WHITE ICE FLOES IN
CLEAR BLUE WATER
Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of
Contemporary Literature
 

ISSN 1931-3888

Volume 11, Number 2
(Fall 2016)

Copyright © 2016
by Leah Browning, Editor.

All future rights to
material published
in the
Apple Valley
Review
are retained by
the individual authors
and artists.

www.applevalleyreview.com
Fiction by Arndt Britschgi

                              Dad, in midwinter, took them out onto the ice.  
                      It was the coldest time of year; the inner portions of
                      the bay were frozen solid to the bottom.  They took
                      their bearings on the lighthouse and went straight
                      out to the sea, to the navigable passage a good hour
                      from the shore; they stayed a while and watched the
                      merchant ships move slowly in and out, so close they
                      could have hit the hulls throwing a snowball.  In the
                      snow across the field skiers had left their double
                      tracks in criss-cross patterns, punctuated by the
                      poles.  Scattered cars along the road plowed on the
                      ice threw bright reflections as the sun beamed on
                      their windshields and their fresh coatings of finish.
                              The following morning he went down and it
                      was all an open sea.  The breeze had changed during
                      the night and pushed the massive ice field out; all
                      that remained was a white line along the low strip
                      of the beach and on the portions of the bay closest
                      to land—the portions frozen to the bottom, as he
                      gathered.  Some hours earlier and that’s the end of
                      them, he realized.

      During the coldest winter months, from January into March, the
sea froze over.  Towards the end of March, or April at the latest, the
ice broke open and on coming from the house Stacey would see
shining white ice floes in the water of the bay, spread out in patterns
on the mirror of its disk—the sun would shine from an incredibly clear
sky and lie and glisten on the last remnants of snow left on the ground,
beyond the bay the sea appeared an endlessness of intense blue, the
air above it so transparent that the farthest-away islets, where they
merged with the horizon line, would seem to soar into its cut-glass
midst, and watching coming from the house, across the sparsely-
trunked pine grove, he’d feel the impact of the highlight of the year
that was emerging.  There were the early days of June when summer
came and school would end, when in fine weather night would never
settle in, when you would lie in bed and think and night would never
fall outside.  There were the storms later in fall, the frothing waves
beating their rage across the merchant port breakwater, a lashing rain
ripping the clouds into untiring, violent sheets; and there was spring,
when in the bay the ice broke up and sent white floes into the clear
blue of the sea.
      On days on which the sky was overcast the water turned from
blue to heavy lead, black where the bottom of the bay let through its
shadow, and the whiteness of the floes took on a shade of dampened
gray.  Between the floes the water sometimes filled with slush.

      The bay was off limits to them, and what their parents always
drew on was the danger.  You’d hear their stories of the people who
had drowned out on the ice, but then they never specified exactly
who these people were or when exactly any of this had occurred; all
you would learn was that there had been lots of cases in the past—
last year, the year before last year, ten years ago even or more—and
with the missing points of reference the stories lost their edge.  After
school, on a fine day the shoreline came alive with people swarming
out in smaller groups; it was a tide, a force of nature, an occasion
typically in which pure instinct conquered any use of reason; no
constraints or lecturing could stem the flow.  Stacey remembered on
a Sunday they’d gone walking to the beach, Dad and Joe, his older
brother, and himself, the sunlight gleaming on the ice heaped on the
bank in layered tiers, and the water farther out an immense blue so
staggering that for the whole rest of his life he’d fall asleep at night
and dream that he went swimming in his trunks between the floes,
diving directly from the edge of the packed ice into the deep, no
sense of cold, just the inviting, crystal clearness of the waves.  The
water never got so sparkling clean again, later in spring or through
the summer when you went down in your trunks to swim for real,
looking to dive in from the high-drop headland cliffs.
      On occasions it was only the packed ice heaped on the bank.  
During the day the sun would melt the blocks along their jagged rims,
the blocks would drip onto the surface where the ice and water met
and in the night the wetness hardened to a shiny and black strip, and
if you came early enough you could go skating over miles along the
shoreline on that glasslike, wildly serpentining track, on your one side
the packed ice rafts, on the other open sea.  It was that atmosphere
of sea and flooding sun on rock-hard ice that Stacey went to when he
drifted into sleep during the nights, when he went diving between floes
and swam and didn’t feel the cold.  
      The time they’d gone out for the walk (the real event at the
origin of his lifelong nightly dream), Dad had stopped short and
watched the ice cracked up in floes across the bay, the small floes
lying tight together closest in forming a mat, and then the child hidden
inside him came to life and he rushed out splashing from one chunk to
the next, wearing his Sunday shoes and ironed flannel trousers and
suede coat.  At the end he missed one floe, dipping his foot in to the
knee.  As he came back along the beach he was all smiles and short
of breath and asked them, “See?  I bet you thought I couldn’t do that,
didn’t you?”  Oh, sure, they’d seen it.  Sure, they’d seen him miss
one floe, that’s what they’d seen.  And now they saw him with one
shoe and trousers leg completely soaked, and once at home Mother
would spank him since he’d come back from the beach his Sunday
shoes and ironed trousers in a ruin.
      “Aha, it’s you I’ll have to watch starting from now!”  Mom
scolded him and slapped his ears, and had him stand hands on his
back facing the wall, deep in the corner and keep still, don’t turn your
head and look around or did she have to come again and slap his ears
until he started to behave?  So there he stood stealing quick glances at
the boys, sneaking them smiles, and Stacey thought he’d never had a
greater time in his whole life.  He loved his dad more than he ever
would have wanted to admit, not for the fact that it’s his dad and all of
that but for those things: for what he did and what he said and, thinking
back, what he believed in.  He loved him even more that day because
that day he knew within that Dad must love the ice as much as he
himself did.  (That went for Mother just as well, for through the whole
scene you could see how much this thing with Dad’s wet shoes and
socks and trousers leg amused her.)
      In terms of furthering their discipline Dad’s impulse proved
disastrous.  Whatever warnings, threats, or educative stories they
would face, they’d always have an argument ready at hand.  Dad did
it too.  The nature of Dad’s heart was stronger than his sense, Stacey
found later.

