At the boarding school where I teach, my campus residence bears a plaque with the name of an English teacher who drowned after falling through ice. He had been skating on the river after the year’s first deep freeze, which had been followed by a snowstorm. I was told that once his pickup hockey game had ended and the players dispersed, he made the choice to remain behind, to skate upriver, enticed, perhaps, by the beauty of new snow, to explore the transformed hemlock-banked waterway alone. This happened the winter I was hired, before I started teaching the following fall. Our paths had crossed briefly during a fellowship in New York City and at a cookout in New Hampshire with friends we had in common. I didn’t know him well, but liked him immediately, and afterward I felt as if I’d lost a friend, a kindred spirit. I appreciate what he might have felt. The power that could have drawn him onward along that white, unblemished path until it betrayed him.
Some of my wife’s most visceral memories of growing up on the South Shore of Massachusetts are associated with skating on the region’s cranberry bogs. If flooded for a “wet harvest” in October by the network of feeder streams, the clustered patchwork evolves in winter into the ideal hybrid of natural ice given form by agricultural intention. I become jealous listening to her inspired narratives about hopping the berms with her sisters and friends, playing hockey, then exploring the interconnected sluices and waterways for miles through the towns of Duxbury and Pembroke. The shallowness of the bogs quells a skater’s fear of the consequences of falling through. In our almost thirty years of married life, the slim luck of weather and temperature intersecting precisely at holiday visits to her parents’ home have resulted only once in the opportunity to wander that labyrinth on skates. Now, the prospect is even more unlikely because it seems the bogs rarely freeze. If they do, snow hardened on the surface like a shell of polystyrene foam makes skating impossible.
That one foray on the bogs was as close as I’ve ever come to realizing my persistent childhood fantasy of ice travel through an engineered landscape. When I was in elementary school on the North Shore of Massachusetts, I was convinced that the most efficient and fun means of mobility was skating. I daydreamed a modern Hans Brinker-esque world in which all roads, highways and sidewalks were accompanied by or interlaced with groomed, perpetually frozen canals. You could skate over to your friends’ houses, skate to the movies, to school, to the drugstore to buy comics, or even a few states away to visit your grandparents in Flushing—without paying tolls. It was safe and fast, and you wouldn’t need a license. You’d be outside, conveyed by your own power. But on most winter Sunday mornings, when I had vacuumed the stairs and the rest of my chores were done and time and the world seemed poised, wide open, I was usually slumped in the back seat of our family’s forest green Chevy, waiting for the stiff vinyl to warm, on my way church.
This was the beginning of a lifetime of negotiations between obligation, fear, and an electric, undeniable desire that reared up when the elements conspired to deliver perfect conditions. Like many ten-year-olds in the rural swath that still existed in the late 1960s just beyond the reach of the Boston suburbs and below the New Hampshire border, I resented demands that kept me inside on weekends. Especially in the noxious, incense-fogged interior of St. Mary’s, a contemporary brick hangar of a building. My restlessness was especially acute in winter. The intensity of my parents’ public religious commitment fluctuated with the seasons, easing up and ultimately evaporating after Easter, but reasserting itself like some tenacious disease when school began again after the summer and light withdrew from our side of the planet. They must have known better during July and August, sensing the potential of an all-out mutiny from my sisters and me if one sweltering day of our vacation was surrendered to the then-popular guitar-propelled “folk masses” at St. Mary’s, or the solemn affairs at her cranky, conservative sister in another neighboring town, whose priest, Father Sczipko (we called him “Zipcode”), was even crankier.
In the middle of the winter, however, even the adventurously violent scenes depicting the Stations of the Cross could not distract me from imagining what my friends were doing without me. I began supplanting the gestural, line-drawn images of The Savior (tired hippy in loincloth), and the broom-helmeted Centurions roughing him up, with my own twisted Currier-and-Ives-esque vignettes of preadolescents soaring over jumps in overloaded toboggans, or rifling snowballs at cars. I filled those artificial sandstone tablets along the aisle with dioramas of hockey players slashing, cross-checking, launching shots from the blue line, pucks whizzing up into a soft pocket just beneath the crossbar, ringing off the posts, swashbuckling breakaways robbed by sprawled goalies.
