That Day on the Ice
Brynly Harrow was going blind and that was all there was to it. It had all started shortly after his 52nd birthday, at first small dots had appeared at the centre of his vision, empty spots surrounded by a wave of blurred vision and glare as though staring into the sun. As the weeks had progressed the dots had come and gone, sometimes larger, sometimes smaller, but with each and every day the world blurred around them, losing its focus, its sense of depth perception and colour. It was a five hour drive from the outskirts of Frost Fort Downs to the nearest hospital, and Brynly made the trip begrudgingly. ‘A few weeks at most’ they had told him, before handing him a pair of specialist glasses ‘these will help in the meantime’, ‘before they don’t help at all’ the ferociously self-reliant man had grumbled.
Frost Fort Downs was a small settlement with a smaller populous. Its tempestuous weather, accompanied by the fact it hugged a frozen waste land, made it the ideal retreat for loners such as Brynly Harrow. He had been a young man when he had made the move, and had not regretted his actions for a single day, he loved the freedom of solidarity and the quiet of the snow.
A light scratching at the door was all the greeting he wanted upon returning from the hospital. He grasped the handle, turned it slowly and scooped up a fat, black cat. ‘Hello there Pepper’ he said ‘how you doing then old boy, eh’ he asked rhetorically. Bryn and Pepper had been together for a long time, although the cat was something of an unusual pet for such a climate, neither would have it any other way. ‘Too cold out there for old creatures like us’ he smiled, placing the cat in a comfortable pile in front of a log filled fire place, before awarding a light scratch behind the ears. The truth that Pepper didn’t have much longer left was all the sorrow he had ever known, and it irked him much more than his failing eyesight. It took a good few minutes of blurred blundering before he was able to locate and open a can of cat food, and a few minutes more before he realised it was a tin of beans. He knelt slowly, one hand aiding a worn knee whilst the other placed a bowl by the fire. Upon standing Bryn caught sight of himself in the small mirror above the fireplace. He felt ridiculous hiding behind the large rimmed, deep lensed glasses, ‘bloody things’ he said unhooking them from their anchoring at his ears. ‘I can see better without them’ he concluded, tossing them to clatter on a small reading table.
Brynly’s home was small, little more than a cabin with a few minor extensions. Even so it was a little while before he was able to locate the items he would need for the following morning. For the past 10 years he had spent his birthday the exact same way. In the morning he would drive his snowmobile to the centre of town, where he would eat a hearty breakfast of sausage, egg, bacon, mushrooms and toast at his favourite café. Then he would return home, give Pepper a good wash and regale him with stories of their adventurous youth. After which he would pack a bag, make up a flask and drive north through the wastes to a small shed, surrounded by the ice fishing holes of previous birthdays.
By the time Brynly had eaten breakfast the following morning, the city gritters had made their rounds. Even so the snow was thick and heavy, causing a recurring pain in an old knee joint injury to flare up in the trudging. He was forced to rest a moment, sitting heavily on a half cleared bench. ‘Morning Bryn’ came a voice from the street. ‘Having some trouble are we?’ Frost Fort Downs had a tendency to attract the reclusive, people who were more than happy to mind their own business. However, to every rule there are exceptions, in Frost Fort Downs that exception was William Whild. He was stood, hands grasping a shopping parcel, staring inquisitively at Brynly Harrow. ‘Little trouble with my knee’ he grunted in response. William Whild was the sort of man you did not want to engage in conversation, once you did there was no escape. ‘Oh dear’ replied William ‘let me help you up’, he placed his parcel on the floor and outstretched his arms, moving to lift Bryn beneath the armpits. Needless to say Brynly was not too happy at the notion and shifted his whole body in protest. Unfortunately the situation was worsened by a cacophony of ensuing calamities. First and foremost Bryn dropped the keys for his snow mobile, which sank quickly through the softer snow. Next he was forced into a fit of coughing as he bent forward to search, breathing deep the fresh, biting air. The full effect of his failing eye sight hit him at once and he searched the floor hopelessly, struggling to catch his breath. All the while William was offering useless comments and actions, delivering the occasional slap on the back or else searching the snow enthusiastically. ‘Here we are’ said William, jingling the keys. Bryn snatched them, perhaps a little embarrassed. He unzipped his coat pocket to return them, unfortunately allowing his close sitting lighter to plummet to the snow. A fresh barrage of coughing vomited from his throat, and unable to endure the situation much longer, he shot to his feet and marched on. ‘Wrap up warm tonight’ shouted William after him ‘it’s going to be a cold one they say’. ‘Cold one’ mumbled Brynly under his breath ‘ha’ the lad’s only been here a few years, doesn’t know what old is.
