It’s a chilly afternoon in West Virginia and I’m walking on ice. With me are two friends from the neighborhood, Nick and Taylor. Without me is the rest of the world, because we are alone here in the wilderness, on this body of water’s surface which has been frozen by Nature’s authority. Because we are alone, every step we take offers us the chance to face death in its stupid death-face. There’s a hushed silence as our ears strain to hear the sound of cracking ice. Lacking the proper gear for treading this treacherous surface, we look to one another for support both physical and emotional. Exploration takes its toll, payable in old Nat Geo magazines, on even the hardiest of explorers.
Being in middle school at the time, we are hardly explorers, but there’s still the ever present danger of the ice breaking and subjecting our souls to the cold embrace below. Granted, what lies below the ice is maybe a few inches of water because the frozen surface we’re walking on is actually just the creek across from Nick’s house, but as we all know, sopping wet socks in early March weather is a special kind of hell.
If you don’t know about this special kind of winter hell, you sweet summer child, go soak a pair of socks, send me $10 for a certificate, and then put them on. Trust me, you won’t regret the certificate.
The Saturday had begun as all such certified Saturdays do with a well-structured plan of showing up at a friend’s house and inquiring about means to end the plague of boredom because nothing good is on television. Nick’s house, for reasons lost to time, is where Taylor and I found ourselves that afternoon, but, at the behest of a higher power (Nick’s mom), we soon found ourselves outside of Nick’s house, with Nick in tow.
In middle school, one often finds one’s self all sorts of places at the behest of higher powers.
Lacking general direction, the prospect of the frozen creek became irresistible. It had been there all winter and now, with the first foray of Spring, the air temperature was hospitable enough to allow us outside but not so warm that the ice melted. Not that we had been anticipating it. We were in middle school, we had bigger issues to think about, such as Dungeons & Dragons or girls. I think. Or were we into Magic by that point? I don’t remember. The brain has strange priorities when deciding what details to keep.
If I close my eyes, I can see Nick and Taylor standing with me on the ice. If I open my eyes, I can type the description of the creek.
The creek follows a walking path next to a road. Rather, the road and walking path follow the creek. The path is part of a neighborhood park system still in very much active use today. The creek is a half-story below the path and road, its steep banks are composed of rocks and dirt overlooked by greenery. When I close my eyes, I’m back down on the ice. The high embankments block my view of the road and everything else up above us except the sky. Cloudy. Noise from passing cars is muffled. It’s quiet, quieter than nature even and, in the stillness so frequently evoked by the presence of ice, there’s an accord with the world to speak in soft tones. The last time I experienced this kind of quiet was when I was at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. At the other end of the park path is a monument to my hometown’s veterans, but that’s not the direction we’re headed.
When one finds a frozen creek, one must find out how far it goes.
Walking on water, albeit frozen, isn’t the easiest thing. Bonded by friendship and human decency, a rare commodity in middle school, Nick and Taylor gallantly lead the way taking great pains to test each potentially risky patch of ice so that I won’t fall in. Falling in is a concern for me as I do not know how to swim. Sure, the creek is only half foot deep at most but you can definitely drown in that, under certain circumstances. Mostly, I don’t want to get my feet wet. Plus, Nick and Taylor are larger than me, so at my weight, me testing the ice is pretty useless to them. Sometimes it pays to be the small one. No discounts on flights though.
Of course, there’s more to do on a frozen creek than merely walk. There’s stuff to look at too.
In particular, frozen minnows are neat to find. I imagine the minnow world, small in depth but impossibly vast in every other dimension. When the heavy rains of spring and summer make the creek waters turbulent and muddy, it must be like living in a fog unable to see much ahead or behind. Because the creek is frozen over, we know the minnows are dead, and there’s a sadness to that, but at least the water is clear. The minnows, maybe a half-dozen in their school, were headed upstream when the ice took. I imagine I’m the last minnow, the one near the back, and I watch as my minnow-mates pause as if to contemplate the road ahead. They’re already dead, but I’ll never know that. The water is clear and through my surprisingly good eyes, for a minnow, I can see the bend ahead in the creek, but not beyond it. Even the purest of water can’t show us everything. By the time this thought has passed through my fish brain, my fish heart is no longer beating. Everything has stopped. The quiet settles in.
Further upstream, the creek betrays us. The ice beneath Taylor’s next step breaks and he falls in. His shoes and socks are soaked in the cold water. Like Taylor’s clothes, the mood dampens. The creek whispers, “I told you so.” We nod, begrudgingly. Can’t say we didn’t know.
I imagine the creek whispers to the minnows too when their time is up. “I told you so, minnows. What did you expect?”
“Not this,” the minnows reply. “Not this.”
The early afternoon has faded to almost evening. On the way back, we walk on the road out of spite.