BY RACHEL PAGE
In the fifth week of melting our town was split into eighteenths. The first crack appeared in the yard between the houses of the Millers and the Riveras. There was not enough time for them to say goodbye, or even to return the guinea pig that Andrew Miller had been taking care of while Manuel Rivera was away at boarding school. As the house dislodged itself we could see the Rivera children, all six of them crowded in the wide mouth of the porthole window, their brown faces staring out at the peeling red of the Millers’s front door as it got smaller and smaller until finally it was no more than a dot on the horizon and their faces were periods at the ends of sentences, so far off we had to squint to remind ourselves they were really still there.
The subsequent cracks appeared more slowly. In the following weeks the houses separated and floated away from each other one by one– the Youngs, the Littletons, the McCarthys, the Garcias. We watched all of them disappear, tracking their movements on maps we had bought long ago but never thought we would have to use. Some of us began to tell stories: Isabel Young and Richard Littleton had been having a covert affair for years, and when the first small hole emerged between their two houses they stood on opposite ends of it for days, neither of them willing to cross over nor to look away from the other lest that second be the second that the ice cracked for good. None of us have seen the Youngs or the Littletons for months and none of us can say whether the stories are true, but no one can deny the way they looked at each other when waiting in line for the bank, or that time their hands touched over the grapes in the grocery store and neither one of them pulled away.
At the beginning, we admit, it was almost beautiful. The quiet of the clink of dishes on the table as we walked down the stairs for breakfast, the simplicity of living only for ourselves. Our husbands made pancakes every morning and beef brisket every night until we could see the open-mouth circles and fibers when we closed our eyes. The sun, when it rises on the dark map of water, makes patterns that look like red fish. We lay on our backs at night and held hands and stared up at stars that seemed as though they would never end. It was beautiful for fifteen weeks and six days, to be alone and happy and indulgent in the small togetherness of our house-islands.
In the sixteenth week we began to want. Isabel Young wanted coffee which had run out two weeks ago, sniffed at the last dusty specks in the metal container when her husband wasn’t in the kitchen as if it was a drug. Alicia Rivera wanted Manuel’s guinea pig back. Eliza James wanted to jump into the blue of the water and swim away. Abigail Miller wanted new books. Richard Littleton wanted Isabel Young. The things we wanted lined themselves up like floes in the emptiness outside our small icebergs. They drifted through the corners of our eyes; they appeared where we least expected them, in the tarnished brass of the doorknob or the rough bristles of a used toothbrush. Conversation grew more difficult. We found that the words between us had been used up, obscured by the wants that gripped us like ice in the center of our chests. We lived instead for the times when we could talk to inhabitants of a different island, hear in their voices the whispers of things we could never have.
It has been six months now and we can talk to each other only in snippets, yelled through rolled-up newspapers and dusty megaphones across an ever-widening gap of sea and green ice. We chart the passing of our separate icebergs like ships in the night. A quarter mile is cause for celebration– the whole family is called outside, thin black l’s against the white of snow that flicker like mirages when they wave. Distances of forty feet or less are rare and calculated with mathematical precision. There’s usually only an hour to talk, enough time to send the necessary news down the line: Anna Martin is sick; Do you have any milk, we’ve run out of ours; Have you seen the Riveras? Words are hard, chosen for which will take the least effort. Our chests hurt and our stores of dry cereal are running out, and so Do you have any supplies? becomes Any supplies? becomes Supplies? until hand waving must suffice, our own invented form of sign language.
A few weeks ago Isabel Young gave birth to a baby boy. We heard it from the McCarthys, or maybe it was the Andersons. They say that he came out of her mouth one morning as she bent over her cereal bowl, no blood, only a small gush of water like melted ice. We have never heard of babies being born in this way. There are many things we have never heard of, in our closed-off islands of four walls and peeling-paint shutters. We feel the words we cannot say build themselves up inside of us, words that have no language, and we can almost understand how it is possible for this heaviness to find life in the beating of our hearts and the pulsing of our blood, to become something greater than we are. We imagine the feeling of opening our mouths and speaking out a son.
We do not know why, but Isabel Young’s son becomes our obsession. We think about him as we lie in bed with our husbands, as we try to force clothes onto our own children, who have begun to walk around naked. They say that they must be closer to the ice, that we are older and do not understand, and we think of running our fingers over a smooth soft head and whispering stories of before to a child that can still be our own. He is here, always, with us. When we pass a neighboring iceberg, the only news we care about is stories of the baby– what he eats, how he sleeps, the sound of his laugh. We begin to hoard them. We hide our maps and charts so that we are the only ones in our family who know when we will pass; we tiptoe outside at midnight to call questions across a lonely sea. We pick and choose what to pass on to others. When he says his first word, we keep it to ourselves. We tell the others we pass that we’ve heard nothing, that perhaps he’s a late bloomer, that our children didn’t start talking until they were ten months old, or eleven, or twelve. When we’re alone we savor the sound of it on our tongue and know that we are the only ones that can know the beauty of the first thing he has given to the world.
