To Break the Ice

            Deep in the ice of the frozen river, at the heart of the mirror city, there is a place Nathalia longs to visit. She can see it. It is not far. Every day she trudges onto the river and skates along its shores until she reaches the right place. There she kneels, wipes away the snow with two gloved hands, and brings her face down, nose-tip to ice, to peer down into the depths.

            The ice is thick. Two, four, maybe ten metres. She doesn’t know exactly. But here, in this spot, it is clear as new glass; marred only by ghosts of cracks and fractures ten metres deep and a fraction of a millimetre wide.

            The place she longs for lies below the ice. Below the water. Deep on the riverbottom. A cave. Its mouth glows warm and yellow like the light of a sun Nathalia has only read about in books. Her own sun is pale, white, and colder than the moon. From the cave spill vines and flowers. Occasionally a leaf floats up and sticks for a moment on the distant underside of the ice before the current catches it and tugs it into darkness.

            Nathalia has told her friends about the cave but they do not believe her. They won’t come and see, no matter how much she begs. They are too busy, they tell her, as they sit at their coffee shop booth and stare into the street for hours on end. Every other seat in the coffee shop is taken. If they leave, someone else will take their spot. If you want to go there so badly, they say, just swim. And leave us alone.

            Nathalia is the best swimmer she knows. She visits the public swimming pool as often as she can. The one with crumbling stone walls coated in black, and the janitor in the corner who never moves. She does laps for hours and can hold her breath for almost three minutes; floating silent in the dark, cool brown skin vanishing under the murky brown depths. I can swim, she tells her friends. Swimming isn’t the problem. It’s the ice that gets in the way.

            In the mirror city it is always winter. The trees that line the river lost their leaves aeons ago. They stand blackened and petrified; neat rows of spiked stone buried under mountains of skyscraper glass.

            On the warmest days, it snows. Then the wind comes screaming and sweeps it away in whorls through the empty streets. Whatever doesn’t get blown away freezes sharp enough to cut skin, or gets compacted, bit by bit, into ice. It buries the city two millimetres at a time.

            Once, Nathalia tries to leave. She takes her car and she drives. She leaves the lights of her home behind. She drives through unlit streets, among empty buildings projecting like tombstones from the hard-packed snow. When her car mires itself in a new snowdrift, she gets out and walks. She feels eyes watching her, but sees no one out here. You won’t get there that way, whispers the wind.

            Eventually, she turns and walks home. Back to the twelve-storey apartment building she shares with one other tenant whom she has never met. Back to her friends in the coffee shop with no empty seats. It is comfortable here, she tells herself. She likes it.

            The cave under the ice disagrees.

            Nathalia buys a shovel. It is a good shovel, the woman at the hardware store tells her. The woman speaks in a monotone and will not meet Nathalia’s eyes. See how sharp the blade is. See how sturdy the handle. This is a shovel to chip away at the hardest packed snow, the woman tells her.

            What about ice? Nathalia asks, and the woman shrugs. It’s a good shovel. So Nathalia buys it.

            She takes it to the frozen river that night, when she knows the river will be empty. Not that it is ever full, but she wants to be sure. This thing she wants to do is foolish. It is embarrassing to chase your dreams, and not something to be seen doing in public.

            The moon coats the city in silver. Nathalia straps on her skates and glides across the ice to the spot, feeling awkward and unbalanced with her new shovel in hand.

            When she reaches the spot she drops to her knees and works with both hands to smooth the ice so she can peer through. It’s there. The warm yellow glow of the cave reaches to her, through the river, through the ice. Nathalia can’t remember if she’s ever felt warm before, but the cave’s warmth kisses her now like honey on her tongue.

            Nathalia digs. It is not easy. Her shovel is made for hard-packed snow, but ice is different. She chips away one shard at a time, throwing all her strength into each strike. She turns the ice to snow; clouds the river’s surface with fractured pieces of itself. After an hour, her arms are burning and her chest is burning and every breath she takes stabs throat and lungs. She sheds her coat and keeps working.

