In the story Issy’s mother told, Issy’s grandparents met when his grandfather saved his grandmother’s life on Lake Michigan. It was winter and cold; the water thick honey. They were on a ship that had come from Lake Huron, before that from the seaway and the tireless Atlantic. A bastard from the borderlands of Germany who, at twenty years-old, was shunned by his family; a five year-old girl from somewhere near Poland who was fleeing from something untold and terrible.
Because the story was so engrained in his consciousness it was impossible for Issy to experience or even consider the stark coldness of winter without imagining his grandparents’ journey, the immigrants shivering in thin coats, the water heavy with ice. But it was in the winter that he also thought of his mother and the way that she had stood out against the colorless skies and white landscapes of Wisconsin—dark hair, red scarves, turquoise gloves, luminescent orange knit hats with yellow pompoms. During the four years when Issy and his mother went away—“disappeared” people said—winter seemed like the only time when they stopped moving, when they allowed themselves to leave marks upon the earth: impressions in empty fields, angels in the snow, drawings in glass steamed by their breath. Summers were a blur of brown and green streaming by the car windows.
* * *
In the last clear memory that Issy had of his parents together, his mother told him about his grandparents. It was two days after Christmas. Issy was five, the age of his grandmother in the story. Issy remembered his mother’s olive face haloed in a violet shawl, raven hair flying away beneath. Her eyes were a piercing blue. She would tell him the story again and again in the years that followed—whenever they were lost; or hungry; or the world turned to a foreboding grey that couldn’t be escaped, no matter how far and fast they went. On that winter day Issy was sitting beside her on the shore staring out at Lake Michigan. Huge ships dotted the horizon. Beneath her voice was the sound of the wind, the sluggish waves creeping to shore to slap the rocks, his father’s boots cracking the frozen ground as he paced. His mother’s gaze never left the water. “Your grandfather didn’t have anything. His father would not claim him.”
At five years-old Issy did not understand that his own father did not belong to him. That they—his mother his father and him—were not a real family. The tranquil life that he lived with his mother and aunt in the home his grandparents had built, his father driving up from Chicago to visit, was coming to an end on that day. His father’s wife—his real wife—was pregnant.
Years later, after his mother was admitted to the institution—where she would spend the rest of her life—and his aunt became ill, Issy was sent to live with his father in Chicago. His father would be afraid of Issy’s stabbing blue eyes—identical to his mother’s. Issy’s father’s wife would hate the shape of Issy’s face that looked so much like her husband’s: wide forehead, diamond lips, rosy cheeks. Their legitimate son, who would never call Issy “brother,” would despise Issy for existing, for being older, for taking over the room that had once been extra and dedicated to his toys and play.
Issy’s father had never meant for his real son and wife to meet the bastard son who he had fathered. On that day, two days after Christmas, Issy’s father told Issy’s mother that he could never see her or Issy again. Issy’s mother slipped into a serene calm then, her voice like a lullaby as she sat with Issy and told the story, “Your grandmother, my mother, was traveling with her parents and her baby brother. They came across the ocean and into the lakes, headed for Chicago. Your grandfather saved her twice on that journey. The first time was the first evening they were at sea. She went out on deck to look at the water. She leaned a little too far over the railing, slipped and fell overboard. She would have gone right into the ocean and drown if it hadn’t been for a stray nail that caught her dress.” She hooked Issy’s jacket with her index finger as demonstration. “Your grandfather reached down and grabbed her just before the last threads tore. After that your grandma’s family befriended him and they promised to help take care of him when the ship landed.
“But it was your grandfather who ended up taking care of your grandmother. On the very last night of the journey the ship caught fire. They had nearly made it. They were right out there.” Her finger pointed to the horizon. “From here, on the shore, people could see the ship blazing. The few people who had boats began to make efforts to get to the burning ship, but it went down fast. Your grandfather was determined to save your grandmother. When he found her she was alone. Her family had gotten stuck below and drown. Everyone was jumping into the water and freezing, or staying aboard the ship and burning. Your grandparents jumped into the water and climbed onto some driftwood. Your grandfather paddled them all the way to shore. They were the only survivors. Ever since then, our family has lived along this lake.” In the years of flight that followed, when Issy and his mother no longer lived by the lake or anywhere, she still told this story as though that shoreline was their legacy.
