By the time I stepped outside, the leaves were on fire. I was livid. Old Jack knew I’d promised Little Jack he would be there for the bonfire. Hell, he’d worked for it – he’d raked leaves into the yard from beyond the boundary, and helped Old Jack get them piled up into the biggest leaf pile we’d ever seen.
And Old Jack and I had promised him. He’d said nothing to indicate Little Jack would miss the fun. And, at only eight, having not seen the Autumnal leaf burn for three years, it was to be his best gift ever, since his horrific accident.
But he was still in his bedroom, struggling to waken from his meds-affected deep sleep. He needed them, as his anxiety and imagination were triggered by memories of what happened when he, his Dad and his big brother ’Bubba” Steve had gone out onto the lake together.
As they’d trolled along the boundary of the lake, Bill (his Dad) at the tiller somehow got the boats’ propeller caught up in the underwater branches of one of the many dead trees lying on the bottom of the lake. They’d been there for generations, and everyone knew where they were. But late summer squalls had been followed by unseasonal torrents of rain up in the hills, which had poured into the lake via the three rivers from the steep hills above it.
The flood waters entering the lake created stronger currents under the surface, and apparently that year’s storm had shifted the drowned trees. Oh, we knew that now. But not back then.
All I knew was what I learned from Captain Schaeffer – the local resident who knew everything about the lake, about every cabin and house around it, and about every family who visited or stayed. He had driven up our driveway that day, about three hours after my “menfolk” were due back from their boat ride. He sat in his old Ford for minutes before he got out, leaving his door wide open.
For some reason our dog, Puppers, did not run circles around him, or jump into the cab. That told me something was wrong. I swallowed, and felt my body straighten up, stiffen, and take a deep breath as Schaeffer walked towards me. He stood at the foot of the porch stairs, hat in hand.
“Come on up, Schaeffer. Set yourself down.” He came up the steps and sat on the porch settle, and remained in silence for … only a few seconds I know now, but it had felt like a full minute at the time.
“Ms Judy, I’m sorry. Bill… The boat… There’s been an accident.” He looked up at me. “I think you might want to set down too.”
After I’d perched myself on the settle’s edge beside him, and arranged my skirts, he went on.
“Someone saw the boat upside down, with your Jack hanging on to the ridge board. They called it in and the men came straight away.” He coughed.
I gasped, and I waited.
“There’s been no sign of Bill, or Steve. I’ve had some divers going as deep and wide as they could so far, but nothing. But Jack is the main worry. He—“
“Jack? What happened? What’s wrong. Something’s wrong or you’d have brought him home. Where is he?” I demanded.
“He’s in the air-ambulance, on his way to the city for surgery.”
Little Jack, my five-year old boy? I was numb. All my family gone or in pain? I’d never foreseen this coming. My heart was torn in two, as was my racing mind.
Do I go to the lake and look for my husband and son? Do I race into the city to be with little Jack, only five years old and broken?
My heart was broken, but my mind raced.
“Thanks Schaeffer. I want to drive to the hospital. But I want the search to continue. I want to – I need to know what’s happened to Bill and Steve. Will your men keep searching today?” In my mind I was packing a bag.
“Oh, Miss Judy don’t you worry. The men are still searching, Chappy at the dive shop has sent over more air cylinders so they can work till sundown. There are men trolling the area looking for any sign. The Police Chief is on his way out to get the search under order.”
Although I recall his words now, at the time it seemed as if they went in one ear and out the other.
“I’ll get on the road right now.” As I turned to go inside, I stopped. “Schaeffer, the lakefront is close, so use this house for whatever the men need.”
“Thank you, but you don’t need to drive. There’s a fella from the far side of the lake. With an airplane with floats. He came and landed in the lake when he saw the crowd of boats n care. He’s offered to fly you to the city – he knows a landing area only two blocks from the hospital.”
God, bless the folks of a small community. I burst into tears, and suddenly Mrs Schaeffer, Betsy, was beside me. She comforted me while she scolded her husband.
“I told you I should come up to the house with you! …
Oh, you cry, Miss Judy, you cry. …
Get yourself into that kitchen and make the girl a pot of coffee. …
Let it all out, Judy, we’ll get things sorted, you’ll see. …
Hurry up, man!”
In the state I was in, I still found her machine gun chatter funny, and giggled.
“I… I… I shouldn’t laugh, but—“
“Ssh, dear. It’s alright.” She stood up, and gently raised me to my feet. I followed her, numb, as she led me indoors, past the kitchen, through the sitting room and into our bedroom. She sat me down on the bed, by my chest of drawers, and disappeared.
