The Ice Monger’s Wife

Fishing Boat at Cornucopia, WI ©Judith Liebaert

It was the old ones who first told the tale of Innadia, a beauty born on a summer day in a remote fishing village at Siskiwit Bay on the Great Lake Superior. They said it was as if she’d come up from the sweetwater sea itself. The color of her eyes reflected the deep water’s shifting moods, green then blue then steely gray, depending on the light of the day. Her lips matched the blush of wild roses rambling in the tall grasses of the wind break. Her auburn hair, when it caught the light, shone like a polished agate. The old ones had rarely seen a beauty with such delicate coloring.

As a young girl she spent her summer days along the shore. Old Pauwau, who’d never had children of her own, a spinster aunt to Innadia’s mother, kept close watch over Inadia. Together they combed the sand looking for tiny treasures of basalt and rhyolite stones worn smooth and round from the waves, color banded agates and shimmering bits of sea glass — all kept in small jars lined up along every windowsill of the home they lived in with Innadia’s parents. In fact, there was not a house or business in all the village that did not display at least one jar of Innadia’s treasures in a window, for she gifted them to everyone she saw.

It was Pauwau who taught Innadia to swim in the waters of the great lake, but only in August when the surface temperature rose enough that Innadia’s lips did not turn blue with the cold. The old woman often dove into the frigid waves of Lake Superior as early as June but only for one quick slip beneath the surface and then back to shore. Pauwau claimed the icy water was responsible for her long life. Innadia had no idea exactly how long that was; she thought maybe nobody knew, for Pauwau herself had long ago stopped counting the years she’d walked on the earth.

There was much about Pauwau that was unknown to Innadia — and to many in the village as well. Pauwau was not her true name. It was given to her by the old ones, descendants of the Anishinaabe who camped along the big lake when traveling to and from LaPointe, a route they later shared with French and Irish trappers (who often took Native women for their wives). These were Pauwau’s people.

To the white people, Pauwau meant witch. Among the old ones, it told she had the gift of sight; a gift that grew stronger with her years.

Innadia’s father came to Siskiwit bay as a child, one of many in the wave of Carpatho-Russians coming from the borderlands of Romania, Slovakia and the Ukraine. Drawn to the cornucopia of untapped natural resources, the hard-working peasants settled at the edge of the woods where heavily forested land gave way to open water. They became fisherman and loggers, and just as the voyagers and trappers had married into the land, so did many of the these new world immigrants; Innadia’s father married Pauwau’s niece. All of these, then, were Innadia’s people.

Innadia could not remember a time when her father did not leave and return in the dark of each day, fishing with the sun from spring through late fall. In winter, she would not see him for weeks at a time. He went into the woods, living at the lumber camp where hardened men slashed stands of virgin white pine, oak and maple to the ground.

Her mother worked as a laundress, washing and mending clothing for transient laborers and village men who had no wives. Still the larder grew lean by winter’s end each year. Such was life at Siskiwit bay, surrounded by the beauty of God’s handwork for the short months of summer and suffered at the mercy of the raw, northern elements through the dark months of winter — unforgiving to those ill prepared.

Through the seasons Innadia grew into a fetching young girl. Her soft hair fell in gentle waves to her shoulders. Freckles sprinkled her cheeks and nose like tiny golden stars. Her breasts grew round and full, her hips curved out from her narrow waist. She was quick to smile and eager to please; many young men courted her kind attention.

Old Pauwau feared Innadia’s soft nature would not bode well for the girl, especially in this place, where the men could grow as cold and harsh as the elements. So it was, that in the summer of Innadia’s thirteenth year, on a hot and humid moonless night, old Pauwau resolved to change the course of her visions.

“Fetch your canoe,” she said to Innadia. “We’ll go cool down in the caves.”

Innadia and Pauwau paddled a distance along the shore until they came to the great sea caves. Together they swam through the watery labyrinth, the sound of their strokes echoing in the high-arched domes of sandstone passageways, until the old woman tired of swimming. “You swim,” she said to the girl, “I am going to rest in the canoe and serenade the night sky.”

In the canoe, Pauwau sang her spellsong.

