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Charting the Odd Sea
Years ago, on New Year's Day, my older brother, Ethan, and I went skating on a river. No snow had fallen all that winter, and before Christmas we were hit with a week of windy, subzero days. The cold snap ended one late December evening, leaving a sky so clear that stars seemed to be trapped in the netlike branches at the top of each sugar maple. We woke next morning to pale sunlight and a windless twenty degrees. As it turned out, the year's first snowstorm hit the Hilltowns a week later, but for a few days it was possible to skate on the Westfield River for miles and miles.
It had been Ethan's idea to try it. That fall we'd each acquired secondhand hockey skates at the annual VFW ski-and-skate swap, held in Dalton. Ethan was ten and I was seven. We had been skating on the pond right near our house since late November. When Ethan heard from his friend Charles Waltman that the Westfield was frozen solid, he asked Mom to drive us over to Cummington, where the river runs right along Route 9.
She refused the request at first, but we explained that the Waltmans, even their parents, had gone skating on the river the day before. My mother knew the Waltmans, so she called them. Mr. Waltman said the river had been frozen to perfection, and that his boys had skated all the way to Chesterfield Gorge and back.
Around noon on New Year's Day, Mom parked her car in the Old Creamery Grocery lot. We tied our skates with the heat blasting, then she walked us both across Route 9. We made our way down to the river, removed the rubber blade guards, and stepped out onto the ice. Mom seemed convinced the ice was safe, so she informed us that she'd wait inside the Creamery, which was open. Ethan and I headed west on the frozen river. There were some rocks to dodge and logs to jump, but mostly we skated as if entranced.
It took close to an hour to reach the village of West Cummington, where we had promised we'd turn back. By then I was freezing and my toes were numb. I knew the plan and I kept waiting for my brother to stop skating. But he kept going, right past the village, and only stopped where the river turns north and runs toward Windsor Jambs.
Then he said, "What if we could skate right up to the Arctic Circle? Would that be totally cool or what?''
I said, "We'd probably die of frostbite.''
Ethan said, "Actually, we'd die of hypothermia.''
I said, "Hey, maybe we'd get eaten by a polar bear.''
He said, "Or maybe we'd just keep going, up to the North Pole then down through the Himalayas. That's where a yeti would have us both for breakfast.''
I don't know why this conversation thrilled me. I kept on hearing it in my head as we raced back to the Creamery. As it turned out, I kept hearing it weeks afterward. At random times throughout the rest of that long winter, he'd ask me, "Hey, where do you think we'd be right now if we kept skating?''
I'd say the name of someplace in Canada. Or I'd say, "Lost in the Himalayas.'' Then Ethan would ask me what I thought would happen. I'd shout out something like, "A pack of arctic wolves would tear our heads off!'' I never understood the point of the joke. I suppose we liked imagining all the ways we could get killed. And I suppose it didn't matter what gruesome deaths we conjured up, as neither one of us seemed to have any real plans for skating off into oblivion.
When I was thirteen Ethan disappeared. It was a Saturday in late May, the first hot day we'd had all spring. He peeked his head into my bedroom and said, "Hey, Baker's Bottom?''
I started rummaging through my closet for pond sneakers. Baker's Bottom Pond was aptly named, given the doughlike quality of the mud on the pond's floor. The mud was slimy and filled with leeches that would get between your toes. I pulled a beat-up pair of high-tops out from beneath a pile of shoes. I slipped them on just as Amy, the oldest of my three sisters, walked in the room.
She said, "I thought I was driving you to your bird class.''
I looked at Ethan and said, "Forgot.''
Back then I lived for birds. I kept a list with every bird I saw, and I was up to 136 different species.
"Maybe tomorrow?'' I said.
"Doubtful.'' He turned to Amy and said, "Hey, you've got that look, like you wanna kill someone.''
"I do,'' Amy said. "But first I have to drive Philip to his bird class.''
Ethan stepped toward her and whispered something in her ear. It made her smile, then Ethan headed down the stairs.
We heard the screen door slam behind him. The sound startled our black cat, Meany, who had been sleeping on my desk. The cat jumped up, then settled down again. With his sandpaper tongue, he began licking his own shoulder. Glancing out my bedroom window, I saw my brother walking toward the bend in the gravel driveway.
I turned to Amy, who had pulled a cigarette from her purse. She was holding it unlit between her fingers, her way of signaling that she wanted to leave that instant.
"We're doing warblers today,'' I said. "They're hard to tell.''
She said, "That's thrilling.''
"Just changing back to my normal sneakers.''
"I can see that,'' Amy said.
I tossed my pond sneakers in the closet. I slipped my running sneakers back on. When I stood up I looked outside again. My brother had disappeared. I don't mean he was out of sight and heading for the pond. Ethan had walked down the driveway, the May sun glinting off the back of his yellow T-shirt. Then he was gone.
By the next morning we understood Ethan was missing. Within a day it seemed that everyone in the Hilltowns knew the story.
Or the non-story-that was the problem. There was no story except for the puzzling absence of a story. At first we tried to stay calm and logical. My sister Halley and I went door-to-door asking neighbors if they'd seen him. My youngest sister, Dana, tagged along with us. After we'd questioned every Plainfield resident within a reasonable proximity, the three of us walked the perimeter of Baker's Bottom Pond. Halley kept saying she was sure there was a simple explanation. Dana kept saying, "Where do you think he went?''
Meanwhile Amy and my parents called every one of Ethan's friends, teachers, coaches, or acquaintances they could think of. They talked at length with Ethan's girlfriend, Melissa Moody, who had last seen him two nights before, when he went over there for dinner. She thought he'd acted perfectly normal. She said he'd forgotten his blue windbreaker. My dad spoke hourly with our town's fire chief, Wally Everett, and at a certain point Chief Everett made the decision to mobilize a search.