Fire and Ice


Many years ago, when I first got together with the wonderful person who would become my wife, she invited me to her family’s holiday cottage on the edge of a lake deep in the Canadian wilderness.

It was the end of winter when we arrived there. The lake was frozen; it was -19 degrees Celsius indoors. One of my jobs was to empty the mouse traps. The poor dead mice had been frozen solid, splayed like ninja throwing stars, and fell into the bin with an almost metallic ‘clank’.

We had to get a fire going quickly. As we finally saw the kindling bursting into flames and spreading to the logs, I realised how hard life must have been for the Canadian pioneers and others before the complex infrastructure of today’s world brought electricity and everything that came with it: fire meant life, literally, and we huddled in front of it in gratitude, feeling the bitter edge slowly being taken off the air around us.

Then we had to get water. With pipes frozen solid, the only source of water was the frozen lake, so out we headed onto its surface with buckets and a pick axe. I was dubious at first, stepping gingerly onto the lake’s snow-covered surface, expecting it to wobble. My future wife stepped out confidently and picked a spot to chop a hole through the ice.

‘Don’t worry,’ she said, ‘this is thick. You could drive a car on this. Start digging.’

Still suspicious, I began chopping with the pick, chipping gradually away at the hard ice. Chop-chop-chop went the pick. A small hole began to form. But after many minutes, with the hole a foot deep, there was no sign of water.

‘I think it’s frozen all the way down,’ I said, overheating from exertion in the sub-zero landscape.

She smiled. ‘Keep digging,’ she said. A few more swings of the pick and up bubbled the water, filling the hole I’d made. We scooped it into buckets and trudged back to the cottage, now a balmy -7 degrees, comfortable in the knowledge that we would neither freeze from lack of warmth nor die from lack of water.

That night, we lay out on the frozen lake, listening to the absolute silence and watching the unpolluted skies with the immense tapestry of stars arching overhead. Space was a beaded curtain with deeper mysteries beyond. I heard a distant crack.

‘What was that?’ I asked.

‘Ice, moving under us,’ she said.

It was the only sound for miles and miles — the occasional thunderous snap of the ice as it shifted and moved half a mile away in the pitch darkness.

Writers are like travellers on the ice, carving holes and persisting until water bubbles up, then resting and listening to its mysterious movements in the night.

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