"Aniu" was originally published in Burning Water Magazine.
In a wintered city divided by a river there will always be those who see frozen water not as a danger, but as an extension to an already perilous toboggan route.
If you’re lucky, these routes will be no more than nature’s luge. Steep grooves will propel you through and around evergreens and stone under the watchful eyes of a whitetail which, in turn, is under the watchful eyes of a gray wolf.
If you’re unlucky, your choice of mount may catch a rock or an uprooted branch, stiff and hardened with frost. Nature’s debris will send you off course and release you out onto the surface of the North Saskatchewan River.
My luck has always sat squarely in the middle of the spectrum, which is nothing to complain about, but it’s difficult to make predictions.
Jamal and I had taken toboggans down this stretch of hill every winter since we were ten years old. It was off any marked trail and through the trees that lined the river. We always knew to take a sharp left turn at the innocuous metal post that had been planted alongside the strip of pine that lined the top of our destination. The first time we came we wrapped an orange bag around the post to mark the spot. It had held through the four years since.
I gave myself an inspired push-off; the virgin crystals beneath me released a whispered sigh as I sped over them.
The wind sliced at my eyes and moisture was pushed to their edges, the tears warping the blurred greens and blacks like a fish-eye lens in my peripheral.
This is why I didn’t see the hole. It was large, but obscured by a small ridge of undisturbed white. I sailed across its mouth but fell just short of clearing it. The thin strip of wood beneath me slammed into the far side, which jarred me enough to fall from it. Once the toboggan had shook itself free of me, it spun through the air a few times before carrying on, riderless, down the hill.
I don’t remember the fall. It was probably a little less than six feet. I do remember it being dark even though the hole was open to the afternoon sky.
Still at the top, Jamal was treated to the sound of snapping bone as it echoed from the pit to the top of the hill with a clarity that could have been mistaken as a crack in his own inner ear.
I imagine he waited for a moment to hear a response, a sign of life. He didn’t get one. Not even from the black birds that watched from their perches in the naked trees. Not even from the wind that was chatting with the orange bag on the metal pipe only moments earlier.
My eyes quickly adjusted to the limited light. Root networks snaked their way through dark soil around me. Bulbous then thin, whatever nature required. There was something else in the dirt though. I brushed my gloved hand against it and heard the familiar sound of newspaper crinkling. I grabbed a few of the pages firmly and wrestled them from their home tucked between layers of earth and root and rock. Bringing them closer, I could see the bold-printed headlines of the Edmonton Journal. It was dated January 26, 1972. The weather section. It predicted a temperature of -48 degrees Celsius. I took hold of another bundle of sheets and wrenched them from the opposite side of the hole – a similar read. An inspection of a few more pages revealed the same.
I heard the wind whistle over the hole above me and along with it the faintest voice calling to me. It started as a whisper that found itself into the pit, passing by the old roots and frozen dirt to meet me. I thought it said my name.
No. It hadn’t been my name, after all.
It was followed by the sharp aural crack of a raven’s call. The bird stared down from the branches that bent over the hole before jumping around nervously, pushing a few clumps of snow down towards me. Its head moved from side to side before it cocked slightly, trying to make sense of what it saw by approaching it from a different angle.
I heard the voice again.
This time it was like someone screaming through a pillow.
I’m not sure how much time I spent in that hole waiting for Jamal to come and get me. He never came, though. The first face I saw was a stranger’s. His head poked over the edge of the opening and he said something to me in a reassuring tone.
I didn’t know how to respond. He was dressed all in white. I remember him moving swiftly down to meet me, the cool air rushing in with him. He grabbed me by my wrists and his icy hands fused to my skin like a warm tongue to a cold metal pole. I tried to scream but it was half choked in my throat by sensation. I must have passed out when he tried to move me.
When I woke again I was being loaded into an ambulance. Jamal was standing beside the stretcher. He told me he was sorry he hadn’t come down after me. He had run to get help. He asked me how I had climbed out of the hole. I told him I hadn’t. He looked back at me confused and told me everything was going to be all right. I told him again that I didn’t climb out, that someone had helped me.
Something had helped me.
