A new story for my “In the Shadow of the Red Star – Cancelled Czech Files” collection. We never had snow days when I was a kid in Prague. There were no school buses. This is what some of us did instead. Enjoy!
SEASONAL TRANSPORTATION January 1976
Prague is further north than inhabited outposts in Canada, and that’s why it was still pitch dark when Grandma knocked on the door.
“Yeah,” I moaned, trying to sound sick. Anything to get out of school.
No such luck. Grandma knew my ways, and she knew how to lure me from under the covers.
“Here, I brought you some hot chocolate. And here’s bread and butter.” Her familiar voice didn’t boom through the house the way it tended to during the light of the day; she kept it down. Grandpa was still asleep. Not me, thought. The scent of cocoa and milk teased from across the room. I heard the click of a porcelain plate on the table, barely muffled by the white tablecloth.
The feather comforter was warm, womb-like. My own cave that sheltered me from the world. Yet hot chocolate beckoned, and to get to it, I had to get from under the covers and cross the room.
As I stuck my bare feet into the cool air, Grandma crossed the room and bent over to check the coal-burning stove. She wiggled the lever that made the ashes fall into the metal drawer underneath. “Hurry so you’re not late,” she said as she added few coal brickettes and adjusted the air flow. The acrid hint of smoke now mingled with hot chocolate. “And wear something warm. There’s more snow outside.”
I groaned. Snow was great, but cold meant having to wear the thick cotton pantyhose instead of the grown-up nylon ones. I was eleven already. Wearing cotton was like being in second grade.
Half an hour later I was going down the stairs that led from the house to the street. A huge yew bush sprawled over the stairs, shouldering the weight of the snow. I ducked under its evergreen branches, careful not to knock its snowcap off. Its shelter had made the stairs navigable. The knob of the steel gate was cold even through the gloves. It creaked as I opened it.
“Hurry, you’ll be late! But don’t slip and fall!” I looked back but saw only the heavy, laden branches. Grandma was in the kitchen window but out of sight, seeing me out.
Being late to school meant getting a demerit in the Student Record Book where all the teachers put all the grades, along with gripes over late homework, late arrival, and the illicit wearing of makeup to school. The Student Record Book had to be signed by a parent or guardian, and even though I’ve grown adept in falsifying the signatures of both grandma and mom, I knew not to abuse my skill to the point of detection.
Being late was bad.
I crossed the street. My knee-high pleather boots were steady on the snow-covered cobble stones, and the brand-new leather book bag hung heavy over my shoulder. The school was all the way downhill. I often ran the distance, especially the Stair Street part.
Stair Street was so steep, cars parked all the way underneath it and the sidewalks on both sides were made into shallow, irregular steps. I knew how far I had to stretch my legs to go from one step to another, flying down with reckless abandon.
But not with snow on the ground.
The slope and the snow would make the cobblestones slip underfoot. If I negotiated the slope with due care, I’d be late. Ten minutes late. That meant a detention after school – except I’d planned to go sledding.
I was standing on top a steep hill, looking down, thinking. The stairs on both sides of the street looked uninviting, but the worn cobblestones in the middle were covered with snow and ice. I’ve gone down this hill on my plastic sled just yesterday. The new snow cover might slow me down, but the ice underneath… well.
Ten minutes late was a detention I didn’t need.
I looked around, evaluating. It might work. The new book bag was made of smooth cow leather, dark green and shiny. Almost as smooth as the plastic of my sled. It was smaller, so I’d have to keep my legs up.
Too bad I was stuck wearing this stupid skirt.
But I had the dumb cotton tights, and those would protect me.
I looked around. Grandma wasn’t in the window. No neighbors waiting for the bus, no pedestrians.
The coast was clear.
I put my brand-new book bag on the snow the smooth side down, flap end facing downhill. No sense being slowed down by the sewn edge.
I tucked my skirt under me, wrapping my legs in blue wool.
I grabbed the shoulder strap the way I always grabbed the sled string.
Lift the legs.
The hill was so steep, not even the fresh snow cover slowed me down. Stone walls, wire fences, steel gates. Trees arching overhead, all flashing by, white-clad and clean.
Wind hit my face.
The slope bucked me to the side – a stone? – I grabbed my makeshift sled with one hand, fighting for control.
Ice stung my cheeks and the insides of my thighs began to freeze. Then the hill evened out, and my precarious progress slowed as I slid down the shallow end with a hiss.
