“We All Saw Clouds” by Octavia Bell

06 November 2020 on Fiction   Tags:

My brother has been dead seventy-three hours when I drive to the lake, on the day a village of ice-fishing houses is set up on the ice. It’s just after four and less than an hour of daylight remains. I don’t mind. I like what dusk does to objects, rubbing their edges soft, leaking their shadows across the snow. I park my brother’s car in the lot and turn off the ignition, survey the lake through the windshield. It appears as it did the day my siblings and I detached from one another, as if winter has stuck around for fifteen years. 

I grab a pair of skates from the backseat, watch my breath form clouds in the air as I cross the asphalt. On either side of the boat ramp, two rock barriers stretch into the lake like arms reaching up, signaling for help. I walk through the cove they form, take a seat on the last boulder and wedge my feet into the skates. Crisscross frayed laces around metal eyehooks. For some seconds, I see my sister’s hands performing the task, red with cold and moving with the ease of an eldest daughter. She pulls the ends tight, double-knots the bow. I stand now, yank my hat lower. That belonged to her once. The gray wool coat didn’t—I got it my first year in New York. It’s too thin for Minnesota Decembers, but at least it’s something that’s only ever been mine. 

I hear the crunch of boots on snow, whistled notes crystalizing. A man, stocky with layers, emerges from the direction of the parking lot, heading towards the village at the lake’s center. He drags a child’s wagon behind him, weighted with buckets, a fishing rod, a long spiral drill. Puckering my lips, I spit out sounds too fragile to hold a tune. My brother would laugh if he were here, all teeth and teasing.

Not like that. You’re trying too hard. He could whistle me to tears.

I slide one foot forward, then another, blades cutting rhythms into ice. Ahead of me, houses the size of refrigerators distinguish themselves from one another. Smoke curls out of pipe chimneys. The wind smells of fish. I angle left, tracking the good ice.

Lakes don’t freeze smooth, they’re not still enough for that. Wait for a warm spell to melt a skim of standing water. My brother’s observations bubble up unbidden in my mind. When the temperature drops again—that’s when the good ice forms.

 I zig-zag between patches of snow, my own obstacle course. Myriad patches of white on the ice around me look like clouds. My skates glide across the sky.

*

“I’m flying,” I say, seven years old and still halfway ethereal. “See the clouds under us.”

“You look like a penguin.” On the other side of my sister, my brother skates into a crouch, free arm lowered. He swipes my mitten off the snow without needing my sister and me to slow down. He’s twelve and nothing is difficult.

“Okay. I’m a flying penguin.” The arm not linked with my sister’s pinwheels me upright.

“Penguins can’t fly.” My sister is ten and knows everything. My brother catches the order she sends with a flick of her eyes. He passes her my mitten with his left hand and spins inward so she can face me.

Wrestling a mitten onto someone else’s hand is not an easy feat when you are nearly fused at the elbow to two different people, but my sister is skillful.

 “I don’t see clouds,” says my brother. We unfold into a continuous line again. He surveys the lake’s surface with the attentiveness of a mapmaker assessing terrain. “I see continents.” He points with the arm that’s not linked with my sister’s at a strip of bare ice between snow. “See the river?” He moves his finger. “And an ocean there.”

A gust of wind sends particles swirling through the air. My sister shoots forward, stretching one leg out behind her. My brother and I are pulled along by our elbows.

“I see snow,” she says. A mist of moving flakes catch in hair she refuses to cut.

I frown, shuffling bumpily to keep pace. “Last year we all saw clouds.”

*

I shake myself back to the present. I am alone. The air is getting colder and last dapples of sun shift around my skates. The ice has been silent so far, but the temperature is dropping. I keep skating, drifting from one foot to the other. As I glide parallel to the curve of the shore, I listen. And there it is—a sharp, short pulse, trailing into a musical resonance. One, then another. Then behind me, three bursts in quick succession.

*

I am seven again and certain I’m about to drown. With each blast, I feel tremors through the blades of my skates.

