Breaking the Ice
by Kathrine Machon
Should I throw a snowball?
It’s what we always did as kids; ambushing each other. But no. Stefan has got his serious face on as he ducks out of the cabin and picks his way through the snowy trees to join me. He’s pulled on one of Dad’s old coats – ancient and stinking of mildew – but you need it out here. One unwary moment and the cold will claim you, slipping you into a sleep you’ll never wake from. We sit in silence, on our special rock, him watching the Aurora Borealis flickering across the sky, me seeing its reflection in his eyes. Skeins of green and gold that cat-cradle through the heavens.
The Wolf twins, brother and sister, together again.
But why has he come? It’s the wrong time of year for his annual pilgrimage, so something big must be on his mind. There’s no point prodding him for it; Stefan is stubborn as hell. I wait and his breath steams. He’ll get to it in the end; hopefully before his jaw freezes shut.
‘This is your scent, Robin.’ He picks idly at the lichen covered stone. ‘Reindeer moss and pine needles. You always used to get it in your hair.’
Better than smelling of mouse droppings. I wrinkle my nose, eyeing the chew holes in his coat.
He draws in a slow breath. ‘I had to come back. To sit here where we used to. To remember.’
Part of me wants to burrow into his side, lose myself in his warmth and strength and remember what it is like to be half of a whole. But still the why hovers between us; a bubble of pressure I can’t breach. I’ve never been that patient. If he doesn’t spill it soon I’m going to hit him.
‘I spoke to Nicole...’
Great, the amazing fiancé. We’ve never met and already I hate her.
‘I told her. What happened. I’ve never spoken about it before, to anyone, but I couldn’t keep it in. I didn’t want to carry it anymore.’ He blinks rapidly. ‘She thinks I should tell them. Mum and Dad.’
‘She thinks I’ll feel better if I do.’
She thinks! For God’s sake, Stefan, it’s ancient history.
‘They deserve to know.’
I snort and toss my head, my braid whipping through the air. Seriously? But Stefan’s got that look in his eyes, the one that means he’s made up his mind, and however much I rant and rave he won’t budge. Something dislocates inside of me. So, this is it. Our secret will be out. The stupid thing is, it won’t change anything for Mum and Dad. But for me and Stephan? That’s different. It is the thing that binds us together; a pair of binary stars forever orbiting, and the truth will rip us apart.
‘Lots of Nicole’s relatives are flying in early, so we’re having a party a few days before the wedding. That’s when I’ll tell Mum and Dad. Afterwards.’
No discussion. Typical.
He jumps down from the rock and brushes off his mittens, eyes still fixed on the light display in the sky. His shoulders hunch and a shiver runs through him; we’ve been sitting out here too long. He turns back to our stone, rests his hands on it.
He’s thinking about the happy times we had here. I can only see the top of his head, the thick mass of blonde curls, and he could be praying. I sift arguments, grasping for anything, but it’s pointless. A pack of huskies couldn’t drag him from this path now, but it’s me that’s going to be caught up in the aftershocks.
He straightens, takes a step onto the path that leads to the lake, then stops and shakes his head. ‘Dammit, why did I come? Why am I doing this to myself? Nicole’s right. I need to let this go.’
No! The word hovers between us like a golden thread of the Aurora. If Stefan lets go, there will be no place for me. It is selfish but I need his guilt as much as his love.
‘Tomorrow I’m leaving. First thing.’ His hands clench as he tilts back his head to look up at the stone. Is he imagining our childhood outlines, heads pressed close together, sharing secrets? ‘I just wish… wish you could be there.’ It is said quickly, and then he’s heading back to the cabin.
I wait, letting the silence of the night reclaim me. This is my world, where the reindeer and elk are my companions, nibbling at the willow and birch leaves in the summer, stripping the lichened stones in the time of snow. A place where the lynx is the silent shadow of the forest, and at its centre is our once loved cabin. But his words twist in the air and stab in my guts. I’ll find no peace from them.
Can I leave here? For Stefan? He’s my twin after all. He wants me at this party, and if he is going to tell…
But I’ve never left this place. Never been on a plane or taken a taxi ride. So many nevers because once I followed Stefan. And now I decide, I will follow him again. This time to his world of tarmac and fumes, and the terrifying spread of the city. No longer cocooned, safe in my cabin, I won’t be able to deny the truth of what happened to me. But this is Stefan, and for him I’ll do anything.
The snow has touched the city too. Stefan’s house is fairy tale, like a snow globe. The lawn is crunchy with white, and tall windows spill light and happiness. I hover at the threshold looking in. I have made an effort; dressed up like I used to at Christmas – trousers of a soft forest green, my top as red as holly berries and bells braided into my hair.
I’m completely out of place.
So, this is how a rich lawyer celebrates. Who’d have thought my wild brother would become so successful? The men are iridescent magpies, strutting in their black and white suits. The women, in bright dresses, flit like jewelled humming birds, sipping at bubbling glasses of nectar beneath chandeliers of golden light. Waiters weave their way through the throng with trays of champagne glasses and plates of hors d’oeuvres that are tiny masterpieces. Across the wide room an orchestra is playing, and magpie and humming bird couples waltz in endless, delicate circles on the chequer board floor
I shouldn’t have come. This is another world where I’ve been left far, far behind.
