By the End of a Rope

In Fiction by Brian Demarest

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Erik received the news of Pappa's death in the summer of 1979 while he was away teaching philosophy courses at a study abroad program in Paris. After hosting a lively panel discussion on the nature of moral truth, Erik returned to his small apartment in the Latin Quarter that morning and discovered a telegram waiting for him, which had been slipped under the door. It was from his brother.

The message read: Erik. Call me upon receipt of this telegram. I have urgent news. Lars.

Erik's apartment was not equipped with a phone, so he returned to the university’s program office near the Sorbonne and dialed his brother long distance. After a few rings, Lars' wife, Karin, picked up the phone.

"Hello?" she answered groggily, as if the call had jarred her awake from a deep sleep. Given the seven-hour time difference, it was still very early in Minnesota.

"Karin, it's me, Erik. I apologize for calling at this hour, but I just received a telegram from Lars. Is he there?"

"I'm afraid not, Erik," she replied, stumbling over her words, clearly trying to gather her thoughts. "He stayed at your father’s last night." She continued, a cool edge creeping into her voice. "He's been trying to reach you for days. He didn't know you’d gone to Paris for the summer. Actually, nobody did."

Erik felt a slight pang of guilt. It was true he hadn't informed anyone of his whereabouts, not even his brother, who he hadn’t spoken to in over a year, and who often needled him about his habit of disappearing without notice and his tendency to distance himself from the family.

"Lars mentioned there was urgent news..." Erik began, his voice trailing off, steeling himself for what might come next.

"Oh yes, of course, you haven’t heard," Karin murmured, seemingly more to herself than to Erik. "The news is quite sad, I’m afraid." Her voice wavered. "I was hoping Lars could tell you this directly." She paused, evidently searching for the right words. "Erik, your father passed away a few days ago."

A slow wave of numbness washed over Erik. Years had gone by since he last saw Pappa. He was always too busy, or at least that was the excuse he always used. And now, suddenly, just like that, Pappa was gone.

Karin's voice snapped him back into the conversation. "Lars had gone to visit and found him dead in your Pappa’s workshop. I’ll leave it to him to share the details when you see him. I know he wanted to discuss it with you in person. He’s been at your Pappa’s house, sorting through his things." Erik could hear in her voice she didn’t want to elaborate any further on the death, as she quickly moved on to the funeral arrangements. "Lars has taken care of everything. He was concerned you wouldn't make it back in time. The wake continues through tomorrow night, with the funeral the morning after."

Getting back to Minneapolis-Saint Paul in time for the funeral posed a challenge. There was no direct flight. He would have to fly to New York first, then transfer to catch a flight back to his boyhood home outside of Minneapolis, risking a delay that could prevent him from arriving in time.

Although the urgency of returning home as quickly as possible was clear, Erik needed to cancel his classes first and wait until the following day for the first available flight out of Paris.

#

The next day, as Erik settled into the long flight from Paris to New York, his mind lurched from one memory to another about Pappa. Dedicated and hardworking, Pappa was always there for his boys and did his best to provide a good life for his family.

Pappa had grown up on his father's farm, working the land. It was a cherished property that had been passed down in the family for nearly a century. He had intended to take over the farm when he came of age, but then the Depression struck, followed by his service in the Second World War. By the time he returned from his three-year tour of military duty in Europe, his parents had passed on, the farm had failed, fallen into disrepair, and needed to be sold. Pappa had no choice but to seek employment in the city to support his growing family. It was during those post-war years in Minnesota, when the economy was booming across the country, that he found work in manufacturing.

Pappa had worked several jobs during those years, starting as a canner in a food processing plant and later becoming a machinist in an automotive parts company. Eventually, he landed a job at a tool-making company in Minneapolis that was swiftly transitioning into manufacturing toy vehicles. This shift in the business’s product line intrigued Pappa, who possessed what could be described as a pragmatic imagination. One of the additional perks of Pappa's position at this company was the abundance of memorable toy trucks that Erik and Lars received and played with throughout their childhood.

