American Literary Review

- An online exclusive -


Starre Vartan

STARRE VARTAN is the founder and editor-in-chief of Eco Chick and its sister site, Eco Chick Escapes, all about ethical travel and style. She’s the author of The Eco-Chick Guide to Life (St. Martin’s Press), and a problogger and oft-quoted green living expert who has been featured in the New York Times, Elle, Glamour and Self magazines.

She is currently a contributor to The Huffington Post, Inhabitat, and Hearst’s The Daily Green, and is editor-at-large for Coco Eco Magazine and contributor-at-large for Martha Stewart’s Whole Living magazine.

Starre Vartan's Icewalkers was a runner-up for our 2011 Creative Nonfiction Contest. It is our pleasure to publish her essay exclusively online.

IN WINTER, THE ICE BECKONS ME with its smooth, variegated surface. Here it is cloudy white, there opaque and grey-green, further on it is clear and shows the life captured beneath. Lying on my stomach, I watch the underwater plants and slow-moving fishes swim through their winter doldrums.

    I reluctantly pull myself up to standing, balancing easily on the edges of my white figure skates. I glide in ever widening half-circles as I watch the other kids in their candy-colored jackets, most of them on skates, but not moving, intent as they are on the hockey game that's the center of attention. They crowd next to each other, bumping, laughing, and cheering. I can’t imagine why they want to be all squeezed in together like that when there’s all of Earl's Pond’s several acres to skate on, excepting the thin ice next to the dam. I guess that few of them have ever bothered to explore the many-fingered edges of the pond where the ice intrudes into the woods, or the trees push through the frozen surface, or have come here at night to slide around in sneakers under the full moon, which reveals an entirely new spectrum of colors beneath the ice. I know there is more to see because I've seen it, but how are they to understand anything if they just stand in groups all the time, talking endlessly?

    I push hard on the metal edges beneath my feet, moving further and further out, practicing my backwards moves, always keeping the rest of the people in the edge of my vision.
    A whistle barks three times in succession, breaking the game, and I head back towards the players, pushing my blades hard against the sometimes bumpy surface, making loud slashing sounds interrupted only by ice moans. The sounds used to scare me, but now I know that only human-made things are motionless, without life. The natural world is always moving, adjusting to the precise set of circumstances that exist at that moment. Once I understood this, I was never afraid of the creaking branch, the drily gliding scales, or the myriad paw-hoof-footfalls that make up the cadence of the forest.

    As I move closer to the hockey game, it resumes, and I am close enough to see the boys' eyes narrow in concentration. Girls are not allowed to play, not because a rule has been created or stated, and not because we don't skate well, but because that is the way it is. Many things are unexplained, and though I like to question everything, there are some things there are no sensible, logical answers to; I’ve learned that much. It pains me to leave them unanswered, and I keep asking them in my head even as I have learned to keep my mouth shut. I skate on the edges, watching the puck fly over the ice.
    I had turned 11 a few weeks before, and it was at the edges of this pond, located atop a mountain looming everlastingly over the Hudson River, that my family and friends celebrated my birth with a bonfire that warmed the frozen late-January air for a few feet and then quit. At the end of the party, my friends were impressed as I cleaved chunks of ice from the pond’s muddy edge with my bare hands and smashed it on the frozenhard surface. Then I picked up the broken pieces and tossed them into the black void of the winter’s night. They made a crash, then a zooming, tinkling sound as they skittered across the even plane. It was more musical than breaking glass, which reminded me, even at that age, of danger and the beauty of broken things. My friends joined in on the game, and we became addicted to the sound the broken ice made as it slid from the shoreline and the fire. We didn't stop until our hands were claws, chilled into useless knobs at the end of our arms.

    Now I skate around these same chunks, frozen over the last few days to the surface, dangerous obstacles creating a hazard until spring comes and thaws it all into the depths of the lake.