Spirits of the sweetwater sea, Grandmother Moon, hear my plea.
Protect this beauty you have wrought, let no beast take her heart.
When cruelty incurs, turn the power to become hers.
When the one comes who is true and kind,
only then, her true love she will find.

Innadia swam up to the canoe. “Pauwau, I haven’t even had a boyfriend yet and you are asking the spirits to scare them off?”

Pauwau cupped her hand beneath the girl’s chin, smiling at what she saw. “The Spirits will not scare them, child. They won’t have to,” she said. “Come into the canoe. It is time we got back.”

In time, Innadia began to accept suitors. Each new match began with great promise, but ended in disappointment. If a boyfriend lied to her, she became deceptive. If one became too possessive, she raged with jealously over the slightest attention he gave another girl. If cruel words were slung at her, she served them back with a wicked tongue, cutting the brute down as swiftly as an axe-wielding lumberjack levels a tree.

She soon gained the reputation of a shrew and it wasn’t long before her beauty began to fade. Her eyes became a fixed shade of cold gray. Her auburn hair grew as dull and matted as the tangled piles of dead sea grass littering the beach. Her rose colored lips paled and thinned, permanently pressed into a scowl. The young men of the village kept clear of her. They wanted no part of Innadia, least of all her ugly nature.

“These are good men, Innadia,” her mother told her. “They are stubborn and proud, and they grouse about like strutting cock-birds— sometimes more when they get the drink in them, but they work hard to keep food on the table and a roof overhead. You must learn to bite your tongue, Innadia, if you want a husband.”

Her father was not so kind. “You will never have a husband. They call you fishwife, hag and witch,” he said. “And names far worse — not fit for a woman even to hear, yet my daughter bears them. You are nothing but a burden to me. I curse the day you were born.” His words roared in Innadia’s ears like a storm at sea.

Innadia roared back. “You are no better than the whelps licking at my heels, only to bite my hand when offered. Do you think I don’t know that you accuse my mother of indiscretions with the men who pay her to wash and mend their clothing, men you share drink with at the tavern? Her fingers bleed from needle pricks, her back bends from lifting loads of filthy clothes — theirs and yours. Do you think I somehow fail to see when her eyes are blackened, her jaw swollen? You curse me? I curse you to rot in hell.” Innadia’s voice thundered.

Before her father’s raised hand struck her, Innadia’s mother came between them. The blow sent her reeling.

Innadia let loose a guttural growl. She grabbed the fire poker from the hearth and raised it overhead.

“Innadia, no!” Her mother screamed from the floor. “Put it down.”

Innadia saw the fear in her father’s eyes before she saw the shadow of a wild beast in the firelight cast against the wall, a beast wielding a poker poised to strike her father down. She dropped the weapon and ran from her parent’s house.

She found Pauwau at the lake.

“You did this to me Pauwau. You’ve turned me into a bitter, ugly beast with your plea to the spirits. Why? Why would you want me to be old and alone as you have been, without a husband to share my life, without children to comfort me in my old age?”

“Because of this,” Pauwau lifted her shirt above her waist. Though they swam together often, Innadia had never seen the old woman’s bare torso. It was bisected by a long scar.

“This is where they cut my baby out two months before she was to be born — her heart had stopped beating inside me.

Innadia stared at the old woman. “But, you are a spinster — never married. You had a baby, a daughter?”

“I had a husband, and I carried our child. I never held my daughter.”

“I don’t understand, Pauwau.”

“The winter was long; money and food were scarce by spring. I complained of being hungry, fretted over my baby’s health. But I shouldn’t have blamed him. I should have found a job myself, or planted a bigger garden, preserved more to last until the next crop started to yield. I could have eaten less earlier on.” She recited the words she’d long rehearsed.

“I shouldn’t have screamed at him that there wasn’t even bait for the set traps, to catch a rabbit or squirrel. I should have kept my mouth shut. At least that’s what I told myself over and over again — after it was done.”

“Did your baby starve?”

