Monday, April 14, 2008

The Spring Thaw

The thaw, when it came, was more spectacular than I could have imagined. What looked like whole icebergs came jostling down the unidentified river from the mountains above. Water fizzed around them and splashed in sparkling waves over the ice in their path. The river shrieked like a dragon with its tail stepped on when the icebergs reached it, leaping up in house-sized shards to join them. Spray and slivers of ice came down like rain from the empty blue sky. It was like a rockslide in crystal.

Every Milldackener strong enough to hold a pole was out on the banks of the river, fending off chunks of ice when they got too near the fragile houses and mill wheels. The prayers at the end of the Festival must have been answered; everyone agreed that this thaw was less destructive than any previous one. Only one building in the entire town was harmed. It lost its cupola to a tall chunk of ice that swooped over and snatched it on the way by. We watched the chunk all the way down the river, the cupola perched jauntily on its peak like a slate-shingled hat.

Once the main rush of ice was over, the pole-wielders followed the tail end of it down the river, gradually accumulating as we went. We crowded together on the cliff terraces to watch the last pieces of ice go over the falls. Each one seemed to hang in midair for a moment, like a breaching white whale with waves breaking over its back, before slowly starting to fall. Several of them hit outcroppings of rock on the way down and burst into spinning crystal fragments. There was a muffled boom whenever an intact one hit the riverbed (far below and still mostly dry) and exploded, bursting into chunks and sending spray and splinters of ice in every direction. It took a second or two for the sound to reach us at the top; it's a very high cliff.

There was a moment of silence after the echoes of the last explosion had died down. It was broken by a chorus of creaks and groans from above as all the mill wheels started turning again, shrugging off the last remnants of the ice that had held them since Autumn. A huge cheer went up from the crowds on the cliff. Laughing and talking over one another, they all hurried up the stairs and back to their individual mills; the machinery has a tendency to warp and rust over the Winter (not to mention rot, freezing, and hypothermiac woodworms), and newly-thawed mills have been known to tear themselves apart if no one's there to stop them. Eventually, I made my way back to the hotel, and the terraces were deserted.

It could have been just a trick of the mist and sunlight, but I could have sworn I saw the ice peacock from the caverns spread its wings at the edge of the waterfall and take off across the foothills. Perhaps it had just been waiting for its cage to be broken.

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