Through the Ice, Part II
Joe agreed to move fifty yards east to play along Piney Branch Creek. We peered into all the holes that might hide snakes. We dug out two of them. It took an hour.
He was right about our chances, though. In the winter, snakes were rare. They only came out on the warmest of days. This wasn’t one of those. We bothered the fish in the water by trying to catch guppies. We skipped stones across the water. We ranged up and down the river banks, pulled out sedimentary rocks, slithered partway into water pipes, and dared each other to walk across fallen trees above the water.
Eventually, the sun overhead told us the time was past noon. Our stomachs agreed. After we started to head back, Joe took notice of the pond again. It was just sitting there, looking trustworthy, pathetic, and lonely for his company.
“Come on!” he yelled as he ran to the frozen surface and used his hard-worn, smooth-soled Keds to skate a few yards.
I had been reading children's adventure books about life in the wild. They all dwelled on how falling through ice-covered lakes into frigid water would lead to a quick death. The stories added an extra thrill of fear to my school films and scout training sessions. Nevertheless, I joined Joe on the frozen pond. This time, I felt bold enough to skate across the thickest, whitest sections. These were the parts of the pond where I'd seen adults jump and land during skating session the week before. I trusted them. They covered the darkest depths of the water but, importantly, they didn't make noise under me.
We drifted and skimmed over the icy patches for a while. Once or twice, we tried sliding our whole bodies. The surface started to groan again. I scrambled away from the weakest, most see-through sections. In other places there were dirty puddles on the frosty covering and I avoided those, too. Joe noticed.
"You're scared of the ice!" he shouted.
"It's cracking!" I called back. With that, I headed for the north edge. It was the best spot to head for home. "We should go."
"We've been all over it." He picked out a weak section and skated through. "There's nothing wrong."
He aimed for another transparent sheet, one in the center of the north half of the water. He skated into it. He drifted to a stop. Suddenly, he looked up at me. He'd felt something.
The surface exploded. The noise, all by itself, made me flinch. Around Joe, bits flew up like broken glass. Plates of the pond ice rose up around him, too, much bigger and more impressive than the barely-visible specks. The ice plates dumped him into the center. He disappeared into the hole they left behind.
"Joe!" I yelled. My feet took me out onto the ice. There were huge cracks in it now, most of them leading to where my friend had gone.
"Help!" Joe's head bobbed to the top of the water. "Help! Pull me out!"
There was no one else around to make a human chain.
Joe continued to scream. For a minute, I ran around the shore looking for big tree branches. I got the biggest I could find and dashed back with it to let Joe grab on. I slipped as soon as I hit the ice. The fall hurt but I didn't break the thick, white ice. I didn't break the branch, either. I scrambled to my feet and shimmied forward as close to Joe as I could.
He continued to scream. He flailed at the ice floes around him. He was making progress, in a way. The hole in the ice was bigger because he kept breaking off sections of it in his hands. I watched as he tried to heave himself back onto the frozen surface. Another piece broke off, bigger than his whole body. He sank with it for a second. Then he bobbed back up.
"Here! Can you grab on?" The tip of the branch didn't come close, no matter how much I extended my arm.
"You've got to come out farther!" he yelled.
The ice was popping under me. Water lapped up around my toes. Where had it come from? I didn't know. My shoes were soaked through. This didn't seem smart.
"You've got to swim to the branch!" I countered.
After he tried to swim and didn't get far, he started to scream, not at me but at everyone, everything. He hung onto the west edge of the ice hole and cried at the top of his lungs.
I remembered what the instructor said about there not being much time. I threw down the branch where it was. Maybe it would be good for someone bigger than me. Then I skated as fast as I could for the edge.
"I'm going to get someone!" I vowed. It was a long way to find any people, though.
I put my head down and ran from the pond in a diagonal across the borders of the horse obstacle course all the way to the road. I ran until the world changed color, brighter, as I got out of breath. To my surprise, when I lifted my head, I saw someone walking on the side of the road.
It was John.
“He’s fallen through the ice!” I yelled at him.
“Have you seen Joe?” He grumbled, looming big and strong as he marched in his tense gait.
“It’s him! He’s fallen through!” Finally, I reached him. I couldn't stop moving or huffing for more air. I started hopping from one foot to the other.
“My mom wants him," John growled. For the first time, I really looked at his face. He looked more than irritated. "He’d better not be in the woods.”
