From Issue I (2016)
by BENJAMIN GOODRIDGE
When I fell through the ice, time stopped. The light faded, water enveloped my body like a slick, sharp cocoon, and that fleeting mystery of life, always one step ahead as we barrel headlong into the future, was suddenly thrust in front of me. So that’s what it’s all about. Sinking into the blackness, wishing I had learned to swim so many years ago, wishing my mother had taught me, I saw the meaning of my life. The signature, the crux, the pinnacle on which everything now balanced. Swimming. You should have known all there was to know about swimming.
I was afraid of the lake in my younger days, fearful that an ancient, slimy hand would latch onto my ankle as soon as I wandered out over my waist, pulling me down into some rocky crypt. The terror seemed so real and, though that razor-sharp certainty dulled as I grew older, I never stepped back into the water. Swimming was a choice, after all. All the other kids were swimming, but they wanted to. My feet were better suited to dry land, even though our family had access to an acre of marvelous lakefront property in Bridgeton, Maine. A great deal of my life was centered around the family camp, around the lake, but simply gazing over the water was enough for me. I remember practicing my breathing skills in case I was ever thrust into that murky keep. One time I held my breath for two and a half minutes. My father told me that was on par with the Navy SEALs. I only shrugged.
As winter descended again and again, and I grew from a child to an adolescent, I began to wonder what stepping onto the ice might feel like. My father would set ice-fishing traps from time to time, but he knew better than to invite me. He’d glance at me uneasily while loading cans of beer into his pack basket, watching as I stared out over the lake, bright white in the low winter sun. He was probably close to asking me along on a few occasions, the words sitting on his dry tongue. And then the cabin door would slam, and I would watch as he rode off on his snowmobile over the ice, the wild cold inviting him in.
Maybe I’d try a step, I thought one Saturday in mid-January, another average weekend at the cabin come round again. Just a step, and then I’d go back. The night before, Dad had told me twelve inches of ice could hold a Mack Truck, and twenty could hold a castle. “Stronger than granite, boy,” he said as my mother looked on, emotionless. The three of us sat around the dinner table, picking at our food as the blackness of space pressed in through the cabin windows. My father was eating in great gulps, chewing little, taking a slug of beer every so often. I wanted to ask him how he knew those things about ice. Years later, I realized that wasn’t the point. When Dad said something, it became fact. It was right, no matter what. Mom and I both knew it wasn’t worth questioning him. Anger was his strong suit, right up until the day he died.
So I put on my snowsuit that day, a boy of fourteen just beginning to discover the great irony of life, that our parents know as little as us, and trudged out into the frozen wasteland. My mother was still sleeping, as was her custom. The first few breaths of cold air caught in my throat and I coughed the air back out. I zipped the suit up all the way so only the tip of my nose was exposed. My eyes were watering by the time I reached the lake. I scanned the horizon in search of my father, who’d departed at daybreak to “find the honey hole.” The far side of the lake was three miles across, hazy in the white sunlight that danced above the ice. To my left and right, the lake seemed to stretch on forever. Its size had always frightened me, but today I just thought of Dad, out there in the middle somewhere, his snowmobile purring, that mystical frozen fortress in his sights.
I peered back up at the cabin, part of me hoping that Mom had awoken, that she would call out and stop me, bid me back into the warmth. The sun’s reflection was harsh and I couldn’t see through the windows.
I turned around and took my first step onto the ice. Snow was packed tightly on the surface, and my foot sunk in only slightly. I brought my other foot down, and there I was, standing on the lake, defying all the laws of my life. I stood there for a few moments, the cold air pushing in on me from all sides. What happens next? I wondered. Is there anything else, anything else in the world now? Facing great fears always conjures up more questions: what’s left to dread? The water was still under the ice, of course, just like the stars are still in the sky on a bluebird day. But the stars can’t get us, I thought, and neither can the water. So I started forward.
I knew my father liked to fish the far side of the lake, and now that I was out here I felt the entire sheet of ice was mine to dictate. I would traverse the lake, my snow gear thick and warm, fully intact. Plenty of sun left in the January sky. I would surprise that bastard for the first time in my life.
