The Fieldstone Review

On Family

by Hejsa Christensen

Family

noun

1. The children of a person or couple.

My sister’s first child was a dog. One hundred and sixty pounds of mastiff. Jowls hung to her throat, oozing slobber tentacles that reached out and grabbed my calves with each swing of her head. A full shake extended their reach to disturbing places. The dinner table. My cheek. I suppressed gags as my sister laughed and handed me tissues. To her, everything the dog did was adorable.

In December the dog, Marlowe, came to stay with me. Her parents were going away. They stuffed her into their hatchback and drove out of the city, past the glass-walled high-rises, past the commercial buildings that claimed the first edges of farmland. Exiting the highway, they took narrow roads that wound around half-frozen lakes and through small towns dusted in snow until they arrived at my house. Our twelve acres include a small lake, but the rest is mostly forested, rendering the neighbours, who had left to spend the winter in Florida, and our dead-end road out of sight. It is a peaceful place. Secluded.

The dog lumbered from my sister’s car while my sister unloaded Marlowe’s things (favourite blanket, special ball). Marlowe spotted my four-year-old daughter, Taia, and hurried to her. The dog had a strange gait when she rushed, like an elephant seal thundering across the ground. She thrust her front legs forward, then her rear half followed, careening into the front half, causing her fat to ripple in waves. Her tongue lolled out of her mouth by the time she covered the short distance.

“I don’t know.” My sister pursed her lips as she surveyed the area. “She’s never been somewhere unfenced before. What if she runs away?”

Now playing, Taia ran in wide circles and Marlowe panted and slobbered and elephant-seal-thumped after her, unable to keep up. The dog looked ready to keel over already. She was too big to run around, never mind run away.

“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll take good care of her.”

On Marlowe’s third day with us, I stood inside the kitchen, watching through the glass door to the backyard as Marlowe and Taia played next to the lake. Taia made a snowball and threw it. Marlowe thumped after it and stuck her face in the snow, looking for the ball that had crumbled on impact. The lake stretched out behind them, its surface a mixture of slush and ice. Dark water rimmed its edge, the ice not having yet grabbed hold of the land. A stream entered it from marshland on the eastern edge and its flow had kept that area from freezing. Where the stream joined the lake, black fingers of water spread out through the ice to the lake’s centre, holding on to the last remnants of autumn. But between the fingers and the edge, winter had laid claim.

Not having found the snowball, Marlowe turned back to Taia and barrelled forward, picking up speed. For a moment I thought she might careen into Taia, but her course was to my daughter’s side. She was making a break for the lake.

I was on the back porch before she hit the ice.

“No, Marlowe. Stop!”

Taia was shouting too.

Marlowe elephant-seal-thumped onto the ice and kept barreling across it. The ice held. We shouted. Marlowe ran. Over and over again, her movements made her folds of fat and loose skin stretch taut then ripple together like a giant accordion.

Ten metres from shore. Twenty. Thirty.

That was my sister’s baby out there.

“Come, Marlowe. Come!”

Then, crack.

I was standing in the snow at the edge of the pond with only my socks on my feet when Marlowe went through the ice.

Family

noun

2. A person or people to be treated with a special loyalty or intimacy because of their relation to one another.

Marlowe’s head popped up through the hole in the ice. Jowls and slobber and eyes wide open. We called to her from shore. Her front paws frantically clawed the ice, but grabbed hold of nothing.

Taia lurched forward. I grabbed her arm and pulled her back. She looked up at me. “She’s going to die, Mommy. You can’t let her die.”

I rushed Taia back to the kitchen, told her to stay inside, stuffed my wet feet into my boots, and raced to the garage. Our canoe spent its winters there. I grabbed the canoe by its sides, hoisted it over my head and ran with it back to the lake. The ice held the weight of the canoe and I clambered in. Using the paddle, I pushed the boat along the surface of the ice until I reached Marlowe. Leaning over the edge of the canoe, I reached into the water, grabbed the dog’s collar, and pulled. That was when the canoe broke through the ice and I found myself, still in the boat, stuck in the same water pocket as the dog. I tried again to pull Marlowe up, but couldn’t raise her even a smidge. She was so heavy that the action only teetered the canoe and I knew it would flip over if I pulled harder.