“The day my baby died, her father beat me bloody and unconscious with the stern post of his fishing boat that had rotted on the shore when it should have been hauling in the catch. He dragged my limp body out into the lake to drown, but the cold water revived me. I floated, still and soundless, until he’d gone away, too far to hear me. Then I swam and crawled my way back to shore.”

“I have charmed you, not cursed you,” Pauwau said. “When the man who is not as harsh as the life we live here finds you, you will not be beast to him. Until then, you will not know true love.”

Innadia’s heart felt heavy in her chest, the weight of it like an anchor sinking to a depth as dark as the lake itself. “There is no man here brave enough to look past the beast you have made of me.”

“The one who is true will see your beauty. The one who is true will come for you,” Pauwau said.

Innadia waited for her true love. Now and then a man who did not know her reputation would come round, but it always ended the same; her ugliness rearing it’s head like a beast, chasing him away. Until the local ice monger came to call one winter day.

His back was bent from years of chopping and stacking the blocks of ice onto his sled, and then pulling it up the hill to his ice house. His face was haggard, his skin weathered and cracked. He was kind to Innadia and always treated her with respect. He hadn’t much else to offer her.

In time they wed and as the months passed Innadia’s smile returned, the luster of her hair shone once again and her eyes brightened to a pale shade of blue. She and her husband were quite happy save for one small detail; they remained childless.

Innadia’s husband began to worry that the fault was his. He was older than his wife by considerable years. He brooded over his inadequacy at filling her belly with child; he began eyeing his young male customers with suspicion when they came around to talk to Innadia.

One night he complained of his supper. “You are losing your touch, Innadia. I would feed this slop to the dogs but I’m afraid they wouldn’t eat it either.”

Innadia froze at his words. She felt a tiny jab in the area of her heart, like the cold tip of an ice pick. She bit her tongue nearly in half, holding back the burning retort that filled her mouth.

The next day he accused her of leaving the door to the ice house ajar. “We’ll run out of ice before summer ends thanks to your carelessness,” he snapped at her.

Innadia felt her chest tighten. “I did not leave the door open,” she said, carefully tempering her words.

“Are you saying it was me?” Her husband raised his tone a notch.

“No, I’m not.” Innadia answered.

“If it was not you and it was not me, then was the door not left open?” he asked. “Do you call your husband a liar? Is this how you show your gratitude to me for taking you on when no other man would even look at you?”

“And what other woman would have loved you as I have?” Innadia hissed. “With your worn out body, an old man before your time — you can’t even give me a child.”

The minute Innadia’s words spit from her lips she regretted them. She clamped a hand over her mouth. No. Please, no. This can’t be happening again.

“What is it dear?” her husband asked. “Cat got your tongue — or are you just too stupid to speak?”

His words were like a poking stick, awakening the sleeping monster within her. “She cut lose with a string of epitaphs her husband had rarely heard beyond the fish docks.

“Yes, yes!” he cried. “I will turn you back into the beast so that no other man will ever look at you again, no other man will want you. You will be mine forever.”

Innadia hung her head and slunk from the room.

That night she lay in bed, thinking of the end to old Pauwau’s story. Her husband had not been punished for beating her, for killing their child. He had not even been jailed a single night. He told Pauwau the next time he would make sure she didn’t come back out of the water, but Pauwau didn’t wait for her husband to keep his promise. She crept upon him while he lay sleeping and cracked his scull open like a walnut with butt end of a tree axe.

She was punished. She went to prison where she became an old woman before her freedom was given back to her. That was when she came to live with her niece, when Innadia was a baby.

Innadia slipped from beneath the covers, tip-toed from the house and pulled her canoe down from its rack. She carried it to the lake and slid it into the inky water, jumping in as it lifted off the sandy bottom. Innadia was never seen again in the little village at Siskiwit Bay.

The Great Lake froze over that winter, transforming the sea caves into a crystalline palace of ice coated rooms reflecting hues of blue, rose, auburn and gold in the light of each day’s setting sun.

Lake Superior still freezes from time to time, in rare, polar winters. Then, tens of thousands travel hundreds of miles to admire the beauty of the frozen sweetwater sea. They say if you listen, you can hear the sound of mournful weeping coming from beneath the ice.

Previously published in Aqueous Magazine

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