It was a day at the dead end of February that showed all variations of the colour grey: ashen branches stripped of leaves, cement-coloured clouds, steely frost, the opaque pane of ice under my feet, a window into the river translucent enough to suggest its gunmetal current. My brother crossed first to get to the other side of the river. He was at least one decade older and a hundred pounds heavier and made it across fine, so I started after him, almost slipping a few times because it had been warmer these past few days and the ice was slick. The scarf around my chin and mouth smelled like musty wool and rebreathed air.
I was nearly to the other side when I must have stepped on a thawing spot, like the slat that triggers the hitch at the carnival’s dunk tank, and the next thing I knew I was planted shoulders to feet in frigid, rushing water.
My brother stood on the river’s bank on a rag-coloured heap of sodden snow. “Grab those roots,” he called to me, pointing to the nerve-work of trees where mud had sloughed off and they jutted and glistened with an icy skin. It was like trying to catch a fish with bare hands but the wool of my mitten finally froze to a branch.
“Good,” he said. “Now, can you hoist yourself?” My brother pushed his palms downward, miming someone pushing themselves up. I splashed and struggled briefly before settling back.
“I can’t,” I said and moved my arms like a snow angel, as if treading, my jacket already bloating like a surfacing drowning victim’s.
“I’m coming,” my brother said and bellied down, inching toward me. He lifted me carefully from the water and then squirmed again on his belly back toward the shore and over the ice, towing me by the scruff of my coat.
At the shore, he released me and I crawled up on the river’s bank. He took off my sopping coat and wrapped his own dry, warm one around me. His coat was huge on my slight, seven-year-old frame; its sleeves dangled beyond my wrists. I’d never be allowed to wear it normally, I was never allowed to touch any of his stuff; it was all off-limits to my fumbling, primary grade hands. As we hurried home, he looked at me worriedly and didn’t even tell me to pick up his coat’s sleeves, which were dragging in the snow.
At home, he made cocoa as I changed into warm, dry clothes. My brother made pancakes, a special treat, and even got out the ladder to retrieve my mother’s serving plate, reserved only for guests. He let me stack the pancakes high on it and pour syrup over all of them like they did on TV commercials. Normally, this would be a waste of perfectly good pancakes because it made them all soggy, but that afternoon, my brother let me do whatever I wanted.
We sat in the living room, steam rising from chipped ceramic mugs of hot chocolate dissolving like vaporous clouds between us, and I thought of telling him that as I stood in the cold, gushing water, my boots were planted on the river’s bed the whole time and I could have walked to shore, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Eryn Hiscock lives and writes in Toronto. She’s had poems published in Descant and Room magazines and has a poem forthcoming in On Spec. She’s absolutely delighted to have her first prose piece published in Room.