It was Dostoevsky, or Tolstoy, or some other –sky or –toy, or perhaps even a –lov or –kin, that called the canals of St. Petersburg veins. If this is true, Saint Petersburg is dead, frozen solid.
I stand on the bridge outside my apartment, smoking. Below, the canal is littered with beer bottles, soda cans and a few roses, half-frozen, into the blue. I add a cigarette to the mess.
A Babushka scowls at me, passing me by with a nudge. I shrug and step back. Before turning, I see a man walking along the ice. He is far enough away to be a silhouette even without the sun. He passes under the next bridge. Then, without a sound, the ice beneath him opens and he is gone.
He didn’t flail, didn’t even cry out.
A couple walking along the canal giggle at one, or another’s, unlikely funny, joke. I frown. Then, I run. I get down onto the ice. Hesitantly, I work my way up to a jog. I don’t slip. My boots are good boots, still a good tread on them, tight too.
As I get closer to the hole, I see someone sitting beside it. A small someone. I slow as I get closer. I stop a few paces from the hole.
DEATH looks up at me. She is bundled up in a white puffy jacket. Her light hair tucked into a wool hat. With both mitten-ed hands, she holds a fishing pole, dipped into the hole in the ice.
She looks like a marshmallow. I raise an eyebrow at her getup.
“Even I get cold in this nonsense,” she says, screwing her face up against the wind. She looks back into the hole.
“So, he’s dead then?” I ask, unsure how to feel.
DEATH shrugs, she tugs the pole gently up and down. “Not yet,” she says.
I nod. I brace myself to jump into the hole. I step closer.
DEATH looks at me. Then, bursts out laughing. I stop, confused.
“You must be joking,” she says, catching her breath.
“Uh,” I manage.
“Shouldn’t I at least try to save him?” I say, guiltily realizing a flood of relief at being stopped.
“One, two, I can take you both,” DEATH chimes to herself.
“So, you’re saying I’ll die?” I ask.
“How should I know?” DEATH says.
“Well, you just said,”
“I just said I can take you both, and chances are I will if you jump in that hole, that’s all.”
I stand there, shifting uncomfortably.
DEATH hums a little, then, stops. “Not so easy to be brave in the face of death, huh?” then she laughs, “no pun intended.”
I take a step forward, spite overcoming both fear and courage.
“Oh!” DEATH says as the fishing pole bends. She begins tugging on it gleefully, reeling fast. Then, the line goes limp. She pouts at the pole, “dammit,” she mutters, relaxing. She looks up at me.
“You going or not? Indecision is worse than cowardice.”
I don’t move. I sigh.
“Cowardice then?” She nods. “Would it help if I told you he was an abusive father and once raped a woman when he was in the military?”
I don’t nod. I tilt my head to the side. “Yes?”
“Hm,” DEATH muses.
“Was he?” I ask, hopeful.
“How should I know?” DEATH says, flatly. “I was just curious.”
I take out a cigarette and sit down on the ice. DEATH sits on the other side of the hole. She holds out her hand. I put two cigarettes in my mouth and light them. I toss one to DEATH. It lands in her lap. She picks it up, brushes off the ash and takes a drag.
“What if it were a child?” she asks.
“A child, what if a child had fallen through?”
“I’d have jumped in without a seconds thought, and hell with you,” I say, confidently hypothetical.
DEATH ponders this over a few more drags. She gazes into the hole.
“Children die faster,” she says, thoughtfully.
She finishes the cigarette. She drops it into the hole, already beginning to freeze over.
The fishing pole jerks. It heaves. DEATH stands and puts the pole between her legs. She reels in forced slow movements.
I stand up and walk beside her. I grab the pole and help, best I can, reeling. After a few seconds something breaks through the thin layer of ice. It flies through the air and lands beside us. A boot.
DEATH looks at it. She walks over and picks it up.
She shrugs, “good enough,” she says.
She turns and waves to me, “thanks for the help,”