When the Moonlight hits your eye
underneath the ice
**photo by Jim Peacock**
It was not the stunning brightness of the full moon owning every inch of her bedroom window that made it difficult for Laura to sleep. A strong presence of moonlight was always better than any of the heavy blankets her grandmother made or any of her grandfather’s enchanting bedtime stories. Yet she couldn’t sleep. Her mind would not let her. Tomorrow evening would be the day all the residents of Blue Mist, Montana would ice fish together.
As not to wake her older sister underneath, Laura slowly and deliberately repelled from a side of the bunk bed that didn’t have stairs. Her summer spent climbing all the trees surrounding Crawdad Lake with her new, Native American friend seemed to come in handy. Laura hung from the edge of the bed with her elbows firmly planted between her and the wide oak frame supporting her mattress. While relaxing her shoulders just a bit and gripping the top of the bunk bed with her long fingers and knuckles, Laura angled her right foot to feel for the ledge. For a moment, albeit just a brief moment, she thought of how nice it would have been to attempt this acrobatic feat at least once during daylight. As quickly as the thought came it left as Laura rather enjoyed both the mystery and challenge of stealthily navigating the night undetected by either family or light.
Laura found joy in how the moonlight seemed to know what should be seen at night and what should remain covered in darkness. It was as if the moonlight was mother nature’s way of allowing her children to play with their curiosities and taste a little danger while still having them in her loving sights.
Laura peered out the window through the frost created by the mingling of the radiator’s warmth on the inside of her room and the ice-cold heavy air that pressed itself against her home. Cold air can be quite refreshing. Yet, ice-cold air is different from plain cold air. And ice-cold air that dips across the large frozen pond in the center of Blue Mist before it reaches someone’s warm, meagerly covered body is its own experience altogether. That sudden, oppressive experience of fear and helplessness only needs to be felt once in order for its threat to be interminably present.
Laura’s mind drifted off into her own experience of being overtaken by the pond’s ice-cold air. Six winters ago, when she was four, Laura saw a man drunkenly wiping the surface of the ice with a towel. The man was talking to the ice between heavy sobs. She thought for a second that someone was frozen underneath the ice. She banged on the window but the man didn’t seem to hear her. She woke her sister up, cut on the lights, and sped through the house screaming, “Someone’s trapped under the ice!”
In a swift hurry, Laura made it downstairs feeling her entire body screaming to help the poor man. She remembered thinking that maybe her screams alone could break the ice for the sad man. Although her hat, coat, scarf, and mittens were neatly folded inside the ash-wood trunk at the front door, she felt it was wrong of her to worry about being cold when someone else was in a much worse condition. Laura tugged the door open pulling on the handle with both arms. As the heavy, wooden door softly scraped the tops of her bare toes, she ran onto the covered porch. A rush of ice-cold air immediately made it impossible for her to move any further. In a panic, Laura looked up and around wondering if somehow she fell into the frozen pond and was trapped under the ice. She tried to give one more yell for the man before she collapsed.
She woke up to her grandfather, grandmother, and sister talking while eating cracked-wheat porridge, with brown sugar, butter, and milk. Laura loved the way her grandmother made the porridge. The smell was far better than the taste. Yet, the smell was nothing compared to the cozy feeling that would come over her if she ate it slowly enough.
“There was a man,” Laura remembered mumbling from underneath the heavily wrapped blankets. “He was trying to save his child in the ice.”
Her grandfather came over to her with his usual warm smile and told her the story of the last Native American family to live on the south side of Blue Mist’s great frozen pond.
“He had an adult daughter who taught elementary school. He was a proud man. He was nice and everything you wanted in a neighbor. The daughter was smart, hard-working, and a delight to watch with children.”
“This was in Blue Mist?” Laura looked over to her sister and grandmother wondering why she’d never heard such an important part of their town’s history before. Her older sister stirred slowly into her bowl making the butter disappear deeper into the cracked wheat.
Already peacefully frozen in reflection with her hands resting one inside the other, her grandmother continued staring into the fireplace. The flames were barely visible between the logs, but it was enough to capture her grandmother's attention. Laura thought to ask her question again but saw that her grandfather continued talking almost as if she wasn't there.
“ ….and the locals, all of them, resented his calm and peaceful demeanor. They resented that he had such a gifted daughter. More than anything, they didn’t like that he refused to be bought out of his home like they did the others. They couldn’t run him off. No matter how mean they were to him, he was twice as calm and peaceful.” Laura’s grandfather allowed his voice to drift off into the silence of the room.
Laura waited for him to continue. She waited for anyone to show signs of wanting to communicate. She began to climb from beneath the mound of blankets as her grandfather spoke.
“There are people who feel that white folks like us should not be with the Natives in any way.”
