[Table of Contents]
From the Bering Strait
Up here at the top of the country, the half-light gets trapped between
windows. The light freezes and sticks between the glass like a cold sap.
The birds, too, have a hard time getting around. Sometimes the ice catches
them in mid-flight and for days they are stuck crooked in the freezing
sky. If they are lucky, a warmer rain will unfix them, and if they are
luckier still, none of their bones will snap from the shock of sudden
flight, and they will fly south where they belong.
It wasn't always like this. We used to
have springs of wet snow and starlings, springs of impossible, violent
blue skies. But slowly it became clear as each year passed that winter
was stealing days from spring, until eventually, the thaw stopped coming
altogether. Those were the years the fish froze solid in the water and
our children stopped growing.
I remember the last true spring. The thaw
came in the middle of the night, like the bridegroom for the bride,
my wife, Dolores, says to anyone who wants to hear the story of the Last
Thaw. There we were lying in our bed. The sun had set early, so the sky
was black and thick as liver. We heard a groaning like some huge animal
was sleeping below the ice and beginning to wake, to claw its way out.
Then we heard a terrific crack, like the sound of a bone snapping, only
much louder. We lay still in our bed, afraid to breathe because when the
break-up happens, for a moment you're not sure if it's the thaw or an
earthquake. Then I leapt out of bed, ran to the kitchen, and brought back
a bottle of wine and two glasses.
"American Beauty," Dolores said,
touching her glass to mine.
"Royal Princess," I said.
This was the game we played, naming prize
winning roses from the rose catalogues. This was how we welcomed spring,
planning our gardens, worrying over the beds, the mulch, the enriched
soil fortified by worm castings.
When we walk outside, even the hairs in our nostrils freeze stiff and
it hurts to breathe. And here's another problem: our words and tears turn
to ice on the tips of our tongues or in the corners of our eyes. It's
hard to tell them apart, too, because when they chip off and fall, they
look like little slivers of glass caught on our mustaches, sleeves, and
the tips of our shoes. To cope with these problems, we have by unspoken
consensus decided to try not to talk or sweat or bleed or cry. We have
come to discover that exposing any of our bodily fluids is a very dangerous
thing to do. Still, sometimes we make mistakes.
Last week, Mushie broke into the pharmacy
and helped himself to a packet of codeine tablets and a few cc's of morphine.
Then just yesterday he did himself in on anti-freeze. It had to have hurt
like hell, like swallowing a Cuisinart jammed on high, but maybe, for
a minute or two, he felt warm. They say that's what happens when you die,
just as you are dying, even as you are freezing to death, for one split
euphoric second, you are on fire.
I knew something was wrong when I saw his
dogs tangled up in front of the pharmacy. They were baying and howling,
trying to push through the front door of the pharmacy, but Mushie had
left them hooked up to the sled and the sled was jammed up in the frame
of the door. I unharnessed them and they tripped over each other, trying
to get to Mushie.
In the puddle of liquid that surrounded
him I could see the striations of neon green and cobalt blue. If a peacock
feather melted, maybe it would look like this. I smelled the plastic gallon
jug of antifreeze. It smelled oily and little sweet. He had curled himself
into fetal position so I rolled him to his knees, put my hands under his
armpits, and dragged him outside to the sled. In this weather, he could
have drank Freon and died quicker. This is not at all how I'd do it, I
thought. And yet, I couldn't deny that with the way the colors seemed
to melt around him, he was transformed somehow and that this was beautiful.
I strapped him onto the sleigh. I rubbed off a few drips of antifreeze
from around his mouth and pushed his eyelids closed with my thumb. I didn't
bother harnessing the dogs. They followed the sled for about a mile and
then veered off towards their kennels.
When I reached home, I wrote down on one
of Dolores' yellow Post-it pads what I saw when I found Mushie. The puddle,
the way he was hugging his knees, the way pearly drop of those brilliant
colors of the Caribbean, that's what I actually wrote, colors of the Caribbean,
pooled out around him like an oil slick. I wrote all this down because
I thought it was important to remember, and because, of course, it would
be too hard to say.
