The lake had glazed over and the ice had hardened and grown thick that year without any snow at all, making the safest ice you could hope for. Lake Willoughby is by many considered the most beautiful winter lake in the area. This is because due to its depth it is the last lake in Vermont to freeze solid, mostly not before late January or early February and thus remains snow free even as most of the other lakes are covered under a harsh monotonous blanket of snow. The color of the ice of their lake changed with the moods of the clouds racing over the sky on a sunny day and could change from green to blue to black within the course of a few hours.
If you have ever walked on ice without snow cover you know it is like magic, like walking over a window into a strange world from which you are separated by just a few centimeters.
With patience, just before nightfall, and if like Vermont kids you are able to hold very still despite the cold, if you manage to be one with the frozen world without moving, the fish will come close to the surface of the ice and you can watch the burbot from above as about a dozen males and females form a writhing ball several feet in diameter and dance what looks like an agonizing devilish dance under water, rolling over the bottom of the shallows and muddying the waters under the black ice. „Don´t forget,” said the father to Joe underneath his breath, before he started to pull up the hooks, “these burbot devils are creatures of the deep and yet the good Lord sends them up for us to be sustained through winter.”
They certainly looked devilish, thought Joe, their heads were flat, their large mouths with pursed lips contain several rows of small sharp teeth, but Joe who loved any living creature still felt sorry for them when they lay on the ice after their father had hauled them up skillfully. When their eyes broke and glazed over, separated from their world but by a few inches of frozen ice, even the grim appearance created by the barbel that hung from the lower jaw made them look pitiful to the boy.
But his father never failed to remind him that they were mighty strong predators, skimming the shallows for smaller and larger creatures to feast on, crayfish, perch, minnows and even landlocked salmon almost their own size. Fearless they are, he said, don´t pity them. And they will fight back when they have fallen prey to your bait and hooks.“ Father had woken Joe and Will in the afternoon when it was still light outside but the shade was starting to flow into the valley between the mountains and spilled over the dark ice like the schoolmaster´s dark blue ink.
This hour remained Uncle Joe´s most favorite time of a winter day until he got very old. If it coincided with a fading winter sun over Mount Hor to the West, Uncle Joe would absent himself from any kind of work he happened to be pursuing at the very moment and despite his beloved and feared wife Aunt Melissy´s stern glance he would walk down to the shore to gaze out into the illuminated blue valley that had replaced the silver rippled summer lake.
He would always come back home with far away eyes as if he had looked beyond the borders of what lay in the past and his usually twinkling eyes were calm and serene for the remainder of the day. Did he still then hear his father´s words, the words the old man had addressed to the brothers that winter night before they went ice fishing almost holding them back by the collar so eager had they been to get out there the first time that very winter? The father had warned them to spread their gear out evenly and orderly over a well organized area, under no circumstances were they to drop it all in one place in order to distribute the weight more evenly over the ice.
He had spoken with a stern voice, looking them into their eyes to ascertain they were listening, even though they had heard his speech many winters, time and again.
Joe remembered the grin Will gave him, as father was issuing his final warning before they were allowed to step out on to the ice: „Boys, listen up. If you fall through the ice, try not to panic. It´s just very cold water, nothing you are not used to. Turn toward the direction from which you came and carefully place your hands and arms on the unbroken surface, working your body forward onto the ice by kicking your feet. Once out, remain lying on the ice and do not stand up or you might fall through again, and then roll away from the hole. Roll or crawl back to your tracks until you return to solid ice.â€œ
And thus they had ventured out, all three of them, Joe with his father, carrying his share of gear and keeping his eyes on the dark transparent surface of the ice while following in his father´s light steps. They quickly reached their respective camp places which were to be set up around precut ice holes his father had maintained over the last few days.
Every once in a while Joe looked up to see Will´s small figure in the distance setting up camp at the second hole about a hundred feet away. Both Will and his father first took out a skimmer and carefully but forcefully broke the sheet of ice that had glazed over the newly cut hole during the last 6 hours since father had last been out and then fished out the ice fragments and the slush underneath that would continue forming over the course of the night. Joe´s father then handed over the skimmer to the boy who fastened it to his belt with a thin cord. It would be his chore to skim the ice slush out of his father´s fishing hole over the night while Will had to do his own. He had to do this gently so the burbot wouldn´t be scared off. It was an important chore.
