CBC Literary Prizes

Northern Spring by Barbara Mackenzie

Barbara Mackenzie made the 2021 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist for Northern Spring.

2021 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist

Barbara Mackenzie is a writer living in Yellowknife. (Lani Cooke)

Barbara Mackenzie made the 2021 CBC Nonfiction Prize shortlist for Northern Spring.

She will receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and her work has been published on CBC Books

Chanel M. Sutherland won the 2021 CBC Nonfiction Prize for Umbrella

If you're interested in the CBC Literary Prizes, the 2022 CBC Short Story Prize is open for submissions until Oct. 31.

You can read Northern Spring below.


I

An intense Northern Spring outlines its passage sharply in a strong stretching sun that smugly watches the ice slip into oblivion. The Northern Spring starts and ends with the ice. Ask the winter-king Raven as its realm shrinks to the shoreline. Ask the raucous horde of gulls staking their claim on town dumps and water.

The Lake holds its breath for a split second, 
Then the rubber-ice interlude begins. 
Between solid, crack, explode, slide, and white molten milk glass, 
Raised amorphous paw prints and then mushy, wet sounds, 
dip and bend, 
Patchy grey with bright eyes reflecting the sky and blinding sun. 
Next, the solid is total illusion like dancing on the heads of a million crystal needles, 
Clean, clear, sharp smell and taste,
Water/ice/wind chimes synesthesia.

II

The Equinox bell rings. March's dark-weary people are sucked into the vortex of solar-powered carnival mania and are then tossed back into the Northern Spring. After the celebrations, a collapsing snow castle, fat bike tracks and Dog Derby poop litter the melting Lake surface. Remnants of smashed ice carvings look violated, raped by insurance company demands.

As temperatures warm, ice morphs to the colour of the open water patches and disorients. A skidoo skimming over this ice looks implausible like running over water. The young man on his snow machine races towards a place he doesn't know. 

Her thin body appears lost in the folds and shadows of her winter clothes.

A stranger knows, though, as her eyes follow him. She's crouched on a mound of snow against the crumbling Snow Castle walls, mostly unseen in her white wind pants and jacket. Between drags, she holds a cigarette close to her lips as if to hide her gaunt face. Her thin body appears lost in the folds and shadows of her winter clothes. She seems to understand the skidoo's deep loud whine that warns of pending danger and a sting beyond anything the rider has known before.

This is the final transition — animated rot and rebirth.

A lone sea gull is cued to soar through the scene,
A Glaucous gull in a glaucous sky on one side; indigo on the other.
A white plastic bag flits over the water-coloured ice,
like a foundering wounded seagull ghost.

III

By the end of April, the ice is starting to candle. It feels and sounds like small plastic cocktail picks. In some spots, the snow lies like a spoiled meringue — shiny, flat blobs, ripples and pools.

Two women jump softly on the candled ice and weighted bubbles seem to pass down through their bodies and feet. The ice bends slightly but holds so the two of them can move forward quickly and lightly. They hold firmly to the sides of the boat in case the ice gives way and they have to spring suddenly into their canoe. 

The end of April full moon bathes everything in shades of blue and black, the colour of new bruises. I look away from my window to visit with an old memory. When I look again, all that remains is a smudged punch of pale light in the dark sky. I watch Moon slowly eat her way back through the black, cotton-candy cloud. She reappears with closed eyes, refusing to accept blame for the arrival of darkness.

The next night, Moon is still battling with angry clouds. They cover her face in a devilish mask of black stripes. Then a silent Munsch scream comes over her face as the clouds gather together and snuff her light.

IV

By May, the ice is changing again. Footprints in the snow, once sharp and shadowed in the bright, strong spring sun and cool air, dissolve into formlessness. Patches of oily looking, pockmarked, dark reptilian skin reflect the darkness below.

Sometimes, I think I hear the sounds of a visitor walking over my houseboat deck but when I open the door I realize the unbodied sounds are wind, ice and water.

Sometimes, I think I hear the sounds of a visitor walking over my houseboat deck but when I open the door I realize the unbodied sounds are wind, ice and water: the clumsy tympany of ice on steel pontoons; crystal shards being jostled and pushed by wind and flotsam; plastic flapping on the outside of windows; stomach gurgling sounds; ice shifting and moaning in its death throes.

Sun is vanquishing both Darkness and Moon.
I see the first two water reflections on the inside ceiling, 
like living vibrating one-celled creatures,
and one dead reflection;
A simple, rectangular, bright blob, 
Without shimmer or shake.

V

The consistency of the ice is changing minute by minute. 

Spirits are taking a turn at skating now in early May mornings. Their trails are fine filaments of ice in the water pools, like silver hair in a consomme. On colder days, the same surfaces are covered with ice crystals like fine swirling plaster, finer than feathers — gossamer, lined diaphanous wings.

Raw sugar crystals and glass spears that tinkle and titillate 
when they should growl a warning to passers-by. 
Thin long shards tumble into the open pools 
with ice edges like polished plastic or gnawed tooth marks.

