By Howard Eskildsen
The winter sun seems particularly shy in January. It hesitates far to the south for several weeks after the holidays, as if shoved there by the heavy cold. It is a time when sensible people stay indoors, but then, but what fun is that?
Dad was in the mood for a late afternoon picnic in the woods by the Platte River, which bordered the south edge of our farm. We loaded into the old red Ford, and I put my ice skates in the back. Cold white exhaust trailed from the pickup as we drove down the lane towards the sinking sun’s stark orange glow. Ahead, in the old riverbed, leafless snow-covered branches reached upward towards the iceberg-blue sky.
Trees seemed strangely out of place in the middle of the Nebraska prairie. In fact, they were newcomers. During the previous century the river had been described as too thin to plow and too thick to drink. Dams changed all of that and reduced the mile-wide river to a series of braided channels in the lower parts of the old streambed. Cottonwood trees, willows, a few cedars, and wild rose thickets sprang up in the remainder of the riverbed. Snow and frost clinging to the twigs and branches turned the whole are into a winter wonderland maze.
We followed the two-track trail to a snow-covered sandbar beside a small frozen channel. Unlike the surrounding area, the ice was free of snow. A partial thaw two days earlier had produced ice dams that forced the water flow into this channel, which was usually dry. The return of sub-zero temperatures froze it completely and produced a smooth slick surface littered with large fluffy “flowers” of hoarfrost.
Dad cleared off a fallen cottonwood log for seating and looked on while I trampled a circle in the snow next to the log and built a fire out of twigs and sticks. He wasn’t snickering over my efforts like he used to; I was nearly 12 years old, and I knew how to make a fire. The orange flame climbed off the match, up the twigs and engulfed the tipi shaped pile of wood.
We roasted hotdogs and made s’mores beside the crackling fire while the sun slipped to the horizon. I strapped on my skates while mom and dad loaded things back into the pickup. They could go home if they wanted, but I was going skating. I could walk home later; it was less than a mile away.
The sound of the pickup faded, and all that could be heard was the sound of the skates across the ice. Zzzzzz, Zzzzzz… In my imagination I skated in hockey games, in races, and in figure skating. The hardest challenge was the skating long jump which more often than not ended in three-point landing–two feet and one butt! Finally, the fading twilight made it harder and harder to see the marks of the skates and to measure how far I had jumped. Overhead a thin crescent moon grinned mischievously. It was time to go home.
Compacted snow in the tire tracks crunched softly under my black, buckle overshoes as I stomped home. Dark brown leather skates with slivery steel blades swung back and forth as they dangled from my shoulder, tied together by the shoelaces. Overhead, Jupiter huddled close to the seven sisters of the Pilades, shining like diamonds in the darkening sky. As I approached the old riverbank, the trees thinned. Brush and scattered willow thickets appeared as faint shadowy forms along the trail.
A chill started in the base of my spine and shot up my neck to the base of the skull. Had one of the shadows moved? I stopped dead in my tracks to look around as the muffled sound of my icy breath barely stirred the quiet solitude. Perhaps it was only imagination. I took a few more halting steps, still wary of the dusky forms surrounding me.
Suddenly a shrill mournful wail from the nearby darkness shattered the silence into small shards that sprinted into the deepest crevices of the woods. Other wails answered and I found myself in the middle of a coyote chorus that echoed from all directions. For a moment I grasp the skates as if to use them for defense, but if the coyotes had any malicious intent, it was to startle, not to maim. They had certainly accomplished the former and had already had ample opportunity for the latter.
I had been told that they would never harm a person, but this was the first time I had actually had to test the theory. I began to wonder if they were congratulating themselves for the prank they had pulled on the wondering schoolboy, perhaps even smirking. An embarrassed grin crossed my face as I paused to listen a moment longer.
In the distance, the barnyard lights by the house beckoned. With my next step, the silence again descended from the nighttime sky, and the nervous shiver slowly faded as I trod through the snow towards home. The chill was replaced by the warmth of a memory of a snowy evening serenade under a winter’s sky. Like the wandering Jupiter, I had stumbled into another’s realm and had left feeling like a brother.
© Eskildoodle 2021