At night I would pray for blizzards that would thwart our going to church, but even more devoutly for a deep freeze after heavy rain, which could repair the deeply scarred, overskated pond surfaces more flawlessly than a Zamboni. Breath steaming from their laughing faces in the January air, my friends waved sheepishly as our tires squeaked past them in the new snow. When we were far enough away and they could still see me craning to keep them in sight through the back window, the little band of atheists gave me the finger with the synchronized precision of a military salute.
When we still lived in California, my being an infant, then a toddler, did not stop my parents from being shameless tourists. They explored the state, sniffing out the necessary attractions, since they knew they would eventually make their way “back East” to family. During our five years on the West Coast, we worked our way from Marineland of the Pacific, the San Diego Zoo, and Mission San Juan Capistrano up to Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, Yosemite, ascending the trail of other missions and beaches to the cable cars of San Francisco before veering out to Gold Country, Lake Tahoe, and finally Squaw Valley, where the VIII Olympic Winter Games had been held the year before. in 1960. And where I had my first experience on ice.
The accompanying home movie proves that my father was not merely holding me, the infant, like a football or loaf of bread; rather, his expression of excited generosity as he looked down into my bewildered, ruddy face, then back to the rink, revealed intention. He seemed to know it was a moment of passage.
When I review that film, it’s even clearer to me that he wasn’t the most steady skater, which lends an air of danger, or even recklessness, to the scene as he navigates carefully along the boards, among narcissistic rogue figure skaters obliviously spinning within arm’s length, families falling in a heap, laughing, and one older gent, arms held up in surrender, whose terrified eyes and brow loom suddenly in the lens. I am swaddled within an inch of my life, bareheaded, locked in the crook of my father’s elbows as he carefully pushes and glides his way proudly toward the camera jouncing in my mother’s hands.
After we’d moved back East to New Jersey, my parents bought me a pair of “open” green plastic sandal-like skates with double runners that strapped over my boots. These enabled me to stand in the middle of the town pond, watching my father in envy as he crunched into a turn in his ancient, leather, single-bladed, size-thirteen war canoes. I was five, could barely stay upright, but there was something mesmerizing about his momentum, the sound of those edges biting the soft, trafficked ice as he crossed over, skirting the rim of the pond around all of the other skaters and standers. Skating in Northern New Jersey in 1965 was a recreational novelty. Two years later, in New England, we immediately discovered that winters were longer and colder, but that even if they weren’t, the proliferation of state and private rinks guaranteed ice time twelve months a year.
Our migration north to Massachusetts in 1967 deposited us in an intense maelstrom of hockey and a life on ice in general. At the age of seven I sensed that living in New England and not being a Bruins fan was suicidal. Though I understood neither the National Hockey League nor how to talk about it with my friends, I learned quickly. Icons like Bobby Orr made it easy. But following hockey did not provide me with the impetus for learning how to skate.
Proficiency on ice was directly proportional to regular, predictable freezes, or “real winters,” as we came to say. Our first year in Massachusetts, my parents had bought me a pair of used hockey skates with tattered yellow sneaker laces and ankles as flimsy as sliced bologna. But, regardless of quality, they weren’t figure skates, which would have certainly marked me as a leper among my peers.
One day at Cub Scouts, the Den Mothers herded us over to a pond in the neighborhood and let us skate for our “weekly activity”—an alternative to bowling, touring someone’s dad’s plastics factory or coaxing tangled nests of gimp into unusable key chains. The pond was tiny, but the banks on one side were domesticated, deliberate, with a permanently installed bench, a post with a floodlight for night skating, and the customary ladder and rope for sliding out to anyone who fell through.