I paused and realized what I had done. It was ten degrees below freezing. I was wearing a t-shirt, jeans and boots. My hands were losing mobility from the icy water. I couldn’t get the canoe back onto the ice and I couldn’t get the dog into the canoe. The only person around to help was the four-year-old staring at me through the kitchen door.

Family

noun

3. A group consisting of parents and children living together in a household.

I motioned to Taia and she stepped outside.

“Everything is going great,” I said. “But I need you to help me with something. Okay?”

She nodded her head.

“I need you to phone 9-1-1. Tell them that a dog has fallen through the ice and that your mom is stuck in a canoe.”

Taia disappeared back into the house. I started thinking about our phones. They were all cordless and fancy with flat screens instead of buttons. The numbers seemed to bleed together. Taia had never made a phone call before.

I had another idea. Wrapping my stiff fingers around the handle of the paddle, I held it up in the air and then thrust it down against the ice on the edge of the opening that led to shore. Vibrations surged through me as the paddle bounced off the surface. I tried again and again, determined to chisel a channel from our water pocket to shore, thinking Marlowe and I could follow it to land. But the ice fought back, sending needles into my numbing hands with each clash between it and the paddle.

Our isolation struck me. Not only would no one happen past, but my husband would neither arrive home nor call. My husband, Giles, captained a ship. He sailed the world and Taia I joined him frequently in foreign ports. But he didn’t live with us. He lived at sea. We would “meet up” every day for our video computer chat, using Skype. We had a great family, but it didn’t fit conventional models. “Unorthodox,” my great-aunt had called it with a tight-lipped smile. “Not really a family,” she said. “Because families live together, under the same roof.”

My effort to dig the channel seemed futile, but still, I raised the paddle to strike again. I thrust down with all my strength. At that moment, the idea of someone else living under the same roof had an appeal. The paddle cracked on impact and a chip of its wood shot across the ice towards that unreachable shore.

Taia emerged onto the porch. “I can’t make the phone work.”

I laid the paddle down in the canoe, defeated. “It’s okay.”

“Mommy,” she said. “Where’s Marlowe?”

Family

adjective

4. Designed to be suitable for children as well as adults.

The mass under the surface was descending. Leaning over the edge of the canoe, I plunged my arm into the water. Grabbing Marlowe’s collar, I pulled her to the surface. She breathed immediately. A good sign. Her eyes were scared and her gaze clung to mine.

“Marlowe, you must stay up. You can do this.”

When I released her collar, she slipped under the surface again. She had given up. I pulled her up and repeated the same process. I could feel Taia watching. I didn’t want her to see this. This wasn’t for a child to witness.

“Taia, go back inside. Call Daddy on Skype.”

She couldn’t operate a telephone, but she knew well how to call Giles on Skype. That was her normal. Giles would be nearing the western coast of Africa on his ship. He could do nothing for Marlowe, but he could buffer Taia from the unfolding of events.

Marlowe’s loss of hope sent panic through me. I attempted again to heave her from the water. I pulled and pulled as the canoe tipped and dipped beneath me.

In the kitchen, Taia called Giles, who later relayed to me the following conversation:

“Hi, Taia.”

“Hi.” Her voice was calm and matter-of-fact. “Marlowe is in the lake. She fell through the ice.”

“What?”

“Mommy is there too.”

“Where?”

“In the lake.”

“Did Mommy fall through the ice?”

“Yes.”

“Mommy fell through the ice and is in the lake?”

“Yes.”

“Taia, look out the window and tell me exactly what you see.”

“Okay.” Long seconds pass. “I see Marlowe’s head sticking through the ice and Mommy’s bum in the air and her face almost in the water and the canoe almost tipped over.”

“Mommy is in the canoe?”

“Yes. She is trying to pull Marlowe out.”

