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Breaking the Ice

It was the winter of '03 and Macy and I spent the morning throwing rocks at the lake. The lake's freezing over was a big deal where we lived, and we celebrated by standing on the bank and throwing every stick and stone we could find onto the surface of it, listening to the cold electric sounds they made as they skidded across the white suface. "We need something bigger," Macy said, and I followed her deeper into the woods until we came to a shallow cove and that's where I saw the gravestones.

There were three of them visible over the ice, only partially submerged. "Holy ___!" I declared, pointing to where the tombstones rose. We tried to walk out to them, but the ice made a creaking noise that sounded like breaking. Macy slid out there on her butt, while I went back to the shore. I'm a little scared of the water. Always have been, frozen or not. Macy got back and reported that you could not read the writing on the stones but that they were graves for sure. She said that when the TVA flooded this river out, years ago, to make the lake, lots of graves were flooded. "Old family cemetaries," she said, "that got mostly forgotten. This was farming country back in the 1800s and no one took the time to find, much less move, the graves before they made the lake. No telling how many are out there, under all this water." Macy was unperturbed, but I had a chill that came from more than cold.

Actually, the day was warming up nicely. That's why we were there. We were hoping to break the ice, since it would be melting away any day. Macy found a rock, a big one, and suggested we go up on the bridge and drop it on a likely looking weak spot.

Now, I suffer from a tad of vertigo, and as I have already explained, I'm not too comfortable around the water. From the bridge, looking down, the lake seemed to be making a sound as it melted, a sort of groan, only it was so low that I couldn't swear that it wasn't all in my head. It was as if the lake were calling to me in a way that predated language itself. I was really dizzy, but I tried to be brave for Macy's sake - she's an impressive girl and I didn't want her to know that she had chosen a neurotic coward. Not yet, at least.

We found a spot where the ice was a darker color than other spots. The lake surface was littered with big sticks, soda bottles, pine cones, and other rocks. The surface was unbroken to that point, but we had plans to fix that. Macy handed the rock to me and leaned out over the bridge railing, closing my eyes, and let it drop. All I could think about - I know this sounds crazy - is how old this rock was, how many years, millenia even, had been spent shaping it, and how we were sending it off to the bottom, if not now, then tomorrow, and how, once submerged, it would start a new life unwitnessed by human eyes, and then how long would it continue to be, out of sight and out of mind, for all time, maybe.

I opened my eyes in time to hear the crack splash of the lake's surface and and not in time to see the rock sink - like a stone, they all say that - out of sight for eternity. There was a hole in the ice now bigger than you would have thought. I don't know what Macy was thinking; she hadn't said anything, but me, I was thinking about that hole and how it seemed to tunnel through the ice and into something deeper than any lake.

What's under a lake? I thought. How many bodies? How many stones, boats, fish, trees? When I was a kid, I watched a cardinal die in mid-flight and fall into Nickajack Creek. It's red body just dropped and floated downstream, slowly pulling under the current. I thought of the snapping turtles that lived in the Nickajack that probably made a meal of that cardinal. I saw one once, lifting itself onto a shallow bank, looking all the world like a dinosaur. Its immensity was unnamable. And yet, as big as it was, all I could do was think, 'This is just a baby. Imagine what else is down there, imagine where it comes from. Something bigger, something too big to look at. And it was evil too - not wicked, but cold, reptilian and thoughtless. It eats our bodies when we die and if we are not careful, it will eat us while we live.'

Then something horrible happened.

"Look!" cried Macy. "Look at the hole." There was a movement at the point of the hole where the ice surrounded, an exhalation of air as if an underwater bubble had burst. A fish - a striper - floated slowly to the surface, and then another, and another. Dead fish rushed to the surface of the lake, one after another. There must have been twenty or thirty of them. "They must have died in the freeze and were trapped in the ice," Macy said. Her voice was getting excited. I sat down between the guardrail and the road. Cars passed by one after another. I had forgotten we were even on a road.

"Well," said Macy, "at least there's no stink." I was done. The wind picked up and my vertigo was more than I could master. Macy says that I fainted. I don't recall. She held my hand back to the car and I wanted to explain what exactly had happened, what I had felt and seen, about the graves and the monster under the water and the rock that I had sent to its watery oblivion. But it didn't make sense. It didn't make sense to me, how could I tell it to anyone else? How do you explain oblivion?

When we pulled out and drove over the bridge, gulls were starting to circle around the fish kill. On the way home, we picked up a pizza and a six-pack of my favorite beer. Macy did housework and let me watch football all day.

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post #458
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April - National Poetry Month 2008

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