Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Ice Shelf by Nelson Kingfisher

Widower Cornelius Fischermann visits his mountainside cabin for the New Year's holidays with his son and grandson, and they all find themselves on thin ice; by Nelson Kingfisher. An audiobook version of this story is available here.

In his seventy-eight winters - from his youth in the Black Forest of Germany to his old age in the White Mountains of New Hampshire - Cornelius Fischermann had split hundreds of logs. But the log in front of him came, evidently, from the petrified forest. The log sat crooked and defiant on the chopping block. Cornelius' ax glanced off, leaving superficial scars.

It was 4:15 pm, dusk in New Hampshire on New Year's Eve. On a typical holiday Cornelius could reach his cabin by lunchtime, but that required leaving Boston before 9 am, and today his son Carl hadn't picked him up until 11. The passenger's seat was empty when Carl pulled up in his Volvo, and Cornelius felt it unwise to ask why Carl's wife Millicent wasn't in it. The answer, he felt sure, would tell him more than he wanted to know about why Carl was late.

Cornelius slipped into the back seat and made conversation with his eight-year-old grandson, Corey, who was trying to decide which Christmas gift had been his favorite. The conversation made Cornelius feel guilty, since he hadn't thought to buy Corey anything. His wife, Ingrid, had always taken care of that.

Carl drove silently until the New Hampshire border, where he made the superfluous remark that, if they'd left Boston earlier, they could have beaten the holiday traffic. They could have beaten the snow, too, which fell heavily, then turned to freezing rain, so that they had to stop at a friend's house and wait for the state plows to clear the last stretch of mountain road. When they finally arrived, the dirt road to Cornelius' cabin was buried. Carl parked on the paved road, and they hauled everything a mile through the woods by sled.

Now it was 4:15. The cabin was cold, and it wouldn't warm up until Cornelius started a fire. Which he couldn't do until he split this log.


Cornelius brought the ax down, hard. The axhead missed and the haft struck the log, jarring the handle out of his hands. The log toppled off the chopping block into the snow.

"Hey, Pop." Carl emerged from the woods on snowshoes, towing a sled full of groceries. "Can you give me a hand with these?"

"Not just now." Cornelius picked up his ax. "This log has insulted my honor."

"Hi, Grandpa!" Corey shuffled out of the woods on skis, carrying an overstuffed backpack that made him look like a turtle on its hind legs. "I can ski really good now! I only fell once!"

"Very good." Cornelius offered the boy a token smile, not large enough to show his teeth. The boy was entertaining, to be sure, but nothing had much amused Cornelius since Ingrid's death. "Brush that avalanche off your pants before you go in."

Corey picked up a grocery bag and followed Carl into the house. They shut the door behind them - unnecessarily, as it was no warmer inside than out. Cornelius brushed the snow off the log and turned it over so that the end he'd been hacking at faced downward when he set the log on the chopping block. Perhaps the other end would be less fossilized.

When the snow had forced them off the highway, Carl had steered for the home of Ellery Greer. Ellery was a regular stop on the way to the cabin, but this year Cornelius wished to avoid her. He pointed to a diner, but the parking lot was full. When Carl got back on the road to Ellery's, Cornelius could no longer object.

"And where is your lovely wife?" Ellery had asked as soon as Cornelius hung his parka inside her door. Cornelius froze, looked at Carl, and shook his head. He hadn't told Ellery of Ingrid's death. Ellery blanched when Carl gave her the essentials. She asked question after question, and when Cornelius' answers grew short she went on about her own husband, Jake, who had died three years earlier.

Ellery said she still thought of Jake every day. Cornelius wondered if that were true. Would he think of Ingrid daily in three years? Would he want to?

Would he still be alive, himself? Would he want to be?

Did he want to be, now?

It occurred to Cornelius that for the past two months he'd been like a man walking on a thin shelf of ice. Everything felt solid as long as he stepped carefully, but a single misstep, or a jostle from someone like Ellery, and he found himself gasping in cold, open water. Cornelius was almost shivering when he left Ellery's house.

Not that nervous energy helped him where the log was concerned. It was like trying to split a stalagmite.

The door creaked open again. "Hey, Pop?" Carl said.

Cornelius lowered his ax. "Ja?"

"Can you start the refrigerator?"

"Is it so difficult?"

"I can't light the pilot. I've gone through four matches already."

"All right." Cornelius leaned his ax against the chopping block. "Let us not incinerate a perfectly good house."

Cornelius opened the back door and the smell of creosote greeted him, the residue from decades of wood fires. Cornelius surveyed the kitchen: the little gas refrigerator; the rough mead table, flanked by split-log benches; the cast iron stove against the whitewashed chimney.

An apron hung next to the stove, its pocket embroidered with the face of barred owl, his wife's mascot.

Hallo? he nearly called out. Ingrid?

Cornelius' stomach clenched. It had been weeks since he'd thought of calling her. At home he had grown used to her absence. Here, though, it felt fresh again, sharp as the smell of creosote.

Corey came in with a bag of groceries. He climbed a chair and put a loaf of bread in the cupboard.

"Do not put bread there," Cornelius said. "It will freeze. Put it in the refrigerator."

Corey handed over the bread. "The refrigerator is warmer than the cabinet?"

"It will be the warmest spot in the house," Cornelius said "But I must light it first."

Cornelius sat and opened the gas valve under the refrigerator door. There was no sound, and immediately he knew why. The propane tank outside wasn't turned on. How had Carl overlooked this?

Cornelius looked for matches on the kitchen table. They weren't there.

"Corey," Cornelius asked, "where are the matches?"

"I don't know." Corey opened the refrigerator door and set the bread on the top shelf.

"Corey," Cornelius started again, "has your father tried to light the refrigerator?"

