Featured in ArLiJo Issue No 98
THE EARTH DREW HIM IN, and Silas sank by his own weight. Silt stole between the toes of his right foot, over his calf and knee, and partway up his thigh. But Silas didn’t panic. He steadied his body, one hand on the gunwale of the canoe and the other turning wide circles in the thin, Canadian air. When he had found his balance, he recovered into the boat.
The Devil lives in the lake. This is what the mangeurs de lard believed, those yet uninitiated fur traders who either with or without an Ojibwe guide managed to survive their virgin pass through the wilderness before being called voyageurs. For Silas, at least, this first step was inauspicious. His Lab took no notice, continuing to gallop around the shore. Silas worried about Dollar. He and Meagan had had some trouble passing the nine-month-old over the border at International Falls. But getting him to the base camp at Backs Bay would be an altogether different challenge. Meagan insisted they bring vet papers, proof of vaccinations, and everything short of a canine passport—and this turned out to be a good decision since the border agents were more scrutinizing of Dollar than of either of them.
“I told you we’d need them,“ she said, securing her blonde hair behind both ears. “The papers, I mean.“ Meagan was not the self-righteous type, and Silas knew what his girlfriend was doing. She was laying the foundation to punish him for mistakes to come: a missed turn, a badly chosen campsite, a botched dinner, a longer than expected portage. A trip through the bush—even in a charted provincial park like Quetico—was nothing to be fooled with, and if there was such a thing as bunny slopes for boundary lakes, Quetico was not it. There would be surprises, and already Silas had taken some chances, like choosing to traverse the wilderness from south to north, ending at the outfitter’s camp rather than starting there, and deciding to make the seven-day voyage without a guide.
“It’s a good map,“ he said on the drive up, rapping it against the Jeep’s dashboard. The chart was folded-over five times to exactly fit the dimensions of a large Ziploc.
“It’s not the map I’m worried about,“ Meagan said.
One of the naturalist guides from the outfitter, a twenty-year-old named Cody, met them on the Canadian side before adding to their provisions and taking them via pontoon to Prairie Por, north of Sucker Lake. He wore a too-small pink tee that had been red once. Authentic vintage. It was early September, the end of another season, and Cody would be on his way back to the university in Montreal after a final trip to base camp, where he had spent the summer leading student groups on short excursions through small circuits of the northern park, nothing like the week-long trip that lay ahead for the two Americans he was dropping off, one of whom he just watched bury a third of his body in silt even before taking a seat in the canoe.
“I can still come with you,“ Cody offered. “Harbor the boat and a canoe from town.“
“We’re fine,“ said Silas, who looked like he was wearing a black cast on his right leg, which hung over the starboard side as he tried to rinse off the mud.
“But thanks,“ Meagan said.
The previous night, and to enjoy some privacy, Silas and Meagan had locked Dollar in the hotel bathroom before having sex. Not that they wouldn’t also have sex on the trail—which was one more reason not to want Cody along. Silas had purchased a novelty book, How to Have Sex in the Woods, from a tourist shop in International Falls. He thought it was funny, but Meagan, when he showed it to her, looked like she wanted to grab the dog and return to St. Louis. Silas could tell when Meagan wasn’t satisfied, when she was bored, but he had only bought the book as a joke. Surely she didn’t think him so insecure as to consult a field guide for something like that. The sex, like everything between them, would be different in the wilderness—as a resolution to heated fights they’d have or as an ongoing experiment hatched in the spirit of discovery. It would be archetypal; in the canoe, on rocks, on top of a dam, or beside their campsite, under the stars and as a thank offering to the universe after he proposed and after she said yes.
Day One, Sunday
So much depended on the folded map, the illusion of control that Silas kept with him in the bow of the canoe. When he and Cody had been alone with the poster-sized chart unfurled, they studied routes. The boy’s angular fingers traced paths across the smooth surface of the map, where images of lakes were connected by thin red lines, each a portage. Some were named and with a number alongside to indicate its length the meters: North Por 670, Singing Brook Por 470, Yum Yum Por 1230, Portage des Morts 460, Have a Smoke Por 300.
“If you get lost,“ he said. “What I mean is if something happens to the map, stay in open water and travel north as far as you can and then west until you can go north again. Do you have a compass?“
“Ha, really?“ he said. “Mark it out by the North Star, then. Eventually you’ll hit either Pickerel or Batchewaung.“ He indicated the two largest lakes on the northernmost edge of the park. “We can find you there if you’re not in camp by Saturday afternoon.“
“Should we expect choppers and a flotilla?“ Silas asked.
“More like T-Joe and me in a canoe.“ Cody, who was taller and thinner than Silas, seemed incapable of offense. His careless grin shone bright against tan features, his tousled hair as thick as Meagan’s and as black as hers was gold. T-Joe, Silas surmised, must be another of the outfitter’s troop of model-ready naturalist guides. “Here now,“ Cody said. “Eat this.“
“What is it?“
“Pork,“ the boy said, passing him a ribbon of meat as thick as the spine on a book. The plastic wrapper was already peeled back. “There’s more in your pack. It’s tradition to eat pork before you set out. You and the girlfriend.“
“No, but a compass might have helped with that,“ Cody said, placing the jerky in Silas’s hand. “It’s tradition. I can’t be responsible for what might happen if you don’t.“
“What are you willing to be responsible for if we do?“ Silas said.
“Besides, we’re vegetarian.“
“Think of it as a ritual then,“ Cody said. “A ceremony.“
Silas pulled the wrapper further down and took a large bite. “Between you and me,“ he said, “I never stopped loving meat. But you’ll have no luck with her.“ He handed back the rest. “She’s as faithful as they come.“
Twenty minutes into Bayley Bay, Silas moved the map from the thwart of the canoe to a place between his feet. In St. Louis, he managed investment portfolios. He could predict the behavior of markets with good success, but for Silas, the most stalwart tables of the past, those constant and reliable cycles of heaven, were unsolved mysteries. He knew he would not be able to tell the North Star from Venus.
Even the sun was a cheat. It seemed to race halfway up the sky and then hang there forever. If the end of the day came as fast, they’d be out of light in no time, so after three short portages into Burke Lake and North Bay, Silas decided they would make camp on an island the map called Cigar I. On paper, it looked like the size of a football field but it turned out to be only half as large and a tinderbox at that. Dead pines and maples lay crossed in the fashion of a giant pyre, where shoots of dry grass filled the spaces between the rotting trunks. With so much wind, a campfire would be out of the question, and there was hardly a spot on which to pitch a tent that wasn’t jagged with rock.
