A man recently separated from his wife considers having an adulterous affair while on a retreat in Costa Rica. Adultery is presented neutrally, it is the vehicle not the point. The goal of the narrative is to examine three relationships – man to self, man to woman, and individual to group.
The story takes place in a retreat just south of San Jose, Costa Rica on the days preceding Kennedy’s visit March 12-14, 1963. On the last day of the story, the same day Kennedy arrives, the volcano Irazú explodes.
In this story, I am attempting to be true to the issues of this time period (late 50s, early 60s), specifically the themes of alienation (existentialism), disorientation at rapid social and technological change, the changing role of women and men.
The aircraft landed as if it was descending a staircase made of air-pockets. Despite the turbulence, it landed safely.
The pilot waited until the loose luggage had been collected before opening the airplane doors. Immediately upon his doing so three lithe, athletic women jumped out, followed in short order by several more. A large, but no less athletic man exited last. Unlike the women, who were dressed in saris, mini-skirts and sundresses, which were appropriate given the heat and humidity, he was dressed in a dark, wool suit. Although he appeared neither stiff nor uncoordinated, he moved much more slowly than the women. It was unclear whether this was from nausea, a methodical nature, or the heat from his heavy Wall Street suit.
The man picked up his luggage and walked over the tarmac to the parking lot where the travelers had been told to wait for their ride to the resort. He was more of an observer than engager, so remained on the edge of the scrum of people waving for taxis. He was distracted by the call of a taxi-driver, which he mistook for someone calling his name. As he turned to respond, he bumped into a women wearing a straight cut jacket and pillbox hat.
The woman spoke first, “Correct me if I’m wrong, but you’re from New York, aren’t you?” She spoke with a flirtatious half-smile, as if aware of the obviousness of her question.
He nodded and smiled. The woman made a show of peering at him over her movie-star sunglasses.
“A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Schuyler.”
“How do you know my name? Were you told to expect me?” His voice had an aggressive edge.
“Only in a manner of speaking. I am a guest at the retreat, just as you are. I recognized your face …” She let the words trail as she realized her faux pas.
“From the papers?”
“From the cover of a trade journal”, she replied. “Something to do with container ships.”
Her flirtatious half-smile both raised and deflected his ire. He tested her, “You follow the Baltic index?”
Her smile flattened, “Container ships wrecked my uncle’s business.”
He smiled. It was inappropriate, but she took no offense because it meant that he could pretend she did not know about his much publicized affair.
She said, “Let’s leave shipping tonnage figures behind, shall we?” Their mutual smiles had no sharp edges.
Before he could reply, she spoke. As she did so, she touched his his right arm with both her hands. They were in white gloves. “But let us leave all that behind. After all, isn’t the purpose of this retreat to discover the present.”
He nodded noncommittally.
She began to reply, but stopped herself; instead pausing to inspect him. Her stare could have been indecent if not accompanied by her affectless smile.
After an idle moment spent gazing at the slow-paced bustle around them, he asked, “What is your name?”
“Chaitanya.” She replied as if she had just chosen that name from a list of available options.
They resumed their idle gazes. After a moment a horn honked. Chaitanya tugged Schuyler’s arm to get his attention. “Alexander, if my intuition serves me well, that is our bus.”
“Intuition. You mean logic. The schedule clearly says that the next bus to Puerto de Jimenez arrives at 1:00 pm.”
“What makes you think that the buses here follow a schedule?” Her words were mocking but her tone was matter-of-fact. “Look, I’m right. Its the noon bus, 1 hour late.”
She signaled for a porter to load their bags. She then placed her left arm in the crook of his right elbow, as if he had offered to escort her. He perfunctorily assisted her up the stairs to the bus, but she made him look gallant by locking arms. They sat down together, in the seats immediately behind the driver.
He was in a foreign land and was not going to take any chances. He said to the bus driver, “Is this the Puerto de Jiminez bus?”
The driver replied in English, “This is the 12:30 bus to San Antonio de Des. I know where you’re going. I can take you there. Its just a slight detour. Give me a tip.” §
The rainy season had only just ended so the roads were muddy and rough. For a moment they traveled in silence, then Alexander struck up the conversation. “I expected it to be rougher.”
“All of Central America. Castro has disrupted things around here. But its the same as it was before the … uh … events … in Cuba. In some places its better.”
“Where is it better?” Her smile became less scrutable.
“More organized, at least.”
“Organized …” She baited.
“Think of the sharks in Lake Nicaragua. Somoza is finally killing them all.”
“That’s good news?”
“Perhaps progress is a better word.” He shrugged. “I’m not so informed about politics. I’m mostly just concerned with business.”
As Alexander spoke Chaitanya dismantled her east coast look. Her pillbox hat disappeared into a bag and was replaced with a cream-colored sun hat, her thick horn-rimmed eyeglasses with large, round sunglasses styled like those made famous by Sophia Loren. Her jacket was removed and carefully packed, leaving her wearing a only a collarless, sleeveless cream-colored shirt; her handbag was replaced with a large shoulder bag
“Have you visited Costa Rica before?”, she asked.
“I’ve passed through San Jose a number of times.”
“Do you travel frequently on business?”
“Not really, mostly to the canal zone to check on cargo. But I’ve been around.”
“How is business?”
“Great. Despite the troubles in Viet Nam and the Dominican Republic and Cuba and …”
“Why are you here?” She asked, with an expected answer in mind.
“Its personal.” He wondered if she really did not know about his … affair, and decided she did.
“Don’t feel compelled to tell me about it, Alexander. I’m trying to converse, not pry. As you will learn should you try.” Again she placed her hands, no longer gloved, onto his right forearm. She appeared unaware that she had done so, as if she had a habit of touching with no intention. Perhaps there was no intention behind the smiles, either.
