When you are a child, every snowy morning is a White Christmas. I awoke with the first stirrings of the household, cozy beneath my comforter, listening to the grandfather clock’s muffled ticking from the hall and watching the white flakes drift down through the space where the shade did not quite meet the sill. I rolled over, thinking seriously about sleeping in for the first time in memory. But I watched the snow and thought about sledding over fields white and fresh as new sheets. I thought about the exuberance of young boys with ripe apple cheeks and hot chocolate futures. I thought about dreams of the past, and I thought about dreams of the present.
We had been on the front for over two months, the temperature never once going into double digits. It had been ten days since our last supply; food had run out four days ago. I’m sure we would’ve eaten shoe leather, the cold not withstanding, but fire was forbidden and we had no way to tenderize it. The full moon shone on the field between our trench and the enemy’s with the clarity of a hunger-induced hallucination. Suddenly, a stag appeared, walking majestically between us, so complete, so beautiful, that we all stared at it mute and dumb, Lord of the Forest.
I surprised everybody by showing up at breakfast. Mother stood there in her starched apron, clasping her hands and looking at me both worried and proud. I thought about my dad for just a moment. I knew mom wanted to ask if I’d had news of him. My father had gone to the war and his leaves became fewer and fewer; his letters less and less frequent. Finally, he’d stopped coming home entirely. It wasn’t so much that he died, but that the war had eaten him. The army had no time to answer our questions. When it was my turn, I promised my mother I would find out one way or the other where dad was. Over the years, there had been tempting hints, but I had not yet found him. The silent exchange between mother and me was a ritual almost, but the ritual grew more difficult to carry out than not over the years.
“Alex, you got in so late, we were all trying to be quiet so we wouldn’t wake you up.” Her glance shot down the table. “Jimmy didn’t wake you did he?”
I followed her glance and gave Jimmy a smile and a wink. “No not at all. In fact, I was wondering if Jimmy might want to go sledding with me?”
“Oh, boy! Alex, would I!” Jimmy started to jump up right then but both mother and I made to stop him. Then my eyes met her crisp blue ones, and we both laughed. Everyone seemed to let out their breath. Sue and Billy opened a place for me and before Mother could get me a plate, the others had all loaded one up for me from theirs. Oh the delight of hot Canadian ham, muffins, and eggs! For a moment I thought of my comrades, probably sharing cold canned food and damning the snow with each sacred breath. My fork wavered, but my consciousness of the family brought me back. In moments I was wolfing the food as if it didn’t taste like ash in my mouth, thinking that in some ways it might be more painful to come home than stay away.
A shot rang out and the hind jumped straight up in the air. Two hundred yards away and I could see the whites of his eyes, the moisture expelled from his nostrils in surprise. He landed running and bolted over a drift, faltering as he plunged from sight. With one voice a shout rang up, echoed like groaning ice from across the fields. I wondered briefly if I had heard joy or grief in those cries.
It seemed but a moment before we were standing on the stoop, bundled against the cold. Jimmy bobbed and darted around me like a dog-fighting moth. I laughed and scooped a fluff ball at him off of the railing. He was gone before the disintegrated flakes disappeared back into the ground cover. I chased him around the house and down the drive to the carriage house. I pretended it took both of us leaning into the door to slide it in its icy track. We stamped our feet on the rough-hewn but time-smoothed floor boards. We walked down the aisle, past bits of our lives stored in the dust around us, as if but waiting for our touch to bring them back. Perhaps this was so. Perhaps this was why I had come back.
Jimmy ran straight to the back, and there it stood gleaming in its own shaft of diffused light. My old Flexible Flyer, given to me by my father, given to Jimmy by me. I looked at him in the light and for a moment I remembered standing there with dad, melting paraffin on the runners and making plans for the morning.
I reached out to touch Jimmy on the head and he turned to beam at me. “You sure kept it up nice. Look at the shine on that deck!”
“Mom let me bring it inside to melt the wax on it, and she showed me how to shine the wood with floor wax. Said it’d make you proud.”
I looked at him, realizing he didn’t even remember father, that I was as close to a father as he’d ever knew. “Jimmy, I’ll always be proud of you. C’mon.” We carried the sled outside and set it in the drive. It began to move under its own momentum and Jimmy pounced on it like a shrieking otter. I sprinted after him and just caught the guide rope before he went shooting into the street. Mother was on the steps with a broom. I waved to her and started to tow Jimmy up the hill.
“Alex! I almost forgot, you have to stop at the Mimsey house for a permit.” I stopped leaning into the rope, sure I had misunderstood.
“I’m sorry mother, did you say a permit?”
“Well,” she set aside her broom and wrung her hands, almost guiltily. “It’s something new.” I’m afraid she saw me start to set to, something else I got from dad. “Now Alex, don’t go off. You’ve got to relax. Jimmy can go another day, or one of the others can take him maybe after their chores are done.”