Pappa’s job as a metal fabricator also fueled his passion for endless nights working in his home workshop. There, he designed and developed an assortment of projects, including constructing sheet metal shanties for ice fishing. He would sell the shanties to neighbors and other locals, always ensuring he had one ready for use by himself and the boys when the harsh winters arrived, and nearby Lake Minnetonka froze over.

"Remember," he would declare to the boys as he labored in the workshop, "no person can be held back if they possess a skill and use their talents wisely. There is always a way to overcome every obstacle if you focus and put your mind to it."

Pappa always encouraged Erik to pursue his own interests, which involved reading, writing, and studying, rather than solely relying on manual craftmanship. Pappa took pride in his belief that an optimistic spirit would always provide one with an advantage in the face of any challenge. Even when he lost Mamma to pneumonia in the early 1950s, he remained positive and upbeat, attributing her loss to the will of God and an unknowable divine plan. This optimism was genuine, not a mere facade. Pappa sincerely believed in living by this truth.

“When your heart feels burdened,” he would often say in those early years before the change, “take stock of your blessings, and you may discover every reason on God’s good earth to carry on.”

And that spirit generally served him well, carrying him through life until the transformative event that occurred in the late winter/early spring of 1960, when Erik had just turned fourteen and Lars twelve.

It was during that winter Pappa, Erik, and Lars loaded the ice shanty onto the back of their Studebaker flatbed truck and headed down to Lake Minnetonka for what would eventually become their final season of ice fishing.

As they made their way through the snow-covered roads, Pappa explained the task at hand. "Okay, boys. This season, it's your responsibility to set up the shanty, drill the fishing holes, and prepare our campsite, while I sit on that old crate, drink hot coffee from this thermos, and give you guidance if needed. Are you up for it?"

Erik and Lars nodded in agreement, eager to take charge.

Pappa smiled. "I believe you're both old enough now."

When they arrived at their secret site, far away from the cluster of shanties that typically gathered in more popular areas of the frozen lake, Pappa backed the truck up to the edge of the ice. The three of them worked together to carefully lower the shanty onto an oversized sled.

After ensuring the ice was safe enough to proceed across the frozen expanse, Pappa tied a rope onto the front of the sled and handed it to his sons. "Okay, take it away, boys," he said.

Erik and Lars began pulling the sled, which held the shanty, along the ice until they reached the center of a small inlet in the glacial lake. This hidden spot, nestled in a nook, was accessible only via narrow, rustic dirt roads branching off from the main road to the lake. Equipped with hand augers, the boys first pre-drilled holes, then secured the corners of the shanty by screwing ice anchors through its frame and into the ice.

Pappa unrolled a spool of handmade hemp rope, which he had twisted and braided himself from the plant's long fibers. He had dyed the rope red and white, giving it the appearance of a candy cane. This colorful rope would complement the blue and white spray paint on the sheet metal shanty.

Pappa wrapped the rope around the shanty just below the roof line. After tying off a knot, he turned to Erik and handed him the machete. "Take the machete and cut a length of rope for each corner. Tie off these lengths onto the rope at the top of the shanty, and then anchor each of the four ends of the rope into the ice," Pappa instructed. “And for heaven’s sake don’t cut yourself, or your brother!”

Lars, laughing in mock horror, retreated a step away from Erik as he took the machete from Pappa. Erik smiled as he pointed and waved the machete at his brother, and then, refocusing on the task at hand, cut the four lengths of rope as Pappa had directed. The brothers worked together to drive heavy-duty nail anchors into the ice at each corner, further securing the shanty by tying each corner to the anchors with a length of the candy cane-colored rope. They then solidified their hold by creating ice mounds around the anchors for extra stability, ensuring the shanty would be secure throughout the winter and not carried away by wind or shifting ice.

Pappa closely observed and inspected their work. "Good job, boys.” He smiled and looked down at their hands. “And it appears your fingers are still intact. Well done!” The boys quietly laughed and elbowed each other. Pappa took a sip of coffee from his thermos, beamed with pride at the boys, and then looked again at the shanty. “This shanty isn't going anywhere. That hemp rope is strong and durable and will hold up all winter long.” He raised the thermos in a toast to his sons. “Here’s to a good winter, boys!”