That night I carved a sculpture for him.
I carved him with the flaps of his hat fastened down over his ears, his
eyes squinting against the glare of the snow and laced tight against an
invisible wind. That is the hard partcapturing motion, suggesting
something that's not really there. I used a penknife for the lines in
his face and around his eyes. If you keep a small pan of lukewarm water
nearby, all you have to do is dip the knife once, lightly tap it against
the side of the pan, and then the knife is warm and wet enough to make
fluid cuts in the ice.
I worked on Mushie all night and through
the next day. His hands were the hardest for me to sculpt. I wanted to
show him as he wasone hand gripping reigns and another holding a
bottle or the whip, but for some reason, I couldn't get the fingers right.
In the end, I hid his hands in the ruff of his dogs' fur. He is leaning
forward on the sleigh, one elbow resting on the headboard, his other hand
cradling his favorite dog, the lead, Skete.
I kept the garage door open so the wind
could blow in flakes of snow. I sprinkled the dogs' coats with water because
I wanted the snow to attach to the guard hairs so their fur would look
fuzzy. It had taken me all day to shave long narrow slivers. Getting the
fishhook curl into the ends of the shavings was the hardest part. I used
one of Dolores' sewing needles as sort of a curling rod and exhaled slowly
so that the ice would warm up slightly, curl, then refreeze. I was done
and I let the wind score the ice a bit to give it the weathered look.
Dolores came out, that yellow Post-it stuck to her index finger. She hadn't
bothered to put her parka on, just her ratty old sweater. She looked at
me for a long time. She folded her arms across her chest, bit her lip,
"You're jealous. You're jealous he's
dead," she said. Her words fell onto the concrete and shattered into
"What?" I asked, covering my
mouth with my hand. "Could you repeat that?" But of course she
couldn't. She snapped off the garage lights and stepped into the house.
I turned the light back on and kicked the pieces into the old snow drift
outside the garage.
People seem to think this cold must have
happened over night, that one day we just woke up and found ourselves
in this mess. But when I look out all around me, I'm nearly blinded by
the unending gray light and I know, it's coming, and will keep coming,
as regular and steady as my breathing. The blank sweep of the ice stretches
Dolores and I stay up late and we watch
the television weather reports. On night they showed a segment about some
gardener in Anchorage who coaxed some dwarf roses into bloom. Outside,
the ice fell from the sky like old salt.
"The dirty bastard," Dolores
said. I wheeled the TV out of the bedroom that very night. So now, I watch
the TV by myself. The eerie blue-green incandescent glow of the screen
is the same strange shade of blue that the snow reflects under the arctic
light. People think snow is white, but if you look carefully in the shadows
of the snow, you can see that it is really blue. When I go outside for
a smoke, I think of those explosive blue skies of spring, Bering blue.
The weather bureau sent a team of researchers up here to study the freeze
patterns. We all laughed as best as we could without freezing our lungs.
You may have heard this kind of laugh before. It is a tortured sound,
you wouldn't even think a human capable of it, but you'd be surprised.
Anyway, they came in with their helicopter mounted with a special engine
heater and all of their equipmentthermometers, barometers, dopplers,
radars, and small satellite dishes. They even built a greenhouse. We couldn't
figure out why. Up here, even in a green house, it would be too cold for
anything to grow. But they wanted to experiment and they insisted that
certain northern hybrids of roses were suited for inclement weather. We
all nearly lost it that time. The corners of my wife's eyes froze shut
for two days. It was a laughless cry, though. And then she got sick and
wouldn't get out of bed. One day, to cheer her up, I brought her pictures
"I almost forgot what they looked
like," she said. She traced the edges of the roses with her finger.
I taped pictures of roses all over the walls while she sat, propped up
in bed, thumbing through the rose mail-order gardening catalogues like
Burpies and Jackson and Perkin's and watching the gardening channel on
"Fertilizerthat's very important,"
she muttered. I could barely hear her, she was so weak, and I knew what
was happening to herI could almost see itthe gray creeping
past her ankles and up her shins. She tapped at a white JFK prize rose
with her index finger. "You gotta feed those thingsthey're
like people, you know."
