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The Long Thaw

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By Salomé SaffiriPublished 3 years ago Updated 4 months ago 12 min read

It is 4 AM in Brooklyn. Time when the building and the streets lie low in waiting for dawn. I roll to my side, staring at the square neon numbers of the clock.

It is the same every year, to the minute. On the dot. In February sleep abandons me.

It announces itself as a distant hum, reaching out from the pit of my mind, from beneath the rubble of memories that I hoped to bury it under.

It forces me to be on the move, to outrun it; The dull knocking with a faint glassy shudder.

It bleeds into my everyday life, merging with the metal rattling of the railways overhead. Hiding in the honking of the traffic until the hum finds it's voice in a holler of a stranger, hailing a taxi; it becomes an echo, assuming it's full terrifying might.

..Then it takes my sleep.

I moved to Brooklyn to drown out this restless sound; Pounding fast at first, then slower, like a dying heart, reaches me through time, drawing me in.

Coffee.. I press my head to the window, my eyes wander the street.

If I close my eyes, a sharp image surfaces in my mind: I see the palms pressed against the ice.

It rained last night. The lamp posts look slick, the asphalt glistens.

I blink and the familiar “Thump-thump, thump..” catches up with me.

Minnesota. February 1981

Our house is on the North Shore of Lake Superior. The warm odor of grandpa's cologne lies in waiting between the pine logs, declaring itself when the heat of the fireplace penetrates the crevices of the old house. Grandma smiles saying it's just like him to sneak up on us to say “hi”.

The yellowed lace curtains closest to the fireplace smell of cedar and smoke. If you pull them aside and look between the paw-like branches of goliath pine trees, beyond the mounds of snow, glistening in the morning Sun, you will see the lake.

Grandma told me that when she was a young girl her and grandpa went ice skating on that lake, around the Hollow Rock, and the jagged boulders protruding from the frozen surface didn’t scare them none. Her skates are hanging on the wall, covered in dust and filled with dried flowers.

***

I remember the narrow path leading to the frozen lake harbor. Snaking between the walls of snow-coated evergreens. The lake was immense:

It had no end, fusing with the sky on the horizon. The cliffs framed the harbor and somewhere from around them the wind blew and rolled tiny snow spheres over the surface of the ice. If you stood on top of the hill, overlooking the pond you could see the tip of the Hollow Rock on the edge of the lake; An odd little mound that grew five or six pine trees was surrounded by a maze of sharp stone pillars. And then I saw him.

He was standing far away from the shore, in the middle of the pond, poking the ice with a long stick. He noticed me and instantly beckoned, waving his arms at me like madman:

“Come look at this!”

I have never walked on ice before. I stood on the very edge of the pond, shifting from one foot to another, agitating the water under the fringed ice film.

“The ice is thick, come on!” he yelled and waved me over again, and I went.

Something was sitting right under the frozen surface. I could almost make out the shape. White scratches and small holes he bored with his stick concealed it from me.

“What is it?”

“It’s a fox” He looked at me, waging for a moment and then returned to poking the ice.

“Is it dead?”

“Are you stupid?” He shot me a snarky look and quickly added, returning to the fox “Of course it’s dead! It suffo.. Suffo-ca-cated” Tears stung my eyes. He smirked:

“It was bound to die- It ate our chickens. If it hadn’t drowned, my dad and I would hunt him..” He looked at me, noticing light shudders of my shoulders and passed me the stick

“Do you want to poke at it?”

I turned around and ran home.

.

The next day I returned to the pond. Reckoning the boy wasn’t there, I headed straight to the fox. After a long night of thinking, curiosity was eating away at me. The boy scratched the surface too much, obscuring the body underneath. I took off my mitten and rubbed the ice, hoping the warmth of my hand would smooth out the scratches. I brushed against something small and soft and I drew my hand back. Two black tips of fox’s ears revealed themselves from underneath the ice chips.

“Why did you have to eat those chickens?" I addressed the fox "If you hadn’t ate them, maybe you would still be alive”

“Maybe” I heard the voice behind my back and jolting, I fell to the side. He was holding the stick again. “I sharpened the end last night, my dad taught me how to..” He demonstrated the pointy end of it “Should help with digging it out”

“Why do you need to dig him out?” I frowned, brushing off the snow “Can’t you just let it be?” He huffed, shaking his head and crouched next to me.

“At first I was just mad at it for eating the chicks and all.. But now I just want to see how it looks frozen. Don’t you?”

“NO, I DON’T! And can’t you wait for the spring to see how it looks?” He thought for a moment.

“Naaah.. When the thaw comes the pond currents will carry the fox away into the lake and I will never get to see it.

