"Nature never did betray the heart that loved her."
-- William Wordsworth
Not long after he saw his brothers drown, Andrew Smith fell in love. Her name was Ruthie Grimes, and she was a girl from back home with straight dark hair. Andrew saw her at the first of two funerals, which was for his older brother, Noel, in the town of Burney, California; he knew little about her, only that Ruthie was one of his sister's best friends, a waitress who used to go to his high school, and who had volunteered to help facilitate the burials of two men from the same family within the span of four days. She'd been around Andrew and his brothers often, as they grew up with their sister in a house at the top of the hill in Browns Valley, but Ruthie had been nothing more than a familiar face as the years passed.
Andrew walked toward the door of the church, comforted by the presence of other people gathered in the hallway. Ruthie came up to him and placed a hand on the shoulder of his brown sport coat, her hair held behind her head by a bow. The guests had watched a slideshow on a big projection screen at the front of the church scroll through a series of slides poking fun at Noel Smith, who was laid to rest at 39 years old, a 6-4 tough guy with a shaved head, broad shoulders and thick forearms, an avid outdoorsman in the pictures holding kittens and flexing his muscles in a cutoff T-shirt.
"See you later, Andy," Ruthie said, taking her hand away from his shoulder. She started to walk out the door, and then something told him to stop her.
The brothers had heard about the lake. Though none of them had ever seen it. Noel said he'd been told it was a great spot for duck hunting, and he asked Nathan and Andrew to take a weekend and come visit him, so they could go. The three of them had grown up hunting; at the rice fields close to their house they'd watch farmers flood the crops with water, until the soil was buried more than a foot deep. From far away in the light of morning the fields would look like a lake in a jungle, something soldiers might have to hump through during a war. The ducks came out of the sky and rippled the water. Ten miles from their parents' house there was a small river, in the irrigation district, and Noel, after he graduated high school, took his teenage brothers there.
The Smiths would slip their feet into rubber waders and drink hot coffee to try and wake up in the dawn. They might wrestle, or slap at each other, push each other into the grass, then under the surface. They'd set up plastic decoys attached by string on the water, shotguns propped against their shoulders, sitting on little camouflage buckets buried within the reeds. Andrew was never good at calling the ducks.
This lake was called Big Lake, and it was far to the north, in Ahjumawi Lava Springs State Park, and Noel's coworkers at Pacific Gas and Electric had been there, had seen all the mallards and Canada Geese and Lesser Scaup sit down on the water. On the morning of December 19, 2009, Andrew and Nathan left Andrew's house in Oroville and drove three hours up to Burney, to Noel's. They brought a black Silverado full of shotguns, waders, flashlights, boots, and duck calls. They planned to visit the lake briefly in the evening, scope it out, go back to Noel’s house for dinner, and then return early the next morning and set up in the reeds by the shore. Noel’s wife, Lisa, made them lunch, and Andrew ate some of her Christmas fudge. When they left on the 30-mile drive to McArthur, to the lake, they took Noel's dog, Delta, a Chesapeake Bay Retriever he'd rescued from a shelter, with them; they passed a tiny hospital and made fun of it, called it Podunk, said that it looked like something from "Little House on the Prairie."
"Stop by some time," he'd said to her before she turned away to walk out of the church. That's all he'd said, but it was enough. So Ruthie knocked on his door less than two weeks after Nathan's funeral, and found Andrew alone in his house in Oroville, sitting on a couch in an undecorated living room, fingertips still numb from the frostbite when he picked up the remote. She stayed with him for a while that first night, and they watched "The Boondock Saints" and "Friday the 13th" on his flat screen. She stared at him slyly during the movies, at the graying temples under his baseball hat, at the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes, and thought of sitting at the Smiths' house in the living room watching TV years ago, her friend's older brothers chewing dip and making fun of each other, paying no scrutiny to their sister or Ruthie, then going outside to shoot guns in the woods. As a kid Andrew had once sprayed a can of HALT! in his sister's eyes just to see what it would do.
Ruthie hadn't wanted to come over too soon, and wondered whether she had waited long enough to allow him to grieve. But she had to come because she had a feeling, got it when she put her hand on his shoulder to tell him goodbye at the church. They went the whole night without eating. They talked about what they could eat, but each pretended not to be hungry, because they were both too nervous. She had a headache the whole time because of a spill earlier in the day on a patch of ice at her parents’ house. She noticed Andrew didn't have a picture to hang on the wall, or a magnet to put on his fridge. When she left his house the fog had draped the valley, and she turned the car around a few miles away, drove back, and parked in his driveway. When she knocked on the door for the second time, she felt stupid, and said, "Um, I can’t drive in the fog." They ended up talking for a while on the porch.