            After three hours she has chipped a hole one metre in diameter and fifteen centimetres deep at the centre. It slopes in from the sides and when Nathalia strikes with her shovel it slips and skips away more often than it bites. She falls often.

            Eventually, when the moon is stealing away to hide from the morning glare of the cold white sun, Nathalia slips and does not catch herself. She allows her body to slide down the slope she’s created to lie, chest burning and muscles throbbing, in the centre of the hole. Her hands have blistered, burst, blistered again. She has chipped away maybe thirty centimetres of ice. A modest scattering of shards spread around the shallow crater. It’s a scratch on the wall of a mountain.

            Maybe, Nathalia thinks, she should just give up.

            She opens her eyes, and she is staring at the large black nose and puzzled brown eyes of a caribou. It gazes silently down at her, and Nathalia remembers all at once how silly she looks. She scrambles to her feet.

             “Hello,” she says to the caribou, who nods its antlered head.

             “Hi,” it says, “what are you doing here, then?”

            Nathalia ponders the best way to answer this. She could tell it she likes being out on the ice. She could tell it there is a tug on her heart as painful and as merciless as a fisherman’s hook and it’s drawing her down to the depths below. She could tell it she wants to solve a mystery. All of these are accurate, but she’s not sure any of them are true.

             “I’m digging,” she says. This is also accurate, but she knows it is an unhelpful answer. The caribou nods again as though this makes perfect sense.

             “You’re not going to get there that way,” it tells her. Nathalia imagines she can hear a smile in its tone. She can’t see it on the creature’s face, but this is the first caribou she has met. Perhaps she’s just not familiar enough with caribou physiology to recognize it. Regardless, Nathalia’s heart beats faster at the words.

             “You know about it?” she asks, her voice a whisper. No one has ever believed her before. No one has understood her before. “Can you see it? Come look!” She drops to her knees and, waving to her new furry friend to join her, tries to see through the ice to the cave below. The surface is too chipped and damaged from her shovel, now, she realizes. No longer clear glass; she sees only the veneer of scrapes and scratches she has inflicted.

            The caribou does not bother looking. “I know what you feel,” it tells her.

             “Then…” Nathalia sits back on the ice, gazing up at the antlered head, “you know why I have to do this.”

             “I know,” it says. “But you won’t get there that way.”

            The kinship Nathalia felt vanishes as quickly as it appeared. Anger flares in its place. She stands and faces the antlered creature. The stranger. What could it possibly know? It wasn’t going to stop her. Nothing was going to stop her.

             “I will get there,” she tells it with gritted teeth and clenched fists. “I will get there if I have to dig for the rest of my life.”

            The caribou shrugs. Nathalia didn’t know caribou could shrug “Good,” it tells her. “I will watch.”

            So Nathalia digs. And the caribou waits.

            Nathalia no longer cares if anyone sees her. She continues digging through the stabbing cold light of midday. People pass, shuffling, eyes never leaving their own feet. One woman turns to look at her as she works, but she does not stop. No one stops.

            Nathalia’s hands bleed. She cannot feel her arms. Spots of blood drip from the handle of her shovel and onto the ice, where they freeze until they are chipped away and tossed aside with the rest.

            Nathalia works for days. She does not remember any need for food, or drink, or sleep. She does not remember her friends. They do not come to find her. The caribou sits, and watches, and waits. Nathalia doesn’t have the breath to speak to it, and it does not try to speak to her.

            The hole grows deeper, and Nathalia’s work grows harder. She realizes at one point that in order to continue digging deeper, she needs to carve ice from around herself to give her the space to swing the shovel. This is frustrating. Every hour she spends expanding the hole sideways instead of continuing downwards feels like a waste of time. A waste of life. She has already wasted so much life. How can she bear to waste more? But she must, so she does. The mirror city has consumed her. It is all she has ever known. She has to get out.

            The hole is deeper than Nathalia is tall. She digs herself a sloping path out onto the river surface so she can carry the broken ice up to the surface. The mounds of discarded ice have frozen into small white mountains flecked with scarlet. The caribou watches.

