It was cold enough that the birds hesitated to sing. Below 20 degrees, a thermometer attached to the side of the house confirmed. Fine etchings of ice embellished the many windows. Maren exhaled against a chilled pane, its prettiness fading, and brought forth a blurred view of the lake, obscured by snow-laden fir limbs. An over sized pond was more the truth (Andy called it his private lake), and it sat just beyond the first fir tree line. He had already scraped parts clear with his shovel and its revealed bluish-gray sheen flashed in the sunlight. She could more fully imagine it than see it: an irregular oval with a wood bench along the south edge, more thick white and scotch pines at the northwest side to help shelter all from the Great Lake effect snow and wind. She had once found it the more beautiful of the land’s features.
Close to the house a cardinal landed on a birch limb and turned its head to her. Maren returned its look, a flutter of cheer rising inside then flailing. She returned her gaze to the place where the pond lay in wait. It was well-frozen now; he wouldn’t have been there, anxious to do more ice fishing. He hadn’t mentioned its state of thickness to her; he always waited for her to ask. She had avoided checking, though she knew the rhythms of the land by then, was intimate with the seasons’ ways. She told herself it didn’t really matter, she never went there, it was a bother to think about. If she got the information from Andy it would likely cease to rattle around her mind. This had gone on each winter for three years. Each winter she put it off. But when she knew the thickness or thinness of ice, she felt somewhat relieved of burden of memory. She didn’t worry much about Andy or even their son. But the one time she would go near it–even then, only the edges of its benign murky green depths–was in summer, and it was for the riot of wildflowers that enticed her. Or to watch Andy and Troy fish. She never touched her pole now, either.
Maren and the pond had become enemies. It had nearly taken her as she had swept about its rough-hewn surface, her ice skates bouncing a bit when they hit ruts and snags of ice. The sun had graced the day, a sort of heavenly beacon after two weeks of leaden skies heavy with snow, then emptying of the thick flakes that took hold of everything. All was well. She had executed a nice turn, then a fair waltz jump and landed, if not quite gracefully, with sureness.
And then she heard it, the undoing of that weld of millions of hardened water molecules, the slow cracking warning of more. She caught her breath, gloved hand at her throat. Then the fracturing ice and sudden unbearable wetness like merciless claws grabbing feet, ankles, calves, thighs. Her chest was rigid with weak screams; her arms thrust out and atop the widening hole’s edges, trying to keep head above the depths, hands groping at the opening, then going numb as her body sank, nearly paralyzed. Her thought, floating atop the terrible weight of ice, was how she had skated–a passion held dear–right into death.
Andy had been at the edges with Troy, barked an order to stay put and not budge, then ran and slid across the expanse, grabbed the back of her coat and arm just as her pale, soundless mouth became submerged. He yanked her up with wild might. It had been mere moments. She coughed hard and sputtered, cried out like a wounded animal. He dragged her off the ice, the continuous creaking and cracking following them every inch. Andy had been certain the ice was no longer perilous. He had checked it the night before; the temperature hadn’t risen much since.
When he stumbled into the hard snow he threw her over his shoulder and shouted at Troy to follow. They rushed to the house where he laid her by the roaring fire, stripped off her clothes and skates, rubbed her flesh until she cried out, “Don’t you dare touch me again!” He stopped a moment, began more gently. Maren’s skin flared then burned as it thawed. She, aching, buried herself in wool blankets, peeked out as the friendlier fire leapt and waved at her. Troy, then four, sat behind her, patting and smoothing her head, his voice half of anxiety and half of love.
Andy split and brought in more wood to feed the fire until it roared. The kettle whistled. She longed to stand up with blanket about her and get it but she could not move for a long while. Andy brought her tea and sat with hands clasped between his knees, his slippered foot touching the heel of her foot, a mass of anxious anger hidden until he lay behind her, breathed onto her neck, held her arms close to her chest with his muscular warmth. How could he have let her go out before checking better? Troy lay in front of his mother; the three of them dozed. It took that night and the next day before she felt warmer, could claim her extremities as belonging to her.
