Sarah stopped as if to listen, looked down at her skates as they hung from her bare hands. At the damp marks from the snowflakes as they touched the red leather and dissolved. She thought of flowers and galaxies. Watched them darken and spread and lose their form. Felt something touch her hand, hesitate a moment before moving again. Her father had said something. It came to her now in the wind and flew away into low rolling cloud and flecks of snow that turned and turned in the misty air.
She looked at her friend’s skates, at how they were almost the same colour as hers, but cheaper and more worn.
Izzy swung them from her gloved fingers as they clattered into the hollow-sounding world around them. She span around and smiled at Sarah, walked backwards for a few steps. Felt the coolness of the ground beneath her boots, the snow bunching at her heels. Turned face forward again and started to move quickly, grunting a little with each step.
Sarah absorbed these movements. Felt the same ice beneath her boots, the same breath, till she joined Izzy in these quickening steps and a rhythm grew, the cold air licking at them both as they began chanting like Indians on the warpath, running now to the vowel sounds thudding into their chests. Till their cries subsided and they slowed their pace and started to talk again, imagining the day as if they were inside a gigantic glass jar, behind which painted glass sky someone might be watching: Jesus or an alien, or someone magical and strange who wanted to speak with them.
Spooook-aaay, Izzy said, bending her knees and waving her hands as if she were feeling out the pale vibrations of the landscape and sending them back again. Then she arched herself backwards and screamed at the sky. As her voice shot through the trees, a slur of crows raised themselves in a rush, the damp, ricochet motion of their wings sloshing backwards into the girls’ ears. A bad feeling ran through the girls—but it was as brief as their breath inwards and by the time they breathed out the badness was gone.
Izzy shrugged her shoulders at the commotion she had raised. Sarah looked ahead, stone green eyes on a floating white world. The two girls were often mistaken for sisters and the phrase ‘thick as thieves’ came easily to people’s lips.
Sarah was taller than Izzy, but stockier and clumsier, or so she felt. It made her shyer than her friend, this sense that she was somehow not as much of ‘a natural’. Izzy had the gift of the gab, that was for sure, though not everyone liked the sharpness or brightness of her tongue. It made Sarah see how people—how adults especially—could resent someone who was friendly and excited as if this were a mask that needed removing. It also made Sarah sad for Izzy, even ashamed of her sometimes, as if there were something wrong with her friend. But these were thoughts from another time and not really on her mind as they trudged in the snow today. Crunching through thin crusts of ice into the mash below, leaving a trail to follow in case they got ‘lost’.
Sarah started toting up her Christmas presents from that morning out loud: the new red skates in her hand; a red mountain bike ready for the thaw; a cherry-coloured iPod; and lots of clothes, but not that black top with the bright-red cross she had asked for—the one in the window of Leonard’s Boutique that looked so cool. Maybe her parents were holding this one last present back as a surprise?
Izzy scoffed and rolled her eyes. Give it up, Sar! Then she spat into a pile of snow, stopping to watch the saliva crystallise and sink through a gobby web of ice.
Izzy was all bones and scrappy-looking, with long, thick black hair she thought made her special. People who didn’t like her said she was ‘nothing but trouble’, ‘a wild thing’, ‘a little bitch’ … She’d been caught in town once or twice for shoplifting and Sarah’s mother had said she should ‘spend less time with her perhaps’, but there was something about Izzy that made Sarah stick by her all the more. In a way it was even more special to be friends with her now. To fight the unfair world they’d jabbed each other’s fingers with a pin and touched them together: a blood oath behind Izzy’s shed last spring. A whole year had turned and the two were as close as ever.
They were at the top of the hill now and could see the pond below. It was frozen over and heavy-looking, with patches of snow on it like dampened salt spilt across a supper table. Sarah thought of breakfast that morning: her mother a little hung-over, her father trying hard not to be annoyed; the smell of percolating coffee brightening their mood as always. A Happy Christmas, it was a happy Christmas, it really was.
She shouldn’t have gone on about her presents.
C’mon. Izzy was skipping ahead of her, egging Sarah on.
The two girls puffed their way across Niland Drive, treading carefully to avoid slipping on patches of ice that shone splinter-black before them. Free of the road again, Izzy plunged up to her thighs in a windrow of snow, scrambling to get out as her friend laughed and hurried over to help her. Izzy wiped herself down and moved on. The snow squeaked purposefully beneath her boots.
