She surveyed the frozen lake and landscape and felt its sullenness. It seemed a blur despite the many lines and array of muted and brighter colors; she noted pale and smudged snow at rest on flat earth and small rises, the weighted sky pressing against and surrendering to a fading horizon. It was the way of things in winter, the now-sleeping land patient, wide open yet oppressive in its endlessness and greyness.
Even frozen Lake Wenatchee looked unappealing that moment. The other kids and a few grown ups were trying to make the best of another dull, regrettable February day. But it was home, and Mona appraised it with a loving if grudging assessment. She slung her skates over a shoulder and dragged herself onward. She was not thrilled about getting out there, scraping about the crusty, bumpy ice with the local crowd.
She knew she was cranky even if she could be big hearted and was smart. Her father often said she was like an old woman– had she skipped over the regular age progressions? Mona was fourteen and a half and it seemed irrelevant. And when her father said that to her or others, she didn’t know if this was good or bad; it was an observation. Her mother said she ought to listen better to her elders and begin to act more normal. What was acting normal, exactly? If is was like her older brother and sister, no thank you. If it was her classmates’ ways of doing things, she was bored to death by the prospect. She had to often check a desire to roll her eyes and sigh in classrooms or during social get togethers that she felt obligated to attend. Who were these people who said such silly or empty things? But it wasn’t that she didn’t care for them, it was that she was confused by them, and felt like an island adrift from the mainland they occupied. She often felt she had to build her own boat and carry on, her compass the winds she noted.
her mother said she was too smart for her own good; she worried about that. Her father said no one could be smarter than for their own good–everyone had things to learn and to offer. Mona felt like she wandered around trying to translate other’s languages so she could get in on the game, the joke, the story. There was a great deal she did not know, at all.
Mona searched the snow-skimmed ice for familiar forms and faces. Her skates banged against her back and front as she half-ran across the field toward the lake. Last time she had said she was not coming out to skate again. When the lake thawed she’d be the first in it, but in February the frozen body of water seemed a dozing monster of some foreign sort. She hated the ice now even though she knew much about it.
Only her family and the obligation to grow up where planted kept her firmly tethered to them all. If she had her way, she’d be off to Spain or Prince George Island or Singapore in a flash. Any place but Marionville. But her parents had been born there and they weren’t budging much less to another state or country. Her father, the weatherman for a northern Michigan television station, had been given an option to do just that last summer. It was Boise, Utah, not the place of her dreams, but it offered a good salary increase–yet he’d declined. He had four seasons in Michigan, he made enough money and Marionville was a great community for the kids. Great in what ways? She had marched into his study/billiards/sports room in the basement and asked that when he and Mom had been talking it over.
“In what ways is it great?”
Her mother had flipped her hand at at her as if shooing Smitty the cat, and her father had puffed on his pipe, squinting at them above the curling smoke.
“Don’t listen in–and you should alert us when you descend those stairs, Mona,” her mother said, patting back a stray wave of her penny bright coif.
“I mean that our schools are better than most up north, the town is attractive, the land is beautiful with good recreational opportunities, and we have a very fine library, considering.”
“And a summer town band and a great women’s chorus, lus the live theater does well during tourist season.”
“Are you trying to sell some stranger on Marionville? Do I like gullible after all these years here?” Mona dared to say. “I wonder what a place looks like that has exponentially better attributes. How I might strive more and make great er gains.”
“See? An inspirational speaker or diplomat, perhaps someday.”
“Does your language never get to shift into simple teen gear? It perturbs me, ” her mother muttered and sat down with a plop on the couch.
“I suspect you could travel the world over and not find a place as comfortable as this,” her father said. “We’re staying, Mona.You’ll have other opportunities after high school if you play it right.”
Her mother looked at her daughter and saw the loveliness in her face and sturdiness of her slim body–if only she would stand up taller and be pleasant. But that was adolescence. And she had been through this phase with the other two kids; they were soon on to the next. It would all pass, in time. They would grow up and be real human beings. Moona would be thankful for much more one day.
Mona could think of nothing else to add to all the nonsense, so she turned on her heel and ran upstairs. At the top she paused; she could just glimpse them.
“It’s her intelligence, dear,” her father murmured. “She was born with much more than most. Some good genes slipped through.” He let go a small chuckle.
“Well, she might keep it a bit quieter and simpler until college–those rather rowdy genes likely came from your side,” her mother replied, “but I might carry a tad of the blame, I imagine.”