“Okay. I need you to go outside and tell her to stop doing that. Tell her that I said she needs to stop doing that right now.”

Taia did as he instructed and the voice of my husband, relayed through our child, stopped my panic. I heard him like he was there with me. Yes, I had to stop. Whatever happened, I couldn’t allow myself to fall in. For Taia’s sake.

I looked at the stream that flowed into the lake from the marsh. That bank was farther from us than the one we had set off from, but it seemed plausible that the ice would be thinner on that side. Could I chisel a channel in that direction and reach that more distant shore? I wanted to try, but first I needed to let go of Marlowe’s collar.

I told Marlowe I needed to let go, told her I needed her to stay up on her own. Slowly, I released her collar. She stayed up. I praised her and her head lifted higher above the surface. I picked up the paddle, but as soon as I stopped talking to her, she began to sink. I called to her again – “You can do this!” – and she struggled her head up higher. To keep fighting, she needed our connection, but I needed to turn and try to break the ice. And so I sang.

It was a ridiculous song that came to mind– the theme song from Taia’s favourite TV show, The Wonder Pets. In the cartoon, three talking animals set off to rescue other animals. Aslong as I kept singing, Marlowe’s head stayed above the surface.

I sang and lifted my paddle into the air. I thrust it down against the edge of the ice that led towards the marsh. The ice cracked. I sang and thrust again and again. Chunks broke off.

Still on Skype with Taia, Giles phoned my mother, who was an hour away from our location. My mother called 911. The 911 operator called our house. Taia answered the phone and managed to put it on speakerphone. Taia held the phone up to the laptop and Giles relayed what he knew to the operator. My mother has a farm ten minutes from our house. She called her farmhand to see if he was in the area. He wasn’t, but he called a friend who worked as a farmhand nearby. I kept chiselling and singing and singing and chiselling. Marlowe kept her head up.

Taia stepped onto the porch with the laptop. She heard the song and joined in. “. . . and Ming-Ming, too! We’re the Wonder Pets and we’ll help you!”

Giles started singing, too. “What’s gonna work? Teamwork!”

The farther I got into the channel, the thinner the ice. It broke apart easily as we bellowed the song together. “Wonder Pets! We’re on our way, to help a dog and save the day! We’re not too big and we’re not too tough, but when we work together we’ve got the right stuff!”

I had lost so much mobility in my hands from the cold that, by the time I made my last strike against the ice, finishing the channel, I was operating the paddle by using one arm in a wing-like fashion and the other hand as a club.

Marlowe had stayed put, so I paddled back to her. I called for her to follow me through the channel. She wouldn’t. I pleaded, but Marlowe wouldn’t follow and I couldn’t pull her and paddle at the same time. She didn’t understand that all she had to do to live was swim that channel. After everything, I couldn’t do it alone. I needed someone else to be physically there.

As I faced that impasse, a truck drove down our driveway. A man I had never seen before raced from the truck to the lake. I paddled to him. There were no greetings or introductions. Tears welled in my eyes as he climbed into the canoe.

“She won’t swim it,” I said, canoeing back to Marlowe. “Pull her by the collar and I’ll paddle.”

And he did. And I did. We hit the bottom close to shore. The stranger jumped straight into the icy water, scooped Marlowe’s massive body up in his arms and carried her the final steps. On shore, we threw our arms around her and each other.

The fire truck, police car and ambulance arrived. Paramedics tended to Marlowe. She had spent over thirty-five minutes in the icy lake and she was okay. Her big, blubbery body had protected her.

My great-aunt came to stay with us that Christmas and my mother recounted the story of Marlowe’s misadventure, marvelling at how many people came together to help.

My great-aunt turned to me and said, “You shouldn’t have done that.”

I knew what she meant. “But I had to,” I said. “What else could I have done?”

“You should have left the dog there.”

We looked at each other in silence. I couldn’t respond. She wouldn’t understand. She was telling me that it would have been wrong to die saving a dog. It wasn’t that I disagreed with her. I just knew that family meant something bigger.