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Image: ‘Frozen water’, Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Somewhere close to the end of things, we drive past a pond and see that only its frozen surface remains, two inches thick and half an acre across, just levitating there. How is this possible? we ask ourselves, and we stop the car to look. The pond’s surface has frozen around a stand of cattails, and that’s what is propping it up now – all those thin, hollow stalks – as though it were the canopy of some modest structure, something we might assemble on a beach or in some other treeless place to keep the sun off the babies. 

Everything beneath the ice has drained away, everything that was not solid. Where the cattails stop, so does that unlikely architecture; here is the edge of the frozen sheet, clean and deliberate as a cross-section, the fogged blue of sea glass. We can see where the cattails pass through the ice, spearing it, reaching on into the January sky and holding the pond surface up there triumphantly, three feet above the ground. Beyond the cattails, the surface lies in hard white pieces in the empty bed, shattered like an opaque mirror. 

The babies want to crawl in under there and play, but we don’t let them. A few broken stalks and the ice ceiling might collapse and crush them. But we understand the impulse. They have only recently learned to walk, to fling themselves clumsily between what they have and what they want. You and I have been upright for decades (not having gained much grace for all that) and still we’d like to walk out onto it, onto the lofted ice, to see if this implausibility can hold our weight. But we are superstitious. Because even though we can envisage the chain of events that might cause such a thing to happen – a blocked drain, a snap freeze, an unblocked drain, the surprising but not impossible strength of cattails – it is still magic. It is magic in the sense that there is no metaphor you can build out of it that will not undermine its magic.

It is magic in the sense that there is no metaphor you can build out of it that will not undermine its magic.

We stand at the roadside looking out at it for ten or fifteen minutes, holding tight to our daughters, who flap belligerently at the ends of our fingers like poorly trained kestrels. Then we get back into the car and drive to your sister’s house, where the salmon is overdone and nothing extraordinary happens. Where we try with our rickety metaphors, and cannot even get them to judder across the table. We watch them fall over between the salt shaker and the cruet stand. Your sister grows tired of humouring us and begins clearing the dinner plates, with their neat little piles of translucent bones. 

What passes for fun with you two, she says. Christ Almighty. 

While your sister is in the kitchen I swipe through the photographs, and find every one of them wanting, paling in comparison to the remembered pond. I hold the phone up for you to look. 

This isn’t quite it, is it? 

No, you say, leaning across the table. That just looks like an ordinary frozen pond. 

Several hours and many miles before the uplifted pond, I had prayed in a vague and wordless sort of way to whatever nameless thing we entreat when we do not believe in God. It’s hypocritical, you’ve told me this. To still want signs. To scratch for evidence of predestination – something bigger than ourselves with its chin above our heads, its paws upon our shoulders. Something to tell us, Yes, go on, this is the way to go. 

But at your sister’s table we are still working with what we have. What we have is whatever hasn’t drained away. I say this aloud. I am that dumb. I wind it up and I let it go, watch it teeter then topple over (salt shaker, cruet stand) before it gets to you. Sitting right there across from me, still hopeful. Still waiting for something you can trust your weight on.

This story is an extract from Josephine Rowe’s Here Until August, published this month by Black Inc.

Here Until August is available now at Readings.