Winter Escape
Photo by Lori Willocks

One day they just showed up. It was the early 1980s in a rural school in southern Alberta. At the time this small farming community (‘Pop. 323’, the village welcome sign proudly declared) didn’t have much of what’s now called ‘diversity’ in its population, so the sudden appearance of Asian faces caught some notice.

The Boat People had arrived. In a place 1,000 kilometres from the sea.

I remember one girl who joined our grade three class, but her name escapes me. I knew nothing of the politics or peril or the helping hands that led her to our school.

It was that blessed time of winter, for kids at least, when the snow was thick on the ground and the skies sunny. At recess my friends and I would roam the big school playground turned white wonderland, leaving bits of our tongues behind on the frosted metal swing sets, shaking crusted snow from tree branches for a sparkling ice shower.

One day we found an ice patch. Chinook winds had warmed up and melted a section of snow on the track field, which refroze into a smooth, oval-shaped sheet of ice, three or four metres long.

Our new classmate from Vietnam joined us at the ice patch. Some of us stepped on the ice straight away and started sliding around, spinning and slipping and testing our balance. I looked over to the girl, watching with interest but still standing off the ice. She’d never walked on ice before. I took her hand and she gently, gingerly placed her feet on the cold, hard surface. She took a few braver steps on her own and immediately fell to her bottom. She laughed and smiled and got up again for another try, eventually getting the hang of it.

Then one day, she left.

Our ice-sliding afternoon is the last thing I remember of her. I never found out where she and the other children went. Never asked, probably. The world for me then was the farm, the school, my grandma’s house in town. The swirling, raging storms of war and oppression outside and beyond were as unreal to me as the mythical Sasquatch.

I’ve since learned to ask questions, to discover the Whos and Hows and Whys, to remember names. To strike at things like a pickaxe to see what’s under the smooth glassy surface.

The frosty prairie landscape of my youth is now just a memory. World wanderings have taken me to a place with no winter, to a country near this girl’s place of birth, in a climate probably very close to what she knew as a child before her arrival to Canada. A tropical escape, as the brochures say.

But what of her escape? I sometimes wonder, if, after her first tentative steps into this strange, new icy place, did she find firm footing? Was she still able to laugh when she stumbled? Did she ever find a place she could call home again?