By Daniel Brusilovsky
I leaned against the railing, watching the sun glint off my sister's skates as she came down the canal. By the time I limped back to the edge, she had already shed the left one, and was bent over the other, nimble fingers working apart the frozen knots. I didn't offer to help, grabbing the back of the bench and slumping down next to her. Stretching out my legs, I felt the usual ache in my calf swell, gritting my teeth until I couldn't stand it, before letting my feet drop back down into the slush. She looked the same as when I'd seen her the month before, coming down the canal, back from Leiden, all rosy cheeks and blonde curls that threatened to escape from beneath her hat.
Despite myself, I couldn't help but smile, though I said nothing. Lately, she'd been coming rarer and rarer, and it was good to see her for once. I was content to sit quietly, but she broke the silence.
"It's supposed to snow for three days or such, and just see if it don't. Ma Kass said so."
I looked dubiously up at the sky, which was a cloudless, frigid blue, almost iridescent, shimmering under the weight of miles of empty, frozen air. She noticed the doubt in my gaze, and grinned. "Oh, come, Ella, even after what you did to your leg, you won't listen to what Ma Kass say?" My lips tightened, and I remembered why I'd been just as glad to see her go, last time. Helene finished with the skate, wiggling her foot to kick it off. Straightening, she saw in my expression that she'd gone too far. She had never been much good for apologies, though, and if Lieden had taught her one thing, it was that she could not be wrong. I could already see her lips rustling as she tried to craft up a way this wasn't her fault, even as her hand fished in her weekend bag for her shoes.
I wasn't in the mood for it. "It's fine. Forget you said anything."
Her face twisted into concern, making my heart sink.
"Are you okay, Ella?" She worked her foot into one boot, and then another, before springing up off the bench. I pointedly ignored her proffered hand. Bracing against the bench, I managed to lift myself up.
"I'm fine, Helene." She looked at me, then nodded, and trotted away, as cheerful as ever. As I moved to follow her, I noticed a wisp of grey in the sky at the very edge of my sight, a promise of a coming storm.
Ma Kass and the wisp alike kept their word. When the potatoes on the stove began to boil, I almost missed the bubbling over the swelling of the wind outside, which had risen to a howl. Helene and her luck; had it been me coming back, I'd have been caught in it without a doubt. Just a year ago, I could have risked it, relying on the swiftest legs in Rotterdam to keep me out of trouble. Now, unless I was willing to pay for a sled with money I didn't have— well. It was best to stay home.
Once she realized the food was ready, Helene appeared in the doorway, having washed up while I was cooking. Her smile was the more brilliant for it, and I felt my leg twinge, fingers tightening around the lip of the counter. "I don't suppose you brought the fish." Of course she hadn't, not that I'd have time to cook it now, anyways. At least she had the decency to look abashed.
"After I talked with Ma Kass and heard about the storm abrew, I didn't want to be stopping at the market. Lucky I didn't, right?"
I shrugged. "It's fine, I don't mind, as long as you don't mind plain potatoes." I didn't care either way, but I'd only asked her to get one thing. Ever since the competition, I only ever had fish when she remembered to bring some from the other market.
She just beamed. "I don't mind at all!" She brushed past me, fingers wrapping around the handles of the pot, and swung it over to the kitchen table. After a moment, I followed her, the pain in my leg flaring as I dropped into the seat. Fortunately for me the pitch of the wind climbed even higher as she dug in, setting all of the windowpanes to rattling, leaving dinner to be blissfully quiet, at least when it came to Helene. Twice, she tried to say something through a mouthful of potatoes, but eventually, gave up, and after polishing off her meal, retreated upstairs to bed, leaving me to pick my way through my dinner, before standing again and cleaning the dishes.
