Mornings and evenings, on their way to and from the pond, the boys would hear the old Tilson woman calling to her cat. She would stand on the front step of her little red house, the flower-print dress she wore no matter the weather hanging from her shoulders like a sack, her legs all swollen and gnarled, and, holding the bowl out toward the white propane tank like it was an offering, ululate loudly, rest, repeat. Then she would put the bowl down and go inside. It was the only time anyone ever saw her, except perhaps when she peered around a half-drawn curtain at some passerby, like an animal from its burrow. No one knew exactly how old she was; the most reliable estimates put her a few years shy of a hundred. Her son, who came by to check on her every few days, was guarded about his mother’s age. As for the cat, white with a black mark under its chin, no one could remember the last time they’d seen it, and it was widely believed to be dead. There were in fact a number of people who claimed to have run it over—put the thing out of its misery, they snickered, through the nicotine haze at the diner; for what creature would want to go through life at the eerie beck and call of that old wretch?
Her call would break suddenly upon the ch, ch, ch of their boots as they followed the grey scramble of their own tracks through the snow. They were ruddy with cold, lips and fledgling beards frozen stiff with snot, bright in their jerseys as winter birds. Sticks over their shoulders, skates tied to the ends, they looked more like hobos or drifters than the natural-born sons of this valley. The old men who hung around the VFW had said it was going to be this kind of a winter: the kind the valley hadn’t seen in twenty years, the kind it had forgotten existed; the kind that had been typical when they were boys. They had predicted it from the caterpillars—not by how hairy they were, but by their coloring: the ratio of yellow or white to black, the width and spacing of their stripes. Word had trickled down to the boys, three generations their junior, who didn’t know whether to believe them. Barnabases, their generic name for any old man, after one of the valley’s first settlers, were prone to tell tales. At least, so their fathers said. But then to their fathers, a hard winter meant little more than extra money from plowing and towing, and a few extra cords of wood sold. To the boys, the caterpillars looked just the same, matchbox Chinese dragons, the sort they paraded through the streets with firecrackers, at least on TV.
When the first snow failed to come early, or even on time, and the first few powdery inches melted away in a mild early December, the caterpillar story became the butt of their jokes. It was a different world, after all. Some of those men were old enough to remember the highway going in; some of them had even worked on it during the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower. The power lines had come later, a swathe almost as wide as the highway cut right through their land; they would reminisce about the fight against it with Korea-like nostalgia. They knew the valley as it had been before their sons and grandsons, the boys’ fathers and grandfathers, had started to drift away to the gas wells up north, or to the business route that jughandled from the highway south. Those of them who could get work, anyway; those who couldn’t went further, and usually didn’t come back. They talked about the valley when the land had been worth something for itself, instead of for what was hidden underneath it, before all the leasing and parcelling and selling off had pitted neighbors against each other as fiercely as the struggle against the power lines had once united them. All that land lay fallow now, and still undeveloped, its owners waiting. Yes, it was a different world; nobody read caterpillars anymore. But it beat the hell out of reading books. And then maybe it wasn’t the Barnabases at all. Because the caterpillars were even older than the Barnabases, and if the Barnabases couldn’t keep up how was a caterpillar supposed to?
They remembered the caterpillars—and maybe their fathers did, too—when the first big snow came in mid-December, knocking out the power, the valley ahum with generators, and then the cold snap that drove the temperature down into the single digits for a solid week. It was then they started going to the Tilson pond every day to observe the changes. They called it the Tilson pond, although they were honestly unsure who the land past the power lines belonged to. It was a safe bet. Once upon a time, one Tilson or another had owned a quarter of the valley; the name, Tilson, was well represented by a clutch of stones in the old graveyard behind the defunct Methodist church. Barnabas had been a Tilson, probably still was. The stones were set off by chains, some decorated with artificial flowers and flags, and the lawn around them was always mowed, although many of the inscriptions were too worn to read. The stones were better for sitting on, anyway, or for smoking on, or for trying sex behind, while someone else looked out from the bed of the pickup that sat in the church driveway on eternally flat tires. They had all looked through the one unshuttered window of the church at one time or another, too, and but for the one who would never say what he had seen, they had all seen the same thing: retired farm machinery, rusted tools; the kinds of things people pulled in off the highway to buy for antiques.
It was their pond, anyway. They never asked anyone’s permission to fish in the summers and skate in the winter, and even on days when the son’s truck was parked piled high with firewood in the old lady’s driveway no one ever chased them off, and nobody but them ever came out as far as the pond. As for the no trespassing and private property signs—the unsigned ones, presumed to belong to the Tilsons; the ones posted by the local gun club; the ones for the downstate utility and three different gas companies, none of them local—and the for sale signs decorated with bright realtors’ logos, and the sign alerting them that they were on state parkland, so old and riddled with bullet holes as to be almost illegible—they all meant as much or as little, which is to say, nothing. They were like arcane messages from another world, a world the boys firmly believed they were not part of, that they moved around, skirting its edges, although sometimes they believed they could hear it scraping against their own. Did the ghosts of the Barnabases trespass when they rose up at night to possess the deer that traipsed through the graveyard, and that the boys sometimes spooked as they passed, ghostly white tails flashing in the moonlight? Did the turkeys, the raccoons, the rabbits trespass in their daily perambulations? Then how could they? They meant as much as the deer did, and read as little. And then it might occur to them that their fathers hunted those deer, and they sometimes went along. Some days they brought twenty-twos along with them and shot at a stray rabbit or bird, mostly to listen to the report die away into silence. They tugged fish out of the Tilson pond in summers without thinking who but God they belonged to. They trekked underneath hunters’ roosts, and one day they had stumbled upon a hide, gleaming orange and green like a medallion, one side shingled with leaves. They surrounded it like it was a fallen meteor. Walking again, they said things to each other like: You think a deer is really fooled by that? They’re none too smart. They don’t see too good either. Could’ve fooled me. Well, maybe you should watch out my old man doesn’t shoot you. You’re none too smart either. Oh, snap. Ch, ch, ch.