They spent many weekends fishing on the lake throughout that winter, drilling or redrilling multiple ice holes within a certain radius around the shanty, carefully dropping their hooks and lines into the frigid waters, and fishing away most of the day.

The fishing action was good all winter long. They caught walleye in the deeper parts of the lake's drop-offs, yellow perch in the shallows near the weed beds, and speared northern pike in the rocky areas along the edge of the drop-offs.

When they grew cold or hungry, they would scamper back inside the shanty. There, they warmed up by the propane burner, which vented through the metal roof of the shack, or lie on the cots, bundled up under a pile of wool blankets. To satisfy their appetites, they would eat sandwiches and hearty stew, sip on warm soup, indulge in hot chocolate, and, of course, cook up the fish they caught. Whether grilled, smoked, or wrapped in foil over a fire, Erik always remembered that unique taste. There was nothing quite like the taste of freshly caught fish.

The months passed quickly, with winter slowly yielding to spring. At winter's peak, the ice on the lake could be as thick as a couple of feet, strong enough to support the weight of a car or even the Studebaker flatbed. However, as the transition to spring unfolded, the warmer weather started melting the ice.  And while it was still relatively safe to walk on, the thickness had decreased quite a bit from its peak, and the surface was becoming increasingly slushy.

"The slop season is upon us, boys. I’m afraid this will be our last weekend on the ice," Pappa expressed with concern. "Let’s be careful and watch our step today. The slush can be deceivingly deep, and there's a real danger of falling in. Stay near the shanty, and let's continue fishing for a little while longer before we pack up and break camp later this afternoon."

Both boys understood Pappa's warning when they observed that the fishing holes they had drilled the previous weekend remained open. In fact, some of the openings appeared to be wider than before.

As Erik looked back on that day, he remembered how brilliant the weather was that afternoon. The sun shone high and bright, the sky was azure blue and cloudless. It was a perfect late winter's day.

He and Lars had been patiently fishing a hole in a shallow area near the shanty, hoping to spear one last pike when they heard a rumble coming from across the inlet.

Out from the woods, a car sprang onto the ice. Its engine buzzed and roared as it slid along the slop, leaving a fan of slush in its wake. The car accelerated, then suddenly braked, forcing radical turns and sending the vehicle into violent spins. The driver was not much older than the boys, and they could see the devilish joy on his face as he continued to maneuver the car through its outlandish paces.

Pappa shouted, "Darn fool! Get off the ice! It's not safe! It's not sa—" But it was too late. There was a loud, violent crack as the ice gave way, followed by a thunderous shudder that vibrated across the ice and under their feet. The car was gone, sinking under a cloud of steam.

Erik and Lars stood frozen in place, mouths open wide.

Pappa shouted, “Boys! Boys! Grab the blankets from the shanty! And grab the sled!” And when they didn’t immediately respond, he shouted, “NOW!”

Erik flew into the shanty and was gathering up the blankets when he was followed behind by Pappa who grabbed the machete. Outside, Lars had pulled up the sled.

Pappa furiously hacked away at the candy cane-colored rope, which had secured the shanty all winter long, until he felt he had coiled a significant length around his arm.

“Okay boys, let’s go!” Pappa began dashing toward the crash site with Erik and Lars close behind, towing the sled that carried the wool blankets.  The ice was getting thinner and sloppier as they got closer to the site. Pappa yelled over his shoulder. “Watch your footing, boys! Watch for slush holes!”

At the site, the car was almost completely submerged, but the young driver appeared to have escaped and was moving slowly toward the ice’s edge. He grabbed the ice to try to pull himself up, but his clothes were soaked through, and it was clear he was too heavy and cold to pull himself up and out.

And then suddenly, Pappa and the boys felt the ice cracking underneath their feet. “Back up, boys, back up! Spread out!” With that, Erik moved to his left, while Lars moved to his right, hoping to distribute their weight and alleviate stress on the ice where they had been standing.