Neither Silas nor Meagan wore a watch. But that had been the plan. They would submit to Quetico time—sleep when they were tired, eat when they were hungry, and otherwise they would paddle. Silas tried not to dwell on how long they spent sitting on the shore, watching the lucent water lick the stones beneath their feet and waiting for the day to end.
“I doubt we went ten miles,“ Meagan said, cinching up her capris to put her calves deeper in.
“I think you’re right.“ He checked their location on the map relative to Prairie Por, consulted the legend, and did some conversion math before gazing back across the choppy, gray water. For six hours’ work paddling into the wind they had gone less than eight miles.
By the time the sun bent toward the horizon, the camp was struck, the Coleman lit, the water boiled, the dinner eaten, the water boiled again, the dishes cleaned and stacked and all with an enormity of daylight left. The night would bring some novelty, Silas hoped, and a break from the heat. As the sky went dark he could still feel his face blister from so many hours in the sun. He recognized that they should have only made the island a stop for lunch rather than the campsite.
“Paddle out?“ he said while there was still the thinnest film of light left.
As if she might be after something to read, Meagan put on her glasses. “Is that smart?“ she said. “I mean, how good are you with that thing?“
She was referring to the map. “One rock looks like every other. And in the dark?“
“To be honest, I’m more worried about the wind than getting lost.“
“Let me see it,“ she said.
Silas haltingly passed the map above the barren fire pit. He had every reservation about letting her take a look. At worst, she would discover they had made camp on one of the smaller islands—one that would make the real Cigar I look like a Four Seasons, and at the very least she was bound to ask him questions about cartography he couldn’t answer.
A moment later Dollar came vaulting from the darkness of the fallen trees, as happy as if he had discovered all Quetico to be his new backyard. In the space of a few minutes it became too cold, too dark, and too windy for them to consider going on the water. A lightning field shuttered in the distant west. Even with her glasses, Meagan appeared to have a hard time reading the map, which she seemed to regard as something more beautiful than practical.
“I don’t know,“ she said, hesitating, then finding their location relative to the top of the fold. “Maybe we didn’t do so badly. Already in North Lake? We are going north, right?“
The dog ambled up to Silas, licked his master’s heel and rolled over. Silas opened their food pack and emptied a pre-measured bag of kibble onto a tin plate. A crescent moon and stars were out in force, like a vast scattering of sands spread across the vault of space.
Suddenly, Meagan was hopping mad. Silas could tell by the way she held her glasses in one hand, halfway between her chin and the ground. In the other hand she held the map, removed from its sheath and unfurled above her knees like a rigid quilt. In the absence of good light, it looked like a lunatic had flung brushfuls of green and blue paint across a canvas.
“Are you crazy?“ she murmured. “Are you fucking out-of-your-mind crazy?“
She tapped their location on the map with her glasses. With her right index finger, Meagan pointed to Backs Bay and the outfitter’s camp all the way at the top—so far north it wasn’t even in Quetico, miles away and only visible when the chart was fully unfolded, exposing the enormity of the park for what it was.
Day Two, Monday
Canoes are marriage-savers. Silas had read this. Put a couple in a canoe and sooner or later they’re bound to talk. The implication was that such therapy always ends well, but as they set out he wondered if, like the divorce rate, fifty percent of the time it didn’t end in a drowning. Besides, Silas didn’t feel like talking. He had not drunk enough water the day before and woke up with a headache.
By the time they arrived at the first crossing, Meagan had exhausted several tactics—anger, shame, negotiation, pleading—and had informed Silas that, unless he agreed to turn back, he would be carrying the canoe by himself and both packs, for that matter, across every portage.
“No problem,“ he said from the bow. Looking over his shoulder, Silas saw that she was refusing to paddle. “We’re not going back. There is no back.“ They had all the time in the world, he knew, now that he could properly judge the sun.
But by the second portage, at nearly a thousand meters, his patience began to fray. Balanced on his shoulders, the sixty-three-pound canoe swayed forward and back, grinding into his neck as he negotiated stones, root systems, and mud along the narrow path. Meagan was somewhere behind with the dog.
Light flickered through a low canopy of jack pine and spruce. Silas let his mind wander, to think of anything other than a pressure like spring clamps pinching the back of his neck. If he were in the city, he would be following a routine and, depending on the time, either taking client calls or going to meetings. Meagan would be at home or at Zuck’r, the gourmet bakery where she was a concept confectioner. Her title was only slightly more ridiculous than the work itself, which was to invent new and evermore elaborate designs for wedding cakes. It amazed Silas that it didn’t amaze Meagan that, even during a recession, brides-to-be would commission designs of enormous complexity and expense (not that they were the ones paying) in a perpetual game of one-upmanship. The day before they left for Canada, Meagan had sold a design that the bakery, owing to the laws of physics, was not sure it could produce. The cost would be nearly five thousand dollars.
“For a cake?“ he had said.
“Not a cake. A wedding cake.“
Silas wanted to ask if it was a cake people don’t consume. An interest-bearing cake, perhaps. He couldn’t be expected to believe it was something to be paid for, eaten, and then shat back out. It was then, as the weight from the canoe buckled his knees and caused his muscles to twitch, that Silas realized how he and Meagan were in the same business. They both relied on people willing to wager large sums of money, whether tactically or emotionally, on uncertain futures.
With each new swell of ground, Silas prayed that at the top he would see the next lake or anything at all to signal an end to the portage. It was not the time, he knew, to dwell on the fact that each step forward was the accrual of two additional steps—a return trip for the packs and then north again.
If Dollar were back in Saint Louis, Silas thought, he’d be curled up on the hardwood, probably near the window, stricken with ennui and waiting for someone to come for him. If the trip was a no-lose proposition for any of them, it was Dollar.
Meagan could take a lesson. She adored their pet, and it would not have surprised Silas to know that she loved the dog as much as she loved him.
The nearer to the water Silas got, the thinner the trees were, until he was stumbling in quarter steps down an embankment before turning the canoe from above his head onto the surface of the water. The drop-off was immediate, he noticed. The lake went from shallow for the first few meters to what was likely a considerable depth. He could tell the point by the color of the water at its surface, where it changed from green to black. He was beginning to learn these things, and suddenly he didn’t feel so tired. Silas secured the painter rope to a log and sprang back up the hill, as determined as ever that Meagan should get more from the trip than she knew she had coming.
