Jim Meirose

Through the Ice

          They stood on a windswept rise just above the brook. Along the shore ice gripped the cattails and lily pads and skunk cabbages. From there the brook ice stretched out glistening under the dim cold winter sun. Blueyed Gurty looked up at her father.
          Can we walk out on the ice Dad, asked Gurty.
          Father coughed into his hand before answering.
          Why sure you can go out on the ice. It's plenty thick this time of year.
          The wind chill blew at them from the far shore. On the far shore, the trees sparkled covered with the remnants of last night's ice storm. The sky hung blue, but a lifeless dull blue, dulled by the cold. They started down the slope toward the brook, their boots swishing loudly through the long stiff indian grass.
          Walking on the ice is a magical thing, said Father. You walk on the water. Sort of like Jesus.
          But there was no ice under Jesus to hold him up.
          Sure, said Father. But there's water under you holding you up. It just happens to be frozen. So it is just like Jesus. It's all just water after all. All walking on the cold. On the solid water.
          She looked up at him quizzically.
          That makes no sense Dad.
          He smiled and she smiled back, as she always did.
          They reached the edge of the brook and started out across the ice. The blue surface stretched before them riddled here and there with darker blue jagged lines, as though they were cracks that had healed. They went out.
          There's a void under us, said Father. Just imagine. A black cold void full of water. Like I said this is a magical thing, to be out here. A magical thing.
          The wind chill swept past. Gurty pulled up her hood and got out ahead of her father. The ice groaned under them.
          What's that sound, said Gurty back over her shoulder to her father.
          The ice, he said. The ice is talking. The ice always talks.
          The groaning and crackling surrounded them.
          What's it saying, called back Gurty.
          You should not be on me is what it's saying, he said.
          You should not be on me.
          Gurty suddenly felt flushed with slight fear.
          Are you sure this is safe Dad, she called back over her shoulder.
          Safe as anything else, he said. Hey—don't get out so far ahead of me.
          I'm okay.
          Why are you walking on me, groaned the ice. Is it not bad enough that I lay here all winter, over this bed of ice cold water, with these icier winds blowing over my top? And you come to weigh me down further. I am only so strong—
          But I'm walking on you because it is magical.
          Magical, groaned the ice. A crackling sound spread out around Gurty.
          Magical maybe—but I am only so strong.
          Instantly the ice under Gurty gave way with a sharp crack and she shot feet first straight down into the cold black water without even a splash. Father leapt forward to the edge of the hole.
          Gurty, he called into the jagged hole, his arms waving.
          The ice crumbled beneath him with a series of snapping groans and he was forced back from the edge of the hole. Not knowing what else to do, he broke into a run back up the mile to the house. Never before had his feet felt so heavy. Never before had his legs moved so slowly. Never before had the tall dry grass clutched at his feet so strongly. Once at the house at last, he called 911.
          My daughter's gone through the ice, he gasped.
          Yes—through the ice—down the brook—
          In a flash a gleaming red crash truck and sleek police car came to his house. He came out.
          Down to the brook, he cried. My Gurty's under the ice down by the brook.
          Pile in, said the policeman as he got into the back of the crash truck. Another policeman, a fireman and a diver already sat there wearing grim faces. Father got in and the truck jounced its way across the stubbly field and down the rough indian grass slope into the teeth of the wind chill to the edge of the brook. The truck jounced so hard father hung on tight to keep from being hurled out. At the edge of the brook, they got out.
          There, said Gurty's father, pointing. She went in under there.
          The hole lay gaping a hundred yards out onto the ice. The diver got out of the crash truck wearing a black wet suit and an aqualung. The fireman and policemen checked his gear.
          I'll get her, he said.
          Are you sure, said Father.
          Yes I will, he said. Just wait.
          Wait, said the policeman. Here wait you need your safety line—
          He clutched up a coil of white rope from the crash truck.
          No no, said the diver. There's no time to waste. That line would just slow me down. Got to move fast—I've gone under the ice before. I'll be okay.
          He ran out onto the ice and the groaning came up around him and as he approached the hole the ice began cracking and he also, as Gurty had, went down feet first into the water through the ice. But he'd planned it that way. He would be safe. He had a wet suit. He had an aqualung. The diver swam under the ice and the dim glow from above diffused into the water around him. He swam away from Gurty's hole and dove to the muddy bottom. He felt his way back and forth in a zigzag pattern across the bottom and then went back up to the bottom of the ice. He ran a gloved hand over the underside of the ice. How terrible, he thought. A girl's under here somewhere. The diver had training. He knew how drowning worked; how the panic of being trapped underwater would fold itself over the girl like a heavy wet blanket and she would breathe again at last—but breathe water. Breathe death. But the diver was all right under the ice. He breathed freely. The bubbles from the aqualung spread out over the bottom of the ice. He kept on looking for a while. He had time.