I consciously forced myself to relax. Everyone thought my tour was over. Things were going poorly and only I knew that tours didn’t end anymore. I was just home for a short week of R and R, more for my family than for me. I had to do this for them. And I’d be damned if I would let some minor bureaucratic hassle spoil this day for Jimmy, it’s not like I wasn’t used to bureaucracy in the infantry.
“That’s okay mother, it’s no big deal. I’ll take care of it.” I waved cheerfully and turned to trudge back up the hill.
“Jimmy you get off that sled! Alex didn’t come home to haul your carcass all over town.”
“But mom, Jimmy’s the strongest man in town!” That brought a genuine smile to my face. Mother and I shared another moment, I shrugged my shoulders and started up the hill once again, my step lighter. I loved this street. I couldn’t remember another place where the elms reached over the streets, intertwined like lovers. The stately old homes rose on either side. Homes named after the families that had inhabited them for generations; some since colonial times. Lovely clapboarded houses, freshly coated with gloss paint, each thousandth pane of glass freshly glazed, shutters standing diligently at attention for forgotten duties, all beneath dragon-boned icicles that seemed like architectural details on this frosty morning.
Jimmy started pretending I was his draft pony shouting “Giddyup!”, “Gee!”, and “Haw!” I pranced and pawed, but it was really pretty easy going on the freshly packed snow, that perfect footing between new powder and polished slick. We got to the top of the hill and I pulled the sled onto the flat spot of the Mimsey House’s drive. I turned to look at Jimmy and noticed the snow had stopped. “Okay, cowboy, what’s the scoop on this permit stuff?”
Jimmy looked down and mumbled into his scarf, “I don’t know, something about seeing the street warden and paying some money. It’s new. I haven’t gotten to go since the new rules.” Well that explained the showroom polish. The rest of his statement didn’t enlighten me much, though. “Who’s the block warden Jimmy?”He brightened some at that “Mrs. Stamper. She’s the cure, the cura…”
“Curator”, I prompted. “Yeah that’s right, the curator of the Mimsey house.” Mrs. Stamper was one of those people who are old your entire life. I remembered she seemed ancient to me when I was Jimmy’s age. I was sure she would seem the same to me now. The Mimsey house was a local historic landmark, built on the fortunes of our very first war. The kind of place furnished by bequests of the best of local antique collections. There was a black shield-shaped plaque by the front door with gold letters: The Mimsey House Circa 1789.
The captain chose me, as I still seemed to retain some strength. I got up with a heavy heart, yet also a sense of great relief; I felt these conflicting emotions very clearly, as one will do when they are starving or feverish. I strapped on my skis, and set out across the fields. The whole time I felt as if I was watching myself from a distance, almost a precognition, aware every moment of my exposure, my spine tinkling like an ice-covered bough. Where I could, I kept to the shadows, pure black in the white field, dodging among the sparse cover of lone trees and stone walls; but I knew it wasn’t enough and expected to feel the bone smashing impact and hear the whip crack of a shot with every beat of my overwrought heart. The snow was so unblemished, a fresh sheet stretched taught and tucked snug in over the dreaming land, that I could see the hoof prints and black bloodstains from quite a distance. Time crawled, but I had no recollection of my short trip when I followed the trail to its inevitable conclusion.
I lifted the heavy solid brass knocker and let if fall on the dark blue oversize door: once, twice. The door opened pretty quickly; I imagined Mrs. Stamper was either sitting primly in the greeters’ chair in the hall or, in a less formal moment, doing some paperwork in the waiting room. She looked sternly over the top of her bifocals for a moment before flashing a stripe of yellow teeth that I chose to interpret as a smile. “Alex, Jimmy. I haven’t seen you in ages. Not since…”
“Not since I went to fight,” I said with more grace than I felt. Why did I feel I needed to soothe her discomfort? Wasn’t a little social distress just payment for nights lying in cold ditch water, watching rockets graze the sky, wondering if the next one might be the last?
“What can I do for you, Alex?” Abruptness replaced embarrassment.
I waited with the brim of my hat held in my hands, a polite smile on my face. Jimmy did his best impression of me. Presently, she stepped back from the door and with that gesture invited us into the foyer. “We’re here, something to do with a sledding permit. I don’t really understand it myself. And of course, little Jimmy here doesn’t understand either.” It never really helps to make digs at those slavish people who make up the intricate snares of bureaucracy, but your options are limited when you need to rage against the machine.
“Alex, I would think that you would be the last person that I would have to explain the need to take precautions in these times.”
I gave her a long cold stare. The wind whistled through the partially opened door, blowing in a few stray flakes.
Jimmy looked around. I could feel the sense of age weighing in him. The very stale, musty smell of age weighing on him like it does when you are young and have only the now to live in, before you rack up your own dusty rooms with unopened doors.
Mrs. Stamper pulled out a newish ledger. She looked eerily, churchy in a sudden beam of light through the door side window.
“It’ll be five, and there’s a form to fill out.”
