The hiss of the tea kettle steaming its siren call rattles me awake. There’s a small lever on its spout to flick back the lid and once, only once, instead of touching that nubby rubber extremity, I put my finger on the steaming metal. Only once. Accidents happen.
Is it a curse/burden or the wild imagination of women, of mothers, to constantly worry/fear/have daymares about the horrible way their loved ones may die or be injured? Do men have these same fears?
Safety is the illusion, the comfortable narrative we tell ourselves as we hum our way through our days – a hum that can easily turn into a scream.
My brother and his family visit on the weekend. We go on a day trip to Algonquin park. Our cottage is situated about forty-five minutes from the east gate. On our way, as we careen down another steep incline, the speedometer reaching over 100 km/h, I see the sign warning for deer, then I see the sign warning for moose and I can’t help myself, “please slow down.” I can see the moose appearing from nowhere, hear the crash; I think I’m going to be sick.
On our hike, we spot a stack of boulders with snakes happily coiled up in the sun. My toddler leans her face in close. What if a snake were to simply recoil and SNAP. She isn’t afraid. She pokes him with a stick, and he slides away.
On the last evening of their stay, my brother and my husband set off to fish in a leaky tin boat at sunset. Our lake is quite small, but it has pockets of depth, some say up to ninety feet. Mostly the whole lake is visible, except for a few hidden bends. As the sun dips further, I walk away from them, turn my back on the water, and walk up the steep incline of our gravel driveway with my dog. I think, I hope they brought the lifejackets. We are new to cottage life. It’s easy to forget your own safety underneath the camouflage of bliss.
I walk back down the driveway with the dog and scan the horizon. No sign of them.
They had a few beers, I remind myself. What if they tipped? The water is calm and secretive. The lone eerie call of a loon rings out.
Back in my kitchen, as the tea kettle wails, I return a large knife by sliding it into its holster. What if I missed? And instead sliced into my hand. Instead, I am careful, deliberate. The throaty call of a crow caws out somewhere overhead.
They are around the bend, my brother and my husband, and as the sky fades to black, the stars twinkling overhead, they come back safely to us with fish stories to tell. The baby fish that ate their worm and caught the monster pike, will someday turn into the monster fish that caught the whale, but there’s no danger in that.
“You don’t have any snapping turtles up here by any chance, do you?” My sister-in-law tells me a story about the snapping turtle that bit her toe as she dangled on a pool noodle in a lake. Her turquoise nail polish was to blame, she thinks. She shows me the scar and I try not to think about it as I swim alone, far from shore, cutting across the lake. I also try not to think about what if, at this moment, my heart stopped beating. We do happen to have a lovely snapping turtle, the caretakers of the lake, who likes to visit the fish underneath our dock.
The kids fish and catch fish. The fish go into a bucket. The kids and other adults go up for lunch; I am the last one to pull myself from the lake.
“What about these fish?” I call up.
“Leave them, the boys want to eat them.”
I hesitate. The fish don’t look like they’re doing so well. One is floating up sideways near the top. I push aside my instincts.
Over lunch, we ascertain nobody knows how to clean or prepare the fish. And it seems especially clear that no one is volunteering to kill them or deal with the mess. Another time. My brother is the first to head back down to the bucket and the news is grim.
“I think they’re all dead.” He dumps the bucket of water into the lake in a panic and then realizes he’s just dumped a bucket of dead fish beside the dock.
“No, look!” they’re still breathing, they are just in shock. Fish swim so that water will pass over their gills. The bucket provided not enough space, not enough air. No room to breathe and live.
I am outraged on behalf of the fish. I can tolerate fishing, but I cannot tolerate cruelty. That our carelessness has caused the fish distress near death is unacceptable. Take only what you need. Still. One by one they eventually swim away, they live. Lesson learned. It’s clear to me who poses the greatest threat and it’s not the snapping turtle.
“How do you keep them safe?” Elyse’s speech therapist is asking me a pointed question, the pointed question, about life at the cottage on the water’s edge.
“Strict rules,” I say. There’s no going outside without letting an adult know. No going on the dock period without an adult. Still.
There’s a sort of marsh on one side of the dock and a beach for swimming on the other side. The edge of the water is shallow, its deepening slow, only up to four feet by the very end of the dock. We allow the kids to play at the beach by the marsh. Still.
One day Dan and I are finishing our dinner. We sit in the screened in porch with a view of the water and the girls are playing outside. For one moment, they forget themselves and step onto the edge of the dock. One peers over the edge into the water, probably looking for minnows, another leans (pushes?) into them and SPLASH! On one side, our dock is lined with rocks, likely the remnants of an old dock. Her head avoids the rock by inches. Dan and I hear the splash, jump to our feet, in time to hear one complaining about being soaking wet, but not hurt. Not this time.
Louie, our rambunctious pup, weaves through children at warp speed, occasionally deciding to take one out. We know he does this. We prepare for this exact scenario. Keep him on a leash we can grab onto at any time. Our children, who cling to his neck and pull at his skin and love him dearly, have learned to brace themselves when he gets into this wild state. Still.
My youngest nephew is but a wisp of a child. Small for his age of three, which is in itself small; I worried about him the most with Louie. Sure enough, with our vigilance, which is not vigilance enough, Louie at some point over the weekend, knocked him down two stairs, bulldozed him over in our driveway as we were all saying goodbye, and narrowly missed knocking him off the dock, more than once. Louie charged full speed right at him on the dock, having escaped an adult grasp, in a frenzy of excitement, and my nephew’s little life flashed before my eyes. The lake in relief, Louie swerved to the left at the last minute and I scooped my nephew up safely into my arms.
Later, the two of us, just the two of us, took Louie for a walk up the incline. My nephew didn’t say a word, but held my hand tight, trusting me, as I warded off the dog who wanted sticks thrown for him. A dog that comes in hot. I felt like with my hand, I was tethering my nephew’s small soul to the earth. I daren’t let go.