The neighborhood was so quiet, the scrape of my bag against the snow was loud, like a give-away to all that something illicit was going on. I threw my shoulders forward, making the most of the ride, hoping to make it all the way down.
I didn’t – not quite. A dam of fresh snow stopped me, plowed and lodged before my bag, between my legs. It’s hard to keep your legs up all the way down and still retain control.
I got up. Looked around. Still no pedestrians, no witnesses to my unladylike behavior.
First, my freezing legs. Wet snow, the perfect consistency for snowball fights, was stuck to the awful cotton leggings I was made to wear. My fingers froze as I peeled the accretions off the ribbed knit, knowing the skin was flushed red underneath.
Then the bag. I looked it over, dismayed to find handfuls of snow jammed under the flap. How did that happen, I wondered as I opened it and scooped the snow out in an effort to rescue my books, my notebooks, and my Student Record Book.
The Student Record Book! What time was it?
I ran across the flat parking spot, past the rusty steel trash cans, sucking air, smelling snow and coal smoke and fear.
Yet there was excitement, too. If could run the flat part, I could careen down the very shallow hill that led to school.
Two glances across the street, then the school sidewalk. Its concrete surface was shoveled and covered with coal ash. Last burst of sprint – turn – oops – a patch of ice threatened to throw me. I flailed, regaining balance. It was light already, eight o’clock. The bell rang as I burst through the wooden double door. I was alone.
The principal stood on the bottom of the stairs, pen out. “You’re the last one,” she said.
“Good morning!” My greeting was rushed and breathless as I shrugged my bag off, ready to present my Student Record Book for yet another “She was late today” demerit.
“It’s just the first bell,” she said, and as I looked up at her, I saw a smile tugging on her face. “Hurry! And change your shoes.”
I kicked my boots off and pulled on the slippers that sat in my cubby by the window, nodded to her, and ran up the stairs. By the time the second bell rang, I was in my seat with my supplies on the desk, ready for the roll call. Only my inner thighs felt cold and wet, but I knew they would dry in the winter heat of the classroom.
“Mrs. Horakova from across the street called this morning.” Grandma was chopping onion at her little work station by the gas stove. The kitchen was steamy and fragrant as I ate my late, after-school lunch. “She said she saw an incredible thing this morning.”
I perked up. It couldn’t be.
“She said she saw such a nice, young lady cross the street. I can only imagine she meant you.” I glanced up from my soup bowl, but Grandma’s attention was firmly on her onions. “Imagine how surprised she was when this young lady put her brand-new leather book bag on the ground, sat on it, and used it like a sled! All the way down Stair Street!”
I kept eating. Keeping my mouth full gave me an excuse to remain silent.
“Like a boy! Like a common hooligan!” The sound of her knife resounded through the kitchen, resolute thunks against an ancient cutting board. “And in a skirt!”
I looked up. Our eyes met.
“What were you thinking?”
I straightened up from my lunch. “I would’ve been late,” I said. “It worked great! I tucked my skirt and everything.” No need to tell her about a shovel full of snow between my legs.
She shook her head in disbelief. “Your new bag will have scratches on it.”
“But it’s bad to be late.”
She shook her head, fighting back a smile. “I’ll wake you up ten minutes earlier. Don’t do that again. That bag was expensive. Your mother had to stand in line to get it.”
Next day I woke up earlier. The snow was still on the ground, but the sidewalks were clean. The Stair Street hill was packed down from heavy sledding activity. That was good – it would make for a faster ride.I waved at Grandma in the window and turned to walk down the stairs. The dusk of dawn was giving way to the milky light of morning, but I ducked into the shadow of the bushy branches that sheltered the stairs. Downstairs, between the wall and the rusty trash can, awaited my plastic sled. The runners were all worn through. It didn’t go as fast as it used to, but it was still more than adequate for the steep slope of the Stair Street. I glanced up the stairs. I couldn’t see Grandma, which meant she couldn’t see me.
I grabbed the sled as I opened the creaky steel gate and crossed the street. If I hid it between the trash cans on the bottom of Stair Street, it would probably stay safe. Grandpa always complained about the garbagemen being lazy and taking only what was in the cans. My sled was safe from them. And it was too trashed to interest the other kids.
I set it down, a flat piece of orange plastic that had served me so well. I’d promised not to slide on my bag, but this wasn’t my bag and I’d made no promise about not sledding at all. Book bag in my lap, I readied for takeoff.
Right before I shoved off, I looked back toward the house. My grandmother was looking out the window, smile on her face, shaking her head.
I waved before I pushed off.