This story begins with two boats at sea; small rowboats in disrepair. One had a small crack somewhere in the hull and rapidly filled with water. This defect required frequent attention, but could be temporarily repaired with beeswax or chewing gum, depending on the expertise of the caretaker. The second boat was mostly intact and water-ready other than its overall aesthetic appearance. Several of its original gold letters were missing, so that the starboard hull, which used to read PRINCE & QUEEN now appeared I CE QUEEN. To the townspeople that knew the owner of this boat, it had never sailed as anything but the Ice Queen, though surely there was once a time that it sailed under its original name.
Next, there are the two passengers, at this time headed out towards the same watery horizon and completely unaware of one another. In the first boat was a young girl, no older than ten years old. She had stolen the boat from her father three weeks earlier, scraped off all the lettering and proceeded to run away from home. In her boat, other than herself, she transported a smallish burlap sack full of a few precious things: her mother’s necklace, her father’s old eyeglasses and a single frayed book, a favorite of both parents—Their Eyes Were Watching God. In order to understand how this girl ended up alone in a tiny rowboat so far out to sea, we must first understand where she had come from.
Ada had lived up until very recently in a small seaside town with her mother and father. Her mother was a small, fey woman. She had married at the age of eighteen, driven by a mad passion and a mysterious desire to keep her lover near the sea. She was a woman with wild, beautiful eyes and the manner of something unknown and untamable. Still Ada’s mother, for whom Ada had been named, deeply loved her father. It was apparent in the way she fixed his tie at funerals or phoned him on his lunch break. And, Ada thought, it was tucked away from sight in some murky corner of her soul. Ada’s mother used to take her out to the sea shore and point out to the diamond horizon. “That’s where I’m from.” She would say. “Our bodies were dusted with gold and our cities shining. I turned my back on it for him.” Ada’s mother quietly suffered through their simple, dry life because she loved her husband. Even Ada knew this.
Ada’s mother had died three weeks ago.
Ada’s father was a businessman in North Carolina as a young man. He would always sit her down before dinner and chronicle the lives of their family as far back as he could remember. He would tell her of his father, the school teacher; his grandmother, the housemaid, his cousin the drunk. “We came from enslaved people.” He would always end. “So it is most important for you to always be free. Move free, love free, die free.” Ada had not fully understood him. He never told them why he had left his business in Carolina to become a fisherman so far up north. How could someone with so much southern blood in his veins survive this cold?
Ada’s father had also loved his young wife very deeply, so when she died at the shatteringly unfair age of twenty-eight, he was crushed. She had drowned in the very boat that Ada now rowed. For her mother’s funeral, Ada had fixed her father’s tie. In his eyes, Ada had seen something so profoundly hurt and angry that her heart had wrenched. She knew, the way one knows that the sunset brings darkness, that her father could never look at her again without some degree of resentment. She was named for her mother, and looked so much like her. Her father would never separate the two of them. For her father, she could see, the sun had set for good. And there was no glimmer at all; nothing special about this sundown that had warned him it would be the last. Ada had kissed her father on the cheek and silently gone to her room. She had packed the things she now carried and left through the back door, stealing her father’s boat—the one that had drowned her mother in a storm—and turning her back on their small cottage house. In the end, she didn’t go to the funeral.
Now Ada drifted in the ocean, listlessly wondering if it would be best to turn back to shore or keep going. She had spent the past three weeks in a world of silence, speaking to no one, stealing what food she needed in the night. This quiet had taken three weeks to really permeate her small frame. She became aware of how small she was; a tiny speck of something in the vastness of the ocean. The silence filled up her ears, swelled in her chest. The waves lulled her, hypnotized her, drew her down. At this moment she could only think of what her mother kept saying. Our bodies were dusted with gold and our cities shining. As a small child Ada had always thought her mother meant that there were people living under the water. She was ten years old now and knew better. At the horizon, dark, pregnant clouds hung low, ready to birth a torrent.
In the second boat, the Ice Queen, was a young man of fourteen. Unlike Ada, he lived in the town nearby, all alone in a small house hidden against the mountain. His name was Ezra. This trip, in his small rowboat out to the horizon, was one he made daily. He would take a deep breath, shove off and row until his arms were exhausted. Then he would stop and let the currents and waves move him and shift him to their will. Ezra didn’t know why he did this. He only knew that he felt like he must. On land he felt like most people felt at sea: off balance and slightly sick. At sea his churning settled and he felt finally able to focus. With no one around as far as his eyes could see, he felt no obligations, no pressures, no anxieties. At times he supposed that he felt too many emotions for too many small things, but it was a condition he couldn’t help. So at the end of the day, when he felt exhausted and overwhelmed, he would take his boat out and for a short time forget that he was a human being. It was so much simpler to feel like a smattering of water, insignificant and part of a whole ever-changing ocean.
