Except the Snow by David Arnold
White Winter Hymnal by Fleet Foxes
I was following the pack, all swallowed in their coats
With scarves of red tied ’round their throats
To keep their little heads from falling in the snow, and I turned ’round and there you go
And Michael, you would fall and turn the white snow red as strawberries in the summertime
Except the Snow by David Arnold
PART ONE: Let’s Shake Hands
Uncle Mike is the kind of guy who refers to himself as “an outdoorsman.” He wears one of those fur-lined hats with the flappy ears, and dresses in mostly bright colors and/or camouflage on the off chance that he might be called upon to go hunting at the literal drop of a hat. It’s the Outdoorsman Code, I think, to be steeped in the ways of emergency preparedness. Disaster scenarios, fallout shelters, Plans A-Z, maps of the house that outline routes from the dining room to the backyard with the highest level of efficiency, etcetera, etcetera—Uncle Mike just can’t get enough of that shit.
Honestly, it’s to the point where I think he wakes up in the morning, rubs his hands together and says, “Maybe this will be the day it all falls apart.”
Call me crazy, but I don’t think a person can spend that much time preparing for something to get here without hoping it eventually arrives, even if that thing is some post-apocalyptic wet dream wherein the destruction of the planet is on a massive enough scale to warrant a person living in a bunker with twenty-seven years worth of bottled water and beef jerkey.
So that’s my Uncle Mike. The Outdoorsman. Prepared for pretty much disaster. (And maybe hoping for it.)
Also, he loves fishing. Ice fishing, especially. (More on this, and how it’s pertinent to this story in a moment. But first…)
I’m the kind of guy who refers to himself as “an indoorsman.” I generally wear sweatpants and baggy hoodies. The occasional slipper has been known to find its way onto my frozen feet. I like couches. Pillows are good. Carpets are preferable, but rugs on hardwood will do in a pinch. Scalding hot showers. That sort of thing.
As far as preparedness goes, I’m prepared for cake.
I have a dip prepared for any and all chips that may come my way. I’m prepared to whine about the temperature in the room. If I stub my toe, I am prepared to let loose a string of highly efficient curses, each one tailored to the exact specifications per the severity of the stubbing.
So that’s me. The Indoorsman. Prepared for cake, chips, cursing, rugs, etcetera.
Also, I hate winter.
Having just given a short overview of my general disposition, this should not come as a shock. But really—what could be more uncomfortable than a perpetually drippy nose? My blood runs thin enough as it is, any thinner and I might disappear altogether. Coats, hats, scarves, mittens, it makes no difference. There is no defense so thick, no device so capable as to ward off the thick capability of shivers. Also, my fingers lose their ability to feel and grip, which is basically why they’re along for the ride, you know? I mean take away feeling and gripping and what you have are ten useless digits hanging from your hands like giant slugs for all of eternity. (Unless you cut them off, which I never planned on doing. Call me old fashioned.)
Here. Let’s shake hands, and move on.
PART TWO: 4:07 vs. 4:09
“You got all your stuff?” asks Uncle Mike.
“Yeah,” I say.
I clear my throat and roll my internal eyes. “Sorry. Yes, sir. I have all my stuff.”
“Don’t apologize,” says Uncle Mike. “Makes you sound weak. Now let me see it.”
We’re standing in his kitchen. It’s 4:07 in the morning. I’m not sure which part has me more flabbergasted: the part where I’m in Uncle Mike’s kitchen at 4:07 in the morning, or the part where I’m standing upright at 4:07 in the morning. Both. Equally.
“See what?” I ask.
“Your stuff. Gotta double-check. Last thing we need is to get out on the ice only to realize you left behind your backup auger bit.”
Backup auger bit. I can’t make this shit up.
I’ve never been ice fishing, a fact that Uncle Mike simply cannot wrap his (very warm) head around. He’s been giving my mom grief about it basically since I came out of the womb.
I’m seventeen now.
You do the math.
So last night Mom dropped me off here with my “stuff,” told me not to gripe too much and she’d give me $20 for GameStop. One Hungry-Man frozen dinner and one episode of Dick Van Dyke later, it was off to bed. “It’s 8:30,” I’d said, when Uncle Mike started shutting off the lights. “Smart kid,” said Uncle Mike, walking down the hall to his room. “You think it’s early now, wait till four in the morning.” And that was it. He shut the door to his room, and I spread out on the futon in the living room for the next four hours like an idiot, wondering if I could hitchhike home.