"I don't think so." Corey opened a drawer. "He wanted to split wood."

Cornelius stood, opened the back door, and walked to the propane tank under the kitchen window. By the woodshed, Carl was working Cornelius' log down to kindling. Carl slammed the ax into the chopping block, and the wood flew away, making bright yellow splinters in the snow.

Cornelius opened the hand wheel on the propane tank. He thought of saying something, but what was there to say? If Carl had asked for the ax directly, Cornelius would have refused. And how much kindling would they have now?

Cornelius crossed the porch and Corey greeted him at the kitchen door. "I found the matches!" Corey said.

"Very good." Cornelius knelt again at the refrigerator. Now, when he opened the valve, the gas hissed and made a familiar, cabbagy smell. Cornelius struck a match against the side of the box. It didn't light. He tried another. It wouldn't light either

Cornelius ran his thumb along the side of the matchbox. He shook his head.

"What's wrong, Grandpa?"

"This sandpaper is worn smooth," Cornelius said. "And easily fifteen matches remain in the box."

"It shouldn't be like that," Corey said. "The sandpaper and matches should come out even."

"They should," said Cornelius. "One would expect greater foresight from the leaders of the kitchen match industry."

The door opened. Carl came in and set an armload of wood on the stove. "You get the fridge started?"

"Grandpa's having trouble." Corey handed Carl the matchbox. "The matches won't light on the box."

Carl carried the matchbox across the kitchen and struck a match on the chimney stones. It lit. "Here you go," he said.

"Please don't strike matches on the chimney," Cornelius said, taking the match. "They leave a sooty residue."



When Carl was seven years old, his mother had taught him how to light the wood-burning stove in the kitchen. Now Carl was doing the same for Corey.

"Crumple some newspaper, but not too tight. Now tent some kindling over it. Leave lots of space for air. Good. Take this match and light the newspaper here, then here. Start in the back of the stove, and bring the match toward you. Don't reach across the fire."

The continuity of generations would have pleased Carl, if his mother were still alive. Or if his wife were here. Or if his father, lighting the wood furnace in the living room, weren't making a God-awful racket, muttering to himself and clanging the cast iron lid.

"Why is Grandpa making so much noise?" Corey asked.

"I don't know," Carl said. "He's upset." Then, louder: "Pop, do you want a hand?"

There was no reply. The clanging stopped.

Carl watched the tent of kindling catch fire in the stove box. "That's good," he told Corey. "Shove in a small piece of wood, maybe an eighth of a log, and close the door." Corey did.

"You hungry?" Carl asked.

Corey nodded. "Starving."

Carl carried a pot to the kitchen sink, and pulled a package of hot dogs out of the refrigerator. He knifed open the package but couldn't pry the hot dogs apart. "They're frozen together," he told Corey. "I might have to cook all ten of them."

"That's fine by me," Corey said. "I might have to eat all ten."

Carl set the pot in the sink. He turned the tap. Only air rushed out, a little colder than the air in the cabin.

"Crap," Carl said. "Pipes must be frozen."

"Why?" Corey asked.

Carl sighed. "Because Grandpa didn't drain them in October."

"Why?"

Because he's almost eighty years old, Carl almost said, but he stopped when he realized he was being unfair. "Grandpa wasn't here in October." He put a hand on Corey's shoulder. "He was with grandma, in the hospital."

"Oh, right." Corey shrank under Carl's hand. "I remember."

Carl looked out the window. As evening came on the temperature had fallen, and the freezing rain had turned back to snow. "We can still boil these hot dogs," Carl said. "We'll just gather some snow and melt it."

Corey nodded. "Great idea, Dad."

"Take the pot outside and put as much snow in it as you can. Really pack it in. It'll shrink when it melts."

"I'll make it tall and round, like a snow cone," Corey said.

Carl smiled. "Great idea, Cor."

After Corey took the pot outside, Carl walked into the living room. The wood furnace was crackling now, and Cornelius sat in the rocking chair next to the picture window. Ingrid's sketchbook lay open in his lap.

Carl looked over Cornelius' shoulder. In the sketchbook his mother had drawn a nighttime forest scene, a quiet grove of fern and field stones under a canopy of paper birch. Shafts of moonlight fell through the trees and glistened against the birchbark.

"This is lovely," Carl said. "I haven't seen this one before."

"Your mother drew it on our final visit." Cornelius pointed. "Look closely."

On a branch near the edge of the page a pair of eyes shone through a mask of feathers. The barred owl, quiet and observant, was his mother's signature. Ingrid used animal totems for all of her family. Cornelius was a black bear. Carl was a bull moose whose antlers grew a bit larger every year.

When Carl married Millicent, the moose acquired a mate which Ingrid called a "doe." Technically a female moose should be called a cow, but Ingrid had tactfully avoided that term. She was like that.

Cornelius turned the page. In the next sketch, Ingrid had drawn the bull moose with colossal antlers, standing on a bluff overlooking the river. On the far bank, the doe climbed from a low sandbar into the dense forest. A faun stood awkwardly on a stone in the middle of the river, its head lowered between its bony front legs, unsure which bank to cross to.

"Turn the page," Carl said.

On the next page Ingrid had begun another sketch of the river. In this sketch, the season was late autumn, the cusp of winter. The beech and maple trees were nearly bare, and the stumps on the bank had been chewed to pencil points by beavers. The tip of the bluff had fallen into the river, and a hemlock tree lay submerged in the water.

High above the river an owl flew upstream, her wings tucked back against her sides. In the direction she flew there should be forested hills and a mountain with a bald crooked peak. But Ingrid hadn't drawn that part of the scene. The owl's legs and tail trailed into the woods above the river, but her beak pointed toward the corner, where the paper was empty and white.

