This was the job: sit in the tractor, break the ice, save the world. It was boredom beyond boredom, the sort of monotony that stretched out all day long, but each time Marlo climbed into his tractor, the world became safer by a smudge.
Never let the ice touch the land. Never let it grow.
On one side of the tractor, bolted onto its rickety frame, an enormous drill had been attached; each morning and all day long it was lowered into the ice and with an obnoxious, high-pitched rattle it churned away at the bank of the frozen lake.
And every morning, Marlo saved the world with it.
This winter was especially cold though. Inside the tractor, Marlo warmed his hands on a flask of coffee and turned to face his wondrously melancholic and tired chocolate Labrador, Elsie, who was buried under a mountain of blankets. She occupied the same position that she had for more than a decade now, squidged in between Marlo’s chair and the very back of their tractor. He patted her on the head and she groaned in kind, repositioning herself away from him. And so yes, outside might be bleak and nigh-on atomically desolate but inside this rickety home was all the familial warmth of things in their correct and rightful place.
How many times had they saved the world together? How many winters had they seen out here? Marlo couldn’t remember. And it didn’t really matter. There was a kind of meditation in this boredom, like doing the dishes or waiting for pasta to boil. Saving the world day after day for so very long eventually lost its sex appeal. But it didn’t matter because these morning shifts were his favorite part of the day; hopping into the tractor, taking that first sip of radioactive black coffee, patting Elsie’s head (she would grumble), and then Marlo would glare across the icy lake for several hours in a joyous, brooding contemplation whilst he slowly guided the tractor around the edge of it, churning up all the ice.
Marlo knew, Marlo thought, that if he died right there on the spot then he had played his part. He had sacrificed his life for something noble, just as his father and grandfather had, with countless others like them going back for hundreds of years. There had been so many Ice Breakers in the past but now he was one of only three, each with their own shift. And this was his.
So despite the boredom, this work never failed to make him smile.
But Marlo, Marlo thought again, was a rather humble sort of hero. Marlo was the kind of hero that Marlo couldn’t brag about. But sure, sometimes he would gloat privately to himself about all this; Marlo would stand in line at the grocery store and realize that everyone around him was alive simply because of that morning’s shift. And yes, when someone would cut him off on the motorway, his very first thought would be to skip work the next day and just see what happens to that absolute bastard in the blue Ford Focus. THEN you wouldn’t cut me off, would you lad?
But yes, of course, being an Ice Breaker today was certainly a lot easier than it had been. His father once told Marlo that in the time before machines at least six men were on the lake every morning, and every day they would work around the clock with nothing more than a shovel and a—
The drill spluttered and wheezed and the gnashing of teeth stopped.
Marlo hrmphed emphatically. He stretched to see the drill outside but the snow on the window made that entirely impossible and, despite all the commotion, Elsie remained still under the tower of blankets beside him.
One, two, three swigs of coffee later and, climbing outside, Marlo encountered a gust of icey wind that took his breath away. It almost took his scarf along with it as well. And so at first he struggled and stumbled over to where the drill was attached. He assumed rocks had jammed it all again but everything looked…fine. Maybe it was another electrical problem. Might need to walk back to the cabin and get the toolbox and come back to see what’s going on under the—
Marlo looked out over the lake. He was almost half-way done with this shift, but somewhere out there, he could now begin to hear a song. It was faint, but it was certainly a melody of some kind. Quiet, but growing.
In fact, the song was moving. As if it was being carried by the wind almost. It was no longer on the horizon, but now it drew closer, then suddenly it was very far away. It was coming from the furthest tip of the lake now, out there all the way on the other side. The wind shifted again, forcing Marlo to zip his jacket up to the very top, and the song moved with it. Now…the song…the something…was coming from under the ice itself. From under the lake.
Marlo climbed down half a step onto the bank. The song grew louder as he approached it, although it kept moving, as if the song itself was dancing across the ice, playing with him. Taking a knee, Marlo put a gloved paw on the ice near the drill and could feel a slight vibration that changed and turned with the movement of the song. This had never happened before. What the hell was going on?
Marlo removed a glove and reached out once more, only now with a soft, pink hand extended, he touched the ice.
The music stopped. And then, after a moment, it was everywhere, and everything.
Loud, soft, orchestral, synthetic. Voices packed on top of even louder booming voices. Marlo realized now that what he’d heard wasn’t just a song, but also a conversation. Or many overlapping conversations within a song. He could faintly hear his grandfather joining the swell in a chorus, he could hear Julia’s whisper in his ear and Jeremy’s enormous “Allo!” across the barren lake. And then—a bark!—somewhere out there in the distance, on the horizon, but somehow made clear, was Elsie’s father, Bob. The barks were interrupted by someone’s melodic plodding of Latin, someone’s name he couldn’t remember from grammar school, and the singing was in a language Marlo didn’t recognize. The sound knit together all sorts of banter and crowds of people talking, all of them layered together on top of each other, into the song’s myriad puzzle pieces. It was almost as if Marlo could direct the song as he focused on certain parts of it. Julia’s whisper became a nursery rhyme, but when he focused on the distant crying of a young baby, Marlo gasped and withdrew his hand in shock.
That sound. It was impossible.
The isolation of the lake returned to him. The song had disappeared and now he was alone, save for the rattling of the wind. Marlo wiped his face and found that he had been crying. Without hesitation he climbed onto the lake, now on all fours. He was desperate for more of it, whatever it was. He kept crawling further out until he heard the song return. But this time laughter was stacked on top of laughter, the song had disappeared. Actually—no. The laughter had stopped now, too. Marlo couldn’t hear anything at all because all he could think about was the overwhelming taste of cinnamon on the tip of his tongue and his belly warming with a post-stew glow. He could feel cider bubbling from the tip of his toes up to his knees and he felt the joy of returning to a warm home and a fire with someone you love, someone talking and cooking close by, someone making just another house your home. And the only place you want to be.
Marlo gasped and removed the other glove from his hand, spreading his fingers as wide as possible on the ice this time. Damn the cold, damn everything but this feeling and the memory of that sound. The music began again and Marlo clawed at the ice with both hands. The song was soothing, caressing, holding him together from the inside. And then he could hear the cries of that boy again.
Is that you?
Looking down from above, underneath Marlo outstretched on the lake, you would see a vast shadow move across the ice and then stop. The gargantuan shadow vibrated, violently, until it broke itself up into fragments, darker in patches, lighter in others. It kept splintering and moving until the lake resembled the buzz of an old television. But the shadows all soon faded away, taking the song and the giggling and the taste of cinnamon along with it.
Marlo grasped the ice, not wanting to let go and cried again as the last fragment of the song left him. After what felt like an age he stood up, shaking. The song, the voices, his friends and family evaporated. All that was left was a hateful thought, a plan laid out before him, a future of terrible things that now must be done.
For his boy. For all this music to be set free.
Behold! My newsletter—sent infrequently—about new things that I’m working on. Every so often it’ll contain notes about web design and publishing things that I’m interested in, too.