Book III Excerpt : Once More Unto the Breach…
There is no choice, never was any choice nor could there ever be one. My stomach is churning. My heart is pounding, leaping out of my chest. My head is swimming with whirling fragments of wild, nameless terror. SAVE IT: the words are emblazoned in my mind, screaming in my ears. No thought is necessary when a living thing is in danger. This is the consequence of the bearing and birthing of seven children; the automatic embedding in one’s brain and gut of these atavistic instincts to protect and nurture tiny helpless creatures.
In those few early moments of decision, instinct overcomes all reason. The impulse to act takes over, and perhaps it shouldn’t have. Later, Joe, ashen of face, limping and bruised, shakily asks me if I realize, if I really, really realize how close we have come to trading both our lives for one animal of unknown ownership and dubious origin…when the realization occurs that 1978 may have been our last year, that these have nearly been our last moments on earth, the swift and bitter end to all our dreams and plans…
But in that early pivotal instant a large dish towel tied around the slim waist of my bell bottomed jeans, my loose knit rust (to match my carefully colored auburn pouf of hair) hued sweater sleeves rolled up along with my paisley patterned gauzy silk blouse, I stand at the kitchen sink of our cozy rustic winter rental cottage facing the southern shore of Lake Panomoka which is located just south of Calverton and Wading River in the eastern end of Suffolk County, Long Island, New York and attack the tomato and grease drenched Sunday dinner dishes in a desultory manner commensurate with the drab mood of this day. I am complacent, stuffed and lazy after our meal. The cooking, the creating of sensually sumptuous repasts is second only to the creation of a work of art, and perhaps even before the other more obvious pleasures of the flesh which seem to lie at first glance at the top of the list especially perhaps for erstwhile romantics embarking in new life directions in midlife. But there is no doubt that the aftermath of any occupation that results in satiation has by its nature to be anti climactic. I am enduring the clean-up of the plate, utensil and pot detritus that is the only negative element of cooking and dining.
It is not merely a quiet vacuous Sabbath afternoon, but one of those tedious heavy late winter affairs that prod and needle me into wishing to be one with the cold dreariness, to submit to mindless nothingness and steal catnaps on the soggy sofa hoping for the Sundayness and grayness to pass. I can hear the muted sounds of T.V. sports, bowling or golf or something, mesmerizingly dull, and think about the possibility of digging up some rousing spy thriller, Ludlum or Clancy or Le Carre from my basket of emergency supplies saved for just such an afternoon as this; my eye goes to the melancholy melting landscape before me framed by narrow insignificant aluminum storm windows, unable to find any saving grace in the colorless and dripping mess before me. I should paint this, I think, it has its own stark and empty persona, but I quite simply cannot summon up inspiration, such is the bleakness of the mood.
On this particular day the ice over the lake is covered with a layer of rainwater, the sullied dirtied snow banks surrounding the entire lake are gray and sad and far from enchanting in their dissolving muckiness. The trees are limp and soaked and monochrome, defying me to see some hidden beauty or inspiration. They are not merely gray or even tones of gray, but gray as in an absence completely of any hue at all. The sky seems to hang opaque and cumbersome, suffocatingly low, filled with ugly moisture over all, signaling an eerie sensation of foreboding.
Lazily, half preoccupied, I watch a straggling bunch of children come to the edge of the lake, their ice skates slung over shoulders, and walk away dejected after checking the strength of the ice and finding it lacking. On the farthest side of the lake I can make out several children scampering over the still frozen stuff, sliding around on the slickly covered hardness all frenetic motion, flashing colors and movement. For no reason at all, my heart leaps; I am missing my own children a lot, and I am concerned for the safety of these strangers. I am pensive, because the absence of my own kids hovers like a monstrous vacuum, a palpable sense of emptiness that is always with me. All at once out of the corner of my eye I notice a slight movement right in front of our cottage about two or three dwellings down to my right. It is a dog swimming around and around in one of the few broken through melted places, maybe ten feet in diameter.
Look at that silly dog, I call out unbelievingly to Joe who is focused on the television, absently stroking the soft furry body of Pepper, our one remaining and recently salvaged pet who relaxes ecstatically on the sofa by his side, long silky ears spread across the broad plaid earth toned cushion hanging down on one side, legs pointed straight up towards the ceiling, tail thumping. I am still staring out the window, shaking my head in disbelief; over on the lake that dopey dog is going for a swim in this frigid weather.
On second look, however, I realize that the dog is struggling to get out but his paws keep slipping on the soaked ice; he must have been running across the lake. As a newcomer to this fascinating lakeside world, always inquisitive, I have noticed so many of the local animals taking this short cut to avoid going around the lake this frigid winter, and now the ice has broken under his weight with the unexpected January thaw.
My God, Joe, I shout, my voice scratching, slip-sliding upward to a screech, that dog is drowning!
