The flat, white, frozen surface of the lake stretched away in every direction, and the sky was so deep and blue it gave me vertigo.
Cara dragged our sled out to the middle of the lake and bored a hole, twisting a huge metal screw through a foot of ice. When she stopped to rest, I tried turning it but she laughed and shoved me away. Sit down like a good little girl, she said. She twisted the screw, cursing the men who had stranded her there, and finally water gushed up out of the slushy hole and went back down. She tossed the screw on the ice and we sat on our camp stools, and Cara dropped a line in the water with a small hunk of rabbit meat on a hook.
I’m still almost old enough to be your mother, I said. I remembered when she was only 8 and she used to swear at me in my own yard.
Here and there a little house sat behind some trees at the edge of the lake. I had no idea who was living in these places. Cara said most were abandoned but I couldn’t imagine no one was living in them. People were living in the old gas station up the road.
Who lives in that one? I said, pointing with my mitten. It was a large brick house with four white columns in front of the door like a Greek temple. Even from here I could see that the windows were smashed out and part of the roof had caught fire at some point.
That’s Judge Burke’s old place, said Cara. He left it there when he died.
She laughed at the thought of Judge Burke dying.
He didn’t die, I said. They executed him.
That’s right, said Cara. They executed poor old Burke. I wish I’d thought to do it myself. Kids threw rocks at his body when they hung it from the light pole. Toddlers, even. OK, there were no toddlers. Or at least they weren’t chucking rocks at Burke.
The line tensed and Cara hauled in her catch. It was hard to believe anything could survive down there, but here was this small silver creature, throbbing with life. Cara banged its head on the stool and then she pulled out her knife and slit its belly open and gutted it. The blood froze in tiny circles on the ice. She cut out a piece of its entrails and stuck it on the hook and dropped it back in the water and then stowed the gutted fish in her bag. It took her half a minute to do all this.
Was Burke alive when they hung him? I said. I didn’t like hearing about these sorts of things, but I asked a lot of awful questions. I couldn’t stop myself. It was probably my most sociable trait.
Oh yeah, said Cara, he was kicking and moaning and playing to the crowd. I tell you, that town is populated with murderers and sadists of the first order. He was hollering his head off for a while there. That’s why they started pelting him with rocks. He wouldn’t shut up.
She pulled her mittens off and removed another fish from her line.
Look at this beautiful monster!
She walloped the stool with it and gutted it on the ice in the blood of the other fish. I’d never known they were so eager. Cara said they got hungry down there and probably a little bored. I thought about how winter made fools of us all, how some of us didn’t know enough to stay home and sit tight. Wait it out. Don’t drink. Don’t wander about in the woods thinking about death. Maybe even read a book like it mattered anymore.
It took longer for the third fish to bite. We sat on our stools without talking. Once in a while I stood up and walked in circles so my feet didn’t freeze. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the wind had blown the snow off the ice so it dazzled in the sunlight. Nothing moved along the edge of the lake, but about a thousand miles away toward town we saw a tiny figure, half an inch tall, twisting a screw in the ice. Cara waved at him and he waved back.
Don’t do that, I said. He might run over here and rape us.
What? Who in hell goes around raping the likes of us in 10 degree weather on a frozen lake?
Sometimes it amazed me she still hadn’t worked out what world we were marooned on.
Maybe that’s not even a he but a she, she said.
Yeah, right. What kind of woman would come out here and screw down through a foot of ice?
Yeah, said Cara, what kind of woman would ever do something like that? What a wacko.
It had been a long time since I’d heard a word like that. I laughed and Cara looked at me like I’d told her a secret. I wasn’t much of a laugher.
For a long moment I looked Cara in the eye and we didn’t say anything. Her mouth hung open and I could see where Dan had knocked her tooth out last year. He hadn’t liked something she said, but she was always saying things no one wanted to hear. I didn’t know why he got so upset about it on that one occasion. But he did. And bam! Down she went on the kitchen floor. Blood in her mouth. Moaning. Dan ran out into the woods and we didn’t see him for days.
Close your mouth, I said. That’s when our third fish came. Another big one but not a monster. Not a beauty. Cara unhooked it and banged its head on the stool. Sliced its white belly open with her knife. Pulled out its guts and dropped them in the hole. The blood froze on the ice. She stowed the fish in the bag with the other two and we put our stools on the sled and set off home, the sun already in the trees.
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