Pappa unfurled the rope. The driver was still attempting to pull himself up, but each time he grabbed the ice, the edge cracked and broke away. He was heaving and losing strength by the minute.

“Help,” the boy said faintly, losing his breath. “Please help me.”

Pappa tossed the end of the rope toward the boy, but it came up about three feet short. “Darn it!” he muttered to himself under his breath.

Pappa quickly stepped toward the hole but backed off when he felt the ice giving way under his feet. He tried tossing the rope again, this time stretching out as far as he could. “Try to grab it, son,” he said, meeting the boy’s eyes and speaking as calmly and intently as he could. “Try to lunge and grab it.”

The boy was trying to keep his head above water, his eyes becoming distant, the skin on his face tightening and turning a pale blue. He made one final push out of the water and got his chest up on the ice, but as he desperately reached for the end of the rope, he again fell short.

Suddenly, Lars let out a scream.

“Pappa!” Erik shouted, pointing at his brother. “Lars!”

The ice had given way underneath Lars’ feet, and he too had fallen through the ice, but only partially. His legs were fully submerged, but his torso rested on top of the slushy ice, his arms flailing and sliding to keep himself from falling in completely.

Pappa looked from Lars back to the young driver, who had slipped back into the water. Erik saw the intense gaze in Pappa's eyes and knew he had to make a quick decision.

“Hold on, Lars!” And with that, he snapped the rope back and quickly whipped it over toward Lars. “Grab the rope, son. Quick!”

Beginning to panic, Lars reached out for the rope, and after sliding and fumbling for it a few times, was finally able to grab the end of it. Pappa started pulling his son out of the slush hole but lost his footing and began to skid. Holding on to the rope for dear life, Lars slipped backwards and let out a grunt when he plunged back into the water, this time even deeper. Erik sensing imminent danger, ran over to Pappa and firmly grabbed onto the rope too. They both could feel the ice cracking underneath their feet and knew it was only a matter of seconds before they would all be in the freezing water.

After what felt like an eternity, Pappa and Erik pulled Lars out of the water. Tears were streaming down Lars’ face as he slowly crawled back up onto his feet. “Pappa, Pappa,” he whispered gratefully as he reached out to embrace his father. Pappa grabbed Lars, who was now safe, and held him tightly. Erik wondered if Pappa would ever let him go.

Once they regained their senses, the three of them slowly backed up and away from the vulnerable ice field. They then turned to look at the young driver, who was no longer struggling or making a sound. Seconds later, the boy quietly sank and disappeared beneath the surface of the lake.

The three of them stood at the edge of the icefield, stunned into silence. The world seemed to transform into a deep, unnatural state. Suddenly, a group of crows burst from the woods in a terrifying chorus of caws, their black shadows stark against the late winter sky. Erik squinted as the flock circled and raced past, feeling a numbing shock slowly rise within him from the tragedy he had just witnessed. He ran to his father, who was still cradling Lars. “Pappa,” he whispered, grasping his father's large, callused hands, “the boy… he’s gone.” Pappa, lost in a distant gaze, abruptly returned to the present and looked at his son. “Yes, Erik. He’s gone,” he murmured. Gathering himself, he added, “Let’s go.”

As they walked back from the site and made their way to the shanty, the world around them grew unnaturally silent. Erik had wrapped the shivering Lars in wool blankets and was pulling him along on the sled. Every now and then the younger brother would let out a quiet whimper. “I just want to go home. Please, can we just go home?”

Pappa was walking slightly ahead of them. In his hand, he clutched the candy cane-colored rope.

Erik heard him mutter several times, “Why didn’t I cut it longer? How foolish of me. If I only had cut it longer.”

No one was quite the same after that fateful day, especially Pappa. He never took the boys ice fishing again, and his once eternal sense of optimism gradually waned, replaced, instead, by a persistent shadow of doubt and self-recrimination. While he always counted Lars’ survival that day at the lake as a great blessing, he was forever haunted by not having been able to save the young driver. The rope had been too short, and he seemed unable to forgive himself for what he believed to be a crucial miscalculation.

