Minnesota’s winter prairies are fields of white as you fly north. Below, trees emerge from the snow. First deciduous ones, skeletal branches black against the sky, then the pines, green boughs wrapped in snow like gala attendees in fur-lined coats. The pines patrol the edges of wind-swept ice. The lakes flash blue and black as the sun’s weak rays hit them. The larger ones are dotted with smudges of color.
You press your face against the airplane’s window, hoarfrost on the outside of the double-pane, the inside only cold to the touch. “Look.” You poke your boyfriend. It’s his first trip to Minnesota and you are golden-retriever-eager to be a good guide. “Ice fishing houses.”
“People still do that?” The question hovers between disbelief and derision. How quaint, like churning butter by hand or hammering out tools from pig iron.
“Yeah.” Pft, of course, silly.
But you keep quiet because in Minnesota you must be Minnesota Nice™.
Growing up on the ice taught you a lot about caution. In the heart of winter, you led your siblings down a dirt road, past the football field and baseball diamonds, past the strip of trees demarking the town’s boundaries. Your dog, a collie cross, dashed and bounced through the snow, racing around your band in an instinctive but ineffectual attempt to herd you. She never went far, so you let her run, leash trailing behind her.
You passed the field where in summertime you trampled out mazes in the tall grass and once, although you’ve never told an adult, set a grass fire. In the fall, the field was off limits to anyone not dressed in blaze orange or camouflage. No one told the deer.
The trees on the other side of the field loomed like an unbroken wall, but long ago you found a way in, followed game trails into the secret forest, skirted the beaver pond, and ran whooping through the forest, half feral in the flush of illicit freedom. “Go outside and play,” the adults would say, never suspecting how far you could wander before dusk sent you racing home.
On that day, the sky was clear blue. A ghost of a moon skimmed the horizon. Mourning doves cooed to each other and chickadees gossiped fee-bee, fee-bee. You found the fallen tree and crossed from the bank of the Crow River to a small island. From there, you stepped out onto the ice. You paused to listen. Did it groan or crack? Another step and you were on solid ice in the middle of the river. Snow was piled in cotton candy mounds along the edge of the river. The ice there was thin, eaten away by the moving water below. Your brothers, nearly teenagers like you, knew not to stray, but the youngest, barely older than a toddler, wandered. She was beguiled by the weeping willow branches trailing from the bank.
The crack was barely audible above the wind.
Your boyfriend peers out the pickup’s window. This time of year, it’s well seasoned with sand and road salt. Still, he watches as the skyscrapers slump into the suburbs which surrender, in their turn, to the flat farmland. Leaving the Twin Cities is like traveling back in time.
The cousin who retrieved you from the airport glances at your boyfriend.
“So, how far away is this awesome surprise?” Your boyfriend’s trying to be excited and you’re trying to be patient. He’s not outdoorsy, but anyone can change, right? You changed. At school, you present yourself as cultured—a person who not only studies, but appreciates the Humanities, and possibly knows about wine. Your boyfriend grew up in ‘the nice part’ of Chicago. He’s going to be an engineer, like his father.
“Bout an hour.” Your cousin grins as he exits onto Highway 7 West. “You’re gonna love it.” Follow the setting sun and there’s a whole lot of nothing until you hit the Rocky Mountains somewhere in Montana.
Full dark sets in by 6 p.m. Is it too late to start an adventure? You shrug. Normally, you and your boyfriend would stay up past midnight. The difference, here, is you’ll be outdoors instead of working on your thesis while your boyfriend has a Scotch and half-watches the Golf Channel.
It’s been years since you’ve been home and in the dark, it’s easy to lose track of which small town you’ve passed through. But no matter; they’re all pretty much the same. The gas station, school, bar, grocery store, and a couple churches, generally Lutheran, Catholic, or Baptist. Mostly Lutheran—the kinds of places that host lutefisk lunches around the holidays and bingo on Tuesday nights.
The road winds among duck ponds and marshes, rivers and creeks. Between the towns are fallow fields with their corn stalks buzzed down to nubbins. In addition to corn and iron ore, Minnesota also produces more sugar beets than any other state, so some of those fields might be beet fields, hard to say in the snow-covered darkness. Windbreak trees rim the fields and the giddy headlamps of snowmobiles swoop across the open ground. Along Highway 7, signs warn of deer crossings and bridges that ice before the road.
The pickup crests a hill and below sprawls the town of Waconia, a semicircle of grid-pattern lights, all the usual town things, plus a café with a real espresso machine, and a movie theater that doesn’t care if you’re old enough to see R-rated movies, so long as your friend’s mom vouches for you.
Outside the town lights is the dark, upside-down comma of the lake with the darker eyespot of its island. And scattered across the ice are constellations of white and orange lights marking out the ice fishing houses.
Your brothers took turns running and jumping to grab snow-weighted treetops that have bent over the river. They pulled the trees down, squealing as the snow flurried around them. It took two to hold down the tree and then, with a triumphant shout, the helper released to let the other bounce until he couldn’t hold on and dropped to the ice, red-cheeked and breathless.
Your youngest sister shrieked. The dog growled then whined, her liquid brown eyes rolling, tail tucked as she anxiously panted.
