You think, because I was his neighbor, I must know something. That I’ve got some theory as to why it happened. Well, I don’t.
Maybe if it’d happened decades ago, before people started moving up here thinking Maine was some kind of paradise, if it’d happened then, when people knew their neighbors, caught up on each other in the general store buying coffee or soap, maybe then we’d all know the whole story. And you’d be out of a job. And incidentally I mean way before I moved here myself, which was forty years ago, after ’Nam and college on the GI Bill. Even then, that world was gone. And to be honest, I came here looking for paradise, too. I figured no way the jungle could follow me here.
Anyway, if people were neighbors the way neighbors used to be, then you wouldn’t be here asking me about Abe. As it is, I can’t tell you much beyond what most of your readers already know. Until a year ago, he seemed like a steady guy. Hearty even. You never know, though, what’s beneath the surface, so you figure when some tragedy hits, like what happened to his son, well, that’s the whole reason. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t.
But that’s what folks think. Anybody who knew Abe even slightly—or his wife, Sieglinde—they figure it all started this same week last year. Maybe it did. For sure both deaths started with the same sound. Not that they know that. I guess I’m the only one who does, as I was their only neighbor this side of the pond.
It was after dusk when I heard it. I was fixing dinner. I figured it was the spring ice cracking, and I thought of Thoreau. Thirty-five years teaching American Lit, I made the kids read Walden. I still take out The Maine Woods every now and again when I feel my bearings start to slip. So when I heard the sound I thought of how Thoreau describes the spring ice cracking on Walden Pond: “Loud as artillery,” he said, and sure enough, it sounded like gunshot, so I came out onto the back porch and listened some more. As I said, it was this same week, second week in March, but the winter had been so warm I thought, I’ll be darned if the ice isn’t breaking before spring even. And then I heard their voices, the boys, two or three of them, shouting, and I knew it wasn’t spring ice breaking. Not breaking on its own, anyway.
I couldn’t make out the words at first. And then I heard “Boris!” And I knew it was my neighbors’ son, because nobody names their kid Boris, not around here, anyway. I’d had him in freshman comp, but I never had another kid named Boris in thirty-five years teaching. His mother’s Swedish, so there’s that, but all those old-country names are gone and now everybody’s Jake or Jack or Zach, none of those old, solid names. So when I heard “Boris!” I knew it was my neighbor’s son, and I knew he was in trouble.
Their voices were bouncing around in the fog, and I couldn’t see my hands in front of my face, so I didn’t know, were they by his place or across the pond, so I came inside and called his parents. Had to look up the number because I hadn’t called them enough these dozen years since they bought the land and built their place to know their number off the top of my head. Well, there’s no answer. Sieglinde tells me later, sobbing to break your heart, that she was at work—she’s a nurse at the hospital—and Abe was out at his AA meeting, so no one was home, though even if they were, it wouldn’t have made any difference. Even the wardens—one of the boys had the sense to call 9-1-1 from his cell phone and they responded right away, but word is they had trouble finding the kids; they were off the road on one of the trails, so by the time they did, all they could do was search along the shore trying to see where in the hell he’d gone in and calling and calling and not hearing any answer.
The way I learned it from the old-timers is, you can only keep yourself afloat for fifteen, twenty minutes in icy water before your muscles give out and you drown. They must’ve known that, the wardens, that by the time they got there, he was already gone, because they didn’t try some crazy TV-show rescue, calling in some helicopter or something. Poor kid. They came back in the morning with a boat and a diver and found the place he went in and pulled his body out. Seems the ice had held up nearly to the middle of the pond. Nobody knows why it broke there. The old-timers warn you that ice is never totally safe to cross, even mid-winter. Debris underwater can trap the sun, making the ice above it thin, or sometimes, like last winter, when the temperatures kept going up and then down again, the ice expands and contracts, making cracks in the deep structure that can’t be seen from above.
