The Beach

 

 

Just prior to the Crimean war there were great plans to establish a harbour on this small stretch of Lake Erie beach. The entire scheme was under capitalized and the depression that followed the war didn’t help. A pier and a warehouse were eventually built and up until 1867 the beach was a small but busy shipping center. The 500 foot long, 30 foot wide pier fell into disrepair and by 1890 was thought to be too unsafe for use. Eventually a concrete pier was built (around 1900) for the use of local fishermen. Following the path of its predecessor it too was abandoned. Nothing remains but the concrete pillars that made up the foundation of that pier and an old dirt road labeled as a dead-end that runs back up a hill to join the gravel road above.

The prodigal son has a friend who lives with her family beside the gravel road that ends at the top of that hill. Her father remembers when that dirt road was still maintained by the township and ran from the beach along what are now crumbling clay cliffs. The road has narrowed with the seasons, fading into muddy ditches on either side. The trees stoop from above to create a narrow tunnel as the weeds and undergrowth creep across its nonexistent shoulders.  With only room enough to allow the passage of one vehicle the road is to be traveled at one’s own risk. Each season brings a different face to this narrow strip of land that resides between the cliffs and waves.

 

In the fall the beach alternates between madness and sanity. A sane day will find the water lapping gently on the beach. The sky is blue and the air is crisp as the wind caresses the sandy shore. With little to no warning the slow death of summer may overwhelm the beach and madness ensues. The beach is frenzied by stormy winds that whip up the waves and fling icy spray off the waters. Overhead Canadian geese heading to warmer climes mingle their voices with the sound of the wild waves. The grey waters are mesmerizing sirens; their song bids you to join them in the icy cool depths under the cloud misted autumn skies.

 

During the winter months drifts cover the beach and the partially frozen lake. Mid winter, after the ice is blue and thick, you can walk quite far from the shore out onto the lake. The breath that frosts in the frigid air sounds loud as it accompanies the crisp crunch of snow underfoot. The ice groans and creaks as you turn to look back at the towering cliffs stark against the cold blue or leaden grey of winter’s fickle sky.

 

Spring brings the thaw and white wings fill the sky as the wild swans return home. Noisy perch fishermen frequent the road to the beach in the dark hours before dawn. The clay cliffs are unstable and the landscape changes from day to day. Large sections regularly break free dragging undergrowth and full-grown trees to the beach below. Over the summer months they will be joined by the flotsam and jetsam thrown up by Lake Erie’s grey and troubled waters.

 

The strength of the summer sun dries the field run-off from the clay cliffs turning them to a light buff. Trees cling perilously to the heights and the bases are fringed by rhubarb, raspberry and grapevine. On summer weekends a small number of locals travel that narrow road looking for a free boat launch or a day at a beach where having a beer or a bonfire goes unnoticed by the constabulary forces in the area. Monday to Friday the beach is deserted, a solitary expanse full of treasures waiting to be discovered. 

 

Lake Erie is a shallow lake, prone to seiches. The water tends to pile up at one end of the lake carrying with it a wealth of objects, some common and others mysterious. Mylar balloons, plaster posts, dolls heads, shipping containers, all sorts of driftwood, bench tops, buoys, bottles (one memorable one containing a letter to a fish) and any odd assortment of unidentifiable items can be found regularly. These objects are spread out at such a distance that they only add to the mystery of the windswept wild beach. The water is seldom calm. The waves beat a constant tattoo as you travel along the sand. Life and death vie for space. Partially decomposed carp, gobi and catfish loll in the surf, food for the gulls that stubbornly refuse to move until the walker is fast upon them.  The beach has also been the final resting place to geese, ducks, loons and on one occasion a full-grown deer that may have fallen off the cliff. The stones that line the shore sparkle in shades of slate, mica, quartz and granite. The tale of eons is laid bare, told by the fossils trapped within those stones. Sometimes it seems that all of the things in the world can be found within this small stretch of sand.

