A short story by Emma Zetterström
Emily steps out of her front door and falls over. She gathers her limbs together and puts them back into their sockets. The loss of eight inches in just 24 hours is momentous. The sudden arrival of spring feels like getting off a roundabout.
On this island, winter is a time of levitation. The snow falls and packs together. Every day the level you walk on is a little higher. The transformation is gradual, almost imperceptible. By March you are walking eight inches above ground level without really realising it. This ascension is gradual but its effect is cumulative. It’s a kind of altitude sickness. You are too near the ground to consider counteracting the elevation. Consequently those eight inches are more vertiginous than any mountain. The world changes at this height. Objects that never catch your attention during the summer are suddenly at eye level, branches that are out of reach all summer place their fingers on your head as you pass and the sky draws deafeningly near.
Today, on waking up, instead of wincing at the suspended light constellating in the slats of the blind indicating last night’s snowfall, Emily blinked at a new kind of light. The spring has arrived and the snow has gone. The winter’s snow takes with it an unnatural ability to gather the furthest fragments of light and crush them together into a luminescent snowball. The spring light is different. It is fresh and true. And today the city is melting.
After six months trudging through the snow Emily’s legs have adjusted to the constant pressure. They’ve been putting up a fight against the dragging of the snowdrifts. Now that the snow has gone Emily’s legs feel unnaturally light. She fears she might blow away. After only three paces her ankles are soaked. The islands weep for the end of winter. The melting snow becomes tears of relief as the winter ends. The tears pour through streets suited to this cathartic weeping. They are steep and cobbled and so channel the melting snow easily towards the rivers and lakes. The city’s wet coat shimmers and flickers in the spring sunshine.
Emily walks through the dregs of a collective past as winter liquefies beneath her feet. She glances at her shoes feeling fragments of December and January collect in the grooves of her soles. Children splashing nearby jump in surprise as they catch glimpses of other people’s lives liberated from the freeze. Emily suddenly stops herself from chasing trails of the city’s past in the currents of melted snow. Her own past is perhaps nearer the surface than she is ready for. She catches a glimpse of a certain day in winter. The sky from that day is barely released from the meltwater before Emily panics and blocks it.
Every year Emily has celebrated the passing of winter by going to watch the ice in the river break. The shock rattles her out of her winter stiffness. She goes and stares at the holes between the cracked ice. Ice, which breaks into a strange array of shapes, starts off as enormous clambering slabs. The pieces crack and push and break as the river urges them forward, rising from its winter sleep. Patterns form as they fold over one another and shrink away. It is not the ice that fascinates Emily but the space between.
She saw it accidentally one day at dusk. The black patches of water between the broken ice looked nothing like water. They were oily, glossy, skin-like, tar-black depths, somewhere between the wet skin of a seal and the velvet blanket of the sky on a winter night. When she first walked over the bridge, joining two of the islands making up this city, and looked down at the water she became convinced that the skin of the universe had cracked open and she was looking at eternity. She stood by the side of the road, busy with rush hour traffic, nearly dark and spotted only with intervalled headlights, frozen. The sun had set behind the bridge, breathing a pink gas across the city. When her body moved again everything had been blown out. She lost all her procrastinations, her paranoias.
Emily has a matchless capacity to return to the ordinary, the everyday and become absorbed by routine. Her glimpse into the abyss resulted in a flurry of resolutions but as always, the everyday took her back, and her feet stuck. However, she never lost the knowledge that the vision had given her renewal. Every year she tries to shock herself back into life on the first day of spring after a winter of trying to shake the blues out of her left ear.
This year was different. Her winter had not been like others. This time events and thoughts and words did not pave the way back to an everyday existence. She yearned for the regularity of a normal life without this guilt, without this constant attempt to reverse time and change things. This year as Emily trailed the path up to the bridge it was not to look at the walls of the universe. As she had lain in bed listening to the drip she had began to value the freeze, and its hold over feelings and time. The February day was about to be released and with it her guilt, her actions and her words. Today she had to go and pick up the consequences. The single drip of the melting city multiplied and the pizzicato violin became an orchestra of noise. Today she had to retrieve her brother’s body from the ice.
