The jacknife was precious to him. Across the arctic he had carried it, carved wood, opened cans, cut rope. He had eaten with it, played with it, even secured it against loss. A strong thin cord attached it to his belt with a slip knot. Two feet of strong cord, which allowed him sufficient length to work while keeping it always within reach, its mother of pearl handle glistening in the sun every time he removed it from his pants pocket.
The case was there, under the water, where it had passed the entire winter frozen in this arctic lake. Shallow, about 8" down with, a log raft on the surface showing where it had passed the last year in the brown peaty water, surrounded by the stunted trees which were all that could grow at this latitude. Trees you could pick out of the thin soil with one hand, putting to an end a century of growth in an instant.
He stripped to his trunks, his non-swimming colleague waiting on the shore. The knife had to come, to free the case from where it lay. He slipped the knot from around his belt and over his wrist, handy when needed, and wading into the soft bottom swam with quick strokes towards the raft, slippery now after a year in the water, frozen in ice feet thick.
A quick breath and he followed the rope down, the coffee coloured water darkening as he dove. There it was. A hollow steel cylinder 18" long, 6" in diameter, the anchor for the raft and the purpose for its existence. An iron post stuck out at right angles to the cylinder and bent back on itself. He grabbed the post and pulled himself down, hanging above the case like a second anchor line, with no purchase to move it.
And then it happened. The knife, his companion over many nights and miles, slipped from his grasp. He tugged on the line to bring it back and it stuck, wrapped around another post on the case, in a fashion which he could not ascertain in the murky water. And here he was, hanging vertically above this accursed case with one arm now tethered by the wrist to knife and case and one breath slowly expiring as he tried frantically to release the twine.
Panic, no time for it now. He tried to use the knife to cut the cord and the tough wet cordage refused to part or even fray. Time was getting short; one breath would not last much longer. He twisted around, pushing feet into the soft bottom and heaved, all his strength concentrated on releasing the case from its winter resting place.
Weights are lighter in water than in air and the case lifted free. He pushed towards the surface, kicking strongly, one hand reaching upwards. One chance, and his knuckles struck the raft, grasped it. Now he was hanging from the raft with one hand the other heaving the case up. In the water it was easy enough to lift but he knew its weight in the air was likely beyond him. And yet, fear added its strength and he lifted it clear of the water, his shoulders straining, and heaved it onto the raft, pulling himself after in one convulsive heave, sucking the pure air deep, deep into lungs aching with the strain.
How he did it, he never after knew. That he had done it, he had clear proof. His colleague shouted, "You were down a long time," and he grinned in relief as he kicked to move the raft into shallower water. And the knife hung down from the case, swinging on the cord which had come so close to attaching him, perhaps forever.
© 2004 Tim Kelsall