      The others went down to the bay drawn by the spell of early
spring, or the weather wasn’t good but someone had the great idea
that they could go there anyway to pass the time, the wind had broken
up a string of splendid floes during the night, some people passing by
the beach coming to school claimed they had seen them—although in
fact no one was known to pass that way coming to school, so it was
more like any other simple rumor: it set the minds in motion based on
an illusion.  The image of that string of floes would light a spark within
their minds which grew and smoldered through the deadly hours of
learning, attracting them in one big stream down to the shore when
school was over; but Stacey went down every day, alone or joined by
someone else, the weather beautiful or not, rumors of floes or without
rumors.  He loved the ice; he wouldn’t readily pass up one single day.  
He loved the water, the sensation it produced when he looked down
into the depth and saw the ripples drawn into the bottom sands, so
sharply chiseled from the ripples on the surface.  He loved that
clearness of the water in itself, its glacial prism.  He loved the silence
of the world he sensed below.  He loved the sound the sea would
make, its swell, its unmoved constant presence.  He loved the view
out to the open of the sea—and in his dreams, at night, he swam in
only trunks between the floes.
      The playing season on the ice split into two distinctive phases.  
During the first, during the day the daytime highs would rise above the
freezing point and cause a strong, gradual melting.  The ice was
molded in its structure by and by until it broke on stretches randomly
dispersed over the whole, without its main mass being driven from the
shore.  This was the stage in which you sensed some of the danger
you were warned of.  The floes would form encircled segments in the
ice across the bay, the water opening between them profound black,
marking a depth that left no chance of reaching bottom with your feet.  
If you went in and couldn’t keep yourself afloat and swim around and
grab a chunk sturdy enough to hold the burden of your weight, or a
stretch of solid ice you could roll onto, you would sink down helpless
and heavy with the load of your wet clothes.  The idea during the first
phase was to cross over the floes from one safe segment of the ice
onto another, the more dangerous the route you chose the better—
more danger signifying greater distances and smaller floes, small floes-
big floes in complicated sequences and, first of all, a route that
nobody had dared to go before.  “I bet I’ll make it across there, from
where we stand to where you see that three-peaked floe turned on its
side.”  “Straight across?  I bet you won’t.”  “I bet I will.”—and there
you go, and damn your luck if you don’t make that three-peaked floe,
not on account of the fool bet but since you know that if you don’t
you’ll slide and end up in the water, swimming, struggling to hold on.  
The small floes sink under your feet, you have to move on instantly,
they come in quick succession here so see you keep your treading
swift, only that one brief touch you need to make the figure of a stride;
for once your weight stays on one spot you force the chunk under you
down, you fall behind and floe by floe you find yourself sinking in
deeper, what you want is one firm step to take you back but then you
know a solid step is noxious now by definition.  At night, that fraction
of a second before floating off to sleep, Stacey would see the mat of
floes closing itself above his head, he’d feel himself submerged in
water with no chance of pushing through, and he would jerk awake
choking, the horror beating in his chest.  In that anxiety the danger
would seem very real indeed.  During the day the prospect changed,
the risks took on a different shape.  There hadn’t been a known case
yet of anybody who had drowned, or anyone they could have
furnished with real features and a name: what were the chances of
becoming the first case there had been ever?  Not so immense; none
more or less.  Practically zero.