"She didn't finish," Carl said.

"Doch," said Cornelius. "She finished. She drew all she wished to."

Carl looked closer and saw that the drawing was complete. His mother had added all her highlights and lowlights, and written the date in the lower right. September 14, about a month before her final heart attack.

He looked again at the picture. A bear stood on the riverbank, looking up to watch the owl sail off the edge.

Cornelius said, "Daß sich der Strahl bereits zur Heimkehr schicke / Dorthin, von wannen alle Strahlen stamen."

"What?" asked Carl.

"You have understood?"

"Kinda."

"Rückert wrote this. On the shelf there sits a book with the English." Cornelius stood and walked to the bookcase under the stairs. "Here." He handed the book to Carl, open to the English translation: The beam of light was ready to return home / To that place whence all light comes.

Carl handed the book back. "That about says it."

"Ja," Cornelius whispered, almost inaudibly. He set the book on the table.

The back door creaked open. "Dad, look at this pot!" Corey shouted. "Have you ever seen so much snow in your life?"

"Corey!" Cornelius shouted. "Do not bring snow into the house!"

"It's okay," Carl said. "It's for cooking."

"Can I cook it?" Corey asked. "I never cooked snow before."

"Sure. I'll set the table with Grandpa."

Carl walked into the kitchen and started pulling plates and glasses out of the cupboard.

After a moment, Cornelius followed, opened the cupboard, and peeled the foil off a bottle of sparkling wine. "Will you take some Henkell Trocken?"

"Isn't it frozen?" Carl said.

"Only the water content." Cornelius poured two glasses. "Alcohol remains liquid well below zero." He pushed a glass toward Carl.

"So this wine is, what, 80 proof?" Carl pushed the glass away. "I better not. I've got more wood to split."

"Very well." Cornelius quaffed both glasses. He poured a third.



Cornelius woke in the dark. In his dream Ingrid had been sleeping in the next bed. Her breathing had grown labored and irregular, then stopped with a click in her throat. Cornelius waited for the breathing to resume. It didn't.

When he opened his eyes, the ceiling above his bed loomed startlingly close. Since boyhood Cornelius had been severely nearsighted, so that the bedroom would be gently blurred when he woke. Cataract surgery had changed this. Now the waking world was sudden and sharp.

Cornelius closed his eyes. He counted to four, over and over - a technique that Ingrid had taught him for getting back to sleep.

His thoughts wandered, and he saw Ingrid's drawing with the owl flying off the edge of the page. He saw himself as a bear on the bank, turning his head to watch the owl fly away. The bear started walking after her, then broke into a run and headed for the edge of the page. When only the bear's tail was visible, Cornelius woke again.

His heart was pounding. Panes of reflected moonlight spotlit the whorls and knots in the ceiling boards. He was inside a pine box.

No, not pine, he chided himself. The ceiling is red spruce. Do not be maudlin.

Cornelius climbed out of bed and creaked down the stairs. The treads felt cold, even through his wool socks. Downstairs the furnace still crackled, but the sparks came at long intervals. Cornelius thought of adding a fresh log, but he didn't want to wake Carl. He didn't want to answer any questions.

In the bathroom he lit the gas lamp and stood over the toilet bowl. The sound of urine striking dry porcelain reminded him: there was no running water.

He closed the fly of his flannel pajamas. At the back door, he took his coat from the hook and shoved his feet into his ski boots. He tramped out to the woodshed and faced the woods, watching his breath float away. His urine cut the crust of the snow, steaming.

The thought of returning inside made his heart race again. Ingrid was all over the house: her apron, her bed, her sketchbook.

It had been a mistake to come up here.

Cornelius' skis stood next to the woodshed. He had propped them upright in the snow, but one had toppled in the night. He bent to pick it up, then straightened, set the ball of his foot on the ski, and gave it an experimental shove. It glided four feet along the crust before it came to rest.



Carl woke in the dark. Corey lay in the other bed, his nose whistling as he slept. Carl folded his hands behind his head and tried to let the whistling lull him back to sleep. But his thoughts went elsewhere.

It felt strange to wake in the cabin without his wife. As recently as this summer, Mill had slept next to him, her side pressed against his in this absurdly small twin bed. There was some chance they had conceived Corey right here, in this bed, eight years ago, though in those days they were having so much sex, everywhere, that it was difficult to pinpoint the time or place of conception.

It hadn't been like that for a while. After Christmas this year, Mill chose to stay with her parents in Boston instead of joining him at the cabin as she had in years past. She'd wanted Corey to stay with her, too, and it had been a battle for Carl to pry him away. He'd won the battle, but the victory was pyrrhic. One more such victory and he would leave the battlefield alone.

Sometimes Carl wondered if his marriage was ending.

And with that thought he knew he wouldn't get back to sleep.

Carl got up and walked out to the hallway. His parents' door stood open. His mother's bed was empty, of course, but he was surprised to see his father's bed empty as well. Carl walked downstairs. He glanced in the open bathroom, but of course his father wouldn't be there; the plumbing was out. The living room was empty; so was the kitchen. His father's coat was missing from the hook on the back door.

Carl opened the door. "Pop?"

He stepped onto the back porch, and looked out toward the woodshed. His father wasn't there, and neither were his skis.

"Pop!" he shouted.



Cornelius skied up the path through the woods. The full moon shone through gaps in the trees; its light bounced blue off the crust of the snow. Where the trees opened, Cornelius could see the trail clearly, but where the woods drew close, the trail darkened and he skied from memory.

