Fresh Air

by Laura Williams, from Neath Port Talbot, Wales 

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Eirwen might have believed herself to be the only soul out on the frozen expanse of Lake Winnebago, had she not seen the other spearfishers back in Oshkosh. They had gathered around and clapped each other on the back. They had made loud bets about whose catch would be bigger. Wives made bawdy jokes about men and their tackle. Whole families talked about fishing trips past and told accumulated generations of tall tales. Some murmured about monsters. Their thirst for adventure seeped from their pores and misted in the air with their breaths.

Flint - her late husband - would have loved it. Doubtless, the strange and colourful atmosphere was a big part of why her husband had made his annual pilgrimage to Wisconsin every winter.

Flint had always lived up to his name. He sparked. He was fire. He could light up a room and make it roar. He had never been silence, not until sickness had dug in and chewed up his lungs like hungry knotweed.

Eirwen was the one who liked quiet. She was the one who enjoyed frosty mornings with a skein of yarn and a silently-steaming cup of tea. In many ways, the lonely hut on the frozen wasteland was far more suited to the woman whose very name meant “snow”.

Flint had been buried on a sunny day in August. It had been so hot that the mourners had needed to wear sunscreen at the graveside. It was an absurd thing to bury one’s husband while everyone smelled like coconuts. Eirwen had not felt the heat. Not then and not after. In the months since Flint had taken his last breath, she had felt like she was existing under ice-water. Every sound was muted. Every movement was slow. Every breath felt like drowning.

She just wanted to be able to breathe again.

When she had opened her late husband’s mail to find a booking confirmation and a spearfishing license, the paper had held the faintest scent of the fish that Flint had brought her once a year for half of her life. That one breath of bittersweet, nostalgic perfume had filled her lungs more satisfyingly than any other had in months.

The next breath was once again empty and cold, but in it she had booked a plane ticket and began researching just what went on in Lake Winnebago every February.

Now, here she was, sat on a deckchair in a freezing cold hut, in the middle of the white wilds of Lake Winnebago, a vast expanse of silent ice which was four times the size of Cardiff (a place she’d once called home before moving to the States to follow Flint’s work). 

Three days ago, she had used a chainsaw to carve a window in the ice, allowing her to peer into the clear depths. In her mitten-cwtched hand, Eirwen clutched part of the strange spear-gun that she had seen Flint remove from the garage every year since they had met.

Once, had she been asked to describe her idea of spearfishing, Eirwen would have imagined tribal boys dressed in loincloths, aiming sharpened sticks into the shallows of an island paradise. She would not have envisaged the trigger-dependent pitchfork-esque weapon currently in her hands. She would not have pictured ice and thick blankets and the necessity of more underwear at one time than she would have assumed possible.

It was silent. It was cold. Every spearfisher was limited to just a single fish, and Eirwen knew many of them didn’t manage to catch even that. She wasn’t sure she understood why her husband had loved this so much.

Flint had always returned with his single fish, and it was always enormous. Every year, they would invite their friends around to feast on Flint’s catch. Afterwards, when everyone had gone home, she and her husband would sit by the fire and share caviar made from the creature’s roe.

This year, she supposed she would have nobody to share the caviar with, but a small, determined corner of her heart had decided that the best way to say goodbye to the man she loved was to do this thing he loved. She would spear his fish. She would take it home and gather their friends. They would dine and share memories of a wonderful man. Afterwards, she would eat the roe and be able to cry. And breathe.

In the murky depths, a shadow moved.

Eirwen sat a little straighter in her chair. Her legs were a little numb and she kind of needed to pee, but all of that fell to the back of her mind when she focused on the sinewy form gliding through the depths beneath her.

She could see now why the men in town had talked of monsters. The creature below her was probably as long as her own five-feet-six-inches. She knew that some of the bigger sturgeon in the lake were upwards of a century old.

She leaned over the spear sight and waited. The world was so silent right then. The water was still. The snow outside muted the world. She did not breathe.

With an almost elegant curving of its flesh, the beast below her flirted through the water until, at last, it entered the cross-mark on the plastic circle in front of her.

Eirwen squeezed the trigger release.

The spear burst forth as though it had been itching to fly, and penetrated the beast though its left side. A cloud of dark blood billowed from the sturgeon as it writhed and wriggled but failed to escape the teeth of the forked spear.

Eirwen gazed down into the water and waited for a sense of victory. She waited to feel something other than the cold nothingness.

But nothing came. Just more silence.

