(Reading Time: 7 minutes)
The snow fell early that autumn, just before Halloween. In the stone urns by the steps where hollow pumpkins sat with their cracked smiles, the chrysanthemums were crispy dry in faded maroons and bleached yellows. There were signs of the harvest like corn cobs and the smell of pie. Then there was that incandescence peculiar to that time of year – softer warmer lights, scented candles, glowing wooden corridors and windows gleaming cold. Silence started to settle around like a blanket cutting us off from the tangible world, so different from the lazy buzz of summer that draws you in to touch its itchy grass. Winter sucks everything dry. The snow was falling steadily by the time Mick and I drove in to Cable, Wisconsin that evening. It was two feet by the next day morning. My fingers froze as we walked out into the brisk cold through the leather of my gloves. At the arrival room of the lodge we were staying at, there was a small gathering of visitors under the high sloping wooden roof. Tall glass windows looked out to the bleak outdoors. The concierge joked about the unexpected snowfall and tried to sound cheery. He told us that we could wear snowshoes or go for a ride in a snowmobile. We may even be able to go skiing, he said. We wished each other in the group, found out who came from where, drank some tepid black coffee and left to explore.
We had three days in Cable. One day, we went to Copper Falls where the water gathers tannin and comes out reddish brown. Another day, we drove out for a hike to the mountains. At Ironwood, the small town on the edge of the Porkies, we breakfasted on omelettes and toast at a diner. We picked up local pasties from their famous Pasty Shop, beef for Mick and veggie tofu for me and drove out to the mountain trails. All the way up the slopes of Porky Mountains, globs of snow hung on leaves that were yellow, faded green and orange on the paths. Every now and then a branch cracked and fell, laden with the weight of the snow. We walked over the fallen trunks of trees to the edge of the cliff where the line of the mountains stretched out in vast gentle mounds. At the end of a two hour hike, we ate the pasties. The filling was still warm. Later that night in our room, we watched Rocky Horror Picture Show. We had baked beans on toast and soup from cans we got from the local store.
The next day, we went to the local gas station to fill up the Jeep. On the way, we saw signs, Deer Crossing. I’ve heard some people are unlucky and hit deer more than once while driving. Deer cannot read, and people don’t always try. The deer just stop dazed in the middle of the road when they see headlights. But right now was not about accidental encounters. It was that time of the year when they shoot the deer down. They are allowed.
At the gas station there was a sign that they rented kayaks and canoes and we decided we would rent one. From the window, outside by the pump, I saw a green van drive up. There was all sorts of equipment stacked in and a carrier on the roof. Four men got out wearing jackets with plenty of pockets. Seeing them, I felt a strange premonition, inexplicable; I tried to shrug it off. Meanwhile, we were figuring out the rental for the canoe. Inside the gas station, the owner gave us the location to where the canoe was by the lakeside and handed us two pairs of oars. We had to go find our canoe. See, it’s so simple. You don’t lock up the canoe, you don’t worry whose going to steal it. You just take away the oars and leave the canoe on the banks. As we left, my eyes kept going back to the van, to the burly men who banged the doors shut like they meant business. They drove off the same time as us, towards the woods in the opposite direction.
All the way to the lake, it was still and quiet like the world had not even begun. Trees lined the road on both sides, tall with bare branches sticking out. No car passed us by. When we reached the lake, Mick was brisk. He did not want to talk to me, as if the silence and the cold had sapped out all of the things between us. “Let’s get the canoe”, he said, sounding short. I worried that he had changed and something was wrong. “Come on”, his tone irritable, like we had to get it over with since we had come.
No one goes fishing when it snows. I wonder where the fish go, whether they swim out to warmer streams. They must. No one goes canoeing in the lake when it’s that cold. They’ve got better things to do in deer-hunting season. We pushed the canoe into the lake and it rocked lightly. I could see the deep green of the lake, murky and hermetic, concealing all its secrets in its never-ending depths. I could smell fish and dank weed as I went close. I was entering a cold watery being with life that breathed and smelled and had ideas of its own about what it wanted to do to us. Mick had no such apprehension. He solidly stuck the oars in their receptacles and motioned me to get in. I did, gingerly stepping into the canoe, keeping my balance. “I don’t want us to go too far to the center. I cannot swim. Let’s stay close to the edge,” I told Mick. He shrugged, looking annoyed. “All right.” We rowed in silence, the water splashing each time we pulled the oars and we went on like that till we had done half a circle of the lake. “Shall we go back?” he said, a trite kinder seeing me tired. “Yes”, I said. We rested a bit and watched. Mick pointed out the Jeep to me, a small blurb on the other side of the lake. Somewhere, a bird tittered, a far cry.
We rowed back all the way along the edge of the lake. Almost when we were back near the car, we heard an odd scraping sound. The canoe stopped moving. We pushed the oars in again and tried, but the canoe did not budge. “What’s wrong?” I asked Mick and he said, “It’s stuck.” We tried to move the canoe several times, but with no advance. For a while we just sat there. All around us the lake was placid and stubborn. It exuded a dead calm so different from the fluttering of my heart. “What are we going to do?” I asked Mick. The cold was colder now.
“Well, that’s what happens if you ride the edge”, he said, unforgiving.
The water was a scalloped mass which concealed the truth, a trap of reeds. Mick and I took our oars and tried to push the canoe out away from the jam. He must have told me to ride through the deep and never on the edge. He would have told me to dare and not skirt the issue. I would not have listened as I was always overly cautious. I did not trust what I did not know. Now he was reconciled to how we were. Without warning Mick pushed the canoe. It rattled like it would crack. He sat there and jerked the body of the canoe forward again with all his force. I screamed but he did not care. It’s hard, it’s fiber glass, he told me, jeering at my fear. With all his might he kept pushing hard and fast, sitting where he was. The canoe shuddered and came free, suddenly gentle on the waters, floating lightly. We rowed back, the silence between us even greater. When we reached the bank where the Jeep was parked, I glanced back at the waters, unwilling. They were gray and sober now in the dull afternoon light, glinting silver in a few places, the water like metal. Something was gone, something we had before we entered that lake, a friendship between us, the understanding of making compensations for what each of us lacked.
At the gas station, where we went to return the oars, the men in the green van were back the same time we returned. They stepped out in a hurry and I saw they wore orange gloves and orange caps. On the top of their van, the carcass of a deer was strapped, its antlers sticking out like the bare branches of trees, fallen, mute, conquered. Its body was smooth, soft and brown, bloody in places. If we had not got stuck in the reeds, I would not have seen that deer.
In the middle of the forest, if the hunters saw anything move, they would shoot. Unless they saw orange. Someone should tell the deer to wear orange.