    I drift over again to the milling crowd of kids, heading towards where the hockey game alternate players are waiting for someone to get hurt or tired. I am the best girl skater, which means that sometimes I’m allowed to play with the boys. But only when it's not an official game, when we are passing the puck from one end to the other, shooting the puck into the net (I love being the stand-in goalie) or racing up and down the length of the makeshift rink. Really I’m just a fast skater, not necessarily skilled with the stick, but at this age, that’s enough.
    When I watch the boys, I stare hard at their skates and how they use their thick skate edges to turn quickly, one foot in front of the other. I look down at my pretty skates with a red pompom tied into the laces and curse them and their lack of heft, silently. I find much of being a girl monumentally stupid, and though I love my dolls and my pretty skates I also want to wear the big black skates, and to shove other kids out of the way and not get yelled at for pushing. To be hard and fast on the ice with edges that can support speed and maneuvering, to be free with my body and my strength, which at this age is pretty evenly matched with the boys my age is a dream, and I know it.
    I stab the front pick of the skate edge into the ice as I imagine fat red laces tied snugly over black hockey skates just my size, and think about my uncle’s discussion of reincarnation last week. Next time I’m coming back as a boy, I promise myself. This time I have to be a girl and there’s nothing I can do about it, nothing at all. With my penchant for wearing all purple all the time, my long blonde hair and full pink cheeks, nobody has ever mistaken me for anything other, but I think it is a good thing people can’t see what’s inside my head. It is with relief that I can think about the boy I would be and nobody will ever know.

    As I meander around the ice, I admit to myself that it would be sad to have short hair like a boy for a whole lifetime. I decide that would be the very worst part, as I tug on my pigtails and comb out the curls with my fingers and remember how soft and comforting it feels wisping against my back when I'm brushing it 100 strokes every night like I read Laura Ingalls Wilder did. If I was a boy, I guess I wouldn’t be able to go home and dress up in layers of my great-grandmother’s filmy lace or wrap myself in fabric saris from my grandmother’s travels, and I wouldn't want to give that up. And my dolls, who would fix their hair and change their outfits and take them for walks and outings to my friends' houses? Nope, being a boy has too many drawbacks, but if only there were a way to be a girl and also get to do boy things, now that would be the best, I figure.
    Despite my stupid skates, I’ve been practicing, and now I can almost turn like the boys, even with my more delicate edges. I will still skate this way when I'm much older, slashing around the ice like I’m wearing hockey skates, yet always confined to figure skates, because I grow from girl to young woman, fairly unremarkably. I get cold, waiting, but I'm used to it; being cold is an acceptable state. I don't mind the chill, the minor drop in body temperature, the semi-frozen extremities. It is easy to warm up again, seemingly impossible to cool off when it’s hot. I prefer the grey skies, ice and snow to blinding, inescapable heat. I keep watching, skating in little figure eights, happy that it is still Winter, wanting the season of school, skating, sledding and end-on-end holidays to last forever.
    I spot my friend Liz in her red and white hat and wonder if she will talk to me today. Some of the girls here are my friends, but they aren’t skating with me and sometimes they pretend not to know me. I know it's because I don't always follow their rules, which are complicated and difficult to understand, and change anyway on a regular basis. Also because for so many reasons, I am different. Secretly I like not being like them, except when it means they won’t play with me, or pretend not to know me. Boys don’t act like that; they either know you or they don’t, and that’s a relief. The boys don’t care that I’m not ordinary, only that I skate well, am able to ride over almost anything on my bike, keep my forts stocked with ammunition in the form of sharpened sticks and ice-covered snowballs and know the woods around my house as well as they know the woods around theirs. I have information, and skills with bikes and skates, and therefore their respect. Boys are simple.
    Girls in my hamlet of a town find me suspicious and hold those same boyish skills against me; when I made the mistake of arriving in town at age 4 instead of being born there I still had the remnants of a weird accent, forever carry an unbelievable name (‘nobody has a name like that’ says one girl), and am being raised by my grandmother, not my parents, not even just my mom. If that weren’t bad enough, I’m an only child whose father lives in Australia, a country nobody knows anything about except for Crocodile Dundee, kangaroos and the hideous and infamous Vegemite. I do well in school without much effort and have been put in special after-school programs to 'challenge' me. That doesn’t help my reputation with the girls either, and being with kids much older than me in special classes scares me so much I shake sometimes. I keep going because once I get past the awkward social beginnings of the class I get to go to that place where I am completely absorbed in solving something, and it feels good inside my head. The only thing I can compare it to, I tell my grandma when we talk about it, is that it’s like when you have been sitting a certain way for a really long time and then you have a good stretch, and the blood fills up the empty, numbed spaces, and you can feel the parts of your arms and legs that you normally forget about.

