A short story
by Bill Capossere
The Ice Museum appears in the dog days of summer, traveling into town on a chill night breeze that sways the branches of the trees that line Main Street, casting trembling shadows on the empty storefront glass and on the sidewalk where a pair of lean hounds sniffing desultorily at one another suddenly tense then bolt off, baying at the wind and what rides it. In the houses the townspeople shift at the sudden coolness, like a window opening then shutting over their bodies as they lie in their bedrooms or sleeping porches, their stickysweat skin sliding restlessly over the sheets, limbs flung outward trying to escape the body’s own heat and maybe another’s, seeking the cooler portion of the bed, hot, so unbearably hot save for that moment’s strange cold, like a memory of winter, and half-asleep they throw their arms out as if to reach for it, but it’s already passed, fading like the dogs’ howls into the tapestry of their fevered dreams.
In the morning the residents awaken to a new structure at the edge of town—set down in a churchyard, a soccer or baseball field, the flattened grass of yesterday’s flea market. The structure is new but not unfamiliar, for the Museum has taken as its model one of the local buildings—sculpted its likeness in ice so that for the brief duration of the Museum’s stay the town appears to have two libraries, two malls, an extra decrepit barn or another abandoned-looking grain elevator. The Museum is an exact copy on the outside, save for the size—larger or smaller depending on need—and the color, which changes over the course of the day from a deep glacial blue to steel then to white as the ice thins in the summer heat and sun.
The night the Museum arrived in your town you were almost thirteen, and you felt it pass in the dark without knowing what it was, a momentary disturbance in your heat-filled dreams, unnamed until your friends arrived breathless on your porch, rattling the screen door in its frame and yelling your name through the mesh curling away from one side that your father and you would replace later in the week.
At the school grounds, the Museum took up the whole of the athletic fields, not quite the size of the school itself. There was already a line formed in front, and as you watched you could see that people were climbing up into the Museum, the door seemingly about fifteen feet off the ground and accessed by what looked like a rope ladder. The building itself was misshapen; two squares (or approximations of squares) awkwardly joined, like one had fallen into the other rather than having been built onto it. The front structure leaned heavily forward, while the back—a third of the size— leaned just as badly to the left, so that the entire construct had the appearance of motion, like each time you looked at it you were catching it in the moment of collapse. There were scattered gaps between the roofs and the side walls, as if the ice had already wholly melted in those areas, and also one large squarish hole in the center of each wall, though these appeared more purposeful—windows you supposed, though lacking a window’s clean straight lines.
As the line moved the four of you tried to identify it, but none of you could place it. It was too big, too strangely shaped, too blue, though it seemed oddly familiar to each of you. And then as you watched the next person clamber up the rope ladder to the door above him, it hit you—the fort.
You hadn’t seen it in two years, but now, looking at the Museum and scaling it down mentally in size and replacing the blue-tinted ice with mismatched boards and planks, it was obvious. It had been Mark’s idea. A place for the four of you to congregate away from the world of parents and teachers and big kids and tag-along siblings. So you’d scavenged wood for weeks from whatever developments were going up near your neighborhood, riding home in the dark awkwardly balancing two-by-fours and sheets of plywood on your handlebars, with whatever else looked of use resting on top of the boards: pilfered boxes of nails and screws; partially used rolls of tape; pieces of drywall, broken or scored but good enough for your purposes.
You’d hidden it all behind Mark’s garage, under the tarp that covered an old rowboat his dad had been saying for as many summers as you could remember he’d fix up one day to take Mark out fishing. Eventually, you dragged it all out to the fields behind his house, far enough so it wasn’t visible from the backyard. And there you built the fort. Or several of them actually, as the first two fell down of their own accord and the third was knocked down by a group of kids from the houses on the other side of the field. They’d followed the sound of hammering and rushed out from the tall grass and scraggly bushes, throwing dirt clods and water balloons, though to be fair, they had only knocked it down accidentally, when one of them tackled Peter into the side and it collapsed under the two of them.
And here in front of you, ten or twenty times bigger, was the fourth and final version. You wondered how the Museum had chosen this shape, how it had even known of the fort, which even you’d forgotten. Two years might as well have been twenty it seemed so long ago, ages really.