I chuckled, in spite of myself. “I’ll give you ten, if you do the paperwork and let us skidaddle.” War may make you feel old, it may give you perspectives that other people will never have. But those experiences will never, ever give you the right to make light of ceremony, to remove those minutiae that are the very mortar of society. They will never allow you to attempt to skirt its justice or question its reason. You will always be a boy among old women, and you will show respect. Her stare was meant to wither, but whether from obstinance, or pride, or embarrassment, I felt I could not acquiesce too easily. We stared at each other stonily while Jimmy shifted from foot to foot, somehow transported from his world to ours, and not understanding the transition. Just then, the door opened and husk of a woman came in. Stamper’s face split into furrows in which her eyes looked like lumps of stone in a poorly tended field. I saw a cruel glee come into her features. “Violet, I had almost forgot you were coming.” She turned her attention seamlessly and completely from us to her friend.
It may have been my condition, for I was not surprised that another was already kneeling at the corpse. I fell to my own knees and for a while we both stared at the beast. His rack was mythical in proportion and I felt sullied in my mortality, weak in my hunger. Almost in shame, I reached for my knife and began hacking at his haunch, blinded by tears. I cut away a leg and some meat from the ribs. It was more than I should reasonably expect myself to bear away, but I could not attempt less. Wordlessly I handed my knife hilt first across to my comrade, who had either not brought one or was still entranced, for he had sat and waited mutely while I worked. He said “dein” in the heavy accent of the enemy. The wind whipped up suddenly and bitter as blades and ice crystals blew deep within the folds of my worn clothes while we both held onto the knife.
I waited for perhaps three beats while the shrews began to commiserate. “That’s it Jimmy, let’s go.”
I was totally unexpected for his response. I had thought he would bolt out the door and have the sled before I cleared the stoop. Instead his look went from impatience to fear. “I don’t think we should do that, Alex.” I bent down to reassure him. “What’s the matter Jimmy?”
“B-Billy Wirth went sledding without a permit, and they revoked his privileges.” He sputtered. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a look of pure joy slide over Stamper’s face.
“Nobody will revoke your privileges while I’m around.” This was getting out of control, and I was getting angry, “We’ll just go to Black Friar’s Hill and sled by ourselves.
Jimmy’s eye’s widened and I was afraid he would wet himself. He whispered so low I could barely hear him “…they found Billy sledding out there after dark, and nobody’s seen him sense.” Some anger, most anger, can only be relieved by action. I wasn’t going to change things standing here, had spent enough time jousting at windmills of my own design. I could see the sun coming out through the window
I was still looking out the window, my gut tight as if I were being called to night patrol. “Now Jimmy, they wouldn’t do anything to a boy just for sledding without a permit.” I turned an icy smile on the crones, expecting at least this much from them, a shred of politeness, decency enough to leave a slice of joy and innocence in a boy’s sledding excursion.
“We do what it takes to preserve order in these times, Alex. Remember your schooling, Jimmy ‘order above all’ and you’ll do all right,” she admonished. Stamper let her friend’s words speak for themselves, showing neither acknowledgement, nor disassociation from her venomous thought.
My stomach grew tight as funeral drum. Breakfast sat like a stone troll, tormenting me with its solidity. We had been hearing rumors at the front. Stories of young boys, barely older than Jimmy, sent up as punishment. They were called warboys. Those that gave credence to the tales justified them as probable, given the lack of guidance at home with a whole generation of fathers at the front, and the possibility that sometimes even the very young can be evil. But surely, all agreed, this would only be possible for the most heinous crimes, by the most incorrigible individuals. Not rogue sledders. My head swam. Even if the stories were rumor, to fuel such fires had a stench of undeniable petty evil worse than the acrid aftertaste of a late night gas attack. What evils were we fighting, and what were we protecting?
I threw my money down and rudely marked the paper primly left on the desk edge, spun with military rancor on my heel and stormed out.
“How impertinent. That’s what the front is good for, breaking the sass out of these young men.” Violet piped up uninvited. “I can’t imagine what a ruin society would be if we had to put up with such impertinence from every young buck feeling some oats.”
“‘Tol,” I said and let the knife go. I packed the meat with a new sense of urgency, not from fear, for strangely, that was gone now; no, it was the sense one gets when waking from a dream of enlightenment to return to the routine. With a nod I got back on my skis and made directly for camp, trailing black drops of blood beneath my burden, a supreme urgency overcoming my previous caution.
We must’ve been inside longer than I thought. The war had done that to me too, taught me a kind of detached patience, where any time not fighting flowed in a molasses river dream without meaning. The sun had broken through the clouds and an onshore breeze had raised the temperature so that the coat that didn’t bother me inside suddenly seemed stifling. Grass was already showing in footsteps along the walk. We’d still have enough snow to sled, but the magic of the morning was spent in the sepulcherous bureaucracy.
It was going to be wet, slow sledding; hardly worth the price of the permit. I ruffled Jimmy’s head, determined not to acknowledge our loss, but suddenly, I missed the front. I missed dad.