The Ice Wedding
Denis J. Underwood
The first time I met my wife’s family was in Labrador, Canada. Trish and I had only been dating a few months. I stood on a bluff above Lake Melville, a saltwater tidal extension of the Labrador Sea. The snow, harsh with sunlight, smothered the bay, the trees, the distant mountains—everything but the blue sky. I remember thinking my future mother-in-law and her biker boyfriend looked way too comfortable on their machine. Going from a Harley-Davidson Fat Boy to a snowmobile wasn’t much of a stretch for them.
When Trish invited me, she mentioned we would ride a snowmobile to get to her cousin Shelley’s wedding. I was pre-occupied with the whole idea of meeting her family. I thought the snowmobile might enable a kitschy entrance, one where each couple hops on for a hundred yards so a photographer can snap a picture. Had I known then that the T.V. personality Survivor Man would come to Labrador two weeks later and fail to cope with the elements, requiring rescue, I may have taken things more seriously.
A stocky guy, with a broad face and thick limbs, strode toward us. All I knew about Trish’s cousin, Keith, our guide, was that he was eighteen and had lost his last snowmobile in the bay. His friends pulled him from the water. This did not instill much confidence.
After brief introductions and no operating instructions (when you rent a snowmobile—or Ski-Doo as they call them in Canada—I guess they assume you know what you’re doing), we slipped our helmets on and zoomed off. Trish had her arms wrapped around my waist. Following a path through the woods, we kept up nicely until we reached the bay, where the others thundered ahead. Before long, they were silhouettes receding in the distance. I gunned the throttle, but we didn’t go any faster. When the machine faltered and slowed to a stop, smoke wafted from the engine. The odor of burned rubber filled the air.
Trish flipped her visor up, “What’s wrong?”
“Must be out of oil or something.” At that moment, I noticed a HI/LO switch on the handlebar. I had been driving in LO the whole time.
“Can you fix it?” Trish asked.
“Are you kidding?”
“Did they see us stop?”
“I have no idea.” The surrounding white expanse formed a hard line where it met the sky. There was no sign of life.
“They’ll come back,” she said, confidently.
I hopped off the snowmobile and paced about. What if they didn’t notice right away? And then followed the wrong tracks trying to find us? From time to time we heard the booming sound of shifting ice. We stood there waiting, discussing how thick we thought the ice was, questioning whether we were suspended over water two feet deep or four hundred.
“Are there polar bears out here?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Trish said. “Brown bears for sure.”
“At least we’ll see one of those coming.”
Trish shook her head. “What difference would seeing it make?”
Then I heard the whine of an engine. A great feeling of relief washed over me as Keith pulled up alongside of us.
“It just quit,” I said, not wanting to fess up to my operator error. Neither of them needed to know how clueless I really was.
Keith trudged over, popped the hood on our snowmobile, and peered in. His face conveyed very little, just assured calm. He lifted the seat, exposing all the replacement parts I had failed to look for. I marveled at his efficiency and thanked him profusely as he swapped out the faulty belt. After firing up our machine, he mounted his, nodded, and sped away.
“Man of few words, isn’t he?” I said.
Trish paused before answering, “In stark contrast with my mother.”
We followed, this time in HI gear. Soon we closed in on the others. Keith pointed toward the horizon and veered right. We fell in line behind him. A black shape shimmied across the ice and then disappeared. We stopped where the seal had slipped beneath the surface. Gazing at the water sloshing in the hole, I felt as if I were in a massive zoo exhibit I couldn’t escape from.
* * *
Forty-five kilometers later, we pulled in among the cluster of snowmobiles on Mulligan bay. Close to a hundred people milled about, drinking beer; some were ice fishing. The bride-to-be, Shelley, was near shore. “I smell Americans,” she said. Her cigarette flared red and then she exhaled smoke through a wide smile. “No dialing 9-1-1 out here, eh?” She rushed over and hugged each one of us. She wore a white parka with a fur trimmed hood. There were wildflowers in her hair.
For some reason, I still expected a wedding dress, a veil.
“Follow me,” Shelley said. We made our way toward a rise in the land. Seal skins were laid on the snow where the bride and groom would stand. There was a stepstool in the middle of the setup; I wondered what it was for. Shelley shouted commands to some men about how to better position the riflemen, all the while moving with ease over the hard-packed snow as I struggled for balance. The Sorel boots Trish’s uncle loaned me were too big. Shaking his head, he had pointed to my Gore-tex hiking boots and said, “You’re not leaving the house in those.”
We skirted a structure that looked more shed than cabin, the place where Shelley and her husband, Charlie, would spend their wedding night. Shelley popped in to check on the progress her friends were making with the caribou and cod au gratin.
