The Boathouse

Tim Griffith

The boys are up to no good in the woods behind Henry’s house again. He watches them through the window as his kettle whistles high, and he debates whether or not he should run them off. One of them holds a hatchet, waves it above his head. Henry has found four of his beech trees with deep wedges hacked out of their trunks in the past month, yet he cannot bring himself to do anything about it. He could find out who the boys’ folks are and call them to explain the problem, but he doesn’t want to risk a confrontation and who knows if it would even do any good, what with parents these days. He decides to leave them alone and drinks a cup of coffee on the couch while reading the local newspaper. The fire pops and sizzles beside him. It’s one of those colorless days when the trees creak like old floorboards and the river ice groans from the bulge and shrink of the tides.

Henry’s dogs, Bird and Willy, rise up howling as a rock crashes through the kitchen window and bounces into the living room. The boys have been causing trouble like this since last summer, when three new developments were completed just a mile up the road and young families came to the area for the first time in a decade.

“They’re throwing rocks at us now,” Henry tells his dogs.

He gets up and makes for the door as quickly as he can, then bursts out into the cold but all that’s left of the boys is the crunching of their footfall on the gravel drive and a familiar scent for Bird and Willy to puzzle over. The dogs follow Henry along the side of his small home; it was once the boathouse of the regal Victorian up the hill, where Henry lived for the first eighteen years of his life. He examines the broken window, then fetches some scrap lumber from beneath the porch and a hammer and nails from the shed.

It’s hard for Henry to stay angry with the boys for very long, as they remind him of his older brother. He remembers skating behind his brother on the pond near the bend in Gaffney Road and pedaling hard to keep up with him on the way to the beach and chasing him through a cornfield during the hot lull of an August evening. Henry always followed the path his older brother had forged, but he did not follow him out the door of the Cherry & Webb department store that winter day when an unfamiliar man walked in, bent down low to them, and whispered, “You two lucky boys have won the grand prize. We’ve got a pair of brand-new Schwinn Flyers outside, waiting just for you.”

• • •

Henry boards up the broken window, lines the inside with cardboard, and sweeps the glass off the floor. Then he sits back on the couch and returns to the newspaper. He can’t keep his focus. The boys think he’s some kind of a monster, and they fear him and take thrill in tormenting him in equal measure. This past fall, on a clear, crisp evening, he heard them through his bedroom window, whispering. One of them claimed Henry strung up children by their ankles in these woods and left them to starve to death or be eaten by vultures. He said they were surely standing atop a field of human remains—maybe all the disappeared boys and girls from the past century—and Henry lay very still and quiet in his bed that night, his throat swelling with sadness to hear the boy speak those horrors about him.

His brother’s killer was never found. It was assumed the man had been a drifter or a fisherman docked in port for the weekend; it couldn’t have been a local, the police decided, though Henry could never figure out how they had reached that conclusion. When he was a boy he often dreamed of the man, his face veiled in shadow, with empty holes for his nose and mouth and two points of blazing light where the eyes should have been. In the years before he truly understood what had happened, Henry would imagine the man devouring his brother bit by bit on a long, wooden table—like some witch or giant from a fairy tale.

The boys return within the hour and Henry is amazed by their boldness. Excited cries sound from the boat landing just a short ways up the riverbank, so Henry rises again and walks to his living room window to look out over the small cove. Six of them stand on the shoreline shouting encouragement to the smallest of the bunch, who walks out over the unstable ice. “Goddamn,” Henry mutters. He puts on his winter coat and hat, then storms out the door with Bird and Willy at his heels.

“You kids stay off the ice!” he shouts.

The group on shore dashes up the road, leaving their friend to face Henry alone. Henry lets them go, but the boy on the river panics and heads farther out, to where the current flows in a deep channel and the ice almost never hardens fully, even after a long cold spell like this one. The boy is no more than eight or nine years old. He sprints out toward an unseen gap in the ice, frightened to death of Henry. All the other waterfront homes are vacant this time of year; Henry is the only adult for a half mile.

“Stop!” Henry shouts. “It’s not safe out there!”

