The lake called him from uncertain dreams at dawn.
Today was the day.
He awoke. Frost covered the edges of the windows. Through the clear glass at the center of the pane he saw the snow still blowing hard. Its vehemence contrasted sharply with the warm calm of the bedroom.
He kissed his wife as she lay sleeping, petted the cat, then slipped out of bed as quietly as he could. The cat joined him as he put on his slippers, padding around the room to first get dressed, and then add several layers on top of his usual clothes to brave the remnants of the storm. Warm socks, tee shirt, flannel shirt, puffy vest. He moved to the coat closet and added a winter coat, mittens, and a stocking cap. By the time he was finished, he was sweating in the combined warmth of the clothes. Even the cat looked at him quizzically.
He kissed his wife and headed downstairs. The cat followed. He took the time to begin brewing a pot of coffee, not waiting for the brewing to finish; it’d be nice and hot for him on his return.
Opening the door let in a blast of wintry chill. The cat gave him a dirty look and rushed out of the room. The cold felt good to him though, sneaking its way through the layers of already sweaty winter clothes as he stepped through the threshold.
A wall of cold wind hit him as he closed the door, snow swirling in its wake. He looked out to the foothills, beyond the lake. A dusting of snow had settled on the pines beyond, looking like powdered sugar on pastry. Towering over the foothills were the wild majesty of the Rockies and the Never Summer Range, wearing its thick coat of bright snow like a hard-won metal.
Already his ears were cold. The walk to the lake was long, and would only get colder; he dithered about going in for a warmer cap but discarded the notion. He wanted to get started.
The lake had called him, it was important to answer.
The snow crunched under his feet as he walked. He kept his head down, to reduce the chill. The sun played hide-and-seek behind the clouds, trying to staunch the power of the storm. The effect was disorienting, patches of shadowed gray, interspersed with dazzling fields of sunlight bouncing off the steady fall of white.
A change in the sound of the snow under his feet told him he was close to the lake. He lifted his head. Light from the lake filled his eyes, lending him warmth and his path clarity. He continued on.
His first step onto the lake was met with a crack of ice so loud he swore it was a gunshot. This was not a warning, he knew the ice would support him. He trusted the ice. He listened to it echo through the trees. When the sound had fallen away, he took another step, and then another. Soon he was fully out onto the ice. No more loud cracks in the ice greeted him, but the ice of the frozen lake making small incremental changes as it adjusted to the shifting patterns of heat and cold, stress and laxity, resulted in a continual muttering under the ice, as if the ice was conversing with him, and in a way it was.
It had woken him this morning. It had called to him.
He continued his journey. He was close. It wasn’t important he find the exact spot. The sound of the ice would lead him to a good place. He’d know when he was there. The ice would tell him.
After another minute of walking, he stopped to catch his breath. He turned to look back at his house, the sun bursting through the clouds and reflecting off the windows like a lighthouse beacon. His wife would be waking up soon. She might even be at the window now, watching him.
He hoped she was. Her presence made him feel less lonely.
His grief rose up, unbidden.
The sun ducked behind the clouds, the reflection from his bedroom window disappeared, he turned and continued his journey.
His destination revealed itself to him with a submarine sigh of water, as if the whole lake was gathering under his feet. The ice seemed to flex, and a pattern of tiny cracks formed at his heels and spread outward, leaving tiny quakes in the gathering snow.
This was the spot.
He stopped. He knelt.
Today was the anniversary of their loss.
Their son’s body was buried hundreds of yards beneath him, a frozen barrier, impenetrable. It marked the boundary between his world and the frozen world below.
He took off his mitten then and laid his palm in the ice. He felt its cold penetrate his bones, and chill his skin to the point of numbness. Beneath the ice, the water rose to meet his hand. The ice responded with a series of cracks so light and delicate it sounded like music.
Because, of course, it was music. The lake sang a hymn of nature to his patient ear as he contemplated his grief.
His heart lifted. The song subsided. The sun came out again.
His hand was incredibly cold.
He slipped his mitten back on his hand with numbed fingers and warmed it by massaging it with his other hand.
Time to get home before he froze to death.
His footfalls were faster on his return. He’d completed his task, his work was done. Nothing more for him to do. The sounds of the ice on the lake helped guide him, but he could see his house now and knew how to get home.
When his feet left the ice and returned to solid ground, he turned out to the frozen water one last time.
“Until next year, my friend,” he said.
The lake responded with its familiar submarine sigh.
The walk from the edge of the lake to the house took minutes. When he opened the door the cat greeted him with an irritated meow. It rushed away from the cold breeze blowing in from the doorway.
He closed the door and apologized to the cat. When he turned he saw his wife, sitting at the kitchen table, a steaming cup of coffee in her hand.
“Are you cold?”
“Would you like a cup of coffee?”
“That sounds wonderful.”
She poured him a fresh cup as the aroma filled the kitchen, and sunlight filled the windows.
“I miss him,” she said.
“I do too,” he replied, taking her hand in his. “Every day.”
“Things went okay?”
“Things went fine.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re home,” she told him, and then leaned across the small space between them to kiss him, her hand still warm from the coffee cup, lingering on the soft skin of his cheek like a prayer.