The Fisherman

Katrin Tschirgi

In the late days of their marriage, when Mark and Nora still believed equal parts freedom and jealousy were enough to save their relationship, they decided to spend the winter at their lakeside cabin. It was the only place Nora agreed to vacation, and Mark decided they needed time away from Kalispell, where the ghosts of past lovers were haunting his wife.

It was a small lake, not a soul for miles, and Mark could make out its entire shape and line from the front seat of his truck. They parked and strolled around the lake dressed in their warmest winter gear, prepared, if need be, for Siberian climate. Nora carried her ice skates over one shoulder, and Mark brought his binoculars to ogle at the north-flown birds. They carried a cooler with thermoses of whiskey and dainty sandwiches filled with cucumbers. At the lake’s far end, the cabin miniscule in the distance, they stopped and began constructing an igloo to pass the time. They made walls of snowman torsos, rolled each until they were round to the waist and then pressed in loose snow as chinking. It took several hours to assemble, but soon they finished arching the ceilings and could stand inside comfortably.

I’m bored, Nora said. I’m going to skate The Snow Maiden.

Nora crawled on her hands and knees to the bank. She had skated as a child and maintained her skills by practicing spirals and spins for hours each winter. It didn’t matter who watched. Mark immediately carved a window in the ice wall and observed as she pulled off her fur-trimmed boots and slipped her feet into the skates. He watched his snow maiden fasten her arms around the invisible shoulders of Mizgir. But soon she spiraled out of view, hands outstretched as though toward the box seats of the Bolshoi, and all Mark could see were the shoulders of glaciers. He took to the roof to construct the chimney.

Do I look like Sonja? she asked from below. Oksana, Kristie?

Mark walked outside and began sculpting bricks of snow, lined them parallel, and stacked. As he was smoothing the roof, Mark turned to tell his wife that she was beautiful, but he slipped and fell with a thud to the late-December ground, spraining his ankle. Nora skated over. He pulled up his pant leg and massaged his foot, which was growing rounder by the moment.

 

You shouldn’t climb, she said. That’s the problem with heights.

Nora despised elevation. In Kalispell she spent her nights walking the cemeteries, lighting candles for strange men who hadn’t died beside their wives and children. She made up stories for them: Clark had sailed his Cessna into the Atlantic with the last words of Billie Holiday ringing in his ears; Ronald died of hypothermia in Idaho, in the unforgiving ice of Mount Borah. Sometimes she invited the men to dinner, and there the three of them would eat together, Mark’s hand tightening around the handle of his steak knife each time his wife laughed.

Nora helped Mark down to the lake and decided to build a fire. She skated around the perimeter, pulling at twigs and sticks where she could find them. Mark dragged himself to the water’s frozen brink while Nora crisscrossed her finds in the shape of a box cabin. She started a small kindling fire and then took off to find more wood. Mark repositioned himself on the frozen lake, moving his hands together to warm them. He looked down. There was something in the ice growing like a weed, like blue tadpoles, or large fuzzy chromosomes. Mark rubbed his glove over the area as if clearing a fogged mirror. The blue rolled downward and then disappeared into solid white. He repositioned himself and began to scratch away the snow. He was halfway through his excavation when he yelled for Nora.

She skated close, looked down at the ice, cocking her head to the side like she was evaluating an abstract painting.

What is it?

Mark pulled at one blue worm that sprouted out of the surface.

Yarn, he said.

Nora removed her mitten and rubbed the blue between her fingers.

Eyes, Mark said, moving his fingers up. Hair.

Is it?

A man, he said.

We must get him out! she said.

Mark watched as she skated away, toward the cabin, and then he made a broom of his gloved hand. It was a man, frozen in the shallow like a wooly mammoth. He looked prehistoric once Mark smoothed the ice translucent—long squiggly hair like a child’s Crayola drawing and a face that was ballooned up, round and eggplant purple. While the rest of his body lay nearly vertical beneath the ice, his face was tilted up like a fish ready to take its last bite.

His wife returned pulling a toboggan brimming with supplies. Oh dear, she said. Poor fellow.

Nora put something in Mark’s hand.

What is this? he asked.

It’s a corkscrew. For the face, stupid. You can’t take a shovel to his face. You’ll take off his nose.

Mark looked behind her. She had also brought a screwdriver, a gardening trowel, a camping tent stake, and a brand new toothbrush, still wrapped.

It was hard to tell the depth that the man extended into the ice. Mark took the gardening trowel and began hacking away a good six inches from where he figured the ear was. Nora dug at the knit until she surfaced a hand, clawing for the air. After an hour she uncovered fingernails, and Mark had freed a clump of black hair, dried moss growing out of the ice and attached to a granite-blue forehead.

They worked for the rest of the afternoon. Mark was tired, his hands hurt, and his ankle was red and swollen twice its normal size, bruising the color of charcoal, veins popping bright blue.

I think we ought to call it a day, he said.

He looks like a George, she said.

You can tell by his forehead, can you?