“The ice is breaking!” I shriek. I imagine the thin line in the surface between my legs growing, widening, inches into feet until my body is caught in the center and I fall, plummeting into bottomless depths. I feel water in my lungs, rushing, bubbling. Then a tugging on my left elbow, the force of it pulling my arm above my head. I’m rising up, up through the water. My head emerges, I gasp and sputter, inhaling oxygen.

“Stand up, stupid.” I hear my sister’s voice somewhere above my ear. Feel another tug on my elbow. “You nearly made us fall over, sitting down like that.”

I blink open my eyes, squint in the brightness glinting off the ice. I am sitting on my butt, legs out in front of me. My left elbow is bent, fist resting on my collarbone, so my sister can face me in a crouch. On her left, my brother squats too out of necessity. A concerned wrinkle digs a crevice between his eyebrows as he looks at me.

I peer down at the crack like a marker line on the ice. It has not widened at all.

“I thought I fell in,” I said.

My siblings glance at each other and laugh.

“I was about to drown,” I say louder.

“Silly, that could never happen. Not as long as we’re connected,” my sister says, her nose inches from mine. “Think about it. If you fell in, we’d pull you right back out by your elbows.”

My brother nods. But then another boom. I jerk my sister, in turn jostling my brother.

“There it is again! Don’t you hear it?” My eyes shift back and forth between their faces. Neither of them is showing the necessary level of alarm. “The ice is breaking!”

My brother pats my knee with his right hand, forgetting my sister, whose left arm gets thrust forward too. She scowls sideways.

“The ice isn’t breaking,” my brother says in his cartographer voice. “It’s expanding.”

I stare at him. He smiles back.

“She doesn’t know what that means.” My sister interprets my look for him.

His explanation of hydrogen bonds does not help.

I squeeze my eyes shut. The crack is widening, I’m certain this time. The piercing tones all around me are interspersed with a low musical hum. I’m about to slip between sheets of ice.

I feel my brother’s hand on my shoulder. “You couldn’t ever get far with us attached.” There is a funny note in his voice. Like he doesn’t believe all the way that this is a good thing.

I am about to cry. My sister understands.

“Look at me,” she says with the authority of a sergeant. I do. “That’s not ice making noise. That’s the whales.”

The wrinkle between my brother’s eyebrows is back. He makes that throat noise people make when they are about to say something. My sister looks at him.  

“Yes,” my brother says. He nods. “The whales.”

I remind them that whales live in the ocean. My brother looks at my sister. She shakes her head.

“Most whales do. But there are lake whales too. They are small and very rare, but they sound like ocean whales and can survive under ice.” She stands, pulling my brother and me up with her. They dust the snow off my legs.

“Remember the whales on Animal Planet?” my sister asks. “How they made those funny little high sounds, just like the ones we are hearing?” She waits for me to nod. “Listen to the lake whales sing.”

I listen. She is right. The noises don’t really sound like ice. In the Sunday comics, ice goes CRACK. This sound is closer to brrrowPOWwweershhheePOWOROPOWeeeoo.

“Whales sing,” I repeat tentatively.

My sister nods like a fortune teller emphasizing the accuracy of a palm reading. My brother looks off somewhere past my head.

I stare down between my skates. If I concentrate, I think I can see a shadow passing by where the layers of ice end. There’s another echoing boom traveling upwards, followed by a series of higher-pitched notes. I close my eyes, see a round gray body with a flipper tale. Its back skims the bottom of the ice that spreads over its head like an endless roof, or a frozen sky.

I forget for a moment that I am on top of the ice and not beneath it, and I coast on the wake of the lake whale. I whoosh along, my legs trailing behind me, arms at my sides. There is no one at my elbows. To my left is a whole swirl of lake whales, singing all different sounds. I want to go there. I start to underwater dog-paddle in that direction. But I’ve forgotten the wake, shuttling me forwards. Try to swim out of it but the edge of its current catches me, slides me back to center. I reach toward the flurry of sound and motion and fins again, then give up. Let myself be pulled by this whale’s constant, comforting wake.