    The boys smash up against each other, slamming against and bouncing apart so hard they end up skidding on the ice on elbows and knees. It is so easy for them. They just need to run fast, or score goals, or be the bravest or the strongest and everybody likes them. I never understand how to win as a girl. Being pretty counts, but only if you’re nice too, and pretend that everyone else is prettier. I don't look anything like the pretty girls, who are all short and delicate, with long dark brown or blonde hair. I am bigger boned and curly-haired, with muscular, long limbs and a belly full of baby fat. My eyes are hidden behind glasses, my eyebrows are becoming one giant caterpillar across my forehead, and my breasts are nowhere to be found, though some of my friends are already bra shopping with their mothers. In summer camp everyone hated the most beautiful girl, even though I thought she was nice. She was "too pretty," declared one girl, and so she was shunned from then on by the rest of the girls. I followed along, ignoring her too, because I had no idea what else to do and my own acceptance was always so tenuous. This led to guilt, and then to anger at the ringleader girls.

    Liz is ignoring me, so I move in wider and wider circles, finally breaking apart from the group again and look towards the other side of the lake, feeling sick of the kids and their games that I feel like I'll never understand. As the crowd grows larger around the hockey match, and this sun reaches its highest overhead point I know that I'm not going to get to play today. I know that across the frozen expanse and through the forest lie some of my secret places, places where nobody makes me feel bad about myself since I am the only one there. I wonder how the recent snowfall has left them.
    I spend my after-school hours tending to my several forts deep in the woods where I speak a made-up language to a whole village of imaginary friends; elves, fairies, a younger sister and a brunette girl who's smarter than me named Lila. Her omnipresent sidekick is a funny creature that’s half Ewok, half Gremlin-before-midnight. With my high-top Reeboks double-knotted and a whistle around my neck, I patrol the woods of my grandmother’s property, and all the land attached to it. The forest stretches for miles in every direction, all the way to the opposite edge of the side of the pond I'm now skating towards, fast.
    Far ahead of me, the naked trees form a wall of brown and grey skeletons, but the evergreen mountain laurel bushes hold the new snow atop their leaves so that it looks like they're wearing fluffy coats. I skate all the way across the lake, and I am out of breath, but I keep moving. My cheeks feel pink from a thousand stings from the cold wind. I throw myself in a drift of snow at the pond’s edge, and crawl up to the log where my bright red snow boots smile at me from their cubby-hole in the Y of a fallen tree. I haul myself up to sit on the log, careful not to let my skate edges hit the ground and become dulled. Hundreds of tiny prickles of snow from the disturbed branch above me find the bit of skin between my coat collar and the bottom of my hat and I shrug my shoulders to keep the frosty deluge from my warm neck.
    The hiding is good here compared to the otherwise winter-open woods, and nobody from the skating party can see me, though I can see them, as brightly-colored as they are, all clustered together. I pull my left foot from my skate, and immediately plunge it into the waiting boot, which is cold inside, but dry at least. From here, I can’t see the faces of the far-off kids, but I know from the jackets who’s who. I see my friend Jamie in his purple and red puffball of a coat, a hand-me-down from his older brother. I guess that Jake scores a goal because I see his arms go over his head, the tiny hockey stick horizontal over his head in triumph. I think that it must be really fun to score a goal with all those people watching. I will never know such glory.