“Well this is not your fox to dig out!”

“Is to! I found it!” I was clearly losing the argument so my next retort really had to make an impact

“Fine!” I fired out.

“Fine” he answered calmly. We stared at each other, both looking slightly lost. The fox didn’t really belong to either of us to support either side in the argument.

“What Are you doing here anyway? He tilted his head to the side

“I am talking to it” I said firmly. He looked at the two black tips of fox’s ears protruding above the ice.

“What if we shared it?” he prompted “I will dig around it every first day and you can talk to it every other day?” I liked that. Unlike any of my friends, the fox made for a good companion: It listened without contradicting and for the next month I would know where to find it. We sealed the deal by shaking hands and he simply said:

“Alik” Mulling something over in his head he added “You can talk to it today, I’ll take tomorrow’s shift” and nodding at me, he squared his shoulders and walked away, juggling the stick and whistling a makeshift tune. I crouched next to the fox and rubbed the tip of it’s ear between my fingers. “My name is…”

Honoring the agreement, I returned to the pond in two days. Alik had marked out a rectangle around the fox’s body. The look of it made me want to pummel him on the head with my bare fists. As if the poor animal being trapped in it’s eternal frozen grave was not desperate enough, he had to mark out the shape of it’s would-be ice coffin. I resolved to bring it flowers. Clicking my tongue and snapping my fingers in pity, I realized that Grandma would not be willing to splurge on live flowers for some fox, mid-winter, in Minnesota and I searched my surroundings like a hawk. A warm, smug feeling spread throughout my chest: “Yes, this is perfect”

***

He strutted to the pond, whistling a carefree tune, and juggling the stick like a baton twirler. He felt like a true discoverer, on the mission to The North Pole. Every other day he deepens the grooves in the ice, every other day he gets a little closer to excavating his prize. He was greeted by an unexpected sight: A pile of sticks and rocks sat on top of his polar project, obstructing the natural path of progress. He leaned on his stick, breathing out a long puff of “Hhmmm” into the frosty air.

I was squatting, preparing to inspect the damage he had added yesterday. To my surprise there was none. My brows creased and my lips pursed, because, honestly, I had started wondering myself how the fox had looked, and was very much hoping that Alik would dig it out by now.

“Stupid fox, why do you have to be so interesting!?” I stomped on the ice summoning a low disgruntled creak in return. “What were you doing out here, anyway?” I looked around, spreading my arms, as if to show the fox all the land it could have roamed, choosing to drown in the pond instead. My eyes stopped on the Hollow Rock and my hands lowered. My face fell in worrisome realization as I pressed the fox for answers: “Do you live on that rock? Were you coming home to your cubs?” My lips started quivering and I crouched down next to the fox. “My grandma used to skate here many years ago and my gramps would come here to watch her. Did your grand..” I searched my mind for a moment “Great-great-great-granddad fox see them?" I sat down, leaning on my hand “How long do foxes live?” Are your parents still around? I only know mine from the pictures.” And it felt good to tell the fox about not knowing them, because it didn't change its face, searching for condoling words. It didn't try to hide it’s eyes, ashamed that it’s parents were still alive. I never knew them to carry the weight of losing them. “Are you a girl or a boy-fox?”

“I think it’s a boy” And again his voice made me jump. I grabbed onto my chest, feeling my heart rattling against my ribcage as I caught my breath. I turned around swiftly, sending sparks and lightning out of my eyes at Alik. And as suddenly as my fury had brewed, it dissipated when I saw his face. It looked so different that day: His eyes were dark, like snow clouds in stormy sky, and distant somehow, as if his soul was ready to soar somewhere far away. “Has nobody told you that eavesdropping is rude?” He looked at the Hollow Rock and asked as if by chance:

“What is that pile of garbage you built here?”

“IT IS A SHRINE!”

“A shrine” he repeated after me quietly, tasting the unfamiliar word. “What’s a shrine?”

I snorted, and fluttered my eyelashes dramatically. Puckered my lips and shook my head, preparing to pounce at his ignorance. I turned to him when the creeping Sun rays touched his face, coming through the hole in the Hollow Rock, and painted his skin golden. He looked at me so naively, openly.

“I uh.. I’m actually not sure..” I said quietly “I think It’s when you want to let other people know that someone important is buried underneath, so that people come look”

“I wasn’t trying to eavesdrop. You were just talking so much I didn’t know when to cut in”

I snorted and looked away, expecting the routine awkward monologue.

“Do you want to go climb the Hollow Rock?” And before receiving my answer he headed towards it.