After a few more strides the boy reaches the meandering channel and his boot pierces the slushy glaze as if it were only a film of duckweed on a pond in summer, and with that he plunges into the water and a wintry silence takes hold.

• • •

Henry charges onto the ice without thought. He slips immediately and comes down on his back with a crack like a steel cable pulled to its breaking point, but he isn’t alone: Bird and Willy—such good, big-hearted dogs, dogs that needed nothing in their training but a thousand generations of domestication and a lonely old man to pour their kibble—gallop over the white sheen like two hot-blooded horses racing across a pasture. Henry flips from his back onto his knees, pushes himself to his feet and starts again for where the boy went under. His dogs run before him as if flushing grouse or quail from a bramble patch, and they jump belly first into the ice break where the boy has just now reappeared and is waving his arms for help. Henry walks quickly, though not so quickly as to risk another fall; he knows they would all soon freeze to death with another mistake like that.

He has never ventured onto the river in winter, but each summer he and his brother would deliberately capsize their father’s canoe on this very stretch of water. They would laugh in the brine and practice righting the vessel and bailing it dry, and some days they would take sandwiches to the islands in the middle of the river to play Robinson Crusoe until their mother rang the dinner bell that carried for miles.

It’s still unnerving for Henry to view those islands poking up from the ice. He left this place as a young man and made a life for himself in Chicago, but after retiring a few years back—divorced and childless—he decided it was time to come home. The old boathouse had been renovated and was on the market as a one-bedroom home, and he thought it would be comforting to play out his last decade or so in the neighborhood he and his brother had ruled. But it has been the opposite—the boys who seem to lack any respect for him at all, the developers cutting down trees and lining the waterways with modern condos and mansions, a resurgence of dreams featuring his brother’s killer. Some nights, Henry strolls down to the boat landing to look over the water and clear his mind, and on one occasion he saw two points of burning light on a small island a hundred yards out. He was so gripped by fear he could hardly move, but he calmed himself and was able to hold the lights’ gaze for a time. After a few short minutes, though, he discerned the faint silhouette of a man—or something of a man—waving to him from the little island, and he ran back home to lie on the floor with his dogs then, hoping he was not crazed by dementia.

Shuffling across the sheen, Henry makes it to within ten feet of the break. His dogs tread water on either side of the boy—supporting him, trying to lift him out from the cold. The ice creaks beneath Henry’s boot, and he cannot walk farther without falling through himself. The boy is small and blue; he stretches his arms toward Henry and Henry lies on his stomach and slides forward slowly toward the edge, where the thin shelf of ice folds downward beneath him.

“Take my hand,” Henry says. “The ice will break.”

The boy hesitates for an instant but then reaches out, and with the help of Bird and Willy—pumping their legs desperately to raise him higher and higher—he grabs on to Henry’s forearm and hangs there at the edge, his chest supported by the ice and everything from his belly down still submerged in the flow. Pulling in little jerks like a dog tugging on a rope, Henry manages to get the boy fully out of the water, but now the boy begins to shake violently and cannot seem to stand on his own.

“My legs,” the boy gasps.

Henry picks up the boy and cradles him in his arms like a load of firewood. He starts back home and hears his dogs whining behind him. The water is near freezing but these dogs are made for the cold of Canadian lakes and streams and can last a while longer by swimming in place. The boy moans as Henry steps onto dry land, and then after a short walk they enter the warmth of the boathouse, the firelight casting shadows on the walls. Henry sets the boy by the fire and wraps him in a woolen blanket.

“Don’t burn yourself,” he tells the boy. “Sit by the fire but not too close because you can’t feel your skin yet. I’ve got to get my dogs.”

• • •

The wind beats the leafless boughs and they grate against nearby tree trunks. Henry and his brother played in every dip and gully of this woodland, atop every molehill. They caught frogs in the kettle holes and salamanders in the moss beneath fallen trees; they ran headlong through branches and briars and scaled high-limbed poplars as if bunches of coconuts were to be found at their tops. And then at the age of eight and a half, the woods became Henry’s alone and all he could think to do in them was wander around, kicking up clouds of leaves and throwing rocks at stumps. His brother’s body was discovered in March—three long months after his disappearance—by a farmer as he plowed his fields for the seeding, and Henry accompanied his parents to the coroner’s office that week and sat on a black leather chair in the waiting room. His father demanded that he and his wife be admitted to see their son, and the coroner finally conceded after a hushed discussion.