    I slide my other foot into its waiting boot and tie my skates together before my hands freeze up. I’m already a little chilled and I move into the woods, first up a small snowy rise away from the pond edge, where I stop for a moment to sling my skates around my neck. In the summer it is like a jungle here, every piece of brown earth obscured with a riot of plants growing at every height, but in the winter, there are just remnants and promises of that desperate, maniacal growth.

    I follow an invisible path that only I know is under the whiteness, avoiding the snow-hidden stream that feeds into the lake, and I head for the edge of the tree-covered u-shaped valley. I’m probably the only person who walks here regularly; the unseen trail I’m on is made by deer, and I follow it. Deer, when moving from one place to another, always pick the easiest route, a lesson I had learned by the time I was 5.

    On either side of the valley, rock faces covered with dead-seeming lichen create broken, almost vertical eight-story walls on both sides of me. It had been explained that giant ice sheets once moved across this land and left the rocks in helter-skelter piles, some of them huge chunks of granite balancing precariously. Later, the stream that leads to Earl's Pond cut through the rocks and made the valley I’m walking in alter from a V to a U shape. I am skeptical about this story as I haven’t seen much change in the seven years I’ve made these woods my playground. I keep away from the frozen water and the uneven footing that surrounds it, choosing a path the runs alongside one edge of the valley. I know from my Spring, Summer and Autumn trampings that beneath the tidy layer of snow there are rocks, holes, branches across pools of still-flowing water and mostly-frozen but still messy mud. It is too cold to get wet and muddy now. The sky is a wide stripe above me, and I after ten minutes of hiking determinedly through the snow, I get bored and start clambering over rocks, kicking the drifts in my way, and hopping around to create strange tracks in case someone is following. I like to pretend that bad guys are tracking me, and I practice woodsy subterfuge, dodging from behind one tree trunk to another, rolling behind a rock, springing up in surprise snowball attack. I am covered in icy flakes but hot now, and I unzip my jacket as the stream bed begins to widen further across the bottom of the valley as I near my house.

    Here the stream turns into a swamp, with shallower water and mud, and in warmer seasons can only be crossed by hopping from from top to top of swamp grass that sticks up from the ooze. Now it is frozen hard anyway, and I try to remember which spots are safe to step on, which makes it slow going to cross, as I keep breaking through camouflaged ice pockets. I can smell the woody smoke now from the fire in my house, and I can see the dark brown shape of home just ahead, still indistinct through the many trees. I manage to only get a little muddy and rest on a tuft, panting. I decide not to check on any of my forts today, but think that Fort Deer Head and Hanging Rock should both be stocked up with snowballs, though the ones I had made a few days back had probably fused into a pile of useless ice by now.
    Finally, I reach the spot where I can cut up through the wall-rocks so I can exit the valley. Here the exposed bedrock has cracked apart and offers easy hand- and foot-holds. I pull myself up the steep side using young tree trunks and roots that have grown in the gaps in the rock to climb. My feet follow me without much thought and the silver skate blades thunk against my ribs. It’s only about twenty-five feet up, and I crawl the last bit, using my knees for extra purchase on the slippery snow. My last handhold is the base of a long-needled pine tree, and I pop up in a grove of them. I push my way through, needles slapping me in the face, and look for the gate.
    It’s hard to find in the crush of sappy branches, which leave dots and smears of scented tree blood on my cheeks and hair, but I find it and squeeze through the opening that’s only just wide enough for my small body. The trees were planted too close to each other here and have grown into the fence on either side of the gate, crushing it almost-closed.
    I hear barking and dog feet running through the snow, but even though I’m on the other side of the fence I am still in the mess of evergreens. Before I can break into the open, the cold nose of a large black and tan Doberman stops my forward march, sniffing me accusingly. I say nothing but endure the nose in the crotch and keep moving forward. She recognizes me and turns around, leading me onto a well-traveled path. Exiting the trees I can suddenly see everything in detail as it's so close: the smoke poofing out of the chimney of a modern, clean-lined house perched atop a rock ledge, surrounded by woods on all sides. Several small matching outbuildings - an annex, my playhouse, the garage, all keep the larger structure company; they don't match, but they are all brown with white trim and match each other in a tidy way. I walk up through the terraced gardens, now hibernating, and climb up onto the deck, ignoring the stairs. My grandma, pink-cheeked and wearing a caftan made from expertly pieced-together Indian saris and random silks, opens the door and stands with broom ready to sweep the snow off my snowpants, jacket and hat, which are well covered.
    "I didn’t get to play," I say. "All the stupid older boys were there."
    "Well, that’s good. I don’t want you to get a puck in the face like poor Beth. She’s going to have to have that broken nose fixed when she’s older."
    "That was softball. I don’t play softball. I’m talking about hockey!"
    "Pucks, softballs, all hard things flying at your face."

