“Quiet,” Grandpa said, holding a thermos above his head like a trophy. “Don’t wake the others. Wanna catch a fish?” Swimming quickly out of the tangle of blankets, I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and eased myself onto the cold wood floor. We tiptoed through the screen door he held open just far enough for us to pass, but not far enough to set off the squeaking hinges. “You have to get up early to catch a fish,” he whispered conspiratorially.
The predawn air was crisp for August in Minnesota, but excitement warmed my feet as we made our way along the dewy grass towards the lake. “Stay off the path so we don’t wake anyone,” Grandpa warned. We made our way beside the lake pebble walk that led to the dock, and he grabbed my hand as we crested the hill that raised the cabin up above the lake. The fuzzy moon was still high enough in the sky to cast a foggy light across the scene. Tall pines appeared black and feathery against the blue hazy sky. The dock was slippery under my bare feet, so Grandpa continued to hold my hand until we got to his boat. We kids never wore shoes in the summer. The soles of our feet were impervious to rock or nail by August, but they weren’t much protection against the cold.
Grandpa stepped into the boat, set down the thermos and reached up for me. His weathered hands grasped me about the waist as he lowered me into the skiff. “Are you cold?” he asked. “Here,” he said as he grabbed an old towel he had among his gear. He wrapped the stiff fabric around my feet and set the warm thermos on my toes. He arranged the top of the thermos against my slightly-parted knees then took my hands and placed them on the cap. “That should help,” he smiled. The towel softened against my feet as the thermos gradually gave up its heat. The warmth let loose an oily fish smell from the rag, and as I reached down to brush away a tickle, a few fish scales dropped from the cloth to the bottom of the boat. The lake remained still until Grandpa pushed us away from the dock and slipped the oars into position. A wake of rings sensed out into the lake with each push of the oars, perfect ripples like the ribbon candy we fought over at Christmas.
To fish this lake, you rented a boat at the store or stayed in one of Grandpa’s cabins and used one of his boats. Even when the cabins were empty, our family stayed in the main cabin when we came to visit. Besides the great room that served as office, kitchen, and living room, there were two bedrooms, a bunk room, and a large screened porch that faced the lake and ran the length of the log structure. The bedrooms went to adults: Grandpa and his current wife in their room, and Mom and Dad, when he came up on weekends, in the other. The boys got the bunks, and my younger sister and I made ourselves each a nest of blankets and curled up on the couches on the porch.
After rowing us out to deeper waters, Grandpa yanked the pull on the trolling motor and maneuvered out across the steamy, grey-blue lake. He headed west toward the heavily treed end of the lake where small islands created a maze of watery pathways. He steered into a shadowy inlet, rendering us invisible to any early risers along the misty shoreline. After he tossed his line over the side, Grandpa prepared a cane pole for me and then lodged both rods into holders beside our wooden seats. We listened as early morning birds began their chatter and watched our bobbers for signs of activity while we sipped hot chocolate.
After several quiet minutes, Grandpa put away his cup and scooted himself forward so our knees touched. He took my small hand and pulled it toward him as he unzipped his khakis. “Here’s a fish for you,” he encouraged me in a raspy voice. “You can touch it.” I jerked my hand from him and averted my eyes down onto my own lap in silent refusal. Instinctively, I closed myself off, pulled myself in, retreating like a turtle into its shell. By remaining still, I might escape. When I could hold my breath no longer, Grandpa suddenly adjusted his pants and retrieved the lines he had hung over the side. Silently he fired up the trolling motor and puttered us out of the labyrinth.
On the short ride back, I held myself close and ventured only a few short breaths. As we neared the west side of the dock, Grandpa cut the motor. He sidled up to the dock, deftly grabbed his gear, and stepped up from the boat onto the wooden planks. Without a word he secured the boat and headed up the incline toward the main house. At first I felt safe because he was no longer within reach, but gradually I realized my plight. I was left alone to fend for myself.
The expanse of water between the bow of the boat and the dock was wider than I was tall. My five-year-old legs couldn’t make the leap. I couldn’t swim, so I waited. First the kitchen light and then one in the bathroom came on as the grownups gradually roused themselves. The moist morning air brought me whiffs of coffee and cigarette smoke, a smell I associated with my mother. I could see the mound of blankets that was my sleeping sister still piled up on the wicker settee. As I sat shivering with my hands between my knees, I could hear their voices muffled by the slap of lake against pebbled shore, and I rocked with the rhythm of the boat against the waves.
