Archive for February, 2013

Ice

A short story for my thesis that I’m having workshopped in class this week! Take a gander!

Ice

New ice. The most solid ice. It’s formed after a long freeze with moderate winds. It’s the clearest, even when very thick. Half-melted ice, or frozen snow, makes white ice. It is milky, and it can be soft. Broken ice. The thickness is very variable, but when it refreezes it can be plenty solid. Black ice. The ice is dangerously thin.

At eight centimeters, one person can stand on a piece of ice, but walking around is not recommended. At thirteen centimeters, the ice can support multiple people, and it is safe so long as one minimizes the weight in the work area. At fifteen to twenty centimeters, true safety is achieved. At thirty centimeters, the ice can hold vehicles.

 

The ice is a clouded mirror, a barrier in time.

 

Their tools are the same. On Molly’s side of the barrier, she imagines that they are actually the same instruments: their ice tongs were picked up from antique fairs, had seen hard use before they came to them, were streaked with orange rust. Somebody had used them once, why not the members of that ice sled, the one that had nearly wiped her out of existence? The ice saw is brown with age, and taller than she is. The divers bring it out of storage once a year, just for this one weekend – so long as they escape the thaw that most other people hope for. Otherwise, it hangs in the diving school office at the sports’ center, a storied relic.

The men of the ice sled would have used the ice tongs when they were still dark and sleek. Every day, they would have used them – not for a weekend of fun and polar bear escapades, but for their livelihood – for the business of filling iceboxes, saving food for summers before Freon, before Frigidaire. Their horse-drawn sled would have been full of evenly cut blocks, layered in-between with straw and stored in dark warehouses on the waterfront.

They are about twelve for the first day of ice diving. Molly and the other ice divers pile their blocks some fifteen feet away from the hole, and when they have finished they will push them back in, allowing the ice to refreeze for whoever shows up next, if the thaw doesn’t come first. Some other diving team has left one block standing upright in front of their hole – no doubt to mark it so that nobody will stumble across it before it had fully frozen. It makes Molly think of the ice truck, those men, that tragedy.

Seventy-some years ago, her grandfather had worked the ice truck. Maybe the ice made him think of his own father, who had broken through an iced-over brook in Gaspésie with cart and horse and froze there, arms broken from trying to push the cart back out again. Her grandfather had ridden the ice truck every morning during that winter, headed out from around Boucherville onto St. Lawrence River.

 

Molly takes pictures of everything – she makes her own hole using the dremel, which gleams, new, evenly spacing it ten feet apart from two other identical holes. The saw will connect them, forming the triangle that will lead them to the underside of this strange space above the quarry that is only accessible in winter. If the pictures are good, they will form part of a new ice diver’s manual, to be released in the summer at a time when ice will be something that you put in your drink. Not so, now.

The divers nail planks of wood with metal rings screwed on into the ice, trusting the cold to keep them there, but if the ice chooses to break, those planks will end up in the water with them. They have read the ice, its colour and thickness. This is a science, after all, and the ice will hold them. Molly only hopes that somebody has remembered to tell the ice about the physical laws by which it is bound. 

She is not concerned for herself – she has the surety of youth and a fourteen-millimeter wetsuit besides. The water, she knows, is warmer than the air right now. If the water were below zero, it would be frozen, and so she knows that it must be at least thirty-three – knows also that her instructor has already dipped his computer in the water and found it to be a balmy thirty-seven. They move confidently between imperial and metric. The air is minus fifteen Celsius. The water is thirty-seven Fahrenheit. Her wetsuit is fourteen millimeters thick around the core. They are planning for a maximum depth of sixty feet. She considers this, shouldering on her yellow safety harness, making a mess of it, and taking it off to do it all over again.

The divers take the saw in shifts, removing the blocks as they go, uncovering the triangular entrance that they will send divers and lifeline through. The triangular shape is supposed to make it easy to get in and out, but Molly wonders about the strength of her forearms, knowing that she will have to hoist herself and an entire set of diving equipment through that triangle.

 

Molly wonders whether, when the icemen fell through, the ice that broke beneath them flipped back over top of them like a trap door and froze in place, or whether that one piece slid under the blanket of ice and froze there instead. She wonders about the horses.

She imagines the truck sliding out onto the ice, rumbling along like a hay cart. She imagines their conversations, their shared cigarettes. They might be talking about what they were going to do with their pay, or maybe about their wives, maybe about supper. In the days leading up to that one, her grandfather would have been with them, probably talking about Colette, his then-fiancée. If he had married Colette, if there had been no war, if there had been no war brides… Molly tries to imagine a world where she does not exist, and cannot.

