Sun dappled weedy shadows ripple beneath the calm unknowing. Cold steel shining bright pierces the small cold heart. Blow flows, tail bites and he is gone. Sinking under calm waters to breath again midst the cool cover of dark weeds.
The call of the loon rises as the boat skips over the water. The languid flapping of great blue wings reaches to settle awkwardly within the heights of the jack pine. Red hawk cuts the air flying high and true over the water up above the cliffs. Shining quick silver, talon pierced, writhes on a first and final flight. Glint of silver scales stirs great blue wings to fill the sky in pursuit of that mercurial bounty.
Motor homes like great lumbering elephants trundle along the road passing the Magnetawan heading on to the French River that runs from Georgian Bay all the way to the uneasy waters of the Nipissing. Clouds hang low suspended from invisible cables that anchor them to the blue grey sky. The earth is raw and unsettled here. The skin of the soil barely covers the hard granite bones that strain ever upwards. Towering boulders like calcified trolls lingering too late and caught by the sun line the ribbon of asphalt that winds off in the distance. The crows are a constant companion, growing in numbers the farther north we travel.
Severn Falls sees the first inukshuk peering down from the staggering height of a giant torn apart by progress. It is one of many that will mark the miles that lie between it and our final destination. In Inuit inukshuk means “in the image of man”. The native peoples of the north have long used the inukshuk to provide guidance, hope and leadership on the frozen tundra. Traditionally the shape of each inukshuk could communicate a host of geographical information that would show a road through the wilderness. The inukshuks that line the road bear only a passing resemblance to those authentic forms. They’re more of a travel tradition for people passing through.
Years lost, back in my childhood, there are memories of these small men lining the cliffs arched against the sky welcoming us into the near north. They are formed from the little brothers of the heights they rest upon. Every year the ones that have fallen are built up again and their numbers are increased by the hands of those who have traveled before us. They call a silent greeting wishing safe passage and a remembrance of paths already walked. The most impressive can be seen perched high upon seemingly impassible ledges with no visible sign of access.
The highway narrows from four lanes to two and then finally one. A black bear, wise to the Tao of the asphalt, waits at the side of the road and crosses after we pass. The language of the road becomes divided as we near our destination. “Rue” and “chemin” replace “street” and “road” on the signs that mark dirt and gravel lanes branching off to the left and right. The largely French population is descended from the original French settlers who made their way here in the mid 17th century. Here, like most small rural communities, God is nothing to be ashamed of and churches abound. Each cemetery is marked by a large white wooden cross that towers above marble monuments lovingly maintained and festooned with wreaths and vases of flowers. The Virgin Mary gazes out from niches on lonely farmhouse lawns and ornate wrought iron crosses grace the roadsides marking the loss of loved ones to the white line horror.
The radio only plays oldies stations now. The smell of jack pines fills the air. Great expanses of shining black water ringed by reeds and juniper peek through the white birch and aspen. The crunch of gravel fades into dirt as we pass the Langstroth hives heavy with honey. Finally I can see the waters of the Nipissing. The surface mirrors the haze of the dying sun through racing clouds.
The day is gasping its last breath and darkness slowly creeps below the pines. Deep in the woods there is a swelling that rises up out of the earth cresting the still surface of the rich soil and moss. The bones of the earth are laid bare. Speckled with lichen, scrub and rusty pine needles, a grey pink smooth mound lolls on the surface. A huge whale’s belly round, soft and hard, naked and exposed, it is still warm from the heat of the day. I lay in the embrace of those granite bones while the cries of crows echo under the restless sky.
Saturday afternoon will find me on the road heading north. There are books to be read, paths to be walked, and shores to be painted. I will rest my feet in the cold waters of the western arm of the mighty Lake Nipissing and lift my face to the northern sky. I will sleep at night lulled by the gentle lap of water and wake in the morning to a murder of crows.
The beginning and the end are a given.