It was a relief to be outdoors. Repeatedly since Ingrid's death, Cornelius had lain awake, thinking he had nothing to look forward to, and yet in the morning he found the outdoors still had something to offer. He thought of the poem by Rückert he'd read last night, later set to music by Mahler. Nun will die Sonn' so hell aufgehn, Als sei kein Unglück die Nacht geschehn. And now the sun rises, as brightly as if no misfortune had passed in the night. The line has always sounded unbearably sad to him. It still did. But now he also noticed its undertone of affirmation.

Exertion was also a relief. Cornelius' pulse had been elevated since his dream - no, since his visit to Ellery. He might as well make use of the energy.

Cornelius climbed the first hill, making herringbone tracks, and glided down the other side. He came to rest at the bottom of the hill, where the brook ran under the bridge and out to the river. The brook was frozen, and a moonlit blanket of snow lay on the ice.

"Pop!" he heard.

It was Carl's voice, muffled but unmistakable, probably coming from the other side of the hill.

Cornelius considered the impression he would make if Carl found him like this. An old man, wandering off on a cold night, wearing pajama pants under a parka.

It didn't look good. He would be under a microscope for months.

Cornelius sidled into the woods next to the brook, and waited.



Carl's snowshoes punched through the crust on the snow. He was running as fast as he could, but the snowshoes made his steps galumphing and mooselike. He wished he'd brought his skis.

Carl used to tell his mother not to worry about Pop, but now he realized she'd worried for both of them. With his mother gone, Carl felt like his father's last line of defense.

He told himself it didn't matter that it was five in the morning, that his father was seventy-eight, that he hadn't told anyone where he was going.

Carl told himself it didn't matter that his father was morose. But he didn't believe it.

As he climbed the hill, Carl could see his father's herringbone tracks, but after he went over the top he couldn't see a damn thing. At the bottom of the hill, a little moonlight reflected off the frozen brook under the bridge, but it came from below. It did little to help him to see the trail.

He pushed through the darkness until he came to a clearing where the moonlight shone through the trees.

There were no tracks.

What the hell?



Hiding in the woods next to the trail, Cornelius watched Carl pass. The thump of Carl's snowshoes faded. Cornelius' heart slowed.

He began to form a plan. He would return to the cabin, put on trousers and a sweater, and make himself a cup of tea. When Carl returned, he would be sitting by the picture window, reading next to a kerosene lamp. As long as he seemed collected, there would be nothing to talk about. So he'd decided to take a solitary ski in the wee hours - what of it?

Actually, making tea wouldn't work because there was no running water. But that was a detail. He could exploit it for distraction. "I had hoped to make tea, but as you know the pipes are frozen. Do you think Corey would like to melt more snow?"

Cornelius leaned out of the woods and peered down the trail. He saw Carl's shadow in a clearing and watched it, waiting for it to shrink out of sight. But instead it stood still. It turned. It grew.

Cornelius backed into the forest again. If he just stood there he was going to get caught. As difficult as it would have been to explain skiing in the dark, it would be more difficult to explain why he'd been hiding.

He didn't have a lot of time. Once Carl got near, any sound Cornelius made would be conspicuous.

Cornelius sidestepped to the edge of the brook. He sat on the bank and lowered his skis onto the ice.



Carl snowshoed back along the trail. How could a man's tracks simply disappear? It didn't make any sense. If his father had stopped and turned around, they would have met on the trail.

Carl reached the bridge again, where the trees opened around the brook here and let some moonlight in. Carl bent to one knee and stared hard, following the ski tracks as far into the shadows as he could. The tracks bent into the woods, and Carl followed, hesitating, finding it hard to believe that his father had left the trail. The woods were so thick and dark, Carl couldn't get very far on snowshoes. It would have been just as hard for his father, who was on skis. As soon as Cornelius stepped into the woods, he'd need to find open ground. And that had to mean returning to the trail. Didn't it?

There was one other possibility. Carl shuffled his snowshoes to the edge of the brook and looked down. In the snow on the frozen brook, he saw tracks. The tracks were scattered at first, then smoothed together into a pair of parallel traces following the brook downstream.

Carl climbed down from the bank and followed the traces down the brook, expecting them eventually to cross to the far bank and into the woods. But they didn't. He followed the tracks along the icy brook until the brook opened into the river.

The river was much broader than the brook, and much deeper as well. Black water flowed swiftly down the middle, so that the river couldn't freeze all the way over. Only a thin shelf of ice, dusted with snow, ran along the bank.

Carl peered downstream. A tree leaned out over the water, its branches nearly brushing the ice shelf. The tree would fall in the spring flood, but for now it was like a toll gate with no one there to collect the toll. His father couldn't have gone that way.

Carl turned his head upstream. 100 yards away, a dim figure was skiing away from him on the ice shelf, its arms pumping up and down. It was wearing a dark parka over pants that looked blue in the moonlight. But Carl knew they were white.

"Pop!" he called.

The figure's arms stopped for a moment, then resumed pumping.



Cornelius skied forward, intently focused. Skiing on the ice was like the weeks after his cataract surgery: everything seemed shockingly vivid and clear. He breathed quietly as his skis scraped the snow. He listened for creaking in the ice.

Black water rushed down the middle of the river. He tried to ignore it, but the danger focused his mind.

"Pop!" he heard.

He was caught. There was little he could do. His original plan had been to take the ice shelf downstream, back to the cabin, but when that way was blocked, he'd had to ski upstream, toward the road. And that path had led him here.

He paused to consider what he could tell Carl. Nothing came to mind immediately, and he knew that pondering the situation wouldn't improve it. He decided not to think about it, any more than he thought about the rushing water next to him.

Cornelius shut everything out and skied forward.



Carl gained on Cornelius, but slowed before he got too close. The ice shelf had held Cornelius, but if Carl drew closer it would need to hold both of them, and there was no guarantee it could do that.