That afternoon, as the early darkness fell and the headlights of cars began to flare on the adjacent road, I began to skate. While the mothers unscrewed the caps from thermoses of hot chocolate, hurriedly opened round tins of cookies for us and stomped to get the blood flowing in their underprotected feet, something in my body fell into sync: an agreement with the gravity necessary for leaning into a turn and trusting a skate’s edge. It was completely liberating, and because of this, I was the last one off the ice, uncharacteristically immune to the lure of snacks that had drawn the other boys away. Crouching, gaining speed, I had the ice to myself, counterclockwise, circle after circle, like a tetherball leashed to its post without the threat of a diminishing orbit. Only when the others had taken their skates off and stuffed their double-socked feet back into unlaced sneakers or boots, and the shouting Den Mothers had lost their patience, did I step reluctantly back to earth.
Collins Pond, the other body of water where I learned to skate, faced southwest at the bottom of a hill in our neighborhood. It was hidden behind a clump of overgrown forsythia bushes, crab apple, and cherry trees that screened it from the pasture, the Collins’s house and barn, and Kelsey Road beyond. On the other side was a swampy plain with mounds and hummocks of deflated marsh grass turned gray and ochre in winter, and a little sluice at one end where water flowed out through a culvert under the road. Beyond, the power lines above the abandoned railroad track bed provided us a way to tell time as the sun sank incrementally in the western sky. At the southeastern end of the pond was the spring that fed this sanctuary and brought fish, frogs, turtles, and us to what should have been no more than a seasonal muddy pocket in a horse paddock. We knew the source was in that dark mossy corner because it rarely froze in winter, and if it had, the ice was thin, and as black as the water beneath. If one of our pucks wandered over there during a game, there was a collective whine as it sped toward the open water, slowing like a roulette ball about to settle on the number you fear most. The game stopped, and everybody stood like nervous pylons, sighing or swearing if it teetered and slipped over the brittle edge into the water as ineluctably as a coin deposited in a bank, or frustratingly came to a halt on a skin of ice that could barely support a squirrel.
During the occasional thaw, before the sun rose too high and began to soften the ice, we permitted ourselves a game in short-sleeved shirts, until willowy, polite Mrs. Collins would wander down from her house. Standing there on the bank with her hands in her coat pockets, she asked, smiling (probably terrified of a lawsuit), if we weren’t tempting fate by skating in such balmy weather.
It was a regular party on those days, our lunch breaks long and boisterous, nothing like the days of hurriedly unwrapping and wolfing down a frozen sandwich while standing. Instead of swaddling our cans of soda in sweaters or jackets and burying them in our bags so they wouldn’t freeze solid, we would nestle them in the snow. We took our time lacing skates, sitting together on a dry patch of grass in the feeble but decadent winter sun, our bags, helmets and pads scattered in a careless pile. Together, we’d brought so much equipment, food, and clothing, I now wonder what Mrs. Collins really thought of the noisy refugee camp that materialized every weekend in that corner of her yard when she’d look out her kitchen window. On premature spring days like these, even the ticks would reemerge, and we’d marvel as one of us would pluck a specimen of these normally detested insects from his hockey sock along with a few burrs.
But even when the late-January-early-February deep freeze was locked confidently around us, there was still evidence of the seasons we could then only imagine. After particularly lengthy cold spells, the water above the spring would freeze, and I army-crawled out to the black window for a look. The strata left by thawing, freezing, snowfalls, dustings, frozen rain, and sleet, combined with the violent engravings of skate blades, made the surface opaque with history; the fleeting gift of black ice strong enough to hold a boy was something not to be wasted. Lying there until the heat of my body welded my jeans and hockey shirt to the surface, I felt I was permitted a glimpse into a world both dangerous and forbidden in its unlikely beauty. It was just mud, rocks, and decomposing leaves, after all, filtered through the tannin lens of a swampy farm pond. But to glimpse the wandering turtle who had somehow dislodged himself into a confused, sleepy foray, the translucent minnow or fluttering pectoral fins of the rare bluegill suspended just below your face, or other unnamable, hearty water insects going about their business like delivery trucks, was breathtaking.