Not that he was looking. Or even if he was, in that fog, he couldn’t have seen a thing. As far as I know, nobody knows exactly what he was doing on the ice. Or if they do, they’re not saying. My guess is the kids were high. That’s not because I’m their neighbor and know it. It’s just what anybody would think, given the circumstances. And it’s not to judge. I fooled around too when I was their age. Only difference is I didn’t wind up dead.
Looking back, I keep thinking I could have done more. More than just trying to phone his parents, I mean. When they didn’t answer, I grabbed a flashlight and went down to the edge of the pond and listened again, trying to hear if they were across the water, or what. I couldn’t tell. So I jumped in the truck and headed down the road. Less than a mile, I saw the Maine wardens’ truck coming up behind me. So I pulled over and turned back around. I figured, leave it to the experts, you know? I didn’t want it to seem like I was going to a fire for entertainment, as Thoreau put it. And I guess, too, I didn’t want to know. Not first-hand anyway. Reading about it in the paper the next day, you can tell yourself it wasn’t such a bad way to die. But seeing it, the ice all cracked, and for what? I guess that’s why, when I came back from ’Nam, I decided to teach the old stories. I told you already I had Boris in freshman comp. He didn’t take my American lit. I wish he had. Not that it would’ve made any difference. I’m not saying it would. Just that when I moved here and got the teaching job at the high school, I thought maybe I could—I don’t know—make amends, I guess. But life knows you, knows who you are. Follows you.
Like it followed him. Abe. His was the Gulf War, though I never knew a thing about it until a few months ago. If I’d known he was a vet, maybe I’d have picked up on some things and could have—well—reached out. Helped somehow. At it was, I didn’t have a clue.
And as I said, I didn’t see much of them. In all those years, the only time I was invited over to their place was for Boris’ graduation party the summer before last. It wasn’t much, a barbecue on the deck. No relatives except Abe’s sister and her husband drove up from Boston. Sieglinde’s family is in Sweden, of course, and when she invited me she told me that Abe’s parents weren’t able to travel from Pennsylvania. Of course Boris’s friends must have been throwing their own parties. So I guess they invited me to make it seem like a bigger deal, more festive. A neighbor and one of his teachers. Or maybe they knew I’d hear them out there and they felt sorry for me, living alone, though no need for that, it’s always been my choice.
You know, looking back, I guess it was at that party it first occurred to me there might be something—I don’t know—something running, deep inside him. I remember I’d asked Boris what his plans were, and he tells me he’s going to study anthropology and Spanish at U Maine, wants to focus on Mesoamerican cultures. Tells me he’s taking off in a few days for the Yucatán Peninsula, plans to visit Chichen Itza with some friends. Says he can’t wait to see the Great Ballcourt. I tell him I don’t know what he’s talking about, so he fills me in, says they all played ball—the Mesoamericans, I mean—with balls made from rubber they got from trees, he said. But the Mayans didn’t play it just for sport. For them it was a religious ritual—they had to play it for their culture to survive. He said they’d force their prisoners of war to play. When the game was over, they’d sacrifice the players on the losing team to their gods. Cut off their heads. Sometimes, he said, after they’d decapitated the captain of the losing team, they’d use his head for a ball. Gruesome, but I sort of recognized myself at eighteen in his fascination with it all. That’s the way I was before I went to ’Nam. And I figured, maybe by studying it, he’d be able to keep it from happening again, or things like it, or at least that’s what I wanted to say to him, something like that, but his mother came up to us just then and with this sweet smile, put her arm around her son, and said to me in her funny accent, “It’s my fault.”
“What’s your fault?” I asked her.
“That he likes these awful things,” she said. Then she said she thought it was because of the stories she used to tell him when he was a kid about the ancient Nordic kings and their battles and rituals and sacrifices.
I asked her what she meant by sacrifices.
