23 January 2012

Melting Ice – Violet Macdonald

Melting Ice by Violet Macdonald (17)

I didn’t even see the rope break.

I suddenly felt myself plummet down the glacier, the icy wind rushing past my face. I fell through a break in the ice, planted precariously in the snow, and landed on a rough bed of fallen stalactites.  My head spun as it rested on the frozen ground, my hands seared with rope burn. We’d been climbing towards the east, away from the avalanche we’d seen coming from the west. I had been with Phil, my fellow mountaineer and younger brother.  We’d only spotted it that afternoon, a frolicking mound of snow, careering full speed down the mountain. We had started the ascent of the looming mountains in a rush, as we saw the avalanche that had once been in the far distance growing and falling closer. Phil had been ahead by a metre. He probably would have already reached the first shelf already if it hadn’t been for me weighing him down on the other end of the rope. The spikes in my shoes took step after step of my weight, digging into the crystallized snow, which crumbled forlornly under our crushing boots. The pickaxe in my hand swung itself mercilessly into the ice, it had almost become part of me, my second nature, and I didn’t have to put any effort in to yield it affectively. We had only done a couple of metres, a few steps more and we would have reached the first shelf in the snow, but ten minutes into our climb the rope had snapped, and I’d found myself there, back where we’d started, but further below the surface. I had tried to crawl towards the hole I’d fallen through, but as I did my leg had seared with pain, and I found myself stuck at the bottom of the crevasse. The piercing ice dug into my back, water dripped around me from the melting base of the glacier. I called out to hear for an echo, but none returned to my watchful ear. I squinted into the darkness next to me, but could see nothing in the cold shadows of the cave’s depths. My hand gripped shards of ice, clenching them as if they were the rope that had once held me far above the frozen ground. It was the only thing that kept me from blacking out, into the deep, icy realms of unconsciousness, pain kept me alive, pain would keep me safe.

It was hard to feel the cold, though I shivered feverishly. The rucksack on my back felt like lead, my eyes stung as if they had been showered with dust. I did not move for fear of pain, though I knew it was my threshold to keeping conscious. My heart leapt in my throat, my pulse raced, my head felt as if it were a burning fire, flaring dangerously out of control. I closed my eyes to try and stop the stinging, but it made my brain throb with the idea of them not opening again.

I heard the ice creaking, loudly as if it were a rusty hinge, and the steady beat of it lulled me into a peaceful escape in the back of my mind. I tried to remember what it was, that had sounded like it long ago. Somewhere in the depths of my memories one was leaping back into my head, jumping out at me. The sound kept a monotonous tone, like the metronome that used to sit on the polished brown piano at home, swinging happily to the drone of various melodies that had been scrawled across the piano’s keys. And then I remembered the source of the long forgotten creaking; the small grey gate at home, that our uncle had promised to fix, but never got round to. It swung gaily at night, depriving many of sleep, as the fierce southern winds would blow through it. I used to listen to it when I had been a kid, as I watched the tree shadows dance across the ceiling of the room, and the moon cast silver rays over the floor.  Phil used to be able to jump over it, without even touching its thin, grey wood, and he used to snigger as he watched me try over and over, collapsing on the other side as I got caught on the wood. I had been annoyed, as I was his senior by three years, and until then had prided myself in being able to do everything he could, two, if not three times better.

I remembered when we had been jumping off the chicken shed, onto the massive piles of sharp, needle like hay, over and over, pretending we could fly. The shed was high up, two or three metres, which seemed like the sky to us bunch of six year olds. Phil had been too scared to jump; he stood at a safe distance behind a gum tree, watching me and my friends jumping over and over again. But the third time I jumped my leg had seared with pain, and I lay in the mound of hay that had been trampled down to the ground, the pitchfork having revealed itself to its disturbance. Everyone had run away, too scared to face the source of the scream, and I had been left alone. But then I had seen my dad running from the house, closely pursued by my mum, who was being trailed by Phil. Dad ran over to me, and having discarded of the fork, carried me to the car in the backyard, in which we drove to the nearest hospital. Mum and dad were panicking, they thought I was going to black out, but Phil sat next to me calmly, saying “It’s okay Mike, I got mum and dad. Everything’s okay.” He smiled serenely, and looked outside the window, watching as the silver gum trees and golden blooming wattles sped past the window. “Everything’s okay.” But it was different now. Mum and dad were back in Australia, Phil was somewhere in the east mountains. No-one was coming to get me this time.

