It is often said that a single story by Alice Munro contains as much complexity as a novel written by another writer.
But a story like “Pictures of the Ice” contains a snapshot of a life in a memorable twist, beginning from the end.
The strange part is not that the story begins with the end.
No, many other stories in Alice Munro’s oeuvre do just that, either literally or figuratively (for many times a narrator is looking back to earlier times and reflecting on them from a changed perspective).
The unexpected part is that by the end of the story, so much has happened, that it is possible to have forgotten that it began with a death.
“Three weeks before he died – drowned in a lake whose name nobody had heard him mention – Austin Cobbett….”
Austin Cobbett is introduced to readers as a dead man, but when we meet, he is looking at his reflection in a store mirror.
He is trying on permanent-press dress pants, something suitable for special occasions revolving around his wedding, which is scheduled for two weeks from now. (The fact that they are permanent press makes me smile, because it is so immediately revealing.)
Austin is over seventy, readers learn, and, yet, he is embarking on a new phase of life. His wife died a year ago (that might be an end, but it also might be a beginning), and it’s clear that he is slightly uncomfortable in this new garb.
(“Oh,” think readers, who still have that opening sentence fresh in their minds, as they unravel the math, “he will die one week after he is married”. That is, assuming that readers recall the news of Austin’s death in this opening scene, when he is standing in the store trying on clothes. By the time that Austin was listening to Phil’s horrible joke, I had completely forgotten the timeline that Alice Munro had shared at the outset; Austin was a flesh-and-blood, here-to-stay character for me. I wasn’t doing any math; I had already forgotten the forecast.)
Nonetheless, as unexpected as the news may be, Austin is set to marry Sheila Brothers in Hawaii. He has called from his home, the parsonage, to notify his son, Don and his daughter, Megan, (who are grown and live away) and Karin is helping to prepare the house for Austin’s departure.
Karin is the crossing guard. (Think: crossroads. Recall: death forecast. That’s math I can do, but only in hindsight.)
Karin inhabits the margins of town life. She has experienced a loss (well, two, actually), and this has profoundly affected her ability to cope.
“She has gone a little strange – not too much or she wouldn’t be a crossing guard, even with Austin Cobbett’s recommendation. She interrupts conversations. She never seems to wear anything but her jeans and an old navy-blue duffel coat. She has a hard and suspicious expression and she has a public grudge against her ex-husband.”
Karin’s devastating loss occurred in the wake of a storm. There is a storm, too, in the days leading up to Austin’s departure.
“That time was really the beginning of the end, the change.”
After the storm, Karin and Austin journey to the shore, where winter has transformed the familiar.
“Sheets of ice drop from the burdened branches of the willow trees to the ground, and the sun shines through them from the west; they’re like walls of pearl.”
As they make their way across the ice, Karin and Austin engage with the landscape differently — one moving less assuredly — but they share a fascination with the changed tableau.
“Ice is woven through the wire of the high fence to make it like a honeycomb. Waves have frozen as they hit the shore, making mounds and caves, a crazy landscape, out to the rim of the open water.”
(The first time that I saw the shore of Lake Huron in the winter, I was shocked; I had not realized how difficult it would be to walk, how strange the thick crusts and eruptions of ice would be. This was just south of the fictional town of Walley that is described in so many of Friend of My Youth’s stories; I often think back to that afternoon.)
“And all the playground equipment, the children’s swings and climbing bars, has been transformed by ice, hung with organ pipes or buried in what looks like half-carved statues, shapes of ice that might be people, animals, angels, monsters, left unfinished.”
Austin’s story, at this point in “Pictures of the Ice”, is also unfinished. But those attentive readers who still have the opening sentence in mind are alert for the denouement. For Austin no longer negotiates the uneven surface of the icy shore; he has drowned in a lake, not traversed it.
But there is more to Austin’s story, and Karin understands the dimensions of it in a peculiarly poignant way. A telephone call has revealed something about his circumstances that nobody else is aware of and, despite his son’s and daughter’s concerns — expressed by telephone — about the upcoming wedding, only Karin has guessed the truth beneath the surface of Austin’s story.
“She thinks now that he knew. Right at the last he knew that she’d caught on to him, she understood what he was up to. No matter how alone you are, and how tricky and determined, don’t you need one person to know? She could be the one for him.”
And, in turn, the reader is the “one” that Karin seeks. You could be the one.
Note: This is part of a series of posts on Alice Munro’s stories, as I read through her work-to-date. She is one of my MRE authors and I plan to read the stories in Friend of My Youth throughout this month; this is the sixth story in the collection. Please feel free to check the schedule and join in, for the series, or for a single story; I would love the company.