“What are you doing? Come on, let’s skate!” My sister pulls at my elbow. My brother is turned away, watching something. My head whirls as I remember where I am.

I look down at the ice again. It is still. No shadows pass by. The ice has gone quiet. I am upset that I did not get to join the cluster of whales. I am upset because I was never under the water with the lake whales. I did not see any lake whales at all.

I frown at my sister who is wiggling impatiently. “Are you sure there are lake whales?”

She sighs loudly. It is the same sigh she makes when the three of us are playing cars and I sit on the highway and drive my truck the wrong way. “Yes, I am sure there are lake whales.”

I look to my brother for affirmation but he does not notice because he is testing which direction the wind is coming from with his finger, like Robinson Crusoe.

“I don’t believe you.”

I have surprised my sister. She blinks at me, silent.

“I don’t believe you,” I say again. This time I mean it. “When I was five I would’ve, Maybe six. But I’m seven.” I feel big all of a sudden. “You made them up. You’re lying.”

As soon as I say this, I wish I could take it back. Wipe the words away fast like dry-erase marker on a whiteboard. My sister’s cheeks, red from the cold, are getting redder.

“You think I want to spend my time sheltering you?”

My sister hurls the sentence like a snowball. I want to put my arms up, protect my face, but she keeps her right arm rigid so I can’t move my left.

Look at me, help me, I’m drowning. Give me a break. You can’t keep real and imaginary straight, ever. He and I could have skated the whole lake by now, but no. We’re standing here, making stuff up to comfort you.”

“But, but. But he’s not.”

“Yes he’s…what?” My sister trails off. She must feel the wind brushing against her left elbow. She follows my finger, turning her head inch by inch, as if taking time to steel herself to see what she already knows. 

The faint, gently curving lines etched by blades in the ice are our only tether to our brother, who is closer to the ice fishing houses than to us now. His green jacket that will soon be my sister’s and then mine, sways from side to side with the purposeful strokes of his skates. His arms swing free, propelling him forward even faster. Perhaps he feels our joined bewildered gaze on his shoulder blades because he looks back, drags one blade to slow himself to a halt.

“Come on!” he calls. He beckons with his right arm. “Let’s go to the village!”

We do not answer. We stand perfectly still where we are, elbow to elbow. 

I turn my head and watch my sister watch our brother. For a moment, my sister actually seems ten. Light wisps of red-brown hair twist in the air, catch on her eyelashes. Her bottom lip disappears inward, tucked under her front teeth.

“It’s okay,” I whisper. “You’ve got me.”

At the sound of my voice, something awakens under her skin. A vibration runs through her body. Her shoulders shift back, her lip reappears, returns to position. The brainstormer, the negotiator, the sergeant is back.

 “Are your skates still tied?” she asks, eyes on our brother.

I check. “Yeah. I have both mittens too.”

“Good. Let’s skate then. Show him he’s not any faster than us.”

I look up at her again, studying her face and tone for any leftover anger at my disloyalty regarding the lake whales. To my inexpressible relief, I find none.

My sister glides forward and I trip unevenly after. The ice is bumpier here.

“Turn your hand so you can wrap your fingers around my wrist,” she instructs. “You’ll be steadier.” I do what she says and keep tight to her side as she navigates around patches of snow until our brother’s laughing smile is clear and close. 

*

His face fades. I brush my hair out of my eyes, look around. I’m at the center of the lake now, at the edge of the village. That’s what we called the collection of corrugated metal shacks. Made them feel less lonely, less like displaced telephone boxes. Less temporary. But they are, like me. It’s been four years since I’ve stayed in Minnesota for more than a few weeks at a time. Sometime in high school, I vowed to myself that I would choose a college my siblings hadn’t, major in something they knew nothing about, surround myself with friends to whom they were strangers. Friends who didn’t know I’d spent a childhood drafting off my siblings, letting myself be pulled along by their wake.

