“Patience granddaughter,” the old man said for the tenth time. He didn’t need to look up to know that she was rolling her eyes at him, yet again. He smiled, but she hadn’t noticed, his face pointed down towards the black hole drilled into the hard ice between his feet.
She huffed out a cloud of vapor, clearly unhappy with the lack of excitement, but remained silent, her eyes seeking something to watch, anything to pass the time. But nothing moved, the late hour and moonless night hiding much from her young eyes. The expanse of the Milky Way split the night sky above the frozen lake, but even its beauty was far too static to preoccupy her for more than a moment or two.
Her eyes swept the ice around them, the area devoid of any other people. Movement near the edges, bordered by thick stands of pine trees, drew her eyes, but whatever made the disturbance had remained aloof, the darkness hiding anything worthy of her attention.
She sighed heavily again, watching her breath swirl into the bitter cold air. Her grandfather had made sure she was bundled up sufficiently against the night temps so their time here wouldn’t be uncomfortable. She might die of boredom, as her mother would say, but it wouldn’t be from the cold.
Despite the darkness, the ice beneath her feet seemed to glow faintly, her tiny boots sliding across its magical surface. She had no idea what to expect, after they had finished dinner and had gotten ready to come outside, but sitting here in the silence, on overturned buckets, was not it.
The young lady had been watching her grandfather toiling in his workshop all afternoon, the sled filling with an inexplicable collection of odd objects. She had picked through the assortment, examining each in turn, unable to grasp its purpose.
Baseball-sized spheres with elongated openings.
Harnesses made of flimsy material, too tiny for even the smallest dogs.
A cigar and old-school, wooden matches, despite her mom’s admonition of his habit.
A small, metal tank, contents unknown.
Ball of twine, and a handful of colorful balloons.
“What’s all this stuff for?” She prompted.
He smiled at her, eyes twinkling, as though something wonderful would was coming, but he didn’t share the details.
She shrugged it off and went back to poking through the cabinets in the garage where he spent most of his time tinkering on various projects.
They had eaten dinner, did the dishes and then got ready to head out into the night. Despite the sun being down and no moon in the sky, the starlight from above lit the undisturbed layer of snow stretching out before them. They reached the hill behind the house, where she often went sledding, but tonight they were descending it on foot, the sled, still laden with the odd collection of items, was following behind at the end of the rope, gripped in her grandfather’s gloved hand.
The pair shuffled across the lake, out to the center where the water was deepest, she knew. There the old man had drilled through the surface and laid out his gear, baiting the hook and dropping it into the darkness below. He had offered to drill a second hole, to let her fish as well, but she declined.
“It’s not really fishing if you have to cut a hole to do it,” she declared, after having given it enough thought. Her grandfather nodded sagely, amused by her observation.
“Fair enough,” he said, taking a seat.
She followed suit.
They waited for nearly an hour, no activity of note.
“It’s not really fishing either, if you don’t catch any fish,” she added.
He chuckled but kept his face pointed downward. “Patience,” he whispered.
Having exhausted any hope that something, anything, might be going on around them, she followed suit and stared intently at the hole between their boots.
Perhaps concentrating on the void might elicit some kind of response, she mused. Clearly, the chances of them heading home were greatly improved if her grandfather caught something. She had no idea if praying to God for a fish to take the bait hanging below in the darkness would help their chances, but it certainly couldn’t hurt.
Her tiny lips had only just started her silent prayer when the rod in her grandfather’s hands began to twitch, stirring him from his monk-like trance. He gave the tiny rod a few encouraging shakes, trying to entice a stronger response from the deep. She could see the dark water begin to dance, betraying the activity beneath the ice.
This could be interesting, she thought, stifling a yawn and shaking off the sleepiness that settled upon her small frame. She watched as he teased the fish far below, a contest playing out at each end of the thin line. As though sensing the time was right, her grandfather gave the rod a solid tug, rewarded when the hook set and the line began to circle the dark opening.
“Patience,” he said again, this time not directed at her.
He began reeling in the fish, slowly and in no real hurry. She would have been far less patient, she had to admit, adrenaline building as the struggle continued.
The sloshing water began to spill out over the ice as the fish from below began to emerge. It wasn’t a ‘keeper’, as her grandfather often said, but he smiled like it was a trophy catch. She could feel herself smiling too, excited that they might be heading home soon, as he had stored the rod away.
“Are we going home now?”
He shook his head, staring intently into the face of the fish as though sizing it up. “Not just yet.”
He nodded, having reached some kind of conclusion and laid the fish gently down on the ice beside him. Pulling the sled closer to him, he took one of the plastic globes and dipped it into the water, setting it carefully next to the fish. He then picked through the collection of harnesses she had seen earlier and had sized one up, laying it out next to the globe.
“Take this,” he instructed, passing her the metal tank and hose she had seen earlier.
He lit his cigar and took a deep breath, exhaling the smoke, his eyes watching it drift away into the night.
“Perfect,” he muttered to himself, his eyes looking east to where the sun would come up in the morning.
He extracted the ball of twine and cut a short length of it free with his pocket knife. Grabbing the balloons, he inflated a few with her help, her small hands working the valve. Finally satisfied with the colorful collection, the old man hooked them all together with the twine. Testing their lifting capability and deeming it sufficient, he attached the bundle to the shed, a slight breeze bouncing them around, the colorful material stark against the black and white world.
He returned his attention to the fish, taking it up in his hands. It continued to squirm in his grasp as he positioned it carefully into the harness he had selected. It seemed to him a perfect fit, nodding at his handiwork. He lifted the water-filled globe from the ice and pointed the fish’s head down into the globe’s opening, noting the seal that had formed. As though sensing the familiar environment, the fish relaxed, its tail returning to a leisurely pace. He then turned it towards his granddaughter and smiled, four eyes staring at her.
Crinkled eyebrows conveyed her confusion.
“Some big fish are happy to live in a small pond,” he said smoothly. “But for others, they need to keep growing. To do that, they need a bigger pond.”
He puffed out more smoke from his cigar, the glowing tip flaring in the darkness.
Her grandfather reached over and unhooked the balloons from the sled, comparing the weight of the fish and equipment in one hand against the lifting power of the helium in the other. Satisfied, he paired the two together.
“He wants to live in a bigger pond, grandpa?” The young girl asked, looking at the fish who seemed to be watching her.
“I think he does.”
With that, he opened his hands slowly and the contents began to lift skyward. A great lake lay to the east, its ice recently open; winter in retreat.
The pair watched in silence as the fish, it’s tail slowly swishing as it swam through the starlit night, seemed to sense a great adventure ahead. Moments later, even her young eyes had lost sight of the explorer.
“Winter never lasts forever,” he said quizzically. “Opportunities await us all.”
Turning the sled around, the pair walked in silence, the young girl taking her grandfather’s hand in her own.