When he returned to the other side, the dog was there but Meagan was not. Silas hoisted both packs, one each over his front and back, and was setting out again when she broke through a web-work of dead branches, eyes downcast and fending off stems with her arms. In Meagan’s left hand was what little remained of a roll of toilet paper, several sheets from which trailed behind like a white flag of surrender.
“So that’s the plan, is it?“ she said. “Take the dog and leave?“
“You weren’t here,“ Silas said. “And there’s a trail. Or do you expect me to carry you, too?“
“A girl needs to pee.“ She stood in a patch of juniper, offshoots of stick and moss clinging to her hair. Meagan would not have agreed—and it was a good thing she had not brought a mirror—but Silas thought she was more beautiful without the varnish of cosmetics.
“Better save some of that,“ he said, already on the move.
“You’ll have to do more than pee before we’re done out here.“ Silas had not gone far before he figured out what Meagan was up to with the toilet paper. She meant to exhaust their resources so there would be no choice but to turn back. As Dollar bolted past him, Silas wondered that she wasn’t capable of greater badness.
They crossed Shade Lake, then Noon, then Summer, then Silence, pushing northeast and aiming for Agnes, a tall blue swath that bridged the lower quadrant of the map to its middle and which, on the page, looked like a human spine. When they arrived, it appeared more like a sea, so far across they might as well have been standing on the shore of Lake Superior. And it was getting late.
“There are islands up and down the middle,“ Silas said, leaning on a boulder. “Should we make for one or camp here?“
“Does it matter?“
“Forward motion,“ Silas said. “It matters.“ He had been downing water, emptying the Nalgene nearly as quickly as he could fill it from the center of lakes.
“Do you know which way is north?“ Meagan said. “It looks like the ocean.“
“Left,“ Silas said. “Left is north.“ He turned the tips of his fingers into the sides of his head, then consulted the map. He wanted to point out something positive, like how they had been traveling parallel to Agnes and were joining it near the halfway point. He reconsidered when he saw how far it was to the first island. “Never mind,“ he said. “We’ll camp here.“
“Is this even a site?“ she said. “I don’t see a fire pit.“
“We’ll make it a one.“
“On second thought,“ Meagan said, “I would feel better if we camped on an island.“ Silas looked at her. “If there are no more portages. I’m not trying to be difficult,“ she said. “I’ll help carry the packs if there are.“
“There aren’t. Not today.“
“Then can we paddle to the first island?“
“What’s the difference?“ Silas said, his stomach starting to quake. “Oh, God—“
“What’s the matter?“
“Nothing. Why do you care?“
“Forward motion,“ she said.
Silas leaned over the boulder as water leapt from his belly, running through his mouth, nose, and eyes. “Oh, God—“ he gasped.
“Are you OK?“
“No. I’m not OK,“ he said, and the next wave hit.
“Bears,“ she said.
“What?“ Silas raised his head from behind the rock. His eyes were shot-through with red, and his chin, before he wiped it, glistened. “You know bears can swim, right?“
“If we could row to that island just out there,“ Meagan said,
“I’d worry less.“ She said “just out there“ like she knew where it was. It would be at least a mile, as far as Silas could tell, climbing into the canoe.
The water took on a menacing pearl hue. The trees, while they could still see them, were already reddish-black.
The island they settled on was unnamed, as were all those in Agnes.
“I feel better about this,“ Meagan said when they ran aground.
Silas dragged the canoe onto the shore, dropped the bow, and kept walking. In twenty feet water was again lapping at the pebbles beneath his toes. “It’s not an island,“ he said. “It’s a rock. No campsite. No trees.“
“No bears,“ Meagan said.
“Fuck the bears,“ he said. “There’s nothing to cut the wind.“
“It’s dark now, so let’s make the best of it.“
“We can’t so much as build a fire.“ Silas locked his fingers behind his head and stared Meagan down. “Do you have any idea how cold it’s going to get tonight?“
“Check the map, please?“ Meagan said, rummaging through the food pack for her box of graham crackers. “I’d feel better if I knew where we are.“
“None of these islands have names, and they certainly don’t name the rocks.“
“We’ll name it, then. Isola di Tristezza. We’ll pretend we’re exiles,“ she said, “guilty of great crimes and doomed to spend the rest of our lives here together.“
“That’s your idea of spending the rest of our lives together—doomed?
“ Dollar had already made a complete investigation of the place, three times around before he seemed satisfied there was nothing more to it. Silas sat with his arms hanging over both legs. His head, still throbbing, was sunk between his knees.
“Do you have any idea, any idea at all how cold it’s going to get tonight?“
Day Three, Tuesday
Without a jackhammer, there’s no way to stake a tent to solid rock, but until the two confronted the bleakness of their situation, there remained at least some hope for a good night’s rest. They used some of the larger stones to keep the gear from blowing into the lake and then huddled in a single sleeping bag with the Lab at their feet, waiting for a dawn that seemed indefinitely postponed. Only the dog slept.
When the sun reappeared, it did so with the same faint indifference by which it had vanished the night before. With no tents to fold or pack, they loaded the canoe and were back on the water early.
“You can’t possibly know which way we’re going,“ Meagan said. “Even if we were heading back, I don’t see how you’d know.“ A widespread layer of fog hovered above the surface of the water, and through it visibility was less than ten meters in any direction. It was possible to see well enough below the fog, however, as if paddling through a low tunnel. Silas navigated with his head lowered first to one side and then the other, occasionally checking over his shoulder to monitor Dollar, curled between the provisions.
“There is no back,“ he said, as much to break the silence as confirm his resolve. As the fog burned off, there were other things he could have said, like how, in the distance, the trees looked like a design from one of Meagan’s wedding cakes. Silas thought it would have been clever, but at the same he knew she would think he was pandering.
“Shameless,“ she muttered. And then there was the sound of his paddle alone pushing back the water.
“If I say we’re going home will you at least paddle?“ When he looked back, Meagan’s oar rested on her knees, her small hands gripping the shaft.
