Authors: John Bemrose
Tags: #Fiction, #General
ALSO BY JOHN BEMROSE
The Island Walkers
For my mother,
Jean Bemrose (née Reid)
It is difficult to grasp the sheer scale of Ontario’s north country. A place of vast, roadless forests intersected by thousands of lakes and rivers, it ranges from the Great Lakes to the arctic seas, and covers an area larger than France and Great Britain combined. Rich in resources, it supplies wood to the province’s mills, as well as metals (nickel, gold, copper, silver, uranium ore) to its industries. Its abundant wildlife is a source of furs, as well as a draw to sports hunters and fishermen who come here from all parts of the globe. Not least, its more accessible southern lakes are a favourite holiday destination. Many people in the province own “camps” or “cottages” here – waterside summer homes where they can enjoy swimming, boating or just “taking it easy.”
– FROM AN OLD GEOGRAPHY TEXTBOOK
I see men as trees, walking
– MARK 8:24
he sun suffers through a cloudless sky. Week after week, it pulses from shoreline rock, floods the lake with glare. New reefs have surfaced – sullen herds strewing the channels – while in remote bays, floating carpets of lily and arrowhead have given way to flats of dried mud.
To some cottagers, the drought seems proof of dire change – some critical shift in the climate, discussed over drinks or at the gas pumps in Carton Harbour, with that secret frisson of anticipation that so often accompanies rumours of catastrophe. But others tell stories of summers just as dry – a reassuring thought, finally, for no one wants life on the lake to change. Lake Nigushi is a place where people come to escape change, to enjoy the
kind of summers they and their parents knew in their youth. The plunge from the raft. The Monopoly board or mystery novel on somnolent afternoons…
She stands at the window with the receiver pressed to her ear: a woman in cut-offs and a sleeveless blouse, hair mussed from dozing on the couch in the dim room behind her, where the ringing of the phone made its way into her dream. She had been swimming underwater with a book in her hand, and then she flew up, lifted by a crane, cables screeching. And now she is at the window, staring into the fierce daylight with scarcely any sense of how she has got here.
Beyond the screen, smooth, fissured rock pours away from the cottage toward the water. On the next island, pines stand in monumental stillness, their long, upswept branches pointing into a brilliant sky. The light has transfixed everything: a piece of driftwood, an empty deck chair, a little colony of dry grasses, all motionless in the heat. It seems to her that nothing can move, will ever move again, the afternoon caught in the paralysis of a spell.
he trees draw past to the rhythmic scuff of his boots. Birch. Cedar. Poplar. A massive pine goes by – green, airy boughs afloat against the blue. Behind him, yet another car is approaching. Walking backwards now, he puts out this thumb. Sun floods through the windshield, lighting the face of a woman in dark glasses. She is watching him coolly, but he knows there’s no hope – a woman alone – and before she can blow by him, he has turned away.
Hemlock. Pine. Pine. With each step, his canvas bag chafes his leg. His feet hurt and sweat scurries under his damp T-shirt. The road has been paved since he was last this way – an asphalt runway that appears to stop, in the distance, at a wall of greyish trees. But the wall opens;
there is always more road. Maple. Pine. Birch. He is labouring in place. It is the trees that are walking.
Ahead, the sky has plunged to earth. Picking up his pace, he arrives at a lookout where a rusty cable guards the edge of a cliff. Beyond, past sunken treetops and the roofs of the Harbour, Lake Nigushi unfurls its silver. Countless islands, bushy in silhouette, litter the brilliance. A tiny boat is coming in. Its wake flickers behind it, a burning fuse, while the drone of its engine lifts so faintly it might be a solitary bee, afloat in a field of light. It is as he remembers it: the lake with its thousand bays, its smell of rock and water and pine – the smell of life itself. Far out, in mid-sky, an osprey drifts over an island, finds an updraft, and slowly screws itself upward, into the blue.
The main street of the Harbour is a steady fume of cars. Escaping down an alley, he makes his way along the public quay. The lake has shrunk, he sees: a mud ramp slopes to filthy shallows where two ducks paddle through a shoal of debris. Farther out, new docking extends over the bay and there, where an armada of hulls throws back the blinding whiteness of snow, people – more than he can recall even on the busiest of regatta days – bend to tasks or chat over rails.
