Standing in the middle of a frozen lake late on a winter evening listening to the ice break up. Sounds streak out into the closing darkness, sounds like God’s bullwhip cracking; like muted lightening strikes. Then silence, then more rumbling beneath my feet, the echoes and shudders of gradual disintegration. Standing still, feet cold, hands in my pockets, wishing I had something to cover my cheeks and ears. Twilight descends on the ice in a symphony of crackling dissonance.
Something I can’t see yet, something like a great bird, comes toward me. It feels like it’s descending upon me. An iceboat, visible now, moving almost faster than my eyes can follow. A slender, speeding swallow of sail and hull and outriggers, low, springy, with the mast raked back. The thunder I’ve been listening to resolves into the rumble of steel runners over rough ice, going well over fifty miles per hour. Just as I spot it, it shoots past me like a ghost chasing a lost soul. Or being chased by one.
The skipper, tucked deep into the cockpit, is a young man my age. I know him, barely. Marshall. Son of a wealthy family that lives at the end of the peninsula jutting out into the elbow of this large community lake. Rich boy, my mind says automatically. I resent Marshall. I’d say I hate him, but I don’t really. I don’t know him well enough for that. But I resent him because he has great, expensive, beautiful toys I don’t have and never will, though we live on the same lake, share its expanse, play on it daily, sometimes in close proximity. I resent Marshall because he is handsome and everyone admires him and wants to be his friend because he’s rich. Most of all, I resent Marshall because he and I look alike. We’re almost identical, same age and height, same blond hair over sunburned faces. His fawning neighbors who cultivate his favor often mistake me for him, and smile at me and say hello from a distance, thinking I am him. All of which embarrasses me and forces on me the most painful kind of reserve and silence.
Marshall’s iceboat shoots by me, dark red body, mahogany mast flexing in the wind, low to the ice and moving fast toward the wooded dark shore. I hear long booming noises from the ice from that direction, sounds of cold thunder. Then a sudden cracking sound and silence. I can barely see. Marshall’s boat is at a dead stop. It’s tipped forward, nose down in the water. He’s broken through a soft spot in the ice. He should have known about that spot, we all did. I stand watching as the weight of the mast and sail push it down faster, and then the outboard runner on the right side breaks through. His mast tips down and to the side. I can’t see Marshall.
I start running toward him. But to one side too, around the big hole in the ice instead of straight toward it. There is no way to know how far out the ice has cracked, so I just run toward it and to one side until I can see around the sail.
Marshall is still in the cockpit. He looks calm but busy. He hasn’t tried to climb out. He retrieves and coils the rope to his sail, as if he were putting the boat away at the end of the day, but doing it fast. Why isn’t he trying to climb out? Then suddenly the cockpit drops down and I can see water flowing in around him and he lets out a sound like “Ah!” and starts wiggling to get out. But his boat is sinking into the icy water and taking him with it.
I yell to him. I walk toward him, but carefully, watching the ice, testing it with each step. The truth is, I don’t want to get too close. I’m afraid of this ice and of the water that kills. It wouldn’t take much. I wouldn’t be able to get out once my clothes and coat get soaked and heavy. I get close enough to see him finally pull himself out of the cockpit. His head appears above water. He has that coil of rope in his left hand, treading water with his right. He looks straight at me, fear in his eyes now. This is the first time we’ve really looked at each other in all the several years we’ve lived and played near each other.
He switches the coil of rope to his right hand and makes a big push with his legs and left arm to raise himself up as far as possible. He throws the rope toward me.
The rope covers less than half the distance between us. He shouts, “Get it! Get it! Pull me out!” But the rope is not close enough to me to be safe. I will die if I try to reach that rope. The ice looks okay here but it’s dark and it looks wet. I don’t trust it. I cannot. I just can’t. I stand there, shivering. Looking and shivering and shaking my head.
Then I’m walking toward home, shivering, hating that ice, hating the dark, afraid of the sounds, especially the shrieking of the ice as its compression fractures shift and split me in the dark. I’m afraid of each step. I can’t see the lights over my family’s dock, though they must be on by now. A fog seems to have descended from the shore, as it sometimes does at night. Tears keep flowing from my eyes and it’s hard to breathe. I walk as fast as I dare toward shore, toward home.
I take a hot bath and go to bed early that night. I don’t tell my parents what I’ve seen. They tell me about Marshall late the next day. They prohibit me from going out on the ice for the rest of that winter. I look at them sadly and nod my head, wordless.
M. Gregory Robertson is a river hillbilly whose britches are sometimes too tight, shoes too muddy, and hair too often unwashed. He watches floods of people and other detritus floating by and tries to piece together stories of their origins. The result can usually be found at missouririverwriter.blogspot.com.
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