The lake appeared through the windshield. They had come to the end of a potholed gravel road four miles north of McArthur, and the water was frozen, 40 feet across. Noel stopped the truck and parked by a barbed-wire fence and green gate. It was 4:30 p.m. and the sun was barely starting to set. The truck’s thermometer read 44 degrees outside. The brothers wore blue jeans and Irish Setter hiking boots, Drake camouflage waterfowl coats. Noel and Andrew carried 12-gauge shotguns and walked up the left side of the mouth with Delta following behind them; Nathan took a cheap fishing pole out of the back of the truck and went on to the right side. He had not renewed his duck-hunting license that year.
They could hear the ducks in the distance. They were the only noise. Delta stayed with Noel and Andrew as they walked for a few minutes, until the mouth opened into the larger body of the lake. Noel and Andrew crouched down in the reeds and looked skyward. They saw ducks, too far away to shoot. After 30 minutes Noel and Andrew walked back on the left side of the mouth toward the truck, deciding that they'd come back tomorrow. Nathan waved at them on the other side. That’s when Delta ran toward him, over the ice, and broke through.
Noel took his coat off, grumbled, dropped his gear and his gun. He had not owned Delta long enough to train him. "Stupid dog," he said.
He walked toward the ice.
Ruthie knew about the brothers, and so she knew what she was getting into. She knew that they'd gone to Caples Lake a hundred times when they were kids, and that Sam, the youngest Smith, had hooked Noel in the ear while they were trout fishing. She knew that the boys took the Christmas tree and put it in front of the house at the edge of the hill once it turned brittle, doused it with lighter fluid and set it ablaze for the New Year. She had heard about the fights, the shaved heads, the excursions into the woods, the hunting knives and the target practice with .44 Magnums, and that they'd once found a big log in the water and tried to see who could stay on it the longest while trying to knock each other off. She knew how close they’d been, that they got each other, could understand that no one would ever know Andrew was well as his brothers did, that they had grown up as best friends, and could repeat something like the phrase "Do you wanna get hit?" 1,000 times in a row amongst themselves and be the only ones who laughed/got what it meant, which their family called a Smith-ism. She knew that Nathan and Andrew had gone fishing just before the accident, and didn't catch many fish at all. She had heard Andrew say they had never really grown up.
For weeks Andrew showed her pictures on every date. She'd come over, he'd get out the memory books or open his laptop and click on a picture file, and there they'd all be, standing together again, with the same expressions, posing side by side, grimacing in a goofy way, or scowling, arms folded, always looking like trouble; the pictures of the family fishing trips and camping trips, warm images of the summertime, the water in an afternoon glow, lakes and boats and pickup trucks and a barbecue grill releasing smoke into the trees, cars parked on the grass, coolers opened and blankets unfolded by a riverbed, their dad in a folding chair, shaking his head.
The brothers were aware of the beauty. Oh yes, they always were. When their parents moved them from Sacramento to Browns Valley, Andrew and Nathan were in middle school, and Noel moved in with his girlfriend; he was 17. They all became amateur woodsmen, had an awe of the outdoors, and spent nearly all their time in piney woods surrounding their house. Their father taught them firearm safety, and went hunting and fishing with his sons. The air smelled like cilantro and mint because it grew wild in the fields there. The mountains were so close they could almost touch them.
They looked outside and told each other, "You know how lucky we are to live here? Who has a mountain range 30 miles away?"
But they knew there were dangers, too. Of course they did. They got peppered with shotgun spray when they were duck hunting; Sam broke his leg and Nathan built him a splint in the woods; on a backpacking trip to Yosemite, Nathan sat on a rock near a waterfall, got too close, lost his balance, and fell in, sliding all the way down the mountainside, which was miraculously only 10 feet. They were always aware.
Noel went onto the ice after Delta, and fell in, too, near the middle. The break made a thunk! and echoed beneath the ice. Andrew stood across the ice from Nathan. They could see their brother surface in the middle of the ice and start treading, along with Delta. The only thing he said was, "Get ... cold."