 

The larger world has certainly forgotten these shores. It is most likely, in time, the road will become impassible and the beach will truly be forgotten. Only the wind and the water will know its sandy shores and sort through its treasures. The waves will press their will upon those shores wearing the stones with their fossils into sand as they rush up the beach to carry the clay cliffs away. 

The Storm

Dear God

Be good to me. The sea is so wide and my boat is so small.

~ Bretan Fisherman’s Prayer ~

 

Surrounded by the clouds, storm tossed and driven by the wind. The thunder explodes overhead. Touch the doorjamb and feel the house tremble with the strength of God’s fury. A straight line of rain, an unstoppable juggernaut, races across the fields to engulf us and the world dissolves. We are an island amidst the fury of the storm.

Trouble in the garden

"’This head is for the beast. It’s a gift.’"
Lord of the Flies ~William Golding
 
 
Last week’s full moon marked the passing of the summer solstice. The longest day of the year raced by unremarked among the long stretch of humid afternoons. Here in the northern hemisphere the days will slowly shorten as the earth recedes from the sun weary from a feverish embrace so eagerly pursued just days before. The heat of that embrace will linger, fading every day until the whip of winter’s northern winds chase away the last ember.
Those days are still to come and as yet we bask in the afterglow of that fiery  kiss. Where there are no trees to shelter, the caress of the sun lays dormant the grasses leaving fragile fringes to crisp and crunch under foot. Even the weeds are cowed by the glory of that furnace and cringe with heads bowed to hide from the light. Flowers blooming in the morning dew are crushed beneath the wheels of Apollo’s great chariot as it soars through the azure expanse above.
Beneath the wooden eaves of the garage the hollyhocks and gladiolus grow. The nest opening tucked beneath those eaves has been a busy portal all of June and July with bumblebees carrying on the business of the garden. The workers spend the days amongst the flora harvesting pollen. They return to the nest only when their pollen sacs are so full they appear to be clad in bright yellow pantaloons.
This day though, there are no bumblebees in sight. Something new marks the entrance of the nest. How it got there, I don’t even want to speculate. It is macabre in its appearance and possible purpose. It is apparent, as the earth lays spent, weary and languid beneath the insistent weight of the sun that something is not right.
 
 
 
 

Petry

The floor of the foyer is a warm maple, the wallpaper a soft cream that matches the newel post of the sage stained stairs that lead to the second floor hallway. The rainfall of carpet that covers the stairs mutes your steps as you climb to the second story. The hallway is lined with cream coloured doors accented by black iron square locks and knobs. Several of the doors have brass knockers too small to really be of any use but picturesque nonetheless. There is a door two thirds of the way down the hallway that divides the front and the back of the house. Behind that door is a small bedroom, a white and black hex tiled bathroom and another set of stairs that lead to the kitchen below.

At one time the bedroom might have been home to the household help but today it is the private fortress of my long suffering stepdaughter. An occasional resident, when here, she spends most of her days in the role of Janet Leigh of Psycho fame as her brother and stepbrother take great delight in trying to scare her half to death. Some of their more intricate escapades have included fake figures made out of pillows under blankets, plastic swords, remote control helicopters and double attacks from inside and outside of the room simultaneously.

Janet Leigh, as we’ll continue to call her, does not sleep alone in her room. Her space is also occupied by a grey and orange zebra finch called Petry. Of all the things in that room that one might find frightening, Petry gives me the most cause for concern.

Petry seems quite content in his solitude and is living far beyond the time predicted by the pet store experts. Oddly, he is vocal only when alone. On the occasion of another presence in the room he is still and eerily quiet.

Petry has not always been a lone bird. When he first came to live with us he had a companion that shared his cage. This is a common practice as zebra finches are said to be communal birds and will live longer when paired with a companion. There was trouble right from the start. Petria was white with the very smallest brush of grey across her wings and the same bright orange beak as Petry. That is where the similarities ended. The two couldn’t be more different in temperament. Petria was loud and aggressive where Petry was quiet and meek.  At first it was just small squabbles between the two. Nothing too serious, some wing flapping and twittering. Night would find the two finches huddled together asleep. Time passed and we began to notice that Petry was beginning to look a bit ragged. The squabbles began to turn into fights and Petry seemed to be on the losing end as bald patches could be seen growing on the back of his head.

