When I was young I had a cabin on a northern lake, but I had no sense of danger. Early one December I took my friend Alan there. Alan grew up on St. Urbain and didn’t get nature, but he needed a break. There was ice on the lake, so we walked in through the woods. It was mid-afternoon when we reached the place, and darkness was already falling. The sky over the lake was low and grey. A cold wind was blowing. I had an oil heater and a wood stove, but the cabin was badly chinked, the oil heater was ineffectual, and my wood was green. The cold came up through our mattresses.
The next morning after breakfast, I led Alan out onto the ice. I don’t know what I was thinking. I realized only later how frightened he was. The ice was like a mirror and not much thicker, and as we walked, great cracks travelled out from us. You could feel the surface sloping toward us, and as we moved we caused soundings like whalesong that ricocheted from shore to shore, travelling sonar emissions under our feet. Neither of us had ever heard anything like it. For the rest of the time we were there, which was only a couple of hours, because it would soon be dark again, Alan didn’t talk, he just imitated the sounds of the ice. He’d been working on a final paper about birth and birthing for an obstetrics residency he was doing, and in his mind the sounds moving under the ice were birth sounds. As we drove back to the city, mostly he just made those sounds.
The next and last time I went up to my place in December was four or five years later. It was at the end of the month and I was alone. I’d invited Alan, but he said no. He said he still hadn’t got over our walk on the ice. When I arrived and realized I didn’t have enough firewood, I was glad he wasn’t with me. On the second evening as I was going to bed, the outside thermometer said –28. This time I had an insulating pad under the mattress, and I wore layers and piled on the comforters. But the air in the cabin was so cold that I kept sitting up to listen for the bup bup bup of the heater flame. I was warm enough, but I had to sleep with my head under the covers, and when I woke in the morning I was looking down a tunnel of frost through the bedclothes to the air. The stove was cold and full of oil. I’d been imagining the bup bup bups. Traces of water in the oil must have frozen and blocked the line. An egg I cracked flash-froze when it hit the bowl. The outside thermometer said –46. The snow was deep. I’d been brought in by snowmobile, across the frozen lake. I was out of cellphone range. I wouldn’t be picked up for two more days. I thought, I could die here.
I gathered up my stuff and walked along the shore to a snowmobile track that disappeared into the woods. It was so cold the track was like a sidewalk. I walked out on that to the road, where my car was dead. The walk to the village was another ten kilometres. At the hospital, at first they told me I’d be OK, but in the end I lost a couple of toes.
Four years after that, I was at Alan’s house on a Saturday afternoon. Before I left, his wife Miriam had to sneak me downstairs to the rec room phone, because I needed to make a call. They were Orthodox now. No gadgets on the Sabbath. Upstairs Alan had been praying under his breath as he told me they were moving to Israel, to the Occupied Territories. Ten or twelve years later I was at the apartment of a friend when Alan called. I was put on, and he asked me why I hadn’t kept in touch, and I said I supposed it was because I was ambivalent about his move to Israel, and he said,
I’ve noticed when people say they’re ambivalent, what they mean is they object.
I said, Yeah. I object. You’re putting your children at risk.
It’s not like that, he said. News stories about faraway places always make them seem more dangerous than they are.
Your kids’ll be conscripted, I said.
Everybody is, he said. It’s how things are here. Like the way it never snows.
That was the last time I talked to Alan. As I put down the receiver, I thought, Either I’m an expert on danger now or I just laid a curse on my friend for leaving me. Six years later, Alan’s oldest son Marty, a corporal in the Israeli army, while clearing a building in Hebron, was killed by a sniper bullet that ricocheted, and for me it was the terrible satisfaction of being right. The satisfaction that comes of having learned what can happen when you’re wrong. The one as merciless as any cold, any bullet.