An hour or so later Brynly was home and Pepper was washed, dried and full with reminiscence. At least as full as a cat has the potential to be of reminiscence. After gathering his usual tools and equipment Brynly zipped up his bag, secured his snow mobile and set out. It had turned into a strange and still kind of afternoon, so he had decided to leave a small fire burning for Pepper. Also leaving behind a full tin of cat food, quite unfortunately tried and tested, and a bowl of water. There were also several things that were forgotten. Items that would be mused upon a great deal at a later date; his lighter, which was probably in William Whild’s possession, his specialist glasses, which he resented and left by his arm chair and, though he did not realise it, he had forgotten to lock the cat flap, which blew in the wind as he left the cabin.
The journey out to the fishing hole was quite uneventful, there is not all that much to see in such a place, at least nothing more than miles and miles of stretching snow fields. This is peace, Bryn thought, looking about him at the emptiness. Real contented peace. And in that moment, when his eye sight had almost returned to normal, he felt a stirring sorrow for the weeks ahead when he would have to say goodbye. The sun was high when he reached his little shed, he hooked up his snowmobile, stored his equipment, hacked away at a pre-cut hole, took a swig from his flask and pierced the ice with the spike of his stool. He sat down exhaling with a rare delight. It was his birthday, his knee didn’t hurt, his eye sight was better and he was fishing. It was going to be a good day.
And it was indeed a good day, right up until the point where it wasn’t. Bryn had struggled for an infuriating 10 minutes, attempting to hook a wriggling wax worm onto its hook. His eye sight had quickly deteriorated and he was now squinting desperately, determined not to give up. Now, if you were to ask Brynly what exactly had made him look up from his bait, to look out across the quiet, wide, wilderness, I don’t suppose he could tell you. Instinct is perhaps the best answer. Instinct had told him that he needed to look up, and no sooner had his eyes strained to peer past the depth of his hook did he see a shape. A dark silhouetted outline, to his eyes, the discovery caused no immediate sense of alarm. Perhaps because he could not make it out and so fancied it something run of the mill. It is also true that after his many years and many birthdays at the fishing holes, Brynly Harrow had seen many weird and wonderful things. He squinted his eyes tight, willing them to focus, craning his head closer. No sooner had he made the move than the shape disappeared, likely bobbing down beneath the rim of a far off hole in the ice. Thinking little more of the curious occurrence Brynly returned to the task at hand. His fingers shook, he tongue protruded from the side of his mouth in an attempt to aid his concentration, and he finally managed his task. The wax worm entered the water with a light splash, then it was a case of manually bobbing the lure every few seconds, creating light but lively ripples through the water, enticing prey. It is easy for the mind to wander whilst indulging such tasks, as I believe, is a part of the appeal. He began the idle humming of a childhood tune, allowing his brain to sift through a barrage of happy memories. A light tugging from his fishing rod soon brought him crashing back to reality, something was biting. He gave the lure a few more bobs, for good measure, the line was caught. Applying the minimal strength the task required Brynly began to tug at the line, it did not budge. He tugged a little harder, still the catch would not be moved. He dug his boots into the thick grip of ice, leaned back in his stool and heaved. Old muscles stretched, old joints creaked, old teeth bit together and old, failing eyes scrunched tight. His fingers clenched, strengthening a steely grip that in the end he was forced to relent. From his sitting point his eyes had a narrow, if blurred view, of the top half of the far side of the hole. It seemed to him that something was amiss, something much more than the curious, unmoved catch. Several times throughout his past his hook had caught hold of drift wood, sunken cargo dragged beneath the ice by chance and strong currents. But this felt different. He could hear the water rippling lightly, splashing against the icy walls. All at once he became aware of a powerful odour, a rancorous stench that burned his nostrils. Still, closer and closer he leaned, expecting nothing more than a rotten plank, caught wide beneath the hole. But the smell, what could possibly account for such a smell?