My wife's mother calls almost every day. She wants to know what the hell
is going on up here. I tell her that we are on the edge of a new ice agea
new millennium of freeze, that it is coming for her next, does she have
enough light bulbs and toilet paper? The silence on her end of the phone
is heavy and then she asks me if I'm still going to AA. I tell her that
I quit because it was getting too crowded. She calls because she wanted
to talk to Dolores, but talking is dangerous and Dolores is too sick to
More than once I'd thought of packing up
and leaving. I was out the other day fueling up my Dodge. But before I
could even get the gas through the funnel, the liquid had frozen solid.
That's when I thought to myself that we could really be in trouble up
here. And it's not that we don't have heaters or electric blankets, fireplaces
and microwaves. In fact, one of the researchers has a tiny sun lamp. But
it's as if even with all these things, people can only take so much of
this blistering cold. The thought that when you wake up that it is out
there waiting for you is almost too much.
There's a funeral every other day, it seems, but nobody cries, of course.
When our daughter died two months ago, I carved a swan family out of a
huge ice block. The mother and father swan are nudging the swanlet into
flight. The swanlet looks like it is flying right up out of that stump
of ice, flying right out of this place.
"It's like the phoenix," Dolores
said, dabbing at her eyes.
"Yesterday it was 80 in Phoenixdon't
even talk to me about Phoenix." I said, running my fingers along
the neck of the baby swan. She'll never melt away in this freeze, and
I think that there's something perfect about all this cold.
Mushie found them, our daughter and her
three high school friends, on the way back from working out his team.
The dogs started whining and pulling against their harnesses. They pulled
Mushie towards what he thought were some dumb-shit optimistic ice-fishers.
When the dogs saw them, they howled and tangled themselves up in their
reigns and refused to run. But the girls, they were sitting in a circle,
holding hands, listening to Bob Marley. They were frozen still, bluer
than blue, Mushie said, and the radio was still playing. Energizer batteries.
Sometimes, it's the small things that really amaze me. I wrote to the
CEO of the Energizer Batteries and told them how impressed I was with
their batteries. I explained how my daughter's radio played forty-eight
hours straight, no problem, in the middle of an arctic freeze when everything
else froze solid. The president wrote me back on Energizer stationary
with that drum-pounding pink rabbit on the top, thanking me for my interest
in the product. He wished there were more customers like me.
The weather bureau researchers are packing up and getting ready to leave.
They're tired of the cold and they're afraid of what it could do to them.
Someone threw an ice rock and shattered a square of the greenhouse and
they've interpreted this action as a sign. They're leaving on the Swedish
freightliner tomorrow even though they didn't finish collecting all the
data. They're leaving in a flurry of equipment and print outs and the
knowledge that maybe they've failed here. Still, it wasn't hard to get
them to talk, once I gave them a bottle of gin and some long straws.
Two of the researchers thought that the
ice caps had expanded and where we all thought we were living on frozen
steppe, or permafrost, was actually an ice shelf, like an extension of
Greenland. They explained that the cold was not only working above the
ground, but below it as well, pushing the soil south and replacing it
with ice, as far down as you'd care to dig, everywhere ice. There were
some other theories; the polar disparity theory, the alien conspiracy
theory. But my personal favorite came from the guy who brought the roses
in. He attributed the cold to mass-hysteria. That's rightwe're all
hallucinating the freeze.
"Well, then, aren't we all a bunch
of crazy fuckers," I said. He laughed, a choked sort of laugh and
he forgot to cover his mouth with his scarf or mitten. Later, they had
to load him on the freighter with a very real oxygen mask strapped to
I check in on her every hour. Sometimes I read to her. I lean over and
put my ear to her mouth to feel her breath because she's so still and
turning such a strange shade of gray, I'm not sure she's alive. But today
she caught me by surprise. I leaned over and she grabbed my arm, clenched
it tight and pulled me down to her.
"Are they in bloom yet?" She
asked. I wanted to buy her a whole garden of roses. I wanted to throw
ice blocks at the green house. I wanted to rip up the roses that were
in there, grind the stalks up in my mouth, chew them up and spit them
"Well, are they?" She asked again.