Sarah stood by the windrow for a few seconds longer, looking back at the way they had come. The road ran off behind them like a dark stream into a cloud.
Tyre marks from early morning traffic had created the rippling impression it was flowing uphill against the force of gravity, the fresh fallen snow afloat upon its drifting surface. A car droned away into the distance, tail-lights fading into ragged bits of morning mist as it crested the rise of McLennan Pass and disappeared. For a moment it felt as if the road were hovering just above the landscape and not quite a part of it. Sarah shivered as a cold gust of wind caught her full in the face, pouring down her neck like water—as if a wave had come to her in the car’s departing wake.
There was still a space in her chest from when she had been frightened earlier, a bird-headed skull of a space into which the wave poured itself and stayed. She felt kinda inside-out at that moment, and not able to understand herself at all.
Back on the other side of the hill was the town they had just come from. Thule: ‘Some say it rhymes with fool, some say it truly.’
Smoke was pouring out of chimneys Sarah could not see, drifting sooty and low across the tip of the hill. She imagined the town all misty and postcardy and thought she heard a dog barking and someone chopping wood, but it was extra quiet everywhere on account of the snow killing all the sounds she might have heard.
She thought again about the jar over the world and the eye of whoever might be there, watching them. Why they made it so quiet when it snowed?
Sarah became conscious of the cold once more and flexed her fingers to warm them. Wished she had worn gloves. Instead she had to pull the cuffs of her jumper over her knuckles and palms as she swapped the skates back and forth and started walking again. How she longed to put her hands in her pockets, but now they were almost at the pond and it didn’t matter any more.
Izzy kept moving ahead of her as they descended, leaving the hood of her parka down, her hair getting wet as feathers of snow continued to fall upon them. Sarah knew Izzy was doing this on purpose, so that when she got home she could talk her father into drying it with a towel and brushing it for her. They would sit and talk in front of the television while he made rough work of it and watched an old episode of Degrassi High and pretended it was on for Izzy; while her mother cooked and listened to rock ’n’ roll songs in the kitchen: ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’, ‘Beast of Burden’, ‘Fool to Cry’ … she was a total Stones freak.
Sarah’s family was different. Sometimes she wished they were more like other kids’ families. Not so arty and ‘weird’, always heating silver over a flame and pushing and dabbing away at a canvas. Although they liked lots of music as well; they weren’t that different. It was hard to explain. Sarah just wanted normal things, normal thoughts too. She touched her dark woollen beanie like it might solve the problems in her brain. It was damp but it felt nice.
She knew Izzy’s parents weren’t so happy, that she was lucky to have what she had in her own home; but sometimes Sarah wondered about her own mum and dad too. How quiet they could be with each other; if they loved each other deep down?
She had asked once if she were adopted.
No, my love, you’re all ours. Eyes, ears, nose—even your father’s funny feet. Her mother had squeezed her toes to confirm it as they lay at opposite ends of the couch, listening to Bon Iver and watching the dust motes float through the slats of venetian afternoon sunlight: ‘Running home, running home, running home …’
Oh come on, Sarah, you are such a slow coach.
Izzy had her hands on her hips: all mock exasperation. She turned and started bolting forward as if she were running away and might never come back. Sarah smiled, tried to imagine being as skinny and fast as Izzy. Moving between the particles of snow with such twisty speed the flakes would never touch them.
Sarah jogged after her friend until they were almost side by side, the snow thickening their steps to a trudge once more. Their breathing growing deeper; their faces glowing with the cold: the cold space shining through them, vast and clear.
A clump of conifer trees stood in a gathering as the girls passed by. Sarah recognised them from her father’s paintings, wondered when he’d been out here last.
My dad says glass is a liquid, you know. She had spoken the thought, not quite meaning to say it. Sometimes her mind slipped into her mouth before she knew it.
The girls burst into laughter. It didn’t matter whether it was true or not.
Izzy scooped up a handful of snow and hurled it into some bushes. The leaves shook as if lashed by a whip of powder, petrifying back into a frozen, heavy stillness despite the breeze lifting around them and drumming at the girls’ ears.
