A dozen spans or thereabouts she stood offshore, this wistful cygnet with my eyes and her mother's hair. Her shadow lay lightly on the ice. Ice which I studied closely for the first signs of cracks. My belly tightened at the thought of her in the freezing green-black water of the pond. My anxiety served as reinforcement for its frozen surface. She sensed my discomfort, I think, looking up at me with grin as antidote to fear. I smiled in return. Sunshine like white gold broke through a mottled pewter sky to illuminate us, a living page from our own Book of Hours.
The sky returned to a sullen indifference. The slow clouds of midwinter marbled like bruises over a snippets of bright blue. A hush was over the pond, disturbed now and then by the barking of dogs, children frolicking or ragged chevrons of Canadian geese knifing through the cold air above. Water oozed through the grass from soil still reeling from a few hard freezes. My thoughts drifted briefly to permafrost, and what happens when it thaws. I needed to know if similar processes affected the heart in the same manner. I must know, as something seemed to be cracking in my chest.
"Daddy, what's that?"
Her question a soft whipcrack snapping me out of arctic ruminations. She was standing on a dark patch shaped like a lumpy oval. My first thought was it was weak ice, but she stood firm. The shape crystallized in my mind.
"It looks like a tree stump, sweet pea." I hoped that it was. Weird that it was a level cut stump only a fraction of an inch below the ice line.
"I wonder if that's it," she said. She bent down to pick up one of the many small rocks littering the ice. The impacts of the stones a webbed chiaroscuro crazing the frozen pond. Kneeling, my daughter began to dig at the ice over the stump. It cracked a little but did not move. She knitted her brow, lips scrunched in vexation. I could not help but smile to know that by such gestures she was indeed of my blood. Sometimes she is driven by a compulsion to know that which is beneath the surface, to firmly possess certainty. In the space of a few fluttery heartbeats, I prayed that she would not be as destructive in pursuit of that certainty as I had sometimes been in the past. The past when I was young and needed to know everything, but knew nothing.
Her mittened hands rested briefly on the ice. She studied the shape, cocking her head. Her gaze and posture reminded me so much of a heron stalking a frog I nearly burst out laughing. She must have decided that it was not important enough to continue, as she levered herself up to stand on the stump. I heard the clicking of pebbles and ice as she nudged the fragments with the toe of her right boot. She moved as if skating for a few more minutes. I stifled my urge to tell her again she was far enough out on the ice. With an avian hop, she came back to shore.
"Walk some more, kiddo?" I asked with a raspy warble in my voice making me cough. She turned her face to me, cheeks rosy in the cool breeze.
"Sure, Daddy." Hop. Skip. Away she fluttered ahead of me, down the trail that ran along the river. Clouds mimed a slow semaphore shining on her performance while she gleefully leaped into a pile of slush on the trail side.
She grows, this nascent swan of my heart. Taller, more winsome, as months and years fall like leaves. Winter has its hold on my brittle heart, enrobed in a thin glaze of frost that I begin to feel melt in the innocent warmth of her presence. The old man of my soul knows this is the progress of life. He knows that growth is inevitable, as is love and the thaw. We watch her amble and cavort under a nave of trees, wondering when she will break the ice. Hoping that we witness the glorious transformation when the swan makes it back to shore, to fly into spring.