(A chilling day on the Ice)

A short-short story by JMF Humphrey (aka Johnny Skunk)

University studies were far from young Charlie’s mind as he skidded heels-first down the slippery grade to the frozen pond. Unbeknownst to Charlie, the cottages on the ridge surrounding the depression were vacant with not another soul there to chide him over the folly of fishing alone. When he arrived at the bottom, he paused to take in the beauty of his surroundings. The lake spread before him like a vast white tablecloth, hidden beneath a six-inch blanket of snow and betrayed only by occasional stress cracks in the ice. The loudest of these echoed ominously, like a crack of thunder through a whispered winter breeze.

By lunchtime, several brook trout lay flopping on the snow about Charlie’s boots. He paused to drink a cup of hot cocoa from his thermos, marveling at the resplendent little fish as he did so, and at how quickly their eyes turned to white marbles in the frigid air. At the first lull in the action, he gathered his gear and moved to unfamiliar water near a creek inlet.

As Charlie raised his axe, the ice beneath his boots caved like the trap door to a chilly carnival dunking. Gasping from the frigid shock, he thrashed to the surface and shot an embarrassed glance up to the cottages above. The residents there were surely laughing down at him, he thought. Charlie wriggled onto the ice, which promptly broke off in a sheet and slid him back into the frigid water. He searched for his axe, hoping to use it to gain a better hold on the slippery ice. But the tool lay on the bleak lake bottom twenty feet below. Charlie attempted to roll himself out on his back, but the brittle shelf sheared yet again.

What’s happening here? he thought.

The young man’s coat, a worn hand-me-down from his grandfather, absorbed the water like a dry sponge. The heavy wool garment strained on its buttons and hampered Charlie’s efforts to escape the icy black water. He cast away his gloves and ripped off his ski mask. The cold air bit his freckled face and ears. He fumbled at the coat fasteners while frantically kicking himself afloat with wet boots that had filled with water and were dragging him down like ten-pound weights.

This can’t be happening!

He glanced hopefully up at the empty cottages, praying now that someone, anyone, would notice him. Fatigue set in as terror encircled him like an icy blanket. The waterlogged coat tugged relentlessly at his shoulders, and his numb fingers refused to cooperate. Charlie unsheathed the knife at his belt knife in a wild panic and stabbed at the ice. Cold shards stung his face and eyes. As he chipped out a crevice, his hand slipped down the blade and sliced a clean gash down his palm. Oblivious of the pain, he jammed the sticky red knife into the cleft he’d made and strained to pull himself out … out … almost out!

But the frozen blade sheared off cleanly against the load, and he was submerged yet again. Charlie kicked himself back to the surface, coughing and spitting to free his lungs of the glacial liquid. By this time a bloody pink slush had surrounded him, and the icy water stung his lacerated hand. His catch-of-the-day bobbed like popsicles around him. The colorful dead trout seemed to stare at him with their opaque marbly eyes, like frozen fish zombies. How long had he struggled? Ten minutes? An hour? Finally, Charlie swallowed his pride: “Help! Anyone, God, please help me!”

Then… A light in the of one of the cottages above!

No. Just the heartless glint of a setting sun, reflecting off the window like the twinkle in the eye of a cruel prankster.

As twilight filled the basin, Charlie clutched feebly to the edge of the ice and recalled long-ago visits to the winter pond with his grandfather. The sodden coat that clung stubbornly to his shoulders had made the trip many times on the back of the old man, and still carried the faint odors of naphthalene and sweet tobacco. Charlie viewed in silence the wintery scene of quaint cottages nestled amongst pretty white birches. In autumn, the same trees flashed their yellow leaves and a beauty that would steal your breath like an icy dip. Now, in winter, the leaves were gone, and only white trunks stood ghoulish witness to Charlie’s fate. The other fishermen would surely arrive on the weekend, as usual, with rods, buckets, and lunches in tow. But they would not learn of Charlie’s fate until the spring thaw, when his corpse would be discovered, wrapped securely in his grandfather’s wool, and all tangled up amidst the shoreline roots of this placid and peaceful place.


© JMF Humphrey, 2024

Last edited by Johnny Skunk; 04/29/24 08:12 AM.