In the last four years, I’d seen my siblings in snatches—a week at Christmas, a few days of overlap in some city, a coordinated trip to see grandparents. I thought it was just time, or rather the lack of it, that made it that way. But I don’t know. The identity I’d constructed, grown accustomed to in the spaces between our reunions, began to unravel the longer I was with them. Maybe I always cut our time short because I wasn’t sure that if I stayed, I wouldn’t fall back into who I was before—the child who needed someone to invent creatures to make her feel okay. The shadow of two people who never wondered if their identity relied on other people to make it whole.

Before I left for the East Coast at eighteen, I nestled in cardboard boxes everything they’d passed on to me—sweatshirts, a ceramic lamp, Pokémon cards, ice skates—and pushed them under my bed. What was left fit easily in my suitcases.

I’d forgotten about the boxes until I went looking for my skates only hours ago. I picture taking the skates back to New York, searching for a lake rather than a job.

Hasn’t been cold enough there for that, my brother would say, if he were alive. The ice would snap under you. I don’t know what my sister would say.

I hear a clang of metal on metal, catch my balance. Most of the ice houses are padlocked shut, pipe chimneys iced over. The sun streaks them orange. One door swings on its hinges. Skating closer, I hear the same whistle from earlier. Parallel with the doorway, I make out the man’s profile, crouched within the floorless shack. His rod spasms, alive. He pulls up the wire in careful increments. There’s a glint of silver, the lash of a tail, a fish writhing in pale hands.

*

My sister and I have followed our brother into the center of the village. The sun is still high in the sky and men with beards covering their faces and thick rubber boots move in and out of the fishing houses, hauling buckets, throwing a few words back and forth to one another. Nobody minds that we are here.

Our brother asks two of the bearded men if they non-ice fish too. They say yes. He gets them to describe their boats. He asks if they’ve fished in the ocean. They say no.

“I want to sail in the ocean,” our brother informs them. “I want to make maps for areas of water people haven’t explored much, maps for sailors. Chart where the good water is and the bad, mark networks of islands, the best coves to moor in.”

One of the fishermen has a dog, golden and wavy. It runs up to my sister, wags its tail. She finds where it likes to be scratched, behind the ears, a little lower down. When her left hand gets tired, I have to drop my elbow so she can reach the spot with her right.

My focus is on the ice right in front of an open shack a few yards away. Something is moving there. Flopping about. Gray blending into white, its wetness glistens. I locate an eye, tiny and black. The fish’s flops devolve into spasms. I pull my linked arm to get my sister’s attention.

“Look.” I tug again. She looks. “I think the fish is dying.”

“Definitely,” says my sister. The dog licks her hand. “Don’t watch, it’s awful.” She turns back to the dog, who is not dying.

But I can’t stop. The fish’s pinched mouth keeps opening and closing but no sound comes out. I wonder if fish ever make sound. It flips its tail, up, down. Up, down. The man steps halfway out of the ice house. The new fish in his hand looks at me. The length of my forearm, it pulls against the hook, trying to shake free. The man slides the metal from its mouth, lets the fish drop onto the ice. It doesn’t make a smack because it lands on the body of the first and slides off. This second fish thrashes vigorously as the first one waves its tail like a signal flag, then dies.

I jerk my elbow again to jostle my sister’s arm.

What.”

“Will you tell the man in there to stop killing the fish?”

“No.”

“Please?”

“No.”

“Pleeeeasse?” I hear my voice twist into a whine like a balloon losing air.

“If you care so much, you go tell him.”

One of the fishermen our brother befriended has produced a map. Our brother holds it inches from his nose. He is saying something about isles and straits to the fisherman, eyes roaming wide-open seas. He doesn’t notice me willing him to notice me. My sister talks to the fisherman belonging to the dog. She’s going to be a trainer, she tells him. A dog trainer, horse trainer, tiger trainer. She will also be an instructor. Instructing people how to treat dogs, horses, tigers. The fisherman looks impressed. If I tug her elbow I know she’ll sigh at me again.