No one needs to teach us how to cry. It is something we are born knowing. We learn to walk and to talk. We learn to travel the roads and the relationships that lay in wait for us. We learn to love and to hate, to strive and survive but we don’t need to learn how to cry. They say tears are a universal language. We all cry but not everyone sheds tears. Each child that is born carries within it the knowledge of its own destiny. We are finite and although there are many paths to take no one needs to be shown the way.
It’s just a generic pit stop on an old road. The road stretches out east and west from a corner marked by 2 stop signs and an amber light. The road isn’t as busy since they built the highway 40 years ago but it still sees a fair amount of traffic on weekends and summer days. The scenic route is always worth it if you’ve got the time.
The bright red and yellow sign shows the specials of the week, fried chicken, cheeseburger deluxe or the dreaded liver and onions. There’s an old battered metal sandwich board that lists the gas prices below. The current price is 99.9 cents a litre if you’re wondering. The middle nine is an upside down six. Most likely no one had thought to buy a third nine so many years ago. They had might have foreseen a 79.9 or an 89.9 but never a 99.9. I wonder what they’ll do when it hits 101.1. There’s an apartment above and flowerpots hang from the veranda that shelters the post office boxes below. With a small town “Twin Peaks” twist this particular place is noted for its homemade pies. It’s a little pricey for a slice; you could make your own pie for about the same cost and eat the whole thing yourself. You’d be missing out if you did.
The weather and the time of year control the flow of traffic. Motorcycle riders head up and down the road in large packs or small groups of two or three. They are for the most part carrying middle age heavy on their shoulders as they sit astride magnificent machines their younger years could only have dreamed of. They are joined on their journeys by other lovers of the road, wanderers who are lost or those just looking. Early morning is the safest time for the locals. The parking lot is full of battered pick-up trucks as sun wizened faces fill the tables and talk about crops, no rain and John Deeres. This is tobacco country and right up until last year they could sit at a table and have a smoke with their coffee. Time and politics have changed that. They think that they are sitting still but they too are on the road. Outside the pumps are manned year after year by a steady stream of local teenagers looking for a little bit of extra cash so they can set off themselves.
All these travelers travel the same road. I travel this road and so do you. Although our stories may seem different they are the same story in varying degrees. There is the beginning and the end which is the given. There is no denying that. But between the sorrow and the finite there is the common road that stretches out in either direction and there in lies mercy.
My grandmother has spread her progeny over a number of years. As a result, several of my aunts and uncles are closer to me in age than they are to my mother. While I was in my teens, they were in their twenties. They were young enough that I considered them my peers but old enough to have all the trappings of adulthood with what seemed like none of the responsibilities. They had their own cars and apartments. They had cool jobs and lived in interesting places. Family politics and geography limited the quantity of time I could spend with them but to me this was not necessarily a bad thing. The limited contact was just enough to create an aura of mystery. They seemed larger than life, like old time Hollywood stars and starlets.
The two youngest of my aunts had taken an apartment together in the town where they had been born. It was located in a part of the town that had once been a busy central business district but the years had passed it by. All that remained from that time were 1950’s red brick row buildings with crumbling facades and dingy plate glass windows that housed a variety of pawnshops, restaurants and small boutiques. Access to the apartment was gained through a small wooden door recessed into one of those buildings. The door was half covered in peeling paint that faced a street that was still called Main Street but was in fact nothing close to main anymore.
A narrow staircase, poorly lit, led up to the apartment door. After the darkness of the staircase, the apartment was bright and cheerful. The focal point of the room was a large aquarium that housed an absolutely huge goldfish that went by the name of Cheddar. Evidently Cheddar came by his name for his mimicry of the sharp hue associated with the grilled sandwich staple. Cheddar was older than any goldfish I’d ever known. Any forays I’d ever made into the world of marine husbandry usually ending within weeks in a swirl of porcelain funerary rites. Cheddar was far beyond the feeder fish stage; he must have been around 1 1/2 pounds. That’s not a bad size if you’re catching small mouth bass but a little odd for a pet goldfish. Cheddar liked to throw his weight around and as a result a large brick weighed down the lid of his aquarium. Without it Cheddar had been known to kamikaze out of the tank to lie flopping on the area rug.