The pet store advised us that the best course of action would be to divide the birds for several days and then slowly reintroduce them to each other. It seemed to work. The two birds sat side by side in separate cages for several days. We moved the cages closer to each other until they touched. Finally we open the doors between the two cages and the birds were together again. Peace, so we thought, had been restored.

Zebra finches are rarely silent and greet the day with great volume at a great volume. An eerie silence greeted me the next morning as I approached the birdcage. Petry sat huddled up on the wooden perch. He was in the grip of some strong emotion, shaking with the intensity of it. I thought at the time that he seemed terrified.  A bright white patch that had somehow appeared over night now marred his once smooth grey head. It was so quiet in the room. Where was Petria? I stepped closer to the cage and then I saw her. Birds have a very quick metabolism and illness has been known to overtake them in a matter of days but last night she had been fine. There was not a mark on her, no indication of any reason she should be lying so still on the bottom of the cage.

I looked at Petry and I swear he looked right back at me. His body was shaking but his gaze was steady. I opened the door of the cage and carefully lifted Petria’s body out. Normally a hand in the cage would cause Petry to flutter about energetically, that morning he didn’t even move.

I gave Petria the burial that all birds get in the winter. The garbage man never even knew she was in the bag. I checked on Petry after I was done and he seemed fine, perky even. The pet store didn’t expect him to last much longer given the loss of his companion but obviously he’s still here and frankly he has lived an abnormally long time.

I can hear Petry singing as I come up the back stairs. Silence falls as I enter the room. It’s always this way now, ever since that day. Sometimes when I’m moving through the room I feel him watching me, his eyes black and bright under that strange white patch. I’m not sure if it’s his longevity or that silent speculative look that makes me reconsider but I have a growing conviction that I was mistaken so many years ago. You see lately I’ve begun to think that maybe it wasn’t fear that whitened Petry’s head and shook him to his core. Maybe, just maybe, it was a murderous rage. You probably think that seems silly. I know it sounds strange but something in that heavy silence, present since Petria’s death, speaks to me… Something in those eyes makes me think that Petry’s not afraid of anything anymore. You know, Hitchcock might have been onto something. Maybe I should stop calling my stepdaughter Janet Leigh. The weighty silence in her room makes me think that I should change that to Tippi Hedren instead. 

Fat Louie Update-Nikky and Lindsey

The dial tone of the phone is an intermittent beep that tells me there’s a message to be retrieved. It has been several days since I called the mystery number and left a message to report the discovery of Fat Louie’s waterlogged missive. I had pretty much given up on the hope of hearing the rest of the story when I received a message of my own. Lindsey and Nikky, Fat Louie’s friends, had gotten my message and were just as excited as I was that their bottle had been found!
 
The bottle had been in the lake for 11 days and travelled a distance that would take approximately 40 minutes to drive. I’m not sure how far that would be along the shoreline. Delighted squeals punctuated our conversation as we talked about Fat Louie, fishing (Nikky told me she’d never been fishing before) and the lonely wild beach the bottle had washed up on. The girls, one from Michigan and the other from Alberta, are cottaging on Lake Erie and they are having the time of their lives.  We all agreed that it was like "magic" the bottle had made it safe to shore and was actually found by someone. I don’t know if there’s anything more infectious than the laugh of an 11 year old girl as she talks about a fish named Fat Louie. 
 
The absolute joy and innocence of the whole thing creates an image in my mind of summer days that seemed endless, full of sand,sun, laughter and joy. There were cold fried chicken picnics on the beach. The smell of worms and oil and fish mixed, not unpleasantly, in the bottom of the boat. There was fish for breakfast; less than an hour before they’d been swimming in the lake and now they were frying up in a pan over an open fire. There were campfires with burnt hot dogs that fell off the  stick into the fire and gooey flaming marshmallows that would somehow end up in someone’s hair (I didn’t care).  You would wake up in the morning still wearing your bathing suit because you were so tired that you’d fallen asleep and had to be carried to bed.     
 