After a moment she said, “Don’t tell me. I’m Catholic and I believe that we all fall in different ways, but in the same way. Archetypes, if you think of it in terms of fundamentals.
“Or schematically”, he said, trying to be acerbic, but not succeeding.
She ignored him and continued her thought, “That’s why I like to read stories about how the different ways angels fall. So different but there are only so many stories, about greed, pride, fear, and envy.”
“Which one is mine.”
“Pride” she answered without thinking. Then was mortified at her rudeness, grabbed his arm and then said “Oh my. I only just met you and do think the best …” Then she burst out laughing. Before she composed herself she said, half laughing, “What is my fault? You’ve got a free pass you can say anything.”
He was an expert at these kinds of fighting games, but couldn’t come up with anything. Finally he said, “I cannot make any guess about what you are like. I don’t have much more to go on than your hats. But I’m pretty good with … uh … people stuff, I bet you’ll do one thing, and I’ll know who you are.”
“So let’s continue with you. What brings you to this retreat? Recent divorce perhaps?”
“My marriage is not over. We are having a trial separation.”
“How long have you been separated?”
“The anniversary of the break-up is tomorrow.”
“Your deadline or hers?”
“I’m celebrating.” He laughed hollowly. His comment had not succeed in being either ironical or self-deprecating. Chaitanya’s engaged but neutral expression did not change. He continued, “Perhaps the word commemoration is more appropriate. Yes. That’s a better word than celebration.”
“Are you here to let go or hang on?”
This flustered him, “Either, both. I don’t know. Perhaps I’m here to answer that question.”
“Perhaps you are going to the retreat to be healed? That’s my motivation.” As she spoke, the old Laidlaw bus went over a particularly bad pothole, the bump altered his expression into something more unsettled. “Can something scarred be called healed?”
“Mostly.” She shrugged, removed her hands from his arm and said, “Its difficult to let go, isn’t it?”
Her words made him think of the templates by which he and his wife used to fight. She fought like a lawyer, constructing a case, presenting evidence. He used his size and presence to intimate, or simply resist through obstinacy. But mostly he sought control and was driven toward violence by frustration.
She waited until he responded. Finally, he said, “Please don’t talk to me about control.”
She immediately said, “I’m most afraid of growing old alone. What about you?”
“I don’t know. I never expected to be single at this stage of my life.” He turned to face her, his right arm leaned against her left. When they touched she pulled away and then touched him again, but very lightly.
He paused politely for her to respond but she said nothing: she just watched him with an unfocused though present stare, so he continued. “Its not a fear of being alone. I don’t feel alone. I have lots of close friends. If anything I’m here to get away from them. No. It’s a different fear. Losing my wife has made me afraid of death. Everything reminds me I’m dying.”
When the bus went over another bump she encouraged his hand to slide into hers. They sat together, comfortably, left hand in right, for a timeless moment he tried to measure by counting distance markers.
As the bus wended down the Pacific side of the mountains to the Ocean, the tar-paper and aluminum houses gave way to jungle. He had a feeling of expectation as they neared their destination. Perhaps this came from the sheer improbability that the beat up yellow bus was managing to safely take them anywhere at all.
After one switchback, they could see a cone of smoke in the air. The woman nodded toward it and said, “Irazú is about to erupt.”
“Maybe it is erupting. We are 100 miles away from it, after all.”
“Do you think that is a safe distance?”
“We’re safe from the volcano itself but I doubt that we are safe from the effects of an eruption. If it blows it will disrupt things.”
They reached the bottom of the mountain and entered onto a coastal plain. The jungle began to cede to agriculture. The transformation was gradual because the banana and pineapple farms were in the process of being carved out of the jungle. After 30 minutes of driving through pineapple fields, the number of buildings lining the road increased, which eventually became dense enough to qualify as a villages. Interspersed between pastel colored cubic cement houses with metal roofs were the estates of the more well too do, which were surrounded by grey cement walls, and had entrances barred by iron gates. The bus stopped beside a dilapidated wall half eaten by bougainvillea. Its main entrance was an ornate iron gate wide enough to allow two trucks to pass side by side. They exited in front of a much smaller gate – perhaps a service entrance – that led to the former coffee estate that was now a meditation center.
The entrance opened onto a garden. The wall on the inside was lined by a plant with tremendous fronds, so was invisible. They were greeted at the entrance by a small group of people. Two of them he recognized from a brochure: the hosts Bari and Amanda. Amanda was a lithe, muscular woman; she had a mane of hair brown that had been bleached dirty-blonde, and skin that had been made leathery by the tropical sun. Bari, tall, muscular and shirtless, also had a mane, though his was chestnut brown. His several day old growth of beard was flecked with grey. Behind the hosts stood a pair of Costa Rican men. One was dark and slightly hunched with small, close set eyes. Despite his Hollywood villain demeanor he had a disarming, infectious smile. Beside him stood a slightly taller, thinner man who had long, dark black hair and chiseled, movie star features. He too had a beautiful smile even though he was missing a canine tooth. These men gathered the luggage and moved it to the reception area, a circle of benches in a garden beside the main entrance.
The Casa Renuncio was a group of thatched cottages centered around a large gathering area called the Centro, which could seat up to 100 people on wooden benches and tables, and had a kitchen, reception area and small, open space (where their luggage was now piled) that served as a stage. It was covered in a thatched, conical roof, ringed by hammocks, but otherwise was open to the elements.
A very young woman sat on the far side of the bar, near the kitchen, playing Where Have All the Flowers Gone on her guitar. A bald man with a ukulele accompanied her. Two other women sat with their backs turned toward him and sang harmony.
The harmony of the song – and the entire moment – was destroyed in an instant when an angry shadow stormed into the Centro. In the train of the angry shadow was a long, lean silhouette of a man who entered from the west, with the sun at his back. The angry shadow resolved into a the form of a slight Indian man, in shorts and a sleeveless undershirt. He shouted at he moved threateningly toward Chaitanya. “Where were you last night?!”