We had learned to forget what we had lost to this portal. But if I focused hard enough, I could catch, peeking from the silt of the monochrome terrain, an orange Cooper logo, or the resigned and tragic profile of the Chicago Blackhawks brave on one of our coveted souvenir pucks. For a few minutes the pond became an oversized glass-bottom boat. Other than miniature galaxies of frozen bubble streams (some poor, oblivious, hibernating amphibian’s arrested exhalations) or the occasional immobilized leaf, there was nothing to impede your view of the pond’s bottom six feet below. Just a still, brown world a degree or two away from annihilation.
In the summer, when we returned for frogs and pickerel, I stood on the bank, bamboo pole in hand, looking out to that spot in the dark corner, patrolled by dragonflies and textured with scum and lily pads, imagining the impossibility of my other heavily clothed self, spread-eagle, facedown, hands cupped around temples, floating in winter.
Usually, if we chose to skate on one of the bigger, deeper ponds or lakes, one of our fathers had to swing by and stab a crowbar through the ice to check its thickness. We waited on shore in a muttering, pensive crescent, poised to drop our equipment and begin suiting up or kicking at the snow in disappointment, swearing as much as we could until the adult shuffled back to us, apologetically shaking his head. One of these, Stevens Pond, was rumored to be bottomless. We’d heard that a team of researchers from the University of Massachusetts had tried to sound its depths without success. I thought about this every time I glided out to its center with my family or a troop of friends, imagining a water-filled space of endless darkness beneath the skin of ice, an existential pang which I soon forgot once the skating began.
After my sister’s first boyfriend fell through and died at the Mill Pond, everything changed. It was a warm day in late winter, but the ice seemed stubborn, enduring, as if it would never melt, even though the snow was gone and the quality of light was changing and the earthy, evaporative moistness of spring hung in the air. Burgundy oak leaves, frozen to the ice since late autumn, were probably melting handlike shapes into the slushy, pooling surface. Who wouldn’t want to seize the opportunity of milking one more session from that pond in the balmy hinge between the seasons?
Mill Pond had a rope swing knotted to a big oak that leaned over the water on a particularly precipitous slope. On any given warm day in late spring, before the pond was clogged with weeds and lily pads, you would find a queue of impatient, wet kids gripping the slick, muddy incline with their toes. Each successive moron launched himself more ambitiously than the last, climbing higher into the oak, grabbing a higher knot, emitting an even more tortured Tarzan yodel, and finally doing something more contorted after he let go and sailed out to the center with a flailing splash. My sisters took me there with them, but the thrill of danger was palpable, snarling from the teeth of the rusting circular blade you could just see through the rotting boards of the abandoned sawmill. The history of this place suggested it was more of a risk to be there in the warm seasons, so the news of a boy’s death in late winter seemed to come from nowhere that afternoon as we sat around the kitchen table in disbelief and my sister sobbed in her bedroom.
Once a pond or lake, or even a certain ocean cove or point, claims a life, it seems to change the nature of the element itself. Even if we understand that the cycle ultimately evaporates and replaces all of it, or the tide sweeps in to flush out the water’s memory of tragedy. Regardless of the season, I couldn’t bike past the Mill Pond without replaying the short film of what I imagine might have happened: one boy lying on the ice, reaching with a hockey stick, as the one in the water tries to grab the slippery rim of the hole and hoist himself out.
The risks were real, but packaged among them like glass ornaments were the experiences that harbored the motives for returning again and again to natural ice and farther away from the relative safety of clammy warehouse-arenas. I understand now that I was most happy when I was neither chasing a puck nor covering any uniformed peer, but how did I end up playing hockey almost twelve months of the year until I graduated from high school? The culture of the sport and its camaraderie carried me along, and somewhere in that decade a bright space opened when I wasn’t conflicted between or even aware of playing indoors or outdoors.