She let out the smallest of sighs and pressed a button to reel in her catch. Maybe when she got it home and shared it…

As the beast was lifted out of the water, the winch mechanism began to groan under the weight of the fish. Eirwen stared at the monstrosity with a detached and distant sort of wonder. This beast was far bigger than any of the fish Flint had ever brought home.

She lowered the creature onto the ground and gathered the slack cable of the pulley into a loop, which she put over her shoulder in the way she might have slung on the strap of her purse.

Then she made a mistake.

Eirwen placed the fish too close to the ice hole, and as soon as it realised water was close, the massive sturgeon began to thrash. The sinewy body curved and writhed, hitting Eirwen in the shins and knocking her off her feet… right into the water.

The cold was a hammer to the chest as her breath whooshed out of her, bubbling up and away. It was a thousand pinpricks embedded in every single pore of her flesh. It was eyes so painfully freezing that she wondered if gouging them out with her thumbs might feel better. It was ears so full of frigid silence that she thought she might never again be able to understand warm words.

It was the cold that saved her. Not the cold of the water; that was quickly doing its best to kill her. But the coldness inside her, the same icy numbness she was here to try and alleviate, kept her wits about her long enough for her to gain some control over her mind and body.

She had to stop thrashing. She had to conserve energy. She had to get out, get to the rented 4x4 and get warm. Her lungs were already aching, but they had been for months.

Eirwen blinked into the murky water to try and get her bearings. There. Above her. A green light. She kicked numb, frozen legs and swam towards the surface. It was so difficult to move her limbs; she felt like they were rusting and seizing.

When she finally broke the surface of the pool, she had time to take two good lungfulls of air before the still-writhing, still-impaled sturgeon twisted its body just enough to send it crashing into the water, right on top of Eirwen. She went back under, her lungs protesting the too-short reprieve.

As soon as the fish hit the water, it began to swim, the spear still attached to its side. The spear which was attached to the cable. The cable which was attached to the winch system. The cable which was also wrapped around Eirwen’s shoulder.

Eirwen realised this fact a second too late. The fish darted off, encumbered though it was, tightening the noose around her arm.

She was trapped. The fish tugged to her right and the winch held at her left. The loop of cable around her arm pulled tighter and tighter, digging painfully into the flesh of her upper arm.

Her chest burned.

How long had she been in the water? Seconds? Minutes? It was hard to tell. She knew that a body couldn’t last much more than fifteen minutes in these sorts of temperatures, before succumbing to at least hypothermia. And that was assuming said body could breathe.

God, she wanted to breathe.

With the fingers of her free hand, Eirwen yanked at the cable, but it was too tight. It dug into the fleshiest part of her upper arm and would not budge.

Eirwen realised that she was going to die. Alone. Cold. She was quite certain of it.

With the last fibre of will and warmth and heart inside her, Eirwen twisted. She rolled and turned to the left. If she could just move the loop of cable along the line she could get to the hole. If she could get to the hole, she might just be able to reach the pulley release which was engineered to jettison a cable in the event of damage.

Eirwen twisted again. Rolled again. She moved a little closer to where she needed to be, making progress by inches with every huge effort.

Strangled, unintentional noises were coming from her throat and lungs.

It was too far. She was too tired. She needed to breathe.

She twisted and rolled.

This time, instead of moving the loop of cable around her arm up the length of taught wire, she dragged the weight of the sturgeon with her a little.

The creature had stopped pulling. It was dead.

Eirwen let out a strangled whine and heaved just enough to loosen the loop. She wrenched her arm out of the noose and used the last of everything she had to punch through the water towards the fishing hole.

She broke the surface with a gasp.

For a second, it was almost like the intoxicating, delicious abundance of air was too much. It was like her lungs had forgotten what it was they were meant to be doing.

And then she breathed.

The air rushed inside her, almost warm in comparison to the icy waters. The cable which had so nearly been her end became her lifeline, as she used it to haul herself out of the water.

She allowed herself only the sliver of a moment to kneel on the icy ground and gasp, but then she forced herself up and out of the shack. She scrambled across the ice, to the rented 4x4. She threw open the doors and thanked whatever gods there were that she hadn’t seen any point in taking the keys out of the ignition while alone in the middle of nowhere.

It took her blue and shaking hands three attempts to turn the key. It took just two to crank up the heat.

She gave herself a moment then. Very shortly, she would strip out of the sopping wet clothes, grab the many spare blankets she had in the back seat and go about the business of staying alive.

But first, she took a moment. Just to breathe.

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