4:09 AM sucks just as much as 4:07 AM, for the record.
PART THREE: “Fun”
Like I said, I’ve never been ice fishing.
I’ve only been regular fishing once. My favorite parts about regular fishing include: not freezing my balls off, of which I’m a huge fan. But as far as I can tell, not freezing your balls off is not a part of ice fishing.
Uncle Mike parks the truck in a lot near Caspian Lake. We get out and once again, he asks if I “have all my stuff.” Part of the Outdoorsman’s Code, I suppose, is constantly checking and double-checking that you have all your stuff. Like I’m some dumb kid who might forget to bring his fishing gear on a fishing trip. (In Uncle Mike’s defense, he’s pretty consistent: he does the same thing in the summer with swim trunks at the pool, and the same thing in spring with my glove at the ballgame. The man just loves double-checking stuff.)
Anyway. He’s the one with most of the stuff we need. He quadruple-checks the gear (including a couple of small chairs), sets it all on a sled, and off we go, trudging through the snow, and out to the safe zone on Caspian. He spends some time cutting a hole in just the right spot while I spend some time sitting in the chair watching him cut a hole in just the right spot.
“I can’t feel my feet.”
“All part of the experience,” he says.
“I might like to experience something else.”
He picks up a pole, hands it to me. “Don’t be a punk.”
PART FOUR: Strawberries
We do nothing at all for almost exactly six hours, which as far as I can tell is also a thing called “fishing.” Uncle Mike keeps saying things like, “This is basically the greatest place in Vermont,” and “This is the life.”
I miss my couch.
And my slippers.
A couch and some slippers are the life.
Over the course of six hours, Uncle Mike and I catch negative seven fishes. Yep. Negative seven. Uncle Michael, being the thorough, double-checker that he is, brought a small assortment of minnow to use as bait, and so far he’d managed to lose seven of them.
I wrap my scarf tighter around my throat and sit there by the hole like an idiot, again wondering at the feasibility of hitchhiking, and also what it will be like to live with ten useless digits instead of fingers for the rest of my life. (They are surely a lost cause at this point.) I do these things while watching Uncle Mike lose the fish he’d brought in order to catch fish.
Suddenly—and quite out of character for my Uncle Mike—he swears. Not like an F-bomb. Really, what he said could hardly even count as a swear. But for him, it’s the equivalent of me stubbing my toe twice in one hour. So yeah. Pretty bad. And then—the Indoorsman in me could scarcely believe my eyes—he punches the ice. Not once, but twice.
For the moment, my brain abandons all thoughts of frozen appendages and testicles, etcetera, etcetera, and thinks only of the unprecedented turn of events happening before me.
“Um, Uncle Mike?”
He does not answer. Very calmly, he removes his gloves—his knuckles are bright red and smeared with blood. I’m not sure if there’s an official way to know when a person is supposed to be done ice fishing for the day, but punching the ice is a pretty good sign, I think. We pack up our stuff in silence and start the walk back to Uncle Mike’s truck, away from Caspian Lake and the dreaded ice fishing… hole… thingy.
Uncle Mike walks ahead of me. I watch his shoulders move up and down as he breathes—he’s mad, I can tell. (I wave off the joke in my head, something about how maybe we should have double-checked his ice fishing skills.) And he’s trailing blood—his knuckles dripping red onto the ground, each drop turning the white snow red as strawberries in the summertime. That part is actually quite beautiful. So maybe I hate everything about the cold except the snow.
I smile as I walk.
I’m not happy Uncle Mike got hurt. Honest. But we came out here together, braving the bitter elements to cut a hole in the ground in the hopes of catching an innocent wet creature, and, very possibly, skinning, cooking, and eating that creature for dinner. One Outdoorsman, one Indoorsman: we came together, we failed together.
But only one of us is bleeding right now.
The other is daydreaming about chips.
David Arnold is the author of MOSQUITOLAND (Viking/Penguin, 2015). Previous jobs include freelance musician/producer, stay-at-home dad, and preschool teacher. He is a fierce believer in the power of kindness and community. And chips. He believes fiercely in chips. David is represented by Dan Lazar at Writers House. You can find him at davidarnoldbooks.com and on Twitter @roofbeam.