I never wondered what it’d be like to die in a wooden box—but thanks to a historic ice storm, I almost found out.
The sparse log cabin belonged to my cousin, Onyehte, who lived in Kanesatake, on Cree Road. Built tucked away on the edge of a modest forest, the cabin bordered a field that stretched on for what seemed like forever in the January snow.
“I’m always at my girlfriend’s in the village anyway, Skylar. Come. You can use my cabin,” he said when he heard I needed a quiet place to finish writing my manuscript. My unemployed roommates were too rambunctious to appreciate my need for silence. “You’ll have some peace and quiet—plus, you can take care of Èrhar. I’ll make sure nobody bothers you.”
So Onyehte drove me home to pick up two suitcases: the first containing clothes and everything else a woman needs; I crammed the other with a half written manuscript, notebooks, paper, pens, and books by my favourite authors. I gave my roommates instructions on how to keep my cactus alive, and we drove back from Montreal to Kanesatake.
“Still can’t believe you gave your cat the name ‘Dog.’ You’re gonna give him a complex,” I said, chuckling and shaking my head as I scooped up the fat orange cat who greeted me as I entered the cabin. “You’re lucky you’re a big fella. He should have named you Garfield.”
“Èrhar likes his name. Makes him feel like one of the big boys.”
“I’m putting big boy on a diet.”
Onyehte gave me a tour, a key, and a hug before he was on his way.
That was two months ago.
The solitude was heaven. With the complete silence, besides Èrhar’s occasional demand for food or attention, words flew from my fingers until my hands ached. Scene upon scene oozed out of me, like paste from its tube.
I was three chapters away from finishing my second draft when the freezing rain started on a mild January fifth. It didn’t let up for six days straight. The sky spat out enough freezing pellets to coat multiple provinces and states with three to four inches of solid ice. The temperature hovered around zero degrees celsius. Melting and freezing. Melting and freezing.
The storm had killed over twenty people in Canada so far, most of them dying from hyperthermia, one or two from a fire by heaters being left on for too long. The storm left many in rural areas isolated for weeks, fighting for their lives, scrounging for food, heat, and water, while wishing to see the light in the dark.
Ice as thick as a comforter covered Kanesatake, closing the reserve off from the rest of the world, closing its people from each other. The Canadian army offered to help, but the Kanien’kehá:ka were still raw from the Oka Crisis, and held a grounded mistrust for the army and government, so they refused the help.
That was the last update I received of the storm from an adventurous acquaintance who skated along Center Road, from Route 344 to Pines Road, spreading the news to anyone within earshot of his blaring radio. I barely heard it from where I was collecting snow a few days ago. I didn’t know if he was going to come back anytime soon.
The candlelight flickered as I rubbed my forehead, trying to write as my vision blurred. I searched out the last of the Aspirins, which took a while to get to because most of the rooms had no windows. I found them on the counter and took some melted snow to wash down the pills.
“Time to get more snow, Èrhar.”
I pulled on my winter gear and carried out a large bucket. My feet gave out from underneath me three times while I inched my way from snow pile to snow pile.
“The snow’s almost gone.”
I scanned the large yard from the woods to the end of the fifty-meter long driveway. I had cleared the yard clean of any loose snow. The rest of it was a carpet of solid ice. There was snow in the woods, but the branches were still cracking, crashing down, crushing anything under its path. There was snow on the other side of Center Road, but the power lines hung too low to the ground, being pulled down by icicles the size of toddlers, threatening to break at any moment. Some power lines were already down throughout the area, and it was only a matter of time before these hanging ones joined in on the fun.
“Shit! What am I going to do?”
The landscape was breathtaking. It was white as far as the eye could see. Ice glistened under a clear sky. I stood and stared into the forest, debating on what I could do. The water wouldn’t last longer than a few hours. I needed it to cook; I needed it to bathe; I needed it to flush the damn toilet.
“I need it to live, for crying out loud—wait!”
Smiling, I made my way back to the log cabin, dragged the bucket up two steps and removed my boots before carrying the full bucket to the bathroom. I grabbed two pitchers from the kitchen, filled them with snow and placed them on the stove. I used an empty bucket in the bathroom to scoop up as much of the water that remained at the bottom of the tub and poured it down the toilet without flushing. Then I took the rest of the snow and dumped it into the plugged up tub.
“Now, where is it? Eh, Èrhar? Where’d Onyehte stick his steel shovel? I know he has one.”
The red shovel I’d been using to scoop the snow with was too weak for the job I had planned—the ice would crack it immediately—but a metal one could work. I searched the cabin’s top floor, but found nothing.
“Where the heck is it?”
I hesitated before creeping down the stairs to check out the unfinished basement. I hated the basement. It was haunted with strange sounds and shadows. Onyehte said it couldn’t be though, because he had a medicine man come and bless it. Plus, he never allowed any partying, so no bad spirits were welcome. Still, the basement scared me.
There, hiding behind the secondary fridge, stood a metal shovel.
“Thank my lucky stars.”
I grabbed the shovel and ran up the stairs, two at a time.