The hot chocolate Grandpa had enticed me out of bed with was working on my bladder. I’d waited as long as I could for someone to come looking for me. The need to pee was compelling, so I tried to pull the boat closer to the dock by the tie-up. When I’d get close enough to the dock to get a hand on the slippery wooden slats, I’d have to let go the rope to try to pull myself up, and the boat would push out leaving me hanging over the open water. I tried using the rope to steady myself as I stepped up onto the seat closest the prow and slowly, carefully, pulled the boat toward the dock without losing my balance. From this higher vantage point, I might be able to quickly spring from the boat and grasp the dock in one move.
The sun was coming up behind the eastern band of pines and warming the air. The lights from within the cabin gradually faded into the growing light as I waited. I could hear one of my brothers complain as he was rustled from bed to bring in wood for the cook stove, a chore he had neglected the night before. The rough rope had begun to make my hands sore from my repeated attempts to rescue myself. I was perched precariously on the seat, hoping to be heard. When my brother exited the back door and headed for the wood shed, I called out to him, but he did not respond. As he grabbed the wood and turned back toward the cabin, I tried to shout again, but before I could muster another yell, the boat shifted and dropped me into the cold murky water.
I closed myself off from the invasion, just as I had earlier that morning, hoping to keep myself intact and unharmed. My lungs refused air, my eyes closed tightly, and I wrapped my arms around myself protectively as I sank deeper into the lake. I quickly realized that this new environment required different tactics and my arms began to claw for the surface where air waited to fill my lungs. My legs kicked about, searching for a resistant surface. I knew the water wasn’t very deep here where the boats were moored. Just days before, I had seen my oldest brother standing armpit deep as he adjusted a trolling motor mount on one of the skiffs.
I reached and flayed toward the faint light above me. At times my face would surface just enough that I could gasp some watery air, but never long enough for a scream. My head bounced against a boat bottom and I reached out for it, but there was nothing to grab and the attempt merely pushed it further away. The churning about finally propelled me under the dock itself, and my back bounced against one of the pilings. I twisted towards its solidness and wrapped my arms and legs around its slimy surface. I squeezed and groped and finally stretched my head above the water line, but my head bumped against the underside of the dock. There were only a few inches between the water and the slats of wood above me. I had to tip my head back in order to open my mouth. I screamed for help, but the force of the yell and precariousness of my hold on the mossy piling dropped me back under water.
My fingernails became caked with moss and water-softened wood each time I was able to claw my way to the surface and let out another cry for help. I was near exhaustion from my repeated climbs when my brother suddenly appeared through the slats above me. He was calling my name and pacing back and forth just out of reach. Like a ventriloquist, the water and dock threw my voice far away from its true source. If I had had my feet on the ground, I could have jumped up to touch him, scare him, and run away laughing. But to see help just inches away while rendered mute was some horrible trick.
The chance of rescue kept me clasping and rising up, then sliding back down into the muck and watery mire. Finally, in his adolescent wisdom, my brother jumped into the water on the side of the dock we kept clear of boats. He called my name again as I surfaced for one more scream. My cry and the realization of how near I was to him startled him into a moment of inaction, but he quickly grabbed the sleeve of my soggy sweatshirt and pulled me out from under the dock.
The water was up to his shoulders, so he dragged me along as he made his sluggish way through the dense lake bottom. When he could stand firmly, he pulled me up into his arms like a child cradling a rag doll and trudged up the slope to the cabin, hollering for the others. No one responded as he screamed out and headed for the nearest entry. He must have realized he couldn’t make it up the steps to the screened porch with my added weight, so he abruptly changed directions and headed for the back door. He struggled to step around the scattered pieces of firewood he’d dropped earlier and kicked at the closed door. “Open the goddamned door,” he yelled.
Our mother appeared in the doorway with her head cocked to one side and eyebrows raised, ready to chastise him for his language. As she opened her mouth to speak, she caught sight of me and swung the door wide. Together they placed me on a kitchen chair and began removing my sodden clothing. Unmoved by the emergency, Grandpa stood at the wood stove complacently pushing sputtering bacon around in a cast iron skillet. As I watched his flannel-shirted back, it became clear to me. He had hoped I would drown and take my story with me.