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TOWARD midnight the pond fell asleep. All day long it had frolicked with the boisterous north wind, pretending to frown and turn black in the face when the cold shoulders of the gale bare down upon its surface, dimpling as the pressure left it and sparkling in brilliant glee as the low hung sun laughed across its ruffles. The wind went down with the sun, as north winds often do, and left a clear mirror stretching from shore to shore, and reflecting the cold yellow of the winter twilight.
As this chill twilight iced into the frozen purple of dusk, tremulous stars quivered into being out of the violet blackness of space. The nebular hypothesis is born again in the heavens each still winter night. It must have slipped thence into the mind of Kant as he stood in the growing dusk of some German December watching the violet-gray frost vapors of the frozen sky condense into the liquid radiance of early starlight, then tremble again into the crystalline glints of unknown suns whirling in majestic array through the full night along the myriad miles of interstellar space.
Standing on the water's edge on such a night you realize that you are the very centre of a vast scintillating universe, for the stars shine with equal glory beneath your feet and above your head. The earth is forgotten. It has become transparent, and where before sunset gray sand lay beneath a half-inch of water at your toe-tips, you now gaze downward through infinite space to the nadir, the unchartered, unfathomable distance checked off every thousand million miles or so by unnamed constellations that blur into a milky way beneath your feet. The pond is very deep on still winter nights.
If you will take canoe and glide out into the centre the illusion is complete. There is no more earth nor do the waters under the earth remain; you float in the void of space with the Pleiades for your nearest neighbor and the pole star your only surety. In such situations only can you feel the full loom of the universe. The molecular theory is there stated with yourself as the one molecule at the centre of incomputability. It is a relief to shatter all this with a stroke of the paddle, shivering all the lower half of your incomputable universe into a quivering chaos, and as the shore looms black and uncertain in the bitter chill it is nevertheless good to see, for it is the homely earth coming back to you. You have had your last canoe trip of the year, but it has carried you far.
No wonder that on such a night the pond, falling asleep for the long winter, dreams. A little after midnight it stirred uneasily in its sleep and a faint quiver ran across its surface. A laggard puff of the north wind that, straggling, had itself fallen asleep in the pine wood and waked again, was now hastening to catch up. The surface water had been below the freezing point for some time and with the slight wakening the dreams began to write themselves all along as if the little puff of wind were a pencil that drew the unformulated thoughts in ice crystals. Water lying absolutely still will often do this. Its temperature may go some degrees below the freezing point and it will still be unchanged. Stir it faintly and the ice crystals grow across it at the touch.
Strange to tell, too, the pond's dreams at first were not of the vast universe that lay hollowed out beneath the sky and was repeated to the eye in its clear depths. Its dreams were of earth and warmth, of vaporous days and humid nights when never a frost chill touched its surface the long year through, and the record the little wind wrote in the ice crystals was of the growth of fern frond and palm and prehistoric plant life that grew in tropic luxuriance in the days when the pond was young.
These first bold, free-hand sketches touched crystal to crystal and joined, embossing a strange network of arabesques, plants drawn faithfully, animals of the coal age sketched in and suggested only, while all among the figures great and small was the plaided level of open water. This solidified, dreamless, about and under the decorations, and the pond was frozen in from shore to shore. Thus I found it the next morning, level and black under one of those sunrises which seem to shatter the great crystal of the still atmosphere into prisms. The cold has been frozen out of the sky, and in its place remains some strange vivific principle which is like an essence of immortality.
New ice thus formed has a wonderful strength in proportion to its thickness. It is by no means smooth, however. The embossing of the reproductions of these pond dreams of fern and palm and plesiosaurus makes bubbles under your steel as you glide over it, though little you care for that on your first skate of the year. The embossing it is, I think, that largely gives it its strength, and though it may crack and sag beneath you as you strike out, you know that its black texture is made up of interlacing crystals that slip by one another in the bending, but take a new grip and hold until your weight fairly tears them apart.
The small boy knows this instinctively and applies it as he successfully runs "teetley-bendoes" to the amazement and terror of the uninitiated grown-ups. If you have the heart of the small boy still, though with an added hundred pounds in weight, you may yet dare as he does and add to the exhilaration born of the wine-sweet air the spice of audacity. An inch or so of transparent ice lies between you and a ducking among the fishes which dart through the clear depths, fleeing before the under water roar of your advance, for the cracks, starting beneath your feet and flashing in rainbow progess before you and to the right and left, send wild vibrations whooping and whanging through the ice all over the pond. Now the visible bottom drops away beneath you to an opaqueness that gives you a delicious little sudden gasp of fear, for you realize the depth into which you might sink; again it rises to meet you and here you may bear down and gain added impetus, for you know that the ice will be thicker in shallow water.
So you go on, and ever on. It is not wise to retrace your strokes, for those ice crystals that gave to let you through and then gripped one another again to hold you up may not withstand a second impact; nor is it wise to stop. Mass and motion have given you momentum and you have acquired some of the obscure stability of the gyroscope. You tend to stay on your plane of motion, though the ice itself has strength to hold only part of your weight. Thus the wild duck, threshing the air with mighty strokes, glides over it, held up by the same obscure force. The ice has no time to break and let you through. You are over it and onto another bit of uncracked surface before it can let go.
