An Age of Ice and Magic Tales from Oysterback

March 16, 1994|By HELEN CHAPPELL

OYSTERBACK, MARYLAND — Oysterback, Maryland. -- When winter came, it had teeth. For a week, the wind came in from the northeast just as sharp and cold as a Republican's heart. Ice storm after ice storm downed power lines and cut off the phones, coating the world with a thin, frigid beauty, slicing the village of Oysterback off from the outside world.

At night, in the cold black stillness, the crack of trees breaking beneath the weight of the ice sounded like rifle shots in the darkness. The boats were cradled up in the ice at the harbor; little traffic moved on the slick roads. The sky itself stayed gray and sullen. After a few days, the ice grew so dense that folks

actually walked out into the middle of the shipping channel. For one brief moment there was awe, as they understood they were standing in the middle of the Chesapeake bay, and there was ice as far as the eye could see. Time itself was frozen in the ice, suspended between then and now.

Hudson Swann only walked out onto the narrow channel between Uranusville Marsh and the eroding stand of pines that used to be Swann's Island. Fifty, 75 years ago, there were houses, even a store and post office. That's where his people lived. Wind and water have worn it all away until it's little more than a cripple in the estuary where the Devanau flows into the Chesapeake. Even the old graves are disappearing into the bay, the thin gray stones like teeth in the ice along the banks of the island.

What Hudson's got in mind may be legal, or it may not be legal. He's carrying his chainsaw and what he means to do with it is open up a hole big enough to stick a pair of nippers down into an oyster bed about 5 feet below the surface. He just wants a half-bushel or so for supper, enough to feed his family. Hudson Swann is not a greedy man, just a hungry one, and as he starts the chainsaw, the sound of it echoes off the pines, shaking ice and needles down on the gravestones.

He braces himself on the ice and begins to cut at the surface like a sculptor, intent on slicing it away just so; chips fly in all directions before he thinks he sees what looks like a fish staring back up at him, except it's more like a person than a fish, then more like a fish than a person. Whatever it is, the sight of it stops him, and he bends over to look at it closely. It's trapped in the ice, whatever it is, and it has large, fishy, pleading eyes that are looking right up at him.

Gently, like a marble sculptor, Hudson begins to work around it, and when he's done all he can with the chainsaw, he unfolds his Buck knife and kneels on the hard ice, chipping away patiently until a face is visible in the ice. It's not a face like any other face he's ever seen, and it's more than ever somewhere between a fish and a person, the muddy green color of the Devanau, and the black eyes are blinking now as the cold air begins to hit green, iridescent scales. Then the mouth, like the mouth of a rockfish, opens and closes. It's making low, nervous noises, like moans crying as it defrosts, a cold-blooded creature.

Hudson supposes he should be frightened, but he feels as if he doesn't have time for that, because he's busy trying to chip the ice away from its gills, and now it's trying to help him, its delicately veined, webbed hands struggling to push itself up and down through the ice, working its way out of its cold prison. At last, with a great breaking roar of ice, it's freed, rising from the black water and spreading it's green, finned arms in a wide, joyful arc, its long fishy tail flaying the air in pure celebration. And Hudson Swann, ducking flying ice and water, sees, as she sinks back into the hole, that he has freed a mermaid from the ice.

For just a moment she floats in the black water, her long green hair spreading out around her, looking up at Hudson from her world beneath the water. Hudson looks back at her from his world above the water, and then she's gone, with just a silver flash of that long fish tail and a look before she disappears beneath the surface, black water closing around her.

For a long time, Hudson stands gazing out into the iceblink, feeling her path with his heart as she swims beneath the ice, out of the Devanau River and into the currents of the Chesapeake, heading out to sea, and for just one moment, frozen in time, he knows that he could follow her, swimming beneath the ice, drifting on the currents of the cold black water, swimming away from this tired old world toward another place where the sun always shines and the eldritch magic still works.

And then slowly, just a little older, he turns and walks carefully across the ice to get his nipper out of the truck.

He hums to himself as he walks, feeling his heavy old boots

weighing him down against the surface of the earth.

A Volume of Helen Chappell's ''Oysterback Tales'' will be published in May by the Johns Hopkins University Press.

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