It was cold enough in the northern borderland that the man’s beard was white with frost as he trudged across the frozen lake, the poached deer on a sled in tow, oblivious that a deadly hole in the ice would soon open beneath him.
The man guessed that it must be around -45° with the wind chill, since whenever it dipped to even -35°, any bit of metal he touched with his bare hands for too long gave him a burn. Indeed, when he put the deer out of the misery in which he found it near the national park, his rifle and trigger had burnt his fingers and he had to wring them for a while before beginning the process of dressing his kill, which both warmed and stained his fingers considerably.
The figure walking the lake was accustomed to hunting in weather like this but never with this much wind. The arctic blizzard howled across northern Minnesota, the air currents having traveled all the way from the frozen tundra of Siberia as they did nearly once every ten years. The man huddled deeper into his jacket and tugged harder at the sled behind him.
His padded leather hat covered his head and ears; the beard around his face provided insulation against the wind and it held the warmth of his body as he plodded across both the patches of dark ice and thick snow to the warmth of his home somewhere beyond the next rocky, snow-covered peninsula.
Winds from the north swirled violently and flung snow into drifts that collected in patches—some to a height of twenty feet, obscuring his view of familiar landmarks. Between the bigger gusts that at moments mimicked white-out conditions, he glimpsed an outcropping or familiar ice fishing house that helped him keep his bearings.
On the radio that morning, he heard a public service advisory warning the residents of the borderland to avoid the outdoors due to the severe cold, but if a departure was unavoidable, to bring an emergency kit and be aware of how to build snow shelters.
He knew the risks of living in these climes. Even the simple act of locking one’s keys in his truck could be deadly or cause one to lose fingers, a nose or an ear.
If one didn’t have the right gloves or boots or plan for every possibility, anything from slipping on ice, to being unable to use one’s frostbitten hands to gather wood, to neglecting to bring matches for an emergency fire could become deadly.
The man had prepared for every contingency, all except one, regrettably, but he was hoping for the best during this trek. Hopefulness was something he knew from experience he shouldn’t count on, and on this day, he would find out that he couldn’t.
The man crossed areas of ice that gathered no snow and were disconcerting to walk across; dark expanses of transparency marked by fissures and bubbles showed the ice’s end at two feet down. Below the ice was nothing particularly discernable, merely a void that occasionally saw a walleye or sturgeon passing in and out of the diffused glow of sunlight, looking to the world above, perhaps in hopes of glimpsing the spring to come.
His mukluks had an uncommonly firm grip on the ice due to the particular rubber of the soles. He had bought them from a man who hiked Antarctica twice, returned to America and begun to sell the traditional Inuit clothing and footwear—the only kind that could keep him warm on the polar continent—made with modern materials and assembled by the Native Americans of the northland who knew how to do it best. The boots were lightweight, waterproof and warm due to the thick felt that lined the moose hide exterior, and the rubber of the soles acted against the ice like athletic shoes on a basketball court. They were sturdy, and the man considered them a regular necessity during the cold season.
Between the gusts of snow that stung his face, he saw the tall electrical towers of the Canadian border, their beacons flashing for the float and sled planes that ferried fishermen farther still into the north woods. The towers were so high that their strobes altered the night sky and interrupted—in their invariable meter—the green and yellow northern lights that swept in their irregularity across the sky on the clearest cold evenings.
The man wiped his nose on his thick wool glove and tasted faintly the frozen deer blood. He glanced back at the sled behind him to make sure all the meat was still there and it was, laid neatly in quarters across the wooden braces. It would have been a long trek back to Grindstone Island to retrieve a leg or a shoulder—not that he would go after it in this chill—and he was quietly grateful that the ice was so windswept and smooth that it did not jog the sled.
He regretted not having been able to take his truck into town that day to pick up steaks or chicken, but with the ice storm having enveloped the region for most of the week, he knew the roads could not be approached or traveled by even four wheel drive vehicles, since one was not able to come to a stop—antilock breaks had no effect. He knew he was the only unit of heat and life for a mile or more above the surface of the lake; he also knew there were wrecks and deaths in town that day of people who believed they could drive before the plows and sand trucks made a dent in the ice that coated the streets.
But he was out of food, a rare oversight by a man who knew to plan ahead for those events and this weather. Normally cautious, he nearly always kept a variety of canned meat, potatoes and canned vegetables in the pantry, but he had made the mistake of getting violently ill from eating some unknown bit of contaminated food that made him distrust the rest of it for his pregnant wife, so he had thrown out most everything before the week of arctic storms and only kept some essentials that had not lasted long. After several days of trying to fill their bellies with melted snow, crackers, butter, and the hard brown sugar he had left, he donned his long underwear, buttoned his wool pants, pulled on his coat and mukluks, grabbed the rifle and sled and kissed his wife goodbye, telling her he would return with some kind of food.