Braving the stairs after cooking was more than I was willing to bet on my leg enduring, as had lately been happening more and more often. After finishing in the kitchen and snuffing out the lamps, I made my way through the familiar darkness to the other room. My leg found the edge of the couch before I did, and with a grunt, I crumpled onto it, fingers scrabbling at my knee as if to claw away the riveting agony. After a moment, it subsided, and I slumped back against the cushions. Not trusting my strength, I levered my foot up onto the armrest with my hands, and let the rest of my body sink into the cushions. The throbbing, deep within the muscle, pulsed with each beat of my heart, and as I slowed my breathing, I felt it ebb as well. Even with the noise outside, relief from pain was enough for exhaustion to swamp me. Sleep came as a wave, and dragged me under.
Whenever Helene was home, I dreamed one dream. It always started the same, Helene and I sitting before Ma Kass as she marched to and fro, her walking stick slamming into the ice for emphasis as she spoke. She was a wizened old woman, but a terror on skates, and a teacher without compare. She'd found us, or perhaps, we found her, when we were still young enough to be, as she called it, molded. Why she'd decided to help twins with nothing to their name but a creaky old house on the Schie Canal, who lived on the charity of their neighbors, I had never found out. Still, we had been exemplary students. Perhaps that had been enough, though Ma Kass had always been impossible to please.
It was from her that we first heard of it. A headmaster at Lieden had fallen madly in love with the spirals that skaters etched on ice, and had declared a prize of a scholarship to the University for the best skater of Rotterdam, and a pair of the finest silver skates.
"It will be you, of course, Ella." Helene had been convinced. She'd settled herself, already, to win the competition the year after me, but Ma Kass had pursed her lips and shaken her head.
"Ella, she is too in love with the ice. She trusts it too much."
It was true. I loved the ice, and the ice loved me. When I spun, the steel sang on the ice. When I jumped, it always held me, and I did not fall. On the ice, I was not an orphan, I was not poor, I was the best, and for that, I loved it as the man at Lieden never could.
Ma Kass always seemed to know what would happen before it did, if the thing was bad. Storms, she saw, and injuries, and deaths, too, I think. She said it was because she'd seen so much hurt in life, she could smell it coming. It was a familiar dream, and familiar words. After she spoke them, the dream always turned, twisted to the competition itself, always captured me mid-spin, the moment the ice had let me fall. This time, I refused to dream it, and with a start, I was awake, just as the skate began to slip.
It was dark when I woke, but in winter, it was mostly dark anyways. Helene must have still been sleeping, as the kitchen was as neat as I'd left it the night before. The leg always hurt less in the morning, and I even managed to pace the kitchen as I waited for the coffee, each step pricking at the bone-deep ache but not quite waking it. Morning always gave me hope that it would be better, but by noon, I knew, it would be back as if it had never left.
I saw the skates when I came back to the other room. The laces were neatly tucked away, but the skates themselves had been tossed haphazardly under the table. I pulled them out, rubbing dirt out of the white leather with my thumbs, amazed again at how soft they were, how supple. For all that Helene took no care of them, they were still magnificent. Could I pretend that I would care for them as she didn't, had I won? My own skates, black leather and steel, were in a box under my bed, now, the stairs an unbridgeable gap between us. If the blades were pitted with rust, I might never know.
I nearly slit open my finger, running it along the silver blade, wishing I had some oil downstairs to treat the metal with. Instead, I settled on the edge of the table. The hem of my shirt —had I forgotten to take it off before bed, again?— was rumpled and soft, and I carefully wiped caked-on dirt and dust from the blade until the silver shone again, the inscription legible once more, both her name and the wreath twining around it. My eyes blurred, and I nearly dropped the skate, turning the blade away, focusing on the white leather instead.
She'd gone first, her name chosen from a hat as the first to dance. The headmaster from Lieden had watched, open-mouthed. Ma Kass had taught us well, and those that followed after Helene were sad imitations, one by one unable to match the example that she had set. I had smiled wider and wider until my turn came, ready to show that among us all, the ice only loved me as it loved Helene. I danced as she had, but always I spun faster, I jumped higher. I watched the man from Lieden, and I did not watch the ice, and the ice betrayed me.
The worst part of the memory was not the pain, but the feeling of falling, of my skate catching, of knowing everything was going to go wrong as I was suspended in a moment, already too late to fix it. I'd lived that moment so many times, since. After that fall, the ice was a stranger, and even when walking, I could fall without warning.
