BY LIISA KOVALA
Copyright is held by the author.
TIMO AND Matti stood at the water’s edge watching the currents travel down the Wanapitei until it bent around a rocky outcrop and out of sight.
“Let’s throw this in.” Timo showed his friend a piece of birch wood, hollowed out and slightly rotten inside.
“Looks like an old canoe,” Matti said.
Timo filled the concave space with a few smooth pebbles from the shoreline. He crouched down on the toes of his boots and placed the makeshift boat in the water. It bounced and twisted in the waves. “It’s floating!” Timo tipped forward, almost losing his balance. He placed one hand on a rock jutting out from the stream. The water stung with cold. “Let’s see how far it goes.”
The boys started running, stumbling over the bare rocks and jumping over fallen branches, stomping on the few patches of remaining snow. The day was warm for early spring, a first sign that summer was on its way. The two whooped and hollered every time the little boat came into view. Waves pummelled its little body as the current pulled it downstream. Once, they lost sight of it and scampered to the water’s edge to find it lodged between two rocks.
“Get a long branch and we’ll shove it free,” Timo said as he scrambled down the embankment, sliding along the slippery rocks until his feet were soaking. Matti threw a long stick to his friend.
“Almost got it. There it goes . . . there it goes!” The birch bark boat tipped left and right, almost capsizing before it righted itself and found its path down the waterway. Timo scrambled up the side of the gorge and reached for Matti’s outstretched hand before they began their trek again.
Eventually, the little boat was nowhere to be seen. The boys tired. They sat on a large rock jutting out over the water, watching the waves jostle and play.
“Where does it go?” Timo asked.
“I can’t see it,” Matti said. “Probably sank.”
“No, the river. Where does it go? I thought it went to the ocean, but we’re nowhere near the sea. Just fields and rocks and bush around here.”
“A lake? Maybe another brook? I don’t know. Who cares?” Matti said. “Let’s play.”
Last year, Timo had watched the loggers with his little sister Laila. His mother had insisted he bring her with him. He had been annoyed with all of her questions, only wanting to play with the other boys instead of watching over her. Now, her questions flooded back. He wished he’d had the answers.
“No really, when it leaves here? Does it go on and on and on forever? Does it get dried up? What happens to it?”
“How would I know? Come on.”
Timo watched the stream flow past him, lost in thought for a few more seconds. No one had answers. Not even the adults. He stood up, brushing the sand from his dungarees before joining Matti.
Every spring, the nearby lumber camp let loose the trees that had been felled and stacked during the winter on the Wanapitei River. As soon as the ice was almost melted and the water high, the logs began the trek downriver. Laila had loved the river, especially in the spring.
“Look at that guy,” Timo said, pointing at one of the loggers standing firmly on a thick trunk. He held a pike pole in one hand to drive logs out of eddies and to discourage wings from developing on the rocks near the shore. When a jam formed, the men carefully poked at the offending logs to set them free.
Timo was fascinated by the loggers. He watched one in particular — he was a tall fellow with long limbs and a hat tipped to the side. He smiled when he worked. If it weren’t for the thunder of the logs hitting one another and the roar of the rapids, Timo believed he might even hear him whistle. Once in a while the man nimbly jumped from one log to the next, sometimes hopping a few times until the log stopped rolling, his arms spread-eagle for balance and his eyes alert to the motion around him.
“He looks like a tightrope walker in a circus act. How does he keep his balance?” Matti asked.
“If you ask me, he’s crazy.” Timo’s older sister Saara approached the boys, then stood with her arms crossed. “Better get home now. Äiti’s waiting for you. Supper’s nearly ready and Pekka is heating the sauna good and hot.”
“Just a few more minutes. Pleeease. I want to watch them go past.”
Saara agreed. “That water’s so cold right now. If someone fell in, he would probably die.”
Timo looked wide-eyed at his sister. “Those loggers never fall in. Besides, they could just swim out.”
“Just because you haven’t seen it doesn’t mean they don’t have accidents.” Saara said. “Time to go.”
Timo wouldn’t believe it. The man looked like a dancer, so smooth and sure of himself. There was no way he could come to harm. He looked down the river, still clear of the logs.