He passes an old woman asleep in a deck chair. A police car pulled onto the grass of a small park. Meeting a chain-link fence, he stops, wondering, as he hooks his fingers in the mesh: it was not here ten years before, nor was the new hotel on the other side. Under a scattering of umbrellas a few patrons linger. Nearby, a young woman is setting tables in a state of profound absorption that for a time
draws him into its depths, held by the movement of her hands as they lay down the plates like so many cards. When she looks up, startled, he sees himself as she must see him: wiry, brown-skinned, no longer young, in jeans and a sweat-darkened T-shirt, peering like an inmate through the mesh.
Detouring around the hotel, he returns to the water. There is no more development here, though a cluster of signs announces its imminent arrival. A rough track meanders among granite outcrops, passes the remains of a shed, climbs among dusty junipers, and brings him, at last, to an inlet where a steel boat has been moored – one of the eighteen-foot runabouts common on the lake. As he watches, the boat swings a little on its rope, bumps a rock, and with futile stubbornness – a mental patient slowly and softly striking his head against a wall – bumps again.
Billy, is that you? Oh my God, Billy!
Her voice is still in him. Held by its echoes, he gazes past the harbour mouth, to where the low cloud of an island has settled on the water. Behind it lie farther islands, hidden in the depths of the afternoon. In his mind’s eye, he can see them all, and the channels that wind between them, all the way to the old cottage tucked among its pines, on the island her grandfather had named Inverness.
is wife is sitting on the deck overlooking the channel, her arms laid along the broad arms of a Muskoka chair, her face lifted to the sun. Richard is certain she must hear them – their outboard racketing down the channel – yet it is several seconds before she turns her head, almost lazily, in their direction. He raises his hand, yet the woman in the deep chair simply goes on looking at them, as if the boat gliding toward her were invisible.
It is this that stops him – the long moment when recognition seems to fail. Instinctively, he touches his son’s shoulder, where he sits behind the wheel, and at once, with a violence that startles him, Ann twists from her chair and begins to climb swiftly through the pines
toward the cottage. Something’s happened, Richard thinks. He cannot take his eyes from her. Sun flickers down her back as she hurries under the trees – and disappears around the corner of the porch.
Minutes later, they find her in the kitchen, chopping vegetables. “So I didn’t hit the dock that time,” Rowan announces as he marches to the fridge.
“Marvellous!” Ann cries, leaning back against the counter. The boy takes out the milk while Richard, a little on his guard, sets down the lunch cooler. “So have you brought me any fish?”
” Rowan intones.
“What, no fish? Whatever will we eat?”
, we’ve got food.”
Richard listens to their banter in astonishment. That morning, wrapped in her terry gown, a very different woman had come down to the dock to see them off. Lethargic, distracted – her state for weeks, it has seemed to him – she stood with her hands in her pockets, gazing vaguely over the water while they readied the boat. Moved by her isolation, he had taken her in his arms, but she was so unresponsive he quickly let her go.
And now: laughing at something Rowan says, she sends Richard a look of such unstinted joy, he feels his face heat. When the boy goes off, she turns to him.
“So it was good today?”
“Yes, yes. Apart from the fish. Too hot for fish, really.” He can barely meet her gaze. There is something daunting in her elation, the sense of a demand he cannot fulfill.
Opening the fridge, he is rummaging for a beer when her voice stops him.
“So I have some news for you.” She is watching him closely, her pale green eyes fixing anxiously on his. “Billy’s back.”
It’s as if she has pricked him with something sharp, so sharp he cannot feel it yet, though he has watched the instrument enter his skin.
Billy,” he manages, a light, satiric note.
“He called from that booth at the turnoff. I just happened to be in the house. I didn’t recognize his voice at first. I thought it was Dad. I mean, for a second – he called me Annie, the way Dad used to.” She is flushing herself now, aware, perhaps, of all her face betrays. “His voice was lower – it really knocked me, to hear him out of the blue like that. More than I would have expected. I’ve wondered often enough if he was – well, if something hadn’t happened to him.”
“No such luck, I guess,” Richard says, cutting her off. For a long moment she looks at him.
“Richard,” she says softly, and her worried, beseeching eyes go back and forth between his, as if one of them might yield the response she is looking for. “He was your friend too.”