Watch Over Me
The skates go on, laces done up tight, biting faintly into the thick socks, pressing on skin. I stand, test the shoes, roll my ankles, shift my weight. They hold, loyal, steadfast. Satisfied, I look out across the frozen lake, glittering beneath a bright sun, blue sky. A cold wind whips flurries of snow from the lake’s edge, wisps of white dancing across the ice. It beckons me, that familiar song, that old pull. I wait, by instinct, as if I might here that old voice again, whispering, coaxing. It is silent.
With a deep breath, I clear my mind, exhale out the chaos, the demons. Clouds of white swirl around my lips. I step out onto the ice, passing through it, dispelling the cloud. With gliding strokes, as though to paint the ice, I sweep forward. Slow, at first, tentative almost on the frozen ice, straining to hear the sound of the ice beneath me. How it yields, holds, remains sturdy. No cracks disrupt the moment and I go faster, stretching out until my limbs begin their feint burn.
Beneath my layers I am warm, alive and this carries me as I start my sweeping arcs of the lake. I quicken my pace now, shorter strides, then I’m up, spinning. For one singular moment, I fly. My skate hits the ice, firm, and I carry through, landing on one leg, the other poised out, arms spread wide like wings. I finish the wide circle, lower my leg and go to the centre, controlling my speed. No reckless movements.
Precision, Anya, precision and perfection is all that matters, says my mother’s voice in my ear.
I can picture her at the lake’s edge, rugged up in the finest wares, arms folded across her broad chest. Eyes narrow, slits so thin I wonder how she can see me, capture every tiny fault. Somehow, she does, and I correct myself. Straighten up, lift the chin, control every stride with practised ease, always smile. Frowns make you age, don’t you know? Do as I say, she’d say, frowning. Years aren’t kind on her anymore but, really, nothing about her is kind. Was ever kind.
Those quiet whispers chase me around the ice, lifting my chin when it drops, poking my back when it isn’t perfect. I am grace, poised perfection.
I sweep into a spin, momentum gaining, ice and flurries of snow chasing my wake, coiling high. Snowflakes dust my cheek, melt, refreeze on the biting snaps of wind. I throw my skate down to stop, firm like I know, confident – and throw my arms wide, awaiting an applause that doesn’t come.
Beneath me, the ice cracks, buckles.
Without time to scream, it swallows me whole.
Darkness rushes up, cold shocking the system. The body is shutting down before my mind can process. Shock, they call it and suddenly I am not there, in that body of mine. I am out of it, floating there in the cold darkness, watching as my body begins to sink. Vacant eyes stare up.
I feel a darkness pull at me, whisper sweet nothing to me, gentle caresses. I reach for it but a shadow plunges down from above, blocking out the light. The shadow takes shape, light defining a body, a face that stops me. A wreath of onyx air swirls around a heart-shaped face, moon-pale skin, sharp features, dark eyes. Long arms reach out to my body, encircle protectively, drawing close. She kicks up, water yielding.
Her hand burst through the water and my world goes black.
The air stinks of chemicals, harsh, sterile. It’s cold, biting against my skin, exposed. My thick clothes no longer protect me. Something thin loosely covers me, something heavier over it. A waffle blanket, I think as I brush my fingers over it, toy with the strange texture.
“Anya?” My mother’s smoke-addled voice croaks, heavy with emotion, kinder than I can ever recall.
The effort to open my eyes is slow, a dragging effort and a groan passes over my lips. A tiny slit at first, blinding light. It softens. I open further, see more, take in the bright white of the room, the medical equipment. My mother, small as a doll, thin in a long sleeve top. Fragile, human. Her smoky grey eyes glisten with tears. They’re wide with grief, relief, love. The sight ought to warm me, make me cry but all I can do is stare…and stare.
Who is this stranger who wears her face, who forces this emotion? What kind of trick is it? What alternate world have I fallen into where I am more than just a measure of her worth? Something to made, changed, broken down, rebuilt. I feel cold, wary of this stranger, tired inside.
“You’re okay. You’re really okay,” she babbles.
“Where is she?” I cut in.
She can’t be serious.
“The girl who dragged me out.”
The girl who bore her face…
She stares, tears wet, frozen on her cheeks, confusion. Her thick brows knit together, nearly forming one, wrinkles burrowing.
“No one was there when we found you on the ice. The claw marks on the ice were from your own fingers. You dragged yourself out. Just like I taught you.”
She sounds lost as she says this, unsure of my coldness, wary of my detachment. The roles are switched. It twists like a knife in my chest, sickens me. In her mind she must’ve expected my tears, a child grateful to be alive, to be held, to be in her mother’s warm embrace. Loved. I’m happy to be alive but that is where my relief ends. A good child would reach for her, assure her of her good motherly concern, return this newfound love. I don’t know how to be any of those things; a child, I never was, and good wasn’t a trait I aimed for. Refined, obedient. That was me. Something hollow, unfeeling. Cold, like ice.
At least, that is what I believed. Seeing those tears return, spill freely down those leathery cheeks, I see a mother for the first time. That mysterious feeling, I heard about from passing whispers. She reaches for me, her hand capturing mine. Soft.
I realise it’s the first time I’ve held her hand like that, tender, shy even. It’s a pleasant feeling, gentle. Warm, like sunshine. Welcoming. I give her hand a squeeze and a smile brightens her face, like the sun on a new day. Something dawning, emerging from the darkness, awakening.
My gaze drifts beyond her, caught by a figure standing in the doorway, semi-transparent. Fading in and out, blurred at the edges, a face defined into startling clarity. The girl who saved me.
My imaginary friend, standing there, not quite there, smiling at me…and me, for the first time, smiling, too. ns 184.108.40.206da2