Thoughts of Laila surfaced. Only a little more than a month before, Laila was home, singing and dancing in the house. It felt good to have her around again. She’d been at the Gravenhurst TB Sanatorium for so long, most of the fall and winter months, that everyone was relieved when she returned, happy and apparently healthy. Now, no one wanted to talk about her. He imagined her deep under the earth. Was she cold down there? Was she lonely? Was she even there? Where had she gone? No one said her name. He didn’t dare ask.
“Let’s go,” he said, turning his back on the loggers. “I don’t want to see any more.”
Saara reached for Timo’s hand, but he pulled it away, making his steps longer so he wouldn’t have to walk at her side.
The next day, Timo and Matti found themselves back at the river’s edge. Somehow, Timo felt drawn to it, and even more so when the logs jostled toward the rapids.
“Let’s get closer,” Matti said. Several others had gathered at the shore, chatting and watching the spectacle. They saw one of the young men pick his way across the logs until he reached the other side. It looked so easy. “I can do that. I bet one of your green marbles.”
“No way. It’s impossible.”
Matti ignored him. Timo watched his friend stumble his way to the shore as the logs floated and burst through the water.
“Don’t, Matti! There’s no way you can get across!” Timo tried to shout over the sounds of water crashing against the rocks, logs banging and groaning.
Matti looked back and smiled. Timo held his breath. His friend turned away, observing the logs, his body poised in a runner’s stance, ready to sprint forward at any moment. Stop, Timo thought. Don’t go.
Time seemed to be suspended. He was no longer looking at Matti, who waited on the shore for the perfect moment to leap. All he could think about was Laila. When she died, did she know it was going to happen? Was it a surprise to take a last look, a last strained breath? What did she think of in those last moments? Could she see him now? Hear his thoughts? Don’t go, he thought. Timo wiped his face with his sleeve, ashamed that the tears he had held so long were threatening to burn his eyes. His thoughts returned to his friend.
“Just stop!” Timo yelled, but his voice was carried away in the wind, blown down the river just as Matti stepped out, his slight weight tipping, but not turning the moving log. Matti’s arms were outspread as he took small steps from one log to the next. Within seconds he was almost half way across. Timo stood and ran to the embankment, following his friend’s progress from the safety of the shore. He felt exhilarated, the blood pumping in his chest as his feet pounded the rocky shoreline. Unexpected joy.
Timo’s shouts of fear turned to roars of delight. Around him he heard other voices, but they were yelling warnings. A few bystanders pointed. A burly logger howled at Matti to get to shore.
All of a sudden, Timo heard a gasp from the onlookers. He stopped and scanned the waves. Where was Matti? His heart beat faster. He couldn’t breathe. A small hand extended from the triangle between some logs. No, he thought. Not Matti, too. He couldn’t stand it any longer. He wanted to reach his friend. Pull him out. Save him. Timo rushed to the shore, searching for the hand to emerge again. Then he saw him. A little way down, Matti’s limp body was lying between the rocks.
Timo picked up his pace. He stood over the body, his own shaking uncontrollably.
He crumpled beside his friend.
“Told you,” Matti whispered, barely able to move his head.
He was alive.
“Are you okay? Let me help you.” Timo attempted to lift him from his rocky resting place. By now, several people had gathered around. A strong logger raised Matti from the shore and carried him away from the water’s edge.
It felt like forever before Matti’s parents arrived. Timo watched them help their son, limping and bruised, to their beat up old truck.
By then, the bystanders had dissipated. He sat alone on the shoreline, looking across the waves and the logs bumping against the rocks. He hugged his knees to his chest and felt the hot stream of tears against his cold cheeks. He buried his head in his arms. He felt small. So insignificant.
In a matter of seconds, his best friend had risked his life and almost lost. His sister was gone. Forever. Until now, he had not cried for her. He had watched his mother take care of his baby sister, his father work on the farm. Even his older siblings seemed to show no emotions. Every time he tried to ask them about Laila, they turned away from him. Did they feel the same as he did inside?
His tears felt good. Felt right. He imagined them soaking the ground and trickling down the rocks to the water below. He imagined them joining the river, carried away like the logs, to some endless stream that would somehow lead to Laila. And, he knew, she would understand.