He had lived in this town as long as he could remember, alone as long as he could remember. His neighbors had told him the truth: His parents had come into town with enough money to buy the house he lived in and start a life. They had seemed like nice folk, his neighbors said. They had been polite enough, though they never came to town hall and they had their groceries delivered to the door. He was no more than four years old when he’d come here with his parents and he didn’t remember where he’d been before that. Whatever sort of people his parents were, whatever their situation, Ezra didn’t know. One day, without warning, they had packed up their things and left him in the house. Everyone in the town saw them driving their nice silver car out through the main road and had thought nothing of it. It wasn’t until a week later when a policeman went by the house to inspect that they knew Ezra had been left behind. He had been eating canned beans and bread for days. The milk had gone bad.
This town was a kind place. In such a small community, it is hard to avoid the care of the people around you. Everyone kept an eye out for him here and there. An elderly woman who lived a short walk away from him would come and take care of him every day. She took him to school and kept him healthy. She was a sweet old woman with lovely neat curls of white hair and a face rounded and weathered by the sea and cold northern sun. She had no children of her own. Every day after school, she would take Ezra out on her boat and they would float under the afternoon sun, quiet and contemplative.
“The sea is like a diary.” She would say. “You tell her all your troubles, everything you ever did wrong and she’ll absolve you of anything. She’s the oldest thing there ever was, nothing will shock her. Every story the world has to tell is written on the sea.”
“But it all looks the same.” He would sulk, chilly and confused, wishing she would talk clearly.
“Ah, there, you’ve got it. It all looks the same.” She would inhale deeply before turning them back to shore. They would do this every day, rain or shine, through Ezra’s worst moments of adolescent resentment and his most distracted and nonchalant. She was old, and though she worked diligently to keep Ezra safe and happy throughout his childhood, she passed away before he turned thirteen. Since then he had kept up her tradition and though he never completely understood it, he found that he always returned feeling lighter, buoyed up by the gentle, rhythmic waves.
Now he floated, wide-brimmed hat tipped aslant over his brow, watching clouds gather above him and debating whether to simply let this storm take him over. He was a strong rower, it was true, but he doubted he would fare well in the storm that was coming. He entertained drowning for only a moment. The water was already starting to toss and turn, like a restless sleeper. He squinted back and then inhaled before turning to shore.
From somewhere that seemed to originate in the water itself he heard a sudden, frail scream. It was the type of voice that one could not be sure was real. Maybe it had been a bird, or a whale too close to shore, or part of a dream he was unaware he’d slipped into. He sat up straighter in his craft, searching around in a circle. Glancing under the murky water in a split second of the penetrating sunlight, Ezra thought he saw a pair of bluish arms reaching up toward him before the light rendered the water opaque again. Startled, he jerked back and finally saw the girl, Ada. She was standing in her own boat and it was sitting far too low on the water. She waved her arms above her head as if not sure he could see her, though there was literally nothing but distance between them. She shouted something that Ezra couldn’t hear above the gathering thunder and pointed vigorously downward. The boat was sinking. She cupped her hands over her mouth and shouted again.
“I don’t want to drown!”
Ezra finally geared into action, realizing that she wasn’t some kind of sea creature, but a real girl in danger. She was farther out than he was, and the storm was fast arriving overhead, but the thought of abandoning her there never so much as crossed his mind. By the time he got to her, her ankles were submerged in the water and she looked like some half-exposed sea plant growing up from a half-sunken ship.
Without saying anything, he reached a large hand out to her and she grabbed onto him with both arms, letting herself get hoisted up behind him. In his eyes, Ada was an unusual looking child, with shiny black eyes, cool dark skin, and a tangled array of curls wrapped around her head. Her eyes were as round as saucers, but she wasn’t shaking and didn’t seem very scared at all.
“Thank you.” She said. “I lost an oar and the storm was coming.”
Ezra nodded and began rowing them back to shore as quickly as he could. Ada had not gotten a good look at his face before she’d climbed in behind him, so all she had to go by was the back of him. He was warm and brown as a nut and his shoulders were dusted with freckles. He had what seemed to her to be very big muscles and his hair was a short-cropped inky smudge, almost like the flick of a greasy thumb had put it there. She could hear his breathing, even and steady, as he took them back to shore. The storm, which had been brewing and bubbling patiently above, waited for them to get near the sand before shuddering to life and blowing the pages of Ezra’s diary every which way.