      If you came home with your clothes wet you had a beating
coming up.  Mom could forgive you your wet socks, or a wet
trousers leg at best, but if you’d been in any deeper than your knee
she’d be unyielding.  If you’d been swimming you’d get beaten just
as sure, plus something worse: straight off to bed, no meal, no lights,
no matter what time of the day!  Hadn’t she told you not to go out on
the ice?  What, hadn’t she?  So what was this?  How come your
clothes were soaking wet, how could it be?  How did that happen?  
Now get those wet clothes off your back and then let’s see about the
beach, about not minding what we’ve told you not to do.
      So were you belted? they would ask next day in school.  Sure,
you’d reply—most people were if they went in, it was the customary
rule.  You’d ruined your clothes, that in itself was grounds enough for
getting whacked; and then the bay’s forbidden ground to you in
spring, you had been warned, you fully knew you could be punished
for just going there at all.  Don’t want a beating?  Then don’t go out
on the ice, you understand (or don’t come home your trousers
dripping so it shows, in case you do).  Is it agreed?  Yes, it’s agreed.  
It was your choice what you would do from that point on; if you
preferred to take the risk or let it be was your decision.  You knew
the stakes, it was a fair deal all in all.
      Although that wasn’t the whole picture, not the issue at its root.  
Some parents did exclude their children from the playing on the ice;
they’d take the unwarranted power their position granted them and
execute it to the ultimate extreme, systematically subduing their own
children (their
own children) to their will, not leaving any slightest
margin of revolt.  You’d meet those people and you’d watch them
with a shudder in your spine: they never came down to the ice, so
they were somehow set apart.  You’d look at them the way you often
looked at somebody disabled—at the veterans from the war circling
the town still in those days, in rundown wheelchairs, legs and arms
shot off and jobless, mostly drunk—you’d look with pity and with
awe and with some distance finally, frightened in part and partly
grateful that, by some strange stroke of luck, it wasn’t you.
      All parents knew their children went down to the ice, Mom at
the front: all she would do was take a good look from the window
and she’d see the shoreline filling up with people any day throughout
the spring.  She saw you pull your rubber boots on when you left,
and would you wear those things for fun, for something else except
the floes?  Not likely, no.  She understood where you were going
and she could have told you no; she could have put her share of self-
awarded power into work, reducing you to a mere pet completely
subject to her will (a will-less instrument of parental ambitions and
desires—you saw that happening all over, and by methods more
refined than just a ruthless show of strength), but she said nothing.  
She watched you leave, and it was clear that if you came back
showing signs of having plunked in you’d get beaten, so see to it that
you don’t: save all of us a load of trouble by just keeping your clothes
dry.  For if you’re caught on getting home you know what happens.  
Good.  Fair deal.  You could accept that, you could easily adapt
yourself to that.  You’d take the risk hoping you’d make it without
plunking in this time, and if you did so much the worse; you knew
you’d have to pay the price.
      To have you sit at home and watch the others go would have
been cruel, even perverted in a sense; that far your parents wouldn’t
take it.  (You’d get a house arrest for two days or a week or
sometimes more, but that was different.  A house arrest came with a
limit, bite your teeth and fight it out; it’s not like robbing you of all
you had of hope.)  So come home wet and you’ll get punished.  Do
you hear?  You understand?  You can’t just go and risk your life out
there; I won’t stand by and watch it.  Scolding the children, belting
them, was a spare outlet parents had to compensate for the neglect
they evidenced in their protection, on the one hand.  On the other
was their deeper understanding.  They saw white ice floes in those
clear blue waters too, they felt the call, they didn’t want to go against
what there was buried in their hearts.  They wouldn’t crush the hope
they recognized within their children’s hearts.  Most mothers
struggled between duty and their dreams and compromised, one part
of nature and an equal part of reason: okay, go, but please be
careful—if you’re not, and if I notice!  God, you’ll see!

      The second phase arrived a few weeks further on into the
spring.  The sea would open up by then, though closest in along the
shore a line of old ice would remain, in the shadow of the pine-tree
grove above, reaching from ten to twenty steps into the water where
it waged its losing battle with the warming springtime sun.  The line
of ice would show a crackling, hard consistency at first, becoming
slushy on the surface in the early afternoon, and hard again toward
the evening when the shadow had returned.  Big rafts of ice would
break away along its border day and night; depending on the
changing winds they’d either lie joined to the shore or spread and
vanish out of sight, an unmanned fleet crossing the sea.  They’d be
like ships adrift inviting you to step aboard and sail.
      The rafts would break in heavy portions at this stage, although
here too there was the normal range of differences in size, stretching
from blocks so big you’d need a group of four to take them out (or
even more, but then they wouldn’t be so suitable for sailing), to
smaller rafts which you could cope with on your own.  Once you had
freed them from the edge you’d need a pole to punt them on, and
that again was the origin of much conflict back at home.  The finest
poles by far were those Mom used as posts for her clothes line.  That
meant you had to sneak them out and take them with you when you
went and have them back in their right places before Mom had the
idea to leave the house, circle around, and see that some of them
were missing (small hope she wouldn’t have a hunch from the
beginning, since in fact she’d gotten wise to you the first or second
time).  There’d be a war about the poles, and all you finally could
hope was that at least she wouldn’t have to do the washing just that
day, producing all those heaps of laundry to hang out; for if she did
you’d have to go down to the grove and find a bough (even the best
of them were nothing like Mom’s poles), or otherwise risk one more
belting if your clothes were ruined or not, later at night when you
returned home from the beach.  Lucky for you that time of year there
wasn’t that much to hang out, the laundry usually dried better in the
house.  So usually you’d snitch Mom’s poles; Mom as a rule would
stay inside rather than go and check the line, she wouldn’t care too
much to have what she knew anyway confirmed.  Luckily too those
poles were pretty sturdy things that never broke, because to break
one would have meant a full-scale war, no more concessions.
      One afternoon two older boys loaded their bikes onto a floe
and took them sailing the whole length across the bay, from its one
end close to town out to the other, hitting the shore beyond the
outcrop rocks which split the beach in two.  They chose the route
over the sandbanks, shallow water all the way; they didn’t need to
take good poles but used two boards which they had ripped out of
the fence that stood half busted on the far side of the grove, at the
border to the red-clay tennis courts.  The evening fell with superb
ease, the water mirroring the sky, its surface not so much as ruffled
by the breeze.  You heard the voices of the boys as they were
talking on the floe, echoing jokes and roars of laughter, scattered
pieces of a song.  Stacey stayed on until he saw them touch on land
and get ashore.  They’d gone across in a straight line, a distance
roughly of two miles, tracing the figure of a bow with the curved
shoreline; as they were landing night approached, the stars were
slowly coming out and far away you saw the lighthouse towers
blinking through the dark.  The boys went walking up the beach
pushing their bikes across the sand, and then got on and pedaled
home along their ordinary route; from where he stood Stacey could
barely see their contours disappear.