Noel started to thrash around, breaking more ice—this happened in a matter of seconds. Nathan dropped his fishing pole, asked Andrew if he had any rope in the truck, and Andrew said no. Nathan ripped a T post out of the ground, ran around to the other side of the water, took off his coat to reveal a short-sleeve shirt, and went onto the ice. Andrew followed him. Nathan spread out on his stomach and stretched the post toward the hole, toward Noel, who reached for it; Andrew lay down behind Nathan and grabbed onto his ankle, but could get no leverage. His feet were not touching the shore. Andrew noticed Nathan had taken his coat off, too. Nathan tried to get closer to Noel, and Andrew held tightly to his ankle; each time Noel would pull on the post he pulled his brothers toward him. They tried this for 30 seconds, until they slid around so much the ice gave way under Nathan, and then Andrew fell in, too.
Until the funeral, she hadn't seen him in years. She struggled against the assumption that emotions were getting the best of them, that the sadness and exhaustion had her all mixed up. She typed Andrew a two-page note and left it on his kitchen table. Two months had passed since the night she tried to drive home in the fog, and the letter told a story. She had been so nervous that it was hard to type it. She wrote that when she saw him, when she touched his shoulder, when he turned around and replied in the hallway, that she got this feeling that they were going to get married.
She wrote that if he ever asked her to marry her, she'd say yes.
Ruthie didn't hear from Andrew for three days.
She texted him: Did I scare you away? The note had been right there on the kitchen table. He didn't answer. She came up and knocked on his door. He didn't answer. She drove halfway home, and finally he texted her and told her that he felt the same way, that he'd read the letter and just didn’t know what to say. He thought, when he picked up the note and read the first two lines, she was going to break up with him. She called him; he told her he was at Carl's Jr., so she drove there and they both pulled parallel to one another in the parking lot. She was a waitress working nights and weekends at Marcello's in Yuba City. He had days and weekends off at his job with the electric company. She quit her job. They moved in together and she slept in the guest bedroom.
It was cold and his breath was gone. He came up for air, opened his eyes, and in the dark he could see the shore not 15 feet away from him. The water was too deep. They were not far from where Noel parked the truck. They were all three inside a small hole in the ice, and he tried to break the surrounding ice with his elbow, and then tried to thrust himself on top of the layer itself. It wouldn’t work. He could hear rustling behind him, thrashing, what he assumed to be his brothers. Something was scratching in desperation at his back. Every time he tried to climb on top of the ice, the weight of his body broke through again, and again. He smashed at the ice with his elbows. He was still wearing his coat. The dog climbed over his back and up to safety, even after he tried to shake it loose; it had been Delta clawing him. Eventually he was able to get part of his body up on the ice, and he flailed for a second on top of it, sliding around, some awkward snow angel. Then he turned to look and no one was behind him. It seemed like an hour since he fell in, but it had only been a matter of minutes. He assumed his brothers had been the ones thrashing the whole time. When he got back onto the solid ice and then onto the shore he just couldn't see them, couldn't see any sign they’d been in the water. He called their names. He went to the truck, held his cell phone in the shivering palms of his hands, called 911. He started the truck's engine, drove the vehicle around and pointed the headlights at the sign at the entrance by the gate, left it running. Then he found his brother's flashlight and came back to the scene. Dripping water, he stopped where Nathan must have originally dropped his jacket, 100 feet from where they’d actually been. He tried to look beneath the ice, which he thought had frozen over again. He was confused. He couldn't see that well in the dark.
He let her pick out the ring. She chose one karat, on a silver band. Told him he actually had to ask her, like he'd forget to. The whole thing was very simple, very "Andy," and she loved it. Her best friend, Rachel, Andrew's sister, was thrilled; she had secretly hoped they'd hook up since the funeral. Andrew took Ruthie to dinner at the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., in Chico, in the winter of early 2010. Neither of them had ever been, and they ate this extremely long dinner, with a sausage and cheese plate for an appetizer. They ordered the beer sampler, because Andrew knew it would be a special occasion, and they brew their own beer at Sierra Nevada. They both drank 12 different kinds out of large shot glasses and she was a little woozy as he walked her out the door. He took her to the bed of his truck, opened the tailgate, and they sat on the edge like high-school sweethearts beneath one of the halogen lights of the parking lot. That's when he got down on one knee, pulled out the box, and had to wait a minute because a car was driving down their row, because it was a busy night at the brewery. Then he asked her.
"Of course I will!" she yelled.
A fire truck pulled up next to the flattened reeds of the lake. It didn't take long for it to arrive there, as the firemen were attending the annual Fall River Valley Christmas Light Parade only a few miles away. The truck was strung with Christmas lights, which Andrew could see glimmer in the night.
EMS workers hefted him onto a stretcher and into an ambulance. He turned his head so he could see out of the door right as they pulled one of his brothers from the water. It was Nathan, all 6-4 of him, limp and pale. It took them longer to find Noel, who had drifted further beneath the ice.
