Margot had been waiting for a sign from God, and now the ice was coming. It unfurled over the grey horizon like a flower in expedited bloom, moving over the lake towards land. When it reached the edge of the backyard it crawled with frozen fingers over hardened earth, covering dormant grass and the tulip beds Margot had been monitoring for signs of spring. Watching from the kitchen window with a cup of tea, Margot decided to gather her things.
She was not a woman of science. She did not wonder if this had happened before, on this lake, or on other bodies of water in other times. Liquid froze and wind blew, sometimes harder than anyone expected. In old age, she had learned when to push and how to yield.
Margot knew Daniel would go through the house, which he had bought for her, his millionaire eyes scanning for items of value and finding none. But she wanted to leave Sadie’s favourite porcelain figurine with a note where her father would see it, compelling him to give it to her. She used two hands to lift the pale and fragile woman in swirling petticoats from her mahogany cabinet, and carried it to the dining room table, where she placed it on a piece of lace. She wrote in sloping cursive, “For Sadie, love always, Grandma,” and pictured her granddaughter’s eyes obscured by dark makeup, wondering if she’d even remember how much she admired the doll. Outside, the ice was coming, and Margot was glad.
She turned on the kitchen faucet, testing the temperature because her medication made her sensitive to heat. It would never do to leave dirty dishes in the sink. She plunged her hands into the water, scrubbed at the stains on the inside of the teapot.
The phone rang. Daniel, impatient.
“How are you, sweetheart?”
“Fine, Mom, look—”
“Fine—Listen, this ice tsunami they’re showing on the news, can you see it?”
It was halfway across the yard now.
“Hold on one minute,” said Margot. “I’ll take a look.”
She put the phone down, mouthpiece against the cool marble countertop. Walked slowly to the window. White magic.
“April is the cruellest month,” she said brightly when she’d returned.
“Don’t stand too close to the windows, Mom, and make sure they’re all locked.” He paused. “Stop talking in riddles.”
There was a time when Daniel was sweet. Just a flash between five and seven. That’s when Margot taught him to ride a bicycle. Harold was on the road a lot that summer, and Daniel couldn’t stop moving; it wouldn’t be long until he started stealing her jewelry to sell in town. But the summer he turned seven he and Margot went out to the back of the driveway with the little red bicycle. There was a tree back there, an old maple with large friendly leaves, and Margot hung a used tire from it. When Daniel got frustrated with the bike he’d swing, higher and faster, laughing like a hyena. If Margot stopped paying attention, he’d shriek. Still, there was something pure about him then, something not yet gone sour.
One Christmas in the late ’90s she had too many glasses of Merlot and, full of pepper and spark, told Daniel what she really thought about the woman he’d married. He had it all mixed up, money wasn’t the most important thing and she was worried he’d die with a half-full heart. Daniel was quiet for a long time, looking into the fire. Then he stood up and said, Mom, I’m going to bed. In the kitchen, Margot ate another piece of pumpkin pie; she’d tried a new recipe that year and it had a brilliant kick of citrus. There, she thought, sitting alone at the table, the pumpkin and orange spice dissolving in her mouth. I feel much better now.
What surprised her was the noise. How loud the ice was, like a symphony of old bones cracking and breaking. She could hear it from her bedroom, the windows closed. There, Margot unbuttoned her blouse, letting it fall over her skinny shoulders. From her dresser drawer she lifted the cashmere sweater Holly gave her two Christmases ago, her favourite shade of rose. She pulled it on over her head, the knit soft against her bare skin, covering the scars from her surgery. Holly called them love tucks.
Margot brushed her hair with an ivory comb, which was hardly necessary as there were only a few wisps left, and returned, easy on the old joints, to the kitchen. The neighbours were out there shouting and swearing like a bunch of fools. The ice was creeping forward, growing bigger, spilling over.
Such impossible whiteness. So clean and pure and bright. Margot watched the ice push against her neighbour’s row of small shrubs, slowly accumulating height and breaking the barrier. It poured onto Margot’s patio stones.
Spring had been their favourite season, full of stunning and cataclysmic change. Their first spring together was a beginning that eclipsed all others. One afternoon they sat for hours watching sheets of broken ice flow like shattered glass down the St. Lawrence. They ate popcorn out of a plastic bag, and Margot didn’t even worry about her dentures. Holly wore purple earmuffs, her breath white against the cool air. As the sun set she recited a Yeats poem, “At Galway Races,” and Margot fell in love with poetry after seventy years of practical living. That she was already in love with Holly was a given.
Someone knocked on the front door. First gently, then with force. Margot’s hearing was excellent but certain people just assume.
It was Sam Winters from across the street, eyes blinking behind thick glasses.
“Mrs. Wallace, you all right over here?” He craned his neck, trying to see around Margot, through the house and into the backyard. “I thought the ice might be coming up here. Pretty strange what’s happening.”
“I’m fine, Sam,” she said, one hand still resting on the doorknob. “Thanks for your concern.”
“You sure? ’Cause I was down by the bridge and I could see how close it was on this side.”
“Mother Nature doesn’t want us to get bored.”