It occurred to Carl that there was a thin line between pursuing someone and chasing them away. He used to think he knew where that line was, but over the last year he'd repeatedly found himself on the wrong side of it with his wife. You couldn't catch anyone; they had to want to come to you. Trying to rescue his father, he could break the ice and drown them both.

On the riverbank next to him, there was an opening between the trees. Carl put his hands on the bank and pushed himself up, using the same movements he used to clamber out of a swimming pool. He got his snowshoes under him, grabbed hold of a birch tree, and straightened.

Carl threaded a thin path around the tree trunks along the bank. It was slow going in snowshoes, and he fell behind his father at first. But Cornelius slowed, and Carl caught up again.

"I'm here, Pop," he called. "Let me know if you want help."



The ice shelf narrowed until Cornelius could only use one ski pole, and then he couldn't use his ski poles at all. He held both poles in his left hand and shuffled his skis along the ice shelf, using his right hand to grab hold of shrubs and roots along the bank.

The river turned, and Cornelius saw there was no way to continue. After the ice shelf rounded the bend, it was barely a ski's breadth wide. And even that didn't continue for long before it was indistinguishable from frost.

Cornelius stopped. There was no going forward anymore, and no going back. No choices but up onto the bank, or out into the river.

In truth, there had never been any other choices.

Cornelius looked out at the water, then up at the bank. The bank was low here - more than a stair step, but a step he could manage, perhaps with help. Cornelius looked up and saw his son's tall shadow in the trees. The shadow stepped forward.

"I am ready," Cornelius told the shadow. He passed his ski poles to his right hand and held them out toward Carl.

Carl took the poles, and Cornelius raised his right ski to climb onto the bank.

Under his left ski the ice shelf gave way. Cornelius reached out for Carl, but his hand grasped at air. The sky was where the bank had been. Ice-cold water filled his boots and soaked his pajamas. He gasped. He heard a splash begin before his head went under.

Cornelius bobbed up and reached for the bank, but his hands slapped open water. The current pulled him downstream, and from the corner of his eye he saw a low branch aiming for his head. He ducked.

"Grab it!" Carl shouted.

Cornelius reached up and seized the branch. Which turned out not to be a branch at all, but one of his ski poles.

Carl, holding the other end, fell chest-down onto the bank.



The fall knocked Carl's breath out. His left snowshoe popped off. But he held on to the ski pole with both hands. And so did Cornelius.

"I'm going to reel you in," Carl strained to say. "Can you grab hold of something?"

Cornelius scanned the bank for a root or crevice, but found nothing suitable. "I am afraid not."

"Okay," Carl said. "All right." He rose to his knees, then squatted and slowly straightened his legs. He towed Cornelius upstream to a low spot on the bank, not far from where Cornelius had finally decided to come on shore. Carl pulled Cornelius in, putting hand over hand on the ski poles until he reached Cornelius' wrists.

Carl knelt again and wrapped his arms around Cornelius' chest, but he couldn't lift Cornelius clear. When he tried, something caught at Cornelius' leg.

"What's that?" Carl asked.

"My skis," said Cornelius. "They are somewhat snagged in the undergrowth."

Carl lowered Cornelius and released his chest, holding on to his left arm. "You'll need to take those off," he said.

Cornelius reached under the water with his right hand. His head cocked and his tongue worked in his cheek.

"You need help?" Carl asked.

"Moment," Cornelius said. He twisted sideways, and his right hand emerged from the water, holding one dripping ski.

"Pop." Carl took the ski and shook his head. "Just shake them loose."

"These are the best skis I have owned," Cornelius said, dipping his arm back in the water. "They do not require wax."

"All skis are like that now. REI sells them for two hundred bucks."

Cornelius' arm emerged, holding his other ski.

Carl took it, sighed, and tossed it on the bank behind him. He leaned in and squeezed his arms around Cornelius' chest again.

"I can do this myself," Cornelius whispered as he rose from the water.

"I know." Carl dragged Cornelius from the water and laid him on the bank. "Think you can stand?"

Cornelius drew his knees under him. His legs were trembling. Carl scooped under his armpits and helped him to his feet.

"How you feeling?" Carl asked.

"I am all right," Cornelius said. "Only..."

"What?"

"Only" - Cornelius' looked down at his trembling legs - "perhaps a little cold."

Carl nodded. "Let's go home." He put his arm around Cornelius and they started through the woods toward the cabin.

Carl looked at his watch; it read 5:45. Good. Corey should still be sleeping. Carl would get his father home, get him into dry clothes, and all would be well.

But Cornelius was walking in a crouch, panting, barely putting one foot in front of the other.

"The sooner we get there," Carl said, "the sooner we'll get you warmed up. Do you think you can walk any faster?"

Cornelius nodded. He leaned forward, put his hands on his knees, and threw up.



Corey woke. In his dream his grandmother had been frying eggs in the kitchen, but when his eyes opened the cabin was quiet and cold. His father's bed was empty. His grandparents' bedroom was empty. The kitchen was empty.

Before breakfast his father and grandfather often split wood, but this morning Corey didn't hear an ax. When he looked out the back door there was no one standing at the woodshed. His grandfather's skis, which Corey remembered sticking up from the snow, were gone. His father's snowshoes were gone as well.

Corey searched the house for a note. There wasn't any.

Corey thought of calling his mother, but phones didn't work in this part of the valley. He remembered what his father had told him once, once when they'd got separated at the airport. Just stay where you are. You're much easier to find if you're not moving around.

Corey looked for something to read. There wasn't much. Half the books on the shelf were in German, and hardly any had pictures. One had a cover with a slim explorer in a white shirt looking up at a giant stone head. The title was a word that Corey had never read before: Aku Aku. He thought it was German until he noticed the subtitle in English: The Secret of Easter Island.