I turn back to the fish. It is still thrashing about. Its mouth opens and shuts. Its body shudders. This is what I imagine drowning looks like. The fish’s eye stares into me. Only me. I steady myself on my skates. I’ll be the only one who has saved a fish. The man’s back is turned. He is fiddling around with the rod. Only the fish looks at me. There are pauses between its flops now. I dig the toe of my blade into the ice. Lean forward.

It takes five skate strokes to reach the fish. It slips in my hands. There’s an opening between the man’s legs and the shack’s doorframe. I can see the black of the hole in the ice. A few more seconds and I will drop the fish and the man will turn around. I push my shoulders into the gap. Stretch my arms out, loosen my fingers. The fish drops, twisting into a dive.

What follows is a blur of sound and movement. In making my escape, I forget the blades on my feet. I wait for the tug of my sister’s arm against mine, for her resistance to catch me, pull me back to upright. But she is not there. My elbow scrapes across ice.

I hear blades, the heave of breath. Hands grip me, grasp under my arms. My brother’s hands. They lift me up.

*

I skate into a crouch beside one of the locked fishing houses, let my gloved fingers skim the ice. It would’ve been around here where I fell, where my brother picked me up. Go, he had called to my sister. I remember her flying past with the intensity of an Olympic athlete. I’d never seen her skate that fast, that gracefully. She couldn’t before, with her arm through mine, because I wasn’t—fast or graceful.

My brother had bent forward, coaching me as I struggled onto his back. Hurry. Climb on, that’s it, he had said. I came to know that tone well over many summers as my brother guided my hands over the sailboat’s wheel as the boat jibed, called for me to loosen the mainsheet as I scrambled back from the bow. I only really treasured those times later, once he didn’t need me as deckhand anymore. Skippered ships to places with names I couldn’t pronounce. I didn’t know back then, at eleven, twelve, thirteen, that the boat he taught me to sail would one day take him away for good.

A cabin filled with maps. What the coast guard saw days ago, on finding the boat.

I straighten up, survey the ice. It is easy to feel him here. I remember my hands on his shoulders, his on the backs of my calves. I clung to him, chin by his ear. I can still feel the rhythm of his strokes, right foot, left, hear the skid of blades on ice, the huff of his breath, dynamic yet steady. I watched the snow like clouds slide by beneath us, white lines etched in the wake of his skates like the smoke trails of airplanes.

I remember at eighteen and caught within my first panic attack, someone told me to go in my mind somewhere perfectly safe. I returned to that moment at seven years old, piggy-back on my brother. I slowed the frantic rise and fall of my chest to match his breaths as he glided across the lake, eyes on the horizon, even as a fisherman hurled curses at our backs.

I keep skating, leaving the ice houses behind me. I let my mind fall backwards again, fifteen years.

*

My brother lets me go at last, lowers my skates back to the ice. He turns to me, laughing. “That was sick. Wasn’t that sick?”

“Little fish thief.” My sister has looped back. “He never saw you coming.”

I look at her, the length of my brother between us. I try to make sense of the look on her face but I can’t. Not even if it’s good or bad. Maybe it’s both. My hands are slick with fish. I can still feel it jerking in my hands, see its dark eye looking into me.

“It wanted to have control,” I say.

They laugh, though I didn’t mean to be funny.

“I’m the only one who has saved a fish,” I say. They don’t hear. They have already skated away. It’s okay. I am the fish rescuer. “The only one.” I whisper this over and over, the sentence’s rhythm and that of my skates melding into an indistinguishable echo. 

*

My blade catches on snow, I wobble back to balanced. There are too many divots in the ice, splintered wood, drilled fishing holes, to keep eyes off the ground for long.

That’s the thing about lake skating. There’s so much space, it seems you can do anything. But really, the snow and rough ice determine your path. My brother’s voice glides back into my thoughts. I quicken my pace instinctively, as if, were I too slow, he would skate on into another hemisphere. See how we made those loops without realizing?