I looked at her lying there, at her purple lips and the tiny pearls of
snot frozen on the end of her nose. I looked at her, held up by her pillows,
and I lied to her.
"There's a very small, small but sturdy
bud on the Jacob's Ladder."
"That's a climbing rose, a trailer."
"Yeah. Maybe in a couple of weeks,
it'll open, three weeks tops."
Sometimes I hate myself, I really do. She
looked at me for a long time. She shouldn't do thather eyes could
freezeand I was just about to remind her when she shut them at last.
She collapsed against her pillows and the entire bed shuddered.
"I'm cold," she said. I put two
more blankets on her, turned up the thermostat, and then I went outside.
I think about what Dolores might be feeling, how it feels to slowly freeze.
I think about how your heart still tries to beat as it always did, but
there is a tightness as if papîer-maché or plaster of Paris
has been slathered over your heart and has now solidified. Your heart
is fighting like a bird from within the shell, fighting to break free
from the weight of the cold. And then your heart, over time, doesn't fight
as hard as it did the day before. And so it goes, and so it goes, until
one day your heart just stops. Literally stops cold. And it's true what
they say, it's true that when the cold consumes you, it consumes you completely,
takes you as if it had been waiting for you your whole life. And when
it does, all you can do is feel the weight of it crushing your chest,
and you close your eyes then, and allow yourself this once to dream of
Still Life in Ice
When she was a lab assistant, it was Eva's job to notice patterns. Her
trouble was that she couldn't stop bringing her work home with her. In
everything she did or saw, she noticed patterns: in the weave of the tablecloth,
in the stone of the fireplace, in the measured sweep of the clock's hands,
in the way that Norm's turning off the bush radio signaled the quieting
down, the tucking in, the dropping of night's hasp.
One day while ironing a shirt, Eva held
up the iron and looked at it, the series of small holes for steam, the
two pour-spouts at the top of the curved handle, that long hollow of space.
She studied the flat of the iron, thinking that by doing so she would
find some clue in the pattern of the holes. Some patterns could be counted
on and made sense, like Norm's morning rituals or the even gaps in between
his front teeth. Then, in her notebook she noted other patterns that,
though occurring often enough, too frequently never made sense:
For every loss, there is a second,
sometimes more painful loss to follow.
Occasionally, the second loss may produce or
inspire a third loss, as loss begets loss.
After a while Eva became so adept at noticing
patterns, they began to wear on her. While running test after test at
the labcell blots, titrations, glucose checks, and thyroxin indexesshe
would get bored, draw a little smiley face on a memo pad, and write: Be
back in five minutes. If she was in a bucky mood, she'd write Kiss my
ass, and go to the can where she'd sit, thinking. When Barrow Diagnostics
fired her, she was relieved because she had just written in her notepad
that she was running out of patterns to notice at this laboratory, which
seemed too small, even for Barrow, Alaska.
When Eva married Norm, she liked him because the river ruled him, and
when she was around him she felt the river in her as well. There was something
steadying, elemental, and pure in him that reminded her of math, of the
mad march of numbers, falling against each other like chips of ice, in
clean even increments. "When you turn from the river, then you've
forgotten how to live," Norm would say to her. Eva had to agree.
She liked the way that life turned around the sudden drop of winter: the
freeze-up when the ice folded in buckles, then the thundering roar of
break-up in spring. Sometimes, late at night when she turned off the radio,
she thought she could hear it coming, quiet at first like the thrum of
the heart's pulse, and then louder, the ice jamming the riverbed and the
earth turning and grinding itself down.
For over fifteen years they had lived in
Whitehorse, British Columbia, the lower tundra of mud and mosquitoes.
Norm ran a river barge up and down the Yukon, bringing the necessities--refrigerators,
fuel, beer, and sometimes even used pick-up trucks and engine heaters--
to people living in towns so small they didn't have roads. Norm would
tie off, throw out some planks, and unload the supplies, leaving them
out in the snow.
