When Ernesto Astrid left his home and family on the first day of autumn to live in his fishing shack on the frozen lake, he did not pack medication. Having walked for about 11 or 12 days, he found some comfort in the run down, shoddy little hut made of old wood and concrete. He used blankets to cover the holes in the door and walls, which offered him a surprising amount of warmth against the bitter cold of the outside. He knew by the time January came, if he was still here, he would have to take further precautions against the hellish environment. But for now, he had found some degree of tranquility.
From his bag, he unpacked his food, warm clothing, books, flashlights, military rifle, and some other little odds and ends to remind him of home. Finally, he took out a framed picture of Caroline and little Delia, the two most cherished, wonderful, beloved girls in his life. He placed the expensive frame on the run down bureau next to his bed.
During his first night, he made a fire right outside the shack’s door, keeping it open so that when he went inside, some of the residual heat of the fire would be trapped within the hut. Then Ernesto began to do what he had come to the frozen lake to do: think. Would Caroline write? She knew where the shack was. It technically had an address, and mail had come before, but he had never seen a mailman. It was almost eerie, but he didn’t dwell on it. Mail got to the shack, and that’s what mattered after all. He turned his mind away from these digressions. If Caroline wrote, would she write about Delia? Of course she would. Delia is why he left in the first place. Delia is what he needed to think about. If she wasn’t sick, if she wasn’t being treated with the army of doctors and excessive amounts of medications, he wouldn’t be sitting on a frozen lake. What else was she to write about, the weather? The various chores and errands that she ran on a daily basis? When the letter came, it would be about Delia.
The next day, Ernesto slept in, almost until the next dusk. When he walked outside the shack to stretch his back and observe the cool orange of the dying sky, he noticed the letter sitting in the makeshift mailbox nailed to the side of the shack. Ernesto picked it up and looked at the return address, confirming his assumptions about Caroline. For it to get here on his second day, she must have written it not soon after he had left; was she that anxious about his absence? She couldn’t help herself, she was dealing with that sick child all on her own, of course she would try and make contact as soon as possible.
He went back into the shack as snow began to fall and used the last light of the second day to read the letter. It was full of Caroline’s calming assurances, the ones he was used to reading from her while he was stationed in the Arab desert; she “supported his decision”, understands that “we all need a break from the drudgery of everyday life”, won’t “hold anything against him”, even though he “left in a bit of a flurry”. Finally, he found that “Delia misses you. She’s been asking about you since you walked out the door and hasn’t stopped since. She asks every time we see the doctor, as well as before and after her treatment. She misses you, and I miss you, but I love you enough to hope you come back from your break more at peace with yourself and our situation”. Hm, “At peace”. He loved the fact that she wrote, and it made him heavy hearted to hear that Delia was missing him. In three days he would return home. He placed the letter on his bedside table and turned back towards the window to observe the beautiful collapse of the day’s light.
The third and fourth day passed. Ernesto had spent his time eating, reading, making and putting out fires, and wandering around the lake bundled up in his wool sweater and heavy jacket. He had decided that soon he would break out the fishing poles and begin fishing on top of the ice. It would be a calming exercise, allow him to think, and provide him with extra food if he got lucky. They wouldn’t be anything like Caroline’s delectable smoked sausages, but they would be the next closest thing if he cooked them just right over the fire. Tomorrow was the day he had decided he would trek home, embrace Delia, and help her through every step of her distressing treatment. While he would do no fishing until tomorrow, he took out the poles hanging on the walls and sat by the fire, brushing them off and checking for rust or wear. He had just gotten cozy when he saw him. A man. Standing out on the lake. The snow was beginning to pick up again, and Ernesto could only make out a silhouette, but there was no mistaking that the figure was that of a man’s. He stood there staring, with a ghostly sort of serenity, seemingly watching Ernesto as he gawked at the ghostly shape. Did the man need help? Was he lost? Within a couple of seconds, Ernesto had gathered his wits. He stood up to make his presence known, but as he did, a particularly strong gust of snow flew in front of him. When the air had cleared, the man was gone.
The fifth day came and went, and almost without noticing, so came the sixth and seventh. Ernesto did not return home. The treatment was to take months, what’s another couple of days? And besides, he came out here to think, to get a grasp of what was going on with Delia and how to best handle it. He had been procrastinating, fishing and wandering instead of staying focused. On the eighth day, he received another letter.