Boris sort of leaned in at that point and told her to tell me about Edwin the Old, that he loved that story! But he said it almost in a whisper, and his mother, she looked around and I saw her eyes go to her husband. He was talking with his sister and brother-in-law, down by the edge of the pond. And then she said something about Abe not liking the story, getting upset when she told it. But Boris insisted, so she told it to me, this strange old story, about some Swedish king who made a deal with Odin, the god of war and death, that he could live ten years longer if he sacrificed one of his sons. He had ten sons, she told me, so he sacrificed them, one at a time, until there was only one son left. At that point he was so old he couldn’t get out of bed and had to drink milk like a baby, but he would’ve sacrificed his tenth and last son, she said, if the people hadn’t put a stop to it and insisted that the tenth son become their king. So the old man died.
I remember Boris was quiet the whole time his mother was telling the story, and when she finished, he said, sort of under his breath, “Brutal.” Then one of his buddies drove up and he leapt off the deck—I’ll never forget that, he just jumped over the railing and landed on the ground so light and so strong like a deer leaping over a downed tree—and the two of them gave each other this bear hug and walked off together into the woods.
I looked at Sieglinde, and she smiled and shrugged. “They’ll smoke a little weed,” she said. “But then they’ll get hungry and come back in time for supper.” And she was right. They did. That night.
Later I wondered why Abe didn’t like his wife to tell the story of the old king. I figured, hell, it’s just another crazy old legend. I’m not saying I gave it a lot of thought, though. Just every now and then. Like when Boris got back from his trip and I’m sitting on my back porch on a Sunday afternoon and I hear Abe light into him again. I mean, I’d heard him do it before, over the years. This time it was something about how he’d had to work his own way through college and how Boris was a no-good stoner—that was the way he put it. Anyway, it made me think of the graduation party, how Boris went off with his buddy after his mother told that old story she didn’t want Abe to hear. But I guess I wondered about it even more after he lost his son.
Which everybody in town knows happened a year ago this week. Nearly everybody went to the memorial service, or knew someone who did. All the kids he’d gone to high school with, tears rolling down their faces watching the slide show—Boris at six and Boris at sixteen and Boris graduating high school—all his friends crying, the guys, too, except his best friend, Josh, who’d been out at the pond with him that night, he just stood in a corner like he was frozen stiff and didn’t dare take anything in or he might crack up. I didn’t stay long. Seemed like it was for the kids, mostly. Driving home, I guess I was feeling the weight of it, and maybe that’s why, when I got out of the truck, I didn’t go into the house straight away. Instead, I walked out back and stood at the edge of the pond, just looking. I don’t know how long I stood there, but all of a sudden, this movement caught my eye, and I saw, just a few feet in front of me, a dragonfly nymph clearing the water’s surface, climbing up a reed and then stopping there, inhaling the air—for the first time, I guess. And then, while I watched, it sort of bent over and its shell came undone, as if it was ripping the seams of an old winter coat. And the dragonfly pushed itself out. Then it just rested there on the reed. I knew it’d take hours for its legs to harden and its wings to open and dry, and I was getting cold, so I went inside.
I poured myself a little blueberry port and sat for a while, everything that had happened fighting in my head. And I thought, I should write it all down, the stories from his graduation party, and his trip to the Mayan ruins, and his coming home on his spring break and dying like that. I thought I should try to make some sense of it. So I got out a notebook and pen. But then I just sat there watching the dark get darker. I never made a mark on the page. I guess I knew I didn’t have it in me. Instead I read some poetry—Howard Nemerov, I think—until I got drowsy enough I knew I could sleep.
Next morning, I went back out to the pond and saw the dragonfly’s empty casing, still stuck to the reed, and another not three feet away, empty like the first. And I knew then, the ice had to be out all the way across the pond, and Boris only five days dead.
Not that day, but no more than a couple of days after, I went into the village to pick up my mail, and I saw him, Abe I mean, walking alone up the street in a way like I hadn’t seen a man walk for forty years.