Lindsey and Nikky, thanks for the memories. Long may you run.
L

Here amongst the Scotch

The day dawns clear with a bright sun in a cloudless sky. There is a light breeze skipping amongst the garden blooms and the humidity of the past week is history. To some it might seem the perfect day for a picnic but, for myself, it seems the perfect day to hang the wash out on the line. 

As I live here, amongst "the Scotch" (to quote John Kenneth Galbraith), there is no guarantee that the skies will stay clear so one must make hay while the sun shines. A common saying in this part of the country states that if you don’t like the weather…wait 5 minutes. During the past several rainy days the laundry pile has been multiplying in girth exponentially on the basement floor so I decide to take the chance.

A perfect laundry day as I have said; the sun is warm and the breeze is steady but not strong. There’s nothing worse than a wind that sends you 2 concessions over looking for your potholders. Today even the towels are dry in an hour. All is well and fine, until I get to the white load. Herein lies my weakness, my hypocrisy. Today the white load is my Waterloo.

I’ve never had the least bit of trouble hanging out my "tidy whities" (at least not the romantic ones) but the husband is consumed by the thought that the neighbours must have an all-consuming interest in his delicates. He insists that his unmentionables must be hung in the basement away from the mysterious league of underwear inspectors that wander the rural backyards seeking out the jockey shorts of the local men. It is a subject that I’ve never failed to exploit for some small bit of humour at his expense placing an emphasis on the fact that no one is interested in our laundry. Imagine my chagrin when my laundry hang up came to light.

I take some pride in my whites and I am constantly carping at the prodigal son to stop walking around outside in his white socks with no shoes on. Of course a brick wall responds with more interest than the prodigal son. Frustrated, I finally tell him that I am ashamed to hang his socks out on the line lest the neighbours see my whites aren’t the whitest and judge my merit as a woman /domestic goddess/ member of the human race … Oops, I should never had said that in front of the husband.

One underwear joke too many apparently makes one a little touchy on the subject of neighbourly laundry inspections. I’m not quite sure when I will hear the end of it and I "guess" I deserve it (but it was fun while it lasted).

Here amongst "the Scotch" my laundry hangs on the line sans jockey shorts and the prodigal son’s not so white socks even though I know the neighbours aren’t interested in either. Personally, I think the less said about the secret league of laundry inspectors the better. Your personal hang-ups are just that…personal and people should respect them.

I think I’ll buy some 20 Mule Borax tomorrow…just in case.

Fat Louie

Today is a day when nothing is going to get done. There is a breeze, which can’t be denied, but it only serves to rush hot humid air from one end of the yard to the other. The trees seem to shake their heads in puritanical protest as the hot wind caresses their leafy boughs. Standing in the back yard, harried by the hot breath of that wind, an epiphany comes to me. I realize it is either mint juleps on the porch in a dress of white organdy, fan languidly waving… or a trip to the beach. As I’m short on bourbon and mint leaves, the beach will have to do. Gathering husband and Kera the dog in hand, off to the beach I go.

This visit would be significant. I love the beach, winter, spring, summer or fall. This would be my first trip back since I had been sick in the spring. I am not a good patient and after almost 2 weeks in bed I had begun to sneak outside to lie in the grass and watch the garden come to life. My therapy, as far as I was concerned, would consist of seeing how many times I could travel around the perimeter of the yard. This had not gone over well with the household in general and the beach had been a distant dream for the past 3 months or so.

The dog and I are equally enthusiastic as we head down the tree crowded dirt road to the narrow strip of sand that marks the closest access to Lake Erie (though, unlike Kera I do refrain from sticking my head out the window). At one time, in the 1800’s, this narrow strip of beach had accommodated the business of a bustling community that has since disappeared. The stone pillars from the old docks still remain at the base of that leafy roofed road as a reminder of more fiscally advantageous days.

