"The Wrecking Ground, pt. 17" by Lee Huttner
"The Wrecking Ground" is an essay told in parts by Lee Huttner. We will be publishing a new part each week on our blog. Stay tuned!
Henry takes the hatchet from off the shelf and walks out his front door and into the woods. It is one of those strange kinds of winter days, where the sky is a blue so pale it is almost white, and the sun a low eye of incendiary copper, winking behind the severe, barren trees. It has not snowed for nearly a week, but it has not warmed, either, and thick white drifts still mantle the ground. Compressed by its own weight, the snow has developed a thick hard crust. Henry’s boots punch four or five inches into the snow, but he knows there is at least a full foot of cover.
One might easily mistake the blanketed pond for an open field. Henry walks onto it feeling no difference between solid ground and the ice-bound water beneath his feet, stepping out from the canopy of trees into a white shock of empty space. Not empty, no: full of vibration, of causations and murmurs and interference. He walks about a hundred feet out, where he knows the ice will be thinner, though “thin” still means twelve inches thick. With the flat of his hatchet, he begins to shovel away the snow to leave a hole some three feet in diameter, all the way down to the ice. Then, Henry begins hacking. Shards scatter in all directions with a crystalline ring of shattered glass, cold needles jettison into his face. He continues striking the ice rhythmically, deepening and widening the hole. Despite the cold, he feels a trickle of sweat run down his spine. The ice is hard, denser, even, than firewood.
As he chops, he thinks of summer. Of the clear water of Hubbard Pond. Of the boys who bathe there on hot Saturday afternoons, draping their clothes on the branches of the willow tree and leaping in with a cry. The sunlight streaming across their skin, white marble stained a luminous citrine. How they smell of lilies as they walk to church the next morning.
At last, the hatchet breaks through to the water. Henry has carved a hole as deep as his forearm. He widens it a bit more, then sets the hatchet aside. Winter water is the clearest water. Ice and snow prevent detritus from clouding it, prevent the wind from stirring it up so that sediment settles to the bottom.
He realizes that he has forgotten his fishing-rod in his cabin. He meant to try his luck at snatching a lazy trout patiently waiting out the winter in the lightless, gelid water. Winter fish are leaner, tougher than summer fish, but they make an excellent soup.
On his knees, sunken into the deep snow, looking into the hole, Henry thinks bemusedly that it almost seems as though he has dug himself a grave.
Something gray begins to resolve in the circle of dark water. Henry peers closer.
It is the gaunt, decayed face of a boy. Cheeks caked with scum. Lips curled away from the teeth in a sneer. Sockets empty, the eyes having long since been eaten away.
He thinks of the boys at the swimming hole in the summer. How they cling to one an other, unabashed. Of the knots of roots and reeds unseen below. Of the complete enveloping of the body in water, its rude entrance into mouth and lungs.
Henry flinches back in horror. He looks in all directions about the barren white pond, the trees enclosing it, the shadows they cast against the snow. The only sound his heavy breath.
With trepidation, he peers down into the hole again. Nothing.
Yet the water, before so still, so placid, dreaming—now it wavers, ripples, as though it has, quite recently, been disturbed.