He shook his head as he returned to his pipe and fishing magazine. She loudly cleared her throat, and retreated to her armchair with a book. They were two odd lovebirds her parents, and they were not ever leaving their nest.
The familiar, irritated heaviness of resignation fell upon her as she crept away and took refuge in her room. When would she ever get away from there? When would she live the life she dreamed about?
Mona could feel the heat of Gen’s aggravation through the cell phone.
“I think you’re being ridiculous to insist you’re not ever skating again. You’ve loved skating all your life–it’s what we do in the winter.”
“There’s skiing and snowmobiling, snow shoeing, tobogganing. Let’s see, there’s music, books, hikes in the woods, films, there’s–“
“Stop it, Mona. Get your skates and meet me there. You just have to overcome your nervousness. We can’t spend our lives avoiding everything we’re worried about–this is a direct quote from my mother. Or was it your father?”
“I’m not nervous! It’s just that it was the worst thing ever and who’s to say what the odds actually are? Do we have that data? No one seems to care if–“
Gen hung up. What was Mona going to do? Gen was her best friend, they were blood sisters, secretly, and without Gen, who was there in her life that truly counted? (Besides family, and often she wasn’t entirely sure about them.) That she’d even want to be around more than twenty minutes without wanting to pull her hair out? All the reasonably good things occurred in connection with Gen Traymer first and last. Gen remained happily loyal when others did not after elementary school. Well, maybe not so happily sometimes but they both put up with the other.
So here she was again, trudging across a stretch of cold white desert to the lake they loved all year around. Except for Mona lately. Well, she had her reasons, perfectly sane, clear reasons.
“Hey Mo, what’s up?” Wade Bartos yelled at her as he skidded to a stop at the edge, hockey skate blades flashing dully at her.
She hated that nickname, it was like the name of a pet mouse. He was always showing off. She wondered if he really thought she cared. Even if he was the second smartest male person in her English class, he didn’t like to use his brain much and opted for sports almost entirely which endangered said brain. They’d argued once in the hallway about that–whether or not it took much intelligence to play a skillful game of any kind, how many brain cells decreased with each blow to the noggin–and he almost won. Well, he insisted he was right, but he always did. The truth was, Mona was athletic, too, so the debate was a waste of time, really, expect that they liked to do that. Plus she knew he was engaging with her any way he could. It had gone on like that for a few months, and it irked her more than a little.
She held up her skates to show Wade more obviously, as if to say, skating, dummy, thinking he’d laugh at her and take off. But he didn’t. He stared at her hard.
“You’re really going to try again?”
She shrugged, heartbeat drumming harder than it should after the long but easy walk to the lake. “I came for Gen, maybe I’ll just watch awhile.” She wanted him to leave.
But he grinned at her a long moment, then took off with a flourish, blades slicing through the crusty ice. He was fast, faster than nearly all the speed skaters.
Enough ice had been cleared that it would be passable to skate much of the way around, she guessed. A few kids and some adults came out early on weekends to shovel as much as possible. The following visits their shovels were brought to clear snow or shredded ice off as needed. But the ice was doomed to remain rough–gouged by blades, scraped and scratched and full of little potholes and natural debris caught in its steely surface. Some of the skaters longed for ice rinks that were carefully cleaned, groomed often so the ice was smooth as glass underfoot, harder to keep balance at first but oh, when you got accustomed to it, what perfection it was to glide, swoop and rush across its shining surface.
Or had been. Mona hadn’t been to Traverse City to skate at the fancy rink there in months.
Mona scanned the crowd for Gen and there she was with that red hat with fat blue pom-pom, gloved hand waving at her. Mona sat down on a log and waited as Gen skated up to her in long, even strides despite the snowy lumps. She was a superior skater, and seeing her move across the lake made Mona feel a little happier to have come. It gave her a sense of connection to the beauty of winter again and it warmed her insides. Her friend came to a halt before her with an ice-spraying T-stop.
“Well, I wondered…okay, I had my doubts but you made it!’ She took off her hat and rubbed perspiration-dampened curls.”The ice is good even though the surface is crap but we’ll manage.’
“You mean you’ll slowly help me navigate the rough spots and the people and my anxiety as I try to make my unhappy way out.” She looked at the ice and gave a little shake of shoulders, as if she was having a chill when in fact she was plenty warm outside, too. Only her feet felt like thick ice blocks, stuck to the ground.