          He ran his fingers over the smooth hardpacked bottom.
          He ran his fingers against the smooth solid ice.
          He kept looking carefully, but then he realized—the cold was freezing up the valve of the aqualung. He knew this could happen if a valve malfunctioned but it never had really ever happened before that he knew of. Slowly the air came less and less through his mouthpiece. He cursed how lucky he had become, to be the only one he'd ever heard of that this had happened to. The aqualung valve was breaking down, as all mechanical things strain to do. The air came harder and harder and then stopped. So the valve of the aqualung had malfunctioned. All machinery strains to malfunction. Every car strains to break down and leave you stranded at the side of the road with no phone, in the middle of nowhere. Every lawn mower strains not to start when the humidity is high as the overgrown grass. Every snow blower strains to jam, to burn out and force you into shoveling. Every valve strains to freeze and clog with ice and to stop passing air.
          Panic rose in him. He held his breath. Pain filled his lungs. He lost his bearings. He did not know where his hole was. This wasn't supposed to happen. When things happen that aren't supposed to you can't think any more. Which way to the hole? He pushed against the underside of the ice and punched his fists into the ice but it stretched above him hard as steel. The panic in him swept toward the breath hold breakpoint; funny. Funny. Funny the things you think. This was the official term. Breath hold breakpoint. What a phrase, what a phrase. He'd learned it in diving school.
          The breath hold breakpoint raced toward him. His head and lungs seemed ready to explode. He flailed his arms pounding at the ice as his stomach began to cramp up hard and vomit crept up from far below, as he would not allow himself to think he was about to die.
          Back at the crash truck the policemen and Gurty's father stood wringing their hands.
          He has to find her, said father.
          He should have come up by now, said a policeman.
          They waited. They radioed for more help. In time another crash truck, a fire truck and two more police cars set parked on the indian grass with the wind chill blowing over them.
          One more diver went down and found nothing.
          Two more joined him and still found nothing.
          I don't know what to do, said the fire chief. Your daughter and my diver. They're both lost. We can't drag the brook because of the ice—
          My Gurty, breathed father.
          My Gurty.
          My diver.
          What are we going to do?
          There's nothing to do.
          We've got to wait until spring.
          They're gone.
          Just let go.
          Because they're gone.
          After several hours they left the scene. There was no more point to being there. The police chief and fire chief would spend days doing paperwork to make the deaths all official and legal. The next day the newspaper would scream the headlines TWO LOST UNDER THE ICE.
          A memorial service was held for Gurty at the small green church miles from the house and the relatives gathered around, the brothers, the sisters; they stayed a few days, and while they were there, talk and food filled the hours. But then they were gone. Father sat alone in his house. Father balled up the newspaper that screamed TWO LOST UNDER THE ICE and threw it across the room and it lay in the corner of the room until fifty years later well after his death when the abandoned house surrounded by miles of barren fields finally collapsed as all empty houses collapse in time. Empty houses strain to collapse the same way machinery strains to break down. Boards loosened and fell. Porches sagged and tilted. Glass broke and roofs filled with holes. Gutters hung sloping to the ground. All the paint weathered away. Every nail strained to pull out and be free. Every ceiling fell. Every two by four buckled. The shell of a house finally fell in protest at having been left alone. The new owners of the property finally bulldozed the rubble under, as all things are bulldozed under in time.
          But now the wind blew over the ice, over the holes they had gone through, in the pitch dark of the night. The cold stitched shut the holes overnight. The two lay under there drifting among the winter fish. The harsh days came and went. Light snow fell. The wind never let up. The ice grew thicker as the winter went on. It stretched tight blueveined over the water. No one came down to the ice again that winter. The police chief's plan was to search for the bodies in the spring, after the ice melted. No point in thinking about it now. Father drank wine every day to forget his daughter out there under the ice. Good heavy Hungarian red wine; Egri Bikaver. It got so cold that winter that birds froze solid in the trees overnight. Each night when the air was at its coldest the icy moon stared down bright white, its face void of thought. The cold stars twinkled silently. The planets shone steadily. The ice cold air held it all up; the solid ice cold air. The birches by the brook stood covered in ice. The sleet blew in, then out. Snow came and went. The snow lay clumped in the indian grass. The days and weeks crept by. The winter clamped down icy tight on the brook and the woods and the fields. Father sat every night in the kitchen alone, drumming his fingers on the black-streaked tabletop.
