Short Fiction

Onaabani-giizis—Hard Crust on the Snow Moon
by Jess Koski

Peggy—March 1950  

It was happening so slowly, it seemed to me, like fate or karma or whatever was saying, “Look, there’s still plenty of time for you to get down from that tree and run out there across the ice and catch them. So what are you waiting for?” But I was as still as an owl, perched in my spruce tree, watching as my cousins spun across the known universe, toward open water.

All my troubles stem from that March evening. Karma had me born in the middle of nowhere at the edge of this damn frozen lake, between shore and land, between the U.S. and Canada, between white and not white. The stillbirths, the loveless marriage, the siren call of anything in a brown bottle, were, all of them, because I let those boys die a lifetime ago.

Now I sit here in a rocking chair in Duluth, in the “wrinkle ranch,” and watch the subtle turbulence in the gauzy layer of cigarette smoke forming along the ceiling. I gaze out the window at the row of tall spruce trees at the edge of the yard. I can so clearly remember being in a tree just like those, though wilder I think, even the trees were wilder then, a hundred miles up the Shore.

***

I was twelve and watching my cousins—five-year old twins. Auntie told me, as she did every time, “Just keep them out of trouble, okay?”

Once every couple of weeks, most of the adults around here piled into an old Buick and motored into Grand Marais, ten miles down the shore of Lake Superior, to stock up on things like flour, coffee…the things they couldn’t make or trade with neighbors for. And to sell the furs Dad had trapped earlier in the winter. Beaver, marten, mink, a few sad muskrat. Then there would be the quick drinks at the Municipal—two, maybe four, draft beers each—their social life.

But it was me who most needed, really ached, to go into town. After all, I’d followed Dad around in the woods most of the winter, helped to carry the glassy-eyed, frozen carcasses back to the house. Shouldn’t I reap the rewards—the trip to town.  I longed for even a quick walk through Joyne’s Department Store with its woolen goods, bright rayon scarves, dolls, magazines. Just to follow the adults around, take a quick peek at the magazines on the wire rack at the drug store, and even at my young age, to sit at a dark corner table in the Municipal and smell the beer, the cigarette smoke, listen to the laughter of the men and wonder about their lives.

But, I was rarely allowed to make the trip, and I would follow my cousins around the house, the yard, and down to the shore, sullenly keeping my distance.

The only one older than me here was grandma who confined herself to a silent life, in the house and yard, and that only in summer when she could poke around with her hoe in the vegetable garden, or hang laundry on the clothesline.

It was a bright end-of-winter day, well after lunch and the boys had gone down to the shore to do some sledding. They’d made a toboggan run down a steep slope that ran out onto the lake ice. The sun had melted the top layer of ice around noon, and this resulted in a sloppy and slow day, but now the sun had started to dip behind the spruces higher up the shore and a hard glaze was returning to the lake as the temperature dropped. The toboggan began to ride farther out onto the lake with each run.

I climbed into my favorite tree and leaned there, watched as the boys threw up a makeshift barrier of ice chunks to stop them from gliding out toward the edge of the ice, where the blue water nibbled away at the ice-sheet. Then the boys trudged back up the slope for what they knew would be a new world record.

I remember reaching into my coat pocket to pull out the half sandwich—peanut butter on homemade white bread. I peeled back the waxed paper and looked out at the sky, the sun now just above the southwestern horizon, and the full moon—Onaabani-giizis, as my grandma had called it last night, poking a bony finger at the sky, climbing up out of the lake from the east. I thought about getting the boys back to the house and heard the scrape and chatter of the toboggan rising in pitch as it picked up speed and instead I turned to watch this last run.

The boy in back, the dark quiet one, turned to look my way, to see if I was watching, and gave me a little wave…smiling with the simple joy of careening downward effortlessly. He had a crush on me, partly because I would lie with him and read stories later on those evenings. I see him now frozen in that smile like an old photograph.

I watched the toboggan speed on across the surface toward the ice barrier. There was no sign of slowing. The boy in front put his leather mitts to the ice and clawed at it, attempting to slow the waxed, wooden toboggan down. Then the boy in back followed suit. But their speed was too great. They hit a two-foot shard of ice with the left front corner of the toboggan and then I watched, the sandwich held still in front of my mouth, as the toboggan and the boys were spun sidelong over the ineffectual ice barrier. The toboggan just flipped over and stopped, while the boys kept sliding on their backs in icy wool clothing, out across the translucent surface.

The boy in front went in and disappeared immediately. His clothing sucked up lake water and he started his steady descent to a basalt bed below.

The quiet boy came to a stop a few feet from the edge of the ice, his right boot had become tangled in the rope of the toboggan. He pulled his way forward to the water and looked down at his brother. He looked into the clear ice-water, everything appeared so close. But he could also see that his brother was dropping deeper. Plunging his arm in the lake he reached for the outstretched, mittened hands. No use. He looked back toward shore, the trees, me. His look asked, “What should I do? Help us.”

The boy could see my dark coat in the green of the spruce, I’m sure of that, up in the branches, immobile. And I could see the boy’s mouth open wide, mouthing something, but my muscles, my ears, voice, didn’t seem to work. I was only a set of eyes, and a brain. There was no cold, no frozen knot digging into my hip, no smell of peanut butter or spruce pitch, no whisper of wind through the evergreens around me, no chickadees calling “Hey sweetie,” … nothing but the boy at the edge of the ice, mouth opening, closing.

My brain was slow to process the sight of the boy turning back to the water, leaning out, his head and torso over the water now, looking down. I could almost see the brothers gazing at each other. Trying to say goodbye? One face tanned, flushed—the other already as white as a fish-belly—now twenty feet down, now thirty. And I saw as the quiet one took one last look back toward me and slip face-first after his twin.