Shelley led us to a row of canvas tents. “I set this one up special for you,” she said, pulling open the flap. Inside, pine boughs eclipsed the snow floor and made the air smell so clean. A small stove glowed with warmth.
* * *
Out on the bay, before seeing and hearing the blades, I felt them hammering the air. The helicopter flew over and landed just beyond the snowmobiles.
“That’s grandma and the cake,” Shelley said. “Neither could make it by Ski-Doo.”
People gathered around and hauled away the cake. The old woman was helped down and squired to shore. Then what looked like a boy sprang from the chopper and landed on the ice. “The little minister,” someone shouted.
Shelley dropped her freshly lit cigarette, “Shit.”
The little minister wasn’t expected yet. He had made it clear that if Shelley and Charlie drank before the ceremony, he would not marry them. Surprisingly enough, Shelley had obeyed.
She bolted to check on Charlie.
Trish and I wandered among the groups huddled on the ice. Everyone seemed to know each other and they all knew who we were. Word had spread about Shelley’s cousin from the states. People were impressed by how far we had traveled to get there.
Going from one group to the next, we came across four brook trout on the ice. The most recent catch was flopping lethargically, its orange fins gleaming.
“Randy?” Trish called out.
“Depends who’s asking,” a man replied, blotting out the sun as he approached. A few steps away he said, “You made it! Look at you, all grown up.” When his face was no longer in silhouette, I noticed his upper front two teeth were missing.
I had heard all about cousin Randy at dinner the night before. How he mines nickel in Canada and Ghana, how he has a penchant for drinking all day and a weakness for controlled substances. The consensus was that he would have his teeth in for his sister’s wedding.
He extended his hand to me. The mitten looked like a boxing glove. “Have some Lamb’s,” he said, handing over a jug. Canadians often say things in a way that makes it seem as if they’re asking a question, even when they aren’t asking a question at all. But out of Randy’s mouth, everything sounded like a command.
“What is it?” I asked.
I didn’t want to offend him by refusing.
The concoction smelled of molasses. After an initial sugary burst, it burned down my throat. I did everything I could to stop from gagging, and hoped he attributed my tears to the icy wind.
Randy gulped at the bottle and passed it to Trish. After I managed another swig, he clapped me on the back.
* * *
Satisfied with the couple’s sobriety, the little minister presided over the ceremony from his perch on the stepstool. After the newlyweds kissed, a volley of shots rang out, kicking off the party. Everyone jammed into the cabin and close talking could not be avoided. When our eyes started watering from the cloud of cigarette and marijuana smoke, we retreated to the tent. Groups of people ducked in, toting bottles of Lamb’s and cans of beer. The stories they told were as bleak and unforgiving as the landscape. About how a mine caved in and killed a friend, or how a piece of equipment crushed someone’s brother.
At two in the morning, Randy threw another log in the stove and stoked the fire. As the night progressed, he had started following up the things he said with howling laughter that made me question his sanity. He pointed to the gaping hole in his smile. “Don’t worry. When you two get married, I’ll wear my piece—here, I don’t need it.”
And this man suddenly made sense to me. He was comfortable here.
Just before leaving, Randy said, “See you at 6:00 a.m., sharp.” He insisted on showing me his favorite ice fishing spot. I didn’t seem to have a choice, so I agreed, confident there was no way the man swaying and howling and cracking open another jug of Lamb’s would be on his feet then.
We settled into our sleeping bags. I awoke, momentarily confused as to where I was, the tent canvas aglow with early morning light. Randy poked his head in through the flap. “Let’s go,” he said. I stared back blankly and didn’t move. He howled and marched off.
He had proven his point.
* * *
On the ride out, the snow switched to rain. We pressed on through a downpour, all the while cursing our relentless hangovers. I became obsessed with seal holes. Could the snowmobile plunge through one? Broad pools of water collected on the ice. I gritted my teeth, anxious that we were about to drive over an exposed stretch. The runners slapped the water and I waited for the sudden drop, the crush of cold. I didn’t want us to become another one of their stories.
No, I thought, these people will save us.
About the author:
Denis J. Underwood was born in Houston, Texas and raised in the United States and France. His stories have appeared in Bartleby Snopes, Identity Theory, Intellectual Refuge, The First Line, The Paumanok Review, and elsewhere. His chapbook, Carolina, was published by Wind River Press in 2004. Denis lives in Oak Park, Illinois with his wife and daughter. He is working on what he likes to believe is the final draft of his first novel. He is also the web editor for 10,000 Tons of Black Ink. Find out more about Denis here.