Gen sat beside her and put an arm about her shoulders. “I know it’s hard. This is the farthest you’ve gotten in over a month.”
“Yeah. Because I already know better than to risk my life.”
They were silent a moment, remembering.
“But that was a one time thing,” Gen said and squeezed her shoulder.”It could happen to anyone. You know what you’re doing, it was just random, an accident, a thing we all know might happen.”
“Don’t get all reassuring. You know that it could happen again. This is not rocket science even if we both can figure out the whys and wherefores…it happened. To me, not you.”
“And a few others in the history of this town. Mona, you are not being picked on by God, you know!”
“Oh, please, leave any talk of divinity out of it…”
Gen pulled away a little, looked at her skates digging at hard earth. “I can’t.” She faced her friend. “Stop making it worse. We’ve talked and talked about it. You’ve come out a couple times to watch from a distance and now you’re finally at the ice. So…please put your skates on?”
Mona gulped hard and closed her eyes tightly; she didn’t want to see it like a movie again. She did not want to remember how the ice suddenly gave it warning of loud cracking and, a shifting of thing, an echoing as the sound travelled down and under the lake length…the subtle shift in ice and a giving way as she stood halfway to the center of the ice, legs shaking, and tried to skate away, to beat the crack that would open.
But she was too slow to move, she felt trapped there and by her growing fear. The ice gave way. Mona plunged into a freezing abyss of icy lake water and she clamped her hand over nose and mouth so as not to gulp, and her breath was stolen, every nerve screamed and panic came but knew number one was to overcome the initial cold shock. As time ticked by each limb seemed near useless, and in three minutes she could die. She began to kick with her legs to propel her weakening body towards light, each movement a slowed motion of energy loss. It was eternity, a blackly screeching, frigid and endless vault of nothing, body pierced by searing pain, chest compressing, her mind empty of anything but survival or awaiting death. Mona‘s head bobbed up once, twice, submerged again.
Alden the Monk lived alone at edge of woods in a three room shack. He had been watching outside his door, waiting for the worst to happen. He knew this lake, the ways of the ice. he knew death might arrive fast, a spirit lurking inside the lake. He crept out but fast, on all fours, grabbed her wrist as she reached up and yanked her arm so hard it felt he ripped it out of the socket. Up and up and then her body pulled from hell and over ice, and a furry grim beast putting its teeth into a jeans’ leg and yanking, too, hauling her along with the Monk off that ice, over snow, away from the grasp of death.
She nearly passed out, heart pumping in fearful relief hard but quiet as if it belonged to another, breath coming in deep painful gulps as she searched his weathered face and heard King’s yelps and barks from a distance, his rough tongue on a cheek. She gave over, let the Monk do what he had to, wet clothes stripped off and blankets piled atop her shivering length. The woodstove on the other side in a gentle roar. Fragrances of coffee and burning wood like a sweet prayer. Everything hurt so badly; she was starting to shiver and then she was almost as afraid as before the Monk had come. Shortly, paramedics rushed in, were working over her and she drifted into a netherland of dreams and horrors until the emergency room and all that followed, her family, Gen, her life touched by nature’s power and human terrors. Her life somehow changed by how much she did not understand and a hermit who knew much and rescued her.
Gen balanced on her skate, holding out both hands so Mona pulled on the boots of her worn Hyde skates and tugged, then laced each one fast without thinking of it further. Until she was done.
Was it worth the trouble, her heart whimpering, her lingering, embarrassing scramble of feelings? Every single one out there–and though the ice was tested hard as a rock and the snow had stopped– knew what had happened; it was news. So her return would be news. But she loved ice skating as much as anything outdoors in their long brutal winters, and so she took her friend’s hands. Slow and easy, she told herself, as if just learning to put blade upon surface. Blades made contact and she was standing with knees trembling, Gen’s hands tugging her along slightly. The worn figure skates slipped over the familiar rough surface. She did not look up, only held onto Gen. Mona lifted one skate after the other, the strokes thrusting her forward.
A few classmates waved at her–she raised her head enough to nod at them. Wade skated by and then began to circle back.
Gen gritted her teeth as she forced legs and feet forward. “No, not him.”
“He’s a nice enough guy and you know he likes you.”
“He’s all about things that don’t matter to me; I don’t want to like him.”
“Yeah, yeah, here he comes. You’re doing great, push off harder, make the effort.”
