Ice Breaker by Lisa Laughlin

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frozen lake with house in back

None of us should be alive right now, you know. This is how the story begins. It is my father who tells me this story, late on an August evening on our porch, when the combination of his second drink and his 14-hour day in the field has masked him with a somber, wide-eyed expression.

“Your great-grandfather should have died,” he will say matter-of-factly. “He should have died when he was ice fishing with his brother, when they were young.”

He will let the statement hang in the cooling night air. Katydids will whir. How so.

These words bait the details: they tumble out quickly and unprovoked, flowing in long sentences on the night breeze, punctuated only by my father’s sips from his beer. He tells me how the pair of brothers rose early and walked to the wide river weaving around their home; how they prepared an existing circle in the ice, scooping out the accumulation of slush to get to the dark, fast-flowing current underneath before dropping their lines.

“They fished for a while and nothing bit, so my grandpa decided to try another hole a little upstream. He was just walking across the ice when it gave way and he fell in.”

I stop swaying in the swing on our porch. My father unlaces his work boots.

“So his brother hears the ice crack and looks up, and finds himself alone on the river. He knew right away what had happened. He saw another ice fishing hole a ways downstream, a recent one, and sprinted to it . . .”

A few more sips of beer serve as ellipsis. My father swivels a slice of lime down the neck of his bottle.

“He kneeled and stuck his arm down into the water, up to his elbow, and a few seconds later his brother came along underwater and grabbed his arm, and he pulled him out,” he finishes, giving an exaggerated heaving motion with his right arm while holding his beer in his left, then looking over to me for a reaction.

The first time I hear this story, it will take me several seconds to process.

The second time I hear this story, I will imagine the rush of mind-numbing water my great-grandfather must have felt, his view of the thick ice above him as he rushed underwater. I’ll wonder if he had the chance to take a gasp of breath before he fell in. I’ll wonder if his synapses directed him to claw and beat and kick, or if there was no time for that. Did he have the urge to break?

The third time I hear this story, I will think of his brother’s forearm, thrust against the frigid current, how his fingers must have been spread wide, as an open claw, in desperation. How many frozen seconds? I’ve never known such hope. Then, the catch – the instant he felt the weight of his brother collide, a spontaneous reaction of taut muscle, coiling against the surge of water.

That first breath.

I’ll wonder what countered the current: a neurotransmitter or a divine hand. I’ll wonder what bridges the gap: a synaptic cleft, a family tree, a story.

LisaLaughlinLisa Laughlin is an eastern Washington native who grew up on a dryland wheat farm. She received a bachelor’s in creative writing from the University of Idaho and is an MFA candidate at Eastern Washington University in the creative nonfiction program. She has contributed to Orion’s Place Where You Live Section (May/June 2015 issue), and she enjoys creating a sense of place in her writing to examine human connection with the land.



STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Martin Sharman

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