– Fierce Fiction by Nicholas Schmid –
“It really is a bit late for this,” Leonard muttered, like the previous times, unsure if he wanted his wife to hear him.
“Late?” replied Jo from where she sat in the bow of the canoe, “It’s barely sunrise.”
Leonard squinted at the sky. “What sunrise? All I see are clouds.”
Jo brought her paddle down in a stroke harder than necessary to crack the thin layer of ice. “It rose,” was all she said as she pulled her paddle through the water.
Watching the ice splinter, Leonard breathed deeply to stop his patience from shattering as well. His breath pluming in the early morning like frigid smoke, he looked around the lake as a distraction. The late November grey hung in curtains all around them. On the clouds, on the branches of the barren trees, even on the ice yet to be covered in snow. And of course, greyest of all, on Leonard’s mood.
They both knew it was too late for this. The only difference was that he had the courage to admit it. It was too late in many ways, some that could be helped, others that Leonard preferred to avoid thinking about. Watching the miniature icebergs float by their canoe’s passage, Leonard shook his head, smothered in his doubled-up hats. Or at least he did his best, the heavy scarf Jo had knitted him last month restricted most movement. It was a rich navy blue that Jo knew was his favourite colour, but he had not expected to have to wear it so soon.
“I didn’t mean late in the morning,” he said.
“I know what you meant,” she said, in between strokes. They were paddling faster now,
and the canoe was slicing through the ice more easily. When they had woken earlier in the morning—well, still in the night really as Leonard had pointed out—the first ice of the year had greeted them, stretching out from their campsite as far as they could see in the near-dawn-light.
Now that morning was making its best attempt in the grey, Leonard could see that the ice coated the entire lake. Glancing back, the water was an inky ribbon to mark the swath their canoe’s passage had cut through the ice.
“So, where are they?” asked Leonard, in part to Jo, in part to the lake.
Leonard watched an ice chunk larger than usual float past, one of the simpler explanations for why they were too late. He poked at the ice with his paddle, and the motion caused the canoe to teeter. Leonard shot a hand towards the gunwale to steady himself. Jo’s back just stiffened.
“You know who,” answered Leonard once the rocking had stopped, “The whole reason we are out here.”
“The snow ducks will be in the middle of the lake,” said Jo, “If, as you mentioned, that is why we are out here.”
Leonard ignored the second part. “Why in the middle of the lake?” He asked the same question every year.
Jo shrugged. “I’m not sure. They might not be. The ice might change things. We might have better luck once the sun melts the ice this afternoon.”
Leonard glanced up at the sky. He did not ask Jo where the sun was, nor did he question why they had gotten up so early if they needed to wait for the ice to melt.
Instead, he offered, “Should we pause for some hot coco?” His bushy grey eyebrows waggled about at the prospect.
He could hear the smile in Jo’s voice. “You have the thermos close to you?”
Leonard squirmed his toes in his boots where the thermos was resting on top, keeping them warm. “I heated it over the fire before we left,” he said with a nod. Then he realized Jo would not have seen the motion. “Yes, it’s right at my feet,” he added.
Jo took her paddle out of the water and slid it under her seat. With an agility that Leonard still admired after all these years, she swiveled in her seat and brought her legs around until she faced him. “The snow ducks can wait, I suppose,” she said with a soft smile.
Leonard reached for the thermos, causing the canoe to wobble far more than Jo had with her minor gymnastics a moment ago. He unscrewed the lid, making sure his face was directly above the opening so that the warm steam washed over his face. He poured them two cups, spilling a bit on one so he kept that one for himself, and handed Jo the other.
Watching Jo as she sipped, Leonard felt his frown melt into a smile. He looked at the wrinkles around her green eyes crinkle deeper as she smiled back. Her own scarf was a red that matched her hat and their canoe, and a few errant locks of grey hair escaped from where she had covered them when they set out. As she smiled, the lines on her face sparkled with a grace that younger women could never emulate, even with the fanciest jewelry. As his grin widened, Leonard felt the deep pockets fold under his eyes even further, conscious that after all the sleepless nights recently, the creases on his face would look anything but elegant.
They sat there for a moment, just sitting and listening to the quiet. Drinking the coco and each other’s company. Realizing his cup was close to empty, Leonard sighed and reached into his coat pocket. When he withdrew his hand, there was a small white pill nestled in the palm of
his glove. He tossed the pill in his mouth and took the last draught of his coco.
“How are you?” asked Jo, “Warm enough?”
Rubbing at his doubled-up hats, Leonard shrugged. “So far, so good.” He wanted to change the subject. Picking up his paddle, he asked, “Shall we?”
The sun continued to hide as the morning unfolded. Somehow, Leonard felt that the ice was getting thicker. They had to paddle without pause to maintain a speed that would cleave
through the ice. Every time he paused to catch his breath, he could see Jo’s back stiffen. It might have been that she did not want to suffer any more delays. It might have been that any break would let the cold seep in. It might have just been Leonard. In case it was him, Leonard never asked for a rest. He did not want to worry her.
