Short Story Time with Beth #2: When There Was Ice

This is my second submission to the Montana Memory Project's historic photo prompt writing contest.  This is the dystopian one that I mentioned.  It was a pretty satisfying challenge to write one story set in the past--set in the time of the photograph itself--and then one set in a semi-distant future.  In "The Parade," the photograph had served as a window into the world of the narrator.  In "When There Was Ice," the photograph is a relic of a bygone era.  It was a really fun writing challenge.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.  

1910 Ice Harvesting from the MMP Polson Area Historical Photos repository.

When There Was Ice

My mother kept the photo in secret.  I didn’t know we even had secrets to keep until the summer I turned ten.  That summer of 2221 was especially sweltering.  Summer here is always sweltering these days.  No “especially” about it.  Winter is parched.  Funny how it was somehow still noteworthy then, though the writing had been on the wall for a century or more, they say.  Thirty years later all this charbroiled heat is so ordinary I could cry.  …except I don’t want to waste even a drop of precious water on things so very far beyond my control.  Not anymore.

It was late July and I couldn’t sleep.  Mom had every window open to catch the breeze, though it made no noticeable difference.  I lay awake dripping with sweaty tears.  I begged her to let me sleep on the porch where the air didn’t feel quite so confined and stifling.  I knew she wouldn’t, but I asked anyway.  Quietly she said, “It’s not safe, Hannah.”  Then Mom stroked my forehead and sang to me like she had when I was little.  She smoothed the sticky strands of hair away from my face.  She looked worn-down and old in a way I had never noticed before.

That was when she started telling me about the ice. 

“Ice,” she said, “is water so cold that it changed shapes like magic.”  The cold seeped into the water droplets one by one until it became solid.  Like wood.  Like stone.  Ice was water so hard and so cold that it nearly burned against your skin when you touched it.  The painful kiss of it was so much that people wore gloves when handling it, like we use now when cooking.  Once, long ago, people had used ice to stay cool in the hot weather.  They used it to keep food fresh longer.  I could hardly imagine such a thing really existed.  I thought she was just making up stories. 

Mom must have sensed my skepticism because she took me by the hand, leading me away from my twisted nest of sweat-stained blankets, and brought me to the window.  At first, I thought she was hoping the fresher air would placate me at last.  I was all set to revive my pleas for sleeping in the open air when she reached out to the window sill and begin to wiggle it—one way and then the other and back again—until a sliver appeared between the frame and the wall.  Out of this slice of darkness she pulled the photograph.

“Here, Hannah.  See?  This is ice.”

The square of paper she held out to me was still incomprehensible.    Dark silhouettes on a glaring white background.  A hulking machine.  A large puddle.  The photo was wrinkled on the edges and Mom held it like something unfathomably precious or fragile.  As if she dared use only the lightest touch of her calloused fingers.

“Your Granddad entrusted this to me before he died.  His parents had given it to him and back and back for a dozen generations.  We used to be ice harvesters, this family.  Dad was too young to remember wild harvests like this—that was before electricity even.  But there were other things…  cups of refreshing water with ice clinking against the sides, long spears of ice growing like stalactites from the rooftops in the winter… and homes that were brisk with artificially frosty air in the summer.”  She cleared her throat thickly.  “All that was gone before my time.”

Mom said I was old enough to know about the world now, but that knowledge was also dangerous.  A chill went up my spine despite the blistering heat.  I’d never heard mom talk like this before.  I had never heard anyone talk like this before.  I looked back to the photo and wondered what else had been kept hidden.  From me.  From the others.


  1. Hi Beth,
    ...and another cool story...Loved it!
    ~Have a lovely day!

  2. You're an excellent story teller!

    1. Thanks, Laurie! I LOVE stories. I've pretty much always loved to tell stories. I've even got some I wrote as a wee girl squirrelled away.


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