Sarah liked being with her father on his ‘expeditions’ out here—when he’d let her join him. Sometimes they’d take Izzy with them too and bring a picnic lunch for three, walk for ages without knowing where they were going or what they were looking for.
It was nice to be like that with him; talking without talking, that’s how it felt. When he stopped to work he’d give them some brushes and a sketchpad to do with as they pleased, but they’d usually tire of that and just go for a wander on their own—‘Not too far’.
They knew to be careful.
They were somewhere they were not supposed to go.
Another crow called, louder and closer, shaking out the wetness in its wings and scaring the girls again, though neither of them said so.
To brazen it out Izzy started singing ‘Good King Wenceslas’ like her mouth had a flat tyre. Hey, check the sun out, she said, breaking off her moronic version of the song and calling back to Sarah as she pointed upwards.
There was a part of the sky that glowed like shiny cotton wool. It was as if they were walking through another land, a magic place. It’s pretty, Sarah said, but the words sounded silly and she felt embarrassed when they came out: dumb. She’d written about this problem in her journals. About not being able to express the way she felt—or of saying the wrong thing altogether when she tried.
Her uncle had told her she’d work it out when she had the right tools to express herself: that it might come in the form of a paint brush or a pen or a guitar—or, God help us, an Excel spreadsheet, baby, but being an accountant would have to be pretty boring, wouldn’t it?
He’d usually say that kind of thing after he’d snuck off to get stoned in the middle of their music lessons. Half the time he’d be quoting song lyrics and you couldn’t tell where his own wisdom began and someone else’s ended. Oh Sarah, Sarah, her uncle would sigh-and-sing when he was having boyfriend troubles, I can keep my cool at poker but I’m a fooool where love’s at stake!
He was just gagging to show her some Joni Mitchell songs so they could surprise her mother. But you gotta learn to walk before you can run, eh princess? Maybe we’ll try ‘Woodstock’ soon though, uh? He hummed a phrase or two, plucked the notes off the guitar slowly for her eyes to study. She heard him breathe out as if he were laughing to himself.
As if on cue a snowflake touched Sarah’s lips.
She tasted ice and blood.
Felt how dry and cracked her lips were as she ran her tongue along the edges of her mouth.
Turned her lips inwards, wiped them clean with the back of her hand, a streak of red appearing across her knuckles.
She touched her lips again with the back of her hand. Kept it there a moment.
More crows called. It sounded like they were letting go of all the strangeness in the air they had swallowed. Sarah felt relieved this time to hear them, as if these same sounds had somehow been caught in her mouth too. She figured the crows must have a roost further, deeper in the woods. Wondered what they were feeding on.
Tracks like thumbprints trailed off into nowhere.
Izzy hooked her thumb at the trail. Weasel, she said.
Her dad used to go hunting and had taught her how to skin a rabbit. Izzy knew her way around knives real good, bragged she could live out here for days on her own. But then Izzy always exaggerated about the things she could do.
Sarah studied the tracks. Glanced back at the trail that she and her friend had made. The more she looked and listened the more alive the emptiness became. She pulled her hand from her lips, wiped her knuckles clean on the back of her jeans.
They were finally at the edge of the pond. For luck Sarah unzipped her jacket slightly and reached inside, touching the pendant at her throat. Her mother had made it for her last birthday, a jagged piece of flattened silver, its edges smoothed to form a broken star. When she let go Sarah felt the coolness of the metal press against her skin. She could still remember the smell of her mother’s breath when she first put the pendant around her neck: the previous night’s round of vodkas, her crusty morning cigarette, the faint after-taste of lime marmalade and toast when she kissed and hugged her so tight she had to wriggle free. Mum, enough already!
Mum, she whispered to herself. The word turned into a mist before her face and floated away as if it were never there.
Izzy was already sitting down on a small ridge of snow, ripping her shoes off and putting on her skates. Sarah started to do the same. She wondered for a second if it would always be like this. And felt a pang of envy for her friend and the easy way she had of doing things. Izzy put her hand on Sarah’s shoulder and smiled as she stood. Sarah’s mixed-up thoughts went away.
The sky seemed to move closer to them for a moment, white inside white, a slow white turning. The breeze ebbed and everything stopped. Among the trees Sarah could hear a vague crack as a branch surrendered to the weight of the previous night’s snow. She thought she heard a surprised scrambling too, a deer maybe, startled by the fall.
