a literary and art journal
man walking into ocean

Miguel

Everything is coming in waves today. You can’t remember the last time you felt like this. For months now you’ve been buried under a glacial sheet, all light faded. Only momentary glimmers burn through where you warm up and feel anything at all.

But now a thawing has begun.

You heard about him on the news. At first he seemed to be just another casualty, sacrificed to the city. When they started talking about him trapped under the ice, frozen and unreachable, you began to take notice, finding yourself turning on the TV only to hear about him. After the sixth day he was discovered; they said his name was Miguel Flores. Before that he was only known as “the body.” For six days, nameless. The TV anchorwoman said that he wandered out onto the frozen lake in Prospect Park ignoring all the signs posted warning him not to. The ice cracked; he fell in. Witnesses said after he managed to pull himself out, he started to walk away, but the ground beneath him weakened again and split. He sank back into the water. Authorities had no leads as to his identity. Seems that no one was looking for him; no one knew he was missing from their lives.

Before you saw him on TV you hadn’t left the apartment in three days. The only time you found the strength to get out of bed was to pour another drink. But since hearing his story, you sit in front of the television waiting to find out what’s happened. There’s a small stirring of life inside you again. That ice, interrupted. The anchorwoman says, “They can’t locate the body” or “waiting for the body to surface,” and you know he’s alone, pressed up against the cold skin of the lake, looking through it, watching the milky and fluid faces of onlookers, the wave and ripple of winter elm branches, the world, just over there, just on the other side, unreachable. The cold in his body is all fire and his fingers scratch and scratch the surface that separates here from there. He’s become leaden and breathless and the aperture of soft light floating above him dims and fades as you imagine his body sinking further into the bitter murk.

Cards on the table, mud in the doorway. Miguel picked up his satchel and took one more swallow of milk before opening the front door. Typically he woke before anyone else in the shelter, the room still dark and seeming foreign. Although he’d lived there for two months he still woke most mornings confused, disoriented. Then slowly the dark and cold would become familiar as he’d lie in his bed, blinking his eyes, trying to focus on things around him. In the dark everything always looked different. In the muted light the old man sleeping next to him they called Dollar had the skin of Miguel’s mother. Soft, almost transparent. Lying there on his side he’d watch her sleeping in the bed next to him, her snores a shrill thunder. Pete, two beds down, looked like Ms. Connie, one of the day counselors at the shelter, when he slept. In the darkness Pete’s thin nose and high cheekbones mashed into the thick and flat bulldog grimace Ms. Connie made as she cooked in her feverish rage. Miguel knew these transformations were only the dark playing tricks on his eyes, but still, secretly, he liked to think that while sleeping, people became who they couldn’t be in the light.

He stepped outside, swinging his satchel over his shoulder. Realizing he forgot his gloves he stuck his hands in his coat pockets, shielding them from the cold. The trees lining the wide expanse of Eastern Parkway were frozen in lifeless postures—all naked without their leaves—and the snow underfoot crunched as Miguel walked down the sidewalk. Some things he couldn’t get used to no matter how ordinary they were to life here. The sound of snow grinding under his weight: he wished his mother could hear it. It was a pure sound. It sounded exactly the way snow should sound. In his letter to her today he would try to describe it.

Dawn was just breaking in the east, casting an orange glow over the snow-covered streets. The light split and burst into glimmers. He made the sign of the cross as he always did when he saw something he considered a miracle. Last month was the first time Miguel ever saw snow and he was amazed how the white could blanket even this chaotic city into quiet. A bitter gust of wind shot up behind him as he crossed into the park. He shoved his hands deeper into his pockets and moved his fingers around. The joints were becoming sore from the cold.

Miguel spent most mornings in the park no matter the weather. He liked the idea of this pocket of nature immune to the flux and buzz of city life. He’d sit on a bench deep within the park and watch people with their dogs, trying to imagine what kind of life they lived. New York seemed full of possibility and he planned to take advantage of that. Once he got a job, found a permanent place to live, he’d be able to send money back home to Honduras and show his mother that he’d succeeded.

A tall woman led by a small, tottering dog walked up along the pathway. The dog stopped at Miguel’s feet and sniffed. He reached down and let the dog nuzzle its wet snout into his palm. He looked up and smiled at the woman. To his surprise the woman smiled back. Sometimes his attempts here at greeting strangers were completely ignored.

