Ice

They stepped lightly onto the pond as if they were about to walk on water. Its surface was scarred with marks resembling those faintly visible on the daylight moon frosted to the faint blue sky, but the further out they walked, the more flawless the ice became.

“I think we’ve gone far enough,” she said gazing down, a mittened hand shading her eyes. Wind, nearly unnoticeable so long as they kept moving, blew her hair. “Ice this clear can’t be safe.”

“It’s thicker than you’d suppose,” he said.

“Can you feel the pressure of our weight forcing up water? Each step makes the bottom bubble up. You can see the bubbles frothing against the underside of the ice,” she said. “Let’s go back.”

“Those aren’t water bubbles,” he told her.

“Then what are they?”

“Last summer, during a wedding in the park, after the bride and groom cut the giant palace of a cake, instead of waltzing, they turned their backs on the orchestra and set sail across the pond in a rowboat. They left all their gifts behind except for a Methuselah of champagne that was supposed to be for toasts. It was propped in the stern, poking up like a lopsided chimney on a transatlantic steamer, and the boat listed beneath its weight, but they’d have made it across the pond if not for a sudden summer storm that blew up and capsized the boat. The bottle, Taittinger, if I remember correctly—I’m never sure how to pronounce it—sunk to the bottom. It must have just now popped its cork. In our honor.”

They walked further out. The pond wind had a skating quality. It slammed against their calves when she stopped again suddenly. “Oh my God!” she said, “there’s a huge, dark fish rising from the bottom, a giant catfish or a carp, something too big for this pond. It’s just beneath us, opening his enormous maw to swallow us whole once the ice gives way. I can see its grinning row of ivory teeth. Please, we have to turn back now.”

“Don’t worry, that’s not the monstrous fish the distortions in the ice make it appear to be. At that wedding last summer, during the storm when the rowboat capsized, the distraught, drunken guests wheeled the concert grand with its black tuxedo finish from the pavilion down to the pond and launched it to save the bride and groom. It floated out but sank before it reached them. It’s still submerged, playing Strauss, perhaps. What you thought were teeth is merely the keyboard.”

They walked out farther still. The wind they hadn’t noticed on shore felt round like the pond, resisting their progress even as it pushed them from behind. If not for the pond, there’d have been no awareness of there even being a shore.

“I see a candle flame following us, rising from below like that line of poetry from Dr. Zhivago you are so fond of quoting. I can’t recall the words exactly, but I see it flickering just below.”

“You mean, It snowed and snowed, the whole world over…a candle burned on the table, a candle burned? If memory serves, I recited that to you the evening we met. You said it warmed your heart.”

“Look! The flame has formed a halo around us as if we’re standing on a frosted windowpane the candle is about to dissolve.”

“But that doesn’t happen in the poem. Maybe you’re thinking of the movie. In the poem it’s: the blizzard sculptured on the glass designs of arrows and whorls, a candle burned…”

“I see a drowned girl veiled in white, a wreath of flowers disassembling in her flowing hair, holding a candle. We have to go back!”

“But we’re perfectly safe. The ice is four feet thick.” He began to jump up and down to make his point, rising higher with each jump as if the ice had the spring of a trampoline, and landing harder and harder on his boot heels.

Beneath them the ice began to shudder. Jets of froth obscured the clarity as if a fuming fissure had opened at the collapsing bottom of the pond. Giant flukes and whorled flame conflated, enmeshed in veils of milky froth. A rumble boiled to a thunderous crescendo, the sound of cracks shooting through ice like jagged lightning through a summer storm. She screamed and turned to run.

“Wait, wait, don’t move,” he called after her.

She slipped and went down in a graceful slow-motion then slid back up at hyper-speed and kept running.

“It’s a train,” he shouted over the roar.

Far off, on the other side of the pond, behind a scrim of skeletal trees, the scuffed silver salt-stained train arrowed across a metal trestle.

“It must be some weird echo,” he said. “Not a Doppler effect, but some phenomena there’s no doubt a scientific name for that we’d recognize if we were as up on acoustical engineering as we are on Russian poetry.”

She went down again hard, ungracefully this time, crawled back to her feet and kept going. To watch her was like seeing, from the perspective of consciousness, someone struggling to run in a dream.

He caught up to her at the edge of the pond. She stepped onto the bank and when she turned to look back her face was streaked with tears. It was the first time he’d ever seen her cry. Her salt tears had pitted the fresh water ice and left a trail. Wasn’t it she who’d told him, shortly after they’d met, that in every relationship there’s always one person who scatters a trail of breadcrumbs for the other to follow? He’d written it down in a notebook in which he kept quotes he wanted to remember from books he’d read.

“I’m sorry it upset you,” he said. “I thought you might like walking out on the ice. It’s so quiet now in winter, the summer buskers and the crowds all gone, the band’s instruments hibernating in their cases, musical shapes like the pavilion, muffled in snow, the organ grinder and his neon green monkey migrating south like the songbirds—it’s too cold for a monkey. Just us, walking across a pond as peacefully as if we were walking across the daylight moon.”

“I saw a dead girl holding a candle, staring up through the ice, and she looked like me. She looked like me enough to be me, as if the ice was a mirror.”

“Well, she wasn’t you. You can’t be both dead and alive anymore than you can be in two different places at once.”

“I can be in two places if I am in two different times.”

“But you’re here now with me in this time.”

“Who knows for how long? Someday I may be looking back on being in love, and which me will be more real?”

“And who said the girl, if there was a girl, was dead. More likely is that she’s only sleeping in a cryogenic state of suspended animation. I’ll go back and wake her with a kiss.”

“She’s under four feet of ice.”

“It’s so transparent she’ll feel the impression of warmth on her lips.”

“I wouldn’t if I were you, she’ll break through the ice and pull you under.”

“Nonsense,” he said, “I’ll be back in a jiff.” He started out across the pond again, retracing the pitted trail of her tears. From a ways out, he turned to smile and wave back at her, but if she was there at all, he could no longer distinguish her from the background of winter.

About Stuart Dybek:
Stuart Dybek is the author of I Sailed With Magellan, a novel in stories, and Streets In Their Own Ink, a collection of poems. He is distinguished writer in residence at Northwestern University.