The Rabbit at Twenty Below
by Jon Olseth
The weight of his clothes had pulled him back into the water. The adrenaline pumped in his head. He was sober now, and the meaning of life crystallized in this new state of awareness. He tried to pull himself up on his elbows, but the ice broke wherever he reached, and after five minutes of struggling to get out of the freezing water and getting nothing but more tired and panicked, Carl Enowa had the good sense to surrender. Arms outstretched over the thin ice, he lay motionless. He yelled for help. But it was one thirty in the morningâ€”too late for the likes of mere mortals.
After a night of Wild Turkey Cokes, Carl had walked over the ice toward his motherâ€™s house on the other side of the lake. Even the snowmobilers stayed away from this part of the Rabbit; they could often be seen shooting the gap under the highway bridge that separated the North and South side of the lake, but the center was too dangerous, even for them. It was a spring-fed lake and very unpredictable.
But Carl was drunk, and instead of walking the two-mile road from the Broken Arrow, he cut across. Heâ€™d done this before. Last winter when his driverâ€™s license was taken from him and he had to walk to town and to the bar, he took to the ice. Mostly when it was late and cold and when he was drunk.
He was two-hundred yards from shore when he went in. Immediately he felt the ice forming on his face. His eyelashes were thick in ice; his nostril hairs crystallized. His gloves were stiff, and his wrists ached. His whole body ached. With the advent of all this numbness, there began the departure of desperation. He reached out again, and his fist met with the breaking of more ice. He yelled out in short blasts of diminishing vigor. Each holler hit the line of pines and fell flat. He felt nothing below his chest.
So this is it, he thought. This is how it will go. He started to hyperventilate.
Then someone was shouting back at him, and Carl saw the flicker along the shoreline and heard what sounded like the snap of metal.
â€œIâ€™m coming!â€ came the voice. A manâ€™s voice.
Carl could hardly breathe. â€œIâ€™m here!â€ he sobbed.
â€œHold on!â€ came the voice again. â€œIâ€™m coming!â€
Carl clenched his teeth. Through the dimming lenses of his eyes heavy with ice, he watched the beam of light swing over the snow-covered lake. There was a scraping sound. Something heavy across the snow.
â€œRight here!â€ Carl choked out.
The flashlight hit his arm then his face, and the man came closer, more slowly now, cautious. Carl saw that he was leaning on a rowboat. Then the man stopped and cocked his head. â€œThat you, Carl?â€
Emil said something under his breath and pulled something out of the boat. â€œRope!â€ he yelled. And it landed on Carlâ€™s shoulder and three feet past him. He pushed the boat six feet from the hole and put one leg in the boat. Carl reached out and broke the ice again.
â€œBe still,â€ Emil said. â€œCan you feel the rope?â€
â€œI donâ€™t know.â€
â€œSee if you can wrap it around your back. Under your arms.â€
Carl carefully cupped the rope in his half-opened fist and brought it around his back. He managed to toss it part way to Emil who reluctantly pulled out his leg and stepped carefully to gather the rope. He tried to keep his weight evenly distributed as he retrieved the line and eased back again. Then he stepped fully into the boat. â€œGet ready,â€ Emil said. â€œIâ€™m going to pull. Keep your elbows tight,â€ he said. â€œYouâ€™ve got to keep them in tight.â€
Emil leaned back. At first Carl seemed to come out easily, but the weight of his water-logged clothes made it difficult to pull him out. More ice broke with his every move forward, and at one point both men thought that he was going under for good when Carlâ€™s body turned to the side and his shoulder dipped down. Emil braced against the bow and managed to work him out. Again he pulled, and Carl moved heavily toward the boat.
Even without the ice weighing him down, Carl was a big man, and it was more than a bit of trouble getting him into the rowboat. When his body hit the bottom, ice broke off him with a sound like breaking glass.
Carlâ€™s eyes were closed, frozen shut. His body was locked up, and he couldnâ€™t feel a thing. He had never been happier.
The old man leaned forward, digging his ankles in the snow as he struggled to pull the boat back to shore toward Winonaâ€™s house. Carl had been living with his mother for over four years. He was no longer married, and his own father had been dead long before he had the chance to remember him. Though of course she told him stories, he had never asked his mother much about him; Carl had never been the inquisitive type. Had he been, he might have asked Emil what he had been doing out on The Rabbit so late at night, so near to his motherâ€™s house. But Carl wasnâ€™t known for his curiosity, and that worked for him most of the time. Life was a lot easier that way.
â€œThank you,â€ said Carl from the bottom of the boat. Then he began to shake.
Emil nodded his head. â€œYup,â€ was all he could get out.
Carl grunted. Neither man was much for conversation.