“Good morning,” Miguel said in his broken English.

The tall woman smiled and nodded, her red knit cap falling forward a bit. She pulled it down with her free hand and then tugged at the dog’s leash. They made their way down the snow-covered path towards the lake.

Miguel’s plan for the day was to write his letter to his mother and then begin his job search. Before he left his cousin’s house in South Carolina two months ago he’d heard that there was construction work in New York. The city had always intrigued him. He’d heard stories from relatives and friends back in his town in Honduras about the throngs of people filling the streets, the enormous buildings that glowed at night. He decided to see it for himself.

The woman with the red cap walked down the sloping path with her dog until they disappeared completely. Miguel suddenly got up and started walking. He kept a safe distance, didn’t want her to think he was following her. But maybe he was in some way. Her smile was so gentle that it drew Miguel in. He didn’t want to let go of that kindness.

The hardest thing for him about living in New York wasn’t the cold or not having any money. It was the lack of connection, the feeling that he somehow didn’t belong. Miguel was astonished when people would bump into him on the street and keep moving as if he didn’t even exist. The woman with the red cap showed him he wasn’t completely invisible here. Someone could see him.

The path emptied into a small clearing that centered on a lake. A boathouse sat on the other side. The woman was already making her way up the next hill that led towards the opposite side of the park. Her little dog panted as it scrambled along next to her, its breath making a steam engine trail.

Miguel stopped and stared out at the frozen lake. Everything here was so still and quiet. The surface had grown a rigid and solid crust of ice that seemed impenetrable.

He carefully made his way down to the edge of the lake and tapped his foot against the surface. It felt like concrete. He stepped out with both feet now firmly set on the ice and jumped a little, testing the durability. He landed solid, the surface unmarked.

Miguel had forgotten about the woman with the red cap who was now nearing the top of the hill and would soon disappear onto the other side. The expanse of ice had completely captured his attention. Miguel stepped out further onto the lake, his arms outstretched to his sides as if balancing on a beam. He bounced up and down every few steps to ensure the floor’s stability, making his way towards the center.

He wished he had a camera. This would be a great picture to send to his mother. Miguel walking on water.

His smile distorted when his footing gave way and the ice beneath him cracked and crumbled. The shock of the water took his breath away as he plunged under the dark surface. He couldn’t tell if he was floating up or sinking down until his head bumped against the ice. Frantically, he pressed up, feeling around until he found the hole he crashed through. When his head broke the surface he gasped, his lungs burning with cold. Miguel blinked and blinked but all he could see was white.

He screamed for help, his voice ripping through the quiet morning. He clawed, digging his nails into the ice but there was nothing to hold onto. He hoisted himself up onto his elbows and tried to swing his legs out but they felt like fallen logs. He had to look down to make sure his knee was propped against the solid face of the lake. He slowly pressed and leaned forward until he crawled out completely. His body felt scalded as the wind picked up, brushing against the dry tree branches. Miguel pushed himself up to his feet, fought for his balance and began to walk toward solid ground.

Through his burning vision he saw a woman running towards him down the hill. For a moment he thought it was his mother but then the red cap came into focus. She was screaming at him to lie down, spread his body weight out but he couldn’t hear her. Not that he would have understood anyway.

Miguel took another step and the ice under him again cracked apart, this time the hole too big and his body too exhausted to fight. He sank and surrendered to the slow, pulling current.

The TV light flickers against your wet cheeks. Finally the divers found him, bloated and stiff, the pallor of lilacs. He had a name, Miguel Flores. He was a twenty-three-year-old immigrant from Honduras who arrived in New York only two months ago. You watch the anchorwoman talk about this man who silently slipped away, no one noticing he was gone.

Photograph © A still image from Konstantin Lopushansky’s Posetitel Muzeya

About Ryan Berg

Ryan Berg received the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Nonfiction Literature as well as a Lambda Literary Foundation Emerging Writers Fellowship. His work has appeared in Ploughshares and The Sun. Ryan has been awarded artist residencies from The MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

About Ryan Berg

Ry a n B erg received the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Nonfiction Literature as well as a Lambda Literary Foundation Emerging Writers Fellowship. His work has appeared in Ploughshares and The Sun. Rya n has been awarded artist residencies from The MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.

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