In Wayward Water

Keely O'Connell

Born into a subzero Alaskan November, my dog lived the first six months of his life without ever coming across a concentration of liquid water larger than a bathtub. His whole world was ice and snow until the moment in spring that Alaskans call breakup, the moment when the solid matter around us phase-shifts and slumps, then flows and rushes and carries away the dwindling ice of the winter world.

In May of my dog’s first year, when the river ice began to go out, he bounded off the bank in exactly the way he had all his life, only the ice wasn’t there to catch him. He plunged into frigid water over his head, this dog who had never been swimming before, and I thought I might have to go in after him. I called, but instead of turning toward my voice, he went with the momentum of his run and struck out across the water. There was a wide ribbon of ice down the center of the river and he reached it, put his paws up on the melting snowpack, and looked over his soggy shoulder at me with an expression of perfect betrayal in his eyes.

He made it back to shore, of course. Puppies are remarkable. That look has stayed with me though. What must it be like to find a familiar, reliable object unexpectedly turned to liquid? If I reached for my book or my jacket and it ran through my fingers and puddled on the floor, how would I feel?

When I was very young, I was in love with a boy. We would sled down Kidkiller Hill at the island golf course together, right down to the beach. Over and over again, we tucked ourselves together and flew down the hill, dizzy with falling and giddy with speed. Once, we left our red plastic sled at the bottom of the hill and walked, hand in hand, along the shore. Great salted floes nudged the high tide line with each little lapping wave and we couldn’t resist the temptation to step up and on and across. We let go of one another, but stayed close, each on a different floe. They wobbled as we walked, and we chose our steps carefully, always in arm’s reach of one another. When I stepped on a floe a little too small to carry my weight and sank up to my knees in the ocean, this boy reached out and pulled me back up to the shore. He wrapped his arms around me and breathed into the hollow between my neck and my hair. My pant legs froze solid on the long walk home, but I didn’t care because his hand was so warm in mine. Later that day, warm and dry again, I told him that I loved him for the first of ten thousand times.

Some years later, when we were in college, I tested the matter of our love. With no real forethought, I doubled the pressure, turned up the heat. I wanted to define my individual identity outside of the perfect twosome that had defined my adolescence. On my own, I pressed outward and crossed fissures and teetered, and I found the bounds of my balance. Beyond the circle of his arms, I grew. It’s what very young people do, and it’s also a kind of parable, but I couldn’t yet see myself as a stereotype. When I thought I’d found what I was looking for, I turned to reach for him, for that boy that I loved, and he wasn’t there. Some phase shift had occurred without my notice. Sometimes I think I am still slipping away from that moment when I first closed my hand over empty space.

But there is something to be learned from the resilience of puppies. Betrayed by the river ice, my dog made it to shore, shook off, and immediately lit into the willows after a rabbit. Later, back in my hometown in Maine, this dog mistook a floating raft of seaweed for solid ground, plunged off the dock into the harbor, and had to be hauled out of the ocean by the scruff of his neck. For a month or so he was leery of liquid matter, but by mid-July he was testing the water’s edge again.

By mid-July, my new boyfriend, my dog, and I were back in Alaska and a week into a month-long river trip, and my boyfriend and I were in the middle of a knock-down-drag-em-out fight. For two days and two nights we broiled in the relentless, endless sun on a sandbar at the confluence of the Tanana and the Yukon rivers, sniping at each other, not talking, breaking up. We stood knee deep in the current and pushed chunks of hanging sand off the cutbank and into the silty water where they disappeared immediately, dissolving into the flow. I don’t remember what we were fighting about, but I remember being perfectly furious and sweaty and exhausted and sunburned with sand in all the cracks. I remember how it wore at me, the sand, the dry wind, the steady flow of the river, the endless grinding flywheel of the sun overhead, the unsolvable algebraic equation of our fundamentally flawed relationship.

Then, sitting waist-deep in the water with our shoulders against a cool wall of sand, we patched things up. Neither of us wanted to let go too easily. He pulled sand down onto my back and I pushed a clump down from the cutbank into his hair. We laughed together, agreed to go on. The fix was temporary, and we both knew it, but I was older now, and this man was older still, and we were accustomed to nursing flawed and broken objects along, coaxing a few more miles from a coughing engine, if it meant seeing miles that we might not otherwise.

We drove the boat into Tanana, bought gas, showered at the washateria, were gifted with sunscreen, ate ice cream, and motored on upriver in a cooling rain shower. After midnight, we pitched a camp on the Yukon. The sky had been through melodramatic excesses of its own that night, and now it subsided for a while into a quiet blush. Summer in Alaska. We slept easy in the half-light night.

We slept until the day got too hot to sleep, even in our airy bugnet tent with the rainfly off. Breakfast at 1:00 pm, and then we rolled up the tent and packed the boat: chainsaw and gas under the seats, actionpackers in the bow and along the sides, water jugs and tent in the gaps, soft dry-bags on top.

The last chore was to wear out the dog a little before pushing off for the upriver haul to the Rampart Rapids. I raced up the beach until the sand ran out, the dog close at my heels, then chased him back to the spot where the boat was tied to some driftwood. My boyfriend threw a stick into the shallows and the dog went after it and came back, lifting his feet high and clear of the water. He skirted me, just close enough to tease but not quite so close that I could grab the stick from his teeth, and I chased him along the shore again. When he lolloped away into the shallows, drops of water splashed up and cooled my legs. Wading in to where he stood, panting, I took the stick and waded out deeper. The dog followed until the river lapped at his chest. I threw the stick upstream and, just like that, he swam after it, smooth as an otter. My man and I locked eyes, amazed. Our dog was swimming, voluntarily, for the first time. We had thought he’d never swim for fun.

Wet to the waist already, I grinned, shucked my clothes, hung them over the gunwales of the boat to dry, and ducked under the water. Submerged, I could hear the silt rasping on the boat’s blue-painted hull. The current was tugging, so I let it pull my body along. The shadow of the hull passed over me, and I felt the chill of the ice that stays locked just there, just above where my body was suspended, for half the year; but then the sunlight burst on my eyelids again, and I reached for the surface, kicking, and my hand closed over empty air, right where I expected it to be, and silty river water streamed down into the hollow between my neck and my hair. I blinked away the water, smiled at my boyfriend, and then dived after the dog, and soon all three of us were swimming, playing a game of laughing-tag in the cold, muddy water. Quick as that, we wore those Tanana showers clean off.

Keely O’Connell is a writer, a teacher, and an amateur skijorer. She has a yurt in Alaska, a good sense of direction, and a great chainsaw.