Ice Fishing

May 29 2013

You are shaken awake in darkness. "Up. Time to go." Your father not even a shape in the dark. Just a presence, and gone already. You are almost seven years old.

The kitchen is a pool of light that smells like coffee. The darkness outside pushes against the windows. The house is cold. No one else will be up for hours. Your father pours boiling water out of the glass-lined thermos. A cloud of steam envelops his head. "Always heat the thermos up first. Coffee'll get cold otherwise." He fills it from the coffee pot and slides the thermos into a denim holder.

Your father drives through the darkness in the van with the heat off. You are in your snowsuit and mittens. Your father wears a canvas snowmobile suit and a blue down vest. "Turn the heat on now, it'll just feel colder. This way we get used to it." Your ears are numb. It is February and at 5:30 AM twilight is still a half hour away. You puff out a breath in front of your face and watch it writhe in the dashboard lights.

"Stop that. You're fogging up the windows."

Your father's rubber boots crunch across the frozen beach. He carries the ice fishing gear, a backpack, and a long black steel pole. You have been given the denim thermos pouch and its precious bottle. You marvel at how the beach looks just like a summer beach, but your boots crunch across the surface of the frozen sand and leave no marks. It's like a beach made of concrete. You take a step onto the ice and the world tips sharply and the frozen lake hits you on the side of the head. It doesn't feel like anything.

"Jesus." Your father stoops over you and pulls you up. He takes the thermos and shakes it next to his head. It makes a sloshing noise. "Nothing broken. The ice is slippery. No snow. Keep your feet underneath you. You'll be fine."

You walk across the ice together until you reach a piece of ice that looks exactly like every other piece of ice to you. "Right here," says your father, and he drops the backpack and puts down the fishing gear. He raises the steel bar up and lets it fall. The chisel end chops a divot out of the ice in front of his feet. He shuffles around in a circle, chopping. Your father's face is neutral and composed as he does this. He doesn't breathe hard or struggle. He just raises the bar and lets it fall, like a machine that will raise a bar and let it fall at a steady pace until you make it stop.

The bar chips through and the center of the hole starts to fill with slush, then water. The water is shockingly black against the white ice. Across the lake, the ice booms and squeals, like an animal in pain. It makes noises like a metal garbage can rolling down a hill. It cracks like a branch breaking. It never stops making noise. You had never thought that ice might have a sound.

"There." You look down at the hole. It is perfectly round, and filled with still black water. When your father steps near it, the surface of the water rises and then lowers again without forming any ripples. You try to imagine what could live down there, sealed underneath a foot of ice for months in that black water. Whatever it is, you don't think you want to catch it.

Rusty Foster
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