The aunts in residence where trendy and cool. Their clothes were vintage shop funky. Their jewelry was costume and chunky and they wore their hair short and trendy. Their father had forbid his youngest girls to cut their hair until they were 16 and they did their best to make up for lost time.
I was 16 and living on my own when I received a golden party invitation from the aunts. It was Halloween and the party was sure to be a good one. A ride was arranged and off I went in my blond wig, cat’s ears and cat body suit. At 16 and a hundred pounds soaking wet I didn’t have the figure to fill it out but it was all I had to wear and 16 doesn’t care.
The party was at full throttle when I got there with all the exotic flavours of Rick’s Cafe a la Casablanca . The smoke filled air writhed an accompaniment to the loud music. Stars and starlets with various sycophants filled the small apartment, glamour clad in a fantastic glitter. I was one of the chosen few, a starlet by right of birth and the pet of the party due to my tender years. Under the mothering eyes of my aunts I tippled a bit and schmoozed away. There was a small discussion off to the side which I tried to ignore regarding my status, whether it was advisable for party members to indulge in something a little illegal with me being several years under the age of majority. I suppose the fact that I had an illegal (for me) drink in my hand tipped the scales in favour of their indulgence.
Small as I was, the big blond wig with cat’s eye liner and whiskers must have given me a certain something beyond my years as I found myself with an admirer. Drink must have blinded him, as he didn’t seem to notice that I was a good ten years younger than him and built like a boy to boot. Halfway through the night I had become conscious of his regard. He leaned towards me as he talked, touching my shoulder and repeatedly put his arm around the narrow expanse I called a waist. Very flattering I supposed but nothing I would take seriously.
The night had been fabulous and I felt well pleased that I had been allowed this little glimpse into a world that seemed so much more sophisticated than mine. I was in the kitchen waiting for my ride when my “Romeo” came looking for me. I had discarded my wig with cat’s ears and my face was washed clean. A month or so before (just like my aunts) I had cut my waist length hair and now sported what was known as a Chelsea girl cut (let’s just say VERY short). Hollywood cat woman glamour gone with no make up and cropped hair, I must have looked like a 12-year-old boy. The realization that this was who he had been hitting on for most of the evening must have shocked him sober. He mumbled a good night and was gone. Sixteen is so cruel. I did laugh then. I wouldn’t do that now.
The ride home seemed much shorter as we left the party behind with its lionized stars and starlets. The silence of the car only amplified the ringing memory of music in my ears. The night was already fading to black and white, nostalgia of a brief shining Camelot above a taco shop on a street that time had already forgotten. I could look at it now with different eyes if I wanted but I choose not to. Some things are better left alone; Like a long forgotten blossom pressed between the pages of a musty book, newly discovered. Lift that delicate memory from those pages and dust is all that would remain.
Sun showers mist bright rainbows cross the heavens. Smell the dark loam, rich and blanketed in a century of cast off needles. Hoary giants stand sentry. Broad spans encrusted with moss send imploring hands to worry the sky. Anchoring roots crawl across the earth grasping deeply lest ancient Titans are tempted to scale the cloud enshrouded foothills to seek the forbidden heights. Peers of my ancestors, the Fates have waited long to cut your thread.
Quiet darkness lies beneath. There is no today or tomorrow here, only this timeless silent spell. A lattice of branches, an interlocking maze that holds the storm now past, grudgingly bares secret slivers of a blue rain swept expanse.
Small beneath the sheltering boughs, the sweet sting of paths secret and past imbues the senses. Face upturned to watch the rush of tears that falls into outstretched arms.