“You can’t possibly know which way we’re going,“ she said again. “You haven’t checked the map once. You just keep looking at the damn dog.“
“Leave Dollar out of this,“ Silas said. “We’re somewhere in Agnes. Same as yesterday. Headed north.“
“Somewhere . . . somewhere.“
“It’s a big lake, Meagan. You underestimate the scale of things.“
“Leave Dollar out of this,“ he said again. “When the fog clears,
I’ll show you where we are on the map.“
“Yes, so will you please paddle?“
Two hours passed. Then a third. The fog cleared, and then there was nothing to hide behind—no excuse not to identify their location. Under the guise of a break, Silas stopped rowing and turned the map in circles on his knees. He held out his hands to the sun—right hand in the direction it had risen, east—left along its projected path, west, meaning that north had to be straight ahead.
“What are you doing?“ Meagan asked.
“Yoga. What do you think I’m doing?“
Ahead of them was a landscape of white pines, the west side of the lake, Silas wondered, or the shore of a large island? He consulted the map, which shook in his hands. There were no islands in Agnes this big. They should keep going right, he determined, into the wind.
“Did it occur to you to bring the GPS?“
“We’re fine. I know north from south.“ Silas thought he had answered too quickly to be believed but fast enough to skirt the question or further inquiry, to keep Meagan from discovering that it had not occurred to him even to bring a compass.
Knowing the longer they put it off the more satisfying it would be, Silas suggested they not eat right away. By afternoon, the lake narrowed in a way that appeared to accord with the map, but even if they were where Silas wanted them to be, he was too exhausted from self-doubt and second-guessing for there to be much joy in it.
“There’s a portage ahead,“ he said. Dollar lifted his head, as if he knew the word or recognized where they were. To win back some confidence, it was worth it for Silas to wager whatever credibility he had left by calling out the crossing in advance. Soon, they ran aground.
“If we had brought the guide,“ Meagan said, collapsing onto the grass.
“I mean, honest to God, at least we could have enjoyed ourselves. Yes, it still would have been hard work. But without the angst.“ It sounded like she was trying to talk herself into a better mood, and Silas was determined not to interfere, even as he looked around with a fresh sense of distress.
“I need to sit,“ he said. Dollar ran around the boulders like they were old friends. The path between trees seemed familiar, similar if not exact in detail to the portage they had exited two days before.
“Are you all right?“ Meagan asked.
Silas watched her, surrounded by grass and nightshade, its purple flowers, like conical caps, dotted with bulbs of red snake berry. Don’t say anything, he heard a voice say. Don’t say anything. He felt nauseous, like he had before becoming sick from dehydration.
“I wouldn’t mind sleeping on the mainland tonight,“ Meagan said. “I think it would be exciting to see a bear. Do you think there are bears out here, Silas?“
Don’t say anything. If she discovers the mistake, you can deal with it then, the voice said. If not, you’ll have time on the portage to find a way to explain.
Silas got to his feet, sipped water, and called Dollar, who trotted up with several long, green stems protruding like whiskers from both sides of his mouth.
Soon after they set out, however, there was a reason to be hopeful. The landscape was less familiar and, as the map confirmed, the crossing was longer than the one from two days earlier. If they were where Silas guessed, there would be a short paddle on the far side to a longer crossing, 400 meters, ending in Keewatin Lake, and then a slightly longer portage at 420 meters.
Both expectations met with success.
As the shadows grew long, Silas was certain he knew their location. It would be a straight shot north, across the next fold in the map. Relief overcame discomfort, nagging only insofar as Silas couldn’t brag about how found they were without admitting to how lost he’d thought they’d been.
“Make camp on Rose or Kasie?“ he asked.
“Are those islands?“
“Yes,“ Silas said.
“It doesn’t have to be an island,“ Meagan said.
“I’m not afraid.“
“I never said you were.“ Silas’s breathing was labored. They had traveled twice as far in one day as in both of the previous two. “We’ll camp on the west shore then,“ he said, “across from Rose. But we’d better find a place while there’s still light.“
“Are there moose?“
“Moose, bears, deer, squirrels, snakes.“
“Snakes?“ Meagan said.
“Whatever you’re in the mood for.“
“I’m never in the mood for snakes.“
“There’s a spot,“ Silas said.
Ahead of them, a crag arched thirty feet straight up from the lake and then gradually descended along a slope to a cove where the water eddied in a shallow basin. The sun had sunk behind the trees at the top of the cliff, leaving the couple in the cool, gray shadows of dusk.
Things were going so well that, except for how tired he was, Silas felt it would be the perfect night to propose—a warm campsite at their back, legs dangling over the precipice, stars above. When they arrived near the shore, Silas stepped blindly into knee-deep water, carpeted at the surface with arrowhead root and foam. He offered her his hand.
“You would pick a place like this,“ Meagan said.
“What do you mean?“
“No sir, thank you very much,“ she said. “If I were a snake, this is exactly where I’d make camp.“
Day Four, Wednesday
Their luck was good—a level campsite, no rain, and a night not so awfully cold. Meagan claimed to be too wary to join Silas and Dollar at the edge of the cliff, a refusal that seemed in-step with her overall aversion to adventure. So Silas lay blanketed and alone, ogling the epic view of stars and satellites. It was late when he joined her in the tent, and they slept until after sunrise.
“What day is it?“ Meagan asked.
“What day of the week, I mean,“ she said.
“Thursday?“ he said. “I don’t know.“ They sat on opposing logs, facing a ring of white ash from the previous night’s fire.
“I thought it was Thursday, too,“ she said. “But that makes it day five.“
“We left on a Sunday,“ Meagan said.
“Right. OK, so it’s Wednesday.“
“For the one in charge of navigation, you seem pretty cavalier about not knowing the day.“
Fuck you, Silas thought. Leave it to Meagan to fail to see the miracles all around them. The notion of hours, days, and weeks had never mattered less to him. She was counting down to the end, he supposed—down to how soon she could escape the raw beauty of Quetico and return to her towers of comfort and sense.
Without taking so much as a pack, Silas sprinted down to the canoe and back up to the campsite, clutching a bouquet of flaccid, wet shoots. Dollar ambled up the hill behind him.
“Arrowhead,“ he said.
Meagan was extracting her cherished box of graham crackers from the provisions.
“I hope you don’t think—“
“They’re edible. They taste like carrots.“ Silas lowered half of the crop to Dollar’s mouth, and the dog devoured them without hesitation.
“Here,“ he said, offering her some.