After leaving the house he had covered two miles to the park across the ice, and by the time he realized he had forgotten the one item that could have saved him from a fall through the ice, he was already scaling a shelf of rock on the north side of Grindstone Island. He had cursed with disappointment and a slight shudder of fear at his mistake.
Grindstone was a barely occupied island just outside of the park, and there were deer here because does and fawns ate the blueberries that grew on the mossy bluffs. No one would have been living there at this time of year because of the extreme cold and general inaccessibility of the island—which was good for poaching—but to avoid being caught by someone taking a snowmobile to their cabin to weather the storm, he hugged the power line that made a straight shot across the island from east to west.
The rocks under the snow had been jagged and sharp, and the man knew enough to go slowly, lest he turn an ankle and find himself in a situation with few options. So he had planted each step carefully and precisely, resting his weight on one leg while finding solid footing on the hard pack underneath the depth of soft snow with the other.
There had been no deer prints around because, like humans, the wildlife was in hiding from the cold and wind, and for the next half hour he walked the power line and peered into the dark woods of pine and cedar, searching for the telltale signs of game trails or the packed snow along the drifts where the deer laid down to sleep. He had found none.
The man eventually reached the end of the power line and began to make his way around the shoreline. Here he saw remnants of a trail, the depression in the fresh snow making its way through the trees and around the rocks. There were no new tracks, only a slight, linear indentation that indicated a previously traveled route through the deep snow and low-hanging branches.
But the man had finally found what he was looking for when he reached a bluff that overlooked the bay at a height of fifty feet. The deer was not on the island but a hundred yards on the ice to the east of the island where the ice was open and no snow had collected.
It was a yearling splayed out on the ice. The man could not see it moving and he doubted it was alive. A deer that doesn’t find traction on the ice doesn’t last long, he knew, but at the same time, it did not appear to have been scavenged. “Maybe it’s still alive,” he thought.
He hiked down the slope and made his way onto the lake, pausing every so often to look down and determine the depth and safety of the ice that held him, since he was not familiar with the currents of this part of the lake that might have corrupted and thinned the ice.
When he arrived twenty paces away from the deer, he realized it was nearly dead, and it would die soon even if he wanted to help it. It barely looked at him and when it did, the man saw that its eyes were frosted and had begun to freeze at their corners in the harsh north wind. It shivered weakly, its chest and belly flat on the ice.
Hearing the man’s footsteps scraping closer on the ice, the deer struggled weakly but could not move its legs more than a few inches. As the man surveyed the situation, he noticed that there were hundreds or perhaps thousands of scratches on the ice surrounding the deer, the result of probably hours of its hooves struggling for footing. He was amazed it had not already died from shock, or that the timber wolves in the park had not yet found it.
“I’m sorry for your suffering,” the man said to the deer with meaning in his voice as he unslung his rifle from his shoulder.
The deer turned its dead eyes to the sound with a brief cock of its head, as though seeming to place where it might have heard it before. The man shivered.
The man had taken off the glove on his shooting hand and, gasping in surprise, burned his finger on the cold trigger. From his pocket he grabbed a kerchief and folded it over his trigger finger to keep the pain of frostbite from it.
He went to the deer, crouched, and directed the muzzle of the rifle to a soft place just above where its spine joined with the skull.
“Make your heart strong, I’m going to kill you,” he murmured in its ear.
The man had given the deer a moment or two before relieving it of the blindness and misery of the cold, and the brutal possibility that the timber wolves would find it. The man had known that his was the only quick mercy of the north woods and he felt lucky that he had been chosen to bestow it with such ease.
He quickly dressed the animal, leaving its head and viscera on the ice for the other living things to have a share, dragged the body around the island to where he had left his sled, quartered the carcass as fast as his numb fingers could, and began the trip home with the meat in tow.
So after his long trek back across the frozen lake, the man finally came within view of his jackpine atop the embankment of schist stone where his home and his wife were waiting. He immediately felt the glow of love for her and his success that would sustain them both, and despite the fact that it was around seventy degrees below thirty-two above, he began to feel warm. He picked up his pace at the thought of his comfortable home and his waiting wife who would reward him with a meal of the deer’s back strap with whatever spices were left in the mostly empty cabinet.
It was then, as he had forgotten wholly about his surroundings that the man felt the horrible shudder and pitch of the ice breaking beneath him. He heard the sharp but deep noise of its collapse around him; all in a moment of realization that stood alone as separate and distinct from time. Time began again when he felt the sudden shock of the cold water and remembered how the current next to his property always kept the ice dangerously thin.