It is a weekday so the beach is all but deserted which suits the dog, and I as well. The tide is high and the beach has been swept clean of most of the usual debris. Unfortunately, Kera is particularly adept at finding bits of dead fish which she simultaneously enjoys eating and rolling in. It is a small price to pay for a coveted visit to the beach. Flip-flops off we head down the shoreline.

It is cooler here with no trees to block the breeze coming off the lake. The high winds and waves have made the water murky with lake plants and sand but I don’t care. First I’m wading and then, before I can be stopped, I’m deep enough to swim and it is glorious. The lake is alive with movement and the heat of the wind, so cloying at home, is a welcome companion as it crests the waves.

Kera heads off down the beach (she likes to wade but not to swim) and we pursue in leisure. Huskies have a very strong pack instinct so she never gets too far ahead. The clay cliffs tower above. The cliffs are dotted with small holes carved by swallows. When twilight falls the swallows will emerge from their cozy caves. Diving through the air between the high cliffs the swallows will make a fine meal of the insects drawn to the shores of the lake. The bases of the cliffs are fringed with green vegetation. Some sedge, but otherwise mostly the unexpected. There are black-eyed susans and grapevine. Rhubarbs grows here and wild raspberries. The wild raspberries aren’t as sweet as the domestics growing in the yard. The husband spits them out but I’ve always had a taste for the wild; they’re sweet and dusty, plump with the sun and the gift of the lake. Too soon it’s time to head back. It’s then that a mystery is discovered.

Cast up upon the shore is a bottle. Not an unusual sight but something about it drew my companion’s attention. I hear him call and come to investigate. Imagine my delight when I behold his salvage. Wrapped in saran and topped by a plastic lid, the bottle holds the promise of a whole new world. Lid off, peering inside… the sheet of paper, tightly rolled, is quickly tipped out. The bottle has not stayed airtight and ink stained water follows the scroll. Carefully the paper is unrolled to see…

“Fat Louie you were special when we looked at you, you were the first one to get a name. Because you were the specialist one in the bunch. We set you free so you wouldn’t die…"

Our message in a bottle is a letter to a fish. How fantastic and utterly unexpected. Fat Louie has been set free so that he "wouldn’t die, we wanted the best for you because we loved you. You didn’t squirm when we picked you up".

I carefully fold the message up and put it in my backpack along with the bottle. Such hope contained in that bottle. It’s funny how easily you can get drawn into someone’s life, someone’s heart. I hope Fat Louie is okay and I’m glad that someone, somewhere is thinking about him. I’m thinking about him too.

There is a number at the end of the message. I call it when we get home. I leave a message on the answering machine to let them know that the bottle has been found and that there is no sign of Fat Louie (as far as I can tell). Good hearts need all the encouragement they can get. It’s a small act to let them know their words of kindness don’t go unnoticed by the world.

With the passing of the afternoon, rain has come.  The air is cooler but the wind still teases the trees under a salmon pink sky. The colour of the sky is most unusual but then it has been a most unusual day. A most unusual day is the best kind of day as far as I’m concerned and I am thankful for it.  I hope Fat Louie is as well.

Raspberry Coulis

Raspberry coulis is a fancy name for sweetened raspberry puree. It’s quite simple to make. You need around 4 cups of fresh mashed raspberries, a teaspoon of lemon juice and enough granulated sugar to sweeten. Mix it all together and heat over a low flame until it’s thick and sweet. Use a sieve to strain out the bitter pulp and seeds then store in a mason jar. It will keep for up to 3 days in the fridge. It’s a perfect accompaniment for a variety of dishes, sweet and savoury. In my kitchen, on a humid Saturday night, it was to play duet with sweet (and sour) after a late dinner.

