First Skate

Mark was a slow-moving, lumbering man. People often compared him to a bear. He didn’t have a bear’s ferocity, nor speed when he ran. At least, I assume not, because I only saw him moving at one speed: slowly. He had a great smile, an insufferable accent, and loved to hear himself speak. Come winter, he always walked around with a pair of skates over his shoulder. Manolito was a newcomer to the country and my classmate. I had gotten new skates last year. He was small so I had him try on my old ones. With an extra pair of woolen socks, they fit perfectly. I had decided to teach him how to skate and Mark joined us when he saw them hanging by their long laces on our shoulders.

“Headed for the pond?” “Yes, have you been yet this year?” “No, I thought I might have a look.” We walked together, after introductions, Mark trailing with his shuffling gait, us boys scampering on ahead, a little excitement pulling us all along. The trail was packed by other eager feet. We heard the metallic sound of blades hitting the ice. There was not much sound apart from the scraping, other than the occasional scream and thump from falls, followed by murmurs when kids were pulling other kids up. We turned a bend and saw the pond. It was well attended with Billy and Joe and Peter and others I didn’t recognize at first glance. We dropped down onto the snow and took our boots off. Mark arrived and looked around with a smile. He was tall. If he sat, he might not be able to stand back up. He leaned against a tree and proceeded to change into his skates.

Manolito and I were done fast. I helped Manolito lace the skates tight and saw his surprise when I pulled him up. He was unnaturally tall on the blades and ready to topple back in the snow. I guided him to the edge, walking slowly. He had put both his hands on my shoulders to steady himself. I descended upon the pond and turned around to face him. “Slowly,” I advised. He put one wobbly foot on the hard surface, then another. From the corner of my eye, I could see Mark detaching himself from the lamppost and see his labored breath condensed in front of his mouth. It was probably everybody’s first time of the season. The ice was pockmarked. Here and there tall grasses broke through the surface and tripped the unsuspecting skaters. “This way, Manolito.” Bravely, he started dragging his feet, trying to walk with those contraptions.

“Glide,” I said unhelpfully, as I strode away. The new skates were amazing, sturdier and the right size. My feet were happy, I could wiggle my toes. I soon forgot about Manolito as I saw Tom and his sister Kate , Anthony and Peter, and joined them to compare skates and stories. With a pang, I realized I’d forgotten about Manolito. Mark was talking to him, with large arm movements. He put his arm out and Manolito took hold of it. Mark started dragging Manolito around. He was so graceful, even with this weight attached to his arm. For his part, Manolito’s job was to stay upright and watch the scenery. Mark was skating effortlessly, away from the rough edges to give poor Manolito a chance to keep his balance. The speed helped and Mark was talking non-stop.

Cautiously, Manolito tried to imitate him. He was scrawny but emboldened by Mark’s steady arm. He kept losing his balance, the skates giving out under his feet and pulling him forward as his head drew an arc back towards the ice, but his grip was good and his tottering gave way to a more stoic stance. They were a sight to see, Mark gliding away, followed by what looked like his tree. As Manolito started to relax, he increased his speed, and soon we were watching them circling us, like a circus act, thinking that at any moment poor Manolito would come hurtling towards one of us like a bowling ball and topple us down like pins. We could hear Mark talking and soon, still holding Manolito, he turned and started skating backwards effortlessly, all the while holding Manolito’s gaze on his own. Manolito started gliding too, imitating Mark’s long strides. I don’t know who started clapping, but pretty soon a rhythmic clapping accompanied them, muffled mitten sounds, then stomping blades and chanting. We had retreated to the edges, leaving the nicer, smoother part of the pond to the pair.

Mark said something and sent Manolito sailing in the air. The chanting stopped as we saw his body suspended mid-air, Manolito’s exhilarated face turned to the sky before pummeling back to the ice. But Mark caught him effortlessly and deposited him on the pond, before pushing him off in a straight line. He hadn’t yet learned to stop and so Tom came to the rescue and grabbed his elbow before he barrelled into someone. He expertly turned him around and started skating with him in the other direction. Kate took him off his hands. She was the same size as Manolito and their strides were equal. One by one, kids accompanied him back and forth, to the chanting and clapping of the others. He was grinning so much we thought his face would forever stay that way, frozen in perpetual glee. The light was falling and the cold was getting fierce. Reluctantly, we brought Manolito back to the edge and sat him down in the snow. His eyes were lighting up the small area where he sat. Kate helped him out of his skates and into his boots. When he stood, he looked as unsteady as when he first put on his skates and we ribbed him gently.

All the kids were now shod again and about to leave when we looked back once more at the deserted pond. Mark’s silhouette could still be seen gliding in furious circles, doing arabesques and jumps, no longer a lumbering bear, oblivious to the dwindling light, happiness lighting the way.

Into the Woods

They had taken to the trails in their snowmobiles. They were coming from all over the area, whipping through fields and woods. They were experienced enough and sensible enough to have packed emergency equipment and know how to use it. You needed to keep warm if stranded – those were not flesh and bone dog teams – and alcohol was not the way to go. One by one they converged to the cabin they would call home for the weekend. Mike was already there. He had come early to get the wood stove going, and the cabin was nice and cozy. He had brought in supplies, game as usual, that they had hunted in the fall.

The mounts were gleaming in the sun, the men exhilarated. Bob lived the furthest. He had travelled a full four hours to destination. Ray and Jeff had met up early on, in a path near their homes. The brothers always rode together. Ray had a utility snowmobile, the kind they used to haul work sleds laden with equipment. It went at a leisurely pace. Jeff’s was a two-seater, handy for those rides where they wanted to go faster. They usually shared it for the midnight ride on the ice. Steve came in with a brand-new snowmobile, destined to win any race. He had brought a new recruit, his coworker Rohan. Rohan’s parents came from India but he was born in the cold country. He too had a performance steed, royal blue, which he handled easily. The men gathered around to greet them, discuss horsepower and exchange stories.