I remember the itch in his voice. The restlessness. I remember it in mine too, twisting my words into a whine only quiet contained. Both of us felt a pull toward the unknown. Him, to document the blank space, turn it into lines and names. Me, to inhabit it. Mold it into poems. Find myself in its stories. Our sister is different that way. She has always claimed the ground right under her feet. She never felt the need to run. To a forest, a city, filled with autonomous, singular lives. To open water, no shore in sight.

Sometimes I still play the scene over and over in my head, of my brother setting me down on the ice, of looking up as my sister slides to a stop, arms poised, untethered. I hold her face in my mind. I am still trying to decipher how she felt then. I have guesses—relieved. Hurt. Proud. Apprehensive. Not about herself. She wouldn’t have doubted she’d be alright. I think she had a sense, even then, of what would occur eventually.

I was about to drown.

That could never happen. Not as long as we’re connected.

I look over my shoulder. I can trace my route by the patterns of dark ice. Facing forward, I know where I’ll go next. Left around the fishing hole, right around the snow drift, carve some circles in the oval of ice beyond that. I stand still and squint. The oval of ice looks rather like a giant head, and the arc around the fishing hole is the shape of a bony shoulder. I link the shapes on the lake’s surface into an outline of my brother. Into an outline of me. It could be either of us.

While my sister and I wrestled over the right to be angry, my brother slipped away.

But it could’ve been me too. We both let go. Neither of us had to let go.

I circle back to the village. The whistling man lifts buckets onto the child’s wagon. He shuts his ice house door, locks it. I watch dusk wrap around his shoulders as he plods towards shore, leaning into the wagon’s weight. The two ice houses farthest from me have lost their edges, their doors. Little more than spaces of solid in the empty air, they could be anything. A sister who knows what to say. A brother wanting me to grasp how things work. They balance on the blades of skates, waiting for me to catch up.

You can’t keep real and imaginary straight, ever.

I suck my bottom lip under my teeth, let go. The lake’s surface is darkening. The snow shifts to a soft blue-gray. Pinpricks of yellow light surround the lake. Lights switching on. I pull my scarf up over cold-burned cheeks, then wend my way along channels of smooth ice in the direction of my brother’s car. I reach the boat launch area with its pair of arm-like rock barriers, locate my boots where I wedged them between stones. I sit down to untie my skates, study the cove. Maybe the arms aren’t signaling. Maybe they’re ready to haul the lost to shore. I hear the pop and moan of ice expanding. Hydrogen bonds doing something. I still couldn’t say what.

I wrap my stiff fingers around the phone in my coat pocket, slip it out. Tap on a name. The ringing sounds metallic and disjointed against my ear.

“Hello?”

I try to pick out the familiarities in my sister’s voice. “It’s me. Have a minute?”

A pause. Then, “A minute. Horses to feed.”

“I just wanted to say. Wanted to say,” I look out at the desert of ice, nearly too dark to see. “Thank you for the lake whales.”

I listen to my sister breathe. I listen to her listen to me breathe.

“You’re at the lake?”

“Yes.”

 “Do you hear them?” Her voice is steady. I know it infinitely. “Singing?”

I pull my knees up to my chest, close my eyes. Sharp pulses reverberate in the January air, trail into resonances, like echoes of laughter. Under feet of ice, lake whales carve wakes in the water.

“Yes. Yes, I do.”

*

Octavia Bell studied creative writing and sociology at Vassar College. She grew up in rural Minnesota with goats and chickens, and now resides in Brooklyn, where she works as an assistant at a literary agency.

Artwork by Adeet Deshmukh: Winterfell. Woodstock, Illinois, 2017. Digital photograph.​​

Adeet Deshmukh is a New York City based photo editor, photographer, and designer. His images capture the interplay between light/shadow and emotion/composition—in the streets of Manhattan and Mumbai, in the faces of family and strangers, and in the fields of Iceland and the Midwest. Adeet has had shows in Chicago and New York, and his work has appeared in various print publications. Most recently, his photography was featured in a group show at the CUSP Gallery in Provincetown.​​ Find more of his work on Instagram or at his website.

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