Morning, By The Frozen Crystal
by Stephen Ground
Spring dawdled over the southern peaks, late break-up on the river delaying Tom’s annual voyage to town to stock his pantry and toolbox, though he didn’t worry the way he might’ve once. A lifelong enemy of complacency, simple tasks like dishes and laundry laid untouched; jobs he took pride and pleasure in, too, like checking traps or splitting logs for the stove. His ax had always been a patient listener and confidant, keeping his thoughts company when he couldn’t push words past his teeth, yet weeks of avoidance meant his stack had dwindled to scraps. After decades of the simple same, he was surprised how quickly he’d adapted to skipping life’s routine.
Roused midmorning by pale, murmuring sun, his fingertips and toes ached, hovering breath a taunt from the barren stove. Clutching his arthritic knee, he lurched upright, eyes finding the chest he’d built her from a big pine felled during the worst, and first, thunderstorm they’d seen on the Crystal. He smirked, remembering how she’d begged to move home, where they’d always be safe because lightning would strike that eyesore of a tower before anything else. It loosened to a smile, remembering how a year later he couldn’t’ve dragged her.
Once the fire was coaxed alive, he hobbled outside in plaid, shapeless slippers she’d nagged him to throw in the river or burn as long as he could remember, to the edge overlooking the river. He yawned, stretched, slid his long johns to the knees, and dribbled on cracking slabs of ice below. Groaning in strained ecstasy, he finished like a leaky faucet, tugged up his johns, and limped inside; boiled the kettle, scraped the bottom of his last lard bucket in a pan, then fried strips of emergency backstrap, mopping grease with the heel of a loaf he’d baked with the last of the flour. The pan licked clean, he pulled on rubber boots and a coat, lifted a spade from outside the door, and circled behind the cabin to a small patch he’d cleared. Ignoring the tarp weighted with stones, he prodded the soil, pressed the blade with his boot. Couldn’t break it. Remembering the kettle, he dropped the spade and loped inside. He knew she’d be disappointed, but there was nothing to be done.
Battling accusations of procrastination, he plucked the whistling kettle from the stove, filled a mug and dumped in half his usual heap of instant grounds, stirring till it blackened to daylong night. He peered in the can before screwing it shut, quickly counting on one hand how many mornings what was left would last;shook waning granules of sugar in his mug, swirled it with a coppery spoon, then blew steam from the top, cursing Winter, icy ground too frozen to split. Lukewarm rays fought frosted glass.
Tomorrow, he said to no one. Creaking open the stove door, he prodded absently; sparks popped, scattered inside the iron void. Ear-fulls of waxwings long overdue.
Stephen Ground graduated from York University, then moved to a remote, isolated community in Saskatchewan’s far north. He’s since relocated to Winnipeg and co-founded Pearson House Films. His work has appeared in From Whispers to Roars, Sky Island Journal, Typishly, and elsewhere. Find more at stephenground.com.
Pieces Inspired by this Image
'The Solitary Tree'