My chest heaved as I put back on my boots and made my way back outside. The weather was strange for January still, warming up and cooling down, melting the ice, only to freeze it again. I used the shovel as a crutch so I wouldn’t slip, found a spot close to the doorway, and stabbed it with the shovel—hard enough for my body to rattle. At first nothing happened. But after multiple strikes, a chink cracked through the ice. Another strike, another chink.
I laughed out loud at my brilliance and continued to chip away at the ice, accumulating enough frozen snow to fill a cup before disaster struck. The shovel’s arm splintered in two with what turned out to be my last crack at breaking more ice.
I fell to my knees, picked up the shovel above my head, and slammed it down as hard as I could. The metal cut through my gloves into my hands. I scrubbed at the ice with the corner of the shovel. Thin shavings peeled off, but only with a lot of effort. I stared down at the handful of snow I made, arms sore, hope lost.
“This won’t work,” I said, biting my bottom lip.
Frustrated, I left the broken shovel and headed back towards the cabin.
Something caught my eye.
Far away, on the white sparkling canvas, just between the field and woods, stood a red fox. I held my breath as I watched it watch me. We stood frozen. She slowly lowered her head, never losing eye contact, and bit into the snow. Oh, how I wish I could have some.
A branch cracked near the fox, startling it, sending it on its way. It maneuvered its body across the ice with little trouble.
“I wish I could move like that, too. Lucky fox.”
I shoved a handful of snow into my mouth, melting it with my warmth, and retreated to the cabin, defeated.
“Come on, Èrhar. Let’s see if there’s something left to eat.”
I nuzzled the cat’s fuzzy head as I carried him to the kitchen, grabbed the last bag of cat food, emptying its contents into his dish, before throwing out the bag. I checked the cupboard: a box of Kraft Dinner, two cans of corn, and a box of jello. Choosing the corn, I opened a can and picked a few kernels out with my fingers. There was no more water to wash the dishes with, so I took two more bites before finding a container to keep the rest in. I opened the fridge, gagged, and slammed it shut. A dead animal smell lingered in the air.
My stomach flipped. The corn sat in my belly like lumps of rock. I wished I had some potatoes to go with them. Or perhaps a bowl of soup. My mouth salivated and dried up just as fast. Water. I wanted water.
My determination rose as I grabbed a hammer, stepping out into the howling winds. I had stopped taking off my boots and coat around the same time I ran out of wood for the wood stove. The wind doubled the cold air’s bitter attack, which didn’t bother me too bad, while I was inside.
“Wearing layers is key,” my grandfather used to say. I took his advice to heart, wearing two pairs of long Johns, two pairs of my cousin’s jogging pants, a tank top, two long-sleeved shirts, a sweatshirt and coat, with two pairs of gloves. I removed some or added more depending on how cold it was. Lately, I noticed I’d been wearing more and more.
I chose a spot of ice, exposed the hammer’s claw, and hacked away until chunks broke off with a skilled hand. I threw the chunks in a bucket, kneeled back, stretching my arms and neck before pushing off the ground into a standing position. Tired, I rushed through the clear path I was making inch by inch towards the road.
Not a soul passed the entire time I was out there. They never did.
I picked up some twigs and branches that I had stacked beside the cabin and brought them in to dry. I climbed down the stairs, feeling each step rather than seeing them, until my boot was immersed in water.
“What the hell?”
I dropped the wood and peered down into the basement. I couldn’t see anything, but I felt it. Water. Freezing cold water. The basement was flooded and there was no electricity for the sub pump. The generator had busted a while ago.
I left the wood where it lay and sat down at the couch.
“What am I going to do? The wood stove is down there.”
No answers came to me.
Time past and the cabin got colder. I had blankets covering Èrhar and me as we cuddled and tried to pool our body heat. All I wanted to do was sleep. I snuggled into the blankets, getting more and more comfortable. The cold wasn’t bothering me so much anymore. I could barely feel it.
My eyes had weights on them. Failing to keep them open, I drifted towards sleep when a slow hum of electricity started up. I peeled my eyes open, straining to make out where the noise was coming from. The lights flickered. I gasped. Every light, television and radio turned on simultaneously. It was as the electricity jumped into my body as well.
“Oh, God!” I ran for the phone. “Onyehte! You’re all right!”
“Yes! How are you? I haven’t been able to get to you yet.”
“There’s no more food and your basement flooded yesterday. I almost died. Get me out of here.”
“I’m working on it.”
The lights dimmed.
“Oh, no! The lights!”
“Don’t worry. Everyone is using power now, so the lights will go on and off. Don’t worry about it.”
“I want to go home.”
“Soon. A few hours. Skylar, I promise.”
I grabbed my frozen boots, placed them strategically by the heater, and sat down beside them, rubbing my gloved hands all over my body.
I stayed in that position for hours until Onyehte showed up, watching television from the other side of the room. There were twenty-eight people dead now. Hundreds injured. Millions upon millions in damages.
“And I survived. I survived The Great Ice Storm of ‘98.”