At first, Eva liked his strange work schedule:
on the river from 4 A.M. to nearly midnight during the long light of summer,
only six hours, maybe less, as fall approached, until his work tapered
off altogether when the ice came in October. After a while she noticed
that his schedule became another strangely consistent pattern of inconsistency:
home later and later in the fall when the river let him off earlier and
earlier. Sometimes in winter, when the river had frozen solid, when he
should have been home all day, he stayed away days on end. Eva would wait
for him, hold dinner for him, and wonder where he was, sure that he had
grown bored with her, sure that he was having an affair.
Now, at thirty-nine, Eva is willing to admit that she is slowly cracking
up. It's there, she thinks, in the lines around her mouth, the long, straight
one across her forehead. Bit by bit, cell by cell, she is falling apart.
At night she lies in bed, Norm's long form barely discernible in the dark.
She can feel her teeth moving in her gums. If she lies perfectly still,
she can feel them move to the time of Norm's slow, deep breathing. She
thinks about snapping on the bedside lamp and writing in her notebook,
but if the patterns are holding, and she has no reason to believe they
won't, she should have plenty of time to record these small slips.
How and when she began to lose it, she's
not sure. She suspects her body began to betray her, to fail her in all
the small ways, sometime after Evan was born. When she stands in front
of the mirror in her old dance leotard, she suspects it's her son's fault
that she is such a mess. She pinches her stomach, the flesh riding over
her hipbones, and eyes the eight-grade school photo of her son that Norm
has insisted they leave out. Eva studies the picture of Evan, that thin
hint of a mustache above his upper lip, and Eva feels her heart drop for
in spite of that fuzz, he was still only a child. Eva sets the picture
back on the dresser, turning the image of her son toward the wall. Eva
had never thought having the picture out a good idea. Why remind themselves
of their loss? As one loss hastens the next, soon everything begins to
look like loss, the sharp smell of it clinging to the curtains, the tablecloth,
Small things prey on her, too. Norm's dream in which Eva hears the washing
machine in the garage thumping against the pantry wall. An uneven load,
and Eva goes to investigate. She pads out to the garage in her floppy
green slippers and bathrobe, carrying a huge mound of laundry. In the
dream, she pushes open the pantry door with her elbow and dumps the laundry
at Norm's feet, where she calmly begins separating the whites from the
coloreds. On top of the washer/dryer combo sits Norm's sweetheart, a petite
woman--a synchronized swimmer, no less.
"Who swims in Alaska anyway? And synchronized
swimming? Come on." Eva remembers teasing Norm once.
"It's a very athletic sport,"
Norm said in such a way that Eva knew she'd made a mistake, that she might
pay for it later.
And she does, for in the dream Norm and
the sync-swimmer go at it, bumping in time to the spin-cycle rhythm of
"Tell me again about that dream you
had--the one with the swimmer," Eva asks Norm one day while she rinses
boiler onions under the tap.
"That wasn't my dream. You dreamed
it," he says evenly. Eva turns back to the sink and wonders if he
is playing a trick on her.
Since she's been fired, Eva has turned her attention up and out, keeping
notes on the moon, which has always seemed a strange paradox:
The moon is the earth's only natural
satellite, rotating around the earth
in a fixed and regular cycle. The moon
may appear to move faster at certain times
of the night, slower at others, but,
in fact, the earth's velocity is constant, and
therefore, so too is the moon's orbital velocity.
She thinks what a great word paradox is,
how it is one of the few words that not only rolls in your mouth when
you say it, but rolls in the mind, round and luminous like the moon. This
blank-faced moon that stares, unblinking, down at her, is the same moon
that witnesses the sorry events of everyone else's lives as well. Despite
the few pounds of rock removed, drives of a golf ball, and big steps of
man, the moon changes more than it has changed itself. It is the moon
that pulls at the tides, leaving jellyfish stranded like dropped coins
and fish gasping. The moon that incites dogs to howl, short tempers to
ignite, and the unborn to leap. But Eva likes looking at the moon, likes
even better to think that because she can understand one small thing about
the moon, there is hope she can understand other small things as well.