And I could smell the scent of the car seat’s weathered leather. I remembered the sound of its engine and how it spluttered and revved for several minutes before starting. I remembered how dad had to get out and push it when it wouldn’t start, and then run back into the car when it had started to roll slowly down the hill. The metal on the seatbelt would burn if you touched it, and the sun shone off the windows and into your eyes. I remembered the belts that scratched your neck, and the thread bare carpet that was dusted with grains of soil and sand.

I remembered the drive to the beach, across the highway and out onto the dirt road through the bush. Past fields and fields of green pastures, scattered by various animals, cows and sheep that ran through the fresh cut grass. The sky was always blue, at least how I remembered it, the white washed clouds had cleared for those moments, the golden sun glared down, watching us. We stopped at a sand covered break in the bush land, surrounded by rocks and a few small gum trees. We got out of the car and Phil and I ran down towards the ocean, through the millions of small grains of silvery sand that covered the brown dirt of the ground. We dismissed the shells that were dug back into the sand under our weight, our sights only set on being the first one into the blue tide. The waves crashed onto the sunlit land, we ran through them as they broke, diving down into its waters. Mum and dad set out deck chairs, and spread out a picnic blanket which was covered with many a delicacy, raspberry pie and cream buns, apple tart and lemon squash. Mum was smiling and dad was laughing, Phil was beside me, poking fun. The gulls flew high above us, screeching for food. Crabs circled and buried themselves into the soft sand. The wind blew into the crevasse, down into my face. For a moment I thought I could taste the salt in the air, but found that my memories were just so vivid that I could feel the richness of the sand beneath me, I almost had to reach out to make sure that Phil wasn’t really there.

My head was brought back to my grim reality with a splash of icy water striking me between the eyes. I tried to shield myself from the constant dripping by covering my head with my arm, but the water seemed keen to find me as it kept coming from a different direction above me. I tried to crawl away from its torture but my leg felt like red hot metal and my rucksack weighed me down further. I just managed to drag off my bag and recovered my ski mask which I had foolishly forgotten to put on before the climb. I pulled the mask over my head, but could still feel the melting ice as it hit me, over and over again. I rummaged around in my rucksack to try and find my sleeping bag, but then remembered we had left them behind at the campfire before we’d started the ascent, presuming we’d make back to our base two kilometers away. “Leave almost everything,” Phil had advised. “Apart from the food, but make your bag as light as possible.” I’d obliged, chucking everything I could, oblivious of what was about to happen. It reminded me of going camping in the springtime, out in the bush land ten kilometers from the house. The birds would call out as we passed beneath them, through the forest of huge gum trees and dense greenery. Blackberry bushes marked the path, a bending route of trodden down bracken. Wallabies would sometimes run ahead of us, and disappear in a vast array of overgrown fields of dried grass. Wombats were a rare find; they only seemed to come out at dusk, when the far stretching shadows would hide them from us, but kangaroos came out to watch us, as we trekked through the sun drenched land. We used to set up a campfire of wood we found lying on the forest floor, and light a wax match that would keep burning until it had charred the whole stick, throwing it onto the pile to keep it burning. The dancing flames spat out at you, as stray sparks shot up, high into the starless sky, mingling with the rising cinders before falling back down to earth. We would set out stale bread and off cuts of meat, which we toasted over the fire. At night you could hear the crickets chirping, slowly and steadily calling out. The moon threw shadows across the roof of the tent, like the ones that danced across the ceiling of our room. The cool breeze blew through the door of the tent, and under the gap between it and the ground, causing a draft that circled around the confined space inside. The kookaburras would sing at dawn, waking you to find a rising sun casting an orange hue across the sky.

And suddenly the sweet smells of spring flooded back to me, the plums rotting under the gum tree in the back yard, the wind that brought the scent of the roaring beach, and the sweet sugar of the jam our mother used to make out of the fruit on the apricot tree. I could hear the magpies screeching and the kookaburra laughing, and the slow creaking of the gate as it swung back and forth.

And as I heard the ice creaking I thought of home. I didn’t even feel the weight of the avalanche, as it tumbled down into the old crevasse, and buried me under its white blanket of glistening snow.