            After a week, Nathalia no longer bleeds. Her hands are like iron. They are strong and impenetrable. They no longer feel. When her shovel’s handle finally breaks, Nathalia punches the ice with her closed fist, and it cracks under her fingers. From then on, she digs with her hands, and uses the shovel blade only to carry ice up to the river’s surface. Her fingers grow sharp and she uses them to cut the ice, faster and more efficiently than she ever could before.

             “You are changing,” says the caribou, its tone neutral. Nathalia does not respond.

             “This is not what you must become,” it says.

             “I am myself,” Nathalia retorts, anger flaring. Her voice is a hoarse growl. She can’t remember how long it’s been since she last spoke.

             “Yes,” agrees the caribou, “you are. But that is not what you are becoming.”

            Nathalia continues to dig. She molds her body into the tool she needs. Steel hands with bladed fingers for smashing and cutting. Her boots split and fall away. Her feet aren’t cold. Instead she grows iron spikes on her soles to grip the ice. When hunger and thirst twist her belly she eats the ice, crunching mouthfuls between unfeeling teeth, until she is sated.

            At eight metres below the surface, Nathalia’s path spirals high up above her head. She treks dizzy circles up and down to deposit the ice on frozen mounds that now spread high and wide across the river’s surface. She no longer sees anyone else but the caribou.

            Some days, snow falls, but most of it blows past and doesn’t reach her here in the depths of her hole. She can see the glow of the cave below her; it lights the ice she stands on with a yellow tinge. She doesn’t feel its warmth anymore, but she doesn’t feel the cold either. She is a thing of steel, made for cutting and breaking.

             “What is it you want?” the caribou asks, when she emerges from below with another armful of broken shards. Nathalia had almost forgotten it was there. This is the first time it has spoken in weeks. She stares, uncomprehending. Her mind feels slow. She has to keep digging. She doesn’t speak, so the creature continues.

             “This city is not endless, you know,” it says. It stands and approaches. “I thought, once, that it was. So I ran. I ran until my legs could no longer carry me. And when that happened I collapsed and crawled on my hands and knees until my arms became legs and all my legs became strong and tireless until I could travel as long and far as I desired. And I kept running. And eventually, I found a way out.

             “There are as many ways out of this city as there are people inside it. But you have to be willing to change. And you cannot allow it to change you. What is it you want?”

             “I want,” Nathalia tries to say, and has to stop and cough to force her throat to work again. It’s not built for speaking anymore. “I want to break the ice.”

            The caribou shakes its head, disappointed. “No,” it says, and resignedly folds its legs back underneath it to lie down once more. “That’s not what you want. That’s what it wants.”

            Nathalia climbs back into her hole. Her spiked iron feet crunch into the worn paths in the ice and arms swing like wrecking balls at her sides. When she reaches the bottom, she falls to her knees, and their weight cracks the ice. She slams a steel fist into the floor and it shatters.

            She falls into the water.

            Nathalia is the best swimmer she knows. She kicks her feet and pulls with her arms, but it doesn’t work. Her iron feet sink and her bladed steel hands cut through the water like knives. She cannot swim. She is too heavy. Her body drags her down, down, down until her feet sink in the mud.

            The cave lies before her. It is only a few steps away. The light spills from its open mouth, falls a few centimetres short of Nathalia’s outstretched hands. She is cold to her bones. Her bones are shattered ice. She tries to take a step but cannot raise her foot.

            Darkness eats at her vision, and Nathalia panics. She windmills her arms, tries to jump, yanks one leg out of the muck only for the other to sink even deeper. She is so close. Her bones freeze. Her lungs burn. Her arms and legs drag her down. Her knees buckle, and she falls inexorably forward until mud billows around her face. Bits of rock slice her cheeks like burning bullets. She inhales in sharp pain, and her mouth fills with water and filth, and the darkness consumes her.

            She is falling.



            She wakes up.

            The moon glistens in her eye, and Nathalia thinks it looks confused. I thought you died, the moon says, cocking its head with a quizzical air. I thought so too, Nathalia thinks. I guess we were both wrong.