Laura’s grandfather gnashed his teeth involuntarily as a look of determination made its way onto his face. He looked down at Laura and continued to tell the story.
“One night while the father and daughter were ice-fishing, the father fell asleep. Now, I’m not saying it’s an excuse but we happen to have our festival of homemade brews that same night. Well, when he woke up his daughter was nowhere to be found. Her scarf, mitten, hat, and boots were still inside their ice house. We all searched for days. Some of us searched for weeks. We only stopped searching because one day the father packed up and left. Now, he comes back once a year to pray at the spot of his ice-house.”
The grandmother started slowly and gently caressing her hands. She loved her grandfather’s storytelling and the kind way he would always explain things to her. It seemed to always calm the family. Laura noticed her own body was now completely warmed and she felt settled and safe. Her grandfather continued talking.
“The very next day I started my ice-fishing safety business. I never imagined the business would be this big. And well, your grandmother’s Native American blanket business was started a few days later. But do you know what I’m most proud of?” He paused to point at Laura while holding a huge, gentle smile.
“Your mom. it was your dear departed mother’s idea to have an annual Native American Commemoration Day.”
Laura remembered every detail of that night and that story from her grandfather. That night she learned how cruel it could feel for a body to be ice-cold. She also learned that the amazing Ice-fishing event tomorrow between the Native Americans and the white folks of Blue Mist was a dream of her own mother. She felt proud.
Laura continued to peer out the window and noticed a shadowy man appearing at the edge of the ice. She hoped tomorrow may even help the sad father.
The shadowy man moved away from the edge of the frozen pond and began to mop the pond’s surface. Laura struggled to make sense of what he was doing. She hadn’t seen the father appear at the ice in years but didn’t remember him mopping before.
A chill entered her body as the shadowy man left the ice and began walking toward her house. A few minutes later she heard footsteps echoing softly off the stairs that led to the bedrooms. Laura climbed her bunk bed stairs faster than she knew her body could move. It would be hours before she noticed the bruise on her knee from banging it against the top of her bunk bed and the scrape on her forehead from rubbing it against the plastered ceiling above her bed.
The next day the festival began. It was a glorious evening of old neighbors and new friends laughing, hugging, telling stories, playing ice games, and teaching each other 1001 small tips to ice-fishing. Laura spent most of the day with her Native American friend from the summer.
The night came and went quickly. Laura wanted to stay on the ice but her father insisted on her sleeping in the house. When her grandfather came up later to tuck her in, she was already drifting off. She heard herself asking her grandpa about the shadowy man. “ I saw this man mopping the ice last night. Why would anyone mop ice grandpa? I tried to go see it this evening, but someone placed a heavy tarp over it.”
Her grandfather’s eyes became larger than any moon she could remember. At that moment, she heard a sound she would never forget. A piercing scream followed by a series of rapid mumbled prayers was coming from outside. Someone had apparently pitched a tent on the very spot the shadowy man mopped and a little boy was swimming frantically in what was a pool-sized hole in the ice. Laura stared for a few seconds in shock while recognizing the boy. She hurdled her body out of the top bunk only to be restrained by her grandfather.
“That’s my friend!” Laura yelled in an act of defiance.
“Laura, there are some things you don’t understand,” her grandfather responded in his usual warm manner, but his breath felt ice-cold against her skin.
“Grandpa, I think that father came back last night and….” Laura could feel the smothering weight of her grandfather’s hand cover her mouth and nose. She smelled fish mixed with the strong mint-scented lye soap from the bathroom. The soap her grandmother made would always excite her body and leave her refreshed. Now, the scent scared her.
“Grandpa, they need to know about the mop!”
“Laura. There are some things you don’t understand.”
Laura’s body began to understand before her mind. She noticed herself softly pulling away.
“Laura, some people shouldn’t mix.”
“Who was that shadowy man, Grandpa?”
“Sometimes, you have to set your pride aside to have something bigger.”
“Who is the shadowy man, Grandpa?”
“Keeping a culture together is more important than any one person alone.”
“When I was four and I saw that father praying, Grandpa…”
“Our country was built on hard work. Sacrifice. Sticking together. Being of one mind.”
“That night, Grandpa. When that father…”
“Sometimes in life, you have to be willing…”
“Was that man, really her father?”
“Laura, the future of our people depends on you being a strong, proud girl.”
“Wait, wasn’t mom a teacher?”
“Do you want us to be like them one day, Laura!? You want to cause all that!?”
Laura walked to the window refusing to believe the truth. Her grandfather was the shadowy man. The same man she saw when she was four. The scene outside made her feel numb. She climbed the stairs to her bunk bed, pulled the covers over her head, and rocked herself to sleep.