Close the shades, he shouts back, attempting levity, preoccupied with the television accustomed to my hyperbole, disinclined to involve himself in activity, full of antipasto and wine and pasta and cheese cake, lethargic in this biting cold, dreary grayness, but soon he has joined me peering out the window to further assess the situation … a new movie short, watched through a new kind of television screen, innovative theater of life. We stare at the unfolding drama, rooted to the spot.
He’ll be all right Joe mutters, somewhat hopefully, a slight question mark at the end of this statement. Animals know how to take care of themselves. His thoughts are written with a flourish on his craggy handsome face. Who could think about going out into this afternoon, even conceive of involving themselves in a rescue effort of this kind? He shudders.
No, no, can’t you see, he can’t get out? And I begin to dress rapidly in my outerwear, eschewing the usual layers, focusing on speed with shaking fumbling hands, boots and scarves and tight knitted hat and big waterproof parka with its sticky zipper, fighting with it, fumbling, cursing zippers everywhere, knowing that speed is the most important thing, knowing that I have to do something, but having absolutely no idea yet what that might be. It is a matter of the sanctity of life. I sense that I am being precipitous, about to do something stupid. I congratulate myself fleetingly, believing that I have shown at least some intelligence to have phoned the police for assistance before venturing outside.
Wait, cries Joe, my Mr. Fix-All, let me go down and see what I can do. Wait for me. Don’t leave without me. There is worry, fear, authority in his voice. He is familiar with my impulsiveness.
He runs to get his boots and overcoat, but disinterested in the vestiges of authority, impatient to be in on to the rescue, afraid that the poor animal is tiring, that he will go under for one final time; I scamper ahead, leaving the door ajar, heedless of wasted fuel, desperate to reach him in time. I run down the block and around the deserted summer houses up onto the soaked beach, looking all around me for some implement of buoyancy, a boat, a lifesaver, a ladder…finding nothing, I remember something that I recently read about ice, and step gingerly out onto the translucent looking stuff, finding it to be about ten inches beneath its covering of last night’s rain water. It is bizarre. It is an icy bathtub full of frigid water. I fall gently, ever so carefully, to my knees, and proceed to crawl helter-skelter mindlessly focused, out toward the dog, who is now whimpering and going under with each exhausted attempt to crawl up on the remaining ice, his paws slipping as they try desperately to grasp the slippery surface.
I ask myself how I expect to accomplish anything at all, what do I have in my mind? It is empty. There is nothing there except the knowledge that I must save this puppy. Miraculously, I reach the flailing struggling animal with no mishap, and thanking the Gods, every one that I can remember, I reach out for his collar, conscious of a changing sensation in the texture and weight of the ice beneath me, and at the same moment that I am able to somehow grasp him, I hear that sickening ripping roaring sound that ice makes as it tears apart, feel the sinking rending parting under my body, and within mere moments the entire chunk upon which I am crouching has broken off and I have been catapulted along with it into the icy murky water below. I feel the instant shock as I slide face first into the black endless void of frigid liquid. So this is how I am destined to die, I think, insensate, yet feeling the cold wetness closing over me. After all that has transpired, everything that I have survived, all that I have lost … these are the last thoughts that I recall having, before fear, stark incomprehensible and gut gripping terror take over, that and the relentless hypothermia, cold induced paralysis that stops, brings to a halt, all thought processes and instincts for survival.
I bob to the surface, feeling the downward suction of my heavy now waterlogged boots, my sodden down parka, and I note sleepily that my thoughts are moving in slow motion, and my mouth will not obey my directions, slow as they are. All I can do is clutch at the ungraspable edges that surround me, and shout scratchy gasping nearly soundless pleas for help. I feel the desire to scream, to seek aid, fading quickly. I feel very little, not even fear, any longer. The dog is making feeble whining gasping sounds, and I incompetently reach out towards him, ever so slowly, failing to make any contact, sighing faintly at the quickly fading frustration of it all.
Joe comes around the last house at that very moment, can’t help but see me floundering in the black hole in the midst of the iced lake, going under and resurfacing. He is slipping and sliding, ripping off his coat. He races down the icy slope to the waterfront, and slides on the wet glassy surface, doing an amazing comic pratfall, landing on his face, coming up scraped and bloody. He also lowers himself belly first, stretched out his full length, to the face of the ice, and begins slithering out to me, pulling himself at snail’s pace along by his elbows like a soldier moving toward the enemy. I think peripherally, in stiff wordless rambling muffled thoughts, with some last remnant of fleeting ability to function, Yeah, God, so you finally found Joe for me, and now this is the way it is all going to end, before having any chance for promises to be fulfilled; another stupid choice for me, another monumental failure this one my worst and my last.