Around the city people were beginning to lose the winter grimace and daring to look at the sky and revel in its buoyancy. As the flow of melting snow gained momentum pieces came hurtling back. Parts of the occurrence that had been hard as granite softened and caught on the wind. They swirled into Emily’s face. Flashes of the day uncovered how grey the earth and sky had been. Although the snow had been dulled by the dark sky, songs from playing children had interrupted the air. There had been laughter. The memories flow past liberated to the spring birds.
Emily doesn’t follow the path up to the bridge this year. She crosses the park, whose foliage is flat from the snow, and heads down to the river’s edge. Already there is a group of policemen erecting barriers to stop curious characters from standing too close to the wild waters. She can hear the water tumbling. She looks at the heavens. They are so far far far. She fights the unsteadiness of her limbs and wishes she could rejoice in the weightlessness. The sun echoes around the sky, brighter than it should be. Its reflection on the police car betrays its origins. Emily has seen this procedure before. The emergency services ready to gather the tragic, uncollected parts of winter that will come hurtling down the river with the melting ice. Every few years some family will be huddled at the riverside waiting anxiously to collect a body and say a real goodbye. Emily is here alone.
Back again, the feel of the fence, too cold to touch but he still forced his fingers, poked his nose and tongue through the gaps. They watched a frozen boat, abandoned to the ice. Emily had watched him the whole time but hadn’t seen the gap. A small boy climbs through.
The policeman, here, the same one as back then greets her. He tries to hide his shining blue eyes, betraying his welcome to the spring. He offers Emily a cup of coffee. She takes it but it slips through her fingers. The policeman’s voice is too familiar. The day her brother fell through the ice comes clattering back through it. The hours spent waiting with this man as his colleagues and their machines tramped the ice. They found only a hole. She had not been able to look.
The policeman told her that they had come out early this morning and no body had been seen yet. She looked at this man’s face and wondered how many years he had been the one sent out to collect the saddest parts of winter during the most hopeful part of the year.
Hours passed. Emily dares to stand at the water’s edge. There it is. The gap between now and yesterday. The swathing of the universe. The magician’s black cloth. She stares at the space between the ice trying to fathom what lies beneath, what will come to her, if the body would provide any sort of end. The effect is no less than the first time. Emily feels the sky rush away and the abyss open up. She forgets which way round the world goes and spits at the air to find out where the ground is. She has to turn away after that.
The policeman explains that they don’t always find a body. Sometimes it just disappears, either swept away by an earlier thaw or they just miss it. As he says it someone in the cold group of policemen shouts. A black bundle far up the river is coming. It is visible then invisible as the powerful river wills it under then over the ice. The police start rushing, arranging nets and cars and people and machines. Emily trembles and swallows and looks and looks away. She looks at her hands, stretching her fingers out straight. They are shaped like her grandfather’s hands today and look just as old. She touches her spine with her fingers, feeling each vertebrae. She can hear the shouts and the motion but can’t listen to them. Her words don’t work. Her tongue is fat and dry. Her teeth are heavy. She watches the bundle as it comes nearer and nearer. The moment comes and the team pulls together, shouting and breathing wet words into the air. Emily watches the words float away. They have him. They have him. Her brother is here.
She steps over the flat grass towards the group and the pile of her brother. Her legs are like rags. Someone cries out loud. Before she reaches the bundle one policeman jumps up, ‘No, no, it’s not him. It’s not him. I’m sorry, Emily. It’s not him.’ The boy vanishes. It isn’t him. The wet bundle on the ground comes into focus all at once and everyone realises it is a dog or some kind of animal. It is a wolf. It is the wolf that came into town this winter and obviously didn’t make it back out again. Emily howls.
Emma Zetterström is a Scot living in a forest north of Stockholm where she writes and grows with her family. She is currently working on a novel.