This is a revision, augmented and edited, of a section published last year.
Rafe rolled her shoulders and cracked her back as she stood at the edge of the ice, leaning on Blade, to watch the developing circus. It had started yesterday when Old Farley drilled pilot holes and declared the river frozen enough to start gathering ice. The cutters pushed their saws along lines marked with sawdust, making their cuts to the three-quarter depth that Old Farley had determined. Drovers lined up, sledges blanketed with hay and sawdust, ready to haul the blocks into the ice house.
Blade pulled on the red scarf Rafe had knit that winter, then stole her hat, whuffling hot breath through her gray hair, cut short for the impending spring. He was restless in his traces and did not appreciate being harnessed to sledge loaded with sawdust. Rafe rubbed her knuckles in the valley under his jaw. “It won’t be long now. You know you wouldn’t be any happier if we were on the march through snow, hock deep.”
Wilf joined her, flapping a wax covered board, and fiddling with the stylus tucked behind his ear. “So Auntie. Doing some heavy lifting today?”
Rafe nodded and continued her scratching. “Blade, here, is. Malingering again, I see.”
“Is this what you did back in the day?” said Wilf, tucking the tablet under his arm to warm the wax as he blew through his mittens. “Or were you out on the ice with the rest of the young bucks?”
“What I wanted to be was a cutter. But that wasn’t ‘seemly’ my mother felt. I’m sure you’ve heard the stories.” Rafe glanced at Wilf. That he ignored such an opening, she thought, said that he had, indeed, heard the stories. “I started as a sweeper, keeping the harvest field clear of chips and snow, and then as a gaffer, like young Jole, there.”
Rafe picked up her hat and dusted off the snow. “And you, are you sorry you didn’t leave last summer? You could be warming your back under the northern sun, plaguing some other old soldier to tell you the stories of a misspent youth.”
“It really is all about you, isn’t it. Mother is right. You have no sense of family solidarity.” Wilf made himself stand taller and tested the wax on the tally board with his thumbnail. “As interesting as your maunderings of ancient history may be, I have stayed to support my young cousin, in his first ice harvest as a gaffer.”
Upriver some of the gaffers were playing at quarterstaves, but Jole poked the end of his pike into the snow that banked the river. He had the height for good leverage, flinging chunks of ice on their way to the shore as they flew into the air, pushed up by the water that filled in the gap when the blocks were released from the floe. He was light enough, though, that without the hobnailed boots, he would go flying to the opposite side of the river with each block he grabbed.
Old Farley waved his flag and Jole moved out onto the surface of the river. “Hey! Watch out you kids!” Jole swung his gaff toward a group of sweepers who were creeping toward the men. He had, of course, done the same thing when he was a kid, seeing how close to the cut he could get, jumping on a block of ice as it popped out of its hole, and riding until it stopped, part way to the shore. It was a dare that all kids did. But last year little Pharnam had mistimed his leap and that memory stuck.
The first knife was slid into the hole in the middle of the river. The serrated edge cut smoothly, parallel to the bank. The second side, opposite the first was finished. A team of men cut, on opposite sides, perpendicular to the bank. They would finish together. Jole moved into position, his gaff ready. Mick Jake was opposite him. They would pull the flying block forward as the cutters ducked and slid out of the way. Hale and Mose, at the cut in the middle of the river, would pull the ice forward, keeping pace with Jole and Mick. They braced to catch the ice.
When the sides of the hole were more than half finished there was a sound like the screel of the low strings on a violin played out of harmony. Inchy Foal’s sister, Snicker, Leaped from behind Jole, landed, belly down on the block, as the ice cracked neatly along the marked lines and dropped out of sight. Thunk. Jole’s bugged out eyes locked with Mick’s. who shrugged. Where was the water? And where was Inchy Foal’s sister?
Jole turned toward the shore, locking eyes with Rafe. Her scowl as she stalked onto the ice, Wilf sliding in her wake, made her look rather un-auntie-like.
Jole skated on his feet with Mick and the rest of the men, up to the edge of the hole. Children dashed ahead. They could hear the ice block rocking. The cutters swore.
“There’s dead fish down here!” called Snicker Foal, “froze solid,” as fish, one after the other, came flying out of the hole to clunk on the ice. “And guess where Mare Fisher’s headpiece ended up!” A wedding crown, draped in dried riverweed, came arching out of the hole and clunked on the ice as well. There at the bottom of the river, high and dry but well below the bottom of the ice, standing barely eye level with the bottom of the floe, was Snicker, not a bit winded and quite undamaged. Fish stuck out like flags, in each hand. “There’s all kinds of junk down here,” she hollered.