As I began pulling together an assortment of underwear and footwear, my mind raced. What do you take to a hospital?
And she was back with a weekender suitcase. She opened the wardrobe and pulled out a pair of trousers and a warm top, a jumper, and my bath bag – already stocked with ‘weekend away’ necessaries.
“The men will find them, don’t worry. These things have happened before.”
“What? Boat accidents?”
“oh, aahm… Well I’ll just say the lake can be a trickster every so often. The dead trees, the forest… But that’ll do for talk. Let’s get on.”
In minutes the bag was closed and we were returning to the kitchen. As I settled on a kitchen stool to slurp Schaeffer’s coffee – laced with whiskey he’d found – she disappeared a moment, then was back.
Like an automaton, I followed Schaeffer out to his truck. I sat in the back as he stowed my bag in the tray and Mrs Schaeffer settled in the seat beside me. I let her take my hand, and found a little comfort in its warmth as we headed down to the lake.
I was not prepared for the scene. A horseshoe of utility trucks surrounded the area where the boat had flipped – or been flipped. A flotilla of boats floated around the site – I could see the branch of the tree – utter, unnatural whiteness – sticking up from the surface.
On the shoreline, the grass clumps were propping up stuff recovered from the search. I didn’t really want to look at them yet, but I noticed my husband’s lifejacket among them.
I screamed inside myself, as a lump formed in my stomach. Bill never went onto the boat without his life jacket well buckled up. Before I threw up, Schaeffer took my elbow and walked me away.
“Never mind Bill and Steve. Little Jack needs you now. Only we men can do anything more here.” He guided me towards a blue jet boat, and I remembered how Bill often said blue was a bad colour for a boat.
But I had to get into it, and don a life jacket. How tightly I drew the buckles! Schaeffer was right, dammit. I could do nothing here. Little Jack was my first, and now only, priority.
The jet boat driver, whose name I’ve forgotten, gave me a grim smile and nod, and started her. We rode out from the shore to where a plane floated on its pontoons. I was a robot clambering up and strapping in.
The boat man reached up and pushed my bag in and wedged it safely. As soon as he’d pushed off from the plane, the pilot started the engine and we turned and headed out to lift into the air across the lake. We flew in a direct line towards the city, but I cannot remember anything.
That always puzzled me – my lack of memories between getting on the plane and walking across the hospital room to Jack’s bedside, until years later Betsy told me she’d given Schaeffer a home remedy to slip into my coffee to “calm you down’. It must have been some remedy! But I’d remembered how the men helping seemed to know exactly what to do – as if they’d done it before.
As I neared Jack’s bed, surrounded by machines to monitor his every bodily response, and covered with a single blanket raised like a tent over his legs, I nearly caved again. His face was pale – too pale for a little, fun-filled and active baby boy. My knees gave way, but a nurse I’d not seen pushed a chair against my knees and grabbed my elbow to guide me into a sitting position.
“My name is Nina. I’m Jack’s nurse until eight tonight. Another nurse will be with him all night, and I’ll be back at eight in the morning. I’m your aide too. Anything you want to ask, or have explained, tell me. I’ll make sure you get answers as soon as possible. And in this ward, no one delays in answering.” She gave me a hug around my shoulders, and held me firmly.
At last, I cried. I let out the worry about my husband and my firstborn boy. I let out my grief that they may be gone forever from my life. I cried for Little Jack, whose body would never be the same again. And, I confess, I cried for myself – why had this happened to my family?
At last I was able to draw myself together enough to straighten up, grasp a proffered cup of tea, and look properly at Jack.
Now I could see why the blanket was tented – the left leg was missing. I was able to accept it without shock or grief – that would grab me much later… For now, I wanted answers to questions I didn’t know to ask.
“May I tell you as much as I know presently?” Nina offered.
I gulped the warm, sweet tea. “Yes. Yes, please.”
“Jack’s left leg was torn off when the boat flipped. The wound was bleeding underwater, so his blood loss was severe. He’s of course receiving blood nonstop , here. In surgery, the damage was made as good as any hospital can make it. The torn skin has been tidied, and after the femur break was cleaned, and the nerves and blood vessels repaired, the skin was able to be stitched together without any donor grafts over the stump.”
Stump… Torn femur… Blood loss... Nerves, Blood vessels… Skin… Stump… I rethought all Nina had said, as I stood and moved to stand at Jack’s bedside, and gazed down at my lifeless looking baby boy. I looked at him from top to … as far as the tented blanket allowed.
“His… his right leg?
“It’s perfect, no damage. It’s tented to let it keep warm.” She paused. “You strike me as a strong woman. Do you think you’re ready to see the legs, yet?”
