'SH-H-H-H!" whispered Mr. Rosiello.
With half his face buried in the pillow, Max opened one eye and groaned at the apparition beside his bed.
The moon shone through the window's thick frost and lit the face of Max's Italian neighbor. Oh please, he begged silently, not another of the old man's midnight adventures. Not tonight.
"Venga, Max! Come! It's a midnight high tide. We gotta make the river before the tide carries the smelts back out to sea!"
Only partly conscious, Max wrenched himself from bed. Mr. Rosiello's unlaced hunting boots flopped side to side as he shuffled out the bedroom door. In his huge canvas parka, he looked like a skinny hot dog wrapped in a bulky bun. A fur-trimmed hood bobbed against his back. Ancient leather gloves swung from a hook at his waist. Max dragged his mom's old snowmobile suit out of the hall closet and tried to step into it as he race-limped after Mr. Rosiello.
"Mr. Rosiello!" he called, in a whisper louder than most people talk. "Where are we going?"
"Sh-h-h! My ice-fishing hole."
A few moments later Max was trudging behind Mr. Rosiello along the frozen Kennebec River. The sound of their boots sucking the snow filled Max's ears, filled the whole, white world. It left no space for talking.
What was I dreaming about when Mr. Rosiello woke me? thought Max. He knew it was something good. He wanted to remember. Oh yeah, he smiled. The reverse layup shot. In his dream, he had finally mastered it. But his smile faded as he realized he was still right where he'd been stuck for weeks. He couldn't do a reverse layup at all. It was all he had wanted since Christmas, and he'd been practicing in the gym every day after school. But try as he did, he couldn't get it right. Max's mom said he didn't care about anything else. His dream layup shot played through his mind over and over as he stepped solidly in the snow and lifted each foot high to make perfect footprints. He looked back. Perfect. No drag marks.
Without warning, Mr. Rosiello halted in his tracks. Max stopped short. Everything froze silent around him. They were well out on the ice now. The cool, blue-bright moon hung still overhead. On the opposite shore, towering dark pines stood guard without a breath of wind. Nothing moved except clouds of vapor puffing from Max's mouth.
Suddenly, the ice quivered under Max's feet. Then a tremendous r-r-i-i-i-ppp! - like a tree split by lightning - shot out across the river.
"Help! Mr. Rosiello! The ice ... it's cracking!"
"Don't be afraid," Mr Rosiello shouted. He reached out and held Max firmly by the upper arm, then spoke calmly. "Ice is a living thing, my young apprentice. It stretches in the river bed and groans - a leetle like you when you see me standing beside your bed tonight. You're safe. It will not open and swallow you."
Mr. Rosiello walked forward again, humming softly to himself. Reassured, Max stepped cautiously after him. Here, the wind had swept the ice bare. In the moonlight Max could see hairline cracks running through the clear, black ice like roads on a map. They were eight to 10 inches deep and made delicate, bubble-filled walls in the ice. Now, the cracks seemed friendly. They showed how thick the ice was.
Mr. Rosiello halted again. "See way out there, behind the point of pines that juts out into the river?"
Max peered into the distance. Yes! He could see it. A village of glimmering lights on the ice. "Is that where we're going?"
Mr. Rosiello answered by pointing his thick glove at one shack sitting to the side of the others. He started toward it - not in a beeline - but along a meandering path of snow patches for good traction. Above their loud, crunching footsteps, Max heard Mr. Rosiello break out of his soft humming into full-throated song.
Sounds like Italian, thought Max. Must be opera, again. Although Max liked midnight explorations with Mr. Rosiello, he did not particularly like his opera singing - which was understandable, because what opera sounded like inside Mr. Rosiello's head and what it sounded like coming from his mouth were two mightily different things.
Finally, they passed the village of shanties with their flickering lanterns scattered on the ice and came to the lone, dark shack. Mr. Rosiello creaked the tiny door open and waved Max in. Even Max had to stoop under the doorway, but inside, they could both stand up straight on the sturdy wood floor. The shanty was made of a scrap lumber frame covered with gray builder's felt instead of wood walls.
"That makes it light enough for me to move it," said Mr. Rosiello. "When the ice starts to go out in the spring, you gotta be able to move fast. Three years ago about 30 little bobhouses sailed down the Kennebec on the spring ice flows. It was some trouble. Took Gordon Beals three weeks to find his. When he did, the tide had carried it all the way to Brunswick - almost out to sea, it did."
With the moon shining through a plastic window in the tin roof, Max saw a long hole cut through the center of the floor and the ice beneath it. Mr. Rosiello handed him a flashlight, and he peered into the moving water.
"What do you see, Max?"
"It's like hundreds of moving lights! Little fish with green backs and silver sides. Wow!"
"Those are smelts, Max. And we're gonna catch 'em!"
