Seven on Ice
by Lynne Sachs
After two weeks of persistent pleading, a young girl with wispy brown hair and long fingers convinced her parents that she had not only memorized the way through the woods but that she could be trusted to stay strictly on the well-trodden path. This was her first time to take the long, familiar walk alone to the pond on the other side of the stream and down the vine-covered hill.
“Remember dear, no ice allowed,” her mother called as the girl traipsed across the kitchen floor and scooped up her muddy boots from the rack.
After pulling oversized red gloves a few inches past her wrists, she awkwardly tucked her ears under her new knit cap. Heading out the back door of the farmhouse, she noted seven cracks spreading across the cement sidewalk. Yesterday there had been only six. The girl thought to herself, in a light-hearted sort of way, “Perhaps an earthquake shook the ground last night. ” She carefully stepped over a rusty hoe, picked up a branch that had recently fallen from the sick elm tree and strolled toward the pasture beyond the barbed wire fence.
At this point in her life, she had no name so we will continue to call her “girl” for the time being. Indeed, the day the girl was born her mother and father had decided not to give her a name, despite the grumblings among the doctors and nurses at the hospital. Her parents, Rupert and Agnes, had never truly fancied their own names, those which they had received as babies in the small town of St. Michael on the Eastern Shore of Maryland in the early 1960’s. They could see no reason to punish their own daughter with a name she too might detest.
As you can imagine, life immediately became rather challenging. A child without a name gets lost very easily in the maternity ward. A girl without a name does not get a turn feeding the mice in kindergarten. A six year old without a name sometimes is forgotten on the afternoon school bus, only to find herself alone at the bus barn on the wrong side of town. So it was that on this day, March 10, 1988, her seventh birthday, this nameless girl gave herself a name. From now on, she would call herself Seven.
It wasn’t really that she couldn’t think of a better name; and it certainly wasn’t that she had a fondness for numbers. Math had lost its glamour the minute subtraction entered the picture. There were seven acres on the farm her parents had been trying unsuccessfully to sell for the last year. She also had a vague memory of hearing that some people called the number seven lucky. Really, it was very simple; she liked the way it sounded.
A few minutes into the dark, sylvan woods, she boldly lay a small log across the stream to cross the newly thawed water. Once safely and dryly on the other side, she picked up a stick and scratched a few designs in the mud by the old, forgotten fishing dock under the bank.
It was as if the soft, wet earth had absorbed the sound of her mother’s warnings in the living room just a half hour earlier. Seven almost nonchalantly began to walk across the frozen pond at the back of her grandfather Mortimer’s abandoned farm. In fact, she’d never known this man but she got tears in her eyes every time her mother’s father was mentioned. She thought of her grandfather as a dear friend with whom it might be fun to go fishing, an activity she’d never been given the chance to investigate. Seven’s mother had recently become a vegetarian, and she didn’t approve of this kind of sport, not even for old time’s sake.
Seven remembered hearing about Mort’s old sow giving birth to a blind piglet on a June morning in 1965. Her grandfather carried the fuzzy pink newborn into Agnes’ bedroom just as she was opening her eyes. He’d bragged for years that he was the only Jewish pig farmer in the state of Maryland.
Everything about Mort was full of color. Seven had heard a lot of talk about his funny looking asparagus bush shooting green sprouts into the sunshine. She adored the field of yellow daffodils he’d planted 50 years ago that still persisted in coming up despite a recent decade of complete neglect.
One evening, last October, Seven’s Great-Aunt Hallie beckoned Seven to her side with her craggy, bejeweled finger during a large family gathering. Seven thought to herself that Aunt Hallie smelled like a musty coatroom after a heavy rain, and she hoped it wasn’t obvious that her nose pointed in exactly the opposite direction from that of her aunt. Aunt Hallie had always been irritated that Agnes, her niece, had never given her own daughter a name. It seemed silly and improper, qualities Hallie was unable to tolerate. “I’ve been watching you, dear”, said her great-aunt. “You walk through a door and survey the room like my brother, your grandfather, used to do: you wait; you think and then you seem to pounce.” From that moment on Seven felt a secret connection to her grandfather, and she no longer detested her aunt’s smell quite so much.
Seven tiptoed across the ice, imagining her grandfather in overalls walking just a few feet ahead, pole in hand, a slight whistle floating like moth wings into the crisp afternoon air. A flock of ducks drew sinewy designs in the sky, as if they were writing a secret message for wandering eyes below. She clung tightly to a stone in one pocket and a button in the other and stepped further across the icy surface.
Within a few minutes, her toes felt uncomfortably cold and damp. Seven stooped down to pull up her wet socks, still imagining the old man forging a path towards the glistening center of the pond. The sun played a clever game of hide-and-seek behind a cloud nestled between the branches of some giant oaks along the edge of the field. The wind brazenly hurled a ball of sage bramble against her legs, startling her and causing her to drop the button into a fissure in the ice she hadn’t seen before.
It was at this moment that Seven observed something unusual about the ducks. What she noticed was neither their graceful beauty nor their loud quacking calls but rather the fact that they were flying south instead of north. She pictured her grandfather turning his neck to speak:
“They’re flying in the wrong direction. It’s almost springtime. Something funny is going on here.”
“Must be some broken branches being pulled along by the large gust of wind,” Seven thought to herself. Then a fantastic booming sound from far away in the woods distracted her for a moment. She wondered if a tree had fallen or maybe a hunter had shot a rifle. The ducks too were jostled by the noise. They flew all this way and that like marbles across the kitchen table.
A strange series of shapes were whirling and spinning high in the sky near the birds.
Seven tied her second shoelace and looked up once more. In the distance, she made out the words “Turn around. The ice is cracking” across the pale pink sky.
The stars were beginning to peek out of the darkness when Seven finally reached her yard. The chickens were filing into the barn, and the smell of freshly baked birthday cake floated deftly from the kitchen. Shivering yet relieved, she drew a backwards seven on the moist glass window, thereby announcing her new name to her family and the world.
273 Carroll Street
Brooklyn, NY 11231