As time passed, Pappa’s bond with the boys became increasingly strained and distant, and they slowly grew apart and moved on with their separate lives. Lars pursued a career in engineering, started a family of his own, and remained in the Twin Cities area, while Erik moved east to study philosophy and begin his academic career at a prominent university. Consequently, he rarely saw Pappa and Lars in the intervening years.

#

After enduring many long hours of travel, Erik managed to arrive just as the funeral services began. Entering the church, he spotted Lars and his family, as well as other relatives and acquaintances gathered to honor and pay their respects to Pappa. The somber atmosphere of the funeral and burial limited Erik's opportunities for meaningful conversations with friends and family. Each encounter was reduced to simple pleasantries and expressions of sympathy.

After laying Pappa to rest, Erik and Lars met up as they made their way from the gravesite to their cars.

“Glad you could make it, stranger,” Lars said, his voice tinged with a slight chill as he approached his brother.

Erik flinched at Lars’ reproach, replying, “I did my best to get here as soon as possible, Lars.”

“That’s right, I almost forgot. You were coming all the way from Paris, I believe,” Lars responded, throwing another dig at his brother. He turned back to Karin, who was trailing behind the two brothers with her children. “Karin, would you mind taking the kids back to the house, please? I need to catch up with Erik. We'll return for the refreshments after visiting Pappa's place. We’ll only be an hour or so.” Karin agreed to go ahead to the house with the kids and nodded hello to Erik as she opened the doors to the car to let the children in.

Erik and Lars jumped into the car Erik had rented from the airport and drove back to Pappa’s. Apart from some idle chitchat and catch-up news to thaw the ice between the two, neither one engaged in any meaningful conversation along the way.

However, once they pulled into Pappa’s driveway, Erik, speaking uneasily, broached the circumstances surrounding Pappa’s death with his brother.

“Karin told me you found him.”

Lars nodded solemnly. "Yes, Erik," he began, his voice heavy with sorrow. "I found him in the workshop. He’d already been dead for a few days."

Erik's voice had dropped to a near whisper as he grappled with the gravity of the situation. "I’m so sorry, Lars, that must have been incredibly difficult," he uttered softly, trying to imagine the scene his brother had walked into.

Erik, who had been cautiously circling around the subject for some time, finally asked his brother directly, "What was the cause of death? Heart failure?"

Lars’ breathing quickened as he said, "I wish it was heart failure, or even a stroke. That would have made some sense, at least."

Erik studied the side of Lars’ face, which was now growing flush with emotion. He had many of the facial characteristics of Pappa, which were becoming more prominent as he grew older.

"Erik," he began, his voice trembling, struggling to find the right words. "I don't know how to break this to you, but Pappa..." Lars paused, taking a moment to gather his thoughts before finally blurting out, "Pappa...he took his own life."

A wave of shock consumed Erik. His mind reeled in disbelief as he tried to process what his brother had just told him.

"Pappa hung himself, Erik," Lars continued, his voice filled with anguish. “I found him hanging from the rafters—no note, no explanation." Clearly overwhelmed by having to relive this devastating experience for his brother, Lars began to quietly weep.

Erik embraced his brother and held him tightly, trying to find the right words to comfort him, but no words came. There were none to be found.

Erik listened intently as Lars recounted the harrowing details of discovering Pappa's lifeless body, the haunting image of his deteriorated state after days of hanging from the workshop ceiling. Lars described how he had stood on the workbench stool, used a blade from Pappa’s own tool set to cut the rope that encircled his father’s neck, and then held him tightly as he struggled to gently lower his body to the ground.

Emotionally exhausted, the two men got out of the car and entered the workshop, a place that held immense significance for each of the brothers. In Erik's imagination, this was the place where Pappa was at his best, where his inventiveness, craftsmanship, and optimism had inspired the boys throughout their youth.

But when they stepped inside the door, the stench of death in the workshop was pervasive. Erik covered his mouth and nose with his handkerchief.