He thought it was a fantasy book, like the C.S. Lewis that his father had been reading to him, but in the first pages he learned that the giant stone heads were real. They were on a remote island, "the loneliest spot on earth," and no one knew how they'd got there.

The people who'd made them had disappeared.



Carl held Cornelius' wrist and took his pulse. Cornelius' heart beat 30 times in 15 seconds. That was 120 beats a minute.

"What is it?" Cornelius asked.

"I don't think I got a good read," Carl said. "The wrist is a tough spot for me. Let me feel behind your ear."

This time Cornelius' heart beat 33 times in 15 seconds. 132 beats a minute.

"Na und?" Cornelius asked.

"It's a little high," Carl said. "About 90."

Cornelius nodded.

"We need to get you warmed up," Carl said. "The cabin is almost a mile away. Let's go to the car."

Carl put his arm around Cornelius and coaxed him uphill. There was no point rushing. Cornelius was going as fast as he could; his breaths were quick and shallow. Carl tried to keep his own breathing deep and calm.

When they reached the car, the door was frozen shut. Carl took off his snowshoes and beat the passenger door until he could work the handle. He opened the door and helped Cornelius settle into the passenger seat.

Carl reached across Cornelius, stuck his key in the ignition and turned it. Mercifully, the engine started.

Carl beat open the driver's door and got behind the wheel. He turned on the blower, but it was just cold air. When he turned it off, he could hear Cornelius' teeth chattering.

Carl leaned back in his chair and sighed. "Take off your pajamas."

His father was silent for a moment, then said, "Wass...?"

"They're soaked," Carl leaned across Cornelius and unzipped his down parka. "Take the parka off, take the shirt off. Put the parka back on. You'll feel a lot warmer."

Cornelius' hands were trembling. Carl helped him to unbutton his pajama top and tossed it in the back seat. He helped Cornelius to zip the parka. It didn't feel unnatural; he'd helped Corey with a zipper just yesterday.

"You can have my pants in a minute," Carl said. "First I have to scrape the windows."

He reached behind his seat for the scraper. It wasn't there. He pulled the trunk lever under the steering wheel. It didn't pop. He shook his head and pulled the key out of the ignition.

As he thumped the trunk with his snowshoe, Carl realized what must have happened. Millicent - thump - who liked things tidy - thump - had seen the scraper in the back seat - thump - and thought it needed putting away.

Thump! The ice on the trunk shattered and Carl opened the trunk. Sure enough, there was the scraper.

He scraped the windows and climbed back into the driver's seat. The visibility still wasn't great. Most of the snow was gone, but there was still a layer of ice, rippled like antique glass. If he could just run the blower for a few minutes, it would melt and clear.

"How you feeling?" he asked Cornelius. "If I give you my pants, can you wait for the car to warm up?"

Cornelius nodded.

The last time Carl had taken his pants off in a car, he'd been nineteen years old. It was a warm summer night. His purpose had been different. This was long before Millicent.

Cornelius slid the pants on. "They are a bit large," he said.

"I always gain some weight around the holidays," Carl said. "They're warm, right?"

"They are," said Cornelius. "This is very good of you."

"We'll drive to Ellery's when the windshield clears. You can be patient?"

"The engine will heat faster if you drive."

"I can't drive, Pop. There's no visibility."

"There is nothing to see."

It was true. At this hour, there was little chance of meeting another car on the road. If a car did come, its headlights would show through the ice on the window.

Carl put the car in gear and rolled ahead. He crunched into a snowbank.

They sat in silence. Carl wondered if Corey was awake, but shut the thought out, realizing there was nothing he could do about it. He could only solve one problem at a time. If that.

Carl looked at the ice on the windshield. He looked at the radio.

"Want some music?" he asked.

Cornelius nodded. "Mahler."

Carl turned his head. "How about classic rock?"

"This would be acceptable."

Carl turned on the radio and Foreigner came on, singing "Cold as Ice."

Carl turned it off. He laughed. And then he put his forehead on the steering wheel.



Corey set Aku-Aku down. On the table next to the picture window his grandfather had left a book of poems open. Corey couldn't read the German, but the facing page offered an English translation:

I often think: they have only just gone out,

and soon they will come back home.

The day is lovely - don't be afraid.

They have only gone for a long walk.

The sky was just starting to brighten, and the mountain cast a long shadow down the river.The wall thermometer read 53. Corey opened the lid of the furnace and saw the big smoldering log collapsing into ashes. He dropped in a handful of crumpled newspaper, and when it caught fire he went to the kitchen woodpile for kindling. He dropped the kindling into the furnace and watched it go up. He had nothing larger than the kindling, though, and in a couple of minutes the fire burned out again.

Corey rubbed his hands. His father had told him never to light a fire without an adult in the room, but where was his father, anyhow? He looked again at his grandfather's book of poems and read the last stanza.

They've just gone out ahead of us.

And won't think to come home.

We'll catch up with them on those hills

In the sunshine. The day is lovely.

Out the window the forest path led away from the cabin, a mile through the woods to the paved road. It was the only way out of here. His father must have taken it. They would meet sooner if he followed than if he waited here.

Corey took his coat off the hook on the back door. His zipper jammed halfway up. He put on his ski boots, but he couldn't fasten them to his skis.

His ski boots had broad, smooth soles, and as he walked into the woods he made a game of walking lightly on the crust, trying not to break through. Step on a crack, break your mother's back. Break through the crust, turn your father to dust.

The trees towered over him, like stone faces.



By the time Carl reached Ellery's cabin, the car heater was on full blast. For the first part of the drive he'd set the fan to blow up the windshield, but once that was clear, he reset it to blow on his legs. Carl always blew the heater on his legs because he knew warm air would rise through the rest of the car. Today it made extra sense because he wasn't wearing pants.