I hold my breath in terror, and as expected, inevitably, the ice breaks beneath his weight also, and then I think slowly, oh God, what will we do now? He slides soundlessly, head first beneath the stark black surface leaving in his wake great chunks of bouncing dancing ice and pink soapy froth, and comes up with his face covered, dripping with blood. There are rocks and cans and broken bottles on the bottom of this tranquil pastoral lagoon. He makes several futile attempts at hoisting himself over the edge, but the ice only breaks away in his fingers with each attempt. Through all of this, the dog clings to my back as I bob in the mess, going under, popping back up. He is whimpering slightly, I can see that he is himself, already losing hope as well as strength, beginning to succumb to inevitability, and I am not far behind him. Joe, meanwhile, tries to hoist me up over the edge of the ice, but to no avail, finally grasping my buttocks all the way at the bottom, and managing with Herculean effort to heave me up onto one still firm portion of it. I crouch on the ice, untrusting, thinking of Eliza leaping from floe to floe, clutching her child, paralyzed with indecision, fearful to make any move at all. Shivering, desperate to not leave Joe here, alone, helpless to find a way to help him; numbed, powerless
Get to shore, Joe cries hoarsely with unaccustomed ferocity, hurry. The dog is now clinging to Joe’s back.
I am powerless to move, unwilling to leave Joe behind, knowing that I must not stay, swaying and swiveling in place, trying to move, looking at the shore and back again at Joe. Good Lord, I think, don’t tell me that I am to be saved but I must leave Joe behind. What bizarre manner of cruelty is this? Go! He shouts at me, fury, love; helplessness on his face, pleading in his eyes, determination in his words. And tearfully, numb, I struggle to shore, twisting again and again to look over my shoulder as I go. Looking, looking over my shoulder, twisting, turning, sobbing, tears streaming down my face, instantly frigid, burning cold.
Go on, go on, shouts Joe desperately, now, and he heaves the now howling dog up onto the ice by his own bottom, get out of here, you sonofabitch, growls Joe, continuing to struggle himself. The dog turns and looks at Joe, puzzled, seeming to have the same problem as I have, leaving his savior behind, but Joe smacks him on the rump, and he lopes off towards the shore.
Joe is struggling, floundering, unable to free himself, to lift himself upward. My God, I think, consumed by an all encompassing horror, he’s not going to make it. Terror, more icy than the water I have just escaped has invaded my entire being; paralyzing me, rooting me to the spot. Joe keeps grabbing at the edge, but huge chunks of ice continue to break off in his hands. But there is a method to his madness. A calmer head has prevailed. He is breaking the ice between himself and the shore until he is able to stand. Finally, miraculously, all of it transpiring in a split second in time, I can see that he no longer flounders in water over his head; his feet are now touching ground, and within moments he, too, has clambered out of the frigid lake and its soup of churning ice floes.
The dog runs off. I have no idea to where, and we struggle soddenly, arms around each other, leaning heavily into each other, clutching safety, security, moving clumsily on our icy benumbed extremities toward the house. When he gets home, I joke lamely in a small tremulous voice; his owner will probably punish him for getting wet, for tracking water into his house…
We stumble home on insensate limbs, peel off our drenched clothes and stand for long moments in the steaming shower, holding each other tightly, absorbing heat and something more from each other’s bare skin, feeling that for some odd celestial reason unbeknownst to us, we are still alive, very much alive, and when wrapped in blankets, we are seated before the television, steaming mugs of coffee in cupped hands, we are startled by the strident ringing of the doorbell; the police have finally arrived, too little too late. What did I expect?
During the entire incident, not even one inhabitant of the lakeside community that holds our interim home heeds our screams and shouts for help. I absorb that fact with awe and bewilderment. We never do find out to whom the dog belongs, but the following morning and every morning afterward for as long as we live at that house, he is waiting patiently for me at our mailbox at the foot of our front walk, when I run out to retrieve the morning paper, clutching my old chenille robe around me. An incredible feeling of connection passes over me, as he looks up into my eyes, places his muzzle in my outstretched palm for a long moment, licks my fingers, wags his tail, and goes on his way. Mostly, it is the look in his eyes. Joe and I are experiencing the same phenomenon, looking into each other’s faces.
For fleeting moments, strange unconnected non-sequitur thoughts flutter around my mind; I wonder if or how anyone could stand by and watch as any creature, familiar or unknown, perhaps a child, drowns; how one could justify not becoming involved. In future days I glance compulsively again and again from my panoramic kitchen window at serene and lovely glistening innocent Lake Panamoka and ask myself, what would have happened if a couple of kids on the way home from hockey or school or whatever, had noticed and tried to save the creature, and not been able somehow as we had, to escape and survive; the news is full of these stories every day. My mind remains overburdened with this terror, with hideous possibilities and I cannot control the shuddering, the shivering…
Or worse; my over active mind continues to imagine scenarios, that run like interchangeable movie frames across it in interminable sequence, temporarily paralyzing me for long moments. What if it had been some blithely overconfident child skating innocently along, who had fallen through the melting, softening ice in this late January thaw? Where are my own children, right now? Who is watching them?
Ultimately, what is accomplished is no more, no less than our awesome realization of the absolute preciousness of life; of each of us to the other. Somewhat chastened and awed that we have indeed survived, we approach the coming days tentatively, not only with caution, but with more respect, cemented together for life.
9 Chatfields Lane
East Hampton, NY 11937
Phone: (631) 907-2936