“Not for a million dollars,“ she said. “You don’t even have a field guide!“
“Can you give it a rest, Meagan? “Silas said. “You wouldn’t take a chance if your life depended on it. There’s more to ritual than just your wedding cakes. I mean I can understand you not tasting the pork. But this is right up your ally.“ He snatched the box of crackers from her and kicked the pack onto its side, out of which he grabbed the only other box of grahams, still unopened, and marched to the cliff.
“What are you doing?“
“You don’t carry shit,“ he said.
Meagan caught up to him as Dollar, cued to the excitement, began running in circles.
“You don’t paddle,“ he said. “You won’t come near the cliff.“ As if reminded of the fact, Meagan halted two yards from the edge, where Silas stood.
“You wouldn’t,“ she said.
Silas was holding both boxes over the drop before he saw the silliness in it. “All I want is for you to take some chances,“ he said, setting the grahams at his feet and returning past her toward the campsite. “A few risks. Let’s just pack up and go.“
But Meagan had other plans. She marched forward and let go with a kick that sent both boxes hurtling down to the water. She turned, arms crossed and standing defiantly at the cliff’s edge. Silas gawked back.
“And so you know,“ she said pointedly, “I tasted the pork.“
By the time Silas sculled to the base of the cliff, both cardboard boxes had floated away or sunk—not the offering he had had in mind for the spirits of the lake. Dollar, who couldn’t get enough of splashing around, remained in the water until Silas re-moored the canoe, loaded it, and the three were off again.
They crossed a punishing five-hundred-meter portage that connected Kawnipi Lake to Montgomery. The sky was diamond bright, and for the first time since they began the journey there was no wind to oppose them.
Soon, the voice returned. Get it out, Silas heard it say. Get it all out into the open.
After the crossing, over which Meagan carried her share of provisions, Silas was thinking aloud. “Left,“ he said. “Left is west, so left.“ As promising as it seemed from their location on the water, further progress north or east, according to the map, led to the crown on a thinning Medusa’s head of fine lines: creeks at best, at worst arroyos splintering away from the shield and ending in remote wilderness. No portage. No path. No open water.
To find their way they would need to travel west and slightly south, across two short causeways before angling up a narrow channel to Alice Lake and north to the two longest portages in the park, Por Bonhomme at 1,465 meters and Sauvage at 2,000.
Seventy-two hours in the bush had etched away the fa—ade of grace from both of them. Only the dog looked as he had at the start of the trip. The growth along Silas’s jaw had gone from coarse to shag, and Meagan’s face looked like an amphora, her red-brown cheeks peeling from exposure. Hours dragged by. They forced themselves to drink water, while the dog drank at will from his bowl. In the canoe, they nibbled on rice cakes and wedges of soy cheese.
At the northern tip of Alice Lake, the entrance to the portage was uncharacteristically obvious, open and wide like the mouth of a dragon. Dark-purple boulders and other formations of wet, jagged rock rutted the shore. A wide path seemed to invite them up. Silas only needed to imagine twin fire pits as eyes atop the hill for the apparition to be complete. It would have suited him if they had had to search for the portage. If they pushed ahead, there would be enough daylight to clear Bonhomme and then pitch camp on one of the small islands on the other side.
“What’s the holdup?“ Meagan said. She leapt from the canoe into shin-deep water and grabbed a pack.
“Looks like rain.“ Silas eyed broad strokes of stratus clouds spreading across the horizon, their bottoms burning pink in the western sky.
Get it out, the voice said. Get it all out into the open.
“I won’t lie,“ he said. “This one’s almost fifteen hundred meters. I doubt I have it in me.“ He was already scanning the hill for evidence of a clearing or anyplace they might make camp.
“We don’t have to go all the way,“ Meagan said.
Get it out, the voice said.
“So what did you mean, exactly, when you said you tasted the pork?“
Meagan either didn’t hear or pretended that she didn’t. She hoisted the second pack and turned away. Knee-deep in a tangle of grass, she seemed more confident than at any point since arriving in Quetico, and Silas wondered if her strength was fed by his weakness.
“There’s a spot,“ she said. “Up there.“
They hiked up and camped in the eye of the beast. For the first time, Silas realized the sum of all discomforts converging on him. On top of this, there were the fresh annoyances of blackflies and mosquitoes.
By dusk, the canopy had a hue like rusted foil. Dark red and bronzed leaves tingled in the wind. Soon the sky was black. In less than an hour the world had taken on the deciduous qualities of gloom when late summer suddenly becomes like late autumn.
“I think it would be best if we had it out,“ Silas said, buying Dollar to his side with a nugget of food. “About Cody,“ he said. “This can’t go on. The trip, I mean, the way I’d planned it, until we do.“
“Disagree that we should have it out or that we can’t go on?“
“Both,“ Meagan said. “Although I’m not sure what you’re talking about.“
Silas pondered the long-term implications of the marriage vows—as long as ye both shall live. Licking at the space above the pit, yellow flames split sticks of maple and oak, launching sparks into the cold air.
“It’s not a game.“ Silas listed nearer to the fire.
“I’m not playing games.“
“Are you for real?“ she said. “Lighten up. We’re in the middle of all creation. For the first time, I’m beginning to think we can do this. Now you’re the one going off the deep end?“
“You fucked him, didn’t you?“ Silas’s gaze remained fixed, not on Meagan but on the fire. “When my back was turned. That’s exactly what you did.“
“Are you completely crazy?“
“It’s okay—well, it’s not okay—but better if you own up before it’s too late.“
“And just when might I have done this?“ she said. “And what do you mean before it’s too late? Before we die out here after you get us good and lost?“
“You’d have found a way,“ he said. “You’re resourceful.“
“If this is you trying to be helpful, it’s not working,“ Meagan said. “What’s the point, anyway? I mean, what are we talking about?
“Everything,“ Silas said. “Everything’s the point. I need to know. I have to know, and you still haven’t said you didn’t.“ A gust of wind bolted up from the west, twisting the flames into thin, white threads. Trees moaned and cracked from the vaults of blackness behind them.
“This is not the time,“ Meagan said, softening her tone and moving close enough that only Dollar separated them.
“If not now, when?“
Silas’s eyes were deep, and wet, and stung with smoke. Meagan comforted his with the same absent affections by which he pacified the dog. Then, appearing lost for anything more to say, she suggested that they turn in early before it started to rain.
