There is this photograph of me. I’m eleven years old, living in Northern Ontario. My head is poking out of the entrance of a tunnel dug into a snow bank. The tunnel entrance is maybe six feet off the ground. We used to dig these tunnels into the huge mounds of snow piled up on the side of the road by the ploughs that came by a couple of times every day. Sometimes the snow there would be so high, you wouldn’t be able to open the front door. Everything below the top floor of the house would be temporarily underground, and the rooms would be filled with this spooky subterranean light. Then, you would have to leave your house by crawling out of your bedroom window.
We would crawl out of our bedroom windows, the children of the neighbourhood. We would crawl out early in the morning or early in the evening, with shovels in our hands, and dig in the snowbanks for hours on end. We would make tunnels in the snow banks, and we would connect these tunnels with the tunnels that our friends had made. We would crate honeycombs of secret tunnels in the snow. We would sit in secret snow chambers. We would read comic books by flashlight, and tell dirty jokes. We would shiver, and listen for the sound of danger approaching. We would listen for the snow plow coming down the road, its crushing blade held out before it. It was good to have a look out, if possible. There were stories of kids being sliced in half, or buried under hundreds of pounds of snow.
But back to the photo now. Because of the light, you can tell that it’s either early morning or early evening. I happen to remember the exact moment. I happen to know that it’s early morning. There’s a flashlight being held up to my chin, and my face is lit up with this eerie, golden glow. My face is chubby, surrounded by the fake fur lining of a parka. I look like part fat Russian prince, part jack-o’-lantern.
What you can’t see, just out of the photo’s frame, is the hand that’s holding the flashlight to my face. The hand that’s buried inside a snowmobile mitten. Because I happen to remember the exact moment this photo was taken, I happen to know that the hand inside the mitten belongs to my friend Audrey. I happen to know that less than one full year later, she will be hospitalized with meningitis. I happen to know that this tunnel in the snow will be her very last.
But, for now, she’s holding the flashlight to my face. For now, she’s waiting with me for the yellow school bus to arrive. For now, she’s smiling just out of range. I happen to know.