Ice on the Lake

The old woman stood leaning on a cane by the lakeshore. It was autumn, and between the dark spruces that covered the steep slopes on both sides of the long, narrow lake, the foliage of the sparse larches and deciduous trees glowed yellow, red, and light brown. The Benedictine monastery on the opposite side looked different now. The façade was white and no longer yellow, as it had been when she was a child. The colour and shape of the church tower had changed too. Instead of tapering, the steeple now had a sort of sharp angle to it that she didn’t like. Of the avenue of poplars that had lined the path leading from the lake up to the village, only a few trees still remained.

Her right hip was hurting, and she sat down on a bench, laid the cane across her thighs, and looked at the water that was lapping, gurgling softly, against the piles of the wooden dock she had jumped into the lake from as a child. She drew the air into her nose and closed her eyes. Remember. She smelled the scent of the wood at the height of summer, and saw the black water under the dock; as a child she would lie on her stomach on the hot planks and peer down through the cracks. Today the surface looked bright, almost blue. The colour of the lake used to be darker, she thought, an opaque green that always seemed eerie.

Not far away, two grebes were looking for food. One was just diving. She knew these birds could stay underwater a long time. They were beautiful creatures, their necks and faces white, their crowns black, and the distinctive hood of feathers black and reddish brown. Had these birds also been there in her childhood? She thought she could remember seeing them in the winter. Hadn’t she and her mother once found a totally exhausted grebe among the reeds, and taken it with them? Or had someone only told her that story?

She kept looking at the surface of the water, which was hardly moving. Remember. Suddenly the water was frozen, and she saw herself walking with her mother on the ice. The blackness under the mirror-smoothness frightened her so that she didn’t dare let go of her mother’s hand, a rough hand she’d have liked to free herself from. Right after that she saw herself as a little girl, maybe four years old, laughing, sliding across the ice with arms spread wide, in a little dark red coat, with a wool cap of the same colour fastened under her chin with ribbons that had big round pompoms dangling from their ends. Over and over she got a running start, over and over she slid a few yards across the ice. Sometimes she fell down and stood back up again. Had a little coat like that, a wool cap like that, ever been part of her wardrobe?

For one whole winter she had walked across the frozen lake with her mother almost every day. She could remember that. They had visited her grandfather, who was old and sick, on the other side. On the way over her mother had never been talkative, which had dampened her spirits. In those days the lake still froze over every year. Sometimes when it was covered by a layer of snow they had taken the sled along, and her mother had pulled it. The old woman turned her face, with her eyes closed, toward the warm autumn sun and saw the snow of the past glittering, glistening; saw the long, taut, striped pull rope before her, her mother’s back in her dark green loden coat; smelled the sharp, cold winter air; thought she could feel the wood of the steering bars, bent upward in a snail shape, to which she held fast with her small red felted mittens, which had clumps of ice clinging to them and were tied together by a string around her neck so she wouldn’t lose them. She heard the soft whisking sound of the runners, saw the prints of bulky boots in the snow and the shimmering opal-coloured tracks of the sleds of others who had set out before they did and had already cut a path through the fresh snow. Sometimes they had heard the bells of the monastery chapel ringing. Isn’t that how it was?

She opened her eyes and looked across the surface of the water again. Remember. Back then, the ice cover was thinner in some spots than in others. She could hear the cracking and grumbling and snapping that had sometimes woken her at night, coming over from the lake. She had been afraid, she had pictured how an ugly-looking merman with long green hair climbed from a hole in the ice and set out for her house to haul her into the depths with him. Then she had started to cry, until her mother came and comforted her.

“It’s only the ice expanding,” her mother had said and stroked her head roughly with her hard hand, so that she turned her face to the wall and almost regretted having attracted her with her crying.

The layer of ice used to be thicker than nowadays. Cars and horse carts crossed the frozen lake. Once a team of horses pulling a wagon with a heavy load of timber broke through the ice near the shore. She saw the horses before her eyes, saw how the big animals reared up in the ice-cold water, heard their whinnying. The two men who had been leading the team, who were in danger of breaking through as well, tried desperately to reach the two horses with the help of a pole they’d laid down, to fasten ropes to their harnesses so they could pull them out of the water. Had they managed to do that? Were the two men her father and her uncle? The wagon and the timber sank, she could still remember that – or could she? Did the horses, a brown one and a black, drown? Did they freeze to death? Remember! Were they able to rescue them? Were they lying exhausted, wrapped in blankets, on the ice? Now she was no longer certain whether she had experienced the incident or whether her grandfather had described it to her. One could not rely on the powers of one’s memory.

Her grandfather. He’d told a lot of different tales. She smiled. And she had never doubted their truth. When she had crossed the lake with her mother, she walked, holding her hand, past the ferryman’s boathouse, which was deserted in the winter, and on up the path between the snow-covered poplars. Sometimes she couldn’t see out beyond the path because of the high snowbanks that the snowplough had piled up.

She liked that, she could still recall – it was almost as if you were walking through a tunnel. Then they turned right, onto the main village street. As soon as she saw her grandfather’s house, she started to run.

