Surface Tension

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Janae Breunig


The ice was thin. And it was clear in parts where the snow had melted away. We didn’t wear jackets as the sun glared down from a big blue sky, warming our backs. The trees were all skinny branches and wet bark, the kind of springtime bark that covers your bare hand with dirty specks after you grab hold, trying to steady your way down the wooded slope, down to the lake.

The snow on the hillside wasn’t even snow. Just piles of tiny, icy nuggets, sharp around the edges. It was what snow becomes before it vanishes forever.

As soon as he drilled the holes something felt wrong. When we shuffled between them, water would blurble up through the openings and spread out over the ice, forming deep puddles. 

We had never fished on this little lake before, tucked back in the woods near our cabin. It was a hike to get back there – no trails – so he’d brought along the blue-n-red ice auger. The hand-crank one. That auger used to hang on the wall of the garage, resting on spikes hammered into the naked studs. I thought it was hilarious. It looked like a corkscrew for a giant ogre, for some massive bottle of wine. I loved it.

He said the gas powered auger with the little motor on top was too heavy for the trip. So he drilled the holes by hand, sweating under the sun as piles of slush slipped off the grinding, coiling blade.

Nearby a little point jutted out into the lake, holding up a clump of dead trees, all white and smooth and rickety. One tree had a huge eagle’s nest balanced on top like an enormous hat. A ladies’ church hat or a furry Russian ushanka. But on a tree.

As soon as he drilled the holes something felt wrong. When we shuffled between them, water would blurble up through the openings and spread out over the ice, forming deep puddles. The whole frozen surface of the lake felt ready to sag down beneath the water, leaving us to swim back to shore in our heavy old hunting boots. Or worse.

But he told me the ice was fine. It’s OK, he said. Just fish, he said.

I fished. I jabbed the teeny brass-colored hook into the grubby worms, just past their little black heads and out the other end. I sat on a 5 gallon bucket that used to hold drywall mud. (As far as I can tell, that’s all anyone ever sits on when they go ice fishing.) I dropped my line into the cold, black circle. He’d walk behind me to drill another hole and the water would surge out to swirl around my feet. I jigged my little fishing pole and waited. Quietly. Squinting across the blazing white ice to the other side.

The lake made constant noise, the way frozen lakes do. Eerie ploings and plooms every few minutes. Some people will tell you the lake was “singing.”

Singing about what?

He probably remembered exactly what fish we caught or, at the very least, if the fishing was good or bad. I don’t remember a damn thing about the fish. Bluegill, sunfish, crappies, who cared? All those fish we pulled from the ice over the years, they all slop together into a giant pile of slimy scales and needle-sharp fins. Dead eyes and round gapping mouths. A heap of panfish slowly freezing together on the surface of some colorless lake under an overcast sky, that’s what they were. Ice fishing is boring, I always thought. The way kids do.

Yet this little lake – the one we fished only that one time – is important to me. Not because of the fish. Because of everything else. The sun, the trees, the snow. The eagle’s nest. The heavy footsteps across the ice behind me.

And because I never once thought we’d break through. Not really. It made me nervous, sitting out there on the ice as it quickly turned back to water. But I believed in what he told me. And that’s what I miss. His casual that’s that reassurance. The slight annoyance in his voice because he thought I was worried about the wrong thing. The way he’d look up and squint across the lake with me. Quietly.

It’s OK, he’d tell me. Just fish, he’d say.

He had drilled the fishing holes a safe distance apart. In case the weight of us together was just too much.

Press and hold the up/down arrows to scroll.