“I am not feeling great yet. Are you my teacher now? I will never feel great about this again…”
“Wrong, you will feel even better!” Wade said and clapped her on the back so that she stumbled a bit. “Oops, sorry, trying to encourage you.”
He took her other arm so Mona was wedged between the two of them. She tried to shake him off but he held on loosely. She glared at them and kept moving. They were watching the ice for any troublesome spots and making sure others moved out of the way. Several more skaters shouted greetings, a few skated with them them. Mona felt if she could only shrink to the size of a pea she’d be more okay. To have them watch her–they used to watch her skate well, by herself–and get so close as if they’d protect her…it made her feel weirder. Like she was some emotional and physical cripple who couldn’t make her own way.
She shook off her friends’ hands, began to put her body into each forward stroke. If she was garnering attention, to heck with them, she was going to just skate.
And she did it. She sailed around the outer edges, stumbling here and there, knees locking up a bit but she moved ahead and kept her balance better as she kept at it. And the cold wind grazed her cheeks, a pale sunshine leaked out of the clouds. Her brown shoulder-length hair lifted and waved like a burnished flag. She was freer than she co uld have imagined possible.
Until she skated past the Monk’s house and glanced over at the spot where she’d fallen in.
She couldn’t stop it, she saw it, it came back at her and she screamed, not so anyone thought it was an emergency but enough that Gen and Wade rushed over, caught her as just as her legs buckled.
They held her up between them. Others slowed and stopped, circled loosely around them.
“Oh my gosh oh my gosh oh my gosh,” Mona cried and covered her face, willing herself not to shed tears, willing herself to be okay, and yet all she wanted to do was fall to the ice on her knees and crumple, and wail.
Alden the Monk saw them out there. He smoked his cigarette, yanked at his bushy beard and nodded his black ski hat-covered head. King, his husky, stood with paws on the window sill, ears pricked, whining softly. They remembered how it went, too. They remembered how four kids and one adult with her little dog had fallen in over the past eighteen years. Three made it out and recovered. The woman with her dog died eight years ago. The ten year old boy did not survive a few years later. Alden had been far more watchful ever since. It was just his job, he believed, like it was his job to keep the sustaining woods fire-free and the beautiful birds safe from feral cats and the slinky-smart coyotes alive. They all called him the Monk but really, he was a Life Keeper, he felt. The girl would soon be alright. He knew about tragedy and he knew you could heal and go on. Or, if like him, live in solitude, within the welcome of acceptance and peace.
Mona stood up again, looked over at the ramshackle little house. She glimpsed the Monk and the husky at his window and he returned the look a long moment, then stepped away with King. She’d have to leave him something, a surprise, a thank you. She hadn’t done that yet–her parents had thanked him and offered him money which he refused. But she was ashamed of misjudging her steps and stupidly half-drowning in ice water, embarrassed by her clothing being removed by him, angry about her newly hatched fear. But she recalled his eyes on her eyes for a split second that day, how he had cared. He had gone onto the cracking ice to save her life.
She lifted her hand to him, hoping he saw her.
Gen and Wade were talking to her.
“See? It’s perfectly solid, nothing to worry about.”
“It’s over, it happened but you lived through it–it’s over and you were so lucky.”
“You did it, you came out and skated and got through the bad memory.”
“Don’t cry, you’re safe, Mona, here with us.”
The small group gathered around them began to clap their hands and cheer.
She was safe. She was not actually alone. It was going to stop haunting her some day, maybe even before spring.
“Thank you Gen, forever,” she said then turned to Wade. “And thanks for hanging around today.”
They skated swiftly around the lake, separately but close to one another, Wade going on, then passing them as he flashed around the lake. But the two friends skated in long, easy, fluid lines, avoiding the bad ice and finding the good. Wade whizzed by once more and shouted, “Pizza at Buster’s Hut tonight, girls!”
Gen yanked on Mona’s sleeve. “What do you think?”
“I think I might have one other decent friend. Maybe it’s time to find a few more. Marionville has to have a few more weirdos hiding out.”
They high-fived, then glided to the edge of the ice. There was a small bonfire flashing yellow and orange through a hazy winter veil of late afternoon. People were circling up, warming their hands, sharing food, laughing. The girls unlaced and removed their old, trusty skates, cleaned the crusts of ice from the blades and then joined in to warm up before walking in long shadows to Buster’s.