Carl pulled into Ellery's driveway. As soon as he got out of the car, he was cold again. Gooseflesh crawled up his legs until his scrotum tightened. He rang Ellery's bell and waited. At 6:20, still two hours before sunrise, he didn't expect her to answer immediately, but it was hard to be patient.

The porch light came on, and Ellery opened the door, wearing a long flannel nightgown. She looked down. Her eyebrows rose when she saw Carl's underwear.

"Carl," she began, "I always thought you were a dear boy, but -"

"Dad fell through the ice," Carl said.

"Oh." Ellery's face drew taut.

"He's okay, but he's chilled. He needs a warm bath. He needs dry clothes."

Ellery nodded. "Bring him in."

Carl returned to the car and opened the passenger door. Cornelius took his hand and stood.

When they came in the front door, they heard water running in the back of the house. "Come back here!" Ellery shouted.

They followed her voice to the bathroom, where she was kneeling next to the bathtub. "What's in the tub is lukewarm," she said, "but what's coming out of the tap is piping hot."

"Hallo, Ellery," Cornelius said.

"Hello, Cornelius," Ellery said. "Why don't you get undressed?"

"Everyone says this today." Cornelius unzipped his parka. "I wonder why."

"Animal magnetism," Ellery said.

Cornelius pushed off his ski boots. "This shall be my second bath of the day."

"So I understand," Ellery said. "You Germans are fastidiously clean."

"Come on," Carl said. "I need my pants."

Cornelius nodded at Ellery, and she left the room.

Cornelius dropped Carl's pants to the floor. Carl offered his hand, and Cornelius took it without protest. He held on until he'd lowered himself safely into the water.

"How is it?" Carl asked.

"Warm enough," said Cornelius. "After my earlier baptism I cannot complain."

Carl folded a towel and set it by the tub. "Got everything you need?"

Cornelius nodded.

Carl found Ellery at her kitchen table, with two glasses and a bottle of Pilgrim Rum.

Carl held up his hand. "No thanks."

"You need something." Ellery filled one of the glasses. "I need something, and I haven't been through half of what you have."

"I have to drive. Corey's still back at the cabin."

"Of course," Ellery said. "Can I offer you some coffee?"

"God no," Carl said. "I don't need any more stimulation."

Ellery nodded. "What happened?"

"I don't know. I woke up before dawn and Pop was gone. I went out and found him skiing on the ice."

"Has he ever done anything like that before?"

"Yeah." Carl laughed. "About a million times, since I was a kid. He'd say he was going out for a little walk, and then he wouldn't come back for three hours. It drove my mom nuts."

"I can imagine."

"He'd come back covered in mud, scratches, mosquito bites. But he was always fine. He'd usually had a great time. Still: this seemed different."

"Because he's old."

"Because he didn't tell anybody."

Ellery sipped her rum.

Carl continued, "Of course, who could he tell, exactly? My mom's not around, and what's he going to do, wake me and Corey up? Say he's going out to ski in the dark?"

"Does he seem... all there, otherwise?"

"You've talked to him. He's fine. A little irritable."

"He could have left a note."

"What would he say? I'm sure he thought he'd be back before we woke up."

Ellery looked at Carl over her glasses. "You think he was planning to come back?"

"What?" asked Carl. "Oh. Jesus." He shook his head.

"He's at risk, you know. After his wife dies, a man can do foolish things."

"I don't think it was that," Carl said.

"I hate to think of the state I was in two months after Jake died. It's a good thing you were there when he fell through."

"Probably," said Carl. "But on the other hand: maybe if I wasn't there he wouldn't have gone on the ice in the first place."

"Anyhow," said Ellery. "Keep an eye on him."

"I do. And sometimes I wonder if it makes things worse."



Corey reached the paved road. He'd come all the way through the woods without meeting his father or grandfather, and now he saw that their car wasn't where they had parked it. Where were they?

I'll go to Ellery's, he told himself. She can help me find them.

He wasn't sure how far Ellery's cabin was, but he had a feeling it was downhill. He started down the road, but then remembered something his father had told him. People are lazy. They never go uphill when they can go down. Whenever someone gets lost in the mountains, Corey's father said, they're almost always downhill from where they ought to be.

Corey turned around and started uphill, walking quickly along the shoulder of the road.



Driving back to the cabin, Carl's nerves were buzzing. He had to remind himself to drop his shoulders because, if he forgot, they rose to his ears. He kept telling himself he had nothing to worry about. His father was safe at Ellery's; his son was safe in the cabin. Still, he wouldn't feel it was over until they were all together in one place.

Carl parked on the paved road and got his snowshoes out of the trunk. He started down the trail. The sun wasn't up yet, but the sky had finally started to lighten, and where the woods weren't too thick, Carl could see where he was going. His jog to the cabin went quickly.

When he took off his snowshoes and opened the back door, the cabin was quiet. Good. That meant that Corey was still asleep.

"Corey!" Carl climbed the stairs two at a time. "You're not going to believe what happened."

The boy's bed was empty.

Carl checked every room. There was no sign of Corey, except for a book - Aku-Aku - on the table by the picture window. It was one of his father's favorites, but the stone heads always gave Carl the creeps. Next to Aku-Aku lay the book of German poems from last night - the Kindertotenlieder, songs of dead children. Fucking perfect. Carl knew the songs all too well: Wenn deine Mütterlein tritt zur Tür herein. When your dear mother comes to the door, I look to the empty space by the threshold, where your face should be. In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus. In this weather, I never should have let the children out.

Corey's coat was missing from the hook on the back door. Carl circled the outside of the cabin, hoping without conviction that Corey was just relieving himself. He wasn't. Corey's skis were propped up in the snow by the woodshed, but that didn't mean anything. Corey usually needed help to fasten them.