A pool of bright light made the girl glow like an angel. Mottled shadows surrounded her as the sun bounced off thickened places in the ice. Toward the ford the river floor sloped up, nearly touching the bottom of the ice. In the other direction the floor sank away into the ice-imposed dusk. The partially cut ice started to crack and Jole and Mick found themselves sitting on ice blocks on either side of Snicker. When they stood up, they found they could see above the ice.
When the boys dropped out of sight, half the people on the ice had turned around and headed back to shore. Under the murmur of the crowd the ice was groaning, driving the people faster than any barked command. The population of Riverside was now about evenly split between ice and shore.
To Rafe’s eye there was no real danger. The hole left by the sawed out block was nearly four feet thick, as thick as Inchy Foal was tall. The uncut ice was still a foot thick, and would support the weight of a single person, but probably not a crowd. Rafe could see his sister, Snicker, still in possession of her two fish, hauled out of the hole by her agitated mother, and hear the constant flow of squabble.
“You can just drop those stinking sturgeon right there.” Ma Foal didn’t bother to look up at her daughter, but made a grab for the catch.
“They’re frozen, Ma. We can have them for supper.” Snicker might tower over the rest of her family, but she was no match for her mother’s low center of gravity on ice.
“I’m not cooking any dead fish found lying in the mud at the bottom of the river.” Ma Foal snatched the fish and flung them aside.
“But Ma, is it a river if there’s no water?” Snicker strained against her mother’s grip to retrieve the fish as they slid back toward the hole. Knees locked tight and the leather soles catching on the ice, Snicker countered her mother’s weight, as she was drag irrevocably to land.
Rafe was impressed by the question, and the girl’s tenacity. As mother and daughter struggled to shore, Jole thriftily picked up the fish and tucked them in his pack. Rafe smiled at her nephew and stepped onto the ice followed closely by Wilf.
By the time she reached the hole, the balance of people were on shore. Old Farley and one of the other cutters had dragged a ladder out and the early scavengers were using it to explore the river bottom. Jole and Mick were back, poking around the junk. Rafe herself did not descend, but rather walked around the opening, scrutinized the treasure seekers and considered.
The amount of junk poking out of the frozen mud was astounding. How much had been washed from upstream? Surely someone would have tried to pull out the wagon, and yet there it lay, crates still tied on. Other things, the crown, the ironware, things heavy enough to have sunk directly to the bottom, must have come from Riverside. She recognized the white of bones emerging from a gap between two tree length timbers. A logging effort had clearly supplied the wood. The river had left them fetched up under a rocky ledge.
Rafe shook her head. The Foal girl was right. It was hard thinking of this as a river without the water flowing under the ice. Deep as the riverbed was, it seemed more like a ravine. It did not even evoke one of the dry wadis in the north, that always anticipated a flash flood. How long had the river been empty?
Old Farley and his crew were moving toward the logs now. “We can use some of this timber to make braces for the ice. That will let us widen the hole.”
“We already lost one block. How we going to keep the next one from dropping to the bottom?”
“We didn’t lose nothin’. That’s what these timbers will be for. We can make rails and drag the ice to shore. We’re going to need every scrap of ice we got. If the river is gone, who can say what’ll happen to the well.”
Rafe recognized the tone of a man who no longer needed to present a patient face to his crew. She’d reached that point herself before she rode out of Graven’s Guard for the last time. She called down to the men, “Sun’s gone. You haven’t got even a half hour’s light.”
“Well, then,” said Old Farley, “there’s plenty of time to get Marlon to help. He’s got brains enough for three of these louts.” He clapped his hands together and dusted his hat on his thigh. “That will do.”
“Before you come up,” Rafe shouted down, “check out those bones wedged up there under the bank.”
Old Farley sent Jole and Mick off to take a look. “I doubt it’s one of ours. I don’t know anyone has gone missing, except maybe you, in the last forty years. Maybe the driver of that wagon, there.”
Then he turned to Wilf. “Look, boy. You go tell your Da that I want a word with him. And your Uncle Ducky as well. And maybe that Molly.” As Wilf hustled off he turned back to Rafe. “You’ll stay a bit, aye? I’d just as soon make sure no one got the idea to go prospecting for treasure in the night.”