I passed by a small island where ice flows had buckled up to the tree line. A red squirrel chattered out at me from one of the low spruce branches. I chattered back, the sound startling and grand. I was an explorer now, finally, at fourteen. I watched two chickadees dart through the underbrush, a game of chase most birds were now playing in the South.
Running now, skipping, I put the island behind me. My boots crunched into the snowpack, the frozen lake a vast field wrapping in all directions. I was growing accustomed to the cold air, cherishing its freshness. My nose was red and sore, but what did that matter? I was an explorer.
At some point, I had to look back to get my bearings. The other side of the lake wasn’t getting any bigger on the horizon, and for an instant I wondered if I was the recipient of some cruel prank. As I turned my head to look—the cabin was at least a mile to my rear, now the size of a pea—my boots tangled together and I went sprawling forward. I hit the snowpack with a thud, and my chin bounced off the cold, jagged surface. I took off my gloves and brought a hand to my face. Surely there would be blood. But the skin was numb, my hand dry. I started rubbing my chin to try and get the feeling back. That was when I heard the snowmobile.
Dad! I thought instantly. But when I looked out across the lake, I saw four black dots instead of one. They were racing across the ice. The purring sound got louder, rising, rising, sawing now. I covered my ears as the snowmobiles approached, burying my head in my snowsuit, wishing they would leave me be. I only wanted to see my dad.
The sleds came to a halt a few feet in front of me, and one of the men hopped down from his seat and ambled over to me.
“You OK, son?” he asked, kneeling at my side. His Maine accent was deep and impressionable. He had a big frosty beard and dark matted hair. He wasn’t wearing a helmet. “What’re you doin’ way out here?”
“Walking,” I said. “Exploring. Looking for my dad.”
The man stared at me for a moment, and he lost something in his eyes.
“You Tim Donaldson’s boy?”
I didn’t have to say anything. He knew the answer.
“Let’s get you back to your mother. There’s been an accident.”
Everything in my life happened quickly after that moment. Scenes went by in flashes: the man lifting me onto his snowmobile with iron hands, the sharp gnaw of the wind on my face as we raced back to the cabin, my mother’s tired eyes, the lack of tears there, my aunt and uncle arriving, the strange men in suits, the talk of open water out on the lake somewhere, that this winter—despite the current cold spell—was going to be the warmest on record, scuba divers, one hundred feet of water, nothing turning up, one of my friends calling to say he was sorry, the rigid funeral service. And then, emptiness.
That March, my mother and I went back to the cabin. I don’t know why she wanted to take me, or why she wanted to subject herself to my father’s specter. She mumbled a few things about packing up, making the proper arrangements, enjoying the place while we had it. She was putting the cabin and the acre of land on the market come spring. “And whatever you do, stay off the ice. You can’t even swim. Will you ever learn, Nick?”
“It’s too late to learn,” I replied, closing up a box of winter clothes as the sun set over the lake. I stared for a moment but the glare was too bright, so I looked away.
My mother, so mousy and lifeless, smiled sadly. “Your father knew how.”
“I’m going to bed.”
As I lay awake that night, the quiet of the wild deafening, I decided it was time. I went to the closet and bundled myself in the proper attire, and then crept out into the hallway. If I woke my mother, the game was over. No shifting floorboards.
After sliding on my boots, I stepped out into the deep, black night. The air was warm for March, unseasonable, but the cold clutches of winter still stuck around in the shadows. In the ice. The shallow parts of the lake were covered in a twelve-inch layer—that Mack Truck’s comin’, boy—though the consistency was soft. I could have drilled down and seen the purplish hue, the layers of bubbles frozen for a winter’s time. But I had no drill, and I had no care anymore. All I wanted was to finish the walk I’d started back in January.
So onto the ice I went, nothing but darkness ahead. My boots sank into the ankle-deep slush, every step a chore. The air hinted at an early spring, all of those smells of the wild awakening: lavender, the moisture of shadows, green moss, time. I slogged through the soup, that wet crunch the only sound in the world.
Eventually I stopped and listened, wiping the sweat off my brow. Overdressed, I thought. Somewhere across the lake—or maybe it was everywhere—the ice buckled. The sound was like a great cable snapping in two, echoing as the pieces recoiled, on and on, reverberating like feedback. My footing shifted. Fear spread to my heart, that great truth of the water’s mastery over us. But I didn’t fall through.
