by Susannah Sharpe Cecil
“Oh God – Fish!” Tommy screamed, skipping in full-tilt panic on the bank, screaming for the dog to pull herself to solid ice.
He watched, helpless as she struggled, paws flailing, splashing the slushy water and trying to gain purchase. Tommy’s prancing got him nowhere, so he stepped onto the pond to try and reach her, another forbidden. Each step past the tree line brought the cracking and creaking his parents warned him of. “Do not ever, ever walk out on that ice. You hear that boys?” his mother had said. “Just the sound of cracking could mean curtains. Got it?” Fighting the bitter guilt, Tommy gave his back to the struggle and gingered himself back to safety. With each snap of ice under his feet, he winced and gritted his teeth, as the splashing behind him clawed its way down his spine. Anguish poised silent like a hawk peering through the trees, calculating its plummet, giving slope to the shame it would soon deliver.
“Fish. Oh Fish!! Come here, girl!” he cried again from the pond’s edge, willing her to obey.
She was beyond fatigue, and the look in her eyes changed; still pinned on him, but not in panic now, not desperation. She just gave him exhaustion. Fish surrendered, and Tommy croaked her name, his feet slipping in the earthy slush that had just been virgin snow. Her head broke through another lip in the ice, and paws followed, but she was too far out and made no gain. She went under again, this time to bob just once, then twice, before making her slow and icy descent.
Tommy crumpled into the bank stupefied, heart pounding as he stared across the frozen quietus. “Fish!?” he moaned. He felt hot sweat dampening his armpits as anguish took leave of its perch and draped its pall over him. Suddenly his goose down parka was smothering, suffocating him with yesterday’s comfort. His fingers and toes felt like small breaking pieces flying out of reach, as a prickling wave of heat washed through his insides and into his throat. Hastily shucking the parka and ripping off his gloves, Tommy braced against a downed log and heaved his gut into the snow. He turned away from his misery and slumped into the sludge beneath his boots.
He sat against the log until the sun was just a wisp of pink above the pines, until he could no longer see his own breath. Fish was gone nearly two hours now, but Tommy couldn’t bring himself to move. His ears strained at every sound, that maybe she found a weak spot of thaw and would come galumphing toward him with the ball he’d thrown. But no. Quiet, except for far-off, disconnected static from homes where all would rest sweetly in their beds tonight. His stomach lurched at the smell of somebody’s supper drifting faintly through the winter air. Hamburgers frying, mingled with the cotton-candy smell of fabric softener. Somebody’s laundry. Family smells, mingled with cold, mulchy mud, and vomit.
He was cold now, and needed home. His coat crunched as he lifted it from the snow beside him. His gloves, stiff, would not go back on his hands, so he thrust them into his coat pocket and drug himself to standing. What would he tell Gordon? Mom and Dad? How would he face Miss Sanders again? Ever again.
* * * * * * *
“Tommy, where have you been? You know supper’s in thirty minutes?” Mom asked when he shut the door and stepped into the kitchen. Her back was turned, and the potato peels she wrestled from their root splatted in the sink, making a carbon pile that Tommy would later take to the composter. Decay and disintegration used for future life. “It was dark twenty minutes ago. And hey, weren’t you supposed to feed that dog this afternoon?”
Tommy made his way past his mother to the laundry room. “Sorry Mama. I was out walking around. Didn’t have my watch on,” he answered, hanging his coat and gloves on the time-worn pegs.
“Well?” she waited, poised in mid-swipe. “Did you at least feed Miss Sanders’ dog while you were out?”
Tommy held his breath until he heard peelings slapping into the sink again.
“Yes ma’am, I fed her,” he said. He could see that face, the sweet-knit eyebrows pleading for rescue. He squeezed his eyes shut to block the sight.
“What’s that dog’s name, Carp or something?” Mama snickered, tossing a glance over her shoulder to track her son’s movement.
“Name’s Fish, Mama. Can I go up and change clothes now?” he answered. Not waiting for her response, Tommy turned for the stairs and began his ascent. Static from the day crackled up from the secret seat of his heart that would forever hold the sick percussion of a drowning, dying friend …
Miss Sanders’ eyes held that same sweet-knit pleading. “Tommy I … I don’t understand. You were only supposed to feed her while I was gone. What happened!” she demanded. How could he tell her what he’d done? When all he was supposed to do was feed the dog, when Mom and Dad warned against taking Fish out of her yard, warned against walking her off-leash, even though she trusted him, even though she was obedient … was …
“Hey Tommy boy, wake up. Supper’s ready,” said a voice from the far-off end of the darkness. It was Gordon.
Tommy lay in the middle of his bedroom floor, still in his damp snow clothes; wet, sticky drool oozing onto the carpet beneath his face. He pushed himself up and swung an elbow to block the nuisance of his older brother. “I’m coming. Quit kicking me!” he said with half a heart. After several blinks of the overhead light ended in darkness, Tommy heard his brother’s hulky frame bounding down the stairs, the phone ringing and distant crowing, “He was asleep, Mom, but he’s awake now!”