“Ha. I was thinking I could send the boys over to clean up later, if you’d like.”
“I couldn’t ask them to do that,” said Margot.
Some non-believers think eternal life means scattering one’s DNA across our already-weary earth. Margot had felt a flicker of hope when Sadie was born, but quickly realized that, realistically, her granddaughter’s chances of turning out well were slim. She thought instead of small contributions. In 1947 she’d saved a child from drowning off Pierson’s Pier, and that child grew up to become a dentist—not a doctor, exactly, but a person could die from a tooth infection, so perhaps that had been a good thing. In her garden, she’d developed a chemical-free approach to pest management long before it was popular. She continued to give money to the church, despite everything.
She had made Holly happy.
Margot slid open the patio door, using both hands. She still wore Harold’s modest wedding ring, because she had made her vows. It dangled from her ancient knuckle now. He’d been an innocent, optimistic person: a soft-spoken fan of knock-knock jokes. They’d had a good marriage, as far as those things went. But he was easily manipulated, as Daniel had discovered early, and it broke Margot’s heart to watch it. When he died of a heart attack at sixty-one she realized how few people had appreciated him, including her.
It took Margot a decade to consider dating. Another year to acknowledge that, yes, the volunteer at the library was flirting with her. The petite one with the magenta hair who teased Margot for checking out Surfing the Web for Dummies. Margot couldn’t stop thinking about her slightly crooked smile.
There are some things about Holly she never understood. Like the peculiar order in which she got dressed: socks first, before anything else including underwear, even in summer. When Margot asked about this, Holly gave an impish grin, pointed a socked toe and tipped her head back. She did things the way she wanted to.
And the way she hid her illness in the final months, or tried to. They’d been through Margot’s cancer scare by then; they were seasoned professionals in the old slash ’n burn, the hospital rigmarole. But Holly didn’t want to go that way, or maybe she knew her odds weren’t good. So she told Margot she had the flu, that her immune system was worn out from all the daiquiris she drank in the ’80s, that her legs were tired from so much dancing, that she would love to listen to Louis and Ella on the CD player, if Margot didn’t mind. And she kept inviting Clive Jacobson over to play cribbage with Margot, and she’d watch from under a blanket on the couch, wearing the brightest lipstick Margot had ever seen. “You better keep an eye on her,” she’d call to Clive from the couch. “She cheats!”
The air outside was neither cold nor hot, the same temperature as Margot herself. The sky was a deep blue-grey, the colour of a heron’s feather. Not angry, just determined.
At some point, living becomes nothing more than a habit, or perhaps a courtesy. But a courtesy to whom? Margot’s God had softened over the years. In the past she saw him as a ball of fire, scorching, to be feared. But at some point she’d realized the fire was love, and everything became much easier. She would speak to her God now.
Our father, who art in heaven, said Margot, and she began her slow walk into the ice, feeling it first around her ankles. How curious the tiny crystals were, both wet and not wet. She inhaled, filling her lungs with the fierce balm of winter. The ice tsunami surrounded her, at her knees and growing ever higher, filling her ears with the sound of toffee snapping. Margot continued to walk.
For the first time in months, her footsteps felt effortless. Her neighbours’ voices faded into the background. There was, far away in the sky, a pale yellow light. The sun, persevering behind the storm.
At some point, she lost her footing; it was the only thing left for her to lose and she gave it freely. As she went down she did not bump against the earth but slid with unexpected ease. She thought she heard Daniel calling her name but she knew he wasn’t coming, and she didn’t want him to. Margot smiled, and found she could no longer feel her face, and it was good.
For some reason she remembered being eight years old and stealing her father’s fishing rod with her cousin Peter on a Thursday after school. They took it to the river, where they stood on the bank among milkweeds and Queen Anne’s lace, wind whipping Margot’s hair, which was yellow then. On their third attempt to cast the line, Peter caught Margot. The sharp metal twisted into the flesh of her left middle finger, and there was blood. She screamed, then laughed and realized she didn’t know how to remove the hook. Together they walked across town to the doctor’s house, Peter still holding the rod, Margot trailing behind him with her finger and her head held high. Her father didn’t notice the band-aid, and until Peter died twelve years ago they whispered about it when they saw each other, wide smiles across their faces: Hey Margot, remember when I caught you?
She was dancing at her cousin Sophia’s wedding. She was running through a cornfield, engulfed in starchy heat. Her head began to feel light. She was no longer certain she was breathing. Her limbs receded, leaving her only with an essence; she was the colour of a sunset.
There was Holly, wearing a favourite cable knit sweater, sitting on the concrete hearth of the fireplace at the Alabaster Inn. They’d tried snowshoeing for the first time that afternoon, and Holly had tipped over and bruised her buttocks but still, she was laughing. At one of Harold’s corny jokes, Margot realized, the one about the seagull and the bagel, which Margot hadn’t found funny at all until now—now, it was at least a little bit funny. And Harold was there, chuckling softly, in an armchair with a whisky in hand, and Margot saw that there was room for her in that beautiful unmemory, distorted and bright.