It is easy to climb the rock in the summer, when stoops and ledges aren’t covered in ice. I was amazed at his agility and was trying to catch up, but my mittens often slipped and I hit my knees on frozen rock. The Northern wind formed a large ice mound on one side of the rock, but it was still thin enough to see the dark water moving underneath it. I reached the top and saw Alik, basking his face in the sun. A peaceful smile spread across his lips as he turned to me.

“My father told me that in Anishinaabe culture the fox is a symbol of return ..that is if you interpret the signs right..” He pointed to the small house on the hill “I live over there, my father built our house”

“My grandpa built ours..” we stood side by side, silently watching the snow-covered bay.

“Maybe it’s not a bad thing that you didn’t know your parents..” He looked me straight in the eyes “Maybe they were evil”

“Why would they be evil?”

“I dunno.. Some parents just are” I watched him instinctively rubbing his arm.

“Maybe your dad is evil, then! Why would he want to hunt that innocent fox..” I turned sharply in the direction of the fox, as if to underline how poor indeed that fox was, and had almost lost my balance. He caught my arm. “No, thank you!” I pulled my arm out of his grab, intending to descend the rock.

“My dad is not evil” He sounded surprised

“Then he is stupid!” I fired out over my shoulder

“He isn’t stupid either, and when I'm an adult I hope that I will be as strong and smart as he..”

“UUUGH! You and everyone else, making this huge deal about parents all the time, as if it’s something important! I don’t have parents! My grandparents raised me, so just shut up about your stupid dad already..”

I turned swiftly to shoot him one final defiant glance and came face to face with him. He was following me closely and was taken by surprise with my turn. I remember everything suddenly slowing down as he made a step back, and changed his face. His eyes had gone wide, mouth stretched and arms gone up in the air as he slipped in his step. The icy rock carried him down, without giving him any chance to grab onto the ledges, without any compromise. I heard a thud as he hit one of the protruding pillars, a crash of ice and a splash. I knelt and looked down, woolen mittens steadying me from sliding right after him. He was there, right under the surface. My heart pounded in my ears; There were no sticks around strong enough to pull him out by, and the ice had already started getting thinner and darker around the hole his body had created.

Next I remember trying to fish him out by the sleeve, while sitting on one of the pillars, his palms weakly banging on the ice from underneath. Something was pulling him, something stronger than me. He managed to swim to the hole and raspily shriek: “home”

And I ran. Banging my fists on the door I cried:

"Alik’s dad! Come quick!”

A tall woman opened the door. Angered by my incessant banging she had her arm raised in the air, holding a thick leather belt. Her eyes widened when she saw me and quickly she hid the belt behind the door.

“What do you need?” She barked and the waft of stale sour alcohol breath puffed in my face.

“His dad needs to come quick!” The woman made a mean face, squinting her swollen eyes

“He died last year, fool” and she began closing the door

“But it's Alik!”

***

February 2021 Minnesota.

Every day I wish I had told him to not climb that stupid rock. I wish I had told him that I didn’t care about the fox cubs. I wish I had told my grandma about his burning welts, I wish I could apologize for calling his dad stupid. And I wish that back then I had seen a lonely boy, who was just looking for his father, returning to him as a fox.

***

I’m standing on the icy shore of the bay, wearing a red puff jacket. The wind is strong and my tears freeze on my eyelashes, burning into my cheeks. I want to be released from this ungodly thumping. I want peace. It is only just that I leave my life the way he left his. I drop my jacket on the ground and step onto the frozen lake. I walk towards the spot where many years ago a fox was trapped under the ice. Fresh ice creaks and gives slightly under my weight.

Suddenly I get a persistent feeling, a tug on my soul, a nudge, like a desperate hand that tries to grab and pull away from the edge. I look over my shoulder and notice a fox, standing on the shore.

I turn around, remaining on my spot. It is standing there, eyes locked with mine. At once it barks: A quick, repetitive bark, the one they use to warn cubs of danger. It tilts it's head looking right at me and begins digging at my red jacket with ferocity, pulling and spitting out the feather filling. I take a few steps towards the shore. The fox stands still, observing my movement. I stop, prompting the fox to bark a high-pitched, unnerving call again. I take several more steps, coming closer to the shore, off the ice. The fox looks at me, picking up the jacket and running away. And suddenly, the thumping noise stops..

Embarrassment

About the Creator

Salomé Saffiri

Writing - is my purpose. I feel elated when my thoughts assume shapes, and turn into Timberwolves, running through the snowbound planes of fresh paper, leaving the black ink of their paw prints behind.

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    Salomé SaffiriWritten by Salomé Saffiri

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