“He’s on the pond. He's in the pond! He’s in the water.”
John frowned. “It’s too cold for that.”
“He’s going to die! We have to make a human chain!”
Finally, my panic got through John's initial annoyance. He didn't like being sent to look after Joe, especially since his brother had a habit of hiding or getting deliberately lost. He'd been given the job of assistant parent without any pay or benefits. But it was definitely his job. His back straightened. He studied me for an instant.
“Show me,” he said.
I had already turned back toward the pond. Now I started to run.
Even before we got to the water, we could hear Joe. We could see his head, too, as it bobbed above the muddy surface. Although I was running as hard as I could, John galloped by. My vision turned spotty. I had been moving at my top speeds for so long, I was starting to faint. I tripped and fell before John reached the pond. When John first put a toe on the ice, though, it cracked. He stopped.
“Just climb out, Joe!” he yelled. His voice had the power to cut through Joe's wailing. “I can’t get you. The ice is too thin.”
"I can’t," Joe cried. His arms slapped at the edges of the ice. He was continuing to enlarge the hole but he wasn’t getting out.
I staggered closer to crouch by the pond and try to catch my breath. I was watching John watch his little brother flail for twenty seconds. It seemed like a long time. Joe looked weaker than he had after he'd fallen in. He'd lost his hat. His winter jacket had puffed up and elongated an inch or two in the sleeves, like it was losing shape.
“Oh, for heaven's sake,” said John. He let out a deep sigh. Then, with a look of steely determination he started to march across the ice.
The ice broke under him. John almost slipped and fell. After a second of hesitation, he stared at the pond beneath his feet and stomped. He put his boot through to the bottom. Where he was, in the shallows, the water was only a foot deep.
To me, it was like he was walking on water. Even Joe shut up about dying for a moment and stared open-mouthed at his brother.
Stomp, crack, fall. Stomp, crack, fall. Each step that John took ended with a crunch on the level below, as if he was encountering a layer of ice at the bottom of the pond or maybe he was crushing the surface ice into a layer of semi-frozen silt.
With increasing anger and irritation, John thundered across the tiny lake. The water got deeper and deeper, up to his waist, up to his chest. He cracked the ice with his knees. He pushed floes to the side with his stomach. At chest height in the brown water, he grabbed his younger brother by the arm and shirt collar.
“Shut up,” he said, because his brother had started to howl again.
Horribly, the path back to the shore had filled up with ice floes. It looked like a frozen surface. John surveyed the obstacles in his way with a determined eye. He smacked ice with his arms as he waded back. He brushed away the small floes. When he got to a big patch of fresh ice, the water came up only to his knees. He stomped his way through it like he'd done on the way out.
Next to him, Joe was pale and blue.
John set his brother down on his feet. He looked intently, deeply into Joe's eyes.
"What are you going to tell mom?" he said.
"H-h-hot bath." Joe's blue lips trembled. "I need a bath."
"You fell in the creek," John announced. "Or don't say anything. Just go and change. Get in the bath. If she asks questions, tell her you fell."
"O-o-okay." Joe would have agreed to anything.
John made Joe walk a few steps. When Joe stopped, John pushed. Joe clearly wanted to be carried but his older brother, just as clearly, didn't want to do the carrying.
"Were you playing on the pond after I told you not to go near the water?" John asked.
"You two are idiots." John spared a glance for me. Joe and I stared at him, open-mouthed. Joe bowed his head a moment later. He huddled as he walked, then as he tried to run for home. He kept shivering. John stalked behind him, angry, steaming, and about half as wet, which was plenty.
In retrospect, the pond was no more than seven feet deep anywhere. It was probably no more than four and a half feet where Joe fell through. We were pretty small kids at the time, though. And we panicked.
We made everything way, way worse with our panic.
Sometimes things are not as dangerous as they seem but we make them deadlier with our bad reactions. John, who at the time I regarded as a bully, looks to me now like a put-upon older brother. He understood the situation better than Joe or I did. The two of us who were younger treated the tiny, artificial lake as if it were bottomless. Because that was wrong, I think Joe could have flailed until he froze. He didn't understand that a different sort of struggle might have helped. Or maybe it wouldn't.
Sometimes the best thing to do is simply be brave and determined to do what is right. That was John.
Another lesson, I guess, is that sometimes your brother can’t stand you. But he still loves you. And he is willing to risk himself to save you. And he will.