I walk from the shore through a canoe and onto the black ice. One leg goes through the surface — only candles holding the ice in a solid disguise. I pause for a split second, maybe to see if the other leg is spared. It is! I pull out my sunken leg and gum boot full of ice water. Another split second of gratitude that I haven't lost the boot. I take another step. The same leg goes through the candles again with the same split-second pause and more gratitude for my boot staying intact. 

The feeling of going through candle ice
is the ice bending like a pane of glass, 
cracked in a thousand small pieces.
And the same sound of soft cracks giving way
Like a smashed windshield.
The bending is fast but the breakthrough is faster.

I keep moving outwards from the shore on my knees, hoist my laundry bag and packsack into my own canoe and grab the lead rope. I slosh over puddles on the remaining solid ice, scooter the canoe into the open water with one leg, jump in and paddle home.

I can see the ice had deteriorated steadily over the three hours I was in town. 

Patches like hedgehog bristles,
sticking up from shallow indentations. 
All manner of crystals, 
frozen slush, 
holes filled with sun-attracting dog poop.

VI

My canoe is at the ice floe edge. An east wind pushes the blocks of candles sluggishly along a more-solid core. I focus on breaking up spears and chunks to fill a pail for my coolers.

When I look up again, I'm startled to see that the ice has crept around my canoe. Almost imperceptibly, I am being pushed further into the floating mass. I prod and jab my paddle into three-foot long ice spears to get away from the sucking weight that threatens to engulf me tightly. 

"Don't embrace me!" Beauty turned to ugliness in a heartbeat. The panicked, helpless feeling was familiar — unwanted embraces like that slow, powerful ice, dominating and bending me to another's will. 

The rotting off-shore ice still sits unmoved by the prodding of drifting, shape-shifting shore ice: long crystal spears, into glass beads, into floating diamond dust. The spears make me thirsty. A black plastic bag blown up by wind looks like a bloated buoy. 

Looking down at a chunk of lumped ice candles, a luminous green shines through from underneath — a forest of black spruce. Then, a handful is lifted up by an unseen force and tossed aside to fall apart into weaponized spears. The wind is a steady, urgent, low pushing, pushing…

VII

One day my canoe scoots across the water/ice dyad.
Half its surface is illuminated, the other half dark. 
The next day ...
It is summer.
The sun and the eagle tell me so,
And birch trees spit out the news in brick-red froth at the end of freckled white limbs.

The remaining rooted ice lets go with a banshee roar and water regains its place as elemental master.

Early June brings a gale from the south. The remaining rooted ice lets go with a banshee roar and water regains its place as elemental master. It pushes the ice to loud and then whimpering, clinking, shushing, oblivion. The ice sends its message of good-bye in moving Morse Code dashes and dots.

The newly-hatched water 
blinds with reflections 
of what it's seeing. 
Even the clearest mirror lies. 
The half-tire in the water becomes a circle,
and invites me in to live in an upside down boat house.
The moon jumps in the rippling water like a magic putty ball.
Reflected clouds are richer than those in the blue sky.
How puny the remaining ice blobs look in comparison.

The first brave insects blunder across my window.

A white butterfly flits and seemingly stumble-winged, 
looks in my window. 
I whisper a prayer through the glass 
to carry back to the Creator 
with its silent voice. 

I shiver with wonder as I watch the first two Red-Breasted Mergansers arrive. Their back-scratcher beaks groom perfectly. His punk hairdo gives him a bright-eyed electric energy look. 

I see the Merganser
Perfectly moulded by the Artist's hand.
The water circles strum a silent tune
Through a rippling skin of water clouds.

I am the merganser.
I am the mauve sheet of cloud in the water.
I am the seagull waiting on a lonely ice floe.

The Mergansers' call is the starting gun signal for a cacophony of spring wetland sounds interjected with low rumble of truck and chain saw. The chattery, quackery, hootery, honkery, squawking, wailing shriek of joyous life going on.

Like the ice, we die because we've seen the shabby dream clown in dogged pursuit of a dog-eared dream. We both wish that somehow beautiful things will never change.

The water is still like burnished steel,
Out of respect, I want to think.
And a low quiet mist in the distance
cries soft, fine tears.


Read the other finalists

About Barbara Mackenzie

Barbara Mackenzie is retired and living in a small houseboat on Great Slave Lake, N.W.T. She spent over 40 years working and living with the Dene, Cree and Blackfoot, including stints as camp cook, commercial fisher and trapper, self-employed adult educator and teacher, manager and executive secretary. She has done extensive writing through her work and has written three books. The most long-lived and profound lessons she learned are about her deep symbiotic relationships with the land.

The story's source of inspiration

"I have been inspired by those close observations of my environment needed to survive the powerful and sometimes challenging but always awesome North. This knowledge seems to require more than what my five senses and a limited English language can tell me but the process of trying to find the words is uplifting and inspiring."

About the 2021 CBC Nonfiction Prize

The winner of the 2021 CBC Nonfiction Prize will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have their work published on CBC Books and attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts and Creativity. Four finalists will each receive $1,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and have their work published on CBC Books.

The 2022 CBC Short Story Prize is currently open for submissions until Oct. 31, 2021. The 2022 CBC Nonfiction Prize will open in January and the 2022 CBC Poetry Prize will open in April.

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