From a Hole in the Ice

I drove my pickup out to the reservoir and parked in the beach parking lot. I liked this area better in the winter, when it was almost completely absent of noise. In the summer the lake is full of motor-boats and drunk college students. At this time it was January and I was alone for at least a couple of miles in every direction. Everything was shrouded in a silent blanket of fresh powder, the wind was still.

I started to walk down the beach for no particular reason, the packing snow beneath my boots the only noise. The great silence of the world was a sharp contrast to the tumult that’d been raging in my head since I don’t remember when; months, maybe years. God, I wondered, what happened to this? Where did I go? What did I do? What had I become? When was the last time I was happy, even content?

I stepped out onto the frozen lake, and walked a few feet. I stood still for a minute to see if the ice was thick enough to carry my weight, and that silence again enveloped me. I started walking slowly out over the ice, feeling heavy, newly aware of some weight that I’d been carrying for God knows how long. Faintly I thought I’d heard a cracking noise and stood still, momentarily struck with fear. Every time I stopped all I heard was silence, a deep silence the kind you can feel on your skin. I took a few more steps, and heard the noise again, but now I was sure it was only an echo of the new snow crunching under my feet. I set my sights on the far shore, and walked on with measured steps. The chalky appearance of the timber and the exposed rocks, under a gray sky above the white foreground all swaddled in that glorious silence gave the scene a heavy, sleepy feeling, like a heartening dream.

That simple beauty was making me terribly sad, and I wondered how life had become so unsatisfying. I should’ve been the happiest man alive. I had a good job, a condo, a new truck, lots of friends, a beautiful girlfriend that I was pretty sure I was in love with. But it was those very things as much as anything else that were the essence of my discontent. I had a subconscious feeling that everything I’d ever accomplished in my life had come at the expense of something else, something important, something that I lost a long time ago without ever knowing I’d had it. I thought about my life; a life I’d worked so hard to make for myself that I could no longer stand to live in. I’d do anything if I could just start over, erase it all and begin from nothing. Hopelessness covered me like snow, like silence.

Then I stopped suddenly, not completely sure why, something had brought me out of my thoughts; a sound. A crack in the ice? I barely formed the question in my mind when a sound like a gunshot split the afternoon followed by a deafening, terrifying groan as the snow caved in under my hiking boots.

I tried instinctively to fall on all fours, but the ice opened up and I was swallowed by the lake. The water under the ice was pitch dark and so cold it sent pain to every nerve ending in my body. I vaguely remember flailing and gasping, struggling in no particular direction unable to even determine which way was up. When the oxygen of my falling gasp had been absorbed, my lungs burned and a feeling of hot terrifying pain spread out across my body. I involuntarily gulped a mouthful of the dirty water. It chilled me to the bone and at about that point, my mind began to wrestle control back from my panicking body and I realized that I was going to die. After that realization I was completely lucid, I figured I had maybe a minute of consciousness left. I closed my eyes and attempted to orient myself in the water making my best guess as to which direction was up. Then, feeling exhausted, drunk with fear and hoping for some kind of a miracle, I buoyed myself upward. I was surprised when I hit the ice about a second later. I was filled with hope, and with desperation I bobbed up again, feeling around with my hands on the underside of the ice pack, searching desperately for the hole through which I’d fallen. Then I was above the water. With a gasp of cold air, my body filled with new life and I became determined to survive. I bobbed up and down a couple times taking giant gasping breaths. The light reflecting off the snowy landscape was nearly blinding. I found the edge of the ice and attempted to pull myself up to it. Each time I put my weight on it, more of the ice broke off. After four or five attempts, the ice became thick enough to support me and I drew my upper body out of the water and onto the surface.

For a long time I lay on the ice that way, exhausted, sick, coughing up dirty water and crying intermittently, sometimes for joy, sometimes for fear, sometimes for hopelessness. For some strange reason, right then, lying on that ice, freezing to death, knowing that hypothermia was probably setting in, I felt such an incredible feeling that I couldn’t tell if it was actually happening. It felt like being alive, and it was the first time in my life I’d ever felt it. At that point I didn’t know if I was going to survive, but dying no longer scared me. My lids became so heavy and I felt so wonderfully exhausted and happy that the thought of eternal slumber sounded alright. Between long blinks of my eyes, fighting not to fall into a sleep I knew I wouldn’t wake up from, my mind began to reel. Images of my life and all the people I loved came to my mind. I had a vision of my own funeral and of the world without me in it, and when I realized that life would go on without me, something like contentedness swept over me, and it was warm.

Then I snapped back to full consciousness and realized that I had been staring out across the snowy landscape at my footprints leading back to the beach, my truck parked on shore, and the gray forest beyond. I felt a wellspring of energy come forth from someplace deep down within me. I was no longer tired, not really even aware of feeling cold. I looked out over the ice with a feeling of clarity.

Very carefully I pulled myself out of the lake so as not to upset too much of the snow around the chasm. I beat my legs and rubbed them through my soaked jeans until at last I felt a dull, deep ache, like my bones were being hammered on, then an excruciating burning followed shortly after. That pain I embraced like mothers milk, I loved and held onto it like no feeling I’d ever had. That pain was my life.

With extreme caution I stepped backwards placing my right boot in the nearest existing prints that led up from the beach, then I did the same with my left. I repeated this process painstakingly, walking backward one step at a time until I was back in the plowed parking lot near my truck. My heart was pounding in my chest and my ears as I approached the vehicle. I was reaching out to open the door to see if there was anything inside I might need, but saw myself in the reflection on the window and drew my hand back reflexively. I took one last look at my truck, looked out at the frozen lake and the boot prints leading in only one direction, to a hole in the ice, then turned and walked away.

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