Day Five, Thursday
Rain buffeted the tent for most of the night, and wind yowled off the lake. The downpour continued into morning, and by the time the couple was on the move, there was still little light to see by—only a path vanishing into the iron haze.
Por Bonhomme was uphill for the first thousand meters but even harder the rest of the way—a downhill slope and at a steeper grade, and with hardly any roots or low branches to grab. They fell often enough that soon every inch of exposed flesh was muddied or cut, until it seemed to Silas that there were no new injuries left. It took two trips over three hours and all that remained of the morning to cross it. By then, even the dog was spent.
“We should have put on raingear,“ Meagan said.
“It’s all raingear now,“ Silas said. “We just need to keep the food dry.“
“What lake is this?“ she asked.
“No name,“ Silas said, flipping the chart. The most recent crossing bridged the map’s previous quadrant to its top. For the first time, Silas could see both their position and base camp without opening a fold. “It’s the first of two lakes before a portage that’ll make the last one look like nothing.“
“When did they say they’d rescue us?“
“Who?“ Meagan was too tired, Silas guessed, to know how unwise it was to bring up the guides—yet aware enough not to mention Cody by name.
“The guides? Two days yet,“ he said. “But we’ll make it. Unless we get as far as the big lake, there won’t be anything to rescue. If we can cross Sauvage today, we’ll have a good chance at making Pickerel tomorrow.“
“The big lake.“
“In time to be saved?“
“Nobody’s saving anybody,“ Silas said. “The only ones here for us are us.“
It took less than an hour to cross the first small lake. Under alternating spells of mist and rain, they pushed their way over slicks of still, black water, passing islands no bigger than mailboxes.
“Can we forget the past?“ Meagan asked.
“There’s that sense of humor,“ she said.
“No,“ Silas said, “I mean what part of your past do you want me to forget?“
Rather than hoist it, Silas and Meagan carried the canoe like it was a casket, over a short land bridge to the next small lake where the opposite shore was barely visible through the fog.
“It’s late,“ Meagan said.
“It can’t be one o’clock yet,“ Silas said.
“It’s the storm. There’s lots of day left.“
“What’s that smell?“ she said, as they arrived at the shoreline.
“Has something died?“
“Maybe, but sometimes vegetation can smell like that.“ Silas reloaded the canoe. “This’ll be a quick crossing, but the portage on the other side is brutal. You up for it? We’ll be practically home free after that.“
“How long did you say it was?“ she asked.
“Long enough,“ he said.
“I’m in,“ she said. “Forward motion.“
They crossed the water and undertook Sauvage in silence, conserving energy to make the portage in a single pass since there would be neither the daylight nor the strength for two trips. After several hundred meters, the path opened to an overgrown field, an acre of weeds and wildflowers woven in among brambles.
Silas and Meagan flipped the canoe onto the ground and let the packs slide from their shoulders. The sun broke through, falling on clusters of berries that sparkled like rubies.
“Can we eat these?“ Meagan asked, but Silas was already picking some.
“I don’t know. I’ll check my field guide,“ he said, moving a fistful into his mouth. “Amazing. Unreal.“ Meagan took a share of wild strawberries from him and began to eat. Silas wondered about bears, which might be drawn to such a place, but kept this concern to himself.
They stayed longer than he planned before discovering that there had been bears nearby. Leaving the field, they passed misshapen pyramids of dung and places where the weeds were had been flattened.
“I wish I could say we’re halfway across,“ Silas said, once they were back on the trail.
“It’s fine,“ Meagan said. “Like you said, the only ones
here for us are us.“
They lurched forward with the canoe on their shoulders, pressing north along a path so overgrown that at points it disappeared for meters at a time.
“Silas,“ Meagan said.
“Yes?“ he answered from the lead.
He was too exhausted to coax, reckoning Meagan had caught herself on the verge of a petty complaint.
“Silas,“ she said again, several minutes later.
“Dollar,“ she said. “Is he with you?“
“What do you mean?“
Silas turned as far as the burden of the canoe would allow and then allowed the Alumacraft to roll from his shoulders and collide with the bank of trees to his right.
“Dollar!“ he called. Nothing. “Not good. Dol-lar!“ Silas squeezed by the canoe, unfastened his pack, and bolted back down the trail.
“How far have we come?“ Meagan shouted.
“How should I know? It’s a line on a map. Two-thirds of the way? Maybe less?“ A few minutes earlier Silas would have paid to see the end of Sauvage, but was now forced to consider the implications of backtracking—how long it would take and with not much daylight left. “Dollar! He always comes when we call. This isn’t happening,“ he said. “I’m going back.“
“You’re going back?“
“We’re going back. Leave the canoe. We can take the packs and make camp in the meadow.“ Silas wondered if Meagan was thinking the same thing.
“Bears or not. We’re not taking one more step without the dog,“ he said.
“Can we camp here?“ Meagan asked.
“We’re not doing anything until we find him. Besides, there’s not enough room to turn the canoe, let alone pitch a tent.“
“All right,“ she said. “All right. Grab a pack.“
Five minutes into their retreat, it was Silas who spotted the dog. He must have heard his name but was still only roving down the path. Silas was so relieved he nearly crushed the animal. “We never should have brought you. Too much,“ he said. “Too much.“ He brought out a cup from his pack then offered water to the dog until he had had his fill.
When Dollar was finished, Silas hoisted his pack like it weighed nothing. “We can still make Fern Lake,“ he said, setting the pace north again.
“Silas,“ Meagan said, “I love you.“
“I love you, too,“ he said.
By the time they collected the canoe and resumed their trek, shadows were closing in from the woods at all points west. Forty minutes on, and nearly reduced to dragging the Alumacraft, they crossed a rivulet that was marked on the map and anticipated the end of the portage by less than two hundred meters.
“It can’t be long now,“ Silas said. “We’ll camp on the shore.“
When the end came, darkness had overtaken them. The lake appeared as a shroud, casting back shavings of moonlight across its surface. They were too tired to eat. Too tired to feel the cold. And so Silas and Meagan and Dollar curled up between two trees, beneath blankets, never more keenly aware of what a reward it is to sleep.
Day Six, Friday
By the time they woke, it was already late morning.
“Fern Lake’s easy,“ Silas said. “Twenty minutes.
There’ll be rapids, then a short hike to Bud Lake, then Beg, then across the dam to Pickerel.“
“According to the map,“ he said. “’Raps’ near Oldfather Cove.“
“You make it sound easy,“ Meagan said.