The day warmed a little with a clear sun but the frost that night bit deep again and the next morning the ice had nearly doubled in thickness and would not crack under any strain which my weight could put upon it. A second freezing, even though both be thin, gives a stronger ice than a single freezing of equal depth, just as the English bowmaker of the old days used to glue together a strip of lancewood and a strip yew, or even two strips of the same wood, thus making a far stiffer bow than one made of a single piece of equivalent dimensions.
This ice was much smoother too. That evaporation which is steadily going on from the surface of ice even in the coldest weather, the crystals passing to vapor without the intervening stage of water, had worn off the embossing. The ice instead of being black was gray with countless air bubbles all through its texture. You will always find these after a day's clear sun on a first freezing. I fancy the ice crystals make minute burning glasses under the sun's rays and thus cause tiny meltings within its own bulk, the steam of the fusing making the bubbles; or it may be that the air with which the north wind of two days before had been saturating the water was thus escaping from solution.
It was midday of this second day of skating weather before I reached the pond. The sky was overcast, the wind piped shrill again, and there were snow-squalls about. The pond was empty and lone. I thought no living creature there beside myself, and it was only at the second call of a familiar voice that I believed I heard it. Then, indeed, I stopped and listened up the wind. It came again, a wild and lonely whistle that was half a shout, beginning on the fifth of the scale, sliding to the top of the octave, and then to a third above, and I heard it with amazement. The pond was firmly covered with young ice. Why should a loon be sitting out on it and hooting to me?
There was silence for a space while I looked in vain, for the first flakes of a snow-squall were whitening the air and had made the distant shore indistinct. Then it spoke again, almost confidentially, that still lonely but more pleasing whinny, a sort of "Who-who-who-who" that is like a tremulous question, weird laughter, or a note of pain as best fits the mind of the listener. The voice came from the geographical centre of the pond's loneliness, the one point where a wild bird like the loon, obliged to make a stand, would find himself farthest from all frequented shores. I skated up the wind in that direction, but the snow blew in my eyes and I could see but little.
Suddenly right in front of me there was a wild yell of dismay, despair and defiance all mingled in a single loon note, but so clearly expressed that you could not fail to recognize them, then a quick splash, and I had almost skated into a hole in the ice, perhaps some ten feet across.
Then I knew what had happened. A loon, wing-tipped by some poor marks-man, had dropped into the pond before the freeze. He could dive and swim, no doubt, as well as ever but could not leave the water. When the pond began to freeze he did the only thing possible in his losing fight. That was to seek the loneliest spot in the surface and keep an opening in the ice when it began to form. I could see the fifteen-foot circle which had been his haven for the first night and day. Then with the second freezing night he had been obliged to shorten this. Two feet and a half of new ice showed his inner line of defence rimmed accurately within the greater circle and showing much splashing where he had, I thought, breasted it desperately all the long night in his brave fight to keep it open.
How long without human intervention he might brave the elements and keep his narrowing circle unfrozen would of course depend on the weather. If it did not come on too severe he might live on there till his wing healed and by a miracle win again to flight and safety. The cold would not trouble him nor the icy water. The loon winters anywhere from southern Massachusetts south and, strong and well, has no fear of winter. But there entered into this the human equation. The next man along would likely go home and get a shotgun.
As I noted all this a head appeared above the water in the pool. There was another shriek of alarm and it vanished in a flash and a splash. It was forty seconds by my watch before the bird appeared again. This time he rose almost fully to the surface and sounded a war cry, then dove again and was under for seventy seconds. And so as long as I stood my distance motionless he came and went, never above water for more than a few seconds, varying in length of time that he stayed below from half a minute to a minute and a quarter, and never going below without sounding the eerie heartbreak of his call.
Then I skated away to get my camera and was gone three-quarters of an hour. Returning I saw him in the distance, for the snow had almost passed. He saw me too and dived. Gliding up I knelt at the very edge of the hole and was fixing the camera when he came up. He sat level on the surface for a second, seemingly not noticing me. Then, warned by a motion that I made in trying to adjust the focus, he sounded a wild and plaintive call that seemed to have in it mingled fear and defiance, heartbreak and triumph, and plunged beneath the surface with a vigor and decision that sent him far beneath the ice, his great webbed feet driving him with great jumps, as a frog swims.
I saw him shoot away from the hole, trailing bubbles. I waited kneeling, watch in hand and thumb on bulb, a minute, two minutes, three, five, ten. The snow shut in again thick, the north wind sang a plaintive dirge and I realized that the picture would never be taken. Instead I was kneeling at the deathbed of a wild Northern spirit that perhaps deliberately took that way of ending the unequal struggle.
The loon knows not the land. Even his nest he builds on the water's edge and clambers awkwardly to it with wings and bill as well as feet. The air and water are his home, the water far more than the air, and he knows the underwater world as well as he does the surface. I shall never know whether my loon went so far in his flight beneath the ice that he failed to find his way back, or whether his strength gave out. Knowing his untamed and fearless spirit I am inclined to believe that he deliberately elected to die at home, in the cool depths that he loved rather than come back to his poor refuge in the narrowing ice circle and face that strange creature that knelt at the edge.