Authors: Eowyn Ivey
At first her boots caught on boulders, frozen in the sandy shore, but then she staggered down the steep bank and crossed a small rivulet where the ice was thin and brittle. She broke through every other step to hit dry sand beneath. Then she crossed a barren patch of gravel and hiked up her skirt to climb over a driftwood log, faded by the elements.
When she reached the river’s main channel, where water still coursed down the valley, the ice was no longer brittle and white but instead black and pliant, as if it had only solidified the night before. She slid her boot soles onto the surface and nearly laughed at her own absurdity—to be careful not to slip even as she prayed to fall through.
She was several feet from safe ground when she allowed herself to stop and peer down between her boots. It was like walking on glass. She could see granite rocks beneath the moving, dark turquoise water. A yellow leaf floated by, and she imagined herself swept alongside it and briefly looking up through the remarkably clear ice. Before the water filled her lungs, would she be able to see the sky?
Here and there, bubbles as large as her hand were frozen in white circles, and in other places large cracks ran through. She wondered if the ice was weaker at those points, and if she should seek them out or avoid them. She set her shoulders, faced straight ahead, and walked without looking down.
When she crossed the heart of the channel, the cliff face was almost within arm’s length, the water was a muffled roar, and the ice gave slightly beneath her. Against her will, she glanced down, and what she saw terrified her. No bubbles. No
cracks. Only bottomless black, as if the night sky were under her boots. She shifted her weight to take another step toward the cliff, and there was a crack, a deep, resonant pop like a massive Champagne bottle being uncorked. Mabel spread her feet wide and her knees trembled. She waited for the ice to give way, for her body to plunge into the river. Then there was another thud, a
and she was certain the ice slumped beneath her boots, but in millimeters, nearly imperceptible except for the awful sound.
She waited and breathed, and the water didn’t come. The ice bore her. She slid her feet slowly, first one, then the other, again and again, a slow shuffle until she stood where ice met cliff. Never had she imagined she would be here, on the far side of the river. She put her bare palms to the cold shale, then the entire length of her body, until her forehead was pressed to it and she could smell the stone, ancient and damp.
Its cold began to seep into her, so she lowered her arms to her sides, turned from the cliff face, and began the journey back the way she had come. Her heart thudded in her throat. Her legs were unsteady. She wondered if now, as she made her way home, she would break through to her death.
As she neared solid ground, she wanted to run to it, but the ice was too slick beneath her boots, so she slid as if ice-skating and then stumbled up the bank. She gasped and coughed and nearly laughed, as if it had all been a lark, a mad dare. Then she bent with her hands on her thighs and tried to steady herself.
When she slowly straightened, the land was vast before her. The sun was setting down the river, casting a cold pink hue along the white-capped mountains that framed both sides of the valley. Upriver, the willow shrubs and gravel bars, the spruce forests and low-lying poplar stands, swelled to the
mountains in a steely blue. No fields or fences, homes or roads; not a single living soul as far as she could see in any direction. Only wilderness.
It was beautiful, Mabel knew, but it was a beauty that ripped you open and scoured you clean so that you were left helpless and exposed, if you lived at all. She turned her back to the river and walked home.
The lantern was still burning; the kitchen window glowed as she approached the cabin, and when she opened the door and stepped inside, warmth and flickering light overcame her. Everything was unfamiliar and golden. She had not expected to return here.
It seemed she was gone hours, but it was not yet six in the evening, and Jack hadn’t come in. She took off her coat and went to the woodstove, letting the heat sink painfully into her hands and feet. Once she could open and close her fingers, she took out pots and pans, marveling that she was fulfilling such a mundane task. She added wood to the stove, cooked dinner, and then sat straight-backed at the rough-hewn table with her hands folded in her lap. A few minutes later, Jack came through the door, stomped his boots, and dusted straw from his wool coat.
Certain he would somehow know what she had survived, she watched and waited. He rinsed his hands in the basin, sat across from her, and lowered his head.
“Bless this food, Lord,” he mumbled. “Amen.”
She set a potato on each of their plates beside boiled carrots and red beans. Neither of them spoke. There was only the scraping of knives and forks against plates. She tried to eat, but could not force herself. Words lay like granite boulders in her
lap and when at last she spoke, each one was heavy and burdensome and all she could manage.
“I went to the river today,” she said.
He did not lift his head. She waited for him to ask why she would do such a thing. Maybe then she could tell him.
Jack jabbed at the carrots with his fork, then swabbed the beans with a slice of bread. He gave no indication he had heard her.
“It’s frozen all the way across to the cliffs,” she said in a near whisper. Her eyes down, her breath shallow, she waited, but there was only Jack’s chewing, his fork at his plate.
Mabel looked up and saw his windburned hands and frayed cuffs, the crow’s feet that spread at the corners of his downturned eyes. She couldn’t remember the last time she had touched that skin, and the thought ached like loneliness in her chest. Then she spotted a few strands of silver in his reddish-brown beard. When had they appeared? So he, too, was graying. Each of them fading away without the other’s notice.