Our children begin to stop eating. We push foods onto their plates and plead for them to swallow, but they spit it out when they think we’re not looking. There is no dinnertime conversation. In the evenings we step out onto the porch to find them kneeling by the side of the house, shoveling snow into their mouths as though they will never eat again. Their bare skin is pink with cold, but they are too large to be babies. They sleep outside on the ice, and we see the way they press their ears to the frozen ground, as though it is telling them something that we cannot. We wonder if Isabel Young’s son has started to eat solid food.
It is difficult to wake up or draw the curtains or move around the house without thinking of Isabel Young. We fill our rooms with babies. We collect our children’s old baby dolls and give them special seats next to us at the table, or on the mantle, or looking out at us from the windowsill. The plastic hands fit perfectly on the rims of our children’s empty plates at dinner time, which they have stopped attending. Outside we make gardens of ice babies, round and perfectly smooth. We mold them until our hands are numb and we can no longer feel the tips of our fingers. At sunrise the light that shines through them is like a halo. They are more than alive.
Our husbands complain when we slide into bed next to them so late that the ice outside has already begun to glisten a morning rosy pink. They pull away from us. They tell us we are so cold they do not know us anymore, and we do not know what to say. We lie on top of the blankets so that all we can feel is the outline of a leg, the slight dip of a foot. This is good, we tell ourselves, it is good to have this space between us like sea between icebergs, dark and impersonal and inviting. When we can’t sleep we stand to look out the window at our children, who sleep naked on the snow. They curl themselves in almost the same positions as the ice babies, hands tucked over heads or under chins like statues, as if each is becoming the other.
In the sixth hour of the seventh day of the twelfth month, our children walk into the ocean. They do not look back. We watch them from our windows, parting the curtains with numb fingers, and do not think to tell them to stop. They are so small and their skin almost translucent, as if they too have become ice. There is no splash.
We are sure that there is some explanation for what they have done. We search for messages in the snow, written with the tip of a toe or a crooked finger. We climb onto the roofs of our houses to get a different vantage point– perhaps it is a word so big that we cannot see it from the ground. But all we see is the round teardrops of our ice babies’ heads, which look oddly small and misshapen from above. When we look out over the sea there is nothing but darkness, not even the crowns of our children’s heads bobbing in the waves as we had somehow imagined.
Our husbands wake up and make us breakfast. There is no flour left and the refrigerators have stopped working, but we make do with what we have: a handful of dried nuts and a few flat crackers is almost as good as a fading memory of pancakes. We wait for them to ask where the children are. We watch the way their jaws move as they chew, the bone sliding back and forth under the paleness of skin, and think of how we will answer. They swallow. They take another bite. There is a piece of almond skin between their two front teeth, but we do not tell them. It occurs to us that they are not going to ask where the children have gone.
The existence of our children becomes a secret that we must keep. We close the doors to their rooms. We hide their clothes, their toothbrushes, schoolbooks scrawled across in their handwriting. Our closets burst with the evidence of their lives. We dedicate ourselves to remembering the moment just before they stepped off of the sharp ledge of ice, how their bare feet kissed the snow as if reluctant to let go, the way their arms swung like pendulums. In our memories they begin to blend with Isabel Young’s son. We give them his first word because we can no longer remember theirs. Some days we remember so clearly how we spoke them out of our mouths the day they were born; other days it seems as though we crafted them by hand from the ice, one smooth curve at a time.
Outside our houses we recreate them in ice. Our fingers are too thick and too numb to form the sweet curls of their bangs or the dips of their noses– they come out flat, smooth, dull. We hide them too, our ice-children. We keep them at the back of our houses where our husbands do not go anymore. We make them naked because we cannot remember them clothed, and because in our memories the openness of their skin is so beautiful, so pure. We run fingers across their ice-heels, stretching just a thumb’s-length above the ground, barely high enough for us to fit our hands underneath. They are perpetually stretching, the way they are frozen in our minds, the tips of their toes forever on the precipice. We do not give them eyes.
Maybe, we tell ourselves, this is enough. We bring them food that we know they cannot eat, almonds and toast and scabs of dried fruit piled beneath them like offerings. We brush snow off of their shoulders and the curve of their heads. We apologize for the times we loved Isabel Young’s son more than them. We realize that maybe we still do, and we apologize again. We realize that we don’t know who Isabel Young’s son is. We realize that we don’t know who our own sons are. We do not know who to apologize to for this. We smooth down the v-bend of their forearms again and again until they are mirrors. We bring our blankets outside.
On the eleventh day of the fourteenth month, we realize we do not want to go inside for breakfast. We spread ourselves out like angels on the snow, and the sky above us is as blue and blank and forever as the ocean on the day they jumped. We imagine jumping. We have dreamed of the ground pulled away from our feet, that drop in the pit of our stomachs like hunger, but we cannot imagine the feeling of the ocean, whether it enveloped them or sucked them in breathless. Our ice-children have no eyes or mouths to tell us. We shake the snow off of our backs and dance our hands over the valleys of their faces. So many steps across and our fingers stop moving and we let them lie there, let their warmth dig channels in the ice-skin of the children we have made ourselves. Our hands stick. We try to pull them away but the ice holds us, or maybe we’re just not trying hard enough, and we stand and feel the way the cold seeps into our skin and the sound of the ocean like a heartbeat, crashing angry against our empty islands.