He just wanted to find the snow ducks.
“They must be close by now,” Leonard said, careful to time his statement between breaths.
“The snow ducks, of course.”
Jo laughed and it echoed out from the canoe across the lake, bouncing around the hills on the far shore. “I don’t think ‘of course’ can ever be used in a sentence about snow ducks.”
“You should never take the snow ducks for granted.”
“Who said I was taking them for granted?” Leonard was oversteering to grab a stealthy break from paddling. He wondered if his wife noticed. Probably.
Jo shook her head. It seemed Leonard was safe resting for the moment. “You know why we always come looking for the snow ducks?” She asked the same question every year.
“You mean why you always drag me out here, November after November?”
Jo ignored him. She could tell when Leonard was complaining and when he just felt like complaining. She probably knew the difference better than Leonard, actually. “My grandmother used to bring me out to try and spot the snow ducks. She said their migration was the most special time of the year. We would all gather hoping to catch a glimpse.” His wife’s voice was far off, and she had stopped paddling, watching the ice float past like memories. Leonard took his paddle out of the water as well and placed it across the canoe. He leaned forward, sucking air as silently as he could.
“And did you ever see them?” Leonard asked after a moment, even though he already knew the answer.
Jo shook her head. “No, they are very rare. Even the luckiest sometimes never see a snow duck.”
Well, Leonard could certainly testify to that. He and his wife had yet to see a feather.
Each November for what now felt like an impossibly long time, he and Jo had come up to this lake, hoping to see the snow ducks pass by on their migration. Sometimes they came up with others; their parents when they were still around and able, their friends before they had had kids, their kids when they were still young, their friends after their kids had grown up. But more often, it was just Jo and Leonard.
“Maybe luck will be with us today, at last,” Leonard said.
“We are due for a bit of that, aren’t we?”
Leonard did not respond. Sometimes, replies just get in the way. Especially if you’ve known a person for most of your life. Especially if that person knows what you would say anyway. Especially if that person knows that you know they already know your response.
A breath of wind swept across the lake, whistling across the icy surface on its way to play with the hairlocks falling out of Jo’s hat. Leonard shuffled his toes about so that more of them were covered by the warm thermos. It was a good thing Jo was still facing forward and did not see him shiver. They sat there for a while longer, each accompanied by their own thoughts even though those thoughts were probably the same. After a moment, once Leonard felt Jo was more waiting for him than waiting with him, he readied himself. “Shall we?”
“So, if you never saw the snow ducks, why did you and your grandmother keep coming back?”
“Why do we keep coming back?” Jo countered.
Leonard realized he did not have an answer. He would have thought Jo would know. Was this not her passion, after all? “Because you want to?”
“I want to? I?”
“We! We!” Leonard hastily corrected himself. Without fail, Leonard always managed to say something unhelpful at least once each trip.
Jo did not respond, and Leonard knew she was savouring his discomfort. Which meant she was not really mad of course. So Leonard smiled to himself and waited, counting the little whirlpools from Jo’s strokes as she counted their many reasons for being out here in the canoe.
Leonard might have counted too, but he felt that by now, all the reasons just melted into one.
“Each year that you don’t see them,” resumed Jo, “Means you have to come back again the next year.”
“You junky,” snorted Leonard.
“It isn’t the failure to see them that brings you back,” said Jo. “It’s not a failure to miss the snow ducks at all. It’s a failure to miss the chance to see them. That’s why we keep coming back.”
“And what happens if we finally see them? Do we not come back anymore?” Leonard trailed off at the second question, unsure if he really wanted an answer.
Jo laughed. It was a sharp and brittle laugh, and Leonard wondered if it would crack the way the ice did under their canoe. This was Jo’s laugh when she did not know the answer. Or knew the answer, but did not like it.
Leonard paused for a moment and pressed a hand to his coat pocket, feeling those little white pills. Those little white answers that Jo knew and did not like. But maybe those pills were also the answers as to why they had come out this year, and all the years previous.
“They say the only thing more beautiful than snow ducks is their migration.”
“Who says that?” asked Leonard.
“They do,” said Jo, momentarily taking her hand off the paddle to wave it around for emphasis.
“Oh,” said Leonard. He was not quite sure what Jo meant, but he had an idea. Sometimes ideas were enough. Better than being told even. If you are told something, then you cannot get rid of it, but if you have an idea, well, that is more in your control. Just look at Leonard’s situation—he had been told stuff, stuff he could not change no matter how much he might want.
But he had ideas about what he could do about that stuff, ideas harnessed by hope, not knowledge. Just look at where they were now. Cutting through November’s first ice in a canoe.
“What is it that is so beautiful about their migration?” asked Leonard.