It was a warm winter’s day the following year when I returned. The hole remained. It was a little deeper now. There were more papers stuffed into cracks and crevices, around roots and stems. I unrolled the newspaper in my hand, pulled out the weather section, and dropped it into the hole. The paper landed and bent on the angles it found below. A cool wind whipped around my face and jacket. I kneeled at the side of the opening and squinted my eyes. The newspaper was almost entirely underneath the soil now. It was being consumed, added to the collection. The roots around the sides of the hole seemed to shudder along with me.
“What is this place?” I whispered. The words froze in the air. The moisture from my breath hung still in front of me.
From behind a nearby tree I heard the word that had been spoken to me a year earlier.
I had looked it up while I recovered in the hospital. It was one of many Inuit words referring to snow.
A white figure darted its head around the pine like a bird or a nervous gopher. It stepped out from behind the tree, its legs one with the ground beneath it. Its movement was so smooth it made the contrast of its flitting head all the more unsettling. It approached me with unknown intentions and yet I did not move.
It extended an arm towards me, its palm up, white as the snow beneath it. Icy blue veins ran cool beneath the surface. It touched its wrist with its other hand then pointed towards me.
I looked down at my own hands and saw the discoloured skin where it had gripped me a year earlier. The hospital hadn’t been able to explain how I had received such a localized frostbite.
“It’s okay. It does not hurt now,” I said, as if speaking to a child.
The figure had no discernable features despite having a human form. Its connection to the snow beneath it made me wonder if that was merely for my benefit.
“Who are you?” I asked.
I probably should have guessed that.
It made a curious noise then, like sand being poured from a bucket. From its centre it produced a paper. My paper. The one I had just thrown into the hole. It offered it back to me. It pointed towards a second paper it produced. They were both weather sections. My paper had a low temperature of -16 degrees Celcius, the second had a low of -37 degrees Celcius. It was from several weeks earlier during a cold spell.
I took my unwanted newspaper back. This place was not a collection; it was a trophy room.
As quickly as it had come the Snow left me, receding back into the landscape.
I returned to the hole once each year for the next sixty years of my life. Upon each visit, I made sure to drop only the coldest recorded temperature of that winter down into the hole. I never saw Aniu again, so I believe it was pleased with my offerings.
I am 74 years old today and my body will not be able to make the journey next winter. This will be my last. The phone my grandchildren bought me tells me the temperature is currently -46 degrees Celcius. The phone is locked and I have not been able to remember the password in over a week. I cannot remember the names of my grandchildren either, for that matter. Last night, before I went to bed, I suffered a brief moment of panic as I thought there was a stranger in bed beside me. I cannot bear to lose the memory of her too.
I walk the same path I did as a child. The orange bag is no longer tied to the metal post and the triangular tops of new homes can be seen encroaching on the edges of this space. The air bites at the backs of my spotted hands and my ears, covered in fine grey hair now, have already lost feeling. I press a hand against my coat and feel the newspaper crinkle under my jacket. I forgot my scarf.
The night has fallen fast and the path is hard to make out. I have forgotten much, but I have not forgotten this. My eroded memory pulls me through the thick wood to the hole and I marvel at its blackness having never stood here at night.
I recall once having a flashlight attached to a keyring. I reach for it, but I must have left my keys behind somewhere. I look to the sky and the stars stare back as silent sentinels. I wrap my arms around myself, squeezing the paper tightly. I look down to my feet. They are blue and I realize I have come to the pit in my slippers.
I imagine it is watching me, but am never certain. Then it rises beside me. A silver pillar slowly mimicking my form. It reaches out and motions for the newspaper. I pull it from my jacket, my knuckles white as I tighten my grip on it. It waves for it, eager to return to its chilly depths.
“No. You take me this time.”
Its arm recoils. It has no features and yet I sense its confusion. My feet are too numb now and I fall to my knees. The ice is a razor to my legs.
I had never heard it say another word.
I nod in response.
It considered the idea for only a moment before wrapping itself completely around me. The clothes I had offered no protection and the sensation was so extreme that it could not possibly be described simply as cold, but absolute. It started at my extremities and quickly worked its way up my arms and legs to my core. I felt solid for the first time in my life as it filled the valleys of my wrinkled skin and the crevices left behind in my memory that disease stole. I became as stone, frozen in an eternity of falling snow.
In a wintered city divided by a river there will always be those who see frozen water not as a danger, but as an extension to an already perilous life.