Possibly, I should not be here.
The year was 1961. The month was February. The winter was cold.
At the far end of a long, narrow field a small river ran into several acres of marshland—a small, shallow lake in the spring, mostly bog in the summer and fall until the rains and the swollen autumn river re-laked it by the end of October. By February it was all a frozen ice-field, the little river included, covered by snow.
Of course, as Swedish country children we had been taught to fear frozen rivers. Even should the ice be a foot thick by its edge, currents can have sculpted the ice leaf-thin in the middle of the stream. In other words: Never set foot (or skate) on it, unless you are very, very certain the ice it thick throughout, and unless you have others—preferably grownups—with you. And, always, always wear icepicks; that way you can claw your way out of the water should you fall through.
Of course, I knew all this—at least to the point where my lips could pay good service to it. But this was a very cold day, making for very thick ice, and me and my new hockey stick, and my freshly sharpened skates, knew precisely what to do: Go down to the marsh and play some one-on-self hockey.
I honestly don’t remember whether I told my mom (who was at home this afternoon) where I was going. Chances are I did not for she would more than likely have said no: nixed my plan. So, possibly surreptitiously, I donned my skates, gathered my gear—stick and puck, and shovel to clear the ice from snow—fitted the skate covers on, and trekked the two or so hundred yards down the snowy field to the frozen water.
Here I removed the skate covers, hefted the shovel and began clearing a very small hockey rink from the frozen river/marsh.
Once done, I tossed the shovel and instead grabbed the stick and the puck and began dribbling (unstoppably) and scoring (brilliantly), and scoring again (again, brilliantly). I was amazingly good and would probably play for Sweden’s national team as the youngest player ever—so the dream went.
Once or twice I shot the puck into the deeper snow and it took a while (and some swearing) to find it again, but find it I did (amazingly, in retrospect), and the superlative skating and dribbling and goal scoring resumed.
One moment I’m executing a marvelous feint (that fools two or three Russian defenders) the next moment I’m in the water.
There must have been warning signs, reason says so. But when you are playing solo again the best USSR hockey team ever, you need to focus on the task at hand: fooling them all and crushing them with an embarrassing score line—I’m up something like 8-0 at the time.
So, any warning signs never reached me (didn’t dare disturb me). One moment I’m on top of the ice, the next I’m through it and submerged.
The river is deep here in the middle of the stream. Too deep for a boy’s legs to reach the bottom. But I do surface and I manage to place my arms on the ice by the edge of the break. I keep myself afloat this way.
I try again to see if I can feel the bottom, but no luck. Too deep.
There is nothing to grasp on the ice. Ice is ice and by definition slippery. The edge is strong though, doesn’t break as I hang on. But the good news end there. I cannot heave myself out of the hole.
My clothes are absorbing more and more water and grow increasingly heavy with every second, making getting out of the water harder and harder, had there been a way to get out.
This is why you always wear ice picks. Always wear ice picks. That way you can—if you, and the ice, are both strong enough—plant the two handles in the ice and drag yourself out of the water. I have no ice picks.
I am in shock.
I realize that I am not getting out of the water. I realize that I can scream all I want, I’m too far from anyone who might hear and help. I cling to the edge, my dangling legs drifting slowly with the current, away from me, under the edge I’m clinging to. If I lose my grip I will drift with the river and under the unbroken ice into certain death.
I don’t think all this, but I know all this. Strangely, though, I don’t feel cold at all. I should, but I don’t.
I know there’s a good possibility I will soon be dead. I don’t think this, but I know this.
Neither do I think, “But I’m too young. It’s too soon. I haven’t lived yet, hardly.” But I my body screams this, knows this. Refuses to accept death this way, this stupid and far too soon way.
This simply cannot happen. I cannot drown here. Just cannot.
Here things grow unrecallable, for I’m not aware of precisely what happens next. But something happens next, for next I am out of the water and I am lying on the ice, fully stretched so as not to further break the ice.
Then I roll to the edge of the river, clamber onto the snowy bank and stand up. Then I walk, as fast as I can, through the snow back to our house.
I am still not cold, although I should be freezing.
I reach the house, enter our little entrance hall, sit down on the floor and work at untying my skate laces, hard to do since they’re all ice.
My mom comes out of the kitchen, wonders what on earth…
I don’t remember what I tell her. I don’t remember going back to the river to pick up the shovel and puck and stick and skate covers. I’m sure I did at some point, but no memory of that.
No memory of stepping into the warm kitchen and drying myself on towels I am sure my mom would have given me.
I don’t remember if I told my dad I had gone through the ice (he would have been furious with me). Memory doesn’t serve here, at all.
And where it serves the very least is about how I make it out of the hole and onto the ice. Looking back, there really is no way I should have been able to do that, growing heavier and heavier with the water, risking to be sucked under the ice by the current, nothing but slick ice for my hands to seize on had my arms been strong enough to heave me out of the water.
There is now way I should have managed this—without help.
I was helped.
Somehow, by someone or something. Guardian Angel does come to mind. Something or someone like that. Must have been. Was.
For here I am, writing this, when I really should not even be here.
A while back I wrote this prose poem about this very almost drowning, called (you guessed it) “Drowning.”
I flounder, then slip on the ice. My knee hits frozen water. It hurts. I discover I have lost my mitten. I look for it. It is nowhere to be found. My left hand rests on the ice. The cold is metallic against my fingers. I labor and stand up again. My skates are too tight. I feel uneven without one mitten. I take one step, two. I still look for the mitten. The snow is too deep. It can be anywhere. Then I see it. By luck I see it. It is mostly buried in the snow. I take more slippery steps. There it is. I bend down to pick it up. The ice begins to break. I don’t hear it at first. It rumbles a little. It rumbles softly. Then it rumbles again. It is more than a rumble now. It is more like a pistol. It is more like many pistols. Then I am in the water. It should be cold but isn’t. It isn’t to me anyway. I don’t feel the water yet. I know where I am. I have heard of drownings. They can’t get back up. The ice is too smooth. Their hands cannot grip. So they freeze and drown. I’ve heard of this. You must carry ice picks. That is the lesson. They let you grasp the ice. They save lives. But I don’t have any. And I am in the water. Do I actually think at this point? No, I don’t think at all. I know. I know where I am. I know drownings. That’s about it. I know I must not drown. I know it’s a possibility though. I’m surrounded by water. It moves and gurgles. It claims me. It gurgles me. There are grasses beneath like hair. I can see with my feet. There is no bottom here. It is possible I will drown. I shudder. It is a heavenly shudder. I shudder out of the hole. I shudder out of the water. I shudder on to the ice. I shudder prone on the cold surface. Then I roll towards shore. I’m on firmer ice. I stand up. I am very, very cold. Still, I do not think. Instead, I run. I run on my skates. I run through the snow. I run for home, one field away. I run through drifts of snow.