FICTION: DAVID HUEBERT
LIKE AN ICEBERG
“What harm could it do?” Sam says into the frozen waterfall. He holds an ice axe in each hand, a tangle of straps and carabiners jingling on his orange harness. Sam huffs mist into the air. Above us, a hundred metre wall of ice.
Ice climbing was Sam’s idea. The doctors cleared the trip to Banff, but told him not to overdo sports. He’s already weaker than he was, and he doesn’t need undue stress on his immune system. Mum went cross-country skiing on her own and Sam said he was going to the grocery store, came back to the time-share condo with his arms full of rented equipment.
“We can walk there,” he said. Lately his face has started to thin out. He was already going gaunt. But in that moment he was gleaming.
“Sam. It’s not a good idea.”
“Come on you lanky sapling!” He was smiling like a champion, the way he smiled when he talked about his art. “You were born to climb.”
I couldn’t say no.
Now he tightens his crampons and steps into the ice. “Here we go, Long John Silver,” he says over his shoulder. He climbs briskly. Lately, he’s been subtly weakening. But now his face seems to glow, and he moves quickly, even with the heavy gear.
“Like this, right?” He grins down at me, kicking his toe into the ice.
“Toe in the crampons, put the screws in every ten metres, I think.”
“What?” Sam smiles down, pounds his ice axe into the waterfall. He’s only two metres up, so the fat five-foot icicle he releases is relatively harmless. I’m just glad I searched “ice climbing basics” on the walk over, and that we’re staggered.
I wait for him to put the ice screws in and set the anchors. Then I climb up behind him, driving my axe in. On this side, it seems, the freeze is a little more consistent.
The desk clerk at the neighbouring hotel said this is a popular moderate-expert spot, but that it was still a little early and the ice was temperamental this time of year. I guess no one else decided to test a frozen waterfall for the first time on Christmas Eve.
Before long we’ve found a rhythm, grinding the ice axes in, huffing into the cold, blood flowing. The axes are light and powerful. The waterfall could be a little more frozen—the odd large chunk sloughs off when the axe hits. But it feels just solid enough.
We hit a hump in the waterfall and walk flat-footed across a ridge. Who would have thought simply walking on crampons would be the craziest part of all this?
The next bit is the last tongue, a sheer climb of thirty metres. Dig, toe, tug, breathe. After the last screw, Sam climbs impossibly fast. He’s a little crazed, hard to keep up with.
“Is it too late to say this is stupid and crazy?”
Sam grins down at me. “Two choices,” he calls. “Up or down.” I haven’t seen him so happy in weeks, maybe months, maybe ever.
I dig deep. Toe-in, axe, smash, pant. I’m sweaty, tired, hungry, cold. But I’m almost there. Another chop, some ice chunks off. Then I get the axe in, the last one, and I see my brother’s hand reaching out.
“See,” he says, pulling me up the top. “It wasn’t that hard.”
He’s flushed and beaming. I’m thirsty and sweaty.
Sitting on the top, we look out on the snow-cloaked vista, unpacking our sandwiches and cold trail mix. The pines droop with yesterday’s snow. Sam starts talking about water, about ice. “Staring into the ice all the way up,” he says. “It was so intimate. Wasn’t it?” I shrug like “yeah” and he goes typical Sam, saying how crazy it is, how we take it for granted that an entire river can freeze and thaw, liquid becoming solid, then changing back.
“We don’t see it,” he says. “The world’s all around us. All this surging wonder and we don’t see it. We just walk through it like ghosts.”
He pauses, swallows a bite of sandwich. All around us the mountains towering, hunching like great still gods.
“Sometimes,” Sam says. “I think it takes a sickness like this to really live.”
I don’t argue that. I just let the words hang, breathe, dangle. I let my brother feel what he needs to feel.
“Sorry,” he says eventually. “I’m being morbid again.”
In the distance there’s a road cutting through the mountains, sun glinting off the hoods of SUVs. Sam points to a distant peak and we watch an eagle drift down, then rise again, riding a thermal. A wind passes through the mountains, shaking snow off the branches of the smaller trees.
Fishing through the trail mix for an M&M, I gesture around at the vista. “It is beautiful up here. Satisfied?”
“Yeah,” he says, standing up. There’s a strange glint in his face. “Absolutely.”
Carefully, he brushes the snow from his legs. Then he smiles at me, the look in his eyes gone manic. He says, “I love you brother,” and starts to run. Races full speed in his crampons, tearing for the edge, the hundred-metre drop.
I stand up and take a step but it’s useless. He’s already at the brink. Already leaping, spreading his arms like wings. Over the lip of the frozen river my brother hangs, for a moment, and falls.