      So when the wind was right he chose to go himself around the
headland.  No one had ventured it before, in company or on their own;
it was the one remaining challenge of the floes.
      Around the headland were deep waters: what he planned was to
hang on close to the rock and hook his pole into the line of layered ice
and frozen snow heaped on its banks, with the intent to simply haul
himself along.  He’d taken time in picking out a proper pole.  He’d
taken one aside and nailed an iron boathook to its end, the kind the
watchmen liked to use during the summer when they hauled the tourist
sailing boats that landed at the small-boat harbor jetty.  He thought
he’d use the pole to punt the floe ahead as usual and, out of depth, turn
it around and use the hook to get a firm hold in the snow; one single
pole would serve the purpose either way.  When he came walking to
the bay the others asked about his gear and Stacey told them he was
going to take a floe around the headland, and explained the plan he had
and what the iron hook was for, and they said hey, come on, you know
that couldn’t work, there’s too much risk.  Nobody’s done it yet, you
know, you know how bad it gets out there; no one would think of ever
trying that for real—alone as well and everything, oh no, no way!—so
spare us please.
      They didn’t think he meant to try it; he was merely showing off.  
They watched him make his preparations and then realized he would,
and then their faces changed from mocking disbelief to real concern.  
They’d follow him from up the rock, they’d shout instructions from
above and try to warn him of the obstacles that lay ahead, okay?—but
other than at some few points they couldn’t get down to the edge to
lend a hand, the rock would be too steep for that. Got that okay?  All
they could do if something happened was to run and fetch some help.  
Was he aware of that?  Stack, listen.  You aware of that or not?  Sure,
Stacey said.  Sure, he’s aware of that, that’s fine.  Okay with him.  
Don’t go before though, they won’t let me go along with the whole
thing.  He’d have to stick tight to the rock, steering away out from the
bay, circle the headland to the bay that came behind it, at its rear.  
Most of the way the rock was steep and deadly slippery with ice; you
couldn’t climb it from the water until further into spring, and even then,
even in summer, not the whole stretch of its length.  It was too steep
and much too glassy from the waves to get a hold.  The distance would
be fairly close to what the older boys had covered, crossing over in the
opposite direction with their bikes.  He’d need about the time they’d
had, a little more but in that range.  He was convinced he’d make it
safely before dark.
      The breeze blew landwards, light and steady and caressing on
your face; it didn’t seem the kind of wind that would gain strength and
raise big waves.  He would be driven constantly against the rock and
not away; there wasn’t any actual risk of drifting out towards the sea.  
He picked a floe, its weight not more than he could manage well alone,
just wide enough to give him room to move around from side to side
choosing a spot from which he’d hook his pole securely in the snow,
and thick enough to swim its top the proper height above the water,
neutralizing any pitch that he’d be taking farther out.  He took his pole
and only hoped it wouldn’t break along the way.  In case it broke he
wouldn’t make it; that’s one risk he’d have to take.  (Now he regretted
that he hadn’t brought a spare pole all the same, just to be sure.)
      The first stretch out felt fairly easy, like a casual Sunday stroll.  
The bay was knee-deep where the rock face separated from the beach,
and he could use the pole to push against the bottom normally, punting
the floe out to the point where until fifteen years before, when new
directives on pollution had been passed, the sewer water from the
waste-pipe had been pumped.  Around that point the shore fell off into
a narrowly cut cove, the rock a precipice that dropped into the water
at its mouth; he’d have to clear the mouth from one end to the other
with one push, one single impact that would carry him across the open
breach, somewhere near fifteen ells of sailing unpropelled against the
wind.  The inlet frightened him; he knew that here in fact people had
drowned (he knew the names of some, and dates, he’d seen their
pictures in old papers); due to the current from the sewer pipe the
sheet of ice stayed thin throughout the winter, through the longest and
severest spells of cold, it looked all right dusted with snow but
underneath the upmost coat it wasn’t more than just that half-diluted
sheet.  People who didn’t know the place tried to walk over and fell in
and then the current went to work and sucked them down and they
were gone.  The pipe no longer carried sewage, but it seemed the inlet
mouth would never form a coat of solid ice again, as out of habit.  Save
for the dusting in those very cold, short periods of the year it was black
water or a black spot in the snow across the top, and Stacey started
drifting over, feeling frightened at the thought of all the people that he
knew this place had swallowed in the past.  He thought that some of
them were floating in the inlet till this day, close to the bottom,
mummified within the coldness of the deep.  In older days no one had
cared to clean their dead bodies away.
      After the inlet he was facing vast, profound ranges of depth.  He
drove the hook into the ice and hardened snow next to the rock, as far
ahead as he could bring the pole to reach, pulling the raft little by little
on its way along the shore; the floe would turn around its axis, rolling
slowly around itself, with Stacey moving counterclockwise and against
its lazy spin while he maintained a fixed position in relation to the land,
the nearest point, gaining a good hold for his hook and hauling back the
pole again, pulling it smoothly, without haste, progressing steadily by
now.  He was arriving head to head with open sea and felt the fear
hidden within resurge and seize him by the chest: on his right he had the
rock face, insurmountable to him, and on his left the waves came rising
higher than he could have feared.  The water roiled uneasily, rowdy and
punished by the wind; it seemed to darken well before the sky above it
lost its light, and very soon its far horizon disappeared out of his view.  
The biggest waves were breaking in over the floe, washing its floor,
rinsing the surface clean and glasslike where he touched it with his feet.  
His toes were cold, his fingers froze inside the formless, icy gloves; he
wished he hadn’t made this journey, it was crazy.  He felt sick.
      By and by the upper surface of the floe had washed away; his
fears were growing and he knew without the grip that surface gave he
wouldn’t be in a position to go on using much force.  He would get