A few years of playing in summer leagues and going to hockey camps conveyed me into a realm of precarious comfort, strange instincts. Confusion gave way to an almost cocky nonchalance. The rinks seemed smaller. The chaos on the ice assumed a form, became more predictable, and the sport began to make sense. I had been simply a hustler who, every so often, connected a decent pass and who, during his shift, skated all the time. One coach identified my role perfectly as the team buzz saw: a force of brainless, blind energy. On our rides home from games and practices, my father had lectured me about my ironic spaciness, how I’d dart and loop all over the ice, intensely engaged but completely out of position. My triumphs were accidents. Once in a while, I’d derail somebody whose breakaway goal had seemed a foregone conclusion, materializing out of nowhere and stripping him because my erratic orbit just happened to intersect with his deliberate line.
Early in high school I was playing a lot: on the school’s JV team and in two night leagues, along with the rare pickup pond game. And in that descending window just before I burned out, I burned for the ice between shifts, counting the seconds before flying over the boards, back into the game, with determination instead of terror. After I’d broken an ankle in seventh grade, I counted on my skating skills to hover and dance safely around the action, always looking over my shoulder or waiting outside a fray for the puck to be spat out, the last to burrow into the corners after it. But suddenly my abiding fear of being hit evaporated; my purpose wasn’t just survival anymore. I was small but stockier, so my game became aggressive; I didn’t wait to be checked, didn’t draw that panicked deep breath before venturing toward the boards. Grappling while digging the puck out from behind the net didn’t faze me; neither did tangling others’ legs with my own, lifting or prying their sticks, or simply dropping my shoulder to blast them off the play. It was a new dimension that I understood to be the essence of the game, access to and possession of an energy that bridged time and space and guaranteed I wouldn’t be a scavenger or bystander. I was good at getting there first.
But “the game” and its environment had always been secondary, an external organism that yammered for attention while I marveled at my own improving dexterity, grace, and speed. Rusty beams, puck holes, and dimples in insulation panels, the torn net installed to prevent them, plexiglass smudged with black tape marks of flailing sticks, the shattered lights of pockmarked scoreboards, disintegrating banners in the rafters, bleachers spattered with cocoa and ketchup, those globs of drying mucus on the rubber mat inside the bench. Real players, the hardcore acolytes, might wax nostalgic for all of these, or, possibly, transcend them. Rinks belong to a different dimension than the lake you labor across, pushing a loaded, bending shovel in the Sisyphean effort to keep up with a blizzard. Or the surreal treadmill belt of reflected clouds or stars scrolling beneath your feet. In the measured confines of glycol-injected concrete or sand, lost in the fumes of the pachydermal, concentric pen of the Zamboni, it seems, paradoxically, that you have no coordinates, no point of reference.
After college (where I did not play hockey), I taught Latin at a small high school north of Boston, and because it was a private school and they knew I’d played hockey, I was expected to coach. Which I ended up doing for almost a decade. Inhaling that stale rink air again for months on end seemed to expunge whatever bitterness I’d harbored for overdosing on the sport as a kid. But no matter how much fun my players were having, or how proud of their sportsmanship I was, regardless of what spectacle or barnburner might be unfolding on the ice, I began to realize I’d fallen out of love with the immutable indoors. I’d had my fill of screaming myself hoarse from the bench or dodging the frequent stray slap shots, plastic whistle clenched between my teeth, and I was able to stop feeling guilty about why I’d put the singular athletic purpose of my childhood on mothballs.
In each of the sweaty, pimpled, sparsely bearded faces of my charges, I recognized the superimposed ghosts of the boys who’d skated with me when I was young. Sometimes I was caught off guard by a jolt of nostalgia that brought me close to tears when I noticed how deeply they were enjoying each other’s company, the tilt at hand, or even their coaches, possibly. They were in it, and I, of all people, was helping to guide them through.