    She whisks the snow off quite efficiently, and the broom bristles poke me. It hurts a little, but not a lot. I’m not a complainer, I think, as I press my lips together. I smile when she does my head. My hair protects me, and I always think it must look really silly to have someone brooming off your head.
"I just made some hot chocolate. Do you want whipped cream with it?" she asks. It's always hard to be annoyed with her for long. I walk inside, nodding vigorously.
Sitting by the fire, my feet encased in cat-shaped slippers, my back roasting, I sip the chocolate. I think about what book I want to read. I’m in the fifth grade, but since I’ve read my way through all the ‘young adult’ books last year, I’ve moved onto adult books. I’ve been scaring myself reading Stephen King’s short stories.

    There is a knock at the front door. I ignore it, but then I hear my name being called. I shuffle and slide down the hallway in my huge slippers. At the door, I see Jake and Jamie, whose faces are still red from playing hockey. Their bikes are laying sideways on the driveway because boys don’t use kickstands. Behind them, over the footbridge and through the Japanese garden I can just barely see Rama on his bike spraying gravel all over the driveway doing fancy turns.
    I look at my grandma.
    "They want to know if you can go bike riding with them. I said it was OK as long as you’re back for dinner." I look down at my slippers, and feel the heat of the fire still on my back. I want to read, really, but there they are. This was the third of fourth time they have asked me to ride bikes with them. Last time I had spent the majority of my time trying to keep up, and they played some games I knew our parents wouldn’t like. They made me nervous, but at the same time, they wanted to be friends, and I wasn’t in the position to say no. It wasn’t hockey, and they weren’t girls, but it was something.
    "Yeah, lemme put my sneakers on. Be right back."


    Rama rides first because he is the oldest. Wherever his thick-wheeled bike goes, we follow. First Jamie, his younger brother, then Jake, Jamie’s best friend, and last, always last because I am a girl, there’s me. My bike has no speeds and theirs have fifteen or more. I usually love my purple and white bike with the unicorn on the side, but now it seems awfully girly and definitely not fast enough. I decide that right now I hate it. The unicorn and purple do NOT outweigh the fact that I have no gears to use.

    The gravel driveway I had learned to ride my bike on ends abruptly where two stone gateposts announce my home with a wooden sign; "Dogwoods" in seventies script. We leave all that behind in seconds as we fly down the dirt roads which are rocky and pocked with potholes. We purposefully slam into the biggest holes in the road at full speed. I am now more expert at this kind of riding; the first few times I went out with the boys, I slowed down to ride over the potholes and I noticed the disapproving looks on the faces of Rama, Jake and Jamie when they had to wait up for me. We didn’t wear helmets and I could imagine my head split open and blood everywhere, just like in that Stephen King book about the freaky high school girl. Carrie was unpopular too. With the choice of possible death or definite unpopularity, I pedal furiously and hold on to my handlebars.

    Today, the potholes have a crust of ice over them, overlain by snow, and the main activity is seeing who can crush more of the thin as glass toppers and make the loudest crunch. Even riding last, there is still plenty of ice to ride through, the sound of frozen water breaking satisfying something deep inside and it makes me smile. I notice I’m not the only one.