Carl looked down the path into the woods, exasperated. How many times had he told Corey what to do if they got separated? Stay put.

Carl fastened his snowshoes and ran back through the woods, toward the paved road, much faster than he had jogged to the cabin. As he ran, Carl imagined explaining to Millicent how he'd lost their son. He started defending himself, as he often did when he spoke to his wife. Granted, the morning wasn't going well, but looking back it was hard to see what he should have done differently. Should he not have gone after his father? Should he not have driven to Ellery's? Could he have come back to the cabin any sooner? He could have left a note, as Ellery suggested, but he, at least, was planning to come back before Corey woke.

As a Jew, Carl didn't believe in predestination, but it seemed to him he'd been fucked since before he woke up.

Still, it didn't help to feel sorry for himself. The task before him was simple. Find his son, then never speak of this morning again.

In the woods he saw intermittent holes where Corey's ski boots had broken the crust on the snow. But when he reached the road there were no tracks to follow. The plow had squeezed the snow so flat that a 60-pound boy in smooth-soled ski boots wouldn't make a mark.

Carl walked to the car and popped the trunk. He took off his snowshoes. If Corey left the cabin recently, they would have met on the trail. So he must have left earlier and reached the road before Carl returned with the car. The only question was which way he had turned.

Probably Corey would have headed for Ellery's house, which was downhill. Most people chose the downhill route, anyway, whenever they had a choice.

Carl got behind the wheel and rolled slowly downhill. He drove around one bend, then another. He set the trip odometer, and when it ticked past a mile he took his foot off the gas. He was two miles from the cabin now, maybe two and a half counting the stretch before he'd set the odometer. It was hard to believe that Corey had come this far. It was physically possible, Carl supposed, if Corey had left the house very early, while Carl was still on the river, and if he'd walked at full adult speed, three miles an hour, for the whole time. But then Carl must have missed Corey on the road when he came back from Ellery's. It just didn't make sense.

Carl stopped the car. It was just a two-lane road and the shoulders were piled with snow, so he had to make a three-point turn, and then another one, before the car faced uphill again. He drove quickly back to his parking place, at the head of the forest trail, then reset the odometer, shifted down, and continued slowly uphill, resisting the urge to go faster, carefully scanning both shoulders of the road. He rolled past the roadside rental cabins, past the moose crossing, past the entrance to the snowmobile trail. And when the odometer clicked past seven tenths of a mile he saw his boy, head down, hands in his jacket pocket, walking slowly along the shoulder of the road.

Carl's shoulders dropped. Evidently they'd been hunched around his ears again. He rolled down the window and pulled alongside Corey. "Hey there," he said.

Corey stopped and looked into the car. "Dad!" His coat was unzipped, and his face was streaked with tears.

"Where you going?" Carl asked.

"Ellery's," Corey told him. "I guess."

"Could be a long walk." Carl smiled, but shuddered inside. "Ellery lives downhill."

"You told me downhill is the way people get lost."

"It is." Carl wondered why everything he said or did made his family take foolish risks. "You did the right thing. Hop in."



Ellery opened the door. "There you are," she told Carl. "And there you are!" She leaned down toward Corey. "I was starting to worry about you two."

"Starting?" Carl asked.

"Hallo." Cornelius sat at the table, his face ruddy. Something milky sat in a short tumbler on the table in front of him. He wore a terrycloth bathrobe.

"That's a good look for you, Pop," said Carl.

"Isn't it?" Ellery said. "Not every man can wear pink."

The corners of Cornelius' mouth turned up.

"Somebody's feeling better," Carl said.

Ellery said, "Somebody's on his third kahlua and cream."

Carl sat heavily. "Got any more?"

"Of course." Ellery opened a cabinet.

Corey climbed into Carl's lap, something he hadn't done for at least a year. Without thinking, Carl laced his fingers over Corey's tummy.

Cornelius said, "We have had an adventure."

"Yes, we have." Carl took one hand off Corey and laid it on Cornelius' arm.

"We can have adventures, still."

"We can. But let's not have any more until spring."

Cornelius sipped his drink. The corners of his eyes wrinkled mischievously.

Ellery set a tumbler in front of Carl.

"What's this?" Corey said.

"It's for your father," Ellery said. "A sweet drink."

"Can I have some?" Corey asked.

Ellery looked at Carl.

"What the hell," Carl said. "One sip."

Corey picked it up and sipped. "I like it." He sipped again. "Is it a milkshake?"

"Well, it has a lot of cream," Ellery said.

Corey took another sip. "What else?"

"Kahlua," Carl said. "That's a sweet coffee drink."

"And vodka," Ellery said.

"What?" Carl asked.

"I added vodka; it's a white Russian. I thought you needed something stronger."

"What's vodka?" Corey raised the glass to his lips.

Carl took the glass out of his hand. "It's a grown up drink. Don't tell your mother, okay?"

"Don't tell her what?"

"About the vodka." Carl looked at Ellery. "Or getting lost. Or grandpa falling through the ice. Shit, Corey." Carl sipped his white Russian. "Don't tell her anything."

3 comments:

  1. A beautiful, fluent style of writing that lingers on details and develops characterisations and the tension of the plot with real sensitivity. A rewarding read that is multi-layered in its impact. Very many thanks,
    Ceinwen

    ReplyDelete
  2. i was totally drawn in by the detail, beautifully descriptive and in Cornelius a very convincing character.
    Fine read

    Mike McC

    ReplyDelete
  3. The dialogue is used well, not just to move the story along, but to reveal the characters and give the story the right pace. A successful piece of work. And a white Russian is one of my favourite drinks!
    S.Lucas

    ReplyDelete