* * *
Although the visits that Issy’s father made to the lake house during the first five years of Issy’s life had been only sporadic, Issy remembered that his father had always been there: eating dinner with them, watching football on TV, helping Issy to construct a Lego castle. The only time that Issy remembered his father leaving was after their last Christmas together; the long talk, and his mother’s telling of the story. And because the following morning Issy’s mother packed Issy into the Subaru and they drove off, Issy sometimes remembered that his father had not left them at all, but that they had left him, that his father still stood in his long coat on the shore of the lake waiting for their return. When, at nine years-old, Issy did return—he and his mother “found,” his mother sent to the institution, Issy sent to live again with his aunt in the two-bedroom cottage that overlooked the lake—he would know that his father had not been waiting for them. Issy would still find himself pacing the shore, looking for a tall figure so gray that he blended in with the rocks.
When people asked about those four years missing from Issy’s life—leaving him impossibly behind in school and socially awkward—Issy could only remember the racing horizon line through the car windows, the occasional kiss of snowflakes on his tongue and his mother’s laughter that squinted her wide eyes. Issy had no sense of time passing during those years, no sense of how days had become weeks, weeks had become seasons to compose years; he could not remember a birthday—his or hers; he had no concept of geography—that mountains existed in one place, desert in another, forest somewhere else. Issy had no idea that he had grown and changed, or that he and his mother had moved across the country and back a dozen times. This motion seemed as natural and irrelevant as breath coming in and out, the rotation of the earth. In time Issy had not noticed that they moved at all, rather it seemed that the car had been still and the world sped past them. Eventually, Issy would remember nothing of what he had seen. He would be able to recall only the interior of the Subaru, then only the texture of the vinyl seats, then only the rosary beads that hung from the rear view mirror. He would not remember ever meeting anyone else, ever eating, ever sleeping. But he would recall every detail of sitting on the shore of the lake that snowy afternoon at five years-old when he still thought that his father belonged to him; and he would somehow condense all of the snowy days of his life that had preceded and would follow into that one afternoon.
The newspapers clippings that his aunt saved in a scrapbook announced that Issy and his mother were “nowhere to be found,” “vanished without a trace.” They did vanish; dissolved, evaporated, exchanged one substance for another and became completely unrecognizable, invisible, non-existent. People speculated that they had been “taken.” A man interviewed by the local news predicted that they would be found dead—dismembered bodies dumped in a parking lot. Neighbors thought that a car accident had veered them into the lake and that when the tides were low their rusted Subaru would reveal itself. Authorities questioned everyone in the area. Finally they turned their attentions to Issy’s father.
Their investigation dragged on for a year, nearly ending his marriage. Issy’s father began to live like a hermit in his own house, people gazing at the dark windows, keeping their children away from the yard. But in the end, there was no evidence to support wrongdoing on anyone’s part. Years later, a well-dressed officer would make a final report to news crews: “In the middle of the night the boy’s mother came into the bedroom where her son slept, dressed him, put him in the car and simply drove off.” In later statements Issy’s mother would insist that it had been necessary to flee, that they hadn’t been safe, that they still were not. When asked to name the danger, she could only say that it was perpetuated by stillness, that so long as they kept moving the danger wouldn’t find them. Authorities would label her “unstable,” “delusional,” “unfit.”
When Issy’s aunt filed the missing persons report, she told the police that she had heard nothing the night that her sister and nephew went missing. She also told them about Issy’s father, the affair, the break-up. The police told Issy’s father not to leave the country. In time Issy’s father tried to go on with the life he had made with his real family in Chicago, but even after he was cleared, he would always be suspect.
* * *
And maybe that was warranted. Maybe he wasn’t entirely innocent. Maybe he should have realized that something was not quite right during that Christmas when he ended the relationship and Issy’s mother became so calm and sat for hours on the snow-crusted shore staring out at the black water. “I wish that we could go to the beach,” she had said to him—not Please don’t leave us, or I hate you. “I’ve never been to a real beach by the ocean. I wish that we could go to the beach, away from everything. Nothing could find us there. Nothing could hurt us. I want to build a sandcastle big enough to sleep in.” She had collected a pile of things that the lake spit up: shards of glass beaten smooth, scraps of rusted metal, bottle caps flattened or twisted. Then to Issy, “Come on, let’s build a sandcastle.”