A lank but muscular man with a goatee and tattooed arms rolled out of his hammock and landed between the couple. He spoke to the man, “Let it go, Atash. Chaitanya didn’t do anything last night, I talked to her on the phone. She was at home …”
He ignored the peacekeeper, “I called. You weren’t home.”
“I was reading in the bathtub, Atash.”
“Calm down.” The lank, tattooed man persisted. Atash pushed him away. “Get out of my way. This is between her and me.”
“No it is not. This is a public place, which makes it between us all.” Bari separated the two men by walking between them. He was several inches taller than either and was enough of a presence to shut them both up. He put his right arm around the back of Atash and escorted him to a nearby cottage. They entered the cottage together. Hushed, intense echoes of a conversation emerged for the next few minutes. The newly arrived guests sat mutely in the Centro, uncertain what to do. Bari’s voice was firm, insistent, though indistinct; Atash’s voice swung between loudness and quiet, like his moods. Atash’s packed bags emerged from the hut a few moments later, followed by Atash, and the Bari.
Amanda had taken charge of the group while Bari dealt with Atash. She ensured those who wanted food got it, and whisked the rest of the guests off to their cottages. Alexander’s cottage faced the beach, which was on the edge of a gulf that joined the Pacific Ocean around the bend of a peninsula. It was large enough to have both a hammock and a bed, dresser and writing table. On the Pacific Ocean side there was a porch with a rocking bench. §
The members of the retreat met for the first time in a studio constructed of wire mesh but otherwise open to the elements. Vines and leaves blocked sunlight enough to cast the room in a mottled light. The entrance, an alcove separated from the main studio, was populated by two large, red Macaws that mocked and played with the guests. The birds’ play was a distraction, however, for the Macaws’ real goal was to escape from the alcove into the studio, where they could fly more freely.
The teacher was a little rougher and more wiry than expected for such a vacation. Her hair was blunt cut and black, Betti Page style, though shorter. She had a dragon tattoo on her left shoulder. Alexander had expected someone soft, presuming that gentleness accompanies spirituality
“Let’s introduce ourselves and talk a little bit about why we’re here. My name is Ananda. I’m here because this is my job, but also because this is my calling. Or where my calling has taken me. I spent most of the 50s in the Beat scene in NY. After a friend died – he overdosed on heroin – I was introduced to Alan Watts. From Buddhism, I discovered yoga, and here I am. Any questions? Of course there were none. Ananda’s brief introduction contained far more information than any person in the room would ever divulge.
Ananda continued. “Okay, let’s begin with introductions. I like to use a drawing game to break the ice. Draw a picture of what’s on your mind and then we’ll talk about it.” She efficiently passed out cardboard backed slips of paper with writing implements to the group. Ananda spent the next few minutes taking care of the birds. When done she sat down crossed-legged again and asked each member of the group to introduce themselves through their drawings. Most did so in terms of their complaints, mostly litanies about malfunctioning knees and wounded spirits. He was only interested in Chaitanya’s story so put on an air of focused interest to mask his boredom.
Chaitanya surprised, and annoyed him, with her picture, which was of an orange and purple crab.
“Why crabs?” He almost snapped out the question. He was annoyed because he’d hoped to find out more about her relationship with Atash.
Chaitanya composed herself for a bookish response, “Not just any crabs, Halloween crabs. They are as funny as they sound. They have round, orange bodies about the size of my palm” – she raised her palm outward to her audience. Alexander was struck by how long, thin and white her hand was – “with bright purple legs. Right around now, in March, they come down from the mountains to mate on the beach. Millions of them. Its really quite something. They will probably migrate sometime over the next two weeks.”
The promoter, the editor and the fitness instructor cringed at the description of the crab infestation. A short, fat banker asked, “Are you here to study them?”
“No. I just find them eccentric. They take my mind off of things.” She became visibly sadder as she spoke these words, and the memory of her earlier confrontation with her husband hung heavily over the group, so no one questioned her further.
Alexander’s turn came next. He had drawn a stick figure and given it yellow hair. You could tell it was female because of its triangular dress and the way the hair curled. He displayed the picture, but surprised himself by not having any words to go with it.
Ananda prodded, “Describe who you drew, Alexander and why?” Her voice was surprisingly gentle and encouraging, given her punk demeanor.
“Cate was a woman I met once at a yoga studio. She was very slight and her skin was so pale it was translucent. Her eyes were a washed out blue, her eyelashes were clear, and her nails were blood red. We meet once when she helped me clean up some beet soup I’d spilt, right outside the studio.” The story got an encouraging, though not amused, laugh from the sympathetic audience. “It happened a long time ago; at the time I had a crush on her. I sometimes draw this silly image as a way of remembering her that stage of my love. And what I’ve lost.”
“You should let go. There’s lots of fish in the sea”, the editor said. She wore sharp, bookish horned-rimmed glasses, and had a personality to match.
“But I’m married to her.”
“You’ve been separated from her for over a year.” Chaitanya waspish words clashed so obviously with the tone of the group that Ananda intervened by saying, “We do not talk about separation here.” Alexander appreciated Chaitanya’s words because they meant she cared about him or at very least he had engaged her attention.
A model named Jackie went next. She had short cut, sandy colored hair, fair skin and freckles. She showed the group a picture of a house. Underneath the house was written the words,The body is a house.
Every floor is like a state of one’s spirit.
The outside of the house is a façade.
Jackie was at the retreat to make herself more transparent. When Alexander heard this he laughed inwardly, not because what she said was funny, but because the idea of transparency as a goal was alien to him. He was a gambler. He had always tried to be opaque.