They took the brothers to the "Podunk" hospital they’d passed on the way, Mayers Memorial in Fall River Mills, where a group of doctors worked to resuscitate Nathan but could not. Behind a curtain, from a bed of his own, Andrew heard the doctors pronounce his brother's time of death; he was 32 years old. Andrew had already known he was dead. He would find out later that night that Noel was, too.
"Do you want to take a break?" she asks him. Andrew and Ruthie Smith are sitting in the kitchen, no longer an undecorated room with only a wooden table by the windows. There are place mats on the table and spice racks on the counter and polished pans hanging down above the center island and flower arrangements and pictures on the wall. There's a bowl on the table full of seedless grapes, which they’re both picking at. She makes a DiGiorno pizza and they drink from a 2-liter of Pepsi. "No, let's just get through this," he says.
Andrew is telling Ruthie what happened, step by step, because he never really has before. She's never asked him, because she didn't want him to have to go back there. It's a cold night in Oroville, Calif., more than a year later. The rain is thumping dully on the rooftop and streaking the windowpanes, another California fog creeping its way over the cars parked in the driveway and the lampposts on the darkened street. At the kitchen table, they've both been laughing. They laughed when Andrew said that they fell through the ice, like idiots. They laughed, real hard, when he described the way Noel said, "Stupid dog," and looked at Delta when he tried to run across the ice to Nathan, Andrew trying to replicate his brother's facial expression. They laughed when he recounted Delta clawing like hell to climb over his back, laughed because the fire truck was strung with Christmas lights.
Andrew came home from the funeral and decided his brothers would want him to go on with his life immediately, and never look back. As he thought about them, he decided that they’d want him to remember them for everything good and stupid and hilarious they did, falling through the ice to try and save a dog being only the last of a billion things. So he helped his parents clean out Nathan's apartment and honored the fact that he was going to trade his truck for Noel’s jeep, a transaction he made with Noel's wife.
"The family has gone on," says George Smith, Andrew's father. "We're a close family. We all kind of make light of a lot of things that happened with the brothers, and when we get together, that's how it is. We have our moments. One of us brings something up, and says something funny about them. We have a pretty comical family. And we haven't really changed. It is something that you'll never get over. I think passage of time helps. But it's a matter of life, and you go on. You learn to live with it."
Noel's wife gave Delta away and remarried. Andrew never sought therapy, or felt guilty about anything that he’d done. He tried to save his brothers but could not. That was it.
"It does no good to shut it up inside and say 'I'm not going to talk about it,'" Andrew says. "I think the best thing is to remember. To laugh about all the good things that happened. Keeping it all bottled up and treating it like a taboo subject ... that's not good. Remembering it, knowing how they would think of the whole thing looking down -- they're not going to tell me not to talk about it, and they would want to joke about it too. You know, you remember all the good times that you had with them."
Ruthie's sitting to his left, staring at him, a silk shirt pulled tight over the end of her pregnant stomach. The baby is due soon. In the back of the house, in a room painted in a neutral brown because they don't know if they’re getting a boy or a girl, where he still keeps his brothers’ camouflage coats in a closet, there is a wooden crib, waiting.
In the high desert of Northern California, on the other side of a place called Hatchet Ridge, in the rain shadow of the Cascade Mountains, where there are no trees for miles and the distant mountains are lake blue, there’s a finger of water between the parking area where the brothers left their truck and the rest of the Ahjumawi Lava Springs State Park. This finger connects the open water of Big Lake to dry land. It's called the Rat Farm Boat Access, and has no other formal name. "Rat Farm" comes from a building located to the southwest of this finger that was used for muskrat pelt production. The occasional hiker slips past the lake, toward the mountains; bird watchers, too, and bikers. There are bass and trout in the lake. The water is a clear and empty gray. A barbed-wire fence curls around the boat access. When the brothers came out here they would’ve passed the smooth land and the wide, empty spaces and also the farmhouses boarded up long ago and trailer homes with rusted heaters humming, as they drove toward the water.
The ducks come out of the sky, in the distance. They are still the only things that make a sound.
-- Justin Heckert is a writer living in Atlanta, Ga. His work has also appeared in Atlanta magazine, Esquire, Men’s Journal, ESPN The Magazine, ESPN.com and the Oxford American.
Postscript: The baby was a little girl, named Shannon. This past September, Nathan was posthumously awarded the Carnegie Medal, given to citizens across the U.S. each year that risk their lives while attempting to save others.
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