“I didn’t say anything about easy.“
“I said you make it sound easy.“
They paddled to the left of an island in the middle of Fern, where the lake narrowed into a choppy run of water near a point bar and a shallow pool at the foot of the rapids. The flow was audible first, and led to a disappointing sight by Quetico standards: a forced trickle babbling down a five percent grade.
“These are the rapids?“ Meagan said. “It looks like a negative class two. Should we walk the canoe up them?“
“We’ll go to the side,“ Silas said. “The last thing we need is a sprained ankle.“
They landed the canoe on a saucer of limestone and advanced alongside the water, through grass to the base of the falls where Bud Lake emptied into Fern.
“That’s more like it,“ he said, allowing a moment to be impressed by the surge of water thundering over the shelf. The nearer they got to active water, the more notched the route became, where the stone split into cracks as far as a meter across.
They crossed a stretch of calm water and continued upstream to a portage connecting to Bud Lake. The day was fair. The sun was out, warm but not abusive and a welcome relief from the cold of the previous night.
“Silas,“ Meagan said, “I don’t want to jinx us, but we’re almost home free.“ Silas remained silent. When they stopped for lunch, he plotted how he would transfer the ring from the pouch he had sewn into the bottom of their food pack and into his jacket pocket. “Yes?“ Meagan insisted. “What do you say? Almost home free?“
“Almost,“ he said.
Bud Lake and Beg connected along a straight, at the other side of which the couple stopped to eat before following a similar watercourse east. They soon came to a spot where they saw Pickerel pouring over a five-meter dam into a lake called Bisk. The dam’s construction was simple and the first evidence either of them had seen in nearly a week that they weren’t the only people on Earth. Waves splayed over four consecutive bulkheads, sending up sheets of mist and emptying Quetico’s largest lake by mere drops relative to the volume of water behind.
The sky faded, and where they arrived at the toe of the dam the air was gathered into a crystal fog forged by kilos of water buffeting down the channel. The sound was like a jet engine.
“It’s getting late,“ Silas yelled above the roar. “We should cross and make camp.“
They reeled up the embankment to the top of the dam and then, before crossing, set the canoe off to one side. Ahead was a platform three meters wide and twenty across. There was a provisional railing lakeside, but none whatsoever above the crest gates. At all points north, the view expanded to an endless scheme of dark-blue water.
Across the top of the dam, concrete slabs alternated with metal grates, through which they could see the water siphoned from the lake to their left and racing under their feet before tumbling over the spillways to their right. Halfway across, Silas and Meagan set down their packs to rest and take in the view.
“I see a spot where we can make camp.“ Silas pointed to an abrasion in the landscape, a clearing of cedar that overlooked the dam slightly north and east.
“Right up there.“
“So close,“ Meagan said. “Couldn’t we go farther?“
“I doubt it matters,“ he said. “Pickerel’s all open water, and it’s going to take a full day whether the wind’s with us or not.“ They would return to the dam at night, Silas imagined, but without the dog. They would stand in this same spot, beneath an imposing moon and the unfiltered arch of stars. He would bring out the ring, fall to one knee, and say—
“Silas,“ Meagan said, “it’s all right if you want to camp nearby. But there’s something you should know.“
“The thing about Cody,“ she said. “You need to know. Well,
because I think you already do. You were right.“
Silas shifted his weight. He couldn’t look at her, nor could he pretend he hadn’t heard, even above the roar of the falls. He found himself absently examining their future campsite on the far side of the dam.
“I thought you should know,“ she said. “And to know that I’m sorry.“
For several moments, Silas understood nothing except the drive to go on—to forget about the campsite and the rest of the journey and the rest of their lives together, and push through what remained of Quetico even if all at once. He turned south, in the direction they had come, taking in as much as he could of the immensity of the place and understanding how unwilling he was to confront the new and uncharted challenges of a marriage.
“I want you to know I’m sorry,“ Meagan said.
With strength he didn’t know he had, Silas sent both packs hurtling over the crest and down the spillway. Swallowed in a crush of water and rock, they were driven to the bottom of the ravine to resurface somewhere downriver—whether at the mouth of a portage, or along the shore of Oldfather Cove, or at the head of the rapids, Silas neither knew nor cared.
Day Seven, Saturday
T-Joe and his mother, Michelle, who with her brother, Edwin, ran the outfitter, spotted them first. Not that they were lost, even if Silas had overshot the final portage, the one leading out of Quetico, by a few hundred meters.
“You would have caught it soon enough,“ Michelle said, searching for a way to soothe an anguish she could only guess at. “I’m impressed. You guys must have flown that canoe up here if you were only at Bud Lake last night.“
It was several hours after dark when they arrived at base camp and later still before the two had showered and were sitting in silence at opposite ends of a stone hearth.
Michelle, T-Joe, the grandmother, and Edwin presided over a small ceremony initiating the mangeurs de lard into the society of voyageurs—a baptism, of sorts, by water and strong cider. The other guides, including Cody, had left Backs Bay for the season and were already at their respective universities for the fall term.
The grandmother drank a Maudite, while the rest had coffee as Michelle purposefully stoked the fire. She talked about closing up for winter and their plans for the year ahead. All the while, Meagan thumbed at a diamond on the third finger of her left hand.
“I’ll be getting married next year,“ she reported, as distant as an oracle. “Silas proposed.“ She stopped fidgeting long enough for the ring to be seen, but without actually showing it off. “Last night,“ she said, anticipating the question. “While we were still in the canoe. He asked and I said yes.“
“I’m sorry about the equipment,“ Silas jumped in.
“We’ll cover the cost, of course.“ He seemed to be drifting between two places in time, surfacing intermittently. He only admitted that they had lost both packs, and with them the supplies, over the side of the dam. The hows and the whys Silas could not have explained if he had had to, and so was glad no one asked.
Nor did anyone ask about the dog, which was the greatest blessing. Not asked, he realized, because no one knew to. Except for Cody, who would have known he’d be gone by the time they got back, nobody realized it had not just been the two of them.
“Congratulations!“ Michelle said, too enthusiastically for the silence to support.
“Thank you,“ Meagan said.
Nobody had asked about Dollar and nobody would, Silas concluded, even if it was the one story about Quetico he could have told more clearly than any other. They would be wed in the secret of the loss, how the pup leapt out after the second pack, the one in which his food was stowed, above the flashboards and into the whitewater below.