 

Molly poses with the saw like she was one of the girls on The Price is Right. Her instructor tells her that she looks like Joan of Arc, off to battle. Molly thinks of having an icy ceiling above her head, impenetrable. She has watched YouTube videos where divers in dry suits fill their legs with air and walk upside down on the underside of the ice. They make her think of astronauts, and she wishes that she could afford a dry suit…only not really. She is one of two people who will complete the day’s ice dives in a wetsuit – a point of pride for Molly. She does not need a dry suit  – she is more resilient, and walking around upside down is about the only reason she wants to try one.  

 

Did the men on the truck banter about their job, or was it matter of course? Molly cannot decide. She chooses to believe that they did not think about the danger, that there was no indication that the ice was unsafe. It seems less cruel to think of them being responsible for their own fates, for failing to take precautions. But if they had taken precautions, and misread the ice, then it could happen to anyone. Molly secures the karabiner to her harness, locks it, and slips into the water with a safety entry. The shock of cold makes her inhale sharply, exhaling in small, blowing bursts. She waits to stick her head underneath, waits to breathe on her regulator. She has seen three freeze today already, and they were by far fancier than her ancient winterized regulator, borrowed from the school.

 

She cannot imagine the moment that they plunged through the ice. She knows at least six ways to get into the water: the giant stride, the safety entry, the backwards roll, the jackknife, the back-or-sideways tread. With these entries, Molly is under control. Every action has its equal and opposite. Molly expects to end up in the water. As hard as she tries, she cannot imagine that plunge. She pictures it as a magic trick: now they’re there, now they’re not. An entire team of men with families, those two horses. She brings air with her – the shock must have knocked the breath from their lungs.

She wonders if any of them understood, or if there was only blind panic. Wordless shock. Needles pricking skin. The burning lungs that inhale involuntary poison. They drink when they should breathe. The spots start – sizzling flashes mixed with growing darkness. Hard to move, hard to scrape at the underside of a tomb that will be gone by spring. Need to go up and up, but the weight of it…the weight of clothes and boots that are trammels now, nets of lead that pull her downward…downward…

But it isn’t her. Molly is alive. She is beneath the ice, and has the luxury of three thousand pounds per square inch of air on her back. She is mostly warm, except for her toes and fingertips, with which she still manages to flash the all-okay signal with thumb and forefinger. Because it is all okay. Actually, it’s more than okay. The water is warmer than the air up above. The surface seems far away, but she is tethered, and there is the promise of communication. They tug signals to each other on the line. One tug: yes, two tugs: no, three tugs: coming home, four tugs or more: help.

Beneath the ice is clarity and surety. All the sediment in the water, so often kicked up in summer, has settled to the bottom for the winter. The visibility is one hundred feet in every direction. The underside of the ice has been carved by the water lapping up against it. The patterns are fanciful, mesmerizing, and the light that comes through glows diffusely. Molly inhales sharply and exhales slowly. Under the ice, they are just the three of them, attached together on a line. For the moment, the water belongs just to them. Molly ‘s chest swells with proprietary pride. The water in her suit has had time to warm against her skin, and it is a velveteen hug, layered with the coolness of the water beyond it.

In the water, the objects are all the same. They have sixty feet of line – just enough to visit the plane, which is right beneath them and the submarine on the cliff below. She cares little for these – she is fascinated by the sudden eagle sight that she has been granted, the patterns in the ice.  In places, they seem deliberate, like they were scratched out by somebody stuck underneath. Others have the careless artfulness of the accidental, of nature.

When they come back topside through the hole, one of Molly’s buddies unclips himself from their umbilical line and pulls himself up but barely onto the ice. He flops around, making seal noises – “urh – urh – hruurh!” He slaps his fins together and continues his noise. The instructors laugh and pull him away from the hole, hoisting him onto his feet. Molly is next, and does the same. They have completed their first ice dive. To celebrate and to keep warm, they drink poorly mixed instant soup out of Styrofoam cups, and Molly wishes they were anything but Styrofoam. It is all part of the rite of passage.

 

Molly does not think of those men again during the day. She does think, though, of her grandfather. She thinks of what he has lived with for nigh on seven decades. For most of her life, he has laughed at it – laughed at the luck that put him where it did on that day and so many others, the luck that kept the line from him to Molly intact. The last time that they talked about it, he wept. Because, the day before those men went through the ice, Molly’s grandfather found himself a new job. Because when they dropped by the next morning to pick him up, he told them, ‘no thanks’ and spent the day warm inside the kitchen at his new job. Because he survived, and they went through the ice.

 

Because of that, Molly is alive.