A light wind appeared, sweeping loose snow from the topmost layer of ice, clearing a view into the world beneath. Usually there is nothing to be seen, even with a working set of eyes, yet in all that flash of an instant Brynly Harrow was caused to gasp at his realisation. A shadow, large, enormous even, big enough to cause a shadow beneath 4 inches of ice and it was moving. The surprise caused him to fall back from his seat, dragging back his fishing rod, the wire pulled sudden and tight by his weight. A surge of rushing water spouted from the hole, the fine wire snapped and Bryn fell back, his legs catching on the stool, his hands reaching desperately, and his head being the first thing to find a surface, he was knocked unconscious.
When Brynly awoke it was dark, as dark as the world has the capacity to be. In his 31 years at Frost Fort Downs it is fair to say that he had quite come to terms with the utter and sheer darkness of the frozen wilderness. This was different. He felt the cold of the ice at his back, he felt the frost nipping at his skin and the breath warmed zipper of his coat, pulled close to his mouth, he felt all this but saw nothing. He reached a hand to his head, exploring for the nasty bump he felt throbbing. His fingers found their way to the area, where they interrupted a light blood flow from a small wound. His brow furrowed in confusion, his fingertips reported that the blood was warm, he could not have been out for that long, lest the blood would be crusted or at the very least cooled. The frozen waste had no business in being this dark, at least not for a few hours. All at once a sudden and grim realisation gripped the man. By some natural course of progression or else cataclysmic coincidence caused by the bumping of his head, he had gone blind. Whether this was permanent at this point he could not say, though he feared it. He lay on the cold hard ice, unsure of what to do. Willing the pale white of the sun’s rays to burst through his eye lids and tell him he had time, time to see everything he had hoped. Nothing happened. I will not say that Brynly Harrow wept at this possible notion or realisation, he had prepared himself for the inevitability of this day, though he hoped to be home when it happened. For those of you believing you would fail to act so rationally in such an instance, to pool your thoughts and maintain a level head, I must say that I agree entirely. Were I in such a situation I would likely curl up into a ball and ponder my horrible fate. Brynly Harrow is not like you or I, as far as I can assume. Brynly Harrow was the sort of man who enjoyed a hard, solitary life. A man who had opted to move away from the comforts of civilisation to as hard a place as existed. They say that hard places breed hard people, but they also build them. I am led to believe that in such places there is a lesson, one that must be learned or discovered, a lesson of the absolute and upmost importance. Panic can kill you, fear can save your life.
Ok, thought Bryn, time to think this through. He had lost his eye sight, whether permanent or not. He placed his hands flat on the nipping surface of the ice, feeling as though his skin were sticking. He felt around in his pockets, retrieving and equipping his gloves. Heaving himself to his feet he stood a little hunched to secure his blind balance while searching for his stool. A few deep breaths and he was taking full stock of his situation, he had no phone, he could guess the route back, a simple case of turning his snow mobile about and heading straight on. The question was did he dare? Though he had made the journey many times it is something quite different to attempt it blind. The icy wind was growing so he pulled his coat close and tightened his hood. It was then that he noted a noise, peculiar and lively. He was not sure how long it had been going on for but in his delirious state it was possible it had been some time. Water splashed and reverberated from within the fishing holes, both old and new, the sound was fast and frenzied, broken by dull thuds. He had heard it before. The sound of schools of fish traveling close to the surface, confused by the sudden break in the ice they would often emerge, colliding with each other, the walls of ice and then finally finding their way along. Normally the noise could be heard around abandoned holes, drilled or hacked into rotten ice, where the layers were thin due to the current beneath, there were no currents here, not directly at least.
