Governor-General’s Award-winning poet Lorna Crozier takes us to that moment in childhood when desire for the old religion is born
In the backyard pond, the turtles sleep through Christmas. The water’s almost black now that winter’s here. Shaped like a tadpole, the pond won’t freeze over unless the temperature drops for days in a row, a rarity on the south end of Vancouver Island. The dead blades of water irises soften and brown along the border of stones. Autumn got away from you this year. You didn’t have the time to cut them back. If you want to, you can step into the pond and wade – it’s only three feet deep – yet there’s enough mud in the bottom for two turtles the size of bread plates to sink into at the end of October, to burrow into, and rest. They’ve slept through the solstice; they’ll sleep through the miraculous birth and the turning of the year. This morning a thin snow flours the moss that flanks the pond; each flake melts as it meets the water. If you were looking with a snowy owl’s big eyes you might see a faint ripple where the frozen stars touch the surface, then disappear. You might see the transformation. Though the turtles are sleeping, they must sense the days are short. The pond seldom shines and there’s a new silence in the air since the birds have flown. It’s the hush of emptiness, the hush of anticipation. As if everything pauses, holds its breath, waits for a break in the cold and dark, waits for a brighter star to gleam. This desire for the old religion, some glimpse of hope, the radiance of snow, begins in your childhood. In Saskatchewan, your mother shooed you and your brother out the door in the early morning so she could stuff the turkey, peel the potatoes and turnips, bake the mincemeat pies for the big dinner you would eat at noon with all the relatives from the farm. You followed his tracks in the dark, your brother seven years older, his back sheltering you from the wind. You climbed the alley behind him, skates over your shoulders, and walked the block to the outdoor rink. Snow descended and lifted in a dense tunnel in the beam of the streetlight. The skating shack was closed. No smoke twisted from the metal chimney. The light on the tall pole at the end of the rink was dark, but someone had leaned a shovel against the boards. You sat on a drift hardened by the wind and laced your skates tight, your brother already on the ice, pushing the shovel in front of him, clearing a path. Along the street no windows glowed. There were just the two of you in the world, a world white and falling. Your brother raced backwards, you forward, from one end of the rink to the other, and he always won. All you could hear – the huff of your breath and four steel blades slicing and gliding, that sharp whoosh. No other sounds had awakened yet. The two of you, skates scoring the ice just before dawn, were winter’s spare and only story. How close you were to home and yet how far away. That Christmas morning has settled inside a globe of glass where a turn of the wrist can make the snow start falling. You’re far from that time when everyone you loved was abundantly alive. You’re far from old sorrows and blessings. In the minutes it takes to call the morning back, the moss around the pond is green again, the coastal snow is gone, and the turtles sleep in the thick, cold mud that, for them, must be the longest night. What can they do? What can they do but dream, but remember?