Last night I went cross-country skiing with With-a-Why and Suburban Nephew. We circled the house a few times until I was sure that they both had gotten the hang of using the skis, and then they followed me to the trail into the woods. The woods look different at night: it's like being in a black-and-white movie. All the colour has been drained from the landscape; the trees, the bushes, the branches are in shades of grey or black, contrasting with the white snow. Even Suburban Nephew, in his bright-coloured parka, became the dark silhouette of a boy.
The woods are quiet on a winter night. No birds singing, no tree frogs, nothing rustling, just the occasional creak of a branch. Even the two boys seemed quieter, muffled, awed by the bigness of the night. I could hear the swish of their snowpants, the sliding of their skis, and the sound of their breathing. I could tell that Suburban Nephew was getting scared by the way he hurried to stay close to me.
"What if we get lost?" he asked finally. "Haven't we gone far enough?"
With-a-Why scoffed, "My Mom knows these woods like she knows her own name."
I was hoping the coyotes would howl in the distance. I hear them sometimes, off in the direction of the train track. I think other creatures use the railroad as a corridor for moving about amongst these scattered sections of undeveloped land. The howling would have scared Suburban Nephew, but would have thrilled him too. So seldom any more do we humans have the opportunity to feel scared and humbled in the woods.
We skied in single file, me following a trail that the boys could not see, until we came to a clearing where there was room for the boys to turn (a clumsy maneuver when you are first learning to ski). When we turned, I could hear Suburban Nephew give a sigh of relief. Off in the distance, through the woods, you could see the lights of our house. I could tell he felt happy skiing towards that light and all that it represented: hot cups of cocoa, the noisy play of all his cousins, and his Mom reading a book by the fire.