It had been a struggle for Martin to cut and then lift out the circular block of ice. The ice was unusually thick this year, which made it even more difficult for a man approaching his seventieth birthday. He left the block sitting next to the hole and sat down on his folding chair to rest, his breath escaping in rapid white plumes.
“Dang fish better bite after all this,” he muttered to himself. He removed his gloves and cupped his hands around the globe of the small kerosene lantern, savoring the warmth to his arthritic fingers.
After several minutes, when his breathing and heart rate had returned to normal, Martin put on his gloves, pulled his fur-lined cap down over his ears and opened the door to his hut. Still an hour before sunrise, the frigid wind like tiny needles stung his nose and cheeks. As quickly as he could he pulled the block of ice outside then stepped back inside and slid the wooden latch across the door.
Settled back in his chair, Martin reached into his minnow bucket and retrieved a wiggling shiner. Through years of experience, he deftly impaled the bait onto his hook then slowly lowered the line down into the gently lapping water. With the desired depth reached, he stopped letting out line and set the drag on his reel. He set the fishing rod down on the ice next to his chair. That done, he settled back in his chair and picked up the thermos of hot black coffee Helen had packed for him and prepared to wait. He unscrewed the cap and filled the outer plastic cup half full of the steaming liquid. Just as he was bringing the cup to his lips, he saw the end of the pole jerk twice. He sat the cup down and picked up the rod gripping it firmly with both hands.
“Come on,” he muttered. “Take it.” He waited for several seconds but nothing happened. “Changed your mind, huh?” he said. He was just about to lay the rod back down and get back to his coffee when it nearly jerked free from his grip. He struggled to hold on while the end of the fiberglass pole bowed, the tip dipping below the surface of the dark freezing water.
Despite the cold, drops of sweat formed on Martin’s brow as he struggled to reel in his catch. “You must be a real prize,” he said between pants. “You picked the wrong breakfast this morning old boy.”
Martin smiled. This part made up for all those lonely cold hours sitting in the middle of a frozen lake and catching nothing at all.
After several minutes, that seemed more like hours, the battle was nearing an end. When he saw a long shadow move slowly beneath the surface, Martin held tightly to the rod with one hand while he reached for the net with the other. The shadow appeared again and he lowered the net.
A sudden explosion of water from the hole drenched Martin’s arms, face and chest. The shock of the cold water took his breath away causing him to drop the net and pole. While he tried to wipe the water from his eyes, a pale gray hand with long yellow nails snaked its way out of the hole and clamped itself around his ankle. Stunned, Martin grabbed his knee with both hands and tried to pull his leg away. It was dragging him toward the hole. He searched frantically for something to hold on to as the pressure increased like a vice around his leg, but there was nothing but his overturned chair, thermos, and kerosene lamp. His fingers clawed along the ice as his foot and then entire leg disappeared below the surface.
“Help me!” he whimpered. The hole would never be able to accommodate the bulk of his stomach and chest. Buried to his waist with one leg submerged and the other twisted at an unnatural angle above the hole, Martin waved his arms frantically.
“HELP!” he yelled, although he knew there was no one within miles to hear him.
The pressure around his ankle and hip was searing. The pain was brilliant, and went beyond anything he ever imagined. Gasping, he saw bright spots swim across his vision. He thought he was losing consciousness. He prayed he would.
Martin’s scream echoed across the vast emptiness of the frozen lake when his femoral head tore away from his hip socket taking with it skin, muscle, and tendons. He felt a momentary release of pressure when his leg separated from his body, but a second, even tighter pressure around his waist quickly followed. He could not hold on much longer. He was bobbing like some macabre jack in the box as blood splashed out of the hole and spread across the ice inside the hut. Several ribs snapped as his chest wrenched downward. Unfortunately, he was still conscious when only his arms, neck, and shoulders remained above the hole.
He managed one last desperate look around the tiny hut.
“Helen” he murmured, just before bloody mucus bubbled from his lips. Then he closed his eyes, raised his arms, and slipped below the surface. Surrendering to what lay below in the icy depths.