Jack was the first one up and in, then Mark, then Chris, then yourself—climbing quickly up the rope ladder, your knuckles and knees scraping now and then against the ice. It was colder than you expected somehow. At the top, when you had to put both hands down on the floor and pull yourself over the slippery lip of the threshold, it was like a thousand bee stings all across your palms and up and down the bottoms of your forearms, and when you stood the outer parts of your flesh were numb though you could still feel the stings underneath. It would be years and years before you could find the words to describe it, lying in bed remembering and then thinking it was like the ice had been boring its way deeper, passing through you, riming your veins and arteries in frost, your blood turning to slush while the air your lungs pumped crystallized and fell like snow through your body, and wondering as you lay there if it was still falling, had never really stopped, a soft steady layering that gathered in drifts and covered in muffling cold the beating chambers of your heart.
In the museum, the ladder left you facing a narrow tunnel or hall carved out of the ice and curving out of sight after only a few feet. Your friends had gone on ahead, aware as you were of the building’s temporary nature. Already you were standing in water, a thin skin of it on the ice that made walking treacherous. As you cautiously moved forward you could feel now and then the ceiling dripping on your head and shoulders. The light was strange inside; it seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. You couldn’t get a handle on it, no sense of direction as you followed the tunnels that honeycombed the building, past exhibits both familiar and unknown.
Ice sculptures lined niches in many of the tunnels—eagles and bears and angels, or wedding pieces—swans and hearts and cakes. Sometimes they were part of the tunnels themselves, owls swooping down from the ceiling, claws ready to rake the unwary visitor; serpents rising from the floor to suddenly trip you as you passed.
There was a model the size of your garage of the Empress’ Ice Palace in Russia, complete with a pair of newlyweds locked in a frigid embrace on the wedding bed (if they had once been anatomically correct they no longer were). On the palace grounds, a two-foot tall elephant sprayed a constant mist of water onto a skating pond, while ice cannons as big as your hand periodically shot grape-sized iceballs across the exit threshold, making departure somewhat hazardous.
One long, large chamber was a graveyard of ships, their prows or sometimes only the masts jutting partway out of the ice to your sides or up through the floor so you had to navigate around them, stopping to trace some of their names with your fingers: Erebus, Terror, Endurance, The Victory. In one or two, peering through their translucent hull into their inner depths, you could make out the rime-ridden faces of some of their crew, their mouths and brows more contorted than you would have expected, always having heard that freezing to death was like falling asleep.
In one room Jose Arcadio Buendia of Macondo introduced his small son Aureliano to “the great invention of our time,” while in another a series of globes showed the fast-moving effect of Ice-9 on the world’s oceans, rivers, and other bodies of water; the blue giving way inch by inch until in the last all was white and featureless and so quiet, you imagined, like an early morning snow.
As you continued on, you were always aware of the shadowy shapes that moved all around you, people walking on other sides of icy walls, above and under you as well to either side. They were bare outlines of humans, distorted, their edges blurred, like a child’s smudged drawing of their family. Eventually, you thought, the ice would melt enough to make out their forms more distinctly, then their faces, then the walls would thin even more so you could reach through and touch them if you wished, your feet slowly sinking through the floor below you. You wondered if you simply stopped and stood in one place, if you could travel the museum that way, just wait for the ground to soften and leisurely fall through the building, floor by floor. You pictured your friends’ faces, confused how you’d beaten them to the exit though you’d been last to enter.
Thirteen and too young to know it had already started, that deliberate sinking, thinking your two feet solid on the ground belied the world’s slow melt. Even had you looked you would not have seen it then in your mother’s watery eyes or the runnels of your father’s cracked and glaciated face, would not learn ‘till later that all the world was a shivering illusion that dwindles season by season though you heap up snow and cold against the inevitable flow, listening to your wife’s soft sigh beside you at night, each breath frozen into a row of crystal moments that you cross from here to here to here thinking to yourself how thin it all really is and step once more gingerly into the . . .
Copyright © 2010 Bill Capossere
Photo © Margus Kurgvel
“‘The Ice Museum’ is one in a cycle of Museum stories involving the same character. All the others (so far) take place when the character is an adult, and in this one, I wanted to go back in time. Flailing about for what kind of museum best fit that age between the start of adulthood and the end of childhood, it came to me that ice, with its temporary nature, might work as a parallel. I chose a kids’ fort as the museum’s form because I planned it to be a bit more upbeat than recent museum stories and thought that form would lend itself to such a tone. Oh well, maybe next time . . . "
Bill Capossere's work has appeared in Harper’s Magazine, Colorado Review, Rosebud, and other journals; in the anthologies In Short and Short Takes; and has been recognized with several Pushcart nominations and inclusion in the “notable essays” section of Best American. He lives in Rochester, NY, and has just completed a low-residency MFA at the Mt. Rainier Writing Workshop.