Of course, Eva had not planned to outlive Evan, and his sudden death
complicated a pattern she had taken for granted. In her notebook she made
a list of all the women she knew who had not suffered any great tragedy.
In another column she kept a running tally of all the women she knew who
had lost a child. She put a star next to Stella Travers' name because
she had lost both of her children at the same time in a car accident.
It bothers Eva that even with her notebook and lists, death is not tidy.
The ends do not fold neatly at the edges like a well-made bed, and she
knows of no clean crisp numbers she can match to death.
Sometimes she wonderes what Evan was feeling
that day, the dogs howling at the door and Evan locked in their garage,
seatbelted in the car with his favorite hockey stick, the car running.
She wishes she could have saved him. Since she didn't, she wishes she'd
seen him once more before he died. She would have asked him to forget
how she'd been a hard mother, frustrated, distracted, and at times mean.
And if he couldn't forget, she would have asked him to forgive her for
those failings, and for not knowing that he had been planning to do this
thing for months.
"Good thing he didn't drown himself
in the river," the sheriff said to her the day she found Evan in
the garage, "or we'd have never found him."
"Could you turn off those flashing
lights?" Eva asked the sheriff and scraped at the ground with the
toe of her boot. Even though the thaw had come, the ground was still hard,
too hard for a burial in Whitehorse.
Later, at the funeral home, a woman who'd
lost her son, a bush pilot in the Dawson Range, found Eva and gripped
her shoulder. "Good thing you have the body," the woman said.
"At least you have that."
"Yeah." Eva heard Norm's voice
behind her, felt his hand on the small of her back. "Good thing,"
he said, steering her down the steps of the funeral home and toward their
car while she blinked and wondered at the dogged capacity people had for
finding good in things immutably bad.
Now she prefers living up here in the upper tundra 350 miles within the
Arctic Circle. When she walks, she hears the crunch of her footfalls on
the ice. In high tundra the earth is firmer, and she knows that no matter
what, with so much ice, her weight will be supported. In the lower tundra,
it was different. She used to walk the riverbank with fear and fascination
as each step sent the ground quivering.
A few years back on an Easter Sunday, a
woman wandered into the marsh with her three children and reemerged with
none. Things like that happened in the flats, and no one knew whom to
blame, or if blame was even necessary. Drilling machines, people, dreams,
dogs--they could and had simply disappeared, taken by the mud and pressure,
the earth's desire to call back its own. After Evan died, Eva gladly left
with Norm for the high country.
The moon exerts a gravitational force on
large bodies of water. However, some bodies
of water are affected more than others.
When they first moved to Barrow, Eva was determined to make a fresh start.
She bought a self-help tape called, "How to Rekindle Your Marriage."
She wrote Norm little love messages, wifely missives designed to let him
know that she was thinking of him, even when she wasn't. She'd write notes
like "I love you," and then "One day at a time." But
after a while she thought, Who do I think I'm kidding? She took down her
inspirational notes, trading them for reminders and instructions that
would bring results, "Don't forget to buy dog food." At first
Norm would return the favors, sometimes even drawing pictures. Her favorite
was an enormous mosquito humping a turkey and below, a caption: Alaskawhere
the mosquitoes are big enough to stand flat-footed and fuck a turkey.
But lately his notes, too, have taken a more practical turn. Taped to
the oven door one day is a piece of paper on which Norm has drawn a finger
with a red string around it. Underneath it reads in bold red letters:
"Did you turn off the oven today?" The finger looks like a cock,
and Eva can't look at Norm's sign without smiling a little.
Remorse slicks like oil that can't be scrubbed
off, and she thinks it is highly underrated and more useful than most
people know. Losing Evan has taught her this, and she would love to see
Norm fall apart a little. She'd like to see some evidence that he is sorry.
When she looks at him, she can almost hear the smooth whir of his internal
machinery going tick, tick, tick like the clink of the oil derricks. She'd
like to stop it, to crush that mechanism, the spring inside Norm that
has keeps him going and going, as if nothing at all has happened.
