top of page

The Ice Dancer

Keti Shea

On the night I killed my mother, snow began falling at dusk and continued until its glitter blanketed the trees. I went outside to watch it, all that landscape stilled to mute. She had asked me, and I said yes. Because my brothers refused; because I’m the only daughter. Because death is women’s work. That’s what childbirth is too, she said – all those women knocking at death’s door until the shivering baby pooled in spume is laid on their chests, and the women are brought back to life. “We take our first breaths along with our babies.” At least that’s what she said, and I know better than to disagree with a woman as terrifying as my mother.

She had wanted to be shot or drowned, but I could do neither. When my hunting dog faced down a mountain lion, saving my life but dooming his own, I had taken a shotgun from the cabin and raised its barrel to the dog’s hard skull. His eyes pleaded with mine, and I swore then I would never shoot another living thing, not even to end its suffering. My mother’s not a dog – she’s much meaner, more loyal, than any dog – yet still I shook my head no. Her hands fluttered like moths to a lamp at night. “Let me sink to the bottom of the lake,” she said. I pictured her sinking into the water’s oblivion, into its murky underbelly. I said no to that too.

I watch the snow fall and remember the first time my mother took me skating at the lake. I was five. My mother, the ice queen. She scraped her skates against the frost, executing a series of pirouettes. Toe loop, salchow, lutz: the moves that make a dark-haired, dark-eyed mountain girl famous. She told me we live in high desert, not high alpine, but many people get that confused. Craggy ridgelines and peaks may surround us, but this town is pure desert. I know my mother would never leave, even if she had the talent to. “Where would I go?” she asked me one time. “These mountains are the only place inhospitable enough to hold me.”

That I believe.

My mother and I share the dark hair and eyes of the indigenous tribe that lives nearby on reservation land, but we don’t belong to those people either. Dark girls like us, wild girls, attract a certain attention in this place. The boys at school ignored me. But the girls: They set their teeth on me, unleashed their wrath and boredom. Word got around, and my mother marched to the playground one dry afternoon. She dove into the throng and pulled someone down by her flaxen ponytail, dragged her face to the curb’s kiss. There was kneeling and whispers as we watched, eyes round. I don’t know what she said, but no girl touched me after that.

I don’t think of that now. I only think of her as she twizzled on the ice, a ballerina with skates like knives glinting beneath her, her hair even blacker against the snowy backdrop. When the doctors called and gave a name to the tremor in her hands, the tremor of her lips, the forgetfulness that reared its head at odd moments, I thought: No. A woman like you, who lands a triple axel, is immune to death. I suppose in a way she was. She wouldn’t allow herself to weep or wilt like some wounded flower; she wouldn’t allow herself to rot in some hospital bed; she wouldn’t tremor and shake into her last days. Even in the face of death my mother wasn’t fearful. Laughing, she said, “They can’t fucking kill me.”

I called in a favor to a friend who worked at the hospital. A single vial and needle to inject the liquid that would end a life. My friend balked until I explained. She risked her job. I know why she did it: She had watched my mother dance on the ice, heard the crack of her knife-skates, the echo of each jump ricocheting off the foothills and into the canyon, rippling back across the lake. The entire town turned out to watch my mother skate. They loved her, even more so because she never left this tundra behind. She could have left – but she didn’t.

I stand under snow until my hands grow numb and my toes painfully cold. Memory is fickle, which means I’ll remember her not as she is now – dead – but as she was on the ice. I’ll remember her as I did when I was five and she taught me to skate. How she laced up her boots, worn leather and butter-soft laces. How she leapt like an ant on fire and twisted, landing breathlessly on the ice. One leg behind her, other leg bent, back arched in benediction. This is what I will remember: my mother’s hand raised in the air, fingers splayed in the direction of the snowcaps, pointing to the mountain’s maw – in surrender, or wonder, or both perhaps. The entire town watched her ice dance, but the snowcaps were the only audience she cared about; those stony peaks were the only thing that ever stood a chance at taming her.

Keti Shea is an editor and public health lawyer and lives in a former nunnery in Northern Colorado with her husband and daughter. She is currently at work on her second novel. You can follow her on Instagram @ketishea.

bottom of page