There’s a fine line between solitude and loneliness. This place is one of solitude for me. It’s silent except for the crows who keep watch over it and the sparrows that dart about the honeysuckle hedging. It doesn’t belong here, the honeysuckle. It was originally from somewhere in East Asia, I’m going to guess China. You can hardly go wrong guessing China because it’s the biggest country, unless you count Russia, which I don’t. Russia can’t decide which continent it belongs in, so I don’t count it for much of anything. But I digress, which is my luxury to do. There’s no one to hurry me here. Now, where was I? Oh, the honeysuckle, yes.
Anyway, the hedging is very nice for privacy during the spring and summer but doesn’t help worth a damn in the winter. You can just ask those poor sparrows; their walls have all become open windows. They’re mesmerizing. I watch them every day, sometimes for hours at a time. They’re industrious, you know, which surprised me. I had never thought of birds in this way. Beavers, sure, but never birds. When they go quiet in the evening chill, a hush falls over the whole place. Perhaps it’s the snowy blanket hushing and muffling even the tiniest movements out there. The fog, too, wraps itself around the trees, lulling them to sleep. All is still.
It’s the kind of quiet that makes you realize there’s no such thing as silence. If you are lucky enough to find yourself in a place with such a pervasive stillness, what remains is the gentle thumbing of your heartbeat. Even more wonderful to me is what I have come to call the zizz. I’ve heard it said that this zizzing is the sound of the nervous system, the electrical impulses that course through our bodies to animate and govern the whole human machine. Maybe there’s something to this notion. But to me, I think of it as the hum of the soul. Without fail, my greatest insights emerge from these moments of quietude. If not for that, I wouldn’t be here; I wouldn’t have been long for the world at all. I relish the winters here for that reason.
Four winters ago, I arrived desperate and alone. God was I ever lonely and scared. But if you’re out here you surely know this already, don’t you? I was nearly starved and half-crazed with fright and frost. The cabin was dark, but vacant and that was enough of a start. It was the muted tones of the night that settled me enough to know that I ought to stay. The ample and varied preserves nourished me, and the fire warmed my flagging body. I felt whole again. Leonard knows all of this already. He always listens so dutifully but is more of the strong silent type. Big and brown with a palmate crown, he is fixed over top of the mantle. He probably should have stayed in his wallow. Instead, he’s stuck here as my confidante. It sounds mad to see it written in my hand, but without his hospitality I likely wouldn’t have stayed more than a week or two. Playing host is a more dignified fate for so fine a moose anyway; we both know what would have befallen him out there.
It wasn’t long before I braved the frigid, glassy air again. The ice slab, made thick by the unrelenting cold, was insulated by more than two feet of snow. When cleared, the surface was crystalline; it seemed to me as though I had opened a window into an abyss, black, still, and beckoning; it was irresistible. It became the site of my daily pilgrimage. I’d descend the rope ladder I found—ten feet being too great a distance for anyone to climb in or out unassisted. Once there, I would stare into it until my coffee had frozen or I became agitated by the stillness, though at first it was usually the latter.
The pond was not natural but also not fashioned by any conscientious designer. It was undoubtedly of human design, but the lack of stairs, slipways, or docks struck me as a curious absence. Instead, surging vertically from what would have been the water’s edge were sheets of uniformly poured concrete on all sides without break or beach that would suggest it was created with vacationers’ leisure in mind. I imagine the pond must have been intended as decoration and not recreation, but it also lacked symmetry and was bereft of any aesthetic sensibility that I could appreciate.
It was only much later that I literally stumbled over an aluminum pole with a gruesomely disfigured sign. The first word was too mangled and faded to read, but the rest—ckle min—was legible enough to understand why the pond seemed unnatural to me. I wondered how deeply this pit had been excavated. I once tried to plumb the depths with a string and stone, but it was pulled from my bare hand with such force that I had to bandage the burns. I’ve wrestled a giant of a northern pike into a boat with much less resistance than whatever was below. If not for the frozen barrier beneath me, I would surely have been dragged headlong into the abyss. As it was, I had quite a goose egg over my blackened right eye. I still don’t know where the bottom is, but it’s much deeper than I imagined. I didn’t have enough string left to warrant another attempt anyway.
It was a late winter’s morning and the sun had been up for a few hours already. Peeling myself off the faux leather sofa, I yawned loudly before shaking my head to banish my stupor. Stumbling to the door, I donned the goose down parka that the previous owner abandoned along with its matching toque and mitts, all of which were too luxurious and warm for me to have afforded in my previous life. The boots were much too big, but I still had my own in good enough condition. The sun had finally risen to an ideal height; the scattered boreal prism made for clear viewing. If I waited much longer it would be making its descent back toward the greedy horizon.
Plodding down the trodden snowy path that had become dangerously icy in recent days, I nearly fell. I caught myself, but not without the brief unwanted sensation of electric pain shooting up in my back. Wincing with each step, I continued my daily peregrination. It took me longer than usual to reach the stool I left set up for my habitual viewings. I brushed it off out of habit without intending to use it. Sitting was excruciating, so I elected to just lay down on my back. The seeping cold brings relief, I could hardly conceive of moving from this spot. My breath was relaxed and rhythmic. Among the sparrow’s songs and the cawing crows was a new, unfamiliar sound. Tunk, tunk, scritch, tunk, scritch, it went. The hollow noise continued this way while I looked around in all directions. When it finally abated, I hadn’t yet pinpointed its source.