“We’re not in a hurry,” her mother said, and yanked her back with her strict hand.

But she wanted to see as soon as possible whether he was dressed warmly and sitting wrapped in a blanket in front of the house. That meant he was having a good day. When he wasn’t having a good day, she hopped up the three steps to the door, which was never locked, went into the house where it smelled of smoke, of bacon, and of sour milk, leaped up the stairway to the second floor, opened the door to her grandfather’s room, and landed with a single bound on his bed, so that the duvet, filled with corn stover, rustled loudly in its red-and-white-checked cover.

“Don’t be so wild,” her grandfather grumbled, a little angry. But he took her in his arms and stroked her with his calloused hands, his crooked fingers. He sat up in bed, and her mother took the pillow away from him and briefly shook it out. Was that how it had been? Remember. Again the old woman smiled and saw herself as a little girl climbing around on the sick man’s bed, saw how she squeezed in behind him and sat on his slender, hunched shoulders and tousled his sparse white hair.

“You pesky child,” her grandfather said and grunted sullenly, a little like the pigs in the sty that was built onto his house – but he let her do what she liked.

His room smelled different from the rest of the house. The glasses and jars that stood on the night table and the dresser exuded a bitter scent of herbs, and the corn stover had its own particular smell, and of course there was her grandfather himself. She liked the odour he gave off and couldn’t get enough of being close to him. She sniffed around at his thin, wrinkly neck until he grew impatient and pushed her away.

“Go away,” he growled, but smiling, and right away he let her come close to him again.

If he was having a good day, and she saw him from a distance sitting in front of the house, she was delighted, and hopped and jumped so that her mother could hardly restrain her – she pulled her by the hair to get her to calm down. But she broke away, ran across the snow-covered meadow, sat down next to her grandfather, and laid her head on the scratchy blanket he was wrapped in. Right next to the house there stood a spruce tree, and on one of the lower branches hung a birdhouse that her grandfather had built. When he was sitting on the bench he hardly took notice of the two of them. Then all that interested him were the many birds that came to the feeder. He talked more to them than to her and her mother, and she knew that she had to sit very still next to him if she didn’t want him to shoo her away. Only when he was shivering with the cold or feeling very worn out did he obey her mother and allow himself to be taken to his room.

“There he is again,” he murmured contentedly whenever they saw a pretty blue-grey bird running headfirst down the trunk. “I was starting to think he wouldn’t come back again.” And when the titmice were fighting over the birdseed he shook his head and grumbled: “Don’t be so greedy, there’s enough for everyone.”

He became very agitated when larger birds, crows or magpies, came near and tried to steal food from the small songbirds. Then he threw off the blanket, stood up with effort, walked over to the birdhouse with short, unsteady steps, and tried to chase away the black birds with clumsy, rowing arm movements that made her laugh.

“Off with you, off with you, you blasted robbers!” he cried in his high, weak voice. It was her job to call her mother without delay when he was acting this way, and she didn’t dare defy these orders. Her mother then came running, distraught.

“Have you gone completely crazy?” she cried. She wrapped Grandfather in his blanket, led him back into the house. “Do you want us to have to carry you out of here feet first tomorrow?”

Feet first. The old lady smiled to herself. Back then she hadn’t known what that meant.

Sometimes when her grandfather held small pieces of walnut or hazelnut in his open hand and they didn’t move or say a word, a bird came scampering cautiously over the snow, flew up to his hand, and quick as a wink made off with a morsel. If they kept sitting absolutely still, which was very hard for her, the creatures gained confidence and perched a bit longer on his hand or thighs. They even alighted on his shoulder or head. Her mother laughed when she saw her father doing this, which intimidated her, because it happened so rarely and her mother’s lips twisted so unappealingly.

“You’re Francis of Assisi in the flesh,” her mother said, and she’d wondered what man she was comparing her grandfather to – maybe a distant relative, or a neighbour from the village?

Her favourite thing was when he imitated bird calls. He was good at it, it amused her, and she asked him to repeat the calls until he gave her a little nudge with his elbow and said irritably, “Come now, that’s really enough. Settle down.”

The old woman opened her eyes again and looked off into space. One day when she was in the kitchen with her mother, who was sitting there with a big enamel bowl in her lap, peeling apples, the bells of the monastery rang. The bells? Remember! It was only one bell, a thin and piercing sound, at an hour when there was usually no ringing. The ice on the lake had already melted, the sun was shining. Her mother began to cry, went to the window, and looked out, down toward the lake, across to the other side.

“Now he’s died,” she said, and wiped her eyes with the corner of her apron. The apron was blue, with a pattern of small white flowers. She knew that. She still knew it exactly.

“Oh, there you are,” said a voice, and the old woman startled from her thoughts and sounds and images. Her daughter was standing in front of her, smiling at her. She returned the smile, took the cane from across her thighs, placed its tip into the gravel by the lakeshore and reached out to her daughter with her free hand.

“Help me get on my feet,” she said. “Let’s go.”

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