The ground was clear ice under their feet and night was already settling in. This was the most beautiful hour when the ice was shimmering blue as if illuminated from within and the evening air was crisp and really cold but not deadly cold yet. Later the night it was one of the most important things to keep warm during the wait for the fish to take the bait as tiredness would overcome them but for now he was alert and excited. Every once in a while he cast a glance over to Will who went through the same motions as his father in setting up camp. Maybe next year Joe would have his own fishing hole a hundred feet off his father´s side too.
He looked up the cliff of Mount Pisgah along the east shore of the Lake. The cliff lay frostlocked and forbidden. In summer Will and he would scramble up through the woods and rocks again, and explore how the cliff´s surface, so familiar to them, had changed over the course of the winter by small landslides and rockfalls that blocked pathways from the previous summers or had created new ones, had felled small trees rolling by and littered fresh rock shards sharp as a knife´s blade over a glade. There was this one thing his father said repeatedly as the boys ventured out as he knew they must to become part of the land and endure its challenges despite their mother´s worries. He said that even a mountain was but a changeable thing in the sight of god, and Joe knew that to be true by all these changes that were mostly invisible to the untrained eye but that Will and he could spot from the road and that made them eager for spring time to find out more.
But despite all these changes, now, in the evening light, Mount Pisgah looked eternal as did Mount Hor on the other side, and Joe shivered and hurried to help his father with the last preparations. At home the boys had helped father to prepare the line with the set-line hooks and strips of dried fish. They had no live bait which would have worked even better but even burbot was hungry this time of year and the dried fish would do.
His father unrolled the set line gently into the ice fishing hole. The sinker helped to pull the line to the bottom quickly. Father secured the line around a strong spruce pole and made sure that enough weight was on the line. After that the long wait could start, and darkness would finally claim the ice valley save the two small lamps that were hung up at stakes next to the camp sides and would be the only way to signal to Will who would be all but invisible by his own fishing hole.
Joe could hear the ice working with clear cold sounds but his father was relaxed now and unhurried and so Joe knew they were safe and the ice was strong enough to bear their weight this night. He knew that even the moose would sometimes venture out on the ice once the lake was frozen though it happened from time to time that an animal would fall through the ice. Two winters ago father had found a frozen in moose calf in the lake not far from the shore and had worked very hard to free the frozen carcass to provide the family with meat for a long time. Every time that the family had had moose stew that winter, Joe who had been only ten years old then, had felt sad thinking of the poor calf who had fallen through and not managed to get out of the water in time, but father had said that the meat was a gift and that it had been a miracle too that the calf had not gone under before freezing into the ice. Joe hoped that the animals were smarter this year. He scanned the darkening shore line for the swiftly moving shapes of the creatures, glad to know that at least the bears were deep in their winter´s sleep until March and were not likely to bother them at their camp site.This year food was not so plentiful as it had been that winter two years ago when they had found the calf,. This year the family depended on the catch to survive winter without going hungry.
Underneath his feet the boy could now see slight movements and he knew this meant that the burbots had started their dances. For a moment he had a slight feeling of vertigo as he remembered an old fireside tale.
The old woman by the creek told the young ones who stopped by every once in a while to hear a good tale that it was absolutely necessary to look away immediately and call for the good god´s support if you ever spotted larger figures under the ice. Legend knew there were heartbreakingly beautiful heathen maids living in the lake who looked like humans save for a long silver fishtail instead of legs. They were said to smile up from their icy world especially at young men from underneath the glassy ice and try to lure them to the open hole to reach out and pull them into their dark cold world.
Joe´s mother had said that these stories were but old women´s fireside tales unfitting for young men like Joe and Will when he had asked her about it, but he had seen a shadow of fear in her eyes nonetheless. He thought that Will, being 15 now, certainly would not look away if a beautiful girl was ever to smile at him, and neither would he.