“Sorry, I should have warned you,” Lars said, beginning to open the windows to air out the room. “I did my best to disinfect the place. I have some professional cleaners coming in at the end of the week. After all, we must prepare the property for sale. Given what’s happened, I think the quicker we sell the house the better.”

“I totally agree with you, Lars,”  Erik said quietly, still trying to process Pappa’s suicide. He was impressed at how his brother was able to focus on the important logistical details of liquidating the estate.

Erik delicately moved toward his brother and put his hand on Lars’ shoulder. “Lars, I’m truly sorry I wasn’t there for you. I really am. But Pappa…” his voice trailed off.

Lars looked his brother in the eye, then patted Erik’s hand. “I can’t lie. I wish you were around more often to help, Erik. But I guess we all do what we must do. Pappa wasn’t very easy to deal with these past years.”

Once he had gotten past the initial shock of the odor, Erik walked around, inspecting the contents of the workshop: the workbench, the welding station, the drill press, the bandsaw and grinders, and the assortment of ball-peen hammers and metal files, all hung in size order. He recalled the many nights Pappa had spent there, working on various projects, including building ice shanties during those long-ago winters. He fondly recalled their ice fishing expeditions and the confidence that Pappa had instilled in them as they grew during those years following Mamma's death.

Then, he remembered the haunting eyes of the young driver, the lost and almost surprised look on the boy’s face as Pappa and the boys watched him sink silently below the surface of the frigid lake that afternoon.

As Erik reviewed the workshop contents, along with Pappa's unfinished projects and abandoned plans, he reflected on how much Pappa had transformed after that day — how he had grown increasingly distant, remote, and, at times, even angry. He no longer found solace in the sanctuary of the workshop, and sadly, his world had become joyless. Erik struggled to understand the reason behind this profound change in Pappa’s personality. He had survived the war, the loss of the farm, and Mamma’s passing. But somehow, the death of the driver seemed to have festered in his soul like a malignant cancer, ultimately leading him to his own death by the end of a rope. Painfully aware of the tragic irony, Erik wondered if, as Pappa used to suggest, all these events were part of some unknowable divine plan — a question that had persistently haunted Erik for the better part of the past two decades.

"He wasn’t much older than us," Erik said, his attention seemingly divided as he handled the set of ball-peen hammers.

"Who?" Lars asked.

"The driver," Erik replied, looking up from the hammers to meet Lars' eyes. "The one from the accident with Pappa and the lake."

Lars nodded, his features momentarily falling into shadow. "I remember, quite often actually. It’s not something you easily forget. And I don't think Pappa ever did." He walked over to the workbench, his hand sweeping across its surface as if clearing away invisible metal shavings from the past. “You and Pappa saved my life that day.”

“Pappa made a choice that afternoon. The only choice he could make,” Erik said.

“Perhaps,” Lars mused, more to himself than to Erik. “Sometimes I wonder...” His voice trailed off as he quietly resumed tapping the workbench with a small file. “But yes, I am eternally grateful for being the beneficiary of that choice.”

Leaning on the workbench, Lars seemed lost in thought. After a long, contemplative silence, he straightened, meeting Erik’s eyes with an intensity that bridged years of unspoken thoughts. “Pappa also, it seems, made another choice. One that I don’t think I will ever understand.” And then, with a gesture, somber and deliberate, Lars directed Erik's attention across the dimly lit room.

Erik turned to where his brother was pointing, toward the dark shadows in the corner of the room, until he spotted the workshop stool Lars had used to cut his father down.

Slowly, he looked up at the workshop's high ceiling and felt a slight shiver run up his spine as he laid eyes on the haunting image above him.

There, hanging from the rafters, was the frayed end of the hemp rope Pappa had used in his final moments — the candy cane-colored rope, handmade by Pappa those many years ago.

About the Author

Brian Demarest

Brian Demarest, a writer from Long Island, New York, aims to create fiction and nonfiction stories that are both engaging and thought-provoking.

Read more work by Brian Demarest .