After the last person spoke, all the members of the group put their hands to their heart centers and bowed. They then went their various ways. The macaws howled something that could be interpreted as either affirmation or mockery as the group dispersed. Either way, it was clear they meant what they said. §
It was still two hours before lunch, so Alexander went for a walk. It was a strange experience, because mornings had been taken away from him between his obligations to his school, work and church. On the few vacations he took from his life, he’d party late and miss his his chance to reclaim them.
He walk slowly around a perimeter of the compound, which was a functional and quite beautiful tropical garden. On its west side it had an unobstructed view of the Pacific Ocean. He felt out of time and place which made it easier for him to brood about Cate and Chaitanya, two exclusive lives trying to coexist in his one reality. Even though he brooded about relationships, his mood was no more about people than it was about time and place. It was about archetypes. Chaitanya was dark and Cate fair; Cate moved like a spirit and Chaitanya moved like a predator; one Betty the other Veronica. He felt like an archetype as well, the fallen husband, the adulterer, a role he could only live out, not break free of.
The social life of the spa happened after hours at a bar called Marina’s that was a short walk down the beach. The beach was sandy and wide. The full moon had risen early. It was a nice walk to make by yourself. Introspection was needed, and came easily.
As he emerged out of the shadows he startled a dark grey cat, perhaps a jaguar, but otherwise arrived unnoticed. Which suited him fine. He stood in the half shadow listening to the conversations, trying to decide which one, if any, he should join.
Everyone talked about the dreams of the fallen: who they were trying to seduce, what they were trying to buy, justifying each extravagant goal with a plan to make money. Alexander retreated into the shade of the acacia tree to a point where the dialog at the bar became a murmur punctuated by the odd distinctly spoken word – money, cars, stock market … Kennedy, hats, shoes …
He withdrew to the point where the buzzing of the insects from the forest overwhelmed the chatter completely.
A shadow passed over his shoulder. It said, “People who seek redemption are no longer fallen.”
He looked up at Chaitanya. “I’m not seeking redemption. I haven’t fallen far enough to make the effort.”
“I hope that’s not an exit line. I need some company.” She clasped his hand in hers, but checked first to ensure they clasped in shadow.
Her replied, “I’m not feeling that sociable. I was thinking about taking a walk along the beach, alone.” She frowned and he hastily added, “But I would love you to join me. Please do.”
She let his hand fall from hers for the short walk to the beach, but once there reached out and held him lightly.
They walked in silence. He was comfortable but not relaxed. He felt compelled to talk and she seemed content to say nothing. He tried to start conversations, but kept censoring himself before he spoke. Finally he said what was foremost on his mind, “You’re sharing your cabina with Atash?”
“I am unavailable, if that’s what you’re asking. Even though my husband Atash has gone back to NY.”
“You are certain he’s left?”
She tentatively clasped his hand, squeezed it lightly, dropped it and continued walking. A couple of times she outpaced him, but realized it and slowed down so they could walk together.
The moon was nearly full.
She broke their silence several moments later. “I was thinking about the story you told. I’ve heard variations of it so many times. But only from men. It must be difficult, always having to be the aggressor and the initiator … always risking cross boundaries and risking offense, but being expected to try.”
“You mean boys will be Boys.”
“Is the archetype what we really are, or is it just a generic way of understanding ourselves, but ultimately uninformative because of a lack of detail.”
“I can’t help but pursue what I want, being what I am.”
“Which is why your marriage is over.”
“And why it was consummated in the first place.”
He didn’t deliver the line like an advance, but she took it that way. She said, “I’ve told you I’m not available. Are you really available?”
He didn’t know and didn’t want to lie, so he said nothing. §
The evening’s main event was a puja, a time of letting go. It took place on the beach. There was a huge bonfire around which stood a crowd. Far more people than he expected. The retreat created the illusion of isolation, but of course there were a lot of people living nearby, on the other side of the cement walls.
There were three groups of locals, the ex-pats, who were for the most part friends with Bari and Amanda, and even when not very friendly definitely shared their surfer lifestyle. They mixed easily with the people on a retreat, suggesting they had attended pujas many times before. A second group, were the locals, mostly teenage boys, sometimes accompanied by a kid sister, who were hoping to get lucky with the loose Americanas. The young men wore long swimming trunks, were shirtless, with thin, muscular torsos; many but not all had some form of metal chain or bead jewelry around their necks. They all had black hair and fine Castilian Spanish features. Though beautiful, and quite assertive, they had trouble mixing in, because they only had a cartoon sense of what American woman were like, and were completely unaware of the issues of class and ethnicity that were second nature to the Americans.
Though many blew off the locals’ advances enough accepted them to keep supply plentiful and engaged. The librarian was practicing Spanish with one of the taller, but younger, teenagers, for whom she was buying drinks. He was shy but earnest, and talked to the publisher in a deferential way, as if she were his mentor.
The third group of locals, mostly kept to themselves, though they all appeared to be on friendly terms with Brad and Amanda, but formal, perhaps contractors. They came as families. In most cases the grandparents were dancing and playing with the grandchildren around the fire, while the parents drank moderately and discussed prosaic topics like fishing and their children’s education and health.
A woman with blonde, beaded, dread-locked hair appeared from the direction of the retreat. She had apparently just arrived, so went straight to Bari and Amanda and introduced herself. After greeting the hosts she slipped over to where a couple of beatnik guests where smoking marijuana. She wore a long, light cotton wrap which she unraveled and carefully laid on a mat. The only clothing that remained was a slight bikini, which was so sheerly cut that she would have been barred from most beaches Stateside for wearing it. The woman removed a series of glowing balls from a beaded purse, which hung off her right shoulder. She carefully put the purse onto the mat beside her wrap, and then began to play with the balls. She affected a casual manner, so it took Alexander some time to notice that she was using the balls to trace the outlines of animals. The dancing children dragged their grandparents over to watch, and in minutes the light dancer was the center of the party.
