It was a foolhardy thing to do, indicative of the brothers’ lack of experience with high volumes of water. Indicative of hubris, too, if boys that young can be accused of hubris. But perhaps it would be more accurate simply to call it innocence.
It had been a long winter followed by a rainy March, and I suppose an adventure felt overdue. Most likely they’d been out exploring the fields at the edge of town, clear now after months of being covered with snow, and had become mesmerised by all that fast-moving brown water. One of the brothers – I can’t remember which – had discovered an old canoe and paddles on a rack in the garage of the house their mother was renting, and they’d become captivated by the idea of taking it out on what they called ‘the ditch.’ That was a man-made drainage canal that wound its way down through the fields to a culvert that passed under a moderately busy highway to disappear into the swamplands of a drowned forest. Before passing through the fields, the ditch ran along the edge of their little brick-and-clapboard neighbourhood, and it wasn’t hard for the two of them to carry the canoe the few hundred yards from the garage to its closest dogleg. Putting it in, they would follow its curves like an amusement park ride all the way down through the fields, under the highway and out into the swamp. It would be epic.
And so they found themselves, brothers twelve and fourteen years old, carrying the canoe by the bow and the stern down to the end of their cul-de-sac, through the backyard of an unoccupied house with a for sale sign in front and onto the sodden grass bank of the ditch.
Where were their parents? It’s a good question. Things were different back then, of course. Kids were often left to their own devices, and for the most part they were better off for that. Let them learn by trial and error, was the thinking. What doesn’t kill them will make them stronger. Besides, these parents had other things on their minds.
An assistant professor and a schoolteacher, they’d met as undergraduates, married young and gone straight into family mode. Graduate school and visiting appointments kept them moving around quite a bit, and the boys in their early years relied almost exclusively on each other for company. When the father was finally offered a tenure-track appointment at a state college in New Hampshire, the little family moved into a small Victorian house with an ancient sugar maple in the backyard and a good sledding hill across the street. The boys spent their days climbing trees, sparring with hand-cut quarterstaffs, exploring abandoned barns and pastures in the process of being reclaimed by the returning forest. On summer evenings, they played flashlight tag or staged mock Olympics with their parents, who thought of themselves as cultural progressives and made a practice of splitting the household chores evenly. This led to an ongoing, good-natured competition in the realm of cooking, so in the evenings the warm interior of the house was filled with the smell of various delicious no-frills meals: beef stroganoff, fried chicken, tuna casserole, black-bean-and-scrambled-egg tacos.
The parents had no extra money and sometimes had to skimp to make ends meet, but they were able to manage camping trips, elaborate easter egg hunts and winter afternoons at a nearby ski area. The boys attended the local elementary school and, this being small-town New Hampshire in the late 1970s, school days could sometimes be difficult. But family life was a protective cocoon, undisturbed by serious trouble or grief. The boys grew accustomed to a feeling of security and unconditional love. They’d never known anything else.
Given all this, Christmas morning was probably not an ideal time for the still-young parents to announce the separation that would end up being the first step toward an acrimonious divorce. ‘We know you guys have probably sensed some tension between us lately,’ the father said, though in truth the boys had sensed nothing of the kind.
‘It’ll probably just be temporary,’ the mother added, wincing at the crashing devastation she could so clearly read in their faces. ‘We just need to try living apart for a time.’
It was not going to be temporary. The boys saw this instinctively, even if their parents did not.
They brought their shiny new plastic Christmas sleds up the hill across the street, where the snow was packed and icy from use. Typically there were neighbourhood drag races. The competitors would get a running start, engage in dogfights to knock the other sled off course or flip them, and whoever made it down first to the row of maples at the bottom of the pasture would win. The neighbourhood kids weren’t out this early on Christmas morning, though. They were still in their pajamas, basking in the innocent warmth of their childhood living rooms, opening presents and assembling battery-operated gadgets and wolfing down pancakes and bacon with their families.
The brothers trudged up the hard-packed slope, talking things over bitterly as they went. Why had their parents waited until Christmas morning to break the news? The deception only compounded the sense of betrayal. Bitterness, though, was only a mask for deeper feelings that would never be acknowledged. Feelings of panic and abandonment as the realisation dawned that their previous life was never coming back. That the cocoon of happiness and unconditional love was breached. That in the course of a single morning, their childhoods had come to an end.
Even the arrival of the sledding regulars and the rough-and-tumble exhilaration of drag racing couldn’t fully distract them, though it did let them postpone their return to the suddenly unbearable confines of home until nearly sundown.
The changes came quickly. Both parents found new lovers (and in fact this may have been part of what precipitated the divorce; the boys never found out). The Victorian across from the sledding hill went on the market and sold quickly, putting a punctuation mark on the obliteration of the cocoon. The boys’ father, along with a much younger woman who’d once been his student, moved into a small off-the-grid house on a hillside deep in the forest, with an outhouse and no indoor plumbing. The boys’ mother, whose love affair would prove short-lived, moved to a larger town not far away, where she rented a nondescript house in a suburban neighbourhood where an old canoe was gathering dust in the garage.
And this is where we find the boys now, living in a new town in the awkward aftermath of their terminated childhood. Not mature enough to be of interest to girls, and utterly invisible to the town’s population of older teenagers, most of which seem to belong to a rather dismal assemblage of overlapping cliques coalescing around outdoor beer parties, petty drug dealing and the occasional fistfight. Sometimes the boys get bored enough to cause minor ripples of trouble, like lighting an open fire where they aren’t supposed to or throwing snowballs at passing cars, including one police car that chases them briefly with its lights flashing before they give it the slip by disappearing into a cemetery enclosed by ancient oak trees. Occasionally they embark on grand adventures to the outskirts of civilisation, as is the case on this wet early spring day, carrying the old canoe by bow and stern down behind the last houses on the cul-de-sac to the edge of the flooded ditch.