Then I felt the cold again. My hearing returned, along with the other senses. I let myself fall downward through the branches and onto the snow. I ran, legs flaying, down the shore and onto the ice in a panic, with abandon. The sun had set now and the water grew opaque as I hurdled the ice barrier and slid to the edge. I looked down, but now the only evidence of the boys was the occasional air bubble popping at the smooth surface here and there in front of me. I put a bare hand out at the surface, caught one bubble as it popped and held its essence there tight.

It grew dark and I wondered what to do. The boys were gone. I’d been entrusted with them. There was the toboggan, upside down; I should bring that back to the house. They would need it for hauling firewood to the house.

***

I heard my father’s loaded car pull onto the icy crust of the driveway. I could see them laughing in the warm car. They’d been drinking beer and they all looked happy and I knew they would be wanting to play cards, four-handed cribbage, for a while before my aunt and uncle would go to wake up the boys and leave for home, up the shore a few miles and across the Reservation River.

The small house was cool, and dark when they came in and dropped the first load of supplies on the kitchen floor. Normally I would have rushed out there to poke through the packages, probing for something sweet, maybe a magazine. But this time I stayed hidden there in a corner of my room.  I could hear dad light the two kerosene lanterns with a stick match from his breast pocket and I could feel them out there silently gazing around. They already knew something was wrong. They were looking for Grandma…wondering why it was so quiet.

In the bedroom, I pulled my feet back, and inside the small closet. The sound of the boots quiet scuffing attracted my mother.

The door sighed open and she looked down at me on the floor of the closet. “Where’s Grandma, Peggy?  What’s wrong?”

After a moment I answered, my voice dry, “She went down to the lake.”

“The lake?” and with a reluctant laugh, “Why would she do that, baby?”

“She just went down there. She …” my voice failed and I couldn’t tell what my face showed.  I felt like I might be smiling and had the almost uncontrollable urge to go into the bedroom to look in the mirror at myself, to put on the appropriate face for them. But I just sat there, smiling, frowning, implacable…. I wasn’t sure.

“And the boys? Did the boys go with her?” my mother asked.

“Grandma’s down at the lake.” I could only repeat.

The men, my dad and uncle, were already pulling on their boots and coats, lighting more lanterns. My aunt, it seemed to me then, didn’t appear too concerned and was paging through a fashion magazine she’d spread out on the kitchen table. But the men knew that something wasn’t right. Grandma never went outside in winter. She was still a tough woman, but she was thin and she quickly grew chilled. And it was late.

My dad came in to the bedroom, threw an old red and black coat over my shoulders and took my arm. It smelled like him. Bacon, wool, wood-smoke.

He said, “Come on Peg…show us where Grandma went.”

They walked quickly down the driveway, with me lagging behind a bit, crossed the quiet road that separated the house and yard from the lakeshore, followed the path through the birch and balsam and then picked our way across the icy rocks of the shore. The men peered out at the ice sheet for any sign of a light, and looked down for tracks. At first they saw nothing. Then Billy pointed out at something moving slowly near where the light of the ice ended and the dark water stretched out to the faint light of the horizon. A lantern sat out on the ice, almost out of fuel, sputtering.

They hurried out along the surface, following the edge of the toboggan tracks, and the hundreds of little crusty boot prints marching back toward shore. They heard, among the deep quiet rumble of ice being forced inland by the light Northeast breeze, another sound. An indistinct moaning. Soon they were at grandma’s side, holding her gently by the arms. She was dressed only her nightgown and a light cotton robe, but she showed no sign of being chilled. I could see that she had been walking slowly back and forth in worn slippers at the edge of the ice sheet, hands locked together, slowly making a beating motion with them at the air before her. Bill looked around for the twins, took in the multitude of boot tracks in the snow, the toboggan tracks—but no toboggan. It dawned on both of the men at the same time and dad gripped Bill’s arm.

“God Gene…Ma! The boys…where are the boys?” He turned to me, “Peggy! Tell me! Where are they?”  Billy was nearly shouting. They stood in a small space of yellow light from the lanterns and the sound of his urgent question was shocking in the quiet of the ice.

Grandma kept moaning.

Uncle Bill released a primal groan and began tearing at his canvas coat. My dad saw right away what his brother was planning to do and wrapped his arms around the big man.

They struggled for a long minute, Dad all the time talking to his brother, “Billy…Billy…no! you can’t go in there. It’s no use now. God damn it!” And, gradually, my uncle began to slump and then dropped to his haunches on the ice.

He stared down at the snow and just said, “Get them back to the house,” and adding, “Don’t worry about me….”

Dad wrapped his own coat around his mother, touched my shoulder, and started guiding grandma back toward shore and the house.

It was at least an hour before Dad returned with the sheriff and before Bill returned back to the house, shivering uncontrollably. I lay in bed listening to the tick of the clock, an occasional scrape of a cup on the table. I felt them sitting in the soft low light of the living room in silence, cups of tea or coffee untouched and growing cold. Once, I heard my father raise his voice at something the sheriff had asked him. I heard my name.

Just before the first light began to lift out of the dark body of Isle Royale to the northeast, I felt my father gently pry the dry sandwich from my cramped fingers. I smelled the familiar comfort of faint beer and coffee as he softly kissed my forehead.

***

Even now, some seventy years later, I’m slapped awake by a dream. In the dream I am face down on the ice watching air bubbles rise out of the blackness, swirling in the currents, toward my hand, burning in the icy water. I knew, in the dream, that if I could catch the bubble, intact, I would save the boys. And I knew that, each time, the bubble would speed up at the last second and veer up into air toward the moonlight, rising into the glow, gathering light and ice, becoming a solid and finally merging with the March full moon, the Onaabani-giizis, and that my life was wrecked.