Silas slipped at least a dozen times, staggering onto the riprap to recover the body, which they buried at the top of the abutment. Even after a hot shower, dark resin stained his hands from the cross he had fashioned from shoots to mark the place. It was the bitterest of ceremonies and it took a while to get right, but not before he had forgiven Meagan—the one thing a person cannot do for himself and never more easily, or more urgently, given away.
Copyright © 2017 by Lyle Roebuck.
About the Author
Lyle Roebuck, a native of Saint Simons Island, GA, lives in Florence, Italy. He is a novelist, essayist, and critic. His fiction has appeared in The Arkansas Review, The Roanoke Review, Straylight Magazine, Redivider, A Torn Page: 2012 Summer Short Fiction Anthology, The Santa Ana River Review, The Timberline Review, and Split Lip Magazine. They’re All Gentlemen in the Dark, a book-length collection of stories, was shortlisted for the 2015 Serena McDonald Kennedy Award. Visit him: www.lyleroebuck.com.
Featured on ArLiJo Issue 98
Nominated for a Pushcart Prize
Friday night. No hope for a buddy to unchain himself, so err with resolution: want to abstain, want to have fun. Already, the criteria are daunting.
The sun fires. Neighbors grill. Children squeeze in one last home run derby. The world is big, but the first hour arrives and: it’s fine. Can’t believe how fine it is. No tremors. Steady hands. Eyes clear and sharp.
Matter of fact, Marxist theory pours in, more or less understood. Location of sunglasses, on the lamb for the last three weeks, suddenly remembered. The return is quick. The decision is easy, rewarding.
Victory lap around the ottoman. Amazement, no. Strength. Grit. Determination, hoo-rah.
Early twilight bleaches the leaves outside to silver. Still not quite dark though.
Because it’s seven, only seven goddamn o’clock?
Palms sweat. Crickets deafen.
Trance. Half-remembering, half-living the handle plucked from the freezer. Glugging to the pour line. Light mixer. Will sit for Jeopardy! Only get a third of the answers correct, but grandmother knew them all, always with high-ball in hand.
But wait, no. Contents ooze down sink, glass slides into the cupboard. Vow made two hours ago, two hours, that’s it? Jesus. Things worse than previously believed, if word is good only for an afternoon. Early euphoria can be fatal.
Nights have been completed before, without beverage. Haven’t they? Surely, thirty-five years didn’t pass with a visit to the freezer every night.
No. Laughter. Of course not.
Christ. More laughter, to an empty room. That was close.
Assurances to self: don’t panic, etc.
On some level, aware that reaction to temptation was too swift, too violent. In smiting urge, exhausted self.
Nonetheless, brain awakened, now put to good use: actors from Seinfeld looked up, recent photos contrasted with grainy reruns, laughter at how much time passed for them. Occasionally, a question: were they successful by the age of thirty-five?
Well, no matter. Not that they were lucky, they were talented. It doesn’t mean success is unattainable, being thirty-five. Someone might read future bestseller, wonder if author too struggled with despair during unheralded, anonymous times.
How fun was it, though?
Hallucination: a whiff of rum, like horse privates. Disgusting at first, except now it smells like being twenty on a windy beach with friends. Like campfires and charcoal grills.
Sure, advertised youth as uninspired degree mill grad looking for drugs. Nightly baths in irony. Here at fundraiser is mother, an emotional drunk. Here at varsity games is father, the heckler. To the nasty rumors and offers of sympathy, response isn’t &dsquo;I see what comes at the end of this rabbit hole,&dsquo; but yeehaw, let’s get. It. On already!
Because it was fun, being invincible, splitting a handle with friends, before needing a handle for self. Sure, would wake with glass in brain, but nothing a four-hour nap couldn’t cure.
Question posed: Do you see anything wrong? No weight gain, check. Not flunking out, check. Nothing in the morning, except on Sundays. So what’s the harm, who is being harmed, why not have one, just one, am not a toddler, can have—maybe two—then call it a night?
No more than three, definitely cap it at the hat trick. Too much and will fuck it up. Remember: want to get up early. Wanted some time with the kid, getting some time with the kid, do some hiking, or bike riding, and definitely do not want to be hung over for that.
It’ll make the night go quicker. God, time’s slow right now.
Why aren’t these jokes funny?, who watches network shows?, so just go. Go. Relax. Been a long week, hasn’t it? A long week. Working hard, no one works harder.
Freezer plumes. Perfect temperature. Glazed handle.
God, it’s cold. Like molasses, but pours faster.
Soda dissolves into obsidian, black as father’s hardened liver.
Don’t think about it.
Spicy and cold, the perfect mix. Ah.
Why not do this earlier?
Will work on book tomorrow. After the bike ride, after some quality time.
Bedtime for him soon. Had one too, once, before the first couple went down, bam, bam, bam. Before &dsquo;Gee whiz, honey, can’t go to bed now,&dsquo; said to sound incredulous. &dsquo;Just need to finish this last one, see&dsquo; (grin hopeful, glass held up, already polished to three-quarters).
Then you’ll come up?
Knowledge factored into strategy: she didn’t want to nag like her mother. Feel bad, but. Also irritated at frown before retreat. Know what she needs to do is fricken’ relax. Funnier than T.V., at least.
Doesn’t feel like giving in. Instinct to be proud doesn’t factor. In retrospect, resolution seems silly.
Begins as the lust for relief, settles into the mind like rainwater. Night settles in too, the temperature falls. Bring on that autumn freeze.
A crack widens here and there until even thoughts feel loose. Can’t concentrate, can’t nap. Have raging hard-on, no matter if jerked five times a day. Sometimes, feel like thirteen again, whittling skin raw.
Not like parents, though. Not that bad. Pratfalls can be spotted, will be avoided entirely.
Will know if go too far. Body is made to survive, it wants to survive. If too close, it’ll signal a warning that the tide will rise.
No one sees the sharks eat the whale. The cuttlefish trying to be what he’s not.
From down below, our last breath bubbles to the surface.
May not look it, but drowning isn’t subtle.
Copyright © 2017 by Brendon Vayo.
About the Author:
Brendon Vayo’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ocean City Review, LIT Magazine, and The Fictioneer, among others. Currently, he works at American University. When he is not reading or writing, he prefers to hike the many trails in the greater D.C. Metro area.