By Jayna Locke
When the toddler walked out onto the ice, the birds were singing. Spring had come to Minnesota. But as always in early spring, the lakes retained a layer of ice that was riddled with small, dark, silky pools, and it remained for a few weeks after the air warmed. This restless state between winter and spring invited various living things to navigate the lake’s icy surface − ducks, geese, foxes − and one small toddler named Jeffy.
Jeffy’s mother was raking up the fallen leaves that had come down in October, just before the first snowfall. They had remained in wait through the long cold winter, and the chilly early spring, while the snow that had covered the flat lawn and descending hillside by the lake gradually diminished until only small white hillocks remained. Jeffy’s father was cleaning the boat in anticipation of the formal “ice out” announcement and eventually the fishing opener. Jeffy’s mother and father both thought the other had him in sight. And he had never strayed far.
Jeffy had played with his red ball on the flat part of the lawn for a while, after resurrecting it from the stow-away bin of toys that spent the winter under the deck. While he had only just taken his first baby steps back in the fall as the Minnesota winter loomed, now he could run like the wind. It was wonderful to be out in the cool air. He threw the red ball in the air and squealed when it landed on his head. Then it bounced away. And when he ran to pick it up, his little boot accidentally kicked it. To his delight it flew across the grass. But it continued over the edge of the lawn and tumbled downhill, then bounced onto the icy lake.
Madeline looked up from her raking. She saw Mitch, handsome in his muscle shirt, working on the boat. She saw their dog, Hercules, chewing a bone he had rediscovered after the snow melt. She scanned the yard and did not see Jeffy.
“Hon? You got Jeffy, right?”
“No. You have him. Don’t you?”
They turned their eyes to the lake, which just weeks before had been frozen solid and dotted with ice fishing houses. Now the melting had begun in earnest. The ice houses had all been hauled off. There was nothing on the lake. Nothing except one Canada goose standing in the sun as if willing the oncoming spring to come, and one toddler, chasing after a red ball.
There was a stunned moment in which Madeline dropped the rake and Mitch dropped his arms to his sides. Then they began to run. They were down the hill to the edge of the lake in just a few heartbeats. But there they stopped. The shallow edge of the lake glistened with water that was eager to find sunlight, eager to push back the massive sheet of melting ice. The two adults clasped hands, then let go again. They could be no support to one another now. What were they to do? They stepped tentatively closer to the lake’s edge, as if they were afraid their very movement could vibrate the ice and send a crack slithering across its surface.
Their little boy was trying to catch the ball. But it was so light, and the breeze teased at it, shoving it along a little further and a little further, just as Jeffy approached. He giggled. It was such a silly game.
“Jeffy, honey,” Madeline called out. “It’s Momma.” She used the soothing voice she reserved for fevers and night terrors. “Please stay where you are.”
It was not immediately apparent how Jeffy had gotten out there. There was a foot of dark water between the shoreline and the crust of ice. Madeline’s eyes darted around. Then, just downhill and to the left, she noticed a small bridge of ice the width of a plank. Just enough to support a small boy.
Mitch grimaced. Then he nodded. “I’m going out.”
“No, Mitch! You’ve got forty pounds on me. I’ll go.”
But the fact was, and they both knew this, the lake ice was unlikely to support either of them, even if they did find a way to get out there.
Jeffy had picked up the ball, at last, about thirty feet out. He was walking back toward them. The ice made a creaking, brittle sound with each step. He slowed, as if those sounds now registered, and he suddenly knew that at any moment he could plunge through a fissure in the ice and disappear into its depths. He stopped. “Momma?”
She held up her hand. “Baby, just wait. Wait right there.” She knew he was safer the further away from them he remained.
Mitch patted his pockets for his phone, and not finding it said, “I’m going up to the house. Just… keep an eye on him. I’ll call 911. And I’ll bring something. Rope. Or… I don’t know.”
Mitch turned and began sprinting uphill.
“Momma?” Jeffy took two steps forward.
