Northern lights, drunken ranks of Chernobyl ephemera, waver pink and green high above the boreal shield. In November an odd wind blows sharp from the south, kicking skiffs of snow ahead of it. Nodding, heavy head. Insistent… pushing down on the ice all through the night as it rushes unflagging across the fetch, pouring north into the invisible low pressure hollow. The raspy-rough crust on the ice surface catches the gusts. Cat claw on a ball of yarn. Using this purchase the wind is brutish in its labour, heaving with heavy legs.
In the winter morning the young ice platooned along the windward lakeshore, only inches thick and still vulnerable, is the last line of defence. When the ice can’t—it just can’t—push the land out of the way, it buckles with a shotgun crack. The skirmish continues until the shoreline looks like a long line of pup tents has been pitched—the invader’s encampment.
I walk down to the shore. Low and parallel to the rocky margin, the wending ice ridges bivouac there, dressed in see-through blue gauze the thin colour of a sky frowsy with high white mare’s tails.
Face down on the ice—blue jean thighs numb in no time—I poke my head into the rend where one of the ridges has split open like a ripe melon. The air inside the icy tent is dead still; a crypt and just as quiet. A hoary stubble rimes the interior of the ridged enclosure. The earthy smell is overpowering. It’s from the decomposing strands of cattail caught in this brown-tinted cocoon made of swamp water; a colloid of peat and fungi. Frayed and torn, the fibrous, once-yellow stalks are cast in death by the stony ice. With a sniff I can just pick out faint notes of rot from a hundred places past: Old Tom Creek when nearly dry but still dotted with muddy, tadpole twitching puddles… the too rich smell of rancid butter in the grocery’s walk-in cooler where I deliver milk (the owner’s daughters too pretty, my overalls too dirty)… a July beach green with washed-up algae turning black in the sun, flies feasting on the warm decay.
A few days later all is laid white and frost adorned, a cottony feather blanket smooth and rolling, cold and soothing—placed by gentle hands unseen. A crow, one that could dart and gambol in any Tom Thomson wind, passed by above. It cried thrice and I took it to mean the war was over. Sun dogs gleamed. I walked out to the island, where some of Emily’s pines stood at crooked attention.
Mitchell Toews lives and writes lakeside in the boreal. His work appears in print and online, in places near and far. He is working on a novel. You may follow him on the trails or out on the water or ice, or more conveniently at https://mitchellaneous.com/, Twitter or Facebook.