Third place winner of our 2022 flash fiction contest.

NEBULA by Sarah Sousa

For days I had kept to the cabin, letting the ice on the lake grow thick enough to hold me. That morning I woke to a silence deepened and thickened by an ice storm during the night. The trees clinked their stiff, glassy branches. I loaded my backpack with more than I’d likely need, bundled into layers, double-checked an inner pocket for the truck keys and remembered to pack the small hatchet I used to test thin spots. It must have been minus-ten with the wind whipping across the lake. Really, too cold to be out in the open, but I’d let the larder slim down to a can of beans and a cup of flour, so I didn’t have a choice.

I’d acquired the place the year I turned forty, thought to use it as a summer getaway. But after five winters, I still found myself snowshoeing across the mile-wide frozen surface to my truck parked on the far shore, driving five miles into town for a month’s worth of supplies. I knew where a spring fed into the lake a hundred yards from my cabin, never allowing that area to freeze completely. I called the spot the bird bath. All types of birds came to float and splash, their iridescent feathers catching the sun, winking like a signal back to shore. Once, in summer, when I was paddling past, I saw a ruby throated hummingbird alight and dip its long beak, sipping from all that brilliance. I knew to avoid the area in winter.

The ice was slick and uneven, having frozen in wavelets over three windy nights. It groaned, it shifted and cracked, still unnerving me after so many crossings. A previous winter, a thin crevasse had opened between my feet and I’d wondered if a sheet could dislodge and turn like a secret door, swallowing me without a trace. Thoughts like these could consume a person who didn’t guard against them.

I was just about parallel with the spot where the spring fed in, keeping my distance, but focused on it to discern whether the area had frozen. I’d just decided I could see moving water when I stumbled on something with my right foot. I didn’t stumble physically so much as mentally because the object was submerged just beneath the surface. My first thought was that a hawk must have snacked on, then abandoned, a rodent or small bird. A red swath, a smear beneath the ice. Bird, my brain retrieved that word again. Down on my knees, I rubbed the surface clear with a mitten. A male cardinal, one wing fanned open over its head, was frozen crystal clear like a strange form of taxidermy.  A few feet away lay his drab, olive and sepia-colored mate, like an old botanical drawing. My mind tried to work out a reason. I was considering the possibilities, settling on unnatural phenomena, when I noticed beyond the female cardinal a streak like the track of a shooting star, an entire tail of glittering stars, which seemed to originate where the spring fed into the lake. A streak of birds. I scrambled as close as I could to the thin spot, naming the birds as I went: junco, chickadee, sparrow, starling, crow; a frantic litany. I turned and saw the red smudge where I began and felt the weight of the hatchet in its holster against my thigh.

I don’t know what compelled me. I’ve relived that afternoon in my mind through the years. All I can say is I began with the red cardinal, bringing the hatchet down on the ice until he was free. Then I continued hacking above and around that iridescent nebula until each bird lay just as limp and lifeless on top of the ice as it had beneath. It was dusk and I was nearly hypothermic when I reached the truck. I never thought of turning back to the cabin. I never once thought of going back.

Photo by Lorie Shaull, used and adapted under CC.