Eva fingers Norm's note. How would he feel
to be the one to discover a body, her body? she wonders. Eva envisions
the tragic accident from all different angles: first, the look of shock,
then horror, as Norm interprets the scene-- the smell of gas, the red
oven light on. Then Eva, her legs buckled underneath her body, her cheek
resting on the oven's wire rack.
"What are you doing, Eva?" Norm,
home early, catches her by surprise. She's sprawled across the kitchen
floor, one leg twisted over the other in a death pose.
"Back exercises." Eva scrambles
up from the floor and adjusts her shirt. Norm scratches his head, then
steps around her to reach into the refrigerator for a beer.
"Are you OK?" Norm studies her,
and she realizes how hard it must be for Norm to be Norm, how hard it
is to be married to her.
"Sure. I'm fine." She nods and
takes a swig of his beer. "Really."
When he looks at her like that, his eyes
turning soft, she wants to wrap her arms around him and comfort him. She
wants to whisper quiet words from childhood and draw him into the center
of herself, into that darkness where all things get lost, where everything
gets ground to nothing. But something always pulls on her and she doesn't
know why, but that space between them seems the most impossible to close.
She remembers a science demonstration of magnets when she was in the third
grade. Why should two metals repel each other? she had wondered, and left
for her homeroom feeling sick to her stomach, convinced the science teacher
had tricked her.
Part of her problem, Eva thinks one day while washing dishes, is that
she doesn't fully yet know who or what she is or what she is becoming.
She can only testify to the forces that tug her and the unseen things
pressing upon her. She imagines that inside of her is a black hole shaped
like an Erlenmeyer flask, wide at the bottom and funneling to a narrow
neck without a head. She frowns and catches her hips on the edge of the
drain board. Everything seems to have a hollow sound to it: the hum of
the refrigerator, the glow of the TV, the edgy and panicked crackling
of the radio. The sound haunts her, and she wonders if the emptiness hasn't
invaded her as well, if she still has a heart beating in her chest because
there's no noise there, nothing moving, and the deepness of that hole
frightens her. She opens cupboards, rifles through boxes of saltine crackers,
and eats the dry cocoa powder with a spoon, the jumbo marshmallows and
cans of peaches in heavy syrup, eats without tasting, stuffing that space
inside of her.
That night, when Norm's steady breathing
gets on her nerves, Eva creeps into the kitchen. She picks through his
lunch packed with all the things he loves: egg salad with pimento on wheat,
a dill pickle, Oreo cookies. She eats it all, her hand moving to her mouth
in a steady motion. Afterward, she wipes the crumbs from the front of
her nightgown and leaves a note in the refrigerator at the spot where
Norm's lunch used to be: "You've been Yogi-Beared."
Here's another problem: she can't remember things as well as she used
to, and lately she's been seeing things out on the bay ice: tundra swans
that don't belong out there and seem doomed to freeze. She will walk out
and test the ice to see if it will hold her. If not, she'll get a long
pole and push on the birds, try to rock them out of the ice. They'll soar
up and away with two or three heavy beats of their wings, then crane their
necks at impossible angles and say things like "Thanks a million,"
or "You're the best, Eva." She'll turn sharp to see if anyone
is standing behind her, if it's all some kind of a prank. But the dogs
behind her aren't even moving, are bored by the sight of the ice and have
curled up, tucked their noses under their tails and squeezed their eyes
Some days she sees children out on the
bay ice. Those are the terrifying days because if they falter there's
no saving them. On the worst days, she sees Evan floundering on the ice.
She sees the bright turquoise scarf she made for him five Christmases
ago. Movement, a flash of color, and she knows it's him, a beautifully
sculpted bird bound by ice.
Eva is losing weight so steadily that people are taking it personally.
Every day Norm asks her if she's angry with him, and one day she realizes
that yes, yes she is. She is paying him back for being happy when she
isn't, for recovering when she can't.
