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Port Alma, Maine
More than anyone I ever knew, my brother Billy felt the rapid wings of summer, how it darted like a bird through the trees of Maine, skittered along streams and ponds, then soared away, bright and gleaming, leaving us behind, shivering in coats and scarves.
It was on one of those fleeting summer days that he saved Jenny Grover's life. He'd built a wooden raft out of planks discarded by a local sawmill, packed the space between the boards with rags and mud, then asked me to help him carry it to the spot where Fox Creek widened and deepened, its current growing turbulent again just beyond the bend, where it made its headlong rush toward Linder Falls.
"I'm going to make it all the way across," he declared. He was twelve years old, shirtless, barefoot, dressed only in a pair of cut-off trousers.
"It's going to sink, Billy," I warned him. "Believe me, it's going to sink like a stone."
He laughed. "If it sinks, we'll swim."
"We? I'm not going out on that thing."
"Oh, come on, Cal."
"No," I said. "Look at me."
Unlike Billy, I was fully dressed, having made no compromise with summer beyond a pair of sandals.
"Okay then," he said. "You can go back home."
"No, I'll wait."
"Because someone has to pull you out of the water," I told him. "That's why I came along. To save your life."
This was not entirely a joke. Five years older, I had long ago assumed the part of the vigilant, protective brother, certain that throughout our lives I would be there to protect him. I'd already caught him as he tumbled from chairs and staircases, tugged him away from blazing hearths, snatched his fingers from closing doors. Once I'd even managed to drag him off a rearing pony, lower him safely to the ground. My mother had scolded me for that. "He can't avoid getting hurt, Cal," she said. "Next time let him fall."
It was the sort of statement I'd come to expect from my mother, the great value she put on experience, especially painful experience.
It was not the sort of advice I cared to take, however. Nor, following it, did I in the least intend to let my brother sink into Fox Pond.
"Be careful, Billy," I cautioned as he stepped onto the raft, plunged his wooden paddle into the water, and pushed out into the current. "It's white water just around the bend."
His eyes sparkled. "You'll be sorry you didn't come with me."
"No, I won't."
"You miss all the good stuff, Cal."
I pointed to the trickle of water already seeping into his raft. "Like drowning?"
His smile was a light aimed at the world. "Like almost drowning," he replied. "See you on the other side, Cal."
With that, he shoved the handle against the rocky bottom again, this time with all his might, so that the raft shot forward with such force, it left a rippling wake behind it.
I watched as he floated out into the stream, then sprinted for the rickety wooden bridge that spanned it.
Billy had already made it a third of the way across the water by the time I reached the bridge. He was paddling furiously now, trying to reach the opposite bank before his inadequate makeshift raft sank beneath him. At midstream he grinned and waved to me.
"Will it make it?" I called, growing anxious now.
"Sure," he returned breathlessly, the raft still afloat but riding low in the water.
I bounded off the bridge, then along the edge of the water. Billy was two thirds across by then, grinning, triumphant that the raft was still afloat.
"Land ho," I yelled.
He laughed for an instant, then stopped, his eyes suddenly concentrated on some point in the distance.
It was at that moment that Jenny Grover swept out from under the bridge, clinging, terror-stricken, to a black rubber tube. She was moving swiftly on currents that had not yet tamed, and which would inevitably propel her across the still-turbulent surface that lay between the bridge and the lethal, churning waters that waited just beyond the bend, water that would, within minutes, carry her over Linder Falls.
The horrible truth hit me instantly. Jenny Grover, five years old, was going to die. It was an irrefutable fact. I might dive into the water, try to intercept her, but she would have long swept past any point I might reach along her path. There was nothing between Jenny and the falls, nothing that might grasp the rubber tube or direct it toward shore.
Nothing, that is, but my brother.
I spun around and saw that he stood in place, the paddle motionless in his hands, the raft sinking beneath him, his gaze fixed on Jenny Grover. Instantly, I knew what he was thinking.
"No!" I shouted. "Don't!"
He looked at me, sunlight glistening in his wet hair, then turned and dove headlong into the water, a gleaming, graceful, fleeting thing, the white bird of summer.
I felt my heart quake, all my passion surge in a silent, shining prayer, Live!
Then I rushed into the stream myself, swimming madly toward Billy even as he swam away from me, his arms shooting in and out of the turbulent water, plowing with all his might toward Jenny Grover.
I had made it to the raft by the time he reached her, saw him grasp the black tube, then, with a fierce backward stroke, pull it toward him.
"Got her," he called. There was a strange, exultant happiness in his voice.
I swam out to him, grasped the tube, and together we hauled it back to shore.
Once on land, Jenny wept softly, wrapped tightly in my brother's arms.
"You're a hero, Billy," I said.
He looked at me, blue eyes sparkling.
"A real hero," I repeated.
My father, however, had a different view of what Billy did, one he made the mistake of declaring that same evening as we came to the end of dinner. I'd just finished telling the whole tale, Billy's raft, his sail out onto Fox Creek, how he'd leaped into the water, pulled Jenny Grover from death's way.