“I tell you,” the coroner told his father. “This won’t bring you any peace.”

The coroner took his parents away and Henry waited on the leather chair and looked at his shoes and breathed the stale air. Even then, at such a young age, he expected a powerful scream from his mother would give way to a kind of weeping he had not yet witnessed, but instead a silence that seemed to muffle and constrict his hearing itself hung over everything, until the soft paddings of his parents and the coroner grew louder.

“He was torn by the plow,” the coroner murmured. “I told you he was torn by the plow.”

The three adults came around the bend, Henry’s father in the black suit he always wore and his mother in the mourning dress she had refused to don until it was certain her son was dead. His father had an arm wrapped around his mother’s shoulders, and they both looked grimly at the floor as if shielding their faces from a violent hailstorm. The diminished family drove home and busied themselves with their lives again, but there were long periods—weeks and months and even the better part of some years—when Henry could not recognize his parents. At times they seemed like two strangers passing as his relations.

He runs through the cold for his dogs and thinks of that far-off time. On the river he sees that Bird has crawled out of the water and is lying on the ice about halfway to shore. She hears her master coming. Her tail wags and she tries to stand but her legs splay out uselessly and then she just lies there, panting and trembling. The gap in the ice is empty. Henry calls for Willy, but there are no signs of him so Henry stands over Bird and picks her up just as he picked up the boy. There is no use in searching for Willy, as he is nowhere in sight and his fur would stand out starkly against the white ice, had he managed to climb free. They were left alone for only ten short minutes, and now he is gone. Maybe Henry should have stayed a few moments longer to pull the dogs free to allow them the chance to walk home on their own. But he saved the boy—that’s the important thing.

For the second time today, Henry returns home with a frozen creature in his arms. The boy is coming back around. He sits by the fire with the woolen blanket draped over his head, and he looks up, wide-eyed and tearful, as Henry enters the boathouse with the dog in his arms. Henry lays Bird by the fire and begins to rub her sides to try to warm her. She breathes in short little puffs with her tongue hanging limply.

“Are you okay?” Henry asks the boy.

“I called my mom with your phone,” the boy says quickly. He leans toward Bird and joins in petting her. “Where’s the other dog?”

“Willy couldn’t get out,” Henry says. “This is Bird, Willy’s mother.”

“Is he dead?” the boy asks. He says the word as if he has only recently begun to think about it—perhaps due to the death of some beloved family pet or a grandparent—and is strangely enchanted by the concept.

“I’m sure he is,” Henry says. “Or I would be out there looking for him still.”

Henry throws two logs on the fire. He sits down with the boy and they continue to pet Bird, scratching her ears and calling her a good dog. Bird falls asleep after a while; her breath begins to steady and it seems that maybe she will be all right. Then a pair of headlights shows through the window facing Henry’s long drive, shining in and out of the trees. A truck squeals to a stop beside the shed, and both doors swing open.

“Are you going to tell my mom about the dead dog?” the boy asks.

“I won’t tell her,” Henry says. He just barely gets the words out, and then his lips start to quiver and he feels that his throat might close completely if he doesn’t cry.

The boy places his palms on Bird’s shoulders and touches foreheads with her as a priest might do with a churchgoer in a time of profound sorrow. When he rises, Henry walks him to the door and opens it to the cold, where a young man and woman stand side by side. The man shakes Henry’s hand and thanks him, and after that they pull away—grateful to be together, a family. Then Henry lies down beside Bird and thinks of Willy, still a young dog and now lost somewhere beneath the ice. He hopes he has not become lodged in the mud for some fisherman to haul up in spring but rather has found the outbound currents and is started on a long journey—drifting snout first, his forelegs extended as if he were crashing through the forest on the trail of rabbit or deer.

Tim Griffith lives in Boise, Idaho and is working on a novel. His fiction has also been published in the Gettysburg Review.