She would like to feel happy, is certain
she would recognize happiness if she felt it. She is not one of those
who were born to suffer and who has learned how to like it, nor is she
the kind that isn't suffering but wishes she were. The grief counselor
in Whitehorse suggested dance lessonssaid it could give her that
raison d'etre. Even then, Eva shook her head. No. She likes the idea of
a martial arts class better. She'd like to pay her fifty dollars and kick
somebody's ass without guilt. But then, she'll pull back the curtains
and catch sight of Evan's bright orange parka on the ice, his blue scarf,
and she knows she has to stay in this house, cannot risk missing him again
when he needs her most.
One day Eva stands at the kitchen window
and chews on her fingernails, noting how hunger nibbles at her, gets at
her in those empty spaces. Hunger is a pain that resembles only itself,
she thinks, as her stomach tightens like a drawstring pulling close. "Breathing
hurts now, too," she writes in her notebook. In the distance she
sees a bush plane sewing a straight line, a thin white thread across the
sky. Then she hears him: "Mom." There's no mistaking Evan's
voice, clear as a bell. But it is a pitiful noise and she has never heard
Evan sound so sad.
"Don't move, honey!" She screams,
pulling on her boots. She sprints across the snow and out onto the ice
without testing it. When she gets to where Evan had been, she realizes
it is a bird, stuck in the ice, wintering where it shouldn't. After checking
for footprints, for any signs at all of Evan, Eva abandons the bird to
the ice and plods back to the house. She stands on the porch, watching
the bird, waiting to see if it will become Evan. But the bird isn't struggling
anymore, and she knows it might be too late. She fills a double boiler
with cold water and marches back out to the bird, determined to save it.
She pours the water around the bird, working it free, and carries it inside
her coat back to the house, leaving the boiler out on the ice. Later,
in her notebook, she notes that it takes a desert, an ice desert even,
to produce a mirage.
When Norm comes home, stamping the cold
from his boots into the floorboards, Eva is sitting, gazing out the window,
the bird wrapped in Norm's flannel shirt and cradled in her arms.
"That bird's gotta go." Norm
nods at the tundra swan. "Everything it needs is out there."
He points to the door with his thumb.
Eva feels a slow cold starting at her feet and spreading upward. She knows
she should say something. Instead, she stares at Norm's face. His nose
is like Evan's, but not the mouth. If she closes her eyes and concentrates,
she can redraw Norm's features, as with an Etch-A-Sketch, sand over the
Norm sits at the table and pulls a toothpick
out of his shirt pocket, and clamps it between his front teeth. Eva turns
to the windowpane and traces an imaginary box around her reflection, feels
the bird rustle its wings. "Sometimes I think I'm forgetting what
Evan really looked like."
Norm pulls off one boot and then the other.
"We could have another kid. It's not too late."
Eva closes her eyes and swallows. She can
hear the soft machinery of Norm's heart going whir, whir, whir. She wonders
if she could catch him on the jaw with her fist, knock him clean off the
chair, if she swung hard enough. She opened her eyes. "No. No more
kids." She leans in toward the window and studies the ice.
Norm sighs. "I'm just saying we could try if you wanted to."
He moves the toothpick from the left side of his mouth to the right. "You're
not the only one who suffers, you know."
That night, Eva can hear their dogs baying and the clang of their metal
tie chains. She stands at the kitchen window. The dark is just light enough
and she can see against the endless seam of sky and ice a full moon low
and heavy over the frozen bay. She looks at the moon that seems to her
one looming and perfect reflection of ice, a perfect sphere surrounded
by the dark water of night sky. If it is true what some people say about
the moon, true that the moon reflects secret knowledge, symbolizes the
unconscious and the making of codes, then what has she learned, what code
is she solving, what mystery will she crack?
Eva returns to the bedroom and climbs into
bed alongside Norm, who is asleep already, his back to her. She presses
her body against his, surprised and relieved that even now, when it is
clear they both are changing, have changed, she still fits.
She feels her face relaxing, her jaw unclenching.
She takes in the smell of Norm's skin, feels a glimmer of calm in knowing
that now, when she is feeling so strange, there are some things she can
still count on: there are thirty-two holes on the bottom of her iron,
the weave of the Herringbone comforter is slightly off, Norm's front teeth
have small spaces between them. If the patterns are holding in the morning,
Norm will still be there, despite her fears to the contrary.