The Winter Birthday

Nick’s birthday. Rachael, Jeffrey, and their families are en route. We’d all vowed to celebrate the sibling birthdays together even after a celebrant is gone.

I stand at the glass kitchen door and look down to the cove. It’s winter. It’s no wonder I’m thinking about the ice.

I live alone in the old family house. I am free to wander.

To the west is the cove and to the east, across the road, is the forest.

One day Nick and I decided to jump from block to block as high tide broke the cove ice. The blocks were large and thick. We weren’t balancing on dinner plates. But not all the blocks could bear the sudden weight. Pieces broke away and we had to jump to others. The water was seven feet deep and cold. We did this for the afternoon. Nick was four years younger than me.

In spring, tides helped by flush streams broke over the seawall and left debris to investigate. Monkfish beached themselves on the low-tide mud flats in summer. Every fall we cleared the yard of apples by throwing them in the water, where they bobbed by the hundreds. In winter, there was the ice.

The forest ran for miles. We discovered the rock ponds and the granite beards and the cedar thickets that etch you like brambles do if you try to wade through. Sometimes I would lose myself for the joy of finding my way out. There was the time I went too far and darkness came. But I stumbled ahead, saw a light blink through the branches, and came to a road. It was a long walk home.

One winter day Tony and I came home late from high school. He was a friend. We liked to go downtown after school, get a sandwich, then take the cape bus out here. Tony wasn’t his real name. Nick named him that. To annoy him. Nick was always making things up and getting under your skin. We picked him up, one of us on each arm, and carried him down to the cove.

Tony and I were still in our coats. Nick wasn’t. He didn’t have shoes on, just socks. It was a bright day, but cold. We lowered him onto a block of ice. He didn’t want to look scared or defeated or chastised so he taunted us with Tony’s made-up name. He knew we wouldn’t leave him there. We waited for him to stop. He didn’t stop. Tony and I looked at each other. Tony shrugged. We looked at Nick. He didn’t stop. We left.

In the kitchen, something smelled good. I forget what it was, but I remember Tony saying how good it smelled. Some soup or stew had been simmering all day. We figured we weren’t allowed to eat any yet, but it made us hungry, so we made our second sandwiches of the afternoon.

I can’t see where we left Nick from here. The backyard goes down to a little neck at the end of the cove, where a stream runs into it. There’s an asparagus bed on each side of the stream. The shoots start coming up in March. I don’t have to do anything to maintain them. They’re good to eat when they’re fresh and small, but I like best to watch the feathery summer plants in a breeze. Nick liked them in summer too.

To see where we launched him you have to walk around a corner to the long side yard and to the steps that lead to the water where you can tie a boat in summer and where we would step down to the ice. I don’t know how we survived being young.

Nick died last year. The first to go. Made me mad. Wish I could haul him down to the cove and set him adrift. Instead I have to watch him wave from the ice in the evenings before I turn on the lights.

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