Resting, I waited until the nurturing cold salve turned unsympathetic. I could not curl and lift myself directly from supine to standing. Instead, I rolled over, pulling back into child’s pose hoping for further relief. It felt so good. With my eyes closed, I inhaled the cold, crisp air so deeply that the inside of my nostrils frosted, and my eyes began to water. There it was again! Tunk, scritch, tunk, scritch, scritch, tunk. I realized now why I couldn’t find the source of the sound. It had been below me, under the ice. I opened my eyes. Before I could discern was in front, or rather underneath me, I needed to wipe the droplets from my eyes, which I did quickly and clumsily.
My vision cleared before my mind which took a moment longer to adjust. A woman looked up at me from under the ice sheet. She must have been beautiful once. She wore braids, tied with banded lace that must have once been tucked up on top of her head with care because she still had a large pin sticking uselessly in one of them, midway down. Her plump face, swollen and waterlogged, belied what she once looked like; but I could still see her in all her glory. She continued to knock and scratch feebly at the underbelly of the ice while I watched her. Faded henna lines remained on her hands, the cold depths preserving the pattern against her now pallid flesh. Her sari, too, though once vibrant red, yellow, and orange had taken on a chlorophyllic hue. I gazed into her almond eyes, once vibrant I imagined; I yearned to resuscitate them from their deadened state. It was difficult to imagine what the lower half of her face might have looked like, mangled as it was by a hungry snarl. Still, the ice was so thick that I could hear nothing but the concerto of her tapping against the wavering of spruce and tamarack trees.
I was shaken from my morbid reverie as another face emerged, that of an elderly man; then another, a rotund woman—middle-aged—then another. Still more faces rose from the gloom to welcome me. The whole wedding party it seemed was entombed here. The animated, or rather reanimated, family portrait was beautiful in its own way, preserved as they were. But they, too, wailed silently and took out their frustrations upon the barrier to their frozen prison. I wanted to stay but worried that so many of them working in concert would breach my only defense, so I waved self-consciously and departed.
In an odd kind of way, she saved me that day. I had assumed that the absence of shamblers meant they hadn’t come this far from what remained of civilization. Carefully, I took to encasing my own small slice of the wood whenever my back permitted to construct shoots from the ramshackle remains of the area’s other cabins so any shamblers would be directed over the concrete precipice into the pond. Summer and fall passed without incident though. I grew used to wedding party’s company, enjoying their comically uncontrolled bobbing, the rotund old man most of all. He would periodically break the surface of the pond like a breaching whale, his prominent belly toppling him; and ass over tea kettle he’d return to the depths. From time to time, some would appear close to the pond wall with vim and vigour. The wall, tall as it was and slick with algae, always made futile their efforts to visit me. Still, I always keep a look out for the bride, though I see her much less frequently than some of her, her more buoyant relations.
Not long after I finished my building project, I spotted a shambler while out on a walk. I was close enough return to safety without strain. And from the safety of the adirondack chair on my porch I sat back to watch unthreatened as she approached, was rebuffed, and eventually spilled onto the thickening ice. A week earlier her fall may have punctured the glassy surface, but not now. Her residence, regrettably, made the lake off-limits to me; she, an inhospitable and demanding tenant.
One morning as she clawed at the wall of the pond spitting and frothing at me I caught sight of nametag on her apron: Karen. I scoffed sardonically. As she wailed, I bellowed back “I am the manager!” my growing midsection shaking with laughter. The joke wore quickly in the face of her tiresome antics. So, I was elated when the ice finally gave way beneath her. I saluted her as she sank quietly, at last, into the depths, where she could complain to the wedding party about my terrible service. She really was insufferable to the last, and I was glad never to see her resurface. Others followed, gratefully in the summer months where they plunged into the depths without ceremony.
Never once though have I seen another living person. I’ve grown weary of my routine and increasing estranged from the only company I have in this place. Though the birds are as industrious as ever, they are no friends to me. The party goers emerge from their depths periodically, energetic as ever, beckoning me to join them. I have always resisted. I wasn’t ever great company, and never much fun at a wedding. But I am increasing ill—probably with cancer. I struggle to breathe now and am becoming weaker each day. The thought of dying alone in this cozy place is just so depressing. It would not do for me to haunt this cozy hermitage.
So, to you who finds this note, know that you have found a good and safe place. I have replaced the food stores as best as I could. You will find a garden and clean well a hundred forty paces to the East of here. I have scavenged books on foraging and have made a reserve of dried seeds for easy planting. I prefer it outside anyway. Don’t pity me though. Be assured that I am leaving in a festive mood. I have a wedding to attend.
This story previously appeared in Vocal Media 2021.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Cory Wright-Maley is a professor, teacher-educator, parent, and partner located in Calgary, Canada. He is a seeker of insights beyond what is readily apparent. He enjoys board and role-playing games, playing ice—and fantasy—hockey, a good IPA, and has travelled to more than 50 countries and lived in the United States for eleven years, where he taught high school social studies for six of them.