“No baby.” She shook her head. “Stay right there.” Tears were sliding down her face, chilling her cheeks. The temperature was dropping. She wrapped her arms around herself. “Please,” she said under her breath, not knowing what she was asking for. “Please please please.”
Mitch was the one who took care of all the bad things that happened in their lives – stopped up toilets, giant spiders, the snapping turtle that had been hit by a car in front of their house and was not quite dead. She glanced up the hill. He had only been gone a minute, but it seemed like hours. And here was Jeffy, walking slowly toward her, occasionally putting his arms up the way he did when he was tired and wanted to be picked up. She could see now that nothing was going to stop him. She had to do something.
Then she saw it—the canoe they had brought out of storage just the day before and set out on the canoe rack, even though it would be weeks before they would have open water. But it had been a fresh day, and the desire to air things out and prepare for the oncoming spring had been overwhelming.
“The neighbors will think we’re nuts,” Mitch had said.
“Oh let them,” she said. “We will be ready the moment we can put in.” She had dreamed of the warm days to come, never thinking that the canoe would come in handy even with the lake still covered in a sheet of ice.
Quickly, she pulled the canoe down and slid it down the embankment and onto the ice. It shushed into the watery edge, landing partly in water and partly on ice, then settled there at a tilt. Carefully, she stepped down into the canoe, gripping its sides. The edge of the ice creaked and gave way, shattering beneath the craft. She gasped as a crack broadened beneath the canoe and began spreading outward in all directions. In the distance, she heard a siren.
Jeffy had stopped walking. Lake water was pooling on the surface of the ice between them.
Then Madeline yelled. “Run, Jeffy!” She reached toward him from the canoe, holding out her arms.
And he ran, water splashing under his boots. He slipped and went sprawling, cracking the ice further. He was crying.
Madeline called out to him. “Keep going, baby! You can do it!”
He pulled himself up. His little jumpsuit was wet, and his face was a purplish pink from the cold and from crying. He stepped forward, with cracks spreading all around. Finally, he ran the last six feet to her, and she lifted him into the canoe, cradling him in her arms, as Mitch and two EMTs descended the hill to them, carrying ropes, a harness, a lifeboat and blankets.
❖ ❖ ❖
Years later, when this story had become family lore—just a small piece of fabric in the quilt of their lives—they would see this event in very different ways.
In Madeline’s version, Mitch’s leaving the lake to go for help was the only reason she came up with a plan, and saved Jeffy. She would have waited for Mitch to think of something, otherwise. Until that moment, she had no idea she could ever do something brave. She had felt braver, stronger, ever since.
Mitch was not fond of this narrative, as it suggested the only reason Jeffy was saved was because he—Mitch—left the very scene where his little boy was in ultimate danger. “I had to go,” he said. “It was the only way to contact emergency services. If he had slipped through, then what would we have done?” But of course, he hadn’t arrived in time. The boy had already been saved by then, robbing him of the satisfaction.
Madeline rolled her eyes. “Honey, you’re missing my point.”
“Seriously, you guys?” Jeff, who was seventeen, no longer went by “Jeffy.” He could remember very little of the incident, except for the feeling of want. He had wanted to go get his ball, then he had wanted to come back. That was all. “I can’t believe you’re fighting about this again.”
He was right, of course. Mitch and Madeline knew this. They smiled at him, conceding that arguing about it was senseless. And it was so long ago. Still. This one point, as small as it seemed, was like a fissure on the surface of the earth, under which is a deep canyon.
“You know what I think?”
Mitch and Madeline looked at Jeff with expectation.
“I went out to get the ball, and then I came back, retracing my steps. I was small. Light as a feather. I would have just returned the way I had gone. You might not ever have noticed I was missing.”
“You mean…” He nodded. And just like that, the tides shifted. Jeff’s parents reached for each other and held hands, united in the knowledge that without them he would have died out on the lake that day, swallowed by the cold dark waters.
Jayna Locke is a writer based in Minnesota who has a lifelong passion for fiction. As a transplant to the Midwest, she has lived in the Northwest and the Northeast of the U.S. as well as Northern California, and loves to infuse her fiction with a sense of place.