careless and apply all of the force he had to give, his feet would slip
and he would fall and drop the pole, and that was it—or, still more
miserably, stumble off the floe and simply drown.  Please don’t fall
over, please, he thought, see that you keep yourself afoot; during some
moments the whole struggle crystallized into those terms.  Planning it
out he hadn’t taken waves this size into account; what if he tried to
clear an inlet at this stage and halfway through the pressure from them,
from the side, carried him in and not across?  All of the inlets were bare
rock face dropping straight into the deep, and once inside he wouldn’t
have the means to work his way back out, nothing to drive his hook
into, no bottom for the pole to punt, so if the waves pushed on and
drove him into one he’d end up trapped.  He’d have to go on clearing
inlets as before, pushing away, drifting unpowered from their one arm
to the next, across the mouth, depending solely on that first and single
thrust he was allowed; but push away meant shifting great amounts of
weight onto his feet, and what about the lack of footing, if he slipped
and lost his pole?  And then the waves?—he’d need much force to
brave the power of the waves and hold his course.  To slip and fall now
would be fateful, it would spell his utter doom—facing the sea filled him
with dread, he wished he’d never started this.  (He could have stayed
and sailed around with all the others in the bay, why did he have to do
these things?—why always him? what would he gain?)  He thought of
maybe turning back but it was too late now for that.  The route back in
was just as hard as what he had ahead of him, and it was longer.  He
was past that point; he didn’t have the time.  The sun had sunk behind
the mainland and its woods a while before, the light was fading from the
sky leaving it dark just as the sea, and from the rock some way above
the boys were shouting down to him; Stacey was thinking that the
number of their voices had declined.  They warned of what was coming
next, and told him how the shoreline looked.  There’s lots of slush
floating around so it would slow him down, they yelled, it would require
heavy work to break it up and sail on through; and don’t fall over, do
you hear, Stacey was thinking to himself.  Just don’t fall over, please,
don’t fall, he kept repeating in his head; he felt alone, the dark rock
rising steep, unmoving on his right, and on his other side the vastness
of the sea plain in his face.  He found himself caught in the throes of
nature’s forces as they clashed, blissfully ignorant of him where he
advanced between their fronts.  The bigger waves came washing clean
across his floe and left his feet up to the ankles in the water, no firm
hold against its floor; there were no words now to express how he
regretted starting this.
      The fear hung on intense and vivid as he sailed around the bend
and passed the parts where the suspension bridge was drawn over a
gorge, where people claimed someone had come and tied a lead weight
to a rope and thrown it in and when the rope had rolled itself out to the
end the weight still hadn’t touched the bottom, there was no bottom to
touch.  They said a plane had crashed and sunk around that place
during the war, and then the divers, well equipped, guided and
monitored from a ship, had never managed to get down onto those
depths to find the wreck.  You’d swim there sometimes in the summer
and be panicked by the void you felt beneath; you knew the bottom
disappeared from under you, an abyss opened, if you sank you’d go on
sinking in that dark hole endlessly.  Stacey was stricken by a terror as
he soared across the depth, dizzy and nauseous as he glided out above
it.  He reached the cliff where they would gather and dive in straight
from the rock, where it went dropping to the water forming shelves and
you could choose between the heights like at the swim-bath diving
platform back in town; reaching that point he felt the confidence he’d
lost slowly recover.  The diving cliff was his home ground, a friendly
place where he was safe.  He’d have to clear one final inlet but that
didn’t make him scared.  The waves were ripples once again which
drove him in towards firm land; if he should miss the mark and lose
touch with the rock he’d drift along until he met the line of packed ice
that was filling up the bay, and starting there it was a walk up to the
beach, no further danger—and anyway he’d clear the inlet as foreseen,
like until now, he wouldn’t fumble at this stage.  He couldn’t blow this
anymore.
      As he went walking up the last stretch to the shore he heard the
boys coming descending from the rock, their voices shrill with the
excitement.  So now he’d done it, what for years people had preached
you couldn’t do; there was the beauty of the act as such, and in its
execution.  And there was pride at having people as his witness who
would talk—a slender doubt was born in him eating away at the first
gleam, about the motives he had had for going through with this at all.  
His hands and feet were numb, his body started shivering with cold, he
felt the sequels of the effort working on inside of him, the truth of them
a vindication overshadowing all else; he felt relief and, soon, regret or
discontent that it was over.  (How many times, the sea still frozen, had
he walked around the rock, marking the harder parts he’d have to
travel through!  Or watched the waves, how they behaved and with
what weather and what winds—though, it was true, he’d missed the
point about their size deplorably!)
      Someone had run home and fetched Joey; Stacey saw his
brother’s face a little pale, a little dazed, coming against him down the
beach.  “What’s going on, Stack?  Stack, screw you, are you okay?”
Joe said to him.
      “Yes, I’m okay.  What did you think, Joey?  I’m fine.  I’m feeling
great.”
      “You’ve lost your mind or what, what’s wrong with you?  What’s
gotten into you?  And what if Mom finds out—she’ll kill you, Stack.  
She’ll beat you black and blue.”
      “I guess she will, if she finds out.  I hope she won’t find out, that’s
all.”
      “Your food got cold hours ago.  What will you tell her?”
      “I don’t know.  I’ll say I went down to the rock, and then forgot
how late it was.  It’s not a lie, not when you think—and I’m not wet or
anything.”
      “Give me that pole.  Look how you’re shaking.”
      Stacey handed him the pole.  “The earth keeps rolling when I
walk, like I’m still rolling on the waves.”
      “Oh boy, you’re nuts.  You always were somehow, you know.  
You know, plain nuts.”
      Joe took the pole and put one arm around Stack’s shoulders as
they went, to keep him warm and give him cover from the wind.  
      At home their mother looked at Stacey pulling off his rubber
boots.  She listened quietly while he told about the rock.  “Go get your
food out of the fridge; you’ll have to eat it cold,” she said.

