Charlene Logan Burnett
The Fisherman and The Cloak
The lake was in a forgotten region, where it was so cold, snow never completely melted from the mountains. The fisherman, in the thirty years since his wife had died, rarely saw other humans. Occasionally a trapper or a woodsman would attempt to enter the surrounding forests, but they were always driven back by windstorms and the relentless cold.
The fisherman often thought about returning to his homeland, a small port on the tip of a southern peninsula, but he had once broken both legs, one of which had not knit back correctly. He was leery of traveling such a distance to attempt to reach a village where surely he'd been forgotten.
He knew he would not live much longer, maybe a year or two. He had almost everything he needed. His dwelling was satisfactory: a cave with a narrow entrance, a round hall with a hearth, and a rear chamber, where his deceased wife was encased inside an ice coffin, which he'd chiseled and polished, so he could gaze in at her exquisite beauty.
It was midwinter, and the sun rose for only a few hours each day. Food was scarce. Snow hares, preserving their waning energy, often hid in their dens for days. Birds had long fled to the south. Each day, the fisherman carried his hatchet and pole onto the frozen lake. Each day, he found it harder to hook a fish as they drifted deeper and deeper.
The lake had formed thousands of years ago. It was so vast and deep and frigid that everything that fell into it remained preserved. Gar and paddlefish swam between the tusks of woolly mammoth. A mastodon's trunk curled around the very tree it once carried. A dire wolf, long extinct in the Americas, lay on the bottom, while nearby, a red cloak that the wolf had purged upon entering the water, swayed with the current. The garment still held the blush of the young girl who'd worn it, although her body had long ago been devoured inside the wolf's belly as he fled north across the continent, men and women from the girl's village in pursuit.
The girl's spirit clung to the cloak. She yearned to be in the world once more to taste the bread her mother baked. She wanted to walk in the forest, wearing her red cloak, gathering pine nuts and starflowers. Most of all, she wanted to feel a human touch.
She knew of the fisherman. When he and his wife first appeared at the lake, he'd been young, hardly more than a few years older than the girl. In warm weather, he fished from a canoe he'd made of white cedar. When the lake iced over, he chopped out a hole and lowered a barbed bone tied to twine. Eventually his wife vanished, and the girl surmised from his sobs that she had died—peacefully, because her spirit did not linger near the lake.
He had deep blue eyes, and when he looked into the water, she believed he was searching for her. His arms were hairless, not at all like the men from her village, and she dreamt of him holding her in his arms. She sang to him, hoping to lure him so his fishing hook would catch on her cloak, but it was always too far to the left or right or not deep enough. Decades passed, and although the man aged, the girl, perpetually thirteen, saw him as the young man she loved.
As first light colored the morning sky, the fisherman strapped on his snowshoes and, carrying his hatchet and pole, walked out onto the lake. He chopped through the ice that had formed over his fishing hole. He added more line so his hook sunk deeper.
The girl, barely wakened by the soft dawn, first thought the descending flutter of bone was a butterfly. She closed her eyes, remembering the forest near her mother's home. It was a sweet dream, full of the scent of woodland phlox and the sound of the song sparrow. The dream always ended badly, so when she felt the tug on her cloak, she fought back, kicking and screaming, but she only managed to tangle herself in the fishing line. The barbed bone, sharpened into the fang of a wolf, gripped her, and with a fierce tug, she was pulled from her watery bed, through a ragged tunnel of ice, chocking and gagging, and then flung up into the stinging air, where her lungs seized. She flopped backwards onto the ice, her neck and legs surely broken. The fisherman grabbed her by the nape of her cloak.
"Stop!" she screamed, but she was formless, and he couldn't see or hear her. He shook the red cloak until she didn't know up from down. He rolled it and swung it like a club against the ice, over and over, until she passed out.
She woke inside the hot chamber of his cave, draped across the floor near the hearth. She feared her cloak might catch fire but she dared not move. The fisherman was much older than she'd believed. His hair was matted. Fish scales stuck in his beard. His arms and neck were hairy.
Run, she thought, but she had no legs.
Scream, she said, but she had no voice.
Fight, but she was at the whim of the fisherman, who prodded her with a stick, turned her this way and that, and eventually hung her from an iron hook pounded into the cave wall.
She hung there for days. When he was out fishing, she tried to escape, but the rusty hook bore into her as if she were made of flesh. There was little moisture inside of her. She feared drying up and blowing away.
She learned things about him. He snored. He favored sturgeon. He ate raw red roe. In a rear chamber, he had entombed his dead wife in an ice block, and at night, he went in and spoke to her. The girl strained to hear his words.
He usually fell quickly to sleep after being with his wife, but one evening, he stoked the fire and stared at the cloak, lusting after its scarlet folds. The girl tried to appear small, like a stain on rock, but he seized her, pawed her, shook her senseless. She choked on his arms as they stuffed inside of her, straining, ripping, gorging her like a pig. Nothing satisfied him. He was too big for her. She was torn, limb by limb, and tossed into a pile of fish bones. It took all of her will to gather a shred of herself under the hood of her red cloak.
She waited until he fell asleep. Outside, the wind shifted, and a draft stirred across the entryway. He'd banked the fire, but the flame caught the dry wool of her hood. She did not scream. She did not resist. She let the fire engulf her, the room, and the sleeping fisherman. No longer bound to the body of her cloak, she watched as the ice coffin with the fisherman's beautiful wife cracked and melted, releasing the woman's frozen corpse.