“I can’t help but notice that you’re paying more attention to her outfit than to her show. Bikini’s are sexy, aren’t they?”
He took this opportunity to look at her full on, in a way that would have been indiscrete in other contexts. Chaitanya wore a suede skirt and shirt that had been torn into triangular strips. The tears were rough, however, so they appeared to be the consequence of entropy – or perhaps moths – not scissors. Long lines of exposed skin, that followed the curves of her body.
There were Her outfit was actually made of very little material at all.
He placed his left hand on her right hip, and felt the material. “Is it a rag, or was it made that way?”
The Light Dancer removed his hand with her right hand, but did not let go of it as she replied, “Its a tailored rag, a prom dress that moths got to.”
She lightly took his other hand and they began dancing. He knew how to waltz and tango, but it took a moment for him to figure out the Caribbean beat. When he did she let go of his hands.
With her rag dress, the primal beat and the fire, he felt like a cave man. Perhaps that was his archetype, not prodigal husband. He smiled at that thought, she caught his eye when he did and smiled back with a fierce primal smile.
They began to dance.
She placed her right hand on his left then move her body discretely, perhaps imperceptibly toward his. She smiled mischievously as she spoke, “I don’t think that you are letting go at all.” She squeezed his hand again and then moved away. His hand on her hip slide down the top of her leg and then fell to his side.
“It’s time. Goodnight.”
“What do you mean?” He thought they were just getting started.
Chaitanya replied, “I came here for the crabs, remember. Tonight is the night they arrive. Watch out for them when you walk along the beach. They will be very horny, and will view your feet as either unwelcome competition, or food.”
“Can I join you?”
“No. This project is all mine.” She kissed him and disappeared. He traced her steps to the edge of the wooden dance floor and looked for her on the beach and the forest paths, but she was gone.
He stood there, for a minute, like a teenage boy who had just been dumped by his prom date.
His feelings for her really weren’t conflicted at all. In his heart, he knew that his marriage was over, and he wanted to consummate that knowledge with Chaitanya. And maybe start a new life. It was liberating to acknowledge that he wanted to sleep with Chaitanya, because she was someone he wanted to start a new life with, or could. It was never like that with his mistress.
He sat down on a log, just outside the glow of the fire, and watched the Light Dancer finish her set. Most of the children had gone home now, so her audience had thinned, but was nonetheless still enthusiastic enough to groan loudly when she stopped and began to put her performance gear away into her beaded satchel.
The Light Dancer sat down beside him, “You’ve been staring at me for a while, y’know, so its obvious we should meet. I’m Tracy. And of course, you’re Alexander Schuyler. I’m Amanda’s best friend.” She elided words when she spoke, everything about her flowed, like a creature of water, which maybe was why she was attracted to fire.
“How do you know who I … ?”
“You’re the only single man at this retreat, Alex.”
“Well, actually I’m in the middle of a trial separation, so I’m not exactly single.”
“Pardon me. I heard otherwise.” There was no mockery or irony in her response, but neither was there any indication she believed his claim. He was certain she didn’t care one way or the other.
After a several second silence she said, “I’m going to check out the glowing plankton. There’s a bloom at the tip of the peninsula. You should come with me. Bring your sneakers, not your sandals. The crabs are due any moment now, and the forest path is a bit rough.” He noticed that she remained barefoot.
All of her was a picture of femininity (wide hips, full breasts and lips, kinky reddish blonde hair) except for her feet, which were coarse and calloused from walking barefoot all the time. He followed behind her. He found her lithe predatory movements alluring. He stayed close behind her and bumped in to her several times when she stopped to scope out a path through the crabs.
Perhaps 100 steps from the cove where the plankton were the moon went behind a cloud and the path became completely black. They both stopped in an instant, blinded by the darkness, and cautious. Still and silent, they became immersed in the sounds of the jungle. An insect buzzed with the sound of an electric field/wire. The jungle reacted to their movements, each one echoed by the rustle of animals. Behind Tracy’s back he could only just hear sounds from the bar.
Although the were not touching they were close enough that they could feel each other. He looked at her but could not see anything. The path was utterly dark but for the stars and the faint red light of the planet Mars.
She leaned over to speak into his ear. Her breast touched his shoulder. “We’re almost there. Let’s keep going. Follow close. Slow but steady. You don’t want to loose your balance. This is a bad place to fall. There are lots of crabs, and they’re just getting started.” Her breath was soft and warm. He nodded and she placed his hand in hers. She squeezed his hand slightly and said,
She continued, “C’mon, let’s get to the beach before the plankton go away. They’re not waiting for us, y’know.” She tugged his hand, which caused him to lurch, but they never let go of each other as they started carefully down the pale red path. The moon reappeared moments later, just when they arrived at the beach.
They continued their walk to the isthmus beach on an angle that intersected with the water. As they entered they saw the plankton, which glowed.
A meteor flashed across the sky. It made him think of his path, his direction, the trajectory of his life.
He reached over so that his hand touched her shoulder. He moved it down towards her breast. She intercepted it with her own hand, held it for a long breath and let go. She then rose away from him and rose with her sinewy grace.
She touched him and he felt the power of the ocean.
Once they had reached the bloom there was no rush, no where else to go to. With the absence of time, past and future disappeared too.
They stood, still holding hands, thigh deep in the sparkling, glowing water. He edged toward her, intending to kiss her. She let go of his hand the moment he began his movement, and he froze in place, unsure what to do next. While he hesitated she knelt down and scooped up plankton infused water into her cupped hands, stop straight, raised her hands above his head, and then anointed him with glowing water. She then grabbed both his hands in hers and started to laugh. He thought of anointing her but at this point they were too far along. They embraced and then fell over into the warm water. Sexually wrestling and swimming, crawling slowing toward shore, eventually making love at a point where light, water and earth met.