She did not go anywhere for five days, vowing a war against winter. He kept telling her: she hadn’t been drowned by the monster of iced water, hadn’t lost any fingers or toes, sure hadn’t died. But she still would shake with fear when cold. Only Troy could comfort her with his laughter and attentiveness. His need of her motherly equanimity. Andy often left her to herself but this wasn’t so different from before, just more uneasy.
Maren had wanted to sell the place, at least the acres that abutted their home and included the pond. It would have made them a good profit. But Andy had been there long before she came. It was his own true home, he’d reminded her. Despite being a law clerk for several years in a town three miles away this was where he felt himself. She didn’t wonder at his choice of solitude–only two neighbors nearby, little sound but nature’s voices, no one to interfere. He was a man who made his way alone. Until he met her and allowed for adjustments, enough that they could live together without overlapping too much. She had wondered if he could love her long or well enough and she, him. But they managed with passion, love of the land, shared creative work. He built burnished, sturdy wood objects for pleasure; she made glass and wood chimes for fun and to sell. In the wood shop, she loved him happily and he found her fascinating once more.
Troy made a difference. He was the elegant bridge, the chance to make their commitment to each other a greater thing of wonder and delight. She had barely begun to teach Troy how to skate that winter when she’d lost her nerve. After that, they never went onto the ice. He didn’t ask her to skate again. He fished with his father (who never could succeed at skating).
Her skates still hung on a nail at the back porch, covered by an ancient barn coat once owned by Andy’s father.
Maren regarded the flat, monochrome landscape, let her eyes linger over trees and rusty red barn, then the lean-to that was renovated for the wood shop. She traced clouds to a break where broad rays divided the drear, then fell over a ranging cloak of snow and graced it with a honeyed glow. The pond in the distance seemed to wait for her but without any pity. Nonetheless there was a brief spark in her, a call of the old blades. Feet shifted as she straightened spine and rolled her shoulders back. There might be a way. She had read in the paper that a new mall right between their town and the burgeoning city had opened before Thanksgiving. There was a skating rink there, open now. It wasn’t so far. She could leave Troy with his aunt for the day, say she had shopping for Christmas.
Four days later Maren expertly laced the old figure skates, noting how stiff was the cracked, worn leather, how unforgiving on tender arches and ankles. Her mouth went dry. Adrenaline brought all senses sharply into use. Yet when she first stood she wobbled. Finding a new gravitational center, she took her turn entering the half-full ice. She let go the guard rail and pushed off, reminded that the speed that smooth, artificial ice allowed was much greater. The ice rink, like the pond, was oval but perfectly small. In the center towered a well-lit Christmas tree. Festive and full of laughing skaters, the ice appeared benign. No one was moving very fast. She took easy, long strides around the rink. Gained speed bit bit bit, felt her legs contract and propel, ankles hold. Soon she passed others with ease. Her blades grabbed ice, then released it; arms swung, legs followed and she experienced the forward momentum as a thrill, skates confidently attacking the surface and sliding forward. She would not stop until a half hour passed, not even if she fell.
Her bare head lifted, held higher as she streamed across the rink without fear or hint of impending failure. It came right back to Maren, that old love. Many stopped to watch as she whizzed by, the dizzying spins, a stag jump, a fast backward weaving that took her over the ice as surely as if she was being guided through a sort of flight-like dance. Her chestnut hair swept the air, her eyes open wide, lit with a feeling for which there were no words. But her body’s secret language gave off joy.
Maren, at last, skated free.
It was a couple of weeks before Christmas. Snowfall had abated for two days. The temperature had held at under twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit. Andy had ice fished a few times with Troy and he cooked up bluegill for dinner.
“Ice fishing pretty good this year?” she asked, savoring her meal.
He glanced at her from under thick light brows. “Very good. You are tasting what it’s delivered.”
“I was thinking…but, oh, never mind.”
“What, Mama?” Troy asked, mouth full.
Andy finished off hash browns, wiped his mouth and sat waiting.