Sarah had her boots off and was putting on her skates while Izzy tottered forward and was away with a kick onto the ice. As she criss-crossed over the pond’s surface the dusty cut of the blades inscribed themselves into the morning air, lassoing their way upwards into higher spaces. In or out, don’t mess about, Izzy called as she swerved to a halt, spraying up powder.
Yeah, yeah, chillax, Sarah drawled.
Her fingers were cold and she was having trouble working the skates onto her feet. She pulled the Velcro straps tight and stood, brushing the snow off her backside before moving awkwardly over the ridge. Once she touched the surface of the pond, Sarah started towards Izzy like a big engine rolling down its tracks. People had noticed her at the rink over in Milton, told her she was like a real professional. It felt incredible to be doing it out in the open like this.
Izzy took off again, knowing how fast Sarah was. Her long hair sailed out in dark ringlets, octopus arms. Sarah pulled away her beanie, unleashing a black fin of her own. Her legs pounded the ice as she gained ground on Izzy and began to encircle her in a fast, wide arc.
Her beanie hung in her hand, soggy and half glittering in the frosty light.
The girls’ breathing seemed to fill their entire heads with sound and space. And as they called out to each other it seemed only the sky could hear them clearly.
Sarah thought how she wanted to be thirteen forever! And redoubled her efforts as Izzy made a sneaky move and suddenly cut away from her again and they twisted in and out of each other in sloppy set of figure ‘8’s.
They were moving further out onto the pond.
Sarah’s beanie fell from her hand.
She did not know she had let it go.
No such thing as safe ice, her father had warned her when it had started to freeze over completely. But all Sarah wondered about now was the fishies below and how they could live down there before it thawed again. Did they get cold? Did they escape through the underground stream that fed the pond and flowed on to other places?
She’d seen ducks once, caught at the edge of the pond when the winter began arriving heavier and earlier to Thule only a few years back—and she had helped her father dig them out of the ice and mush. He had not been able to tell her why they had waited to be frozen in rather than just fly away. Some were already dead before they could help them. Her father took them by the neck and threw the bodies into the snow. Sarah had seen this anger in her father before, felt the edge of it on a few occasions when he blew his top and shouted at her. It was worse when he went silent. As if he was throwing the whole world into a dungeon below him.
Sarah watched as her father stood straight and calmed himself.
He had put his hand to her back in reassurance. And they set to work digging again, quiet but close this time—the scrawny, depressed quacking intensifying the urgency of their efforts. The birds they could free were weak, and as they flapped off woozily Sarah feared for where they might go. Their flight as heavy as her mother’s movements to the bedroom a month before, bumping the walls of hallway with her shoulder as she moved. Go back to bed, her father had told her that night. It’s okay. Mum’s just had a bit too much to drink …
Green and black feathers lay scattered over the ground, twisting into the mush beneath their boots as Sarah and her father worked to free the last of the ducks. For luck she picked a feather up and put it in her pocket when he wasn’t looking. It was better than jewellery, almost shining.
She remembered those ducks and the feather she had saved and everything else all at once as she saw her friend begin to slow down ahead of her. Izzy was turning the edges of her skates to stop and buckling her knees, her arms spreading out behind her as she bent her elbows and tried to fall backwards onto her hands.
In spite of the memories and what she was starting to feel now, Sarah began to laugh at Izzy and how funny she looked.
It wasn’t quite a scream. Instead it was soft and heavy the way Izzy said it—soft and loud at once. Then her friend just disappeared.
Sarah heard the thin, splashing crack as if her own stomach were being cut open. Could feel her heart a-rushing, tried to call out her friend’s name without a word escaping her mouth.
Then she saw Izzy’s head and arms bob up and water roll off her. Her wet hair made her head look small and her eyes were big and scared like a doll’s. Izzy grabbed wildly at the nearby ice but there was nothing to hold onto and she slid backwards as if in slow motion.
Now Sarah could see how thin it was around them, the watery greyness of the ice at her feet. Her heart beat even faster as she took a step forwards, then tried to lie down and crawl towards Izzy. The pressure of her chest made it feel as if the pond were swelling like a bruise beneath her. She started praying to Jesus for help but her friend’s shrieks and splashing made it hard to think straight and Sarah was so frightened she barely knew what she was doing at all.