      Coming to school the following day, the others knew that he had
gone around the rock (the teachers too: he noticed how at times their
eyes would remain frozen on his face, on occasions when they thought
he wouldn’t see); when he got home the rumor of it had reached Mom.  
He forced his thoughts into the distance while she placed him on the
bench, pulled down his pants, and started giving him the flogging he had
earned, trying to raise a mental screen between his senses and the pain,
but very soon his concentration broke to bits under her blows.  In a
corner of his mind he felt the shame of being laid exposed and helpless
on the chair, writhing, his pants around his knees; there came a moment
when he thought he’d chew his tongue biting his teeth, before the
punishment was over and he breathed once again.  Mom stayed severe
and sent him straight away to bed when she was through—the sun was
shining, pouring all its greatest splendor on the bay; he knew the
shoreline would be swarming very soon, there would be girls.  He could
have gone down with his pole and they’d have watched him as he came,
throwing their glances from the side, their heads together, their laughs
thrilled.  And there he was brushing his teeth, in his pajamas, all alone.  
No scraps of food for him that night, the curtains drawn, no lights turned
on, the boys’ room door pulled shut and see that you keep quiet in your
bed, don’t make a sound except in case you have to go out to the loo,
you ask permission, understand, you wait and ask before you do; he
didn’t think he’d felt so close to giving way ever before.  Go on and cry,
he thought, go on, make her feel sorry just this once.  Only this once see
if you make her change her mind and let you go.  It was the first time
he’d been belted coming home his clothes in shape, for the mere fact
of having gone out on the ice against their will—he hadn’t even wet his
feet, although the waves had left them pretty badly frozen in the end
(although of course he’d come home late, he’d missed the mealtime by
a load; and it’s his luck that Joe had thought of tearing off the hook he’d
nailed into the clothes-line pole to have it back in place again in time).  
It was the first time he’d been punished with a period of delay.  He lay
awake hearing the swell against the rock filling his ears and knew in fact
he didn’t mind any of that so specially; and when he shut his eyes he
wallowed in blue waves among white floes and felt no cold and all his
wants and vain complaints had disappeared.
      Dad came to see him later on.  “So, Stack, they’re saying that you
went around the headland on a floe.  You on your own.”
      “Yes,” Stacey said, nodding a little as he spoke
      “You could have drowned.  I mean, you’re lucky that you didn’t
drown out there.  You know yourself you could have drowned this time,
or don’t you, Stack?  Let’s hear?”
      “Yes, Dad.  I know.”
      “You just imagine if the floe had gone too far out from the rock,
what would have happened?  It could have drifted with the wind, or
with the surge, or anything.  You can’t swim back in in the winter, with
the water all that cold.  You’ve got a minute there or two, and then
you’re frozen.  Then you’re done.  Where would you swim in any case,
you can’t climb up that icy low part of the rock.”
      “I know you can’t,” Stacey admitted with a nod.  “I wouldn’t let it
drift that far, though; I’d prepared myself for that.”
      “Oh, you’d prepared yourself?  I told you, that’s pure luck.  
Nothing but luck.  So just don’t pull a thing like that ever again, you
hear?  Okay?”
      “Oh. . . .  Well, okay.”
      “Oh nothing, Stack.  You want to go on being friends with me or
not?”
      “Of course I do.  You know I do.”
      “Then listen carefully to this.  Don’t go and pull a thing like that
ever again.  
Ever, I mean.”
      “Okay, I won’t pull it again,” Stacey agreed, his voice grown thin.  
He couldn’t bear the thought of Dad and him no longer being friends; he
looked away to hide the thickness forming close behind his eyes.  “You
love the floes as much as I do, Dad.  You can’t say that you don’t.”
      “Maybe I do.  Sure, Stack, I do.  It’s true I love the floes a lot.  
But not enough that I would have them take you from me.”
      Stacey lay quiet, with his mouth locked and his eyes fixed in the air.
      “You won’t be crying now, or will you?”
      “Not before you’re out of here.”
      “For Christ’s sake, Stack, why do you do this, to prove what?  
What will it prove?  In the end you’ll only hurt yourself by doing what
you do.”
      “But I’m not proving anything; you make too much of it somehow.  
I just don’t want you to imagine that I’m crying, nothing else.”
      “Did Mother belt you good this time?” his father asked after a
while.
      “Yes,” Stacey said.  “But that’s all right.”
      “This time you really had it coming.  Really, Stack.  You really did.  
I hope it teaches you a lesson, so you won’t do it again.”
      But one day later all the colleagues at Dad’s office had the news
that Stack had gone around the headland on a floe, going alone.  The
child in Dad’s heart was much stronger than his sense.