Normally, in order to be able to claw himself from the water if he was to have fallen in, he always tied two six-inch nails to a cord he would thread through his jacket, letting the nails hang out the sleeves where he could grab them quickly in an emergency to use them as traction on the ice to pull himself out of the water.
But forgetting them was his one mistake, and the only necessity he had overlooked.
The man thrashed in the water even though he knew better. The water was cold and the shock of feeling it was incomparable enough that he pushed and kicked at it in a breathless panic as though he could keep it away from him. But the cold water found the gaps and holes in his clothes and mercilessly overwhelmed the naked skin beneath.
Within a couple of seconds his mind returned, and he immediately ripped off the winter jacket that was weighing him down and removed his gloves, fumbling in the dark of the freezing water for the folding knife in his pocket he used on the deer. After grabbing a button on his pants several times as he kicked his legs to stay afloat, he finally found the curved hinge above the clip that held the knife to his pocket. He lifted it to eye level, conscious of every passing second, his hands shaking from the cold and from the fear shooting through his body. Finally, he opened the blade from the handle, feeling the familiar click as it caught and held straight.
Quickly splashing his way with one arm to the edge of the ten foot diameter hole he had opened up, the man gripped the knife with both hands and lunged with a determined shout as far as he could in the direction of the shoreline onto the ice, driving the blade deep in the ice with the type of inhuman effort allowed by those with bodies in conflict with death immediate.
Letting out an exclamation of amazement and disbelief at his good fortune, the man began to pull himself out of the icy water.
But the inevitable happened. The strain on the blade of the knife broke off the tip at the same time as the ice gave way beneath him, and he plunged again into the icy lake, his whole body submerged for the second time.
By now the man could not feel his feet or his fingers and his legs and arms were weak as well, whether from the temperature or physical shock he didn’t care to contemplate.
He began to yell loudly for help, but he knew it would do no good because the sound of the wind would carry away, misdirect and overwhelm his voice before it was heard by the rare individual outside on that day. Again and again he frantically tried to lunge onto the ice toward the shoreline, but his body had become drained of warmth by this point and all the strength he could muster in his dwindling time merely hung him to the side of the hole with the remaining blade barely caught in a fissure in the ice.
He let ought a raw, earthy wail of frustration, fear and sadness that he had finally begun his own transition into death. He knew it was coming; how could it not? If only he had brought his nails and cord, he thought, he might be able to do all the things in his life he had wanted. He wanted to see his wife again. He wanted to watch the birth of their first child, teach it how to run, how to start a fire to keep out the cold, and how to avoid the holes that open up in the ice.
So much I still have to do, he thought breathlessly as an agonized lump moved up his throat.
A tear of frustration trickled from his eye and froze on an eyelash.
He shivered on the edge of the ice. If he let go, then he would be going when his heart and mind stopped. This would hurt his wife deeply, he understood with the sadness of a man who could only share his last moments with himself. His was the identity of a man freezing reluctantly with much left behind.
As in the other rare moments that contribute definition to a man, he—in body and mind, both—was alone as he began his journey into death.
He inhaled deeply through his chattering teeth, and if he had been able to by this point, he would have remembered the meaning and definition his life had found in its last days. He might have felt more deeply the love of a wonderful woman and his release from ten lonely years in the woods, but only very little was passing through his mind. If he could, he would have remembered the value in life he had found at night among the stars with his wife and the worth of the time spent among the scented breezes of their single spring together.
His clouded, nebulous thoughts gave him an indefinable degree of peace as the cold slowed his mind and took her from him. And as it happened, something began to change.
He suddenly felt very warm and he became inexplicably tranquil. A familiar figure materialized, standing next to the ice, looking at him and smoking a cigarette.
The man nodded weakly towards the smoking figure.
“You have to help me,” he murmured to the figure.
The figure nodded.
“I know,” it said.
The presence kept smoking and watching the man. The man looked up and knew that one of two decisions needed now to be made. The figure nodded knowingly.
As the man let go of the knife, he sunk down below the water and into the dark of the cold lake, the light at the hole above casting shadows only inward, his pants full of water and no jacket to buoy him. He watched his bubbles make their way to the surface and break with a ripple, releasing his breath into the wind.
And then a spark appeared in his vision that glistened and danced in front of him. As it danced, it grew ever larger until it encompassed the entirety of the space he occupied. Within that spark of the eternal, the man glimpsed the life of the world beyond this one, and its glow began to radiate outwards from his chest in golden ripples that seemed to light up the underside of the ice.
When he finally touched the bottom, the man had made his decision.
That man was me, and my name is Joe.