“She bited me!” your sister howled. The dog had never bitten anyone, let alone a small, lamb-like child.
You reached for the dragging end of the dog’s leash and heard it. The low groan of thin ice. How thick was the ice? And below, a current fast enough to whisk your tiny sister away, trapped under the ice. Were there air pockets? But she couldn’t swim. And if you got closer, the ice could break under you both. But you could swim.
“Did she bite her?” Your brothers stopped their games. “What happened?”
You held out a hand to them. “Stop. Stay back.”
Your cousin slaps your boyfriend’s shoulder. “Ya havin’ fun yet?” He offers a beer. With no cooler in the ice shack the beers cluster in a pile of slushy snow by the door. A Coleman lantern hangs from a string. Outside the night is mostly still, the quiet broken by the occasional cheers or jeers from other shacks. It’s only 8 pm, but the night feels eternal out here on the ice. Hard to believe this morning you awoke in Chicago.
“Thanks,” your boyfriend says. His cheeks are pink and his nose already red enough to look like a long-time drunk. He pulls off his mitten and pops the top, swigs, and gives a thumbs up.
You smile as well. It feels like you’ve been smiling for days, like your face is frozen in a joy-like rictus. We’re all having such a good time here. You refuse to crack under the weight of your boyfriend’s discomfort. He’ll get the hang of it. How can he fail to love the cold, clear night, the crisp snow, the simple pleasure of beer and comradery that is the sacred rite of the icehouse?
A tug on your line provides a welcomed distraction. For a short time, you don’t have to think about the grim look on your boyfriend’s face or how he seems to be sinking ever deeper into his coat. For a short time, it’s just you and the sunfish. When you drop the sunny into the bucket, your smile is genuine. Counting your cousin’s, you have three.
“Gonna gut these beauties and get cooking,” your cousin says.
“In here?” Your boyfriend’s horror is plain in his voice.
Your cousin laughs, scoops up the fish bucket, and heads outside.
Your boyfriend sighs aggressively and you want to scream, “Just say what you have to say already.” But you’re Minnesota Nice™, so you say, “Those sunnies should fry up good.” You stop yourself before the ‘ya?’ slips out, but barely. One day back and the accent is already creeping in.
“Are we seriously going to eat those?”
You stare at your boyfriend. Not all danger is clearly marked. On the ice, you have to be alert to subtle things. Out here, away from the city lights and the Golf Channel, you can finally hear the almost imperceptible crack.
“Know what?” you say as you stand. “You’re right. The fish we caught aren’t good enough. I’ll order pizza.” You step outside. The air is so cold that your eyes instantly water. An orange glow hangs over Waconia. You listen. Only the wind sighs.
You beckoned your sister, but she shook her head. “My boot is stuck.” In books, panic was heart- pounding, knees weak, trembling, but you only felt cold, as cold and still as the ice itself. You didn’t have to worry because you’d already decided what you would do. You wouldn’t think of possible consequences.
You stepped forward, your stance wide to distribute your weight, and grabbed your sister’s hood. It probably wasn’t a great idea to drag her by her neck, but that’s what you did. As you shoved her past you, back to the safety of the thicker middle of the river ice, you slipped.
The ice didn’t break, you just slid off the edge of it. It happened fast and you nearly did the splits, one leg in the water up to your knee, the other out to the side and bent behind you. Your woolen tights, worn under your jeans, wicked up the frigid water. You gasped. If you leaned back on the leg that’s on the ice, it might have broken and you’d really be in deep.
Your brothers lay down to make a human chain to reach you. The dog nuzzled your sister. Afterward, you all agreed that if she hadn’t nipped the youngest, she might have walked off the ice and into the water.
On the way home, your pants froze nearly solid and you limped up the stairs like a peg-legged pirate. You got changed while your siblings got treats for the dog and told your mother every hair-raising detail. Everyone got hot chocolate and Mom didn’t stint on the marshmallows. The next day you headed back to the woods.
The chain pizza places won’t allow their drivers to go out on the ice. Liability, blah, blah, blah, but Giovanni’s delivers in forty-five minutes. You know the driver. She used to run varsity cross-country with you. The standard oh-my-god-it’s-been-so-long-how-are-doing conversation reveals she’s three kids into a marriage to what’s-his-name, who also used to run cross-country.
“And you? Anyone special?” She leans an elbow out the window of her Subaru.
You look at the shack and shake your head.
After she drives away, you listen. There’s the low mutter of fisherfolk’s voices, the faint clink of bottles or hiss of cans opening, the grinding of drills making new holes in the ice or the slop of dippers scooping out the holes. And under it all, the ice is silent. Not a crack, not a groan.
BIO: M. K. Martin is a Minnesota born and raised author and editor. Her novel Survivors’ Club was published in 2017. Her short stories appear in 0-Dark-Thirty and in several anthologies. Currently, she is an MFA candidate in the Writing & Publishing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. In between Minnesota and Vermont, Martin was an exchange student in Paraguay, joined the Army, got deployed to Afghanistan and to Iraq, got a BA in Linguistics from the University of Oregon, and developed a deep love of tea.
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