I couldn’t answer at first. Then I thought – if I’m going to be of any help for Jack to recover, both physically and mentally, I need to get any shocks over and done with. I finished my tea and placed the cup on a side-table.
“I’m ready. Will you stay with me?”
“Of course.” She moved to the other side of the bed, and adjusted something, Then she rolled back the blankets on their frame.
I made myself look at the stump – horrible word. Of course it was swathed in bandages. It seemed that he had a half-length thigh, though it was hard to tell as I had no idea of how much was his leg and how much was bandages. There was a cable protruding from its side, leading to a monitor of some kind. I could not look anywhere else – it was my total focus.
“Will he be eligible for an artificial leg?”
“Yes, eventually he will. And it will fit well, as the stump is about two inches above the knee.”
I stared at Jack’s face, his little body, his legs. The right leg looked perfect – not a scratch, and pinker than the upper left leg.
“Thank you.” I watched as Nina replaced the blanket and adjusted whatever it was at the other side of the railed bed. “May I touch him?”
I bent over, and felt the side rail go down. I kissed his sweet forehead, I stroked his chubby cheeks, I tickled his nose – knowing he could not giggle as he usually did. I wiped away the tear that fell on his forehead.
“Little Jack, Mummy’s here… Mummy’s here… Rest, little man… Pokie wants you to hold him… Your special banana fritters are ready…” Another tear fell. “I love you, Little Jack.” I straightened up, and stepped back as Nina raised the side rails again.
“Pokie?“ she asked.
“Pokie is his cuddly toy, a rabbit.”
“Bring it in. We’ll disinfect it, and place it in the cot when he opens his eyes. It’ll be the first thing he sees.”
What an angel Nina was. Through the next year, she was transferred at her own request to every specialist hospital Jack was transferred as he recovered. She was there when he woke and realised he had lost a leg. She was there when he was fitted with a replacement -- a temporary leg while he learned how to balance.
Nina was with me when Jack visited the child welfare team, the doctor talking him through his fears and tears during the years to come of teasing from children at school as he learned to walk with his beautifully crafted “spare leg”, as Jack called it.
I watched over Jack as much as I could when at home – trying hard not to smother him, wrap him in cotton wool, keep him limited by my worries. But Jack had a fighting spirit, and was now accepted by his peers. He was mischievous enough to attract attention, but never played up to it. He could kick a football around as well as any of his playmates. He was diligent with his homework, as the dog sat with him at the table in the evening sun.
Every year, come Autumn, he would watch for Old Jack – a neighbour who lived alone. Old Jack would come and rake the Autumn leaves, and set the pile alight after Jack was spent by the fun of repeatedly leaping into the pile and scattering it up. Old Jack’s voice, as he growled about the extra raking he had to do, sounded rough – but we could hear the smile behind his words.
Last year, after all the leaves were burned and embers were stomped out, I’d said “Would you want to light the fire next time?
Old Jack told Jack, “You can light the fire next year.. You’re big enough and ugly enough.”
Little Jack laughed, not at all upset by the ‘ugly enough’. “Is that a promise?”
“If Old Jack says it is,” I said.
“Sure is.” Without another word, Old Jack took his steel rake and hand-pumped fire extinguisher to his truck, and drove off. Abrupt, but that was Jack’s way.
The following Summer had been a hard one for Little Jack. His stump became chafed raw by the leg. He spent a week being fitted for another new leg. Waiting for it to arrive wasn’t easy. The stump became infected where his skin had been rubbed raw. He spent weeks in hospital under medication that made him sleepy and grumpy.
The new leg arrived four days before Jack’s stump was declared healed enough to use the leg for his last few days in hospital. His rehab – sessions in a gym, practising walking – made him as grumpy as hell. He bit the head off Nina, who’d again asked to be allocated to Jack as soon as she’d learned he was in hospital. He bit the head off the man who came to check the leg’s fit.
He bit my head off, when I asked if he needed help getting to our truck. I said nothing, and half-way home he apologised.
But his days seemed to be gloomy ones for him. He walked in the forest for hours. On the first day of school, he came home for lunch – surprising me, as I’d walked him to the bus stop. Every school day, I’d see him onto the bus, but every day he arrived for lunch then left again. When he was home, mooning on the porch or cloistered in his room, he would snap and ask to be left alone for a minute, please. Even Puppers soon stopped trying to snuggle up against him, or going with him into the forest.
When he was out one day, I was cleaning the floors and entered his room as usual. In the corner of my eye something black caught my eye. It was a corner of a drawing of Jacks, protruding from his top drawer. I pulled it out to see it. It was the most evil drawing a young boy could create.