It took a while for me to admit that I was expending too much psychic energy in a charade, pretending to be as passionate as they were. All I really wanted was to protect them from whatever might diminish the fragile grace or abandon they’d brought along from the ponds of their childhood, what had been slowly slipping away from me. Most of them did love the game more than I, and that was all right. So I quit coaching hockey, relinquished the last official role I’d have on indoor ice. Sure, I flirted with the sport, playing in disorganized lunchtime pickup games at the school where I teach now (which has two rinks), once with a group that had a few ex-Bruins in the lineup (they moved and connected passes so fast, I felt that I was standing still). But that was less about love, more about ego, proving to myself I could still do it.
Before her early-morning commute made it unsustainable, my wife was playing with a women’s team every Monday night. Once in a while, she’d ask me some question about being offside, the responsibilities of back-checking, or what to do about people who were “hackers.” I was surprised by how easily I cranked the answers up out of that well.
Whenever I visit Grasmere, in the Lake District of England, I cannot resist the museum at Dove Cottage and the Wordsworth Trust, not only to have a look at the handwritten manuscripts of some of my favorite poems but to gawk at Wordsworth’s skates, which reside in a glass case in dim gallery light. I wrote a poem about those blades once, before Seamus Heaney tried them on in a glimmering tribute in his book District and Circle. When I read his poem, I wanted to slip into a simmering fit of poet’s envy, but ended up just being amazed that a Nobel laureate would care enough about these artifacts to write about them. It was heartening to discover that I was not as sentimental or trivial as I had imagined, that my fixation crossed international borders and wasn’t governed by New England aesthetics.
That these might be the very skates that provided the experience Wordsworth evokes in The Prelude is probably what has rooted me in front of them again and again:
All shod with steel,
We hissed along the polished ice in games
Confederate, imitative of the chase
And woodland pleasures—the resounding horn,
The pack loud chiming, and the hunted hare.
So through the darkness and the cold we flew,
And not a voice was idle; with the din
Smitten, the precipices rang aloud;
The leafless trees and every icy crag
Tinkled like iron; while far distant hills
Into the tumult sent an alien sound
Of melancholy not unnoticed….
Not seldom from the uproar I retired
Into a silent bay, or sportively
Glanced sideways, leaving the tumultuous throng,
To cut across the reflex of a star
That fled, and, flying still before me, gleamed
Upon the glassy plain….
Originally, it was the evocation of boyish physicality and the details of place that drew me to this excerpt. But now, it is the solace of Wordsworth’s “retiring from the uproar” that I have internalized—a goal that has defined my life on frozen water beyond being a setting for play or contest. Like swimming, skating ultimately gave me permission to be alone, buoyed but yet detached from the world, to understand the universe better. And to say buoyed is not incorrect, because when skating, we ride a thin layer of water formed when our weight is focused on the edges of those metal blades and wherever they make contact with the ice, which, in its natural, unmolested state, is not slippery.
“Then is not death at watch / Within those secret waters?” asks another British poet, Edmund Blunden, in “The Midnight Skaters,” as if responding to Wordsworth’s Romantic melancholy. “What wants he but to catch / Earth’s heedless sons and daughters?” This is how a survivor of the Great War reads the landscape from the newly frozen, dangerous surface of the twentieth century. Though Blunden’s imagination, like his predecessor’s, launches upward to acknowledge “thrones / Of stars, sound gulfs of wonder,” he is ultimately suspicious on Wordsworth’s “glassy plain,” and extrapolates downward. “With but a crystal parapet / Between, he has his engines set.” What had been cosmic expansion in Wordsworth’s narrative, a paean to solitude, becomes an awareness of Death’s conspiracy in Blunden’s world, framed with the poet’s readily available diction and imagery of trench warfare. The “crystal parapet” is neither an architectural feature of some winter fairyland palace, nor a euphemism for No Man’s Land. The proximity of the enemy is too close, directly underfoot.
