Friday night, I walk down to the neighbourhood pub to meet some of my friends. The snow has melted, but it’s still cold, and there are a few thin, invisible slicks of ice on the dark pavement. It reminds me of being back at Princeton, or on one of my many visits to Montreal – it’s never this cold in Victoria, so ice doesn’t associate with home. The cold is a different kind of nostalgia. The orange streetlights burn down onto the damp, deserted intersections, and I place my Doc Martens emphatically on the asphalt, daring the ice to make me slip.
When I reach my old elementary school, the lights end. Are there fewer lights than there used to be, or does the looming bulk of the buildings, fortress-like on top of the small hill, seem further away? Never mind. I cross the field in the dark and my eyes switch focus, away from the orange-glinting pavement to the suddenly visible arch of star-spattered sky. The rasp of rough concrete is replaced by the unique resistance of grass that is squelching with snowmelt but also crackling a little with frost, like half-defrosted vegetables.
As my eyes adjust I startle, for the field is covered with irregular white shapes, crouched like sleeping animals on the inkstain grass. For a moment I have the eerie feeling of being in an art museum after dark, with a white marble sculpture garden scattered about me. The abstract shapes are curled into weird shadowplays by the starlight, and it takes me a moment to realize what I’m seeing: the half-melted remains of children’s play, their snowmen and ice fortresses holding out against the higher temperatures. The thin coating of snow has long since left my front lawn, but here, there are a few snowballs left to be thrown.
I wander through the accidental sculpture garden, crushing the abused grass beneath my boots, touching a snow shape here and there, trying to figure out what they were. From up close they are just jumbled piles of snow, but from afar they seem otherworldly. I look up, and the stars wheel above me, framed by the tall douglas firs that rise around the perimeter of the field. It is the closest I have felt to Botswana in weeks, walking in the dark, alone, with the clear stars above me. There aren’t as many stars, of course, and there’s no Southern Cross. But I have the same feeling of walking through beautiful world, crossing a solitary night sea to reach the islands of light, friends, laughter.
I look up and see Cassiopeia, the first constellation I truly learned. She winks at me with her saucy W, reclining among the other stars. I learned her story and her shape for a school project at this very elementary school, and my father helped me find her in the night sky. She’ll always be my favourite. Under the light of the stars, I cross the field and make my way along the pitch-black path towards the pub.