Mark grabbed the shovel and moved the fire over George. We’ll need a bigger fire, he said.

Nora opened the cooler and pulled out a thermos of whiskey. Mark nodded and told her where to pour: not too close—his hair might ignite.

Just a tad, he said. Let’s make sure it works first.

Mark’s hands were shaky and his joints were tight, but he lit the match on the third strike and dropped it into the alcohol. It burned off quickly and only made their corner of the frostbitten lake shine like tinsel. She took the thermos and poured the rest into the fire. The flames shot up.

 

Quick, she said, moving the toboggan into the flames. The sled began to smoke. Mark reached for it, but Nora drew his hand back.

This will work, she said. She took the second thermos and threw its contents onto the sled.

Oh God. What are you doing?

Don’t you want to find out who he is? Aren’t you the least bit curious?

Mark sat cross-legged on the ice, and Nora pinched and massaged his shoulders to warm him up. They sat watching the thing burn like it was their first winter together, after New Year’s, the Christmas tree dying black and skeletal in the backyard. The orange and blue flames flickered and retreated in on themselves like quick tongues. The toboggan smoldered right in front of

George’s hair. Mark slapped his hand down hard on his thigh. 

What are we going to do now? he said. We’ve got to move the damn thing!

Can’t you see it’s on fire? Nora said, waving her hand over the sled.

I can’t believe we’re doing this.

Oh hush. Look, the ice is starting to melt!

Well, if you’re not going to, Mark said, and reached for the gardening trowel, pushing the sled away from the man. But under the sled, George was gone. Their plan to free him had worked too well.

You’re kidding me, Mark said.

Oh no! Nora said. Oh damn.

In the melt of ice, George had slid into the slush and disappeared back into his depths. Where George had once been frozen in the ice, a gaping black hole had taken his place.

We’ve got to get him out, Nora said, lunging toward the hole.

Honey, Mark said. I’m going to bed.

Mark crawled to the igloo and lay against the wall. From there he looked out at Nora, who knelt over the hole like a preying polar bear.

Mark turned over and faced the wall. He waited for his wife to join him, but she refused to come inside, and he stubbornly lolled off to sleep.

Mark awoke at midnight to the sound of snow sliding off the roof. There was no light outside the igloo window, and he found that his ankle no longer hurt. He pulled up the leg of his pants and felt the spaces between his bones. No pain at all. Mark looked for Nora, but the ice hut yawned in her absence. He called for his wife, and when there was no answer, no sight of her, he crawled to the window, leaned against the ice, and glanced across the lake. It took him but a second. In the spill of moonlight, he could see two people. One was skating—he immediately recognized Nora, hair swishing about, falling over one shoulder and then the next, pirouetting on one leg like a child’s jewelry box doll. There was another, however, propping her up, spinning her around. He wore a blue scarf. It was George, embracing his newfound freedom, thanks to their contrived thaw. From the igloo’s entryway he watched them skate. George wore a bulky coat decorated with hooks and fishing line. He was a mere mountain commoner, an ice fisherman who had fallen into the lake. His hair was long—as Mark had guessed when George was trapped in the ice. But it was his eyes Mark most cared to see. Yesterday they had only been shapes, symmetrical outlines. Mark had pictured them cold and polished as agate.

Mark coughed, began hacking away into the cuff of his sleeve, and the two looked up. He rolled over quickly and pretended to sleep. But Nora did not come for him. It wasn’t until the next morning that she walked in through the rounded archway.

It’s such a beautiful day out! she said.

I know where you were last night, Mark said.

What?

You were dancing with George.

Nora looked at him.

I don’t want you seeing him again, Mark said, breaking an icicle off the windowsill like a wishbone. Say you won’t.

No, Nora said.

Then find your own igloo.

Nora turned on her heel and went back outside, cold air sharp as the steel blades of her boot.

Mark decided to expand his architecture. He took the tools used to free George and began scooping out the ground to make way for an underground labyrinth. After three weeks, he had dug a tunnel to the rim of the lake, where he had a front-seat view of his wife’s affair with the fisherman. Mark took the bird-watching binoculars from his neck, and instead of watching red-winged blackbirds through the glass prism, he saw George’s hand around her waist. Instead of peregrines, it was Nora gliding backward in figure eights, rounding the edges of her carved infinity signs. They would leave at the end of month, and as February grew closer, his wife farther away, Mark replaced conversation with craft.

From the main igloo, Mark began constructing towers. The Cathedral o the Assumption. With a mild understanding of Baroque, he crafted towers of East Orthodox splendor, a bell tower to rival and make shy the mountains. To the main house, Mark added a dining nook, master bedroom, and wine cellar. He remodeled the outside post-Mongol with a detached belfry, onion domes, and said to himself, My God, I’ve created art.

You built Russia, Nora said one afternoon, standing outside of the Cathedral Square. In his hand, Mark had the excavation toothbrush they used to free George’s forehead and was polishing a wall.