“Don’t limit it to just one thing,” said Jo. Her laugh was coy and chiding, the laugh she might have used when she saw Leonard spoiling their grandkids, but was enjoying it too much to try and stop it.
“I’m not, I’m not. I’m just asking about one beautiful part at a time.”
“Who says you can divide them so easily?”
Leonard could hear the smile in the silence drifting back from the bow. “Alright, seriously, tell me about the migration,” he said.
Jo straightened a kink in her back, and then took another stroke. “Unlike other birds,” said Jo at last, “The snow ducks don’t know where they are going.”
“They don’t?” said Leonard. Jo had never told him that before. And he thought that in all their years questing after the snow ducks, he would have known everything by now. “Never?”
“Well, I suppose we don’t really know,” shrugged Jo, “Just what my grandmother said.
She said it just seemed to be the case, from watching them all those years.”
“Watching them all those years? I thought she never saw them either?”
“My grandmother’s point exactly.”
The ice was melting. Leonard was not sure when the turn had actually happened, but he seemed to sense that it was now getting warmer rather than colder. Or maybe he was just getting hot. He removed one of his hats to decide.
“Too warm?” asked Jo.
“I’m fine,” groused Leonard.
“I said I am fine,” Leonard bit the words off a lot more sharply than he had intended. They were both quiet for a moment, just listening to the bubbles murmur past as they paddled. Damn it, Leonard had done it again. He took a frustrated stroke and splashed icy water over his pantleg. As the cold leeched down his calf, Leonard coughed a little. On the cold, and on his frustration. He almost stopped himself from saying it. Almost.
“I wish you would stop examining me.”
Just from Jo’s next stroke, Leonard could tell he should have kept quiet. “And why is that?” Jo said, her voice so neutral it was anything but.
“I spend enough time with doctors. Is it too much to ask to spend a little time with you?
Jo was silent for a moment, and Leonard knew she was caught between being mad at him, and mad on his behalf. “Excuse my concern,” was all she said.
Leonard might have said more, but something in Jo’s voice kept him from speaking.
There was something in her voice that silenced him more definitely than if she had screamed. It was not her words. It was not her tone either. Something in the way Jo spoke sounded small.
Small, out here in the middle of the lake. Small, when faced with what awaited them back home.
His annoyance dissipating faster than it had surged up, Leonard cursed himself for opening this conversation. “Sorry. I’m just tired of it all,” he said.
“So am I,” sighed Jo. “So am I. Tiredness is our canoe’s third passenger. It keeps us paddling.” Jo tried to laugh.
Those words fell heavy on Leonard. Almost as heavy as when he had first gotten the news. Maybe he had been wrong. Maybe he was not the courageous one because he admitted their situation. Maybe Jo was the brave one for refusing it.
“Let’s just find the snow ducks,” said Leonard. He dipped his paddle into the lake, and as he broke the surface, he felt the tension break as well.
This time Jo did laugh. The laughter seemed to coat everything it touched; the melting ice, the black water, most of all Leonard himself. Of her many laughs, this was Leonard’s favourite. “I really would like to see them,” she said, and this year, more than any year before,
Leonard wanted to just as much. Afterall, he might not get another chance.
The afternoon found them, but they did not find the snow ducks. Even the sun began to peek through. The clouds would treat at one moment and let through a beam of sunlight, and then the next decide they would rather snow. The flurries never lasted much longer than a quarter hour, and with the ice now mostly gone, the flakes fell to dissolve directly into the dark water.
The time was fast approaching when they would have to turn around if they hoped to get back to their campsite before nightfall. But still they kept paddling, determined not to let the inevitable be the inevitable.
Jo looked like she was about to say something. For one of the first times that day, she did not immediately follow her stroke with another.
“Keep going,” hissed Leonard before she could speak.
It was a good thing the ice had melted and cleared their path. They were going so fast it was hardly in the straight line they had taken most of the day. After a while, Leonard knew the push had to come to an end. Breath coming in gasps, he pulled his paddle from the water. Jo did the same, and she twisted around to look at him. She did not say anything, just watched him with those green eyes as their canoe glided forward a final stretch.
At last, they came to a stop. All around them, the snow danced its way down to the lake.
The bigger flakes caught the rays of sunlight, glowing as they settled on the water like stars in the night sky. Leonard took off his second hat, letting the snow cool him as flakes fell on the skin on the top of his head, freshly shaven from his latest hospital visit.
“Next year,” Jo whispered, letting the hope hang in the air with the snow.
The snow ducks were not there. But Jo was. And Leonard realized that that was enough.
That was always enough.
They sat there in the falling snow and sunshine, sitting together, just a pair of snow ducks in the middle of the lake.
About the Author – Nicholas Schmid
After completing his BA in Arts & Science at McMaster University, Nicholas Schmid moved back to Toronto and decided to focus on his writing. He is now beginning an MFA in Screenwriting at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles, California, but will continue to write short stories on the side. His novel will be finished soon. Hopefully.
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