Brynly struggled to his feet, grunting away the pain in his knee. It was a simple case of walking backward, as he turned he knew the small supply shed was a few feet ahead and slightly to the right, his snow mobile sat to the left. He took a step, unsteady and uncertain, his thick boots gripped, crushing the powder of snow beneath. He took another step, this one a little surer. He held his arms out, his fingers stretched, waiting for the purchase of the shed as he arced slightly right. The wooden door was rattling in its hinges, stirred by the growing breeze, this helped him chart his direction which he reached a few careful steps later. Reaching into the shed he soon located the items he desired, a pair of old ski poles hung on the left wall. He wrapped the safety hoop around his wrist and took a firm hold of the grip, the pick was dulled from many years of negligence, and it struggled a little to find its purchase on the fresh ice. The other he swept along the floor, exploring his path for unseen obstacles.
All the while the sound of the fish continued, quick, wet slaps against the smooth ice surface, he almost resented having to abandon his station when the fish were so eager to be caught. That was when he remembered it, the shape, moving and large, shadowed beneath the ice, silhouetted by the high rise of the sun. A sudden metallic clink stole his attention and he realised the searching sweep of his pole had discovered the metal joint of caterpillar tracks. Feeling his way forward, one hand outstretched, holding the weight of the ski pole by the loop on his wrist, his gloved hand found the head of the vehicle. From which point he led himself around, kneeling by the small storage rails at its back. He found his flask and gasped with satisfaction at the feeling of the warm tea in his cold, dry throat. Shuffling forward on the ice he retrieved the keys from an inner pocket, felt his way across the frame, searching for the spot where he knew the keys housing to be. His arm caught a bump, something high up on the seat, the shape moved and he jumped with alarm. The keys clattered to the ice and he heard a light, frustrated meow. ‘Is that you Pepper?’ he said his hands searching once again. All the answer he received was a light head-butt on the hand and a contented purring as he gave the ball of unseen fur a habitual back scratch. ‘Where have you been hiding then, eh?’ Bryn said, taking comfort from the familiarity of his oldest companion. ‘Made me jump you daft old thing’.
He dropped onto his hands, searching the immediate ice for his keys. Driving back was not his best option, but it was his only one. Especially with William Whild’s cold night predictions, which Bryn had to admit he could feel on the wind. More than cold, a storm he suspected. You could always tell when a storm was coming, because of the emptiness and silence that proceeded it. That was when he realised, the silence, the sound of the hurried fish had passed, and the late afternoon had grown still. Far too still and for the second time that day he felt the immediate urge to look up, to stare back towards his shed and the soft ice fields beyond, though it did him no good as the relentless black persisted.
Then he smelled it, the hot dry odour that had offended his sense earlier, rotten fish and maggoty meat. He was still, his hands stopped searching and found the handles of the poles, gripping them hard. Pepper stirred at his back, shifting on the seat he began to hiss, a noise Brynly had never heard the cat make. He longed to ask what it was, what could be seen, what was staring at them, but the sheer utter dark that greeted him from his eye lids was all he could tell. He did not move, he dared not move, his mind wondered, volunteering for paths of the utmost personal terror. A thousand slippery things, slid from the slippery sea and all at once the many creatures of his most feverant and fleeting nightmares were more real to him than the foreign reality of the world he had lost. Pepper let loose another hiss, long and volatile.
Damn you, thought Brynly, think rationally. There were many predators that roamed the ice and wintery fields about. Bears and wolves that padded along in hunt of meat, but they were cut off by the dangerous trenches of soft ice, they always had been. The current in this area was too strong, even for a polar bear, to wade through. There was a thud on the ice, far off. Pepper moved once again, crawling to a level with Brynly where he stood spitting and growling, his throat rattling off what primeval warning it could muster. The sound of ice compacting beneath a terrible pressure shuddered along the sea and another thud, heavy and hungry, pounded against the surface. This was not the padding paws of a wolf or a bear, this was something else, something different. Something from which the fish had fled, something Brynly was sure he had never seen and something that was getting closer, a fact that was signalled by the growing reek, thrown from the terrible beast.