They drag the nose of the boat down over the matted winter grass and out into a little eddy offering an entry point of quiet water adjacent to the main current. The younger brother sits in the prow while the older one pushes the canoe as he leaps in. They know how to do this, having gone on a number of canoe-camping with their parents over the years. The older brother feathers the paddle to point them downstream. It’s a grand feeling, floating high and fast through the open fields.
The canal meanders down toward the highway in several long s-curves. The boys ride the fast brown waters in silence, giddy and exhilarated, the canoe keeping its course with just the occasional swirl of the older brother’s paddle. Some kids they know run out after them across the fields, letting out whoops of encouragement for these unexpectedly bold newcomers harnessing the flood on a plane so elevated it looks as if they’re floating over the land itself.
The plan is to pass right under the highway and out into the forested swamp on the edge of town. The culvert is supposed to be the crux of the entire adventure, the crowning thrill of their improvised amusement-park ride, but a few hundred yards upstream from it, they notice something off. Normally the top half of the corrugated metal tube would be showing as a high arch, a roomy tunnel you wouldn’t even have to duck your head to pass through. Now, though, the level of the water flowing beneath the busy road is so high that the gap extends no more than a foot or two above the dimpled brown surface, which is almost certainly too low for the upright canoe to pass through.
Exhilaration evaporates. They still don’t fully appreciate the danger they’re in, though. The older brother feathers his paddle, yelling for the younger one to dig in with his, assuming it’s just a matter of turning the canoe around and fighting their way back upstream. But the current is too strong – great ropy braids undulating invisibly beneath the surface – and the canoe tilts precariously to the left. The younger boy drops his paddle and grips the gunnels with both hands trying to right the craft, but instead of finding its centre it tilts even more sickeningly to the left, upstream, into the current. Meanwhile, out of sight now up on the highway, the stream of cars zooms obliviously by.
The older brother backpaddles furiously, but it’s too late. The left gunnel plunges under the surface and the silt-laden water rushes in. In slow motion, the canoe rolls completely over.
The older brother is a strong swimmer, and makes it to the bank above the culvert where he grabs the edge of a rusting grocery cart caught in a tree root. The younger brother can’t make it to shore, and is swallowed down into the darkness. The capsised canoe bumps several times against the corrugated archway before following him in.
It was possible that their father’s second wife, the former student, was unconsciously jealous of the place the boys continued to hold in their father’s heart, though it was almost certainly good intentions on her part – the sense that what they needed most in their lives at that point was stability and discipline – that made her feel the need to be so strict with them. She could never replace their mother, however, and whenever they came to stay at the little off-the-grid house in the forest they spent whatever time they were not required to be doing chores in the bunkroom, reading or listening to music or sullenly playing chess. Their principal home was their mother’s more traditionally comfortable house in town, but even there they couldn’t escape the sense that something was wrong. She had dark circles under her eyes and was often prone to crying with little to no provocation. Occasionally she attempted to confide in them, but this only embarrassed them and drove them outside.
One day, when the older brother was at soccer practise, she came to sit with the younger brother on the couch in the TV room. ‘I know you’ve been feeling it’s somehow all your fault. What happened between your father and me.’
‘I haven’t been feeling that way at all, Mom! What makes you think that?’
‘It’s a common thing with the children of divorced couples, especially at your age. They tend to shoulder the blame when they shouldn’t. You shouldn’t.’
‘Well, Mom, I’m not. Everything’s fine.’
‘Are you sure, honey?’
‘Yes. Please don’t worry about me.’
And it was true. He really didn’t blame himself for his parents’ divorce. The problem he had was more that he couldn’t get rid of the foreboding – it felt almost like a terrifying certainty – that yet another life-shattering catastrophe was on the way.
He somersaults through the frigid water, no idea of up or down. The top of his skull knocks against the corrugated metal roof of the culvert and he finds himself gulping air, fighting to keep his mouth above water as he’s dragged downstream through the the low-roofed tunnel. A part of him understands that he’s probably going to die.
The current tugs him under again, back-flipping him down into a numbing directionless blackness. The side of his face grinds along the gravel bottom and he pushes off with his hands, briefly coming to the surface again. He tips his head back to gulp one more muddy breath before the braided current wrestles him back down. Somewhere he’s heard that drowning people experience a moment of peace before they die, a kind of blessed release, but that’s not what he’s feeling now. No peace, no release, just the irresistible current rolling him over and over in the gravity-less darkness. Like an astronaut whose tether has snapped. Somersaulting away from everything in life he’s ever loved: his mother, his father and brother, a Snickers bar, the comfort of a warm shower or a familiar show on television.
Suddenly a powerful mechanism grips the front of his t-shirt and hauls him up through the muddy-brown water and out into the achingly bright daylight. A sound rises in his panicked ears like the rasping of some gigantic engine turning over and over and failing to catch.
‘You’re hyperventilating,’ comes the older brother’s voice, full of affectionate annoyance. ‘Calm down and breathe normally. Everything’s fine.’
He’s lying on his back on the muddy grass. The rasping machine noise is coming from his own lungs, and when he takes his brother’s advice to breathe normally it stops.
He hasn’t drowned. The highway is a reassuring hum in the background; the early-April sunshine is warm on his cheeks. And his whole life stretches out ahead of him.
The older brother taps him on the chest. ‘Get up. We have to go find that canoe.’
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