          He had told her how safe it was to go out on the ice.
          Like Jesus, he had said.
          Just like Jesus.
          He should have been leading the way, he thought.
          He should have gone through the ice instead.
          He gazed out the window across the barren field that surrounded his lonely house with tears streaming down his cheeks, but he stood silent.
          Father never cried.
          Spring came. The days grew longer. The winds grew warmer. The sun thinned the ice. The time to look for Gurty neared.
          Gurty, said Father at the table with his wine.
          I let you drive the car when you were thirteen. On the highway, of all places. One hundred miles an hour you drove. Crazy, crazy. I said slow down, slow down—but you just laughed. And I laughed with you.
          I let you stay out all night when you went to the prom. I didn't trust that boy but I knew you could handle him.
          I told you go, have fun. Have all the fun you can. When you came home the next day we laughed as you told me how foolishly clumsy the boy had been.
          I let you row the canoe alone on the brook when you were ten. So what that it tipped over. You got a fast swimming lesson. You stayed safe through it all. You came back, laughing. You got back into the canoe. You rowed to the shore. You stood before me soaked, laughing.
          I let you cry all you wanted when God took your mother; you cried enough for the both of us until at last we could smile again.
          But then I let you walk out on the ice—
          I should have gone out ahead.
          I should be under the ice.
          Not you.
          After enough of the heavy wine he lay on the bottom of the brook looking up where she drifted there against the bottom of the ice, her hair loosely floating in the water, her body outlined by the soft glow coming down through.
          Beautiful, he thought.
          I never realized she was so beautiful.
          The earth tilted forward toward springtime. The brook slowly thawed. The ice slowly dissipated. The surface of the water stretched like a gone ceiling over a great room full of water where you could drift up and up and up forever, back up into the clear warm air. But she did not. She did not spring out of the water all whole and alive.
          Instead they dragged the brook with great black hooks. We have to do it this way, said the Mayor.
          But—she'll get all mangled—don't do it this way.
          It's the only way, said the mayor.
          Yes, said the police chief.
          That's right, said the fire chief.
          Here, the mayor said to father. Come sit in the truck and let us do our job.
          Father said no, not with hooks like this—they will pierce her in her thighs in the belly in the throat and they will pull her up, stretch and rip her flesh, rip free and let her plummet to the bottom again only to be dragged up again—no, it's that diver who'd going to get all torn up like that don't think of Gurty like that think of the diver impaled through the eye socket and dragged up, his stiff blackclad body being pulled up into the boats. But not her. Don't rip and tear my Gurty that way. Don't pull her into the boat stiff bloated rockhard and dead.
          And he got his wish.
          They used the hooks, but uselessly.
          They found no one.
          They dragged for three days. The state police made the final try. At last they brought their white boat in. They wore long faces.
          There's no use, said the mayor.
          No, said the fire chief.
          They belong to the brook now.
          Everyone left and the summer sun swept over the sparkling brook through the months, and the trees and bushes and grasses on the slope down to the brook grew lush, the humid nights dotted with lightning bugs, until another winter came, and another summer, and a winter again, back and forth back and forth forever. Father paid to have a stone put into Hope cemetery for Gurty. He bought a plot and all. For her remembrance. He kept flowers by the stone all year round. She grew whole and alive to father when he stood there by the grave. At last he came to the grave on a day like the day he let her walk out on the ice, and he had followed behind, when he should have led the way.
          He should have been the one to fall through the ice.
          Come on, she called back, laughing.
          He strained to keep up.
          Come on, she said.
          He strained to get ahead of her.
          He passed her; he got ahead of her at last; he stepped out onto the empty grave. Never before had he stepped on the grave. The wind chill swept over father and the stone and the frost-heaved ground crunched under his feet. Father stepped onto the grave and the ground groaned cracked and snapped, and he went down feet first through the sudden hole, a hole round, smooth, and deep, and he and Gurty were together again and the hole sealed over above them and there was no need for panic, for she was there, alive, whole and beautiful; they could breathe easily under there; no one could touch them under there; he never came up again.

Jim Meirose's short work has appeared in many leading journals including Alaska Quarterly Review, New Orleans Review, South Carolina Review, and Witness. A chapbook of his stories, Crossing the Trestle, has just been published by Burning River.
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