Stefan is alone in the corner, watching the social rituals of his guests. In that he is like me. An observer. I thread my way to him, watching his beloved face as thoughts trickle across the surface. He holds a sprig of something green, plucked from the extravagant flower display he is using for cover. A frown twitches between his brows and he raises the sprig to his nose, draws in a slow breath.
He is thinking of me. I resist the temptation to check my hair; there are none caught in it today. A little smile curves his lips as he watches the crowd.
‘You’d have looked lovely in a dress.’
I blow a raspberry to let him know what I think of that, and shake my head. The little bells in my braid raise soft chimes that match the bubbles bursting in his champagne flute.
‘You could have been a bride’s maid.’
Oh no, now he’s going too far. A raspberry wouldn’t do that statement justice. Something stronger is needed. But he is staring out at the room, that small smile still playing around his mouth. Is he serious? Has he really forgotten so totally what I am like? He lets the foliage drop and raises his glass.
‘To Robin, my beautiful, scruffy sister.’
Scruffy? Perhaps he does remember.
I pout, and tip my head to look up at him. When did he get so tall? Perhaps now is the time to change his mind, while he is alone, but his smile widens into something glorious, lighting up his face.
Not for me.
For the first time I see her. Nicole. She’s wearing some pale, gossamer outfit, cinched tight at her minute waist, her blonde hair intricately coiled on her head. She is beautiful and perfect for him. They’re drowning in each other’s eyes, and I can’t do this. I don’t want to see the person who is taking him away from me. Not yet.
I escape into the crowd of guests, floating among the refracted diamond light from the chandelier chains, drifting in a sea of piano and violin notes. Is Stefan really happy here, in a world that is as nebulous as champagne fizz?
I could be walking among angels. Magnificent creatures that dip and weave and laugh, dripping words of wisdom and laughter that spin around me like shards of broken light. Stefan’s dirty secret, soon to be exposed to the world. I need a quiet corner to hide, to prepare if that’s even possible. Somewhere I can watch the clever chat, the graceful dancing and endless toasts.
Except they’re not endless. The clock hands circle and fear uncoils like barbed wire in my belly. Can I stop this? Mum and Dad aren’t stupid, they already know what he is going to tell them. But he has never realised that. Doesn’t know it is the lie which keeps me here.
Fear scratches at the edge of my mind. I can’t ignore it any longer. The truth of what I am.
Why does he have to tell them?
It is late by the time the guests leave, and the waiters reverse their role of the evening, vanishing empty plates and glasses like minor magic tricks. By the morning there will be no sign this party has ever been.
Stefan takes us to another room, untouched by the festivities, where the lights are dim and the room holds its breath. They are all gathered together: Mum and Dad, like wrinkled up versions of my childhood memories, Stefan, so big and handsome, and Nicole. She really is lovely. I have to admit it. At least when this is over he will have her to look after him.
I sit in the window seat, legs tucked up, arms wrapped around myself, looking in. I can’t be part of this. I ache for them, ache for Stefan, for what is about to happen, but mostly I ache for myself. Nicole takes his hand, smiles at him, nods. Already they are like one creature.
No space for me.
‘Mum, Dad, there’s something I need to tell you. Something I’ve kept secret for a long time.’
Here we go.
‘That morning, when Robin and I snuck out to go skating…’ He lowers his eyes, swallows. Mum and Dad’s faces freeze. ‘I always blamed Robin, said it was her idea, but it wasn’t, I made her come, and what happened was my fault…’
I can’t listen to this; don’t want to relive it through their faces. I gaze out the window. The Aurora is showing again – my old friend. If I stare at it hard enough maybe I won’t remember. Not that early morning, me sleepy and complaining, Stefan insistent that we go out before everyone was up. Did he know they’d stop us? The air had stung my face, burnt into my lungs, and I’d pulled my scarf tight, wriggled fingers in thick woollen gloves. Fresh snow covered the ground, and the lake was a pristine sheet of ice.
I freeze the memory. Stefan has stopped talking, and Mum and Dad are crying. Stefan too, and Nicole’s looking all watery-eyed. It won’t be long now. My turn. But I cling to this moment for a little longer. Can you blame me? I don’t know what comes next. They hug. I told him that it would make no difference, that they wouldn’t care. But when does he ever listen to me?
Not now, and not that morning. Was the ice thick enough? I didn’t know, but Stefan was already out there, sturdy legs whipping him across the slick surface, laughing, calling to me to join him. And I could never say no to Stefan, even cold and grumpy, I followed him.
And then there was the crack. The flood of cold. Two matching screams.
Stefan is next to me, leaning against the window seat, staring out at the lights. The Aurora is doing me proud, putting on it’s best display for this final moment, and for the last time I watch them reflect in his eyes. His smile is slow and sad.
‘I miss you.’
He turns away.
I can’t breathe, except I haven’t, not for a long time, not since the plunge through the ice. I stayed for him. Stayed because I loved him and he needed me, but he doesn’t anymore, and I’m unravelling, dissolving, streaming out across the night sky, reaching up to touch the colours, to play endlessly among the northern lights.