I continued headlong into the night. After a time, I stopped again. In the distance I heard sloshing. My mother? Surely not. She would be screaming my name, her footfalls messy and uneven. This sound was more of a scraping, a clockwork shifting. Soon two yellow eyes appeared in the gloom some twenty yards to my right. The shifting stopped, and the eyes waited. Nature was patient.
I started up again, glancing to my right ever so often. Whatever creature the eyes belonged to was following me. A companion. I smiled; I had never had a companion before.
I don’t know how long I walked. Time seemed to shrink away, and I was left with something else. A voice inside my head told me to go back. Somewhere up inside.
Run, said the voice. Run home, Nicholas.
So I ran. But not home. I’d come out here for a reason, after all. Slush and standing water splashed about, soaking my snow pants and spraying my hands, my face. My companion followed. I thought I heard a yipping noise. My heart beat out of my chest as I ran, ran, ran.
Then, in an instant, the sky brightened. The expanse was now cobalt gray, the color of housefire smoke, and the outlines of trees on the horizon merged into grainy focus. The trees went on and on, north and south.
Another yip-yip! My companion’s bright eyes faded some, and what appeared now was a scrawny coyote. His fur was thin and soiled. He’d fallen fifty yards behind and was standing in a pool of water. He yipped again, and I stopped running.
“Come on, boy!” I called back to him. “It’s OK! Just a little slush. I’m headed to find the ice fortress!”
He yipped again, a high-pitched squeal that I’d only ever heard from afar, in the depths of night when all the coyotes hash over coyote affairs. He was looking past me, further on, so I turned to look, too. Had there been an ice fortress out there, once? Maybe. The coming dawn illuminated the open water just enough to differentiate it from the slush-topped ice. If the sun had been out, the water would have shimmered. But today the surface held a non-quality. Dad’s world, I thought, and I was going to turn back, but before I could pivot my feet, the ice gave way.
A sickening grinding noise crackled through the still morning air, and for a moment I was weightless. Then I was in the water. The cold wasn’t what got to me. Or the thought of my father calling out as he went under. What got me was the swimming. This was why I had avoided the lake. Everything was crystal clear now.
Oh, but my years of breathing exercises weren’t for nothing. Before submerging, I took in a great breath and, as I sank, my panic subsided. My body became numb, but my eyes worked just fine. And though there was nothing to see, the darkness was beautiful. The air sat comfortably in my lungs, and I decided I would go for a new record. Three minutes.
At some point during the sinking—one hundred feet down or so—a fish swam by. I don’t know what kind. A bass, maybe. He circled me twice, and then nibbled at my right hand. Ouch, I thought. Stop that. Wait till I’m dead.
Bugger that, the fish said. No dying for you. Too much to do, yet. Besides, this is my lake.
I’ll never make it back up.
The fish laughed.
I don’t know how to swim.
Everyone knows how, boy.
I thought for a moment. I was still sinking, and the fish was following me lazily downward.
Are you my father? I couldn’t speak. My precious air would vanish, and that would be that.
The fish grinned, and I thought I could see my father’s grin inside him.
The fish circled me and nibbled my finger again.
I pulled my hand inward, and as I did so, I felt a little lighter. I moved my hand again, and then both hands.
That’s the ticket! the fish hollered, circling excitedly.
The trouble was, I was beginning to like it down here. Even if I do get back to the top, I’ll have hypothermia. No one’s coming. I’ll freeze.
You’ll be up there, though. Isn’t that enough?
I don’t know, I thought. But the fish was gone.
I started kicking and, exhaling, I followed the air bubbles upward.
Benjamin Goodridge is a freelance writer living in Portland, ME, with his fiancé, Jackie. He has published multiple articles and enjoys writing fiction with every free moment he has.
Jenny Kendler is an interdisciplinary artist, environmental activist, naturalist, wild forager, and social entrepreneur. She is the first artist-in-residence with environmental nonprofit NRDC. Her work has been exhibited nationally and internationally at museums and public venues. She is vice president of the artist residency ACRE and cofounded the artist website service OtherPeoplesPixels and The Endangered Species Print Project, which has raised over $14,000 for conservation. See more of her work at jennykendler.com.