Venus joined their celebration by rising in the east. For a moment she shared the sky with Mars.
The soft hypnotic sound of the surf suddenly became punctuated with loud frequent clicking sounds.
Tracy woke him up hours later, shouting, “The crabs are here! Run. I’m not waiting for you.” She was laughing uproariously but in a hurry to get away. Alexander brushed sand off of himself put on his sandals and followed.
To his surprise the Fire Dancer swung herself into a small tree. “There are too many crabs and I don’t have sandals.”
“That’s crazy Tracy. I’ll carry you.”
She was laughing out loud, “No, go. You’re the crazy one. I’ll meet you at the Casa when the crabs thin out.” §
He returned to the Centro intending to have breakfast. He was early, at it was just before dawn. There were cooks preparing breakfast in the kitchen, and a couple of yoginis getting ready to salute the sun. He lay down in a hammock and fell asleep.
He was awakened by smoke. Irazú was erupting. The locals were sitting in the Centro around the radio. President Kennedy had just landed in San Jose. Everyone was talking about that, and the volcano.
The luggage of the departing guests had all been piled up at the gate at the entrance to the compound.
He looked around for signs of Tracy, but she could not be found. He wondered if she was still trapped in the tree, surrounded by clacking aroused crabs.
“Good morning, Alexander.” The shadow of Chaitanya temporarily blocked the sun. He turned to face her.
“Did you have a nice swim? I saw you walking off with Tracy.”
He thought of asking her whether Tracy made a habit of picking up all of Chaitanya’s rejects, but restrained himself. The words were far more bitter than he felt, a place he wished had been washed away. She answered his bitter question anyway, “I’ve never seen Tracy pick up any man, actually, in fact I was wondering which way she …. ” She clasped his shoulder and turned him slightly so he faced her full on. Mostly. His hammock had begun to swing slightly. He tried to place her expression, not regret, more wistful, perhaps a memory of regret. “You’re a very beautiful man, Mr. Schuyler, I can hardly blame her. I’m leaving now. Will you escort me to the bus?”
As he linked his arm with hers, he looked quickly around the compound, but Tracy was no where to be seen. To Chaitanya he said, “I’d rather be your savior, than your escort.”
“There will be no salvation for me, at least not in this life.” To his surprise, the smile that accompanied her words seemed happy, not rueful. “Save yourself, Mr. Schuyler. After all, you are the one seeking redemption. I prefer to adapt to the condition I find myself in, to pursue my dreams and revel in (celebrate) my victories.” She kissed him chastely on his cheek, clasped his hands and said farewell.
Her bus drove straight toward the volcano though there was no immediate danger to the passengers, because it too far away. The view was spectacular: fire burned rocks seared the sky, while smoking clouds bled moisture upon the earth.
During the snowstorm the white sky flattens to infinity.
The night descends and the sky shrinks to nothing.
It was late in the year for the ferry to be running. It had been delayed by the unseasonably rough weather, which would only get worse as winter set in. The passengers had boarded at the Port of Tobermory, where Georgian Bay meets the greater part of Lake Huron. The town was very busy for a place so small: there were 5 pawn shops exchanging goods between those who had brought too little, those who had brought too much and those who had brought the wrong things to this godforsaken outpost of English civilization.
Though Gavin McKinnon was born only 50 miles from Tobermory in Kinnoch on the Georgian Bay side of the Bruce Peninsula he had never been to Tobermory because until recently it had been too difficult and dangerous to get to. The roads were terrible and the land was unsettled, save the new Cape Croker Indian reservation, which itself was mostly wild. Tobermory was thriving because it was an excellent staging point for travel to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Northern Ontario and ultimately Manitoba, where the Government was giving away land for free.
As soon as they boarded, most of the passengers went inside to drink and escape the cold wind. Gavin was neither interested in drinking nor able to stop himself from taking in the view, so he stayed remained on the deck. He looked due east and saw nothing but Georgian Bay, a bleak expanse of water that was but one part of this vast inland sea. He remembered how his Aunt Margaret used to say that Grey County was the land of an Old Testament God: demanding respect, evoking awe and grudgingly giving sustenance.
There was only one other passenger on deck, a man dressed like the younger brother of a Toronto banker. He wore what was once a very nice, though ill-fitting, dark blue worsted wool suit and a finely cut lamb’s wool jacket. The suit was a tattered hand-me-down. Gavin didn’t judge harshly. He had rarely owned new clothes.
Gavin moved beside the other passenger. For a moment they stood beside each other in silence leaning on the oak rail, looking eastward toward Georgian Bay. To the north, from horizon to horizon, an embankment of dark clouds had gathered. It was pushing warm misty air southward. As they watched the mist grew thicker. Tobermory was on their right, to the south. The boat moved slowly through a small chain of islets toward open water.
After a decent moment, Gavin addressed his companion, even though he continued to face the Bay. “Those clouds on the horizon are moving our way. If the storm is as mean as it looks, we are in serious trouble. I hope that you can swim.”
The other man looked at Gavin somberly as he spoke. “At this time of year you die of the cold before you drown.”
Gavin replied, “I know it. I lost two cousins on Lake Superior in October 1893.”
The native replied, “You must be in a hurry to be traveling this late in the year. I trust you’re not rushing off to your cousins’ fate.”
“I am in a hurry. I hope to get a land grant in Manitoba. I want to get there before the land runs out.”
“The land will always be there.”
Gavin laughed, “I mean the free land.”
The Indian smiled a flat, bleak smile as he replied, “Everything has a cost.”
The Indian continued. “How will you spend the winter?”
“I intend to walk to the Bruce Mines via Wikwamikong. I’ll work in the mines until spring, make it to Kenora by June and Winnipeg by early August.”