Praline and Cream ice cream wrapped in a soft tortilla smothered in a burnt pineapple sauce and topped with a button of white chocolate fudge lays in a dribbled circle of raspberry coulis. The heat of the day hanging in the air melts the flavours together. Plates empty on the counter beside the sieve that still holds the pulp and seeds. The prodigal son, without asking, spoons up a mouthful from the sieve. Bitter pulp and the grate of seeds twists his face. He leans over the sink to spit it out. Mouth gaping open dark red,  his expression of shock and surprize takes me back 13 years.

The same face, not all planes and angles but full and sweet. No mop of wild hair but dark blond baby curls, round belly full and peach kissed. He walks at 10 months, never wanting to sit still. The water in the tub is shallow. My hands are right there as I tell him to "sit down, sit down now" and he drops forward. Only two teeth in front but, sharp, they pierce through. The same gaping mouth spits out dark blood, the colour of raspberry coulis. The same expression of shock and surprize. He doesn’t cry though and to this day, he still doesn’t. He has never cried over a physical hurt but a harsh word can crush him.

A trip to the emergency room follows and the doctor says "Mom is in worse shape than baby". No stitches, the tongue is a muscle and will heal on its own. It does after a fashion; the end just on the other side of the bite splits, leaving a  Y shaped scar. Not even 2 months later it will be joined by another scar set firmly in the middle of the tongue…footsies in jammies don’t always mix with hard wood floors.

Just for a moment the sweet round mixes with the angles and planes. The eyes change from hazel to a golden green but they are still the same eyes. My stomach clenches in a despair so deep, words fail me. This love is so hard. It was so unexpected and so all encompassing. Like a leaf in a river the current carries me whether I will it or not.

He spits out the seeds and pulp, rinsing his mouth out with water. The moment has passed and in a day or so, for him, it will be like it never happened. He doesn’t know yet, maybe he never will. I hope not, but I know. I know that you can’t have the sweetness of raspberry coulis without the bitter pulp and the grit of seeds.

Oh, that you are my heart…
 

Under the leaves and berries

The sun warms the earth and the days lengthen as we head toward the summer solstice. The garden has begun to give up its bounty. Mulberries, raspberries and currants hang heavy from the branches, laden with sunkissed sweetness. Every morning I head out, basket in hand, to compete with the other denizens of the garden for an equal share of the good stuff. I’m fighting a losing battle for the mulberries; between the husband and the birds we’re lucky if any actually reach the kitchen. Raspberries are a better bet. There’s enough for both the birds and the house, share and share alike. Currants are another matter entirely as no one can be persuaded to eat those fresh.
 
Currants are strictly for the birds (literally) and for making jelly. The currant bushes are heavy with red and white berries. A month ago I didn’t even know that they were there. The 3 day hedge marathon led to the discovery of the bushes nestled under the hedge and a lonely pine at the back of the driveway. Several days later I found 2 more bushes at the back of our acre, so 5 bushes in all makes a lot of berries. The bushes under the hedge are the most prolific, some of the berries are huge (for currants). The largest of those is absolutley dripping with red currants. The branches are so heavy that they’ve drooped to the ground creating a shady hollow beneath. The berries hang below and the branches have to be lifted to reach them. 
 
The day was already warm as I worked my way around the currant bush. I had already picked the ripe berries from the top of the bush and had begun to harvest the branches hanging on the ground. I lifted the last branch to see a medium sized heap of feathers piled against the base of the bush. On closer examination I could see that it was not a heap of feathers but a dead black bird. It must have crawled away to die under the cool branches of the currant bush. I don’t know what led to its death. There were no obvious marks on it…no one appeared to have been dining on it (which is usually the case around a house with 2 cats). It was so lovely and cool under the branches of the currant bush. I like to think that maybe the bird found some small respite or easement of pain as it lay under those branches. I realize that it’s a subjective assessment but I thought the bird seemed to be at peace. I decided to leave it there. As far as I know it’s still there in the cool hollows underneath the branches; laying still, surrounded by busy beetles and slowly ripening currants.