    When we come to the intersection of my dirt road with the larger, main dirt road, I am glad I am in last place, as the boys don't even slow down to see if a car is coming. True, cares are infrequent, and one can hear them easily on the unpaved roads, and due to the potholes and packed earth and ice most of the vehicles don't go very fast, but I'm always careful. Two years before, I'd fallen off my bike and ripped my knee open so badly I'd had a sneaker squishing with blood by the time I hobbled to a neighbor's house. And that hadn't even involved a giant metal car.

    But I swooped into the road without looking, close behind Jake's bike, and almost cresting his handlebars and then faced what I knew would be the scariest part of the ride. The boys were whoop-whooping and were already careening down the long-long hill that was so steep and lengthy everyone in the neighborhood of gentleman’s farms, old-money hideaways and Manhattan escapees used it as a landmark for miles around. I'd been practicing riding down it on my own and had gotten down to using my brakes just three times on the hill, but the boys were actually trying to go faster than gravity would carry them, never mind brakes. I wanted to let go, to be as free as them, and pushed the picture of myself crashing face-first into the sharp pebbles away. Holding on with my eyes squinted, I rode.

    After a good 25 minutes, we come upon the gated entrance to the Garrison Fish and Game Club, which gives us a short cut back into Earl’s Pond, so I’ve made a full circle from road to pond to woods to road and back to pond today. We ignore the "No Trespassing" signs on either side of the gate and push our bikes through the narrow opening. We own all the woods and the dirt roads, and no sign put up by some yammering adult could dissuade us from going anywhere. Just like the majority of stop and yield signs that my grandmother ignores when she drives, I never feel as if these kinds of instructions apply to me, and nobody has really tried to convince me otherwise.

    Once inside the gate we wordlessly make our way to the edge of the pond, a different side from where we had skated earlier. Here is a dock that stretches into the water. The boys throw their bikes to the side and I follow suit, wincing a bit as my pretty bike lands roughly on its side, the kickstand ignored in this company. We jump onto the dock and plop ourselves onto the wooden surface.

    It’s painted a dull blue that is almost grey, and really neither one. It is cold and splintery under my fingers. I love sitting on the dock and often come here by myself. But now I am with the boys, and there will be none of my usual staring off toward the island in the middle of the pond, imagining a fairy party, examining dead fish, or inspecting the leaves’ patterns in the frozen ice. I can hear the water moving under the surface ice here. About twenty feet away to the left, the frozen part peters out into open water before it disappears in a rush over the dam.
    "You guys ready?" asks Rama. Nobody replies as we are too busy pulling our sneakers off and peeling our socks from our warm feet. Jamie and Jake nod. In the cold afternoon air, steam pours off our white toes. I crabwalk forward on the deck so that I’m next to Jake and Jamie and we sit in a line along the edge of the dock, our bare feet dangling. Rama is still behind us, and I can smell his feet, which have a strong odor. I think the stench must have something to do with the thick hair on his legs and the wisps above his upper lip. Gross.
    I look sideways at Jake, who is looking at me. His blue eyes look scared, and I quickly look down, then stand up on the ice. It is so cold, and I sit down again. I wiggle my toes.
    "How far did we get to last time?" asks Jamie.
    "I think as far as that rock, right?" Jake points to a fist-sized rock that sits about twelve feet away from us atop the ice.
    "We should definitely bring our own markers this time. We should each have our own," decides Rama.
    "Yeah," I say, in order to say something. We all walk, gingerly in our bare feet, to the edge of the dock that overhangs dry land and pick up rocks. Mine is light brown and smooth, and cold earth gets under my nails when I dig it out of the sandy frozen mud. We all go back to the edge of the dock, where the ice looks fairly thick. My feet are already freezing, and now my fingers are getting cold from holding the rock.
    In our winter-white feet, we stand on the ice. It is obscenely cold, but none of us says a word or even grimaces.

