I WAS WALKING ON THE ICE. Let me say up front that I am not a foolish woman, that the ice was thick and I was dressed warmly. Let me add that, though I do drink too much on occasion, I wasn’t drinking that morning. I’d just had one teeny-tiny hit of good pot. That was all. Shortly after I smoked, though, I’d had a revelation that I thought might be from God. It told me that one way to shake myself out of my depression and lethargy was to get to know the Connecticut River, on which I lived.
It is a wide, deep river. I knew it well in summer, swam from bank to bank, kayaked, collected driftwood, watched beavers in the morning. But in the winter I had ignored it: a flat white tableau on which I occasionally, very occasionally, saw coyotes trotting north after a hunt. I theorized that if I went out on the ice and looked around, got some exercise, imbibed the beauty of nature, then God might deign to throw a few crumbs in my direction. Maybe he’d tell the Atlantic to take one of my stories. Was that too much to ask? Or maybe Walrus Blubber Review in Barrow, Alaska, would decide to publish my book — that is, if God could tear himself away from his current preoccupation, which was making sure Nicole Kidman won another Oscar.
Clearly I had a problem with God. As far as I could tell, I was doing my damnedest to be a good person and a good writer, but no accolades had come my way. No money, no awards, no statues: nada. Perhaps if I had been more beautiful, it would have helped my career. This thought irked me. Why would God make a person beautiful and then, on top of that, give her everything she wanted? There seemed to be a lot of favoritism involved. Still, I remembered my New England mother saying, “Virtue is its own reward.” I knew it wasn’t polite to be bitter. I tried to work harder, to pray. And I went for a walk on the ice.
Because of a large dam downstream, the river had a tide, and the ice was fissured at the edge, where the water rose and fell. This made getting out on the ice a problem. I rummaged in my shed till I found a board to use as a bridge. I laid the board across the chasm and inched my way along it until I reached the snow-dusted ice. The wind blowing from the north was bitter. I pulled my scarf over my face and set out across the frozen expanse.
Almost immediately I saw tracks. Many tracks. Some, I could tell, were coyote. They mostly went north-south, along the length of the river, but sometimes they wandered east or west, to end at a bit of leaf or debris embedded in the ice. A few went all the way to shore — probably to see if one of my cats was outside. (I realized, to my dismay, that my cats were lower on the food chain than I had thought.) Some tracks looked like coyote tracks, only smaller: fox. I saw bird tracks as well, delicate, like calligraphy. And then there were other, less-familiar spoor. (“Spoor,” I whispered, pleased to have thought of the old word for animal tracks.) I decided they must be beaver, because the prints were round and four-toed and flanked a drag mark, as if from a tail.
There was one more type of track I didn’t recognize. Each time I picked a set to follow, it led to a hole in the bank, or in the ice. By one such hole I found a half-eaten bass. I decided that these other tracks were otter. I stood there full of wonder at my accomplishment: Learning to track animals was not a skill relegated to Indian scouts and Aborigines. Tracking could be learned by anyone who put in the time.
Trackers were the first readers. They read stories written in the snow or mud, the earth’s earliest narratives. For example: The fox came from the east side of the river and trotted for three miles. It stopped, climbed the bank, and dug in Katie Smith’s compost pile. It trotted another mile and ate part of a fish left by an otter. It met another fox, and they circled each other a few times before going their separate ways. Then, for some inexplicable reason, it sat and looked around. Perhaps it barked. Finally it went west, to the Vermont side of the river, and trotted up the bank toward Bogie’s Farm. The end.
Revelation on revelation. And why did early man put in the time to learn tracking? Because he had to find something to eat. He had to track or die. And in this lesson could be found a key to modern writing. One could not be a good writer unless the motivation was urgent and one put in the time. Oh, yes, there were stories out there, waiting to be found, but they weren’t found in one’s nice office in a converted warehouse in SoHo. You found them when you went out to Starbucks to buy ridiculously expensive coffee and saw a homeless man shitting on a piece of newspaper. You watched from upwind till he had folded up the newspaper and thrown it away. Then you went over and said, “Hi, what’s your name?”
“Who wants to know?” the man replied.
“Me,” you said.
He said, “Give me your coffee.”
You gave him your coffee.
He took a few sips and pointed to a nearby hydrant. “You see that?” he asked.
“That’s not a hydrant; that’s a marker to guide UFOs. Have you ever noticed how ‘hydrants’ are always along streets? Well, streets are flat. Like landing strips. Need I say more?”
“I never thought of that,” you said.
Then the guy, who was wearing all his clothes at once, pulled what looked like a dog tag from his shirts. On it was stamped a map of Earth’s place in the solar system. It was the same map astronauts had left in a time capsule on the moon.
“I wear this in case I’m abducted,” he said and winked.
WELL, AS YOU CAN IMAGINE, my mind was really going now. I wanted to get home to write down the story about the homeless man, but I also wanted to keep tracking. I decided that I would become a tracker. I would walk on the ice from the time it formed to the time it went out. This would teach me the Zen of risk-taking. Anyway, walking on ice wasn’t a new skill. Eskimos did it, and people who’d lived in colonial times. They weren’t so concerned about safety this and safety that. As a child I’d had the advantage of running wild, and I knew from my early explorations on ice that it usually didn’t just give way. It warned you. It creaked. It slanted. It gave you time to back off. And I knew that a long stick could keep you from plunging into the water fully and give you time to work out a plan. I knew that if the ice creaked or gave signs of collapsing, you should get down on your belly, to spread your weight.
I walked closer to the hole where I’d found the dead fish. Evidently the otters and beavers kept it open, because the ice around it was newly formed. In a three-foot-diameter circle, the ice shone and had no skim of snow. How clever of them. How was it that the natural world was so intricate and creative? There must be a God, I thought.
A low, sharp noise interrupted my reverie. I looked down and saw a crack appear between my feet. Despite my supposed savvy about ice, I did nothing. I stood there, not daring to move. I imagined plunging into the frigid water and struggling at the edge of the hole, unable to pull myself out. I imagined resting my cheek on the ice and looking at the perfect otter track by my face. I could almost feel the lethargy that would engulf me, the desire to take a brief nap. I imagined my body slipping into the water and landing lightly on the muddy bottom: the sudden silence and the indifference of the crows above as they watched me sink. I imagined my skull, years later, providing a haven for small fish.
At that moment I had a revelation that both frightened and excited me: Those who win awards, or who are saved at the last minute, attribute their fortune to God. But what of those who lose, who aren’t rescued, who never get sober, who drown? Perhaps they finally realize there is no God. But they’re dead, so they can’t tell anyone.
I slowly put my right foot back and shifted my weight onto it. Then I slid my left foot back and shifted my weight to that side. In this way I backed away from the hole in the ice.
As I walked home, I felt happy. Life surged so powerfully in my body that my skin could barely contain it. But I knew better than to attribute my escape to God. Because doing so would mean there is a God who determines who lives and who dies, a God who lets some prosper and leaves the others crumbs. And I didn’t want that kind of God.