The light had already been fading for a while that afternoon as we flung ourselves over snow drifts and up tall mountains of shoveled snow and along the garage rooftops which we could reach because the snow was so high. What had begun as a straightforward afternoon of play in the weak light after school gradually changed in its character as the evening leeched the remaining warmth and brightness out of the sky. As the air became colder and the sky turned an ominous purple-gray, the wind picked up too. One by one, my friends left our group, scurrying into the warmth of the buildings that encircled the playground like a group of overbearing parents.
Finally, when my best friend had gone home, begging me to join her for dinner, I took shelter in the wooden play house into which we had earlier wedged a board to create a second story. I climbed up and settled in, pulling my scarf up over my mouth and nose, and looked through a gap in the slats of wood toward the road where my sister would appear. From my perch, I witnessed the full transition from early evening into true night. I saw a well dressed young couple burst into the night through the doors of their apartment block, arguing. The militia men performed an informal changing of the guard at their observation booth, the lean, sad-eyed man nodding to his jollier, bearded colleague, who pulled his hat tightly onto his head and settled in with a newspaper on his lap. At the far edge of the parking lot, a dog barked, and a car spun its wheels, stuck in the snow. The wind whistled through the cracks of my flimsy shelter.
I peered intently through the wooden slats but saw no hint of my sister who should have come walking into our compound from around the far side of the dumpster at any moment. The wind was growing stronger, and it started to snow. I thought of heading into the vestibule of our building but worried people coming and going would demand to know what I was doing. And so I settled into my fort, imagining it was a medieval French castle, just as my friends and I had pretended earlier that afternoon, all the while keeping my eyes trained on the corner of the parking lot where the alley fed into the apartment compound. All I saw was swirling white snow and black shadow. But then, at the corners of my vision, there was orange and green.
It was Ludmila, who sometimes cleaned our apartment and who babysat me. She wore her signature floral scarf tightly around her head, babushka style, as she swept the vestibule of one of the nearby apartment buildings. I extricated myself from my plywood chateau, snagging my mittens and gaining a splinter or two in the process, and ran over to her.
She put her hands to her cheeks and clucked at me, a combination of shocked sympathy and parental disapproval. I understood only a word here and a word there. But what I understood fully as she marched me back to my apartment building, her stout maternal arm shielding me from the night, was that she made me feel safe. She took me up the creaky elevator and let me in with her spare key, seeking assurance from me that “Mama” would be home soon. I nodded assent as the cat stared out at me disapprovingly from under the dining room table.
Next door someone was playing scales on the violin, and I could smell garlic cooking from across the hall. The roaring, hostile emptiness of the world outside was replaced with a cozy glow–the hum of humanity as it stubbornly insisted on quiet, friendly vitality.
My family would return soon, I knew, and so I watched for them through our large picture window, puzzling over the way the snow flakes could only be seen in the halos of the street lamps and wondering where they went once they fell beyond my field of vision into the darkness.