This one was a bit different. While Caroline continued to assure Ernesto that “Delia is making progress, earning good grades, and keeping in high spirits”, it was subtly revealed to him that “the neighbors are starting to ask about you. While they don’t say so outright, I can tell that Mr. and Mrs. Winters are beginning to question if you’ll come back at all. The Thompsons brought dinner over for us last night, even though I had politely protested”. Oh no! The neighbors are asking questions! Then he must return immediately, to quell their uncertainties and repair his character in the eyes of his peers! Ernesto sneered and tossed the letter aside. The neighbors were worried. Why should he care? He’ll stay here a year if he wanted to, and if the neighbors had an issue with that, they could go to hell. He decided to give himself another three days or so and then prepare for the trek back home.
Ernesto walked outside to begin another fire. Once it had begun roaring, he sat in his chair and began to untangle the ropes of stress that had been brought on by the letter. But once he had settled, he saw him again. The man on the ice was staring back at him, but this time he was approaching forward. He seemed quite content, almost relaxed despite wearing what seemed to be nothing more than a business suit, not nearly enough to protect himself from the brutal cold. Ernesto stood up in shock, frozen by the sight of the man. He soon came within the circle of light radiating from the fire, and Ernesto could make out the features of the man's face. Finally, he recognized him.
“Oh, so you do remember me!”
Pan sat down next to the fire, but did not seem to be comforted by the warmth radiating from it. He chuckled a bit.
“So you came out to a frozen lake to ‘think’, huh? And decided to forget your little bottle of – “
“Yes, I did come out here to think, and I’d prefer if you not bother me while I do so.”
Pan laughed out loud.
“Sure you don’t. I can’t just sit here for a bit?”
Ernesto looked at him with skepticism and scorn.
“Look, I brought that sausage I know you like.”
Pan took out three wrapped smoked sausages and passed them to Ernesto. They were prepared the exact, unique way Caroline had always made them. Ernesto greedily took them and bit down into the savory meat without thanking Pan, who watched him eat. None of the food Ernesto had packed could compare to the smoky, rich taste of his favorite veal sausages. How had Pan known?
“Thought that might cheer you up. If you need anything else, just call.”
Ernesto looked up with additional skepticism as he continued to devour the sausages. Pan gave quick devilish smile, and then looked down with a bit of worry.
“Now wait, where is that damn…ah!”
Pan picked up what looked to be a leash. As he did, Ernesto noticed that the leash led off into the snowstorm, somewhere beyond Ernesto's range of vision. Pan whistled and jiggled the leash a bit.
“I brought someone else for you to meet. He’s a little slow though, give him time”.
Pan chuckled as if he had just told a joke to himself and stood up, turning to face the storm. Ernesto could just barely make out a large shape making its way out of the white abyss, but finally, to his horror, he began to realize what he was witnessing. A gigantic, repugnant slug was worming its way through the unrelenting snowstorm, appearing to hover at least 4 feet above the air. Its throbbing stomach pulsated and wriggled repetitively as the slug, which seemed to be focused entirely on its own forward momentum, wormed its way to Pan's side.
"Aw, there he is, come here".
Pan reached up to pet the disgusting creature's head while simultaneously undoing the collar wrapped around the area one could call the slug's neck. Ernesto stepped back a bit.
"Uh, now wait a second…"
"Relax, relax. He's harmless."
The now unrestrained slug squirmed its way through the air toward Ernesto and lowered its monstrous head before him.
"Go ahead, give him a pet".
Ernesto reluctantly reached out his hand and ran his palm across the beast's head. Surprisingly, it had a sort of smooth, silky feel to it rather than what he would expected from the seemingly clammy, wet skin. The heat emanating from the slug came as a surprising comfort against the harsh cold of the storm, and Ernesto felt himself oddly comforted considering that the fire was dying. As he pet, the slug opened its mouth in a sort of yawning purr, revealing rows of sharpened teeth. But at this point, Ernesto had seen that the slug was tame; he should have been more cautious, but was taken over by an odd sort of calming security.
"I didn't think you'd like him at first, but I knew he'd grow on you. You come out here for new experiences, didn't you?"
Ernesto swiftly dropped his hand, seemingly yanked back into reality by this comment.
"Actually, no. I came out here to think, and would rather not be bothered by you or your antics".
Pan rolled his eyes and gave a "whatever" shrug of his shoulders.
"Sure you didn't. That's why you didn't bring your – "
Pan raised up his palm as if holding a small bottle, and made a clikkity clack sound as he shook his hand. Ernesto glared at him.
"I came here to think."
"So did I! And I think me, you, and him should take a walk".
He turned away and began walking, and the slug slowly began to follow. Ernesto watched them go, quickly contemplating what to do. As they left, the snow seemed to fall harder, and the harsh wind began to bite at his exposed flesh even worse. He glanced back at the cabin and shuffled around a bit, and then finally ran to catch up with Pan. He found the warmth returning with every step he took closer to the man and the slug. Ernesto asked:
"Where are we walking to?"