I’m going skating, Nora said, throwing her skates over one shoulder. I kept rabbit stew for you in the fridge, but it’s starting to mold so I’m going to throw it out. Just so you know.

I know what you’re up to, Nora. Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing.

She waved him off. I’m going back to Kalispell with or without you, Mark. You have two days, and then I’m gone.

Won’t you miss George?

He’s coming with me, she said.

Mark cringed. He wished he could push the body back into the lake, but he only ever saw George with Nora. She was getting more distant—rather than skating close to the igloo, she waltzed near the cabin. He thought of how they once had danced together, listening to country music on his grandfather’s old radio. He remembered when they met, when he was the fireman who rescued her cat from an aspen’s highest branches. That summer, on this very lake, his parents’ cabin had burned down in a blitz of forest fire, depositing logs and memories in the water. Nora’s family had volunteered the money to help them rebuild.

 

Mark began living on ice. From the walls and floor, he sculpted the snow into a fruit bowl with clementines, golden delicious, and kiwi halves. He was halfway through chiseling a banana when he heard movement. He tried to remember whether he had closed the tunnels, whether or not a badger or other creature could have made its way into the castle.

It was Nora. She set her ice skates down on the sofa.

 

How did you get in here? Mark demanded.

I dug through one of your passages.

Mark nodded.

What should we do? she asked.

Good question. Champagne?

Mark went and fetched a bottle from the cellar and two goblets carved from icicles. He had been saving it for a special occasion. The room was blue with the lack of light.

I still love you, she said, the kind of thing one says when one has forsaken a lover.

They toasted each other and ate some ice cheese. Mark explained that he would have served something fancier, but he hadn’t expected company. She said the cheese was fine, but if he didn’t leave the Cathedral, she was going to leave him.

I want to empty our savings and get out of Kalispell, Nora said.

You’re right, Mark said. You’re right.

She smiled.

We’ll have to melt the place. It’s the only way to escape.

She reached up to hug him, and he shoved her into the wine cellar and slammed the door. She screamed, but Mark told her to stay quiet and wait. He planned to keep her, to bait George into rescuing her. It would not be enough to simply leave with Nora. They would come back next winter, and George would still be there, having waited out the summer until the two could skate again. Mark would make him a grave from which he could not be freed. In months, he would be earth, decomposed. 

It went according to plan. He found George, much as Mark had found Nora, in the living room. Mark could see him closely now. His hair was brushed and his eyes were bright blue. He recognized the hooks on George’s coat. He had thin lips formed into a charming smile, like a holiday pine bough, and when Mark looked at him, George offered a flask. Mark took it hesitantly, and George removed a snuffbox from his pocket.

I think you know why I’m here, he said.

Do I?

Divorce is a messy thing, friend.

Are you staying in my house? In my bed? I need to know.

 

We’re dancing to Scheherazade tomorrow night. Will you be watching from your tunnel?

Not watching, Mark said.

George was stoic.

Mark nodded. His hands traveled over Nora’s skate and he picked it up, swooped it over his head, and sliced the blade into George’s skull. And again. He hacked away at the man’s perfectly preserved skull until the floor of the Cathedral was red.

George lay on the ground, his head a caldera. Red bubbled from his forehead and down his face, pooling in his mouth like a washbasin. It was an ugly sight, one he wanted to spare Nora. When Mark pulled her from the cellar, he covered her eyes and walked her through the living room. When he let go, she spat in his face, clawing at his cheeks hysterically.

Don’t touch me, she cried. Let me go.

Mark led her through the tunnel to the lake. They crawled on their bellies, their bodies moving easily, like arctic predators, and when they broke into fresh air, it was dusk. Nora was still in tears and she was too tired to run. The hole, where George had sunk deep into the glacial water, was open. The water was nearly black. The remnants of the burnt toboggan lay on the bank. Mark didn’t know what to say. Nora twisted her wedding ring around her finger and, for a brief moment, he thought she would throw it into the murk. Instead she reached into her pocket and retrieved her box of matches. She sat down, and Mark watched as she lit a match and dropped it in the water, lit another, dropped it in, each extinguishing with a sharp hiss. Soon the box was empty.

It’s cold, Mark said.

They look like fish, she said, pointing to the black-headed sticks. If I pushed you in now there’d be nothing to save you.

But she didn’t push or shove. She had only made a choice. That night they decided to drive back to Kalispell. The car had been parked in the snow for two months. Mark forced his wife into the car, ran the windshield wipers, the defrost, his glove over the glass attempting to loosen the ice crystals. They sat as the car warmed up, not saying a word, waiting for the mountains to develop into view.

Nora, I’m sorry, Mark said.

She shook her head, her eyes on her lap.

 

Nora, look at me.

Let me go, she said. I want out of this car.

 

But Mark had locked the doors. Nora, he said, look at me. Look at me, why don’t you.

Her eyes were closed. She rested her head against the window and feigned sleep. Her eyelids were plum colored and squeezed shut. Mark watched as her chest floated up and down in exaggerated breath. He looked through the front window, and waited for the thaw.