Izzy broke through another piece of ice as she scrambled to get out and disappeared once more. By now Sarah was at the hole. It was as if a large window had been smashed but you weren’t able to see through it. The water was disturbed, dark looking, sluggish with dark motion. Looking into it, Sarah felt a cold fist pushing into her as if her insides were being similarly stirred.
O God, please … Please.
For a moment she could not do anything. Then she screamed. Screamed her friend’s name so loud the sky itself nearly cracked and, as if God had heard her, a head appeared again, then two arms swinging and splashing through the icy sludge. Sarah reached for Izzy’s right hand, could see Izzy shaking her head and blinking madly. My eyes, Izzy wheezed, and something else too, but her tongue lolled and strained in her mouth while water pushed itself in small waves onto the ice where Sarah lay. Izzy grabbed at her friend’s hand at last, caught it in a single sweeping gesture. Sarah could feel herself slipping forwards as they connected, heard a cracking at her chest as she tried to anchor her fingers behind her. Nothing to hold, her hand and body were sliding. She found herself yelling, No, Iz… but as the words came her face was plunged into what felt like a million cold wet pins and she gasped and swallowed as this coldness pierced and burnt her face and blinded her, seizing her throat and her then her body whole.
Now she was in the water too—under the water.
Izzy’s body twisted with hers as Sarah righted herself and fought for the surface. In her panic she lashed out at Izzy—but as Sarah came up for air she grabbed for her friend again; grunting as she wrenched her upwards, gasping as if something immense were crushing and piercing her at once. The cold.
At last they broke the surface, spluttering and coughing together, snot and water streaking Sarah’s mouth; a half-formed shout for help scraping out of her chest, her eyes opening, chilled into a moment of blindness—then sight again.
She heard her friend choke her name outwards: ‘Sa-rah.’
Felt Izzy hug her like she was going to sleep—all the while the water churned around them and she brawled for their lives like a wild thing.
What are you doing? Sarah cried.
But her teeth rattled and her tongue and mouth felt anaesthetised and the words made no sense to her ears as she cried them out.
Sarah saw that it was all slowing down, even as she reached for the ice and more of it broke away beneath her hand and Izzy began to slide from her grip.
It was too late.
Her breathing had been fast and full of stuttering terror, but it seemed only a moment between that and another feeling, as if she were watching it all, calm as could be. Sarah pulled Izzy to her once more and wondered at this world for a moment, saw it tilting. Thought she could see the sun coming out yellow from behind the white drifting sky that had seemed so close and peaceful only moments ago. Saw it shining through a haze that crackled once more into her eyes.
She realised that she and Izzy were below the water again, that she was only imagining what had already occurred above.
It had happened; was not happening.
They were sinking in each other’s arms and there was a shivery darkness embracing them from below, and Sarah was not so frightened now, and she felt the darkness of this water as one would feel a heavy blanket in a dream, as if your head and body were in two worlds and she would wake again to that which was solid and real, pulling her away from the things that terrified her, and she told Izzy this with all her mind’s electricity, and Izzy said she was afraid, and Sarah said that it was okay, we’re all right, and as she did this it felt as if the voices of her life were growing around her in a song, as if they were just outside her bedroom window like calling birds, and she began singing back to them and helping Izzy to sing through her too, and she held Izzy even closer to her with the love of a sister’s heart, and the water was cold, and blacker now, like the dim deep falling weight of sleep itself, and Sarah felt as if they were becoming ghosts in this blackness (blacker now), departing their bodies and floating down through the night into another kind of morning where everything would be all right, and she hoped then that they might come back across this sleep made of water to tell everyone it was okay and not to be sad (like calling birds), don’t be afraid, they were only dreaming and soon they would wake, it was allright, they were headed towards the morning, running home, running home, and it was silver and dark at once, the same as always, the same as always (solid and real), Sarah could feel it breaking across her dreaming eyelids, Dad, Mum, o please, the cold, it’s all right, sweetheart, the first moment of dawn through her bedroom curtains when she heard the birds (sleep itself), they were calling back to her, it’s okay, almost there, footsteps, voices, water, another day, the same as always, silver and dark and silver (another kind of morning), and they sang and they called and they sang …
© Mark Mordue