There were stone walls everywhere, low and half-toppled, half-buried in snow, vestigial boundary lines from some long-extinct apportioning. The boys clambered over them, crossing sometimes in file through the notches where the stones had all tumbled down, and sometimes abreast, like a platoon fording a river, sticks held over their heads in both hands like rifles. Following their own tracks, they crossed those of the deer, and turkeys, and rabbits, and Mr. Barrow’s thirteen-year-old shepherd dog. They wound between the bare oak and poplar and elm, stepping over fallen trunks, some with the bark shorn away, or ducking under snow-slung branches. Sometimes as they walked they heard a branch crack and fall with a whump. Halfway up the mountain they intersected with a driveway, which they followed for a full turn, then cut through more woods to the clearing for the power lines. They walked along the utility road until they came upon a peculiar-looking boulder whose concave side was a sheet of ice. Here they left the road, clambered over ledge after upended ledge of jagged granite until they reached the ridge.
Standing atop a weathered American flag painted on the rock, they could see the low flat humps of the further Adirondacks like the backs of whales, and they could follow the rise and fall of the utility towers through the lighter green track across the hillsides into the distance. Though they could not see the highway, they could hear it better from here than anywhere else, especially when the tankers barrelled up and down it in convoys of six or seven. Occasionally they would hear the distant reports from the gas wells, the low rumble through the hills, like a war they were expected to attend when they were old enough to enlist, and for which they were even now in training. Everyone had someone working up there, just like everyone had someone in the service, or in one of the prisons an hour to the south. The wells had drawn the sons of the sons of the farmers north, had pumped them out of the soil as heedlessly and violently as they did the gas. Father and uncles, brothers old enough to have dropped out. They came home most weekends, sometimes for longer. A couple of the boys had ridden up there with them: land like the surface of the moon, explosions that made the earth seize up, jets of flame high up into the night sky like solar flares, the silhouettes of men huddled inside of them, hangars of trucks filled with water, water, water, amazing quantities of water, and a smell that stayed on their clothes long after they’d come back. In a couple of years they’d be old enough to follow. But in a couple of years, the wells would be here—and it was about time, or so most people said.
Beyond the ridge the trail dropped down into a high meadow, stakes poking up here and there through the snow. The woods on this side were mostly pine, at least until the boys got close enough to the stream to hear the water. They followed it, watching the current through the warped, semi-transparent pane of ice frozen over most of its surface, down into a small hollow: the pond, a rough ellipse fifty yards wide on its major axis. Each morning during the week of the cold snap its surface would be changed. A sheet of ice covering the eastern half, the water lapping it like a shore, then spreading to cover the whole pond, so thin they could send shock waves across it by tapping the edges with their boots, the water sloshing against the just-frozen edges. They threw pebbles, listened to them chirp and echo as they disappeared into the grey, broke the ice with sticks, or with their feet—a sudden asterisk—just for the eerie pleasure of feeling them go through, the other planted safely on the bank. Over the next days the sheet whitened from its middle out, growing more opaque as it thickened, like a cataract, took a firmer grasp of the banks, and crept entirely over the little pools by the inlet and outlet. They got fist-sized stones, and on the count of three, hurled them as high and far as they could—not to compete for distance, but to mark whether the stones would plunge through, or even crack the surface. On the morning the stones bounced a few times, barely chipping the ice, they went back home, to their toolsheds or mudrooms or garages, and pulled the handed-down skates off their pegs, the blades all freckled with rust, the boots filled with cobwebs. They met up again at the house of a Barnabas who had used to build sleighs, who watched them blindly while they took turns at the grinding wheel, blades whining like boards in a sawmill, hot when the boys ran their thumbs along the metal.
At the end of the snap the temperature shot up ten degrees, and it snowed lightly overnight, coating the pond with an inch of powder. Early the next morning they hung their skates over their shovels and push brooms and marched up the mountain again, saying hut, hut, hut. One carried a battery-powered drill, and spent the hike pointing the bit at the boy in front of him and pressing the trigger. Another brought an auger. They were always hesitant on the first day—that was normal—but this season it was magnified by the early freeze. They had sounded the Tilson pond two summers before, from a canoe they had humped out, and needed little to remind them that there was between twelve and twenty feet of cold water beneath the ice, where the sunnies and the bass still wounded by their hooks turned slow circles in the dark. The voices of their parents rang in their ears, too, as they stood along the south bank staring out at the veil of snow. Their fathers would have had them stay away entirely. But they were too preoccupied, or too tired, or too drunk, or too ornery about something unrelated to the boys. Their mothers loaded them down with injunctions: Bundle up. Look out for each other. Take the auger, the drill, the ice claws, the ladder. Get milk, sugar, bread, butter, spaghetti sauce. Dinner’s at six, six-thirty, seven. Don’t do anything silly, stupid, crazy, idiotic. Don’t make dares. Don’t take dares. Don’t try to impress anybody. Are there going to be girls there? Use your head. Don’t just walk out there like a dummy. That’s how Anthony drowned. Remember Tony?
Of course they remembered Tony. He had fallen through the ice and drowned. At least, that was what they had determined after the fact; they hadn’t found the body until spring, blue-grey in his sodden coat, skates still strapped to his feet. Turned out he hadn’t lit out for the City after all, whatever all the other kids were doing. He wouldn’t have lasted a minute before going under.
It had happened right around the time they were born. Tony had been quite a bit older than they were now when it had happened, but to their mothers it just made them that much more vulnerable. So they told their mothers what they wanted to hear: that Tony had been stupid, for going out alone, for getting drunk, or whatever he had done wrong. They promised not to be like Tony. But when they were out there on the ice, they thought they understood Tony in a way their mothers didn’t, or didn’t anymore. Or maybe they did, and that was what made them nervous. Why he had come out alone. Why he’d gone out too early, or stayed too late. Why he would have skated too near thin ice. It had to be his fault; the alternative was too frightening. They couldn’t explain it, the bright, hypnotic beauty of the ice, the ricocheting sunlight. It called to you. Tony. He would have been in his thirties now, somebody’s father, his son a friend at school, one of them. They skated with this ghostly boy, felt his presence on the ice, just as they felt Tony’s under it.
Because the body had been poled out of the lake a dozen miles downstream it was easy to extrapolate from the story to make it a lesson about all ponds. The boys didn’t believe it had happened at the Tilson pond—or, if it had, they didn’t believe the Tilson pond would do such a thing to them. Still, that first step. The snow helped a little, because they were not entirely sure whether they stood on hard ground or over water. They waited until one got the nerve to take another few steps, the shoreline visible now as a slight hump behind him; and then a third, carrying the drill, a step beyond him, dragging his feet, leaving dark skids in the snow. Even though they knew the bottom dropped precipitously, they figured that nothing could happen to them just a few arm-lengths from the bank. The one with the drill dropped to his knees, brushed away the snow to reveal a dark oval. The bit whined as it cut, the rest watching, a few still from the bank. It was four inches from the tip of the bit to the housing. When the threading had entirely disappeared in the ice, the boy pulled it out and stared down into the cleanly-bored hole, shavings at the bottom, and announced his failure to break through. In the meantime, the boy with the auger had started turning the handle, and the rest began to fan out onto the ice. And then one who up until that moment had been standing on the bank walked out toward the humps of the buried stones. He walked like one anointed, or possessed, a few other boys following him in a broken V. Near the middle he paused; the boys faced each other across a wide expanse of snow-covered ice, like stones themselves, each half-expecting the other to fall through, as though each was only buoyed by the others’ half-belief, or even more, by their presence, their role as witnesses. They might have been walking on water, though it looked more like cloud. Then the boy with the auger cried out he’d hit a gusher; the water came up like through a straw and puddled on the ice, like he had made a hole in the bottom of a boat, and the entire sheet was in danger of sinking. Five inches, he barked. Minimum. The ones standing out on the middle of the ice broke into smiles, and then started jumping up and down. Even as they slipped and fell, they felt light as air.
They raced back to the bank for their skates, shovels, brooms. Suddenly the pond was a whir of noise and activity, shovels scraping across the ice, the blades of the skates carving. One started a track along the bank, shovel bumping over the leaves frozen into the surface. The rest plowed in rows straight across, holding their shovels at an angle like plow-blades, so that the leading edge left only a thin line of powder behind, and most of the snow sloughed off the dragging one. Another boy would swoop in behind to handle the sloughed-off snow, shovel angled the same way, and then another behind him. They worked this way in both directions, raising their blades to dump the accumulated snow when they were near enough to the banks, and forming little levees by the inlet and outlet, about ten feet from the edges of the small pools. Occasionally the stones they had hurled would rattle into their blades, or trip them up if they had stuck. These had to be chiseled out. When they got tired of the routine, they tried locking arms with a couple of partners and making a single long plow from the blades of a few shovels, or skating with two shovels, one in each hand, trying to keep the blades together and angled away from each other. The brooms came in after, first wooden side down to push off the excess snow, then the bristles, dabbing and pushing, dabbing and pushing, so that a pattern of squares emerged as they moved across the ice. It was a good warm-up and reminder for their muscles, skating with the shovels, dabbing with the brooms, stopping short at the banks to dump the snow, turning in tight circles to begin another row. Sometimes the blades of their shovels would clash, hook, send them spinning down onto the ice. The boys would spring up and fence clumsily, until one went back to plowing, leaving the other to listen to the skates and shovels, and the sound of his own breath, and maybe the wind in the pines, and the peep of a winter bird.
It took them half an hour to strip away the veil hiding the ice, and but for a bit of horseplay with the shovels they worked without pause or distraction. It was as though they were polishing a great mirror for some god to admire itself in. What with the ice revealed, and the morning quiet, and the new warmth as the sun crested the treetops and made the ice a sea of light, what choice did they really have about how to spend the rest of their morning? Most of the surface was a scuffed, opaque white, but there were patches of perfectly smooth blackness, all the more wondrous for their relative rarity. Each was like the window of a display cabinet in some pond museum. Looking through, they could see the weeds trailing up from the dark bottom, motionless as a diorama, which they kept expecting some drowsy, meandering fish to animate … or perhaps Tony, blue-grey but young as them, floating by face-up just under the ice, mouth moving silently as a fish’s. There were bubbles by the millions, clouds of them like galaxial dust, others large as fists, frozen into trails and tendrils, like the arms of squids. In one place the ice had frozen a bubble that looked just like a glass urchin. They skated slowly over these patches, elbows on their knees, blades wobbling ever so slightly. Passing silently, the surface below firm but invisible, they had the sensation of gliding through a void, glimpsing a hidden world below before the white opaqueness obscured it again, like a bank of cloud.
The silent wonder didn’t last long. Soon they were racing in a clockwise oval, shouldering and elbowing each other, or skating full-speed at one another, locking arms at the last moment to spin a tight circle before breaking apart and plummeting to the ice, or making slapdash hurdles out of stacked shovels and brooms. They were clumsy compared to how they would be a month from now, but felt light as birds compared to their earthbound selves of an hour before. By the time they thought to leave, the sun had tracked halfway across the pond low over the trees. A miracle that they didn’t stay until nightfall. But then they were hungry, and figured that if they hustled a little they might make cafeteria hour, for what it was worth. School might have been an ordeal, except that there was something so satisfying about walking in with the day already half-over, about the loud clatter of the skates as they deposited them in their lockers, just to make sure the teachers and other students heard them, and then shambling off together toward the cafeteria to eat silently at the same table, aware of all the eyes upon them, smiling at each other, laughing giddily when one of them ululated like the old lady, and another meowed, before wandering off in two or three different directions to math or reading or social studies, to doze off to the hiss and ping of the radiators and the drone of the teachers’ voices in the heavy, institutional warmth. By the end of the day they could hardly muster the energy to rise from their desks. They walked in a half-stoop on numb, ragged stumps for feet, the muscles in their legs barely able to push them forward. At home, their mothers teased them that they looked like old-timers themselves. But even sore, or maybe because of it, they went to bed feeling weightless, and dreamt of a field of ice black as pitch on which they moved noiselessly and at a speed such that the pondside trees became a blur and not even the scant few birds could keep up with them.
They limbered up quickly, grew fast and confident, forgot the hardness of the ice and the water beneath it. Their bodies remembered everything: how to go backwards as easily as forwards, make tight turns in either direction, or stop short with a loud expectorate of ice—or, when they did fall, how to skid rather than flail, so as not to break an ankle or bruise a tailbone. They fell relentlessly those first days, with an almost religious devotion—a cult of falling. Testing the limits of their abilities, their feet grew to fit their skates. They graduated from racing in one heat across the ice to making toboggan-trains that wound in tight S’s, working hard to derail the caboose, to whirlybird, or pebble-on-a-string: a human chain, the boy in the center the anchor, turning in rigid circles like a gear, so that the one at the end was whipped around at speeds he couldn’t attain alone. The hurdles got taller, and more treacherous, and the boys lined up to jump them backwards as well as forwards, the others clapping to signal the moment he should become airborne, or on one foot, mocking figure skaters, arms out and flapping.
They invented a species of bombardment with some old tennis balls they had found in the woods, every man for himself and every ball up for grabs. It was an easy step from there to an anarchic hockey without teams or goals, possession the only objective, a stone for a puck. Any and all true pucks had disappeared the previous winter; even a short season was enough to lose every last one, and short seasons were all they had known before now, save one year without any season at all. The pucks shot right through the snow piled by the inlet and outlet and into the pools, they ricocheted up onto the bank or overshot it into the trees. In the rare case that they were recovered, they had always gone further than seemed reasonably possible. It was weird, they should have stood out against the snow, should have been on the banks when the snow melted in spring, waiting for them, like a carbonized nugget of winter. They were offerings to the god of winter for the advent of the ice. It seemed a better explanation than the caterpillars.
But who needed a puck? Howe, Gretzsky, Messier, they might have played with rocks growing up, too. Pele had played soccer with a sack. And even if the stones chewed up their sticks and cut their shins and knees through their jeans, these were just the ones they could find within a short waddle from the ice. They looked for better ones on the way to and from the pond: fatter than for skipping, palm-wide, vaguely round and without flinty edges. Nor was there any reason to stop with rocks. There were cans for the taking. They raided their pantries, told their parents it was for the church drive. They returned with new offerings: Alpo, Pepsi, Chef Boyardee, Fancy Feast, Green Giant, Campbell’s, Chicken-of-the-Sea. The tall ones tended to roll and spin on their long axes. The soda cans burst within five minutes, spewing a syrupy slush all over the ice. The tuna and catfood cans fared better, but were too heavy to slap. They tried keying open one of the catfood cans, and smashed a soda can into a flat disk. But now they were too light, took wobbly flight on an easy pass, skipped or planed over their sticks. Stuffing a sock into the cat food can helped a little to keep it icebound. But now it dented too easily; within ten minutes it was a crumpled ball. They tried filling the tuna can with water and leaving it overnight—an ice puck with a tin housing—but the ice shattered in a fray when the puck got caught between two sticks.
For a time they toiled as dourly as men in lab coats with clipboards. A roll of electrical tape, for example, failed tests for stability (it rolled too easily) and durability (it grew more flimsy and lopsided the more they batted it around). Most plastics—jewel cases, a rolling wallpaper remover—cracked and chipped almost immediately, leaving splinters all over the ice. In the end it was a half-spent candle that came closest: it moved quickly over the ice with hardly a skitter, slightly better than the bar of soap which took second place. It even made a mildly authentic clack when they struck it. It was only a little too light to be clearly visible—nothing a dab of paint couldn’t cure—and a little too small. But when they kneaded it over the fire into a wax flapjack, it lost some of its stability and traction. And whether because everything that seemed durable they managed to destroy in a matter of minutes, or because they were too young to sustain such a disciplined curiosity, they turned their energies to ludic destruction. Packages of Ramen noodles and elbow macaroni, just to watch the confetti explosions. A knot of new skate laces, the knot undoing as they dribbled it down the ice, a dead octopus. An Eggo waffle, the recoverable portions still edible. A hundred-watt lightbulb, passed as gingerly as a water balloon until somebody got up the nerve to slap it. It got to the point that, when one of them showed up with a pinewood puck he’d cut in his father’s shop and spray-painted black, another ran home immediately to get a can of gasoline. They doused it, lit it, and played with it until somebody’s stick caught fire, grip tape belching thick smoke like a torch. They cast it out into the woods with the rest of their failed experiments, and swept whatever remained to the edges of the ice.
After a couple of weeks one of the boys bit the bullet, collected money and convinced his father to stop at the sporting goods store on Route 6 on his way back from a job. The next day he showed up with a sackful. This much must be said for the true puck: it made such a satisfying clack when the first stick hit it that the boys actually cried out. It skittered just a little, then hugged the ice, cruised almost the length of the pond before stopping. They chased it, surrounded it. It might have been a splinter of the cross, but it looked like a hole. They built altars to it in the shape of goals. They formed themselves into teams, and since they were an odd number and never quite enough to make two full lineups, they played without goalies and one man out; he dropped the puck for face-offs, and then replaced whoever next needed to catch his breath, quickly swapping jerseys if the new man-out was on the opposing team. In this way the players on any one team changed several times throughout a scrimmage, and the play itself had no time limit beyond their collective exhaustion. Oddly, their devotion to the one team or other was the more fanatical for being so provisional. And it grew by the day, as they learned to keep their sticks down and their chins up, organized drills and ran plays of increasing violence and sophistication, practicing breakaways and three-on-twos, dumping the puck off behind them to a trailer, and stopping short with the puck trapped for a shot. They even started fights, half-serious brawls, and though they hit each other hard enough to bloody their knuckles they left the ice without grievances or apologies. It seemed like a thousand years ago they had played with stones and candles and catfood cans; they felt a foot taller, and with their new bruises and trick shots they bragged about marching down to the lake and challenging the older boys in the township league, or the community college kids who practiced at the rink down on 6, dropping a glove on the ice right in front of the penguin-high ref.
Oh, the rink. They gloated, thinking about those poor suckers. They’d all been there at one time or another, for a birthday party, or to watch a game. Crowded with idiots, loud corny music playing, ice all chewed up. Every forty minutes they had to kick everyone off and bring out the Zamboni—fun to watch, but it wasn’t skating. They scrambled out as soon as they blew the horn, but got at most a couple of minutes before the ice was choked again. Everyone else was so slow. And they all went in the same direction, like they were riding a carousel, a weird procession to nowhere, pilgrims who had mistaken a circle for a line. They couldn’t even imagine going the opposite way. The only remotely fun thing to do was slalom between the carousel riders. But just when they’d got up a little bit of speed, some stupid little kid would come along skating the wrong way, or they’d get stuck behind an old lady clinging to the boards like the ice was a pit of crocodiles, or one of the asshole older kids, the ones who stared at their girlfriends, would skate over in his bright yellow guard jacket and sunglasses, blowing his whistle. On the pond the boys would sometimes imitate the older kids skating over to dock them, and then flip off their effigies. The pond was three times the size of the rink. No slowpokes to run into, no corny music. No noise. No rules but the ones they made themselves.
They never did hitch that ride over to the rink to crash a scrimmage, and they never did hike the twelve miles down to the lake. All through the remainder of December and the month of January, as the temperature bobbed around freezing, dipping into the teens or lower at night, and rising into the low forties on sunnier days, they stayed at the pond. There were a few more snowfalls, none major; the boys would skate watching the dark ribbons unspool behind them, writing in a wide, looping, unintelligible cursive. When they stopped they could hear the tick of the flakes landing on the ice. Then the wind would pick up and whip the new powder into frozen waves. They would pull their hats down almost to their eyes and skate hard into it, feeling the cold bite their dry lips and wet, chapped noses, their bodies careening in their jerseys and their coats, like jibs.
They were late to everything, blinking at the world elsewhere like time travelers catapulted into the future, amazed, on reaching their destination, to find that any time had passed at all. And just as the pond stranded time, so it seemed to rewrite the geography of the valley. It lay on the line between any two points. In fact, there was no way to get anywhere but by passing it. And yet, somehow, it was not of the valley. All news from the valley dissolved into nothingness when they dropped down into the meadow on the other side of the ridge. They couldn’t smell chimney smoke anymore; they couldn’t hear school bells, or church bells, or the old Tilson lady, or the voices of their parents. And if they had, they would have pretended not to.
They skated before and after school and whatever time they could get away from church or chores on weekends. They got used to the clunking weight of their skates on their shoulders, which they carried with them everywhere, except into church and the classroom. They had to cut school, if only to get their chores done, and they had to shirk their chores, especially weekends, to get enough time on the ice. They even started sneaking out at night, crunching through the snow-bright woods to the pond, errant beams of their flashlights crossing on the ice, playing across the dark horizon of the snow piled on the banks and the knots of trees. When they fell, the beam of light stopped, too, a stationary cone broadcast over the ice. With the flashlights off, they were flying shadows. On clearer nights when the moon waxed toward full they could see their dim shadows, and the bank was a frozen grey tide, and the trees a black palisade against the blue-black sky. Silence but for the chuck and whir of their skates. They dug a pit in the clearing by the outlet and gathered kindling for a fire, the sparks flittered up to become stars, the bones in their feet were outlined in perspiration on their wet socks steaming near the fire. They brought little balls of wax from the candles at home, or pocketfuls of powder from shotgun shells, cast them into the fire to make it hiss and rise, like they were wizards. They brought cigarettes and beer, Skoal, pot, whiskey, a radio, magazines with pictures of cars and guns. They brought pictures of girls, sometimes with the heart-shaped scrawl of yearbook pages. They talked about girls and their teachers and their parents, about what they wanted to do or be. See the world from the deck of an aircraft carrier. Surf off Thailand, smoke grass with the hookers there. Invent something everybody wanted, make a million dollars, retire at thirty. Buy a fleet of really, really nice cars. They got to school later and later and slept what remained of the day. Why shouldn’t they, when so little was expected of them there? What could what they learned there tell them, anyway, about the feel of the ice and the subtle rhythms of nature? They were punished, of course, by their teachers, by their fathers. But all their teachers could do was pile on the detentions, and their fathers could think of little better than a halfhearted beating. It was rare that one thought to confiscate their skates.
One day in mid-February it started snowing while they scrimmaged. Big, wet, heavy flakes. They tried ignoring it at first, as they had before, until they could feel the slight drag of the snow against their blades, and the puck gathered a beard of snow as it dragged to a stop. The tracks made by the shovels and brooms they had left by the pond were quickly covered again behind them. They watched it snow until it had all but obscured the ice.
When they awoke the next morning there were two and a half feet on the ground. The new sun was brilliant, blinding. The snow was almost up to their hips; they moved as through a frozen white surf. Trees and power lines and deer fencing and porch screens all sagged with the stuff, and the well covers and birdbaths and barn roofs were crowned with white, some tapering to a point. The mailboxes were completely buried. Along the trail they had to duck or shake off the snow-heavy branches, beating them with their shovels and sticks. When the old woman’s voice rang out, it seemed to come from high above, like the cry of a hawk. Entering the hollow, the only way they could tell the pond was by the contour of the trees, and the slight depression in the snow, and the dark sockets of the inlet and outlet.
A year ago they would have been making angels and forts, piling up arsenals of snowballs. Now they dug with the sullen tenacity of men trying to tunnel their way out of prison. One boy ran home for a wheelbarrow. But it could only hold a few shovelfuls at a time, and was difficult to roll to and from the bank; the wet, heavy snow stuck to the bottom when they tried to dump it. They abandoned it on the bank, half-buried, like a beached vessel. Then somebody else got the bright idea to roll the snow out in balls, like they were building a giant snowman. But the snow refused to stick to itself. In the end they were reduced to shoveling, and shoveling, and shoveling, until, in a little more than an hour, with all hands on deck, they had managed to dig a fifteen-foot-wide trench the short way across the pond. It was fluted on either end, the white walls stood as high as full-grown corn, and with the dark ice against the snow it looked something like a UFO landing pad, just that mix of miracle and folly.
Their play was more physical than before, cramped as they were into such a small space. They were by turns giddy and frustrated, and almost too tired to hold their sticks. They left hollows up and down the snow walls, and piles of white slag on the ice; and when they couldn’t play anymore for exhaustion, they occupied these hollows, like birds nesting along a rafter, skates crossed and sticks lain over their knees, and then lay back and stared up at the perfectly blue sky through the halo of snow, warm on their bellies, cold on their backs. When they were recovered they took turns speeding down the trench and somersaulting into the eight-foot-high gauntlet of snow, each boy emerging from his snow-cubby to cheers and boos and ring-announcer’s prattle. The snow got up their pant legs and in their ears. By the time they left for school, betting on a late opening to save them yet another detention, they were more than usually soaked.
But a trickling had started in their ears which persisted throughout the school day, as though the water had found a way into their brains, and was rushing through the canals and crevices there. By the time they made it back to the pond that afternoon, the trench had an inch of water at the bottom. It might have been the sun reflecting off the snow, or the weight of the snow that had driven the rest of the ice sheet down, forcing the water up over it. The snow itself had packed down, and nearest the water had a blue-grey tinge, like a glacier. The boys splashed into the trench in their boots, wondering aloud if they should try to bail it. They went home flustered, ate dinner pensively, their mothers marveling at their timeliness on this of all days. They got into bed unsure whether to pray for sun or cold.
Each night as the temperature dropped, the water in the trench would freeze thinly over; and each day, as the mercury in the thermometer climbed to near fifty again, the snow would settle, feeding the reflecting-pool shaped puddle from the blue-grey layer of slush at the bottom. The boys took turns standing watch, reporting the changes to each other at school. They didn’t dare raise a shovel, afraid of marring the surface, which they believed the snow would somehow keep pristine.
It took only four days for the snow to disappear from the pond. And when the temperature began to drop again a couple of days later, they noticed new changes. At first the whole surface was puddled, and they were as afraid to walk on it as they had been to shovel—the bootprints they had left at either end of the trench had already petrified into puckered craters. Soon a pane of ice half an inch thick covered the water by the bank. It cracked in long, straight lines when they tried to walk on it. Though they knew there was only an inch and a half of water between the pane and the well-frozen layer beneath, the cracking unnerved them. The ice in the place where the trench had been was smooth as glass, but ridges separated it from the rest of the pond in the places where the walls of snow had stood. Elsewhere, in the vast unshoveled territories to the north and south, the ice was a thick, fibrous white of a sort they had not seen before, and buckled nearest the banks.
Over the ensuing days the pane thickened, absorbing the intervening layer of water, and the boys were able to creep out onto the pond again, sliding on the rubber soles of their boots. They discovered the reason for that new, fibrous whiteness: the surface had refrozen into a white corrugate, millions of tiny cobbles that their boots skittered over as they slid. But their most remarkable discovery was reserved for the trench: they could see their old skatemarks through the new pane of ice and the layer of water. The ice, or the water between, or the few inches of distance the two provided, had revealed them; they looked like the vanishing patterns left behind by collisions in a particle accelerator, the same smoked-glass appearance, flecks and scatterings. All the circles and scorings of the month’s meanderings were preserved there, all their individual trajectories intricately interwoven. In these lines was recorded every infinitesimally small decision they had made, whether to turn one direction or another, to speed up or slow down or stop short. Each choice was a reflection of who they were at their purest, when they were most unconsciously themselves. They had seemed so random and of thƒe moment—and yet here they were, etched in an immutable calculus, inescapable. They were sure the answers to all their questions were here—who they were and where they were going and what the world ran on—if they could just learn to read the marks, to trace them, like a fortune teller does the lines on a palm, through their ravelings back to their beginnings, and extrapolate them out to their ends.
Skating the cobble was like riding in the bed of a pickup over a washboard road, though it was better than the moguls or the boot-shaped craters by the banks. The ridges left by the trench walls they had no choice but to jump. Their skates would scrape loudly as they carved and pedaled over the corrugate; there would be a moment of silence when they hopped the ridge into the trench; then a quiet whirring, until they jumped the next ridge, or turned back over the previous one, their skates bumping and wobbling again, scraping when they pedaled. They had to think about where they were on the ice in a way they hadn’t before, consider it strategically: how they and the puck would move differently over the cobbles than in the trench; how a skater could get clotheslined if they forgot the ridges and other pitfalls in the heat of play. Then they went down hard, the sorts of falls that made their heads jounce and teeth clack. They went down fighting, too, as though in their time off the ice they had forgotten how to fall, or had simply decided not to accept it anymore, and got up again wincing, stiff with pain, their bodies newly brittle, the ice harder than they remembered.
Over the next few days the north end of the pond started to crater and pock. From the inlet and outlet dark, coral blooms reached out under the levees of snow. The ice nearest the pools looked like the mineral terraces of a hot spring. The trickling sound had returned; they heard it in every silence. As the terrain for skating constricted yet further—though not enough yet to move the goals and play the short way across—the boys began trying to level the ridges by chiseling at them with their shovels, and breaking the crusted edges of their bootprints off with their skates. They piled the ice pebbles with the rest of the white scrabble into the craters, hoping that a few cycles of warm days and cold nights would freeze them flat again. When this failed, they conceived an ambitious new project: cover the ice with water in the evenings, and let it freeze overnight; in a week at most it would be smooth again. They brought pails, and spent the last hour of daylight working in modified bucket brigades, one team on either end of the pond. The first boy would dunk his pail into the inlet or outlet, remove the leaves and other debris from the freezing water before passing it over to the second, who ran it a little ways around the pond to the third, who skated between the bank and the fourth, who dumped the water and underhanded the bucket back to the first. The water would wash around the fourth’s boots, though on the north end only the boy filling the buckets could tell where it had pooled, and where the ice was still dry, from the way the puddles shone in the fading light. He directed the fourth like a runway worker, right and left, and then back, up to the ridge of the old trench, which served as a dam.
They were diligent for the first few days, and even got more efficient as each boy fell into one of the prescribed roles. Seeing no change, they decided to station both teams on the more rapidly deteriorating north end, where the gritty ice nearest the pool was already unskateable. But as the craters continued to bloom and spread, and the terraces from the inlet reached out under the piled snow, which had itself settled into a thin scar, they were forced to recognize the power of the enemies ranged against them—the encroaching new season, the lengthening of the days, the sun arcing higher and higher—and to acknowledge they were fighting a losing battle. It was as though they had believed they could knock the sun down with a throw of the bucket, or snuff it with a pailful of water.
One afternoon, they spent detention idly paging through a chemistry book they had found in the classroom where they were confined. Something called a phase diagram caught their eye. Water was one of three substances illustrated. The text pointed out that the branch tilted backwards, toward the y-axis, and that for water alone this was true. Although the boys couldn’t quite grasp the significance of this, they were sure it damned them in some way. If only they could have grabbed that branch and pushed it forward, like a lever, so that the diagram looked like the others. The book didn’t say anything about making the branch go the other way; it just told them how things were.
Nor could the book tell them anything about why the ice pulled harder the less of it there was, like it was gaining in density what it lost in volume, a collapsing star. It was Tony’s voice they heard, louder than before, and more incessant, calling them out of bed before the gloaming, into the blackest, coldest hole of night. A different dark than a month before, and a different feeling on the ice. Dour, groggy, they skated in dazed circles, like they were chained to a wheel, in unconscious parody of the rink. The games were disbanded; it already felt like a winter ago they had played. With each thrust backwards or forwards they tempted the humps and craters, trying to recall the right moments to jump or stop, at least until the morning brightened enough that they were able to see the scorings on the leaden surface. It was so cold still, colder than it had been in January, they were sure. But then the changes had nothing to do with the temperature; it was the longer days, the angle of the sun, that kept chipping away at the ice. Every moment they spent in the classroom, or in their fathers’ shops, or doing chores, or sleeping, another millimeter would have disappeared, chewed up by that devouring monster called The Sun. Or by the rain—God, the rain was even worse, every drop like a hoe, hacking away at the surface. They cut school even more, didn’t even bother to report to detention, grew even more forgetful of their chores, and of the promises they made to their parents. They were told over and over to get their heads out of their asses, were threatened with groundings and expulsions, hit with belts and rods and the backs of hands. But in the whir of machinery, in the scrape of chalk against the board, they heard the old chuck and roar of the skates. And in the quiet, that trickling … it drove them back to the ice half in despair of what they would find: water, nothing. They fell asleep with the trickling sound still in their ears, bruised and tired and barely an hour after dinner, blue light on the horizon and the moon yet to rise, dreamt of skating in absolute darkness on a pond whose banks receded to infinity. They woke in the dark to the sound of trickling, like to an alarm.
The whole world was melting. The water rushing under the sewer grates drowned out the sounds of their footsteps on the gravel road, ran with a fury that threatened to wash the whole town out the end of the valley. The wet made the land seem to burn with an interior light. Boulders glowed black, and in places the moss had turned the ground an electric green. The shallow ravines all ran like the sewers over exposed leaf rot, and icicles dripped from every rocky overhang, as they did from the eaves of their houses and barns. The snow was peppered all over with the wriggling larvae of some insect just being born, a hundred in every bootprint. Even tulips and crocuses had started to push up through the packed-down snow. Soon the trees would be swarming with black-capped chickadees, the birds the Barnabases called ass-uppers, their voices almost as incessant as the trickle; the first slow wasps would appear drunk with cold, the first geese would leave their snaking green dung on the grass. The boys would have to elbow their way through the spiderwebs grown between the trees. And they would, unthinkingly, splashing through the puddled gullies, crunching over the larva-strewn snow. Not even that haunting ululation could call them back to themselves. They would pause at the stream, all thawed now, fast and a little swollen, and think about the changes happening all around them, the changes they had noticed in their own homes—the cats taken to sunning themselves outside the doors of barns, the tiny newborn spiders depending from light fixtures and showerheads and bannisters, the ladybugs come out of hibernation to congregate in the upstairs windows, fanning out into the light. They would skitter by, shadows on the paint; their bodies would tick against the glass, snow on ice, snow on ice … the boys would look up to see them slowly folding their wings back under their colored shells. Watching the strong current of the stream, they thought about all these things, but refused to mention them, as if not doing so was a way to not acknowledge them to themselves. Sometimes it even flurried a little while they stood there, like the winter was teasing them with coming back.