Left alone, Tommy listened for house-sounds that drummed the heartbeat of family life. He stared at his ceiling, lulled by the rhythm, and weighed the grave options in front of him. Would he go to Miss Sanders, tell her what happened, crushing her spirit and her confidence in him? Should he splay himself before his parents, accepting their wrath in such a raw, denuded way? Or did he build a tower of secrecy and stand firmly inside it until chip by chip, crack by crack his resolve – or his guilt – crumbled from within, bringing the whole structure to rubble?
Gordon’s bellowing into the phone downstairs broke Tommy’s solitary reverie. Gordon. Now he had some secrets, or they shared a few. But not like this. Those were stupid things they had done, just to see if they could. Like the time they sneaked through the bushes to peep at that woman. The McVeigh twins had said she and a neighbor were doin’ it during the day while her husband was at work. And the twins oughta know, living next to her like they did. So through the ligustrum they’d crawled, not minding the switches scraping their skin as they forged their path toward sexual knowledge. Gordon would look first. He had said so, because he was older and more responsible. Right. Wasn’t that much difference between eleven and thirteen.
So there they hunched, under the window, Gordon wriggling his chucks into the crease of Tommy’s squatted hip, swinging his free leg over pony-like, and righting himself.
“You see ‘em yet?” Tommy had wheezed, balancing between the needling limbs.
“Not yet! I can’t seem to reach – the – ledge,” Gordon rasped. “Can you raise me up some more?”
It was then that Tommy’d heard the buzzing, and began searching his tent of space for its source. (Never mind Gordon’s yammering. One thing he hated: itching.) Mama’d said it was mosquitoes that gave him the impetigo last summer, and that was the second worst thing he’d ever had – all those scabs. Worst was when he rolled down Moose Hill and landed in poison ivy, reaping excruciatingly itchy, weepy-skinned, oatmeal bath misery for the next month. Yep, that had been the worst … Tommy looked at his aching knees and tried to pinpoint the buzzing. His eyes fell to the decaying mulch around his feet, and then he saw it: the glossy, beguilingly innocent, botanical spawn of Satan …
“I hear bumping around,” Gordon squeaked, in that delighted whisper he always gets when excitement is just too much. “The twins were right!”
Tommy’s voice chirped and sputtered as his mind scrambled to retrieve words. “Poison ivy!” he finally screeched. He shot up through the shrubs, clawing back through the thicket like a terrified rodent. A bewildered Gordon thudded against the vinyl siding and bounced a cymbal beat off the window screen. With no choice but to follow, Gordon collected his splayed parts and writhed back through the brush after his hysterical brother. From their first chaotic dash at peeping, the only thrill the boys would later cull was the muffled squealing, grunting and stomping heard from the bedroom above. But secretive mischief had been a harsh bookie, exacting the costly interest of gummy, poison-ivy-oatmeal-bathed humiliation all over again …
“Tommy, supper!” Mama yelled. “Gordon told you ten minutes ago. Move it!”
“Wha?” he startled. “Yes ma’am. Coming!”
Yep, everyone had secrets. Only this one was bigger than Tommy or Gordon, and it would prove too solitary a burden to carry. And yes, a secret could stand firm for a while, but Tommy knew that somehow, some way truth would eventually out itself: in some cases with telltale blisters, in others with the bubbling up of sludge from a once iced pond.
Tommy gathered his clothes into a damp heap and headed for the hamper. The artifacts of his childhood seemed oddly irrelevant now: legos, Yahtzee, Batman. The old stuffed Humpty Dumpty – legs dangling precariously from the ledge of his bookshelf – held his gaze, and the nursery rhyme floated across his consciousness: “… all the King’s horses and all the King’s men …” It landed with a force that made him shudder.
“Even if it was an innocent mistake, Humpty?” he asked. “Even when you didn’t mean to cause any harm?” Silence from this highbrow friend sealed the naked truth that Tommy had met only hours before.
“I know how you feel,” he said quietly.
Surely somehow, some way there would be life after this, Tommy thought. He decided the only way to get there was by putting one foot in front of the other, and to walk toward it. He closed the closet door, switched off the light and made his way downstairs to face his family.
* * * * * *
And then there are some things, some losses that just can’t be retrieved. It is only for us to move through them, gleaning wisdom where we can, learning humility, and how to sit with our sorrow, and the sorrow of another, especially if we caused it, even when the intent was benign, the mistake innocent enough.
Sometimes we have to face the demon head on, ugly as a bloated Fish hauled up from the mucky, pungent bed of Spring thaw. For only then will its hounding cease. Only then, when we face its wrath, can we test our mettle and be pummeled or crushed. Only then can we ultimately rise, broken and bruised, stepping into the gift of a deeper, more humble season, and be met by the freshness of a newer, richer life.
Susannah S. Cecil is a licensed professional counselor and yoga instructor in Piedmont, North Carolina. She writes fiction and nonfiction and has published in her local women’s magazines as well as instructional material. She has a husband, three children and a Jack Russell Terrier named Otis.