This story is by Jorge Christakos and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The chill air was saturated with the roaring of the icy river roiling past in dark, gleaming coils. The boy’s toes curled tightly through the soaked rubber soles of his sneakers, as if they could grasp more tightly to the small pinnacle of broken granite on which he was perched. His father, balancing precariously on the rocks a few feet away, shot him a dark and sullen glare that pierced through the cold, stabbing deeply into his chest. They had been stranded here for over three hours. With each passing minute, as the distant mid-winter sun tumbled lower behind the grey shreds of cloud, a surge of loneliness and fear began to swirl down through his bones.
Earlier in the day the two of them had sat upriver surveying the riskiest section of rapids, a passage complicated by the granite and steel remains of an old dynamited coffer dam. They had decided hastily to shoot through rather than portage around it. The boy had felt light and exuberant, basking in the faint warmth of the sun on a cold winter’s day as they shot through the glittering whitewater. Then, after only a few moments into the first section, the canoe had struck a rock, swung hard and tilted sharply over. The boat crumpled easily around the rock – crushed and broken. His father had cursed the boy roughly as they clambered soaked and cold, from the swamped remains of the canoe.
Hours later, as they watched the rescue boat struggle past three times, the boy sat silent under the reproachful glare of the older man. Each time the boy and the man watched the would-be rescuers struggle to guide the boat closer. Each time they had watched the boat carried past by the raging current.
As the rescue boat drifted off again downstream, the boy watched his breath mist out into the chill air. He glanced up toward the sun, slowly dropping degree by degree, gradually dimming behind the gathering gloom of cloudy sky. His fingertips and toes were numb. His cheeks burned from the bite of the wind. The icy waterlogged denim of his jeans clung to calves and thighs. Looking up at the spindly yellow pines lining the far bank, he wished he’d never come out on this river, never tried to meet his father’s expectations – failing. Again. Miserably. Not that it mattered much. His father’s deep seated anger may have been continually directed toward him, but he was increasingly convinced that its source lay elsewhere. He seemed to be just a convenient target, like the proverbially kicked dog.
His dark thoughts were interrupted by the sound of voices shouting from the opposite bank where two other rescue workers had reached a small rocky outcrop. It was impossible to make out the words, but one held a large coil of rope in his left hand. The other was busily tying one end of the rope to a small scrub oak.
A three-meter-wide torrent of icy deep gurgled and churned ominously between them and the rescuers. The thought of wading across the gap of river caused the boy to shiver harder. He gazed down at what he recognized as a convection tube – a parallel series of boulders that created a terrifically strong current that could easily drag a body down and hold it pinned to the gravel bed. He imagined being trapped down there by the water, gazing up at the sunlight and the shadows of the trees, just out of reach, as the last of his air bubbled from his lungs up toward the gleaming surface.
The man eyed the rescue crew on the outcrop skeptically. He looked over at the boy, scrawny and shivering as a gust of wind whipped savagely down across the water. He glanced down at the wreckage of the canoe, bent at a crooked, jagged angle by the current. Earlier he and the boy had tried to free it, but it had been like pushing a brick wall. Of course, the boy hadn’t been much help.
He turned to see the loop of the rope come flying towards them from the rescue worker’s outstretched arms. The rope fell short. The crewman pulled back on the line, coiling it into a heap on the rocky ground. The man cursed. The boy shivered. The wind blew. The river tumbled. The sun continued to drop in the sky. The crewmen took turns throwing the line. Finally, the man managed to catch hold of it. He bent down and tied it to one of the bent spars of the canoe. One of the rescue workers tied the other end of the rope to a young sapling that stuck out of the pile of rocks.
The boy shouted something to him, but the man could not make it out over the tumult of the river and wind. He shook his head and grabbed hold of the rope, edging toward the rushing torrent. The boy reached out to try to stop him. The man roughly pushed the boy away, stumbled for a moment and plunged forward, firmly in the grip of the icy water. The shock of it took his breath away and the boy saw him gasp. He stumbled again, further into the current. The boy continued shouting at him, but he ignored it. He couldn’t hear him anyway. Suddenly, the pressure of the rope on the sapling caused the small shrub to bend violently forward. The rope slid upward in an exploding spray of shredded leaves and bark and then stopped, held by the bulb of pulp and fiber that had formed from the friction of the rope and the tree’s mass. As the rope went radically slack, the rubber waders the man wore filled with water, ballooned out, and dragged him down and under. He found himself pulled into a pummeling, dark abyss.
The boy shouted wildly at the river, at the sky, at the two men on the rocks, but he could barely hear himself over the tumult of the river. He could see his father’s hands on the rope, just below the surface of the water. Then, only a single hand on the rope, barely visible. Then fingers of that hand slowly opened and disappeared beneath the water.
He stopped shouting, suddenly aware that the river had inexplicably calmed and slowed. A stillness seemed to settle down over everything. He stared at the rope bobbing loose on the current, counting his breaths to steady himself, to keep himself from panic. One. . . two . . . the boy saw his father’s right hand, reaching up out of the deep dark with what seemed infinite slowness . . . three. . . . four. . . five . . . to clutch at, and finally . . . six. . . grab hold of the rope. Then his other hand reaching upward, missing the rope. . . eight . . . nine . . . once, twice, a third time, . . . thirteen . . . .and finally fingers wrapping around the line. The men on the shore pulled in the slack rope and slowly, slowly, slowly, the man’s head appeared above the surface, his dark hair and beard plastered flat, streaming with water. The rescue team clambered down over the rocks and pulled him up onto the outcrop.
The boy watched as one of the rescue workers draped a blanket over the man hunched there, now little more than a curled shadow in the figure of a question mark. The shadow shook and trembled as he gasped and choked, struggling for air.
The boy felt a shock go through him as he stared at the small, hunched man visibly shaking from the shock and the cold, who had only moments before stood there beside him, sullen and threatening. It was as if his father had disappeared beneath the surface of the river and some other man had risen up from below to take his place.
Suddenly a shadow passed over him, and the boy watched as a dark green army helicopter suddenly clattered into view, breaking from behind the trees on the opposite bank. It banked deftly out and swung down in an arcing curve. Then, the boy found himself being pulled into the helicopter bay, lifted up onto a bench facing the open door. Without warning, the chopper swung rapidly up with a whirring clatter, yawing out so that he was looking straight down through the door to the river hundreds of feet below. His head swam and his ears popped as they climbed over the trees and then, just as suddenly dropped straight down to the surface of a dusty gravel road.
The boy clambered shakily out of the chopper onto the gravel and watched the helicopter clatter up toward the bright disk of the sun breaking through the clouds overhead, revealing a clear blue sky. He wandered down the gravel track until he found himself overlooking a steep embankment, staring down at the winding river, waiting for someone to arrive to take him home.