"You'll see when we get there. Just be sure not to rush; if we go too quickly, it may not be there when we arrive".
Ernesto chose to ignore this cryptic answer.
"I know your daughter is sick".
For some reason, Pan's knowledge of this fact came as no surprise.
"She's waiting for you? Back home?"
Ernesto put his head down in shame. Pan noticed this, and put his smooth hand on Ernesto's shoulder as they walked.
"You have no reason to worry! The sickness of a child is a curse upon an entire family, perhaps an entire community, if it's friendly enough. You chose to come and think, and reflect, and you left her in the caring hands of your wife".
"She misses me."
"She's your daughter, no older than four or five years old. She probably misses you when you go grocery shopping, or go out to get mail from the mailbox. You're hurting because you love her, and that is a beautiful thing".
Ernesto knew the truth was much bleaker. He would never admit it to himself, but knew in his heart that Delia may be dead by the time the next letter came. But in that moment, Ernesto was at peace. After all, there was no bad news yet. He was still a father, blindly feeling his way along the walls of the dimly lit room of parenthood. What parent can't sympathize with that? He was doing the right thing.
"Thank you Pan. I think I needed to hear that".
"This is what I'm here for, after all. As long as she is sick, I believe it only makes sense that you stay with me and figure out your course of action. Wouldn't you agree?"
Ernesto, after a second of semi-cohesive speculation, choose to agree. Until he untangled his thoughts, or his daughter miraculously returned to health, he would stay with Pan. Pan looked up and turned to Ernesto.
"Ah, here we are, and we've arrived just in time. Look around you, and take in everything that you see."
As Ernesto stepped forward, the snowstorm seemed to part like a giant, joyless curtain of discomfort to reveal a world of warmth and relief. As Ernesto stepped though the curtain, the last semblance of reality dripped away like the wax of a dying candle. Inside Pan's destination was joyful celebration. Groups of animals, common and uncommon, danced alongside naked men and women who seemed ignorant of the brutal cold. But then, Ernesto realized, the cold had vanished.
The trees surrounding the frozen lake displayed themselves in colors beyond the comprehension of the human eye's spectrum. But tonight, Ernesto could witness their beauty. The animals and people danced and conversed in a harmony not seen since Eden, eating exotic food from lavish plates and platters. Ernesto shouldn't have believed his eyes, but the relaxation he felt in his muscles and the serenity he felt in his brain allowed him to forgive all of his doubts and let his anxieties evaporate.
In the hours that followed, Ernesto danced to beautiful music, sang with fascinating people, and entertained himself with animals which seemed to have crawled from the deepest depths of the human imagination. The delectable meats, fruits, and wines which fueled the party seemed to set new boundaries for humans' capacity to taste, and Ernesto soon felt overwhelmed by his own senses. Soon, he had forgotten about the shack and the letters from Caroline. Soon, he had forgotten why he had come to the lake.
Finally, Ernesto sat to take a break, only to hear Pan's voice from not far away.
"Ernesto, come here, sit with me".
Ernesto turned to see Pan at the edge of a wide whole in the ice. The water was bubbling and releasing warm, relaxing steam into the air which once seemed so cold and bitter. Pan stepped into the water, lowered himself down, and lazily draped his arms across the edge of the ice. His suit melted off of him into the water, and he rolled his head back and forth in a movement of pure comfort.
Ernesto, of course, chose to join him. He slipped into the simmering water, letting the bubbles massage and caress every inch of his body. Not once in his life had he known luxurious contentment such as this. This perfect, beautiful slice of time and space allowed him to open himself up like a tulip spreading its petals to take in as many sun rays as possible. Mimicking Pan, Ernesto draped his arms against the ice and let his head lay back against his shoulders. Pan spoke:
"I hope I helped at least a little bit. This seems like something you'd enjoy".
Ernesto concurred and let himself fall into an even deeper level of relaxation. Pan spoke again:
"Just let yourself unwind; you need this. You're doing the right thing".
That term had become totally void of context for Ernesto, but he knew Pan was speaking truth. This was the right thing to do. Nothing so calming could ever be wrong. The messages he was receiving from his own body couldn't be this egregiously false; he was doing the right thing. Ernesto lay back and fell into a deep sleep.
It was about two or three weeks until a group of fisherman came upon Ernesto. Luckily, he had not slipped under the surface of the water; if he had, he never would have been found. His body was an unsettling shade of blue and almost completely frozen solid. After looking through his belongings in the shack, the fisherman determined that he had walked out onto the ice alone and probably confused. Having set himself into the icy water, it was only a matter of time before he had frozen to death. Whether he had slipped in or stepped in voluntarily, no one could tell.