Mr. Rosiello lit a lantern and a fire in the corner wood stove. Within a few moments it was warm enough for Max to take off his gloves. He watched Mr. Rosiello lift a long pole and hold it horizontally as seven string lines weighted with sinkers dropped to the floor. Then he slung the pole onto two bedsprings hanging from the low ceiling. He pulled out a jackknife and a package of bloodworms from one of his giant pockets and began cutting the bait and hooking it.
"There. Now you can jig the pole. With all that commotion down there, looks like we'll have no trouble catching a few." He put Max's hand on the pole and showed him how to twitch it just enough to get the smelts' attention. "They'll be comin' up fast and furious real soon."
Then he pulled up two camp stools and they both sat. As Max jigged, Mr. Rosiello returned to singing his opera.
"What's that?" asked Max.
"It's from an opera about pearl fishers - been hauntin' me since I got up this morning. When I was growing up in Italy, my papa used to sing it as he swept the front steps in the evening. He would be so filled with the music, he'd forget he was sweeping. One time I saw him sweep both neighbors' steps without knowing it. He might have sung and swept right down the street, if I hadn't called to him from my bedroom window."
Just then, Max felt two lines pull taut. "Hey, Mr. Rosiello, I think there's something on the other end!"
From that moment, the two had no time to talk, except for Mr. Rosiello to bark directions and Max to whoop each time another smelt flopped onto the wood floor.
Max pulled up the lines. Mr. Rosiello released the hooks and rebaited them. Then Max lowered each line back down. An hour and a half later, the two exhausted fishermen stood on the ice outside the shack door and stared at the six pyramids of glistening smelts.
"Can I count them, Mr. Rosiello?"
"Si, si. First you count. Then we eat."
Mr. Rosiello grabbed a few smelts and headed back inside the shack. Still singing about the pearl fishers, he unhooked his frying pan from the roof frame and stoked the wood stove.
With a slow rhythm, Max dropped the smelts one by one into buckets. By the 21st smelt, his mind began to wander as his voice counted on without him.
He was aware, now, that the lights had gone out over most of the ice-fishing village. The moon had set, and tiny ice chips twinkled in the thick, black sky. The snow had turned dull white. He remembered the sweltering night last August when he and Mr. Rosiello sat by the river to catch its cool breeze. Mr. Rosiello had said, "In the winter we will walk on this water." It's funny, thought Max, how solid the river feels now. He looked toward the shore with its shadows of houses and picked out the roof of h is own house where his mother was still sleeping. It seemed so far away. Out here on the ice, his everyday life and its troubles seemed far away - not so important.
A warm aroma drifted out the shack door, and reached Max's nose just as he heard Mr. Rosiello calling. "Venga! Come! We have a midnight snack together."
Max and Mr. Rosiello ate three smelts apiece, right out of the frying pan. Including these, they caught 89 smelts that night.
As they talked about school and the neighbors, they gobbled up their snack. Then Mr. Rosiello asked, "And what about that reverse layup shot - have you got it perfected yet?"
"Nope," shrugged Max. But he smiled.
Later, as they crossed back over alternating patches of ice and snow, Mr. Rosiello was silent.
"I think you finally sang your song out, Mr. Rosiello," said Max.
The old man took a deep breath of frigid air.
"Si, I was jus' thinkin' about it. You know, when I was a boy, my papa used to tell me opera stories. He told me about pearls and pearl fishers. Nothing in the world shines like a pearl, but ay-yi-yi - it is so dangerous to dive for and so hard to find the right oyster with a pearl inside its shell. Some divers search and search for a perfect pearl and never find it. I think my papa was a little like that. I think that's why he liked the pearl fishers opera."
"Hmmmm." Max didn't reply. As they neared the river's edge, he fell into step with the footprints he had made on the way out to the smelt shack. Their sharp, clean edges had softened. Now, Max shuffled through them to erase them. He was thinking again of his dream reverse layup. The dream didn't take up as much room in his mind now. It was somewhere off in the corner. But it didn't seem quite so impossible either.
Mr. Rosiello was still talking. "I read once that fake pearls are made from the shiny scales of fish like smelts," he mused.
d rather eat them, than use them for fake pearls," answered Max.
"Did you know that pearl fishers hang from ropes over the side of the boat - just like our lines hang from the jigging pole? They tie rocks to the end of the rope and ride down to the bottom of the river - like bloodworms riding down with the sinkers. Most of the time, they come up with nothing. But look at us, we just jig the line and our little shiny fish swarm right to us!"
"It doesn't seem fair to the pearl fishers," said Max.
"No. I wish my papa knew about smelt fishing." Then, with an unexpected smile, he said, "But sometimes we are pearl fishers, sometimes we are smelt fishers, eh?"
"Yeah, but I'm glad to be a smelt fisher tonight!" laughed Max. The third of an occasional Kidspace series. Previous stories about Max's midnight adventures ran on Aug. 20 and Oct. 29, 1991.