As I finished, Billy glanced at our mother, confirmed that she was unmistakably proud of what he'd done, then looked at our father, no doubt expecting the same admiring response.
Instead, he encountered a solemn face, stern, dark eyes.
"Don't you think that was rather foolhardy, William?" my father asked.
Billy stared at him quizzically.
I sensed trouble on the wing, set down my knife and fork, and waited expectantly.
"You have to think before you act," my father said. "That's what the mind is for." He tapped his forehead to emphasize the point. "It reins in our impulses. And if you don't pay heed to it, then..."
"What are you telling him, Walter?"
It was my mother's voice, firm, determined, a sword flourished in the air between them.
I knew that the old battle was about to erupt again, my father in command of reason's stolid force, my mother the determined general of passion's fiery legions. It had been going on for years, though the end seemed already settled, the spoils divided, I the sturdy coin claimed by my father, Billy my mother's golden treasure.
"What's that, my dear?" my father replied, his tone not so much condescending as already seeking to dampen the fuse he'd unintentionally lit. It was a tone I'd come to expect on such occasions. For although my father could appear impressive, a man of strong opinions who peppered his talk with learned citations, I'd early recognized that he was, in fact, curiously weak. When faced with confrontation, he was always quick to retreat, particularly before the formidable and unbending figure of my mother.
She faced him from the opposite end of our dining table, blue eyes leveled with resolve. "Do you think Billy should have let Jenny drown? Is that what you would have done, Walter?"
"Of course not."
"But why not? Wouldn't you have controlled any impulse to save her?"
"I'm not twelve years old, Mary," my father replied. He glanced at me, his usual ally at such moments, but I offered nothing. "William could have drowned. That's the long and the short of it. He could have died. Would you have wanted that?"
True to her nature, my mother chose not to answer a question she recognized as purely rhetorical. "The real issue is not whether Billy might have drowned," she replied. "It's how he should live his life."
"And how is that?" my father asked, folding his napkin now, placing it tidily on the table beside his plate.
"Certainly not by 'controlling his impulses,' " my mother said.
"Mary, I was only making the point that—"
"I know precisely the point you were making."
"I'm not sure you do."
"That Billy should live as a coward."
"That was not my point at all."
"You can dress it up any way you like, Walter, but it amounts to the same thing."
My father adjusted his fork, spoon, water glass. He said softly, "What do you think he should have done?"
"Exactly what he did," my mother answered.
"Risk his life?"
"Follow his passion." Her gaze fell proudly on my brother. "We're not always directed by our minds."
"Follow his passion," my father repeated, allow- ing only the slightest skepticism in his voice. "Without rules of any kind." A small, faintly timid smile fluttered onto his lips. "The voice of the apostate, my dear."
It was a reference to the fact that my mother had been raised a Catholic but had long ago rejected that faith, substituting the romantic poets for the Holy Father, their wild verse for the harsh injunctions of Mother Church.
"Call it whatever you wish," my mother snapped.
"Do you really believe, Mary, that passion can guide a life?" my father added, his voice barely above a whisper.
My mother stared at him unflinchingly. "Yes. Absolutely."
"So the heart is the only reference one should consult?" my father asked, now assuming a professorial manner, as if trying to neutralize the confrontation he'd unwittingly started and now wished only to defuse.
My father pretended to consider my mother's idea. "And so, for William, that would mean following his heart regardless of the consequences?"
"Regardless of 'thinking' about the consequences," my mother answered stiffly.
"Passion," my father mused. "William should let passion be his guide. It's a noble idea, Mary. No one can argue with that." Nodding sagely, he offered my mother a conciliatory smile. "I'm glad you have such ideas, my dear. Romantic ideas." As he ticked them off, he tried to look as if he actually took them seriously. "That we should listen to our hearts."
"What else should we listen to?" my mother countered.
He did not answer her question, but continued with "That good triumphs over evil."
"It does when it stands its ground."
"That love is eternal."
"Some love is," my mother said, glancing toward her favorite son.
"That there is but one true love for each of us," my father concluded.
"Do you doubt that too, Walter?" my mother demanded, now exasperated with the lightness of his tone. "Do you dismiss that too?"
"Not at all." Peace was my father's only goal now, truth and candor merely obstacles on the way to it. He got to his feet, a creature in full retreat, placed his hand on Billy's shoulder. "I'm sure there's just one true love for William."
I looked at my brother with mock seriousness. "Just one, Billy," I said.
He smiled his boyish smile.
I raised a finger and pointed it toward the window, the world of night that lay beyond it. "She's out there somewhere," I teased, grinning widely now, no more believing that such a one existed for my brother than I believed in the glittering mermaids the old salts spoke of when they were in their cups.
And yet, as I've since calculated, she had just turned eight years old that summer, a little girl with deep green eyes, already so real, so terribly in the world, that had my finger extended infinitely westward, it might have touched her long, blond hair.