, tucked the hemp rope under her left thigh, and grabbed the rear handles that jutted out the aged wooden frame.
Left, then right. Straight through the hedge, then left. Bail before the pond.
If she failed, nobody’d be there to witness her embarrassment. She peered down the hill through the veil of driving snow, delaying the inevitable jump-and-rush of insane speed.
One. Two. THREEEE!
The sled flew off the stone ledge as she leaned back and gripped the handles behind her, landing so hard her thighs were sure to bruise as she gripped the sled between them. Her heels barely touched the snow surface underneath. The skeletal chestnut tree barred her way, looming, threatening.
She threw her weight left and dug her right heel into the fluff of fresh snow, relieved once she felt the give of the packed surface underneath.
She turned. Even without her father yelling and steering, she turned!
Cutting across the hill, she swung her weight right like a pendulum, timed and deliberate, digging her left heel in just so, turning – barely in time, the rosebush on her right reached its thorny canes her way and a rabbit sprung from underneath – and she kept going. Wind in her face, squinting into the snow. Two down. Exultant, heart soaring, breath still bated. She hadn’t done it yet.
She aimed for the line of gray branches and white snow, shapeless and foreboding. The dark opening seemed to have narrowed even more at higher speeds.
She gripped the sled tight. The root bounced her up in the air – forgot about that – she landed with a thump and an exhale, teeth slamming, biting her lip. Thin trunks and branches flashing by.
White space, vast – empty but for the other chestnut tree. Slight shift to left now, rubber heel scoring the virgin snow.
She whooped at the expanse of clear snow ahead – no crashing into craggy trunks, no blood or broken bones. No embarrassment from older kids for having her father along, steering just so she didn’t have to. Slowly, she leaned right and steered her sled in a languid arc. The runners of her sled hissed to a stop within reach of where she knew the bank of the pond hid under the generous snow cover.
A whoosh of an exhale, and a grin. She looked around, the whiteness almost blinding and the hill above her seeming small and insignificant for the first time in her short eight years. A metallic tang of salt-sweet blood reminded her of being airborne and having landed, having bit her lip. She sucked at it experimentally. It stung only a little.
A small price to pay for her victory.