When you look into it, the quaint wisdom that two inches of ice can heft a small group of skaters is tainted by an overwhelming number of ambiguities. This is the beauty and horror of natural ice—that it seems to be predictable, that it should obey some of the most rigid natural laws. And yet, by getting involved with surface tension, elasticity, tensile strength, and fickle weather, the pond, lake, or river skater must always be aware of the variables conspiring against him, of being supported by an element upon which he has little “natural” place—a secondary environment whose texture and properties might change with every stride. You can’t see where the current is chewing away on the other side, thinning silently a spot that you would trust. In my pedestrian reading about the crystal structure and mathematics of ice, I have come to understand this behavior as anisotropic, that ice’s properties have different values when measured in different directions. Fish and game departments for many Northern and Midwestern states offer a number of variations on ice wisdom, such as “There is no such thing as safe ice, only safer ice,” or the less semantic “The only safe ice is no ice.”
When it comes to humans and ice, the question of safety is always hovering nearby. More significant than meteorology, the conditions upon which skaters depend are more reminiscent of an official agreement between two countries, an understanding of legal stipulations or the terms of surrender. Through all those years of anguish and exhilaration, team formation and solo flight, proactive risk and submissive boredom, abandoning and seeking, I can’t name what kept me safe. To skate despite your awareness of the enemy—that Death is at watch within those secret waters—is to ratify an accord. It’s a gambler’s contract, but one that places a premium on the singular experience; when you are aware of the subsurface threat, like Blunden, the choice to embark on natural ice is pure flirtation, reckless defiance:
Then on, blood shouts, on, on,
Twirl, wheel and whip above him,
Dance on this ball-floor thin and wan,
Use him as though you love him;
Court, elude him, reel and pass,
And let him hate you through the glass.
When my own kids were small, we lived on a spring-fed pond in Wenham, Massachusetts. Because the house had been built into a steep hill, we could barely see the road below; it was like living in a treehouse. The kitchen window looked out through the branches of two enormous beeches, and sunlight reflecting from the pond surface through the leaves in summer would shimmer on the white ceiling. Standing at the sink, looking up at the undulating surface, you almost felt you were underwater.
The pond was deep, and not many people skated there. But, since it was stocked with trout, the few ice fishermen who did show up kept us entertained, wrestling their gas-powered augers out of the openings they had been drilling, then sitting for hours beside them, peering into the orifices as if waiting for an answer from the pond. They were not like the smelt fishermen on the Squamscott River in New Hampshire, where we live now, those squatters who are permitted to slide what look like modified outhouses to the cracked, precarious frozen plates shifting with the tide. They install their lanterns, radios, hibachis, thirty-packs of Bud Light, magazines, and lawn furniture around their little huts like the forlorn character in Raymond Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance?” whose yard sale is a mirror image of his home’s interior. How many of these structures have I seen neglected late in the season, sinking into the very holes over which they’d been placed as they drifted out to sea?
The fisherman in Wenham, however, were not part of some macho diaspora desperate for a domestic center; rather, they seemed involved in some experiment with religious seclusion. With neither shacks nor suburban paraphernalia, the few that ventured out there left at least thirty yards between their encampments. They surrounded themselves with a perimeter of multiple holes, like a solar clock, each increment with its own baited line and flag waiting to be triggered by whatever was cruising below.
That year, I found myself peering out the kitchen window, longing to skate. Whether the frozen surface was black and inscrutable, hidden beneath a swirling quilt of snow or behind a foggy scrim of grim pewter, I surmised it with a familiar twinge of excitement, the desire to be out there, on it. So we laced up one morning after a week of bitter, penetrating cold. The conditions were perfect. No snow, the ice as thick as it could get. Having designated a rink-sized area near the shore below the house, my wife and I spent an hour passing a puck around while the kids contentedly pushed their plastic milk crates (in New England, a young skater’s training wheels) back and forth between us, learning to push off, glide, keep their balance without falling, snapping their wrists, bashing their skulls.