“You won’t be getting much work in the mines. I strongly suggest that you spend the winter on Manitoulin Island.” He nodded toward the Island and the storm.
“There’s only logging work there and I neither like to drink nor to get rough.”
“There’s other work in logging aside from cutting down trees. The loggers need supplies and services. Think about it. You may not have any choice if that storm is as bad as it looks. Let me give you my card. If you stay in South Baymouth I can find you work.” Joshua withdrew a slight silver container from the inside breast pocket of his suit, turned his back to the north wind, opened it and withdrew a card.
Gavin was astonished. The last thing he expected was an offer of employment from this man who looked so very nearly like a vagrant. “Thank you. I will seriously consider your advice. Thank you.” After this brief moment of intimacy they both withdrew into themselves and looked meditatively back towards the Bruce Peninsula. After a pause Gavin continued their conversation. “I’ve heard that all of those trees will be cut down in just a few years, just like in Huron County. British money, American management and Canadian labour. The achievement is tremendous.”
The Indian replied, “It reminds me of the myth of Prometheus.”
“Bringing light to the world?”
“No. Challenging the Gods.”
“You are very provocative, Sir. I am pleased to meet you. I am Gavin McKinnon, from Lion’s Head., just north of Owen Sound. What is your name?”
“In Toronto they call me Joshua Stanton. On the Island I’m known as Otter.”
“So you are an aboriginal?”
“Yes. I am a member of the Anishinabek nation. I was born in Wikwamikong but grew up in Detroit and Orangeville.”
“Is your brother a banker?” It was a perverse question. He knew no Ontario bank would hire an aboriginal.
Joshua looked self-consciously at his clothes. “My step-brother is.”
“Can I ask what is your purpose in traveling so late in the season?”
“Oh, that’s no secret. I’m here for the Pow Wow.
[Periodically the People of the Three Fires –the Potowatami, the Ojibwa and the Odawa Indians –meet at Manitoulin Island for a Pow Wow. We believe that Manitoulin Island is the home of Gitchi Manitou.”]
“I fear you’re a few months late for that.”
“I am very late. But there will still be great magic lingering on Manitoulin. I feel that Gitchi Manitou is benevolent this year. If you can talk about the benevolence of God.”
Gavin bristled slightly and replied, “In Sunday school I always speak of the benevolence of God.”
The native replied, “In Sunday school you speak of the benevolence of the New Testament God. You said yourself that this is an Old Testament land.”
“Touché again, my friend.” Gavin’s laughter stopped abruptly when he noticed how serious Joshua remained as he looked north toward the storm.
Joshua spoke after a pause. “Perhaps my theology is totally wrong. Could it be that people allow evil to thrive when they abandon God? Perhaps God and his agents want to be benevolent but too often give up in despair.”
“That explains God. But what about Satan?” A sliver of moon floated over the horizon, casting its pale light through the mist. The moonlight limned the rough, round face of Joshua who was also-known-as Otter.
Otter answered. “There’s no shortage of devils, Mr. McKinnon. That’s the problem. Abandon God and you’re not protected.” He paused and again looked toward the storm. “Tonight is a bad night to be out.”
“Why?” Gavin asked, though the answer seemed obvious as he looked down through the fog at the boat’s chill wake.
“Because there is so little light and a storm is upon us from the north. The Windigo loves the shadows and the cold.”
Gavin was taken off guard by Otter’s plain-spoken response. He had heard the myths of the cannibal monster that inhabited the northern forests, but had never met someone who believed them.
A cruel wind began to freeze the mist as the ship met the storm. Joshua started to shiver uncontrollably. His wool jacket was far too thin for this weather.
A native hawker approached Gavin. “A blanket for your friend, Sir. Only 5 cents.”
Gavin’s condescending smile was flashed benevolently. “That is a ridiculously cheap price for this blanket, Madame. It’s easily worth 10, maybe even 15 cents.” He laughed at himself. What would my Scottish friends back home think, seeing me try to raise this woman’s rates?
“You give the blanket back to me when we reach South Baymouth, Sir.”
5 cents to rent a blanket. Very expensive, he thought. But Joshua’s conversation is certainly a rare treat. He is clearly someone who deserves charity.
“Here is your money madam. I will meet you at the exit and return the blanket to you when we land.” Gavin found it easy to pay her price.
“Here you go Otter.” The native woman winked then tenderly wrapped a colourful woolen blanket around the Huron’s body. Then she pressed her breasts against him in a forward fashion. “We’re drinking and playing cards inside if you want to join us.”
Otter fondly squeezed her then chastely kissed her forehead. “We’ll see.”
She slapped his bum then turned away. Otter turned to face Gavin.
“You are very kind, Mr. McKinnon. Thank you.”
“A pleasure. It appears as if you are popular here, Otter.”
“I’m not that popular, though the folks around here know me. Some people insist that I am good person fallen on bad times. But most people dislike me…” He shrugged.
The conversation paused again. They looked over the Great Lake in silence as the cold, brittle fog that had followed them for the past few minutes was finally blown away by the oncoming storm. Everything looked much smaller on the maps. Georgian Bay stretched beyond the horizon and yet was a fraction of the size of the rest of Lake Huron. Manitoulin Island was a huge iron and granite finger pointing northwest over the horizon to Sault Ste Marie, where the Niagara escarpment crossed the border into America. To the north, the broad sky flattened to infinity as it became white with snow.
The landing at South Baymouth was uneventful, though the waves near shore were choppy. As promised Gavin returned the blanket to the native hawker when they landed. She thanked him and then when she thought he wasn’t looking gave the blanket to Otter. This act of kindness made Gavin think, Three times this man had highlighted a weakness of mine and I only met him today. They bade farewell at the dock and made plans to meet the following Sunday after mass at the Episcopal Church.