“But there isn’t any sand,” he had said stomping his foot on the thick frost that covered the ground.
“Oh come on.” She rolled to her knees and began to pummel the snow with her mittened fist. She cracked through the layer of ice and crumpled it to small chunks, she dug until she hit sand and the brown grains mixed in with the white snow. “Help me,” she pleaded, something desperate. Issy fell to the ground beside her and began to dig at the ground.
“What are you doing?” Issy’s father asked quietly, then demanded, “Stop. It’s frozen.”
It was obvious that both the sand and the snow were too dry to clump and form. Issy’s mother slapped the mound with her hands, causing it to cave on one side. It wasn’t working. “You can burry me instead,” she said to Issy. “I’ll be like a hidden treasure.”
She lay flat on her back beside the pile, closed her eyes and waited. When Issy did nothing, she said, “Hurry. I’m freezing.” Issy began to heap the white and brown mixture on her, packing it against her legs and arms and torso.
His father, who had stepped away, called back to them, but never had anymore to say than, “It’s getting late. It’s cold. We should go.”
When all there was left to cover was her face, Issy stopped, but her eyes did not open. She looked as though she were asleep, or dead. The color had drained from her cheeks, her skin had gone to a rubbery dullness. He tapped her. Then shook her, then shook her again harder.
His father called, “You’re scaring him.”
Issy began to dig the snow and sand away from his mother furiously. He uncovered her arm and gave it a tug.
She still didn’t open her eyes, but smiled. “Do you hear that?” she asked. “It’s coming from the lake. Singing. Could be the ghosts of people who died out there. Can you hear them?”
Issy remembered looking out at the lake, at the dark surface of the water. He had imagined it as a ceiling that covered and hid what was below. In the depths of the water was his grandparent’s sunken ship, maybe other ships too, and all of those burned and drown passengers walking on the watery ground.
“Come now,” his father pleaded.
“You heard it, didn’t you?” his mother said and opened her eyes. She jumped up, throwing off the rest of the snow and sand and grabbing him, spinning him around and around, the world becoming that blur of motion.
In the next months his mother would hear all kinds of things in the whistling of pipes at cheap hotels, the hollow walls of shelters. Issy would hear them too; he would think he did. “Shhh, listen.” She would be lying in a field, ear pressed against the prairie grass. Issy would press his ear beside hers. “Do you hear it?” she would ask. Everything sounded like waves to him, seagulls crying, ghosts whispering underwater. “Listen. What are they saying?” When it got quiet, she would tell him the story of his grandparents again.
* * *
As an adult, it would not be those four years on the run with his mother that would be most prominent in Issy’s memory, but instead the story of his grandparents—a memory that was not even his own. When he allowed himself to consider the story beyond the snapshots that his mother had given him, Issy would wonder how, with all of the other grown men on board, a bastard and a child could be the only survivors. His mind would wonder to more sinister areas: what had a twenty year-old man done with a five year old girl between the time when she was a child and the time when she was old enough to marry? Issy would begin to see the hero of the story as a predator rather than a fearless profit who had brought their family out of the darkness of bastardhood. He would understand that his grandmother had been the victim of one thing after another: the untold misfortunes of the foreign country, accidents at sea, orphaning, etc.—rather than a heroine.
In the years that Issy lived with his aunt, before his father came to take him to Chicago, he would stand on the shore, look out at the black surface of the lake and imagine that he could see the sunken ship far below. He would see its shape outlined in rusted orange, its belly empty and growing moss. Something occurred to him then: perhaps his grandparents had not survived at all, had never made if off of that burning ship or out of the icy water. Perhaps they had died, or were dying still and as the cold overtook them—slowing their beating hearts and collapsing their breath—time arrested and they dreamed of what could be; dreamed of paddling the raft, finding the shore, building a house, making a family—his mother, his aunt, and Issy. Perhaps all that he was, their entire family legacy, was a dying dream of arriving somewhere. That was why they were a people who had no place in the present, who belonged to no one and owned nothing; why his mother ran, fearing that final breath that would shock the sleeper into awareness and dissolve them all with the dream that would never come to pass.