After that, I tried to be a better neighbor, but without making a nuisance of myself. Summers I always walk down to the village to pick up my mail, except if it’s a hard rain, and on my way past their place, if either of them were out on the deck or in the yard, I’d call out hello and sometimes stop if I could think of anything better than foolish to say. Mostly, though, there was no sign of life. Sieglinde probably at the hospital working, and Abe, well, I knew he was self-employed, something about investments, so maybe he was in an office he might have had in the house. I don’t know. I’ve never been inside. But two, three times, when I went down to the village late afternoons, I did see him, out by the pond, sitting in a lawn chair, not reading or on the phone or anything, just sitting, looking. So I’d call out hello, and he’d call back or raise an arm, and I’d make myself cross the yard and try to think of some reason to say I was stopping, other than the truth, which was—I don’t know what. Maybe I was trying to keep from happening what I knew—or some part of me knew—was happening and was going to keep on happening until it was over no matter what I or anybody else did in the meantime.
Well, one of those afternoons—it was past summer by then, late September at least and the sky over the pond was already streaked with red—I saw him sitting out there and I called out hello and he sort of waved me over to join him. So I crossed the yard and as soon as I got near him, I could smell the whiskey. That’s how strong it was. The bottle was under his chair. He had a big glass half-full, and straight, by the color, and he was drinking it like it was Coca Cola. He asks me, would I like a drink, he’ll go into the house and get me a glass. But I tell him no, I’ve got work waiting at home, which was true—I teach a lit class at the prison spring and fall and had their papers to grade—and trying to be neighborly, not to judge, I say, it must be damned hard since his son died, and I tell him I leaned on the stuff for a while when I first got back from Vietnam. I thought for a minute I’d said the wrong thing, because he was quiet for a long time, both of us just staring out at the pond.
Then he said something that didn’t really follow except, in an odd way, I guess it did. He told me the story of how he’d been in the Gulf War. Until that moment I had no idea he was a vet, but he told me he’d joined the Reserves to help pay his way through college—his father was a no-good drunk, he said, so he’d always worked for everything he got—and he stayed on, he said, after his first contract was up, as things were quiet in those days and the extra pay was good. Well, not long after his reenlistment, he’s working for some bank when his unit gets called up. But he never saw combat. The way he put it, he was only in the Gulf a few days, but he saw enough death to last a lifetime.
I ask him how’s that, and he tells me this story of how he’d befriended this new recruit, a young guy first year in, sort of took him under his wing and looked out for him, and one night, the kid was on duty outside the barracks, but Abe had set up to meet a local guy who was bringing him some liquor—totally illegal, of course, in Saudi Arabia, but the guy knew somebody who worked for an airline and could get those little bottles they serve on planes. So Abe’s supposed to meet this guy so he tells the kid he’ll relieve him, go on inside. Well, ten minutes later, Abe says, he sees this ball of fire in the sky heading straight at him, so he runs. He’s not thinking, you know? Instinct takes over. So he runs. The light is so bright it blinds him and the explosion so hard it throws him to the ground. When he gets up, he’s dazed, just standing there, watching the barracks go up in flames. And then he starts running back towards it, thinking he’s going to somehow save somebody, but he doesn’t get far because the building’s an inferno and people are running everywhere screaming and he falls on the pavement and looks down and sees he’s wounded. So as he’s telling me this, he reaches down to his ankle and pulls up the leg of his pants. There’s a scar on the side of his calf. “That’s all I got,” he says. “A slice out of my leg that I didn’t even know at first I had. And the kid I sent back in, dead. A few women, too, and some guys married with kids at home.” He says something like that, and takes another swig.
I just stood there a while, not knowing what to say. Or knowing there’s nothing you can say. So you train your eye on the Canada geese rising up from the pond and you listen to their honking and when it dies down in the distance, you say something stupid like, I guess not long till winter. He doesn’t answer, so you sigh maybe too loud and say you’d best be getting home as you’ve got those papers to grade, and then you say goodbye.
I’m walking away, with my back turned, and I’m nearly to the road, and I hear him say, like he’s talking to himself, or maybe out to the pond, “They’re headin’ home to roost.” I thought he must have meant the geese. And maybe he did.
