This story has been told so many times in my family that we all are numb to its horrors. There are many things of which I always had to be reminded, because I had no memory of it, such as me being pulled out of the pond by my hair because I was so heavy, in my waterlogged snowsuit and boots, that I could not be picked up, and that later, after resuscitation, my teeth were chattering so hard that I had bitten my tongue all up.
I don’t remember hearing my little brother’s screams as he stood on the slippery snow-covered edge of the slushy pond. He told me later that he was afraid that he would fall in, too. He was still clutching his icicle. My icicle had slipped out of my hands into the pond after I had stuck it in the deceptively smooth, white surface, hoping to discover that the pond had frozen over and that we could play on it like we had slipped and slid hilariously around on it last winter.
But for the record, for those of you that have never heard this story, I’m putting it here, hoping in the retelling that I might find some art in it. “Art is long and life is short, and success is very far off,” as Joseph Conrad once said.
Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, later “Joseph Conrad” was a Polish sea captain who did not learn English until he was in his twenties, and did not start writing until he was 35. He wrote prose like J.M.W. Turner painted seascapes. He wrote unparalleled descriptions of sea meeting sky, the solidarity of human experience, and of the darkness that can overwhelm the individual soul. He wrote “Heart of Darkness,” which was later made into the acclaimed Coppola 1979 Vietnam war film, “Apocalypse Now.”
The darkness I remember, but I do not remember feeling horror or cold as my waterlogged clothes pulled me under. I do remember watching in wonder as exotic tropical fish swam inquisitively around me, a vision conjured up by my brain as my oxygen ran out.
My icicle was beautiful and sparkly and longer than my brother’s icicle. The 2 longest icicles had been broken off the roof of my grandparents’ house and given to us by an adolescent neighbor boy that did odd jobs for my grandparents. I had held it up to the brilliant sky and admired the refractions and the sunlight trapped in it. It was a thing of power and beauty. I gave it a lick with my tongue. “Let’s check on the pond,” I said to my brother. The pond was down the hill, on the other side of the house.
I also remember reciting an “oral report” that I had carefully composed about this experience several years later in elementary school (4th or 5th grade?). Our class was graded on the sophistication of the vocabulary words we used in these weekly reports. I used dramatic phrases like “as I slid down into the murky depths…,” as I bounced up and down nervously on the balls of my feet while synchronously bouncing the fingertips of both hands off each other. I’m sure my performance was hypnotic, but not for the right reasons.
My brother and I had been sent down to my grandparents’ house from my parents’ house to fetch a can of beans. We all lived out in the country on an old estate, with no visible neighbors. Our mission was immediately forgotten upon the gift of the icicles. Thus armed, we turned towards the pond. Was it frozen over yet?
So I lay down in the snow on the edge of the pond, and stuck my icicle in the water. The slush curled back from the thrust, revealing for a moment the cold, brackish, dark water underneath. I smelled the cold, black water, my icicle slipped out of my glove, I made a grab for my beautiful icicle, then I slipped into the pond after it.
I came up for air once, trying in a level-headed way to swim towards my red-faced brother, whose screams I could not hear, then was pulled under and saw the fish. I was told later that my grandparents, drawn my brother’s hysterical sirens, came running out of the house in their bathrobes and fished me out, then my grandfather resuscitated me. I remember opening my eyes under a heap of quilts, seeing a blurry circle of worried faces around me. I was told to drink a glass of revolting, brandy-laced warm milk, or “the doctor will pump your stomach out.” My brother, 3 years old, was left outside, alone in the snow, just outside the door, while this was going on.
Decades later, the sensations remaining in my alligator brain from this experience are the shock and dismay of first sliding into that dank, unreflective water, then the jolt of regaining consciousness later. And the loss of my beautiful icicle.
It was an innocuous, very small, stagnant pond in which this drama occurred. No one has ever remarked on its beauty, for it has none, and it does not care. It quietly gurgles on to this day. Without memory or feeling or even art to it. Just frogs.