I didn't even notice Helene come down, though the stairs always creaked mightily. It wasn't until her voice came from the kitchen that I started, quickly tucking the skates beneath the table again and rising upright, just as she came to the door, her pale hands wrapped around a steaming mug.
"Thanks for making coffee!"
My shrug was as noncommittal as I could make it, and I squeezed past her into the kitchen. There was still enough left in the pot besides the dregs for my first cup, and I leaned against the counter, gazing out the window. The storm had dumped a fresh few feet of snow, swaddling the city in white. Helene turned, and followed me in, perching on top of the kitchen table.
"I was thinking, while I'm here for the weekend, you wouldn't be minding me a-runnin' out to talk to folks around, would you?"
I raised my eyes to meet hers. I'd been planning to ask her to shovel the fallen snow, to give a hand with the house, maybe help me bring some of my things downstairs. I was slowly making the other room on the bottom floor my bedroom, but even when I could rise up the stairs, to return with boxes was beyond me. But I could tell from the way she bounced slightly on her hands, eager and brimming with plans already-made that she would wilt if I got in her way, or dimmed her joy with my pain. I never seemed to know how to tell her when I needed something. Instead, I sipped another draught of coffee, and slowly nodded. She beamed at me, and hopped down off the table. "Great! I'll be back before dinner, promised truly!" With that, she was gone, already by the door in the other room, thrusting her feet into boots and stomping around for a few moments to settle into them before wrapping herself in a coat. I heard the door slam without turning, and finished my coffee, walking over to where her mug, half-empty, still sat on the table. Picking it up, I swirled it around for a little, then finished it. The first cup was always the best one, even if Helene had already had the better half of it.
Slowly, I turned, and walked back to the room here I had left the skates, and raised them up again, letting them turn over in my hands. The temptation was less irresistible and more inexorable: the longer I held them, the more it grew, until I found myself thrusting my feet into my boots and throwing on my coat, the skates tucked under my arm. Outside, the snow was knee-deep, but not even that could stop me. I marched back to the bench by the side of the canal, and after brushing it clean, dropped down onto it, stripping off my boots. I slipped into the skates —they fit me better even than Helene, I'd always had the slimmer ankles— and, ever so carefully, stepped over to the edge. On the canal, the cleaners had already come by, wiping the surface clean of the night's accumulation, but fresh flakes from above continued to fall, laying down a pale cover atop the clear ice. Clutching the rungs on the side of the canal, I lowered myself down, until I felt the familiar, reassuring feeling of ice against steady skates, letting go of the rungs and turning to the open canal. One stroke, two, and I was off, cutting through the fresh snow. I passed under the bridge, and turned to look up, my eyes straying from the ice, and suddenly, the betrayal--
My leg buckled, and I went sprawling, skidding along the ice on my back, wiping a dozen feet of ice clean again. This was where my dreams never seemed to reach, I realized, the aftermath. Always I was falling, always one skate was twisting, always I could feel the blade prick my calf, about to enter— but never did it reach. I always woke, first, but this was no dream. The chill of the ice was a merciful coolness against my calf, which burned as it had that day, even though I had not cut it open, this time. I'd told Helene I was fine, fine as Henrik, our neighbor who had watched the completion and my fall, drove his sleigh back along this canal to our home with me slumped in the back, fine as he helped her load her bags, fine as he drove away with her, leaving the house more empty than it had ever been. I'd said everything when she came back the next day, then the next week. I'd said everything was fine, and my sister had believed me, had loved me as the ice had not.
I tried in vain to raise myself on my elbows as my gloves slipped on the ice, falling back again, staring up at the white flakes that drifted slowly down on me. It was how Helene found me, almost half an hour later, mincing carefully along the ice towards me, and I realized I was crying, sobbing, my chest heaving beneath the blanket of snow that had begun to cover me as I sobbed. I didn't say anything at all, my hands reaching out to her, and slowly, Helene lifted me up from the ice, drawing me into an embrace. I buried my face into her shoulder, and I cried, and I wasn't, wasn't, wasn't fine.