            She tries to move, and becomes aware of something large and heavy pinning her down. Lifting her head requires an absurd amount of effort, but she does so and sees the caribou lying atop her. Its fuzzy warm bulk completely eclipses her small frozen body; pinning her to the ice and enveloping her like a weighted blanket. Sensing her movement, it looks down; its long face only a few centimetres from Nathalia’s.

             “You were dying,” it says in explanation. “This is as warm as I could keep you.”

             “Thank you,” Nathalia says, automatically. “Did you…save me?”

             “I carried you out of the water.”

            Feeling begins to return to her body. The thing she feels first is a steak knife sawing through the meat of her arm. The pain is so great she can’t even scream. It knocks the breath from her lungs. Then a thousand razors pierce her legs, and her vision flickers black. Confused, directionless nerves spark and throb up and down her body. It is a long while before Nathalia can gather enough breath to focus on anything else.

             “Can…” she begins, and has to stop and take several deep breaths to continue. “Can you let me up?”

             “No,” says the caribou, “but I can get off of you.”

            It stands, and in its place Nathalia feels the cold wind sweep over and slice through her. She tries to sit up and she fails. She looks down at herself, and at the sight of her broken body, the senseless pain reorients itself into context.

            Her spiked iron feet are coated in a layer of ice. Where iron melds with flesh, her skin is frozen, black, decaying, and falling away in chunks. Her steel hands lie several centimetres away from the arms to which they used to be attached. Those arms, like her legs, are dead and blackened hunks of frozen flesh.

             “I tried to warn you.” The caribou’s husky voice is low and sad. “Your body is rejecting the change. That’s good, but I think it may be too late. There may not be enough of you left to survive.”

            Nathalia knew it was right. She had allowed the city to trick her. She hadn’t become what she wanted, what she needed. She’d become what the mirror city told her she needed to be.

             “What else could I have done?” she asks. She feels like she should know the answer but she can’t manage to grasp it.

             “Why did you become what you did?”

            I had to, Nathalia almost says, but she knows that’s not true. “I thought… I thought I needed to break the ice.”

             “Let me tell you something.” The caribou brings its face in close to hers, and its breath is hot and smelly against her numb cheek. “This world is only as real as you allow it to be. It has no power over you except what you give it.”

            It steps back, and gives her one final bow of its antlered head. “Good luck,” it tells her, and it leaves.

            Nathalia closes her eyes. She thinks she understands now. She does not think she could have before. Before she broke the ice. Before she broke herself.

            She feels her body slowing. The remaining pieces are shutting down bit by bit as ice creeps inwards from broken limbs. Nathalia is not afraid. The ice has no power over her. She concentrates. And she ignites.

            Nathalia burns. The fire starts as a flicker in her chest, then it catches. It spreads. It blazes its way down her arms and ice melts away in rivulets of water. Heat courses down her legs, and Nathalia rises to stand on feet of flame. The flames flicker with her heart, stronger and hotter with every beat. They are her, in a way the iron and steel never was.

            With every flaming heartbeat, Nathalia rejects the mirror city. She rejects its dead sun. She rejects the snow, the streets, the dark. She rejects its hold on her. She burns the ice from her bones and dead flesh falls from her body to sizzle on the river’s surface.

            She exhales slowly, and like a comet the flames wreathe her in a whirlwind of concentrated heat. Light and warmth blast from the middle of the frozen river, and for one moment the mirror city has a yellow sun. Her friends in the coffee shop blink, then the light disappears and they return to their cups.

            Nathalia melts the ice. It vaporizes into steam: a cloud billowing frantically up into the starless sky to escape the path of the flame. Nathalia drops down, burning in mere moments through the metres of ice she had just spent weeks forcing herself to break.

            She lands in the water, and the flames extinguish, leaving her…whole. She looks down, and her eyes can see effortlessly through the depths. Her bare feet are long and flat. Her hands have grown long, strong fingers with thin webbing between. She dives deep and pulls herself through the water as if she were born here. She sucks in a breath and gills on her throat filter oxygen from the water.

             Nathalia is the best swimmer she knows. She kicks forward and propels herself into the cave: into light and warmth. The vines part to allow her through, and she swims into a new world.

André Geleynse