My father dreams that he is frozen, everything is frozen, the world is ice. He has a sharp object in his hand, a nut pick like the one from the etched brass bowl full of walnuts on the bookshelf next to the piano, but he can’t move to use it, he’s paralyzed, held fast like a statue except for the shallow breaths stabbing in and out of his throat, ripping like razors where they cut him open but he has to keep breathing keep pushing keep trying to move. The ice goes on forever. Cold, cold he has never felt before, the hairs on his body standing on end but they dive in, not out, pinning him in place like giant tacks. He’s trapped inside the ice, his skin, and he can’t stand it. He has to move, he can not move, they said don’t move, but he wiggles his wrist in the shimmery ice, his fingers gripping the pick—or are they frozen around it?—he doesn’t know but he wills motion, over and over. His wrist burns and his lungs burn and his chest burns and something is happening slowly. He is moving in his prison, stabbing forward, but the pick snaps in the ice and there is nothing.
With the strength of two hands: something. One free arm. If he had any leverage, he could push the heel of his hand with all his strength, but he’s pumped full of chemicals to dull the pain and brain and 17 stitches in his chest from the heart surgery they just did. He can’t exert himself, or he’ll bust a gut, or the blood will spurt through the ice, and he needs that blood for oxygen, and also: the blood on the ice leaves a trail for the wolves.
His mother told him, stay out of the woods.
The wolves are hungry with coal red eyes that follow. They watch to see if you’ll slip and fall, and while you might have a gun or an ax or a knife, you might be dinner, their hot hairy bodies on you, gnawing meat off the bone. You can keep them away with matches, lit matches, fire, but if he had fire, he’d be melting this ice.
There is movement but now, something else, something tall and pale and moving toward him, on its hind legs, not all four. It’s a person, someone who can help, get him out of the ice and escape every last wolf.
The figure looms closer now, a pink mouth moving, making no sounds. An arm outstretched, holding something red in the reaching hand.
“You’re frozen too,” he says. The words bounce back in the air tunnel his efforts have yielded, a tiny space for sound waves to get through.
“What do you need?” the light blue lady says from above. A nurse.
“You were frozen,” he tells her. “We were all frozen.”
“That’s not good.” she says. “Do you want another blanket?”
“In a block of ice.”
“How did we get out?” she asks, smoothing something soft and white across the bed. The glacier slides in again, a shelf of pearly cement.
Ice ends, he remembers. He knows from Indian Lake. Summers, there were fish. Winters the kids from money skated. The rest, like him, raced across the ice on flattened cardboard boxes, on top of the frozen fish; when the lake froze solid, the fish did too, they believed. Suspended for the winter, hibernating. Spring came, the lake thawed and the fish moved again, darting between the chunks of ice. The fish were okay, shiny and fast and alive, so he will be too.
This time, he is calm. Ice is frozen water and he is not afraid of water. Cold, yes. Wolves, yes. Water, no. He understands water. Knows how to get in and out, to swim and row and read it for fish, so he can feed himself too. Water is his friend. Water is life, and he will live in the frozen water as long as he needs to, until he can get himself out. The broken nut pick is still in his fist.
I have equipment, he tells himself. I can work in tight spaces. Changed vacuum tubes to keep the radar working on a ship taking fire in the Pacific, jammed into a corner of the conning tower, knees tucked under my chin and one hand braced on the hull for balance. Here, I’m protected. No variables to negotiate, it’s me and the ice. I just have to keep working the pick. Get the blood flowing, raise my body temperature, think warm, melt ice. Soften it up enough to wedge the pick in somewhere, push harder, make a hole, let some air in so I can breathe. The ice will melt.
Even when you don’t want it to, ice melts. It drips into the pan under the ice box you pay attention to or there’s water all over your mother’s kitchen floor and she’s down on her hands and knees mopping but you make her stop because a flood is good right now, water to sail away on, or at least to carve a path through the ice so he can slither like a tadpole or if he can’t get that small the hollow would give him enough room to chisel his way out, into the air.
He can be patient, wait for the melt. He is a patient man. You have to be to catch fish and he has caught a few. You have to be when you’re 22 and the war is over but you can’t go home because your ship has to explode all the dangerous mines still hidden in the China Seas. And you have to be patient when your body falls apart on you, disintegrating and growing things you don’t need at the same time--bone spurs and skin tags and flotsam and jetsam you’d be happy not to know existed but there they are, showing up on tests you didn’t even know they had.
Plus, he knows how to chisel ice. He saw the ice man do it every day, when the mothers heard the horse and wagon and called “25 cents” out the window, naming the amount they could afford. The ice man attacked the huge block of ice, the size of a building, sweating in the sun. He started with a chisel, then the hammer and pick, and while he carried it to who had ordered, the kids ran down to the street for the chips that dropped off in the wagon. But first you got friendly with the horse, you talked to him, stretched out your hand just enough so he could smell your fingers, held very still so the horse knew you meant no harm. Otherwise he’d spook when you got near the wagon and make terrible snorting noises and kick and you wouldn’t get any ice chips at all.
“Yes,” my father whispers. Someone is talking about ice chips. Does he want some. “Yes.”