She looked him straight in the eye. “I was wondering if I might go out.”
His eyes started to smile at her, lips slower to follow. “You mean fish with us? That’d be nice.”
“Please, Mama? I want you to see how I do,” Troy said.
“I’d like that, son.” She ruffled his blond hair and finished eating.
“You don’t mean that. Fishing.” Andy leaned forearms on the table.
Her fork halfway to her mouth, it stalled and was put down. Her hands went to her lap, to the napkin there, and twisted it tightly. “No.”
Andy searched her face and saw her open just a little to him. She had been missing for too long, as if the ice break had taken part of her. The part that had been there before he’d come into her life. She’d been a champion skater as a youth, then had kept at it as a passionate hobby. He had admired that, her physical nature so natural and dominant. After the ice broke and she sank, she had retreated in some crucial way, as if she’d lost heart in their country life. He’d told her how his own brother had gone down once but popped back up; it was just a risk on the ice and most surely did survive it. He’d tried to encourage her but she’d refused to try again. He couldn’t understand it all but it hurt him. Maybe because it devastated her. Or perhaps because she hadn’t trusted him, hadn’t tried even with his support. So he’d let her be, even more. Right or wrong, they had drifted. Now it was mostly Troy that kept them mindful of their love.
“Tomorrow?” he asked her as he surmised her intention.
“Yes,” Maren said and got up to clear the table, biting her lip hard.
“What, Dad?” Troy asked.
“We’ll see soon, son.”
The next afternoon when Andy came home early they set out. There was a big sky of sapphire and gold and the snow blinded. She donned her sunglasses, grabbed her skates and headed out, Andy and Troy right behind her.
He was excited and yanked at his father’s hand. “I know what’s happening now!”
Andy tramped onto the hard surface of the pond-lake first and held out his arms.
“See, Mar? All good. I’ve been on it for a week, no surprises. It’s holding fast. Four inches thick, I checked twice.”
Maren nodded, sat on the bench and laced her skates deliberately, tightening them close to the skate boot. She wanted no wobbling this time. She would either skate right out and around or she would not attempt it today. It had to be that way; she couldn’t bear to fall or lose whatever edge she might have on its rough surface. If she got scared she couldn’t face Troy, nor Andy.
Her husband held Troy’s hand; it felt small. His son could barely recall the incident. He’d told his father he remembered her falling on ice, then shivering by a fire. He knew she didn’t like the lake (he called it what his father did to her annoyance). She had only told him she had once nearly drowned. He could not imagine it, his mother who chopped wood and planted the garden, canned peaches and tomatoes and made chimes and calmed him during nightmares. Told him good bedtime stories, still.
Maren stepped into the ice, making small steps on the ice as if she was a novice, her ear attuned to that terrible sound.
“What’s she doing? Is she afraid?”
Andy squeezed his hand.
But as she left the edge and found more speed all she heard was this:: blades slicing across the ice, a sharp scrape as she pushed off for each long glide, the roughness of frozen water giving in to the command of her trail and its signature marks upon the ice. Freshening wind in her ears. She moved around the edge of the big pond, and soon was a medium speck at the far end as her husband and son looked on. Her heart felt it might explode as she pushed herself, thigh muscles engaging in power, giving her impetus to charge through time and space, across treacherous ice. She skated and listened, stayed back from its center where the ice failed her that one time. Fear ebbed and flowed but nothing threatened her, after all. She felt amid each movement more sloughing off burdens, the dissipation of fear. Flying by the two in her life who mattered most, she waved, then powered up for an effortless rise high above the ice, legs flung apart with her fingertips touching tops of opposing feet in a breathtaking split jump. She landed with a resounding thud. Not one shard of ice gave way beneath her. She skated on, hair waving behind her like a banner, one fist raised to the perfect sky.
“Dad! I didn’t know all this about Mom…”
Andy crouched in the thick bank of snow, held his son close.
“I don’t think I quite knew it, either, son.” He watched as Maren glided toward them as in a vision, like their own snow angel, clearly the woman he loved.