Motherís Helper
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The ferry rumbled and shook as it backed out of the slip and onto Lake Kootenay, turned to port slowly, then moved forward, cutting through the water and dipping now and then to the rolling of the waves. It was half empty; some dozen cars and one logging truck. It would take forty minutes to cross to Balfour, time to have a coffee perhaps, or lean over the railing and feel the cool breeze from the lake on your face and the hot sun on your neck and back.

An older man with a trim white beard, close-cropped white hair, dressed in a navy T-shirt and khaki chinos, leaned down hard on his arms, his eyes fixed on the west shoreline where a thick pine growth stood behind a scattering of small wood A-frame houses. A few feet to his right, a young woman wrestled with her child, probably a boy, who pulled away to run this way and that. He was a heavy child with an unattractive, flat face and a raspy squeal.

  
 
"Stop that," his mother ordered, trying to hold his arm. The child was young enough to still be walking unsteadily, and as there were open spaces on deck where a child could slip through and fall over board, the mother kept after him to quit squirming and stay next to her. She was a thin woman, perhaps in her mid-twenties, with dark, tired eyes that said she was all but fed up with her son's antics. Finally, at the end of her patience, she grabbed at the boy and lifted him into her arms. "There," she said, grunting under his weight. "Now you be a good boy, ay? Look at the pretty lake."

"No," said the child, and pushed his open hand against her mouth.

"Yes," said the girl, hefting him higher, forcing him to straddle her hip.

The older man with the white beard looked down at the water, his hands together as if in prayer. He had looked over at the girl and at her child several times and was about to move down toward the bow, away from the annoying whine of the little boy, when the girl looked at him and smiled. "He's quite the boy," she said. It was a kind of apology, and the man nodded solemnly. "He's in his terrible twos a bit early."

The child wriggled free for a moment and lunged toward the top of the railing, hanging from his mother's hip, his head arched upward and slightly over the edge.

"Carter, stop that. You're going to fall over into the water." She tugged at him and he held on tight to the railing, making her have to pull harder.

The man edged a step closer to the woman in case he was needed.

Two couples across the way at the port side railing were taking photographs of one another. One of the girls wore a buckskin jacket, though the June sun was warm enough for short sleeves.

The little boy wore a blue jumpsuit and white sneakers. "He had a hat a few minutes ago," said the girl. "I guess it went overboard at some point." She grinned. "We've lost all of his caps now. Some out the window of our van, and now off into the lake."

When they had passed the halfway point, the ferry began making a course correction, circling to starboard. Soon they would reach a buoy, round a point and head into the dock at Balfour.

The man looked out at the buoy in the distance, stood up straight as though to walk away, but then turned toward the girl. "Here," he said, "let me hold him for you for a few minutes. You look worn out."

"Oh, well," she said, shyly, "I'm not really...."

But the older man had already moved to her and begun lifting the child out of her grasp. "Come on now, Carter," let's get acquainted."

The flat-faced child squinted, looking into the man's eyes, then his little face pinched into a frown. "No," he said into the man's face and wrenched his shoulders free for a moment.

"Here now, Carter," yelled the woman. "Now you stop that right now."

Then, in a movement so quick and yet so liquid it was hardly movement at all, the bearded man lifted the boy over the railing and, opening his large hands, let him drop down into the crystal water. The boy, his arms straight up over his head, cut into the water like a nail, disappearing without a splash, without a sound. The silent colorless rippling lines the ferry made spread outward, rolling toward the shore.

The girl stood motionless, her hands in her hair.

There was nothing to see, no child floating, no patch of clothing to show where a child might be. There was only the wake cut by the ferry as it moved through the clear water.

"Nooooooo," she screamed. It began as a scream but trailed off, muted by the wind. "No," she said again, more breath than sound. "My god," she screamed, clutching at the railing, pulling herself for ward, leaning out, looking down at the silvery lines the ferry made as it glided toward the shore. "My god," she screamed, "my baby."

At last, the couple across the way looked over, then one of the men came over and asked something that the wind took away.

"My baby," said the girl pointing at the bearded man who was now standing at the very front of the ferry. "He threw my baby over. That man. That old man there," she said, pointing.

"Hey," said the young man. "You... over there."

The bearded man turned to him and waved.

"Hey you," said the young man.

"My baby," yelled the girl. The others joined her. "He threw my baby," she said through sobs.

The two men and two women looked over the side at the water. The older man moved toward them then, his eyes narrowed. The two young men charged forward toward him.

"Now," said the older man, his lips pursed," is she at it again.., pulling her routine again?"

One of the young men turned back and looked toward the sobbing girl. The other said, "What routine? She says...."

"I know what she says. She says that someone threw her baby overboard. Is that it? And...did you see a baby? Did anyone see a baby?"

The two young men looked at each other and then back at the girl.

"Listen," said the bearded man, "There was no baby. Not now. This girl... she's not well. She's a little... you know. Out of it. A while back she did have a child, but it died shortly after coming home from the hospital. She's never been right since. And lately...." He looked over at the sobbing girl. "She does this quite often now. Very sad. I don't think the family has enough resources to get her the help she needs. I know how much she must be hurting. But really, there was no baby thrown overboard today."

The two young men went off then with their women friends, their heads leaning in together, talking quietly. The girl lay her forehead on the wooden railing, gripped it with determined fists, and gave way to her grief her back heaving, her legs buckled.

After docking, the first to leave the ferry were foot passengers, the older bearded man among them. Then the logging truck ground upward and out of the slip, and then the few cars started their engines and moved forward. Behind them all was the girl, still at the railing.

The white bearded man went into a cafe at the edge of the dock, drew a Styrofoam cup full of black coffee, paid, and went outside again into the sunlight. He sat at a picnic table and looked over at the ferry, a gathering of screaming gulls hovering above its stern.

Finally, he saw the girl being helped along, up out of the ship and onto the road. She said nothing and the crew said nothing to her. She moved slowly up toward a parking lot, her shoulders hunched, head forward, and she did not look in the older man's direction.

Then he saw, as she walked along, the beginning of a slight smile and sidewise glance.

The sun was warm on the man's back, the coffee strong and good. Later, he would have a small lunch and then take the ferry back across the icy lake.



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