Gavin was greeted at the entrance to Fleming’s pharmacy by his companion from the Chi-Cheemaun
“Gavin, I didn’t expect to see you until Sunday, if at all. Though I hoped that you weren’t so foolish as to try to travel during the blizzard.”
“You were right my friend. There is no point in traveling at this time of year. Now that there is 2 feet of snow on the ground I doubt that I could make it to Wikwamikong, much less the Mines. At least not by myself. I had hoped to talk to you about employment.”
“Joshua, let the man in.”
Joshua nodded backwards to the source of the interruption. “That’s Fleming. I work for him as a bookkeeper and clerk.”
“If what I hear about him is true then you must be very accurate. At Church they say that he can scrutinize the gears off a clock.”
Joshua’s smile was far easier than it was on the ferry. “It’s good to see you. I think that I can help you…”
“Let the good man in Joshua.” A tall, stooped man with blond hair and watery blue eyes appeared at the door that separated the house from the store.
“Hello Mr. Fleming. We haven’t been introduced though you may have seen me at evensong yesterday.”
“Well, I .. uh ..”
Joshua easily interrupted Gavin’s stuttering. “Mr. Fleming, I can vouch for Mr. McKinnon. We had a very interesting conversation about the nature of God’s creation when taking the ferry from Tobermory.”
“I have similar thoughts when I take the Chi-Cheemaun. I am amazed that men can have eyes and not be humble. Come into my parlor Mr. McKinnon.”
They walked through a beautifully appointed dining room to a parlor that could have been in one of the finest homes in Toronto or Detroit. The thought of moving the walnut china case up here was astonishing That they successfully moved the rose-tinted bone china was a small miracle.
“Have a seat.”
Gavin noticed that Fleming’s movements were very precise as he quickly turned and sat down. He immediately spoke as he sat down. “I don’t know why you are here, but I do have work for you if you want it. “I pay $12 per month, with board. You don’t drink do you?”
“I usually ask that first, but I assumed from your manner. You can’t be too careful so I had to ask.”
“What should I start on?”
“I would like you to assist Joshua in itemizing the store’s inventory. Then I would like you to run supplies to the Sandy Lake logging camp. To get there I suggest that you travel from Providence Bay to Misery Bay – along the south coast.”
“So I start by going from Providence to Misery. Not unlike Adam.”
They laughed at each other’s jokes.
Fleming continued. “After Misery Bay you must go inland to Silver Water and then to the Sandy Lake camp. From there you will drop your sledges off in Meldrum Bay, rest, turn around and come back. It’s a lot easier coming back.”
“I’m not coming back. Why doesn’t Joshua just pay me out of profits when we get to Sandy Lake? It’ll nearly be spring then, he can surely get back by himself.”
Fleming frowned, then smiled. His smile hardened again into a frown. “Your suggestion is fine. I trust Otter. You should too. He may insist otherwise but he is a good man.”
Gavin and Otter departed on a cold, clear December morning during the second moon of winter, exactly one month after they had met. The snow on the road to Providence was packed and had few obstructions, so their sledges were easy to drag despite the difficult terrain.
The trek from Providence to Misery Bay was bleak. The dull daylight varied through shades of rust to iron grey. The wind began to blow from the south and though it was warmer than the north wind it blew strongly and the water blown off the Lake chilled them to their bones. On the third day out the Lake splashed them so heavily that they had to take refuge in a limestone cave. After hours of effort they finally built a fire. On Otter’s advice they waited until they were completely dry before continuing.
While they warmed themselves they had little to do but talk. Gavin began. “My friend, sometimes you speak like a native. Sometimes you speak like a Catholic.”
“You mean sometimes I am Otter and sometimes I am Joshua?”
Gavin smiled. “That’s one way of putting it. Yes. Who are you? What do you believe?”
Otter paused for a moment to stoke the fire, as if preparing for, or avoiding, his response. “I believe that when we are born we have an innate understanding of good. That’s the piece of God in all of us. But throughout our lives we make choices that take us onto or away from God’s path. Evil may tempt us, but we have that piece of good within us, so it’s always a choice to be bad; we always know better.”
He stoked the fire again, and then continued. “I was bad with money, but my wife was good with it. So I would give her my paychecks – I was a teacher – and she’d give me an allowance. Our rent was always paid on time and our beautiful daughter was always well provided for.”
“One day, quite by accident, I stumbled upon our family’s savings. $200. For a teacher, which is what I was, it was one entire year’s wages. I couldn’t stop thinking about that money. I thought of it every day. Five summers ago, on the last day of school, I went out drinking with some teachers who were my friends and I mentioned the money. I let myself be convinced by them to steal it. We called it borrowing. I took the money and we went to Sault Ste. Marie.” He waved northwest, in the direction of the Sault. “We drank for the entire month of July. Gavin, you can unwind an entire life in one month.”
“Joshua, I’ve seen it happen in one minute.”
The native’s expression was too rueful to be a smile. “Faster. I destroyed my life in the instant it took to make one decision, though it took 40 days for my escapade to end. In the first week of August the money ran out. Suddenly I was friendless and broke. I worked my way back home arriving in the last week of August. The big dipper dominated the night sky and Mars was close enough to Earth to make Georgian Bay red. When I came home my wife met me at the front gate with a large knife in her right hand. She just stood there, shaking ever so slightly, and looking at me. She looked at me for an entire minute, her grip tightening then loosening on the knife. After about a minute she realized that she needed to breathe and loudly exhaled. She only relaxed slightly, but it was enough, the difference between murderous rage and a broken spirit. She walked into the house and came back 5 minutes later with my daughter and one trunk that had wheels. She was ready to go. She had been waiting for me. About 50 steps from the house one of the wheels on her trunk came off. She kicked the trunk a couