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"Do you know that sound that ice makes? It is not the dawn arching yawn of expansion cracks, but the sudden crumble and gurgle of a poor foot placement that terrifies. The ice of a lake, still and placid, hardens each night allowing the caress of cold winds to deepen its embrace downward into the waters. The ice of a river, chaotic and ethereal, is a false path - a carapace of air separating the walking travelers from frostbitten future selves.
"What I remember most clearly is the black and the blue. I had been tracking - or, so I thought at the time - a wounded animal for two days. The trail was sloppy - bent branches, scuffed rocks, torn moss - signs everywhere. I crawled thru the undergrowth, from the treeline to a small berm, when I first saw the stream. A meek little thing, barely three strides across. A whisper of white frost scratched across a dirt and hay brown vista. But all I saw was the burst of black water, not ten strides away, halfway across the water. I lay there transfixed; forehead on my elbow, exhaling below my arm to hide the steam, staring at the hole in the ice; mesmerized by the dancing blue flicker in the dark sky centered perfectly above the rupture.
"I don't know how long I lay there. A minute? An hour? Eventually I saw smoke. Barely a tendril... barely thicker than exhalation, it brought me out of my reverie. I sent my ears yearning in that direction... maybe I heard voices. Maybe I heard wind. Something made me stand up - along the riverbank no less! - and begin probing upriver along my leeward bank. The dying grasses gave way to dirt, which then gave way to reeds, which soon after yielded to cold and shattered mud flats just above the highwater mark. I shuffled along, as quiet as a passing shadow, moving with all the grace and alacrity of a swaying tree.
"Just around a left elbow, I caught sight of you both. Huddled on your knees; muttering and disrobing. I thought perhaps hypothermia had set in, that I'd be watching the final act of your time on this stage.
"And that's when I saw those colors again; a baby hours old, blackening fingers clutching to swollen breasts, blue lips sucking in air to displace the frigid waters from its lungs..."
The narrator reaches up by rote motion to check the tension of the newly cleaned bandage about his head. He spins the earthenware cup in his hands, knowing how this particular story ends.
"I could have left, right then," his eyes dart to the man seated behind the would-have-been mother. "Might be I would have slunk off. Might have been I'd never have set eyes on you three again. But most like the three of you wouldn't have survived past that river bend; not all three of you, not the way you were, if not for me opening my mouth and drawing attention off the moment. I hadn't spoken to another human being for... months? I can't track days by the moonrise yet. A very, very long period of silence. And the first thing I think of saying - 'Give it back to the river. The cold's already claimed it.'" The man releases a heavy and nasal sigh, looking down at the neutral patch of earth between his chair and audience. "Both of you spun to face me - slightly elevated, with the crick between us. Lilly's eyes a cold, calculating rage. Emma's a bloodshot, confused anger." The man twists his head to point at Johnny with his chin. "You were brilliant. Haven't had anybody get such the drop on me since I was a wee sprat. You were one broken twig away from defensing me permanently." He taps the bandage with two heavy fingers. "Whether it was second-guessing, or an honest mistake that gave me time to swing my axe about - I'm much obliged."
Lilly, Emma, and Johnny are all wrapped in dark cloaks, steam rising from the cups their hands are wrung about. The large man has been drinking ice melt since awakening, and pauses in the telling to drain his cup. He lowers it, eyes staring into the bottom. He clamps his mouth shut and polls the faces of his audience one by one with tired eyes. "Which brings us here." He sets the cup down on the ground by his foot and clasps his hands with interlacing fingers. "Where is 'here', exactly?"
Johnny looks at his feet while Emma turns her face up to look impassively at Lilly. Lilly's eyebrows are pursed in the reflective pose of one calculating the risk of myriad potential futures. She sips from her mug without breaking eye contact with her parolee. "Here happens to be a barren land of plains and hills. We've been following that same river upstream since you found us, scouting for any sort of food. We haven't had meat in a month. Past two days there's been little more than moss stew in our pot. But we have water." Lilly nods encouragingly at her entourage, "And we have each other." She returns that same calm gaze to the narrator. "And we are survivors. We're going to survive this. All of us." She sips from her mug, deeply; closing her eyes and either hoping or not caring nobody sees the twitch of blood pressure change in her auricular vein.
"Aye. I think we just may." The man in the chair replies, his eyes seeing the audience the way a hawk sees a field. "Let's begin."
IronNoder 2018: 01/30