Once the cold settles in, I take the truck down to the village, so my trips past their house stopped not long after that, and didn’t start back again until last Friday. You remember how warm it was last Friday, almost like May. So I walked down to the village and, on my way back, there he was, sitting in his lawn chair by the pond. So I stopped and crossed the yard and said hello. I hadn’t seen him all winter. Even then, I didn’t really see him full on, because I came up from behind him and the whole time we talked—well, I’d seen the bottle under the chair again and the glass in his hand, so I stood a few feet to his side, looking straight out at the pond. But then I made the fool mistake of asking him was he out there waiting for Sieglinde to get home from work and he told me no, Sieglinde had gone back to Sweden to look after her mother who was doing poorly. Then all of a sudden, like it didn’t mean a thing to him, he says to me, I don’t expect her back. Just like that, just that simple. “I don’t expect her back.”
What do you mean, I almost asked him. But I knew what he meant. So instead I asked him if he’d ever been to Sweden. He said he’d been there twice: once when they got engaged and once when Boris was three or four, before they’d moved here. So I asked him why they did. He shrugged. Said he really couldn’t say for sure. That they were living outside Boston and looking for a slower pace, that Sieglinde didn’t mind the cold, or the quiet, that she’d heard about a job for a critical care nurse at the local hospital, and he’d had enough of working for somebody else and wanted to take on clients of his own. Then, when they’d come looking around, he’d seen the ad for land on Consecration Pond and there was something about the name, he said. Though he’d never quite figured out what.
So I told him that I’d heard once from an old-timer that the man who bought the property—the pond and 300 acres surrounding—had fought in the Civil War and named it for a line from the Gettysburg Address. Then I quoted it: “‘But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.’ That’s what I’ve heard,” I said, “though myself I’ve never liked the name.”
He asked me why not.
I held off answering for a minute, but then decided to say it outright. I told him I figure nobody comes back from war believing there’s anything consecrating about men shooting holes in each other’s hearts or blowing each other’s heads off. So, I said, “I just call it ‘the pond.’ It’s water and soil and plants and animals, and none of them with the consciousness to care some fool gave it a name.”
I guess talking about the pond made me angry, even though I know it’s crazy to feel angry at a vet from the Civil War. So even though I could tell Abe was hurting, I said good afternoon and headed home. Once it’s dark, I can’t see his place from mine, but for some reason that night I did notice, all of a sudden, when a light in his house went on. It was nearly ten o’clock, and of course the night had cooled, and I don’t recall he’d been wearing much more than a jacket sitting out there.
I should have stopped by to see him Saturday. Or yesterday. But after that one warm day we went right back to snow flurries, so I didn’t walk by, didn’t have any excuse to disturb him. I kept thinking, next week, if we get one day halfway decent, I’ll walk on by, even if I don’t go all the way down to the village and back, just to have a reason to check in. But I left it too late.
Last night, I’d been reading. It was gone ten. The moon’s full, and I figure it’ll be up past the trees over the pond, so I get up to have a look before I turn in. I step out onto the back porch and take it in. Well, I don’t know. I get this feeling. I look over toward his place. His car’s out in front but there’s no light inside the house. Then I hear the sound, like I’d heard a year ago, like spring ice cracking. Or a gunshot. I grab my flashlight, go over to his place. He’s sitting out there by the pond. Maybe he’d been there the whole day. The bottle was empty beneath his chair. A glass was on the ground. He was sitting upright, facing the pond, staring. The gun was dangling from his hand down by his side. I closed his eyes and called the police.
And that’s all I know. You still want to, go ahead and write your story. Give the public their entertainment. But it’s a fool’s business. Nobody’ll ever know anything more than what everybody thinks they already know. He lost his son. And it broke him.
Laura Bonazzoli is a freelance writer and editor, mainly in the health sciences. Her poetry and short fiction has appeared in Epiphany, Free Inquiry, Reed Magazine, The Sandy River Review, Third Wednesday, Viking Review, and other publications. She currently lives in MidCoast Maine, within walking distance of two harbors, a river, a lake, and several ponds.