A friend once told me that grief is like an iceberg: most people only see the tip of the pain while the bulk broods in the hidden depths. I’d like to go see one someday. They don’t come up the bay, wouldn’t make it past the peninsula, especially these days. There are more and more of them now that the glaciers are calving. Some are as big as Jamaica. Ice islands floating in the open sea. I would have liked to go see one with Sam, if he was still here. Maybe one day I’ll go out to sea, and I’ll think of him as I watch one bob and melt, float out to the great Pacific garbage patch.
“And then,” Sam says to the people gathered in the living room. “I jumped. I flew.”
It’s February now, and Sam’s confined to a bed in the kitchen. The palliative care nurse Cass’ mother helped to arrange is more or less living with us. As he waves them, excited, his arms are strangely thin. Around his mouth he has the wrinkles of a forty-year-old smoker. So wrong beside his youthful eyes.
There’s a room full of people—Mum, Cass, Jeremy, even Roger—gathered for my birthday. We’re eating my favourite: grilled cheese with singles and peanut butter ice cream cake. Sam is being as charming as possible, telling the ice-climbing story like this great exploit. Like it’s funny. Which, maybe it could be, in another place and time.
“And then he asks, ‘You satisfied?’” Sam chuckles, takes the plate of cake Cass is handing him. “We’re up there on the side of a mountain looking out over all the pines, the winding frozen river below.”
He starts fumbling for the plate. He’s clearly having trouble, getting frustrated with his fork. He’s getting some weird looks. Everyone’s waiting for him to tell the story or take a bite. He reaches his fork forward and misses, sighs, circles back.
When Sam jumped off the edge of the frozen cliff, I didn’t realize he was still strapped in. Even still it was stupid. He broke two ribs crashing into ice and sprained his hip from the drop. When I walked to the edge and saw him dangling there. “I needed to do it,” was all he’d said. “I needed to feel it. I needed to feel.”
He knocks the cake onto the ground. Everyone is tense, trying not to grasp. No one says anything. Mum watches, stunned. She stands up but can’t seem to move. “Um,” she says.
Sam is glaring at her, then the window. His jaw is set, his face thin, frail, his arms shaking.
Cass stands up. “Okay,” she says to the room. “It’s probably time to go.”
People stand up nervously, gather their things.
Sam grins morosely, perversely. “Happy birthday,” he sings with an awful off-tune melody. “And many more.”
When we were little, maybe eight and ten, Sam and I went swimming alone. There’s this beach at the edge of Sych Harbour, if you follow Hill Street all the way up and back down again. It’s a day’s bike ride there and back. Mum was working the day shift and Sam had just started looking after me on his own and he took me there. We brought sandwiches and a thermos of red juice and biked all day but when we got to the beach we didn’t stop. We biked past the hillocks and the tall grass to a place where a river led out to the sea. “You have to go hard and fast,” he said. “Straight across. There’s an undertow.” I heard “under-toe,” pictured a wire-haired gnarl of a toe that grew up from the floor of the river and tried to grab small children. We waded in and found it strangely cold in the full of summer. It wasn’t wide but it flowed fast. “Come on,” Sam said, and I waded in behind him. He leapt and started swimming and I watched the water twist him. Watched it turn his body and push him diagonal to the sea, the current taking my brother away. Stood there wanting to follow him but shocked still. The rush was taking him, torqueing him, though he was working hard, wailing his arms up and over, pushing and pushing with all his power until finally he reached the other side, crawled wheezing to shore. As soon as he had his breath he turned back to me. He’d gone far, far, down the river, halfway to the open mouth of the sea. But when he cupped his hands and called out, I could still hear him, barely. And I could hear the grin in his voice. “Come on,” he shouted, shivering with cold and joy. “It’s amazing! The river—it’s alive!”
The thing about icebergs is that they melt, and there’s something beautiful in that: ice leaking into water. Because when you zoom out, you see that ice was water all along. Water changes from solid to liquid, but that doesn’t mean it’s gone.
I didn’t follow him that day. I waited and watched as he swam back across to safety, through the living river. I knew, then, that I would never be as alive as he was. I knew that life was both in time and beyond it. And I knew that my brother was a tossed stone rippling the river of me.
David Huebert’s fiction debut, Peninsula Sinking, won a Dartmouth Book Award and was runner-up for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. In 2020, David published his second book of poetry, Humanimus. A new story collection, Chemical Valley, will appear in fall 2021. David teaches at The University of King’s College in K’jipuktuk/Halifax, where he lives with his partner and their two children.
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