Just as my toes started to numb and pinch and I knew it wouldn’t be long before we had to retreat to the house, I skated away from them, over the deeper water, past some dark ice-fishing holes that had resealed, looping into the marshy coves at the far eastern end, batting dead cattails as I passed at high speed, then sweeping back out to the open center, crossing over backward, pivoting forward again and accelerating. Without the contest and its inherent dependencies, its intentional and unintentional collisions, gripped truncheon, fixation on puck, without the penitentiary of boards, you become a different kind of skater. When I returned, they were just standing in their hastily pulled-on boots on the bank, watching me. As a family, we had tootled around on a local rink during “public skates,” but now they’d seen me open up. My wife looked at me as if I were a different person.
But, a few nights later, I woke up in a sweat, having dreamt I was watching my daughter slide from my grip down into a dark watery hole in the ice. The details filched from reality were insidious, right down to the cinched hood, the reaching arms of her familiar pink and black jacket.
During that winter living on the pond, there were a few days when I walked across it as a shortcut on my way to teach, pausing in the center to consider the morning sun just beginning to saw through the fringe of pines. I stood there feeling the resonance of sudden pressure-cracks beneath my feet, tendrils chiming away almost electronically. When the ice has any degree of translucence, these adjustments reveal, with their jagged silvery bands, the third dimension, the depth of what has frozen. For a few long seconds, the thunderous ripple seems like the lake telling itself to relax. They are sometimes called “safety cracks,” after all. At a moment like this, I would think about how I’d explain to my son and daughter the seismic indifference, the danger of ice, without scaring them away from it forever. They’d seen me confidently, comfortably spin away from them on that beautiful cold morning, trying to reclaim something in those arbitrary, improvised loops. But, trudging across on my way to school like a lone sapper in a minefield, I wondered if I could translate those cracks, those unraveling white ribbons, into a story of thickness, something that could hold us up.
One morning, not long before early spring had mapped the surface with the tectonic borders of the coming melt, I watched one of those fishermen in his ritual setup, monitored periodically his long wait, perhaps his prayers, beside the slushy indentations. Every so often, he’d get up from sitting on his overturned bucket and trudge to his other holes. Right when I was pouring a cup of coffee, he paused and hauled out an enormous trout, writhing as he grabbed it by the gills and drew it from the water I couldn’t see. From that distance, it seemed not only as if the creature itself were being excised from the grips of a solid substance, but also as if the man were rescuing the fish, delivering it from peril into a realm of air and light, rather than extracting it, once and for all, from its natural habitat.
Years later, in New Hampshire, we got up the nerve to take all three of our children and one of my daughter’s friends out onto the infamous river where my colleague had drowned. It was in the middle of a three-week deep freeze, the water probably squeezed right down to the gravel and clay by feet of ice. Snowmobile traffic at night sounded like a pack of mobile, untethered chainsaws whose groomed, snaking trail transformed the river deceptively into a recently plowed road. But there were some considerable stretches of glassy, pearl gray ice that the wind had blasted clean, and it was on one of these we dumped our bag of pucks, skated gingerly, hesitantly—an attempt to exorcise the event that swirled persistently in the summer eddies and winter gusts alike. We skated for an hour, but not with abandon. Sometimes my wife and I just stopped what we were doing to watch the kids in their little game of keep-away, or the stiff current of light, blowing snow as it followed the banks, copying the water’s behavior in the other seasons. The surface seemed to be alive.
William Wordsworth, The Prelude, Book I, ll. 426–453 (1850). New York: Penguin Books, 1995.
Edmund Blunden, “The Midnight Skaters,” Selected Poems. Manchester: Carcanet Books, 1982.
Ralph Sneeden is a poet and essayist whose work has appeared most recently or is forthcoming in AGNI, Ecotone, The Southeast Review, Southwest Review and The Surfer’s Journal. Postmodern Barcarole, the manuscript for his second book of poems, has been a finalist for the National Poetry Series, Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize and May Swenson Poetry Award. He teaches at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.