      There was a third stage on the ice, the stage referred to as the
flexing.  The flexing stage used to come early, close to Christmas as
a rule, when the first cold wrapped the waters in a fine, dark-wrinkled
shell.  You had the option of the duck pond with its stagnant, low-salt
pool which would allow it to freeze over very early in the year—but
here as always the real issue was the sea, down in the bay.  The
flexing
lacked much of the challenge and the grandeur of the floes, but at its
best it had its spell and it would make for lots of fun.
      The early ice wouldn’t be brittle and break up like in the spring,
but rather thin and unbelievably resistant.  You ventured out on it some
distance, very cautiously at first (it gave a blazing, echoing sound through
its whole length each step you’d take), made a turn, and ran back in
applying fair amounts of weight, flexing the crust, raising a crest or
glacial wave in front of you.  The ice would bend to quite astonishing
extremes.  The glacial wave in front would rise up to the level of your
knees, a depression correspondingly behind it; the depression filled with
water at your heels but even so, at the correct speed the racked ice
would keep resisting.  It was a game of taking calculated risks, pushing
the limit.  Move too fast and it’s like any other walk, no threat to
mention; or too slow and you’ll start sliding down the incline of the
wave, into the water chasing you until at some point it will get you.  In
time you learned to force that balance to the edge.
      You could practice it alone or you could go in bigger groups, more
people side by side to form a drawn-out chain; if those who joined you
had the skill the crest you raised could grow in height until it reached up
to the level of your hips, the dip behind it always on an equal scale.  The
crest would rise in a sharp angle steep enough to seem a wall; you’d
strain yourself to keep on going and stay steady on your feet, aware that
too far out ahead the crest was fragile and would pop whereas behind
you, in the dip, the water quickly sucked you down.  You weren’t alone
setting the pace; you had to synchronize your movements.  In the event
that the ice broke you had a chance to move along, shifting your weight
onto the leg that still could offer you support, pulling your other foot
away out of the gap, raising your speed.  Or you went in with both your
feet but had the time to roll away, onto some part where you were safe
and could recover.  Or if you crashed in to your waist you’d take your
weight onto your arms and work yourself out of the hole before you
sank the whole way through.  You had the bottom within reach; the
danger wasn’t so acute (except at times, the big occasions when you
flexed some headland site—they weren’t so frequent since the headland
didn’t have good landing-strips—where the waters you defied would, in
effect, be cruel and deep; and here again you had the stories of those
unknown who’d been caught under the ice, sliding away somehow from
where they’d fallen through, struggling in vain to find their way back out
and drowning painfully); but on the whole you’d end up wet if you could
roll away or not, due to the water that came welling from the hole you’d
opened up, or coming close up on your tail in the depression.
      One Christmas Eve they’d been with Joe and some more people
in the bay, during the morning while their mothers still prepared the
coming feasts.  They’d done the
flexing five or six of them abreast,
starting the trudge behind the marker where the swimming raft was
moored during the summer, rushing in raising great crests before arriving
on the beach.  One of the others slipped and rolled up to his neck in the
depression, soaked all over when he finally got back up on his feet.  He
wore a coat his mom had made him that same fall, and brand new
pants—probably dressed up in advance for that occasion of the year
when they were forced to look devout and go to church.  They met him
afterwards and asked what they had done to him at home, had he been
whacked?  But, no, he hadn’t.  Really, no, he hadn’t been.  Instead his
mom had looked him deep into the eyes and tried to hug him, thanks to
God that you’re alive at least, she’d said.
      “Oh, please.  Come on, you’re coming home your new clothes
spoiled and your mom
hugs you?  That’s a joke.”
      “I felt embarrassed; it was weird.  I could have sworn that she was
breaking out in tears; she almost did.  I guess it’s Christmas time so
close, she’s only grateful that I’m there.”
      “I wouldn’t like to drown myself on Christmas Eve,” somebody
said.  
      All of the others saw the point: it wouldn’t be a happy time.  All
except one whose father was an atheist to the degree that he would
never let the family at home celebrate Christmas; but then he too agreed
in part.  His father mostly was at sea and so, when Christmas time
arrived, his mother got something together for the children on the sly.  
At any rate, Christmas was two weeks off from school; who’d like to
drown?

