I press my mittened hand against my face instinctively, and get a stinging face full of ice crystals. Cheyenne’s snow ball hit me square on the cheek, and I am temporarily blinded. For a moment, I taste the snow, each individual crystal bursting as it melts on my tongue. My mitten smells of wet wool and cold.
Spitting ice and laughing, I bend over, scoop a handful of snow, and before I rise fully, hold a solid ball ready to pitch toward my agile, round-hipped adversary. But I’ve already missed my chance. Another rude missile slaps my backside, just high enough to knock the wind from my chest.
By far the better athlete, Cheyenne has me beat in any sport requiring speed, skill, aim, and precision. Still, I’ve managed to lob a few good ones her way.
Full of happy-tired energy, we are coming down from the high of our afternoon cross-country ski through the woods of the High Sierra. Exertion warms my muscles, heats me through. Though my face is nearly numb with cold, I sweat in my down vest and woolen leggings. Melting ice drips from my hat band and eye lashes, then freezes again almost instantly when it hits my collar. An uncomfortable icy buildup chafes my chin, and I’m having too much fun to care.
Every winter a number of villagers make a pilgrimage to Annie and Jefferson’s remote lodge, here, against the backdrop of a pristine alpine lake, and spend the weeks surrounding the Winter Solstice in high camp. By day, we cavort in the snow. By night, round the lodge fire, we tell our winter tales, carefully drawn and wrought during the long spring, summer, and fall.
In return for much needed supplies, artwork of every ilk, and two solid weeks of uproarious company, Annie, Jefferson, and their brood provide us with clean beds, plenty of aromatic firewood, hot soups, fresh-baked breads, tasty dishes, and tender salads–these last picked from carefully tended plots in their solar-and-wind-heated hot house.
“Hey you two!” It’s Merilee, churning off-path through knee-deep snow. “Sun’s going down. Come up to the lodge. There’s a big pot of hot chocolate on the stove, and another of mulled cider.” I glance at Cheyenne. Her hand, like mine, is behind her back. I can’t stop my grin in time. We take aim.
“Oh no you don’t,” Merilee says, ducking. She steps backward, tries to turn, and spills over, forgetting her feet are buried in 10 inches of snow. Covering her head with her arms while we pelt her with bombs, she is up in a trice the moment we stoop to gather ammunition, molding a huge wad of snow in her big sculptor hands.
I dash behind nearby shrubberies, their twiggy branches naked under a layer of hoarfrost, and Cheyenne takes the first heavy blow. We scoop, pack balls, laugh ourselves drunk, and bombard each other until the loud “Awwwk! Awwwk!” of the largest raven I have ever seen stops us in our tracks.
She swoops and dives toward us, a heavy, black shadow in the thinning light. Arms limp at our sides, snowballs forgotten, we watch as she lifts her enormous wings on the faintest breeze and soars easily to a limb high on the ponderosa pine above us.
The last wedge of sunlight just catches her, turning her shining feathers indigo. Long, clustered pine needles glow in sparkly golden puffs round her. We stare until the brief light passes, not saying a word.