It’s impossible to say just how much time passed in those horrible hunted moments in which the smell grew closer and Pepper grew more desperate. Brynly had readied himself, though he did not know what for. He had slowly rocked back to his knees, his hands were grasping tight at the handles of the ski poles, the blunted, rusted, points of which were directed in front of him, and inclined toward the focus of Peppers desperate screeching.
Still the ice creaked as the slithering, rotten mass thudded closer, veins of splintering, moaning ice calling out from beneath. The stench was almost more than he could bare, he held the impulse to heave in his throat and waved the poles about wildly, hoping to startle the creature that could not be more than a few feet away. Silence followed the act, he could hear the blood in his ears, the fast beat of his heart and nothing else, even Pepper had grown silent. He steadied his breath, holding the poles as ready as his shaking hands would allow.
All at once there was a flurry of noise and commotion. The top layer of ice splintered close by, Pepper rustled about the snowmobile and seemed to disappear. Evidently having pounced on the foe a brief and frenzied conflict sounded in the waste. Desperate calls shuddered for miles, all born from the cat, nothing more came from the adversary. Nothing past its smell, pungent and sickening. All at once Pepper grew silent and another thud sounded on the ice, quieter this time and muffled by fur, then there was a splash of water, which echoed briefly about a fishing hole.
A moments silence passed, then Brynly Harrow acted, enraged, he thrust the poles forward, desperate to make some deadly contact with this creature in the dark. One pole seemed to find a landing, but quickly bounced away, rolling from the surface of the creature. The other was thrust into the ice, a desperate attempt to regain balance from the swing. Bryn missed his attempt however and the pole slipped across the surface and pushed behind him, causing him to stumble forward. And so for the second time that day Brynly plummeted towards the ice, his shoulder took the brunt of the impact this time, though his forehead still slammed and bounced. He may have led there a moment longer in his discombobulation, had he not felt a sudden stab of hot white pain in his shoulder. The source of the stench was close, so close he could hear and feel the shuddering breath on his skin. The pressure on his shoulder bit deeper and he felt his body dragged across the ice. He was sure his head was bleeding, he could hardly stay awake. He wanted desperately to break away, to find Pepper and escape, but his limbs were weak, his mind was clouded and his vision gone. Another great heave from his shoulder sent a ripple of pain through his body. He forced his hands into action, his fingers grabbed and clawed beneath his gloves, dragging the looped poles behind. His hands made no effect, they simply slid and slipped across the blubberous flesh of the creature.
The snap of a gunshot exploded through the air, Brynly’s face was sprayed with warm blood, and his shoulder was released. Dark seconds passed as he listened to the thunder of the beasts escape. ‘Good lord Bryn’ came a voice over him ‘stay still, I’ll call for help’. It was William Whild.
Brynly woke up a week or so later. William could give no report as to what he had shot, only that it had slithered back into the dark. Having discovered Brynly’s lighter by the bench he had asked around, wondering where he lived so as to return it. The waitress in the café had alerted him to Bryn’s fishing tradition, which is where William had found him. When Bryn had woken the first thing he had asked was about Pepper, though I am sorry to report there was no news on that front. Furthermore he was surprised to find a lacking mobility in his right arm, an arm he soon realised was no longer there. Whatever creature had set upon him its bite had been so savage, so tearing and so deep that it had all but ripped his arm off at the shoulder. His eye sight did not return. Needless to say Brynly did not go ice fishing the year after, or the years beyond that. After his ordeal he had stayed a while in his cabin, waiting for the return of his cat. After long months he was forced to relent when William, who had proven as good a friend as any, had returned from the ice fields to report the discovery of Pepper, who had become lodged beneath the ice. Brynly Harrow returned to civilisation, bringing the remains of his cat with him, and to this day he has no idea what he had encountered that day on the ice, though that does not stop the curious from asking, from questioning and from writing.