                                                  •

      Dad took them out onto the ice, out to the navigable channel
which the icebreakers kept open at all times.  It was the coldest winter
month, the coat of ice thick on the sea, the inner portions of the bay
were frozen solid to the bottom; there was a road plowed through the
snow for those who lived along the coast, so they could drive down in
their cars and head directly into town without the nuisance of the
roundabout and poorly serviced highway.  The untouched snow and
cloudless sky turned everything into a shimmer.  They took their
bearings on a lighthouse and set off out to the lane, and stayed a while
and watched the merchant ships move slowly in and out, getting so
close as to make signs and exchange comments with the crews.  The
way back in took them another, ample hour.  Their heavy jackets and
the jerseys made the boys sweat in the sun; they got back home half-
dead with thirst and there was one of those rare moments that arrive
no one knows how, one frozen image that remained in Stacey’s mind
for all the future: Joe took his glass and went and filled it from the tap
out in the bathroom.  Mom asked him why, why did he always take his
water from the loo, wasn’t the water in the kitchen just as good or what
was wrong?  It’s the same water, Joey, isn’t it? she said.  Yes, it’s the
same, but not as cold, Joey replied, and that was true.  The kitchen
water never came out really fresh and cold like that; you had to let it run
a while and even then it wasn’t good, never as good as you would get it
if you took it from the bath.  It’s a conviction Stacey’d held to ever
since; he’d spend his life fetching his water from the bathroom, without
fail—or from the loo, as Mom would say.
      The following morning he went down and all the ice had
disappeared.  The sea was open; there was nothing but a blue and open
stretch of ice-free water for as far as you could see.  The wind had
changed during the night and pushed the massive ice-field out; all that
remained was a white line along the low strip of the beach and on the
portions of the bay closest to land—the portions frozen to the bottom,
Stacey thought.  Not that there was that strong a wind in any case that
he could notice: the day was beautiful and calm as it had been the day
before, the sun kept shining, you could hardly feel the first sign of a
breeze.  What if the change hadn’t occurred during the night, but in the
day while they were out there somewhere close up to the lane?  They
couldn’t possibly have made it from the passage to the shore after the
ice had started moving, more than one hour on foot—or even if they’d
started back a little earlier, on some hunch, a breach of twenty steps
was all it really took to have them caught.  Like Dad had said himself,
they couldn’t have swum back, not with that cold.  You had a minute,
not much more; then it was over, you were done.  The coast guard
would have sent their boats out pretty quickly it would seem, but
picking all the people up would be a struggle against time.  And they’d
been sweating; they’d have frozen out there waiting for the help.  
Drifting out, the ice would break into gigantic strands of floes, forcing
the rescuers to work them one by one, into the night; the dark of night
would put an end to any rescue operations.  Stacey knew he’d never
feel completely confident again: the ice was firm as they walked out,
some hours later it was gone.  He’d always sense a danger lurching
underneath.
      And over time he’d realize that those rare days in early spring,
as he woke up and saw the waters of the bay filling with floes, as he
pulled on his rubber boots and crossed the pine grove to the beach,
weren’t merely highlights of the year but of his life.  He’d never get so
close again; no one would ever come that close.           





_________________________________________________________


Arndt Britschgi was born and raised in a town on the southernmost
point of Finland.  He spent the best part of his life in Madrid, Spain,
and later completed his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of
Zürich, Switzerland.  Britschgi’s book on Newcomb’s Paradox/Free
Will is available in English from the German publishing company
Philosophia Verlag.  His work has also appeared in many literary
journals including
Literary Fragments, Kulttuurivihkot (Finland),
Southern Cross Review, Word Riot, Slow Trains Literary Journal,
The Modern Review, Ascent Aspirations Magazine, Cake (UK),
Barnwood Poetry Magazine, The Montreal Review, Apeiron
Review
, The Transnational, Litro Magazine, and Red City Review.    


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