Ray had brought the cases of beer, according to preference. Rohan fit in nicely. Though he did not know the old stories, he laughed in the right places and held his liquor. He was also an outstanding mechanic boasted Steve. He saved his bacon when his new snowmobile stopped unexpectedly. He actually carried his tools with him. “Better than a blanket,” he laughed. They drank to that. The ride had built up their appetite, though they would have eaten frightfully even without. Ray and Jeff were burly men and could be counted on to not let anything go to waste. Mike asked Rohan, uneasily, “I hope you’re not vegetarian. We’ve only got meat and potatoes.” Rohan made a face, and put on a heavy accent. “As long as it not sacred cow.” Mike looked around, unsure. “It’s caribou.” Rohan laughed and said in his normal voice, “I was just pulling your leg. I’m not religious. I’ll eat anything.” They shared a laugh and clinked bottles.

“I’ll put the potatoes to bake on the embers while you guys settle in. They should be done in about half an hour.” The sun was setting. They each took a small bedroom, except for the brothers who shared the larger one. They had brought down sleeping bags but would still wear their woolen socks to bed. They took off their heavy snowsuits and hung them to dry near the stoves. Soon, the place was all steamed up. Beer was flowing and chips were out. They evoked the hunt where they killed the moose they were about to eat, reminiscing about the beauty of the beast. Their families would feed off it for a while. Their frozen shares were waiting for them. Mike had the beast butchered and quartered in the fall. The men would be bringing the meat back to their families. “Do you hunt, Rohan?” “No, I don’t own a gun.” And so the discussion took a turn on guns, and which were the best and for what. “Ladies? Who will grill the steaks?” asked Mike. They all pointed their bottles at Bob, who got up with a grunt.

“He’s the youngest,” explained Steve helpfully to Rohan with a smile. “And the best cook,” boasted Bob to half-hearted applause and jeers. “Hey, be good or I’ll burn yours!” He took out the potatoes and stoked the fire. Soon, flames were dancing high and the steaks were sizzling. They all sat together at the table, elbowing each other as they ate the gamey meat. They drank to the moose who gave up its life to feed them and then settled to the serious business of eating. There wasn’t much talking for a while, the men focused on polishing their plates. Rohan looked a little distressed at the amount of food laid out for him. To his relief, Ray noticed it. Winking at him, he cut out a large chunk that he brought to his own plate. He cut it in two to share with his brother and that was that.

The men were subdued after the meal. Ray dozed off while the others washed the dishes and played cards. Steve went out to take a whiz. “You wouldn’t believe the moon, guys. Who’s up for a midnight ride?” They all went in the cold to empty their bladders. Custom dictated you kept your distance from each other and chatted about other things. They came back in to get dressed, six yellow stains marking their spots, keeping wild animals at bay.

Mike took the lead. He knew these parts well. The headlights picked out the trail in front of them as they roared through the woods, scaring the wildlife. They wore baklavas or scarves tucked into their hoods, to avoid frostbite on their faces. With their heavy coats and their masked faces, you couldn’t tell them apart. The brothers rode together. They had teased Rohan about bear attacks earlier, succeeding in scaring him. The fact is, you were never too cautious. Who knew what lurked in those woods?

The lake was frozen solid on its banks. The moon shone hard on the ice. They couldn’t tell if it was safe to ride across yet. In any case, there was no need. They could ride along the banks, fanning out a bit. As soon as they saw the river, Rohan and Steve jostled for position. Their steeds were chafing at the bit, engines rumbling. They escaped the slow peloton and raced ahead, giving their mounts full rein. Off they went under the moonlight and further onto the ice. Rohan was slightly ahead, and then a full length. Suddenly, he veered off-track, as something black suddenly erupted through the ice in front of him. Steve swerved to avoid Rohan and lost control, one ski hitting something and flying off in the air. He landed on one ski and valiantly tried to recover. But it was too late, and the snowmobile fell on its side, trapping Steve’s leg underneath.

Rohan was first on the scene, having circled back quickly. No one had been wearing helmets and he feared a concussion. He turned his engine off, then Steve’s. The others hurried to the site, keeping a safe distance to make sure the ice held. They killed their engines as well. In the deafening silence, chirping was heard, then a squeal as everybody turned to see. An otter was looking at them with curiosity. Its head protruded from the breathing hole. Rohan pointed at it, “that thing came out of nowhere.” The mustache was frosted, the eyes intelligent. “Guys, a hand please?” Steve was all right. They heaved the snowmobile off his leg and righted it. His leg was throbbing, but he could move it. “Next time, to your left, uh?” Rohan nodded, looking disconsolate.

Ray and Mike both had first aid training, from their coaching days. They checked for signs of concussion, asking about dizziness and ringing in the ears. They were all hockey fans and knew enough to be worried. They agreed to chill a bit and for Steve to ride in the back of Ray, while Jeff brought Steve’s snowmobile back to the cabin. There was no arguing, a bit of joking as Steve said Jeff only had to ask if he wanted his turn to drive the sporty vehicle. The drive back was subdued. Rohan volunteered to wake Steve up every hour to ensure he didn’t lapse into a coma.

The next morning, they checked Steve’s snowmobile and couldn’t even find a scratch. Steve’s leg seemed fine as well. They were glad Rohan would be riding with him. The men ate a hearty breakfast of beasn, ham and toast. They grabbed their frozen caribou meat and headed back home. Another one for the books.

***

Back on the lake, the otter is scratching the snow. On closer inspection, he seems to be tallying something. He just added one more strike in the “Animal” column. The “Human” one lies empty.