    Rama moves suddenly out on the ice first, walking/sliding his feet. We are all aware of how thin the ice gets so close by, and that is why this is where the game is played. Not more than three feet out, he turns around and throws himself back onto the dock. It shudders under his weight.
    "I’m too heavy. I’m not going to make it. I’m gonna watch you guys."
    Jamie gets up next, and Jake follows slightly behind him. They make it about eight feet out, and then Jake slides back to the dock. He grabs his feet. "I think I’ve got frostbite! My mom’ll kill me if I lose a toe!" Jamie stands still, but doesn’t move any further out. He coolly drops his rock in the furthest spot out, and starts sliding back in.

    We all hear ice-cracking sounds, but ignore them. They are still the far-away whale sounds, though they are coming more frequently now. A quick whipping whisper happens locally, and out by the island we see a new crack form, and watch it travel almost to the shore on our right. But it is buried a few inches under, and even this is not particularly alarming if you know ice, though it sounds terrible. Jamie is still on his way back, and I stand up, casually. I grip the rock in my hand. I know that what I am doing is incredibly stupid, but I keep going, trying to forget about the hundreds of stories I’ve read about kids falling through ice. Being friends meant breaking rules, and I was happy to ignore every voice inside my head if it meant that these boys would keep me around. Maybe if I could do this it would show I was tough enough to play hockey, and my friends would stop ignoring me in front of the older kids.

    I can feel the boys’ eyes on my back. I am being tested, and I will pass, or better. That is what I do and now I don’t even care about the boys, I’m singly focused on the task. I take a step beyond Jamie’s rock, then two, then a few more steps.

    The ice burns my feet, and the new crack is just in front of me. I can see, now that I’m closer, that it goes all the way through the ice here. I can also see that I am far enough from the dock that the water will be over my head if I fall through. I know from swimming there in the summer. I turn, and see the three boys staring, waiting. Jake is motioning to come back, and looks alarmed. Jamie is just watching, his brow knit, and Rama stares off in the distance, as if by not looking at me he is actually daring me to do run back, scream, cry, or do something girly. I am about fifteen feet from the dock’s edge. I crouch down and gently lay my rock on the ice. I immediately realize I should have dropped it like the boys did, that placing it nicely was too feminine, but it is done. I stare at the rock, wondering if I should pick it up and then I imagine how when the ice melts it will end up in the depths of the pond. Maybe I could dive and find it one day. I wish I had written something on it. Now I don’t want to pick it up again. It seems right just where it is.
    "You better come back!" yells Rama. I look at him, and for the first time that day, he’s looking directly at me. I get back to the dock before I even know what I’m doing. I can’t feel my feet, and I quickly busy myself with pulling my socks on and rubbing them. All of a sudden, it’s over. Rama is already getting his bike, and Jake leans over to me. "You were out there forever!" He looks surprised. I smile and look down.
When we climb back on our bikes, after making our way back out of the gate, I start by keeping up the rear, as usual. I have good reason, as I was the last off the ice. But then I either keep up better, or the boys ride a little slower. Either way, I ride with them now instead of trailing behind. A station wagon full of skaters rumbles by, the first car we’ve seen, and I wave to the kids behind the fogged-in windows. I can’t see exactly who they are, but I know they are all from the earlier hockey game, since it’s 4:30ish and the day is done. The car passes and Jamie waves at the kids in the way-back of the Volvo, where the seats allow for staring out the back window. I see a flash of hand in return-wave. They can see that we are riding as a pack, with Rama still in the lead, but the three of us fifth-graders are riding with front tires almost aligned. We all shared a secret game, and I have won it. We never play again. But today, I am the queen of the Icewalkers.

Alice Dark, the 2011 Creative Nonfiction Contest judge, on Starre Vartan's Icewalkers: A young girl literally walks on thin ice to prove herself to the local ice skater boys. The premise is a familiar rite of passage for young girls, but this author focuses on descriptions of ice, cold, and winter in a way that gives them symbolic weight and resonance. I liked how this author was able to make complex her 11-year-old self, her decisions both considered and impulsive. The ice is the center here, though; it changes color, moans, tinkles, cracks; it is alive.