There was a last hard snowfall in early March, almost a foot. Walking across the pond, they left grey, watery prints. It was unclear quite what they were walking on, where the snow became slush, and slush ice; there seemed to be no firm boundary anymore, nothing stopping them from sinking all the way down. After rain had melted the last of the snow on the pond, the whole surface turned grey and porous. They brought out the shovels again, pushing the slush in even rows and piling it by the banks, muddy now, almost impassable. But with every pass of the shovel there was more wet ice to push. The surface remained porous, and their boots left faintly-visible imperfections behind them, no matter how softly they stepped, or how carefully they tried to lave the surface even.
When the temperature dropped again, the south end froze into a brittle-looking, pale mass, covered with fungal abscesses, and mottled with puddles in the afternoons. Elsewhere the ice remained in steady retreat, pulling away from the banks like a herd of ungulates huddling from wolves. The pool by the inlet had grown into a wide sickle of water, and its thorny fingers reached yet further underneath the terraced ledge where the ice sheet began, almost to where the trench had been, whose traces had disappeared in the last snow. It was clear the sheet was floating now, like an ice cube in a glass of water, riding low. In the places where the bank had managed to refreeze, the ice looked flimsy, like the skin on a pot of scalding milk, so different from the first glassy panes they had gleefully broken back in early December. They could only get onto the sheet from a few places along the southeast bank, which was comparatively unchanged. If it had snowed the previous night, they trekked joined at the wrists to the place where it had stuck, until their feet began to slide; then they dropped down onto the cobbled ice and changed into their skates, the wet soaking them through their jeans, and carved in grim little circles, like prisoners in an exercise yard, eyes closed to the too-early sun, birds mocking them from the trees. Most afternoons they didn’t even try, though they still came out and sat amid the grainy hillocks of snow that remained of the heaps they had shoveled, smoking and cussing and squinting at the puddles, wondering how long they had left. Sometimes they believed it was only their loyalty that had kept it here this long. And yet each time they walked out onto the sheet, they swore they could feel it shrinking, curling back at its edges, forcing them to skate in smaller and smaller circles, spiraling inwards. Every day it grew more fragile, and brittle, and transparent—and they with it, as though they, too, were melting at their cores, withdrawing at their edges. And one day, their teachers would turn around and find nothing but a puddle of water under their desks; one morning, their mothers would come into their rooms to find the sheets soaked through, but no other sign that a boy had been there at all.
Early one morning in mid-March they came upon a pair of ducks floating in the sickle by the inlet, parsing their lives with the quiet prepossession of horses. Seeing the boys approach, they fled into the slush, half-paddling, half-waddling, unable quite to do either, so that they moved hobbledly, bodies jerking up and down. They wound apart and together, cleaving a broken, zipper-like trail. The boys crept after them, squatting now and again to observe their labored movements—until one got too close, or the ducks spotted the invisible rifle he raised, or heard the bullet sound he made with his lips. Then they leapt up with a wattle and cry and thrum of the wings, flapped away over the nearest trees, leaving that meandering track in the slush to dead-end in a mysterious blank, where all signs of the trail-maker vanished.
It was maybe five minutes later that the leading boy went down all the way to his hips. It happened so quickly he didn’t have time to cry out, and he almost dragged the rest down with him. As it was, the last couple hadn’t even stepped off the bank yet—though they had to, once the first was safely out of the water, his pants and the skirts of his jersey all dark. Heaving, his skates still slung over his shoulder, he was rambling quietly about feeling something tugging on his legs. They took turns shuffling as close as they dared to the edge of the hole, each announcing what he saw or didn’t see, except the last, who knelt down and put his hand in the pool, so that the water rippled gently.
They saw the old Tilson lady’s cat on the way home. They did. White, with a black patch under its chin. Crossing twenty yards ahead of them, it looked once in their direction, one hoary paw raised, eyes slits of yellow marble, and then continued on through the brush in the direction of the old lady’s house. They did not hear her calling.
They gave Bill’s dad a promotion and moved him to Vermont. He manages a new store there, a crew of fifteen, Bill helps out on the floor. Jake’s parents split up, he moved with his mom downstate, closer to her family. Dan shacked up with Erica and had a kid, every time you see him he’s rushing from one thing to another, talking about pulling down OT, though if you can hold onto him for five minutes it’s clear he’s between jobs again. Timmy went on to college. They said he shouldn’t have gone so far, and when he flunked out after his first year, that he should have come back. Joey ended up in prison after he and some of his new buddies at the Shell station down on 6 started making meth. He was never too careful. They put his face on posters, not that you’d recognize him. Cal, he got work as a guard. Different facility—there’s so many you wouldn’t think there were enough boys to fill them, but there are. They send most of them from downstate. Kevin and Edison joined up, like they always said they would, got shipped off to Afghanistan. Kevin did two tours, came home to a bunch of people waving little flags at the airport. He walks around a lot at night. The rest—Hal, Zach, Chase—would have followed their dads to the gas fields. But since they finally developed Clausen and Everton properties, they didn’t have to go anywhere. The tankers roll right down Main now; the old men stand around and wave. The Tilson pond goes on freezing and thawing, freezing and thawing, and every year it freezes a little less thick, and thaws a few days earlier, and the winters get shorter and shorter as the days get longer.