The stillness was unnerving, Sam sat watching the pond, the ice was solid, she knew that. But she could not make herself go there; it had been two years since her father had disappeared beneath the frozen crust. The dark water had swallowed him, even after the thaw his body was never recovered. He was teaching Sam’s older brother to ice fish. Winters were hard and protein was scarce, and occasional rabbit or bird was all they ever ate. Fish were their only real source of meat.
Gabriel was ten, Sam was eight, her father told her to stay on the shore and keep feeding the fire. Sam’s mother was in the tent next to the fire, she was weaker than before, “A good meal was what was needed,” Tucker, that was Sam’s father’s name, had told the two children. Sam dutifully fed the campfire just out from the old oak. The briar hedge blocked the breeze still on the north side of the tent.
“I got one!” Gabriel’s excited cry had split the stillness. Tucker had made a lunge for the end of the heavy string as the fish dove deep. Sam had looked up in time to see her father toss Gabriel aside, the fish had pulled the boy off balance and the ice had cracked because the boy was too close to the hole. He had jumped up and down too hard and the ice had a hollow spot. The dark night echoed with the sound of the boy’s scream and the splash that followed as the black water swallowed the child’s father.
Sam was sure she could hear it all over again as she stared at the solid surface, her deep green eyes wide with fear. Snow blew softly across the slick surface. Sam felt the sting of her own tears on her cheeks. Tucker had been the best father a child could ask for he loved them without reserve and included his children in everything he did. Unfortunately, he also included them in his poverty when the depression hit. Many a family had been turned out of their homes, and many a child had died.
The church had taken Maria and her two children in long enough for their mother to get strong and then she set out on her own to finish building the little cabin on the tiny piece of property at the edge of the great pond that had taken their father from them. She determined that she would finish her husband’s dream. The small one room cabin had four walls and a roof, old man Granger had helped Maria finish the roof before he moved on looking for work.
Maria was small in stature, dark hair and eyes, but she was strong now. She grew vegetables and canned them, traded patchwork quilts for fruit and canned that. The quilts were made from the scraps old Bess gave her. Bess washed clothes for the Ungers, they were one of the few families not affected by the depression and old things were replaced and Bess was allowed to carry home the throw-aways from the Unger house. Usually, the clothes and linens were fine, Mrs. Unger had just grown tired of them.
Sam was ten now and Gabriel twelve, both outgrowing their mother, lean and agile like their father. Both had dark brown hair like their mother and green eyes like their father. Gabriel had never gotten over losing his father, he blamed himself. Somehow, he had braved the darkness tonight and set about ice fishing. He was the provider now and he was determined to redeem himself. Sam could see nothing but his shadow out across the blackness. His fishing line was staked well back from the hole and weighted down with a cinder block.
Sam pulled the heavy quilt tighter around her small body and stomped her feet against the frozen ground, trying to keep an eye on Gabriel as well as the cabin. The cabin was heated by an old broken potbelly stove Gabriel had found. The back of the stove sat upon a cinder block, and it was quite stable. Gabriel and his friend Tom, who had helped bring the stove home made sure it was secure before lighting it up.
As she sat there watching her brother, she heard a soft whisper in the crisp cold air. Not able to make out the voice, or the words, she thought it might be her mother. When she opened the door to the cabin the warmth gushed over her like a blanket. No her mother was asleep, Gabriel had waited until she had lain down before venturing forth on the ice.
Returning to her seat, it had not frozen over yet. She lifted her eyes once more to the pond and saw a shadow moving towards her. She first thought it was Gabriel, but realized the figure was too tall. She wanted to run but her feet seemed rooted to the ground. She shivered as the figure came closer, it seemed not to be walking but floating above the ice. Sam tried to call out, to scream for Gabriel but when she opened her mouth nothing came out.
A warmth washed over her as the figure stopped at the edge of the frozen shore. It hovered there and she looked up, suddenly no longer afraid, she seemed to be looking into her father’s soft green eyes. Without opening his mouth, she heard the whisper, “Take care of mama. I will return for her when it is time.” He smiled and the figure receded. As she reached out to try to catch him her brother seemed to walk right through it and the figure dissipated.
“Come on Sam, I caught two, they should be enough for a good meal for us all.” Gabriel said and stared at her for a moment. “Gee Sam you look like you saw a ghost or something.” He said as he shouldered his way past her.
Sam never told anyone what she had experienced that night and never saw it again, though she spent many a frozen night watching over her brother. At the age of sixteen, somehow she knew she would not have her mother much longer, the whisper in the night had returned.