She pushed food here and there with her fork. She glanced at the lantern hanging from the ceiling and saw shards of light stream from it. She was crying. For a moment she sat and let the tears run down either side of her nose until they were at the corners of her mouth. Jack continued to eat, his head down. She stood and took her plate of food to the small kitchen counter. Turned away, she wiped her face with her apron.
“That ice isn’t solid yet,” Jack said from the table. “Best to stay off of it.”
Mabel swallowed, cleared her throat.
“Yes. Of course,” she said.
She busied herself at the counter until her eyes were clear, then returned to the table and spooned more carrots onto Jack’s plate.
“How is the new field?” she asked.
“It’s coming.” He forked potato into his mouth, then wiped it with the back of his hand.
“I’ll get the rest of the trees cut and skidded in the next few days,” he said. “Then I’ll burn some more of the stumps out.”
“Would you like me to come and help? I could tend the stump fires for you.”
“No, I’ll manage.”
That night in bed, she had a heightened awareness of him, of the scent of straw and spruce boughs in his hair and beard, the weight of him on the creaky bed, the sound of his slow, tired breaths. He lay on his side, turned away from her. She reached out, thinking to touch his shoulder, but instead lowered her arm and lay in the darkness staring at his back.
“Do you think we’ll make it through winter?” she asked.
He didn’t answer. Perhaps he was asleep. She rolled away and faced the log wall.
When he spoke, Mabel wondered if it was grogginess or emotion that made his voice gravelly.
“We don’t have much choice, do we?”
he morning was so cold that when Jack first stepped outside and harnessed the horse, his leather boots stayed stiff and his hands wouldn’t work right. A north wind blew steadily off the river. He’d have liked to stay indoors, but he had already stacked Mabel’s towel-wrapped pies in a crate to take to town. He slapped himself on the arms and stomped his feet to get the blood flowing. It was damned cold, and even long underwear beneath denim seemed a scant cotton sheet about his legs. It wasn’t easy, leaving the comfort of the woodstove to face this alone. The sun threatened to come up on the other side of the river, but its light was weak and silvery, and not much comfort at all.
Jack climbed up into the open wagon and shook the reins. He did not look back over his shoulder, but he felt the cabin dwindle into the spruce trees behind him.
As the trail passed through a field, the horse seemed to trip on its own feet, and then it tossed its head. Jack slowed the wagon to a stop and scanned the field and distant trees, but saw nothing.
Goddamned horse. He’d wanted a nice mellow draft, something slow and strong. But horses were scarcer than hen’s teeth up here, and he didn’t have much to choose from—a swaybacked old mare that looked to be on her last legs and this one,
young and barely broken, better suited to prancing around a ring than working for a living. Jack was afraid it would be the death of him.
Just the other day he’d been skidding logs out of the new field when the horse spooked at a branch and knocked Jack to the ground. He barely missed being crushed by the log as the horse charged ahead. His forearms and shins were still tore up, and his back pained him every morning.
And there lay the real problem. Not the nervous horse, but the tired old man. The truth squirmed in the pit of his stomach like a thing done wrong. This was too much work for a man of his age. He wasn’t making headway, even working every day as long and hard as he could. After a long summer and snowless autumn, he was still nowhere near done clearing enough land to earn a living. He got a pitiful little potato harvest off one small field this year, and it scarcely did more than buy flour for the winter. He figured he had enough money left from selling his share in the farm Back East to last them one more year, but only if Mabel kept selling pies in town.
That wasn’t right either, Mabel scrubbing her own rough-cut floors and selling baked goods on the side. How different her life could have been. The daughter of a literature professor, a family of privilege, she could have studied her books and art and spent her afternoons consorting with other fine women. Servants and china teacups and petit fours baked by someone else.
As he rode through the end of a half-cleared field, the horse jerked again, tossed its head and snorted. Jack pulled back on the reins. He squinted and studied the fallen trees around him and beyond them the standing birches, spruce, and cottonwoods. The woods were silent, not even the twitter of a bird. The horse stamped a hoof on the hard ground and then was still. Jack tried to quiet his breathing so he could see and hear.
Something was watching him.
It was a foolish thought. Who would be out here? He wondered not for the first time if wild animals could give that feeling. Dumb beasts, like cows and chickens, could stare at a man’s back all day and not give a prickle on his neck. But maybe woodland creatures were different. He tried to picture a bear shuffling through the forest, pacing back and forth and eyeing him and the horse. Didn’t seem likely, getting this close to winter. They should be looking to den up.
His eyes caught now and then on a stump or a shadowy spot among the trees. Shrug it off, old man, he told himself. You’ll drive yourself crazy looking for something that’s not there.
He went to shake the reins, but then peered one last time over his shoulder and saw it—a flash of movement, a smudge of brownish red. The horse snorted. Jack turned slowly in the wagon seat.