Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature
On a Frozen Lake
By Madison Bridgen
The sun shone on the grey ice. It was barren of snow, unusual for early March, but the broken mirror of the surface didn’t complain. It sat like a disk in between the forested banks, and even though the centre was cracked open the surface was studded with the tin sided huts of ice fishermen.
Inside were the frosty gentlemen themselves, determinedly sifting through winter’s slim pickings for the stalwart perch and pickerel which had braved the frozen winter. The blundering fish weren’t having any of it; hiding in the frozen trenches they spurned the bait lowered to them. Sitting quiet in the mud or drifting lazy in the churlish current, they fought their frozen psychological battle with the men above by floating entranced past the proffered giblets.
Steven Wilkes had won a battle against an old and battered pickerel, which now lay frozen in his lunchbox outside, but now waged another war for tomorrow’s lunch against the denizens of the deep. Currently they were winning with their sheer will to ignore him, and the turkey’s heart drifted sullenly on his hook, with muscles thin and lank blossoming with each beat of the current.
He was in a sort of haze that comes with alcohol and the dreaming stillness of winter. Steve dreamed he was listening to Springsteen in his car, with the possibility of work looming on the horizon. But part of him was still awake, and aware that Springsteen was on his radio in the corner, which cackled with static and tuned in and out of KL 98.8 and a talk show a few stations over. The man’s voice interrupted Bruce periodically, and dragged him into awareness every few minutes. He came out of his haze quickly with the tug on the lure.
The bait had been taken by a fish with a veritable lust for life, and the closing of battle lines was fraught with fear and danger. The entity of warfare had caught each of them, not the politicized war of man for man but that of the hungry against his food, and it was the food that fought the hardest, and with the most futility, against the predator drawing it close.
Still, Steve was surprised by what he had caught. For what he drew into the hut was not a pickerel, or a perch, or any fish at all, but an otter.
A short scuffle brought the animal against him, where it snorted into his gloves while his fingers probed the hook lodged in its gum line. A series of mewls spoke its protest, and then a loose otter was in his arms. It clawed at his coat and dove its head into his elbow where it set up snorting again.
He tried to get a grip on the wriggling creature so that he could put it back in the hole before it could tear the place up. Eventually it gave up on his elbow and turned imploringly to him, and in the soulful little eyes was something familiar. It was the sound of the sea and a moment that he had long ago forgotten, something so unrelated to his day to day existence that there was no wonder why it had left his memory for the past decades.
He was on a naval ship off the coast of Korea, a big boat with big guns lurking behind an island. The shore was drifting past, and the roar of the surf breaking reached him in peaks and falls. Spring was in the air; the cries of sea birds came so frequently that their mantra was not even noticeable. The salt couldn’t hide the scent of spring, of living things. At the starboard side he watched an island go by, the waves coughing up foam in their eternal dance.
The corporal was beside Steve, talking his asinine talk. In his memory Steve drifted in and out of the conversation, the words that reached him rang with a strange clarity. The inanity of it washed over him.
“They eat fish raw. Sea fish, sharks, octopus, squid, they wrap it up in seaweed and rice and eat it, just like that!”
The corporal pointed at the dolphins at the prow.
“Those too; they’ll cook it up and everything.”
“Well, do they cook it or not?” muttered Steve.
“Eh?” said the corporal. In the present Steve wondered what the man’s name was, and why he couldn’t remember.
“First you said they eat it raw, then you said they cook it.”
“No, it’s raw,” his voice echoed across the time gap, and the last word became a drawl that captivated him.
“Raw, raw…they don’t cook it at all.”
“No, no,” Steve’s voice was losing its clarity in his mind, and as if from a great distance he heard himself respond. “You can’t eat fish raw…”
The conversation turned into an argument, but Steve’s mind was drifting to something else. Below the railing was the snort and a bark of an animal, carried by the sea wind, and he looked down into the doglike eyes of a seal. They had all the curiosity of a domesticated pet, and the blackness of its eyes held a soul and an intelligence that was palpable from a distance.
The seal bobbed its head like a Labrador begging for scraps. The nameless corporal talked in the distance, but it was the eyes of the animal that held him. They were like a portal into a soul, and they gleamed wet through the years that separated them.
The salt was still in his nostrils when he woke from his reverie. The moment had lasted maybe seconds, and the otter had turned its black eyes away from him to gnaw on his gloves.
“Gah,” he muttered, putting the animal into the hole. It bobbed in the water, and he shooed it, saying, “Out, out. You’ve got nothing to do here, and you don’t need anything from me. Get out, you!”
Without a backwards glance, or even waiting for him to finish, the otter was gone, leaving him with his battle against the fish, out here on the frozen waters. The battle raged below, fought between the sleepless fish and an old man on the ice.
And it would rage for another month, until the spring melted the ice and the war on the pond would be fought with boats once again.
Madison Bridgen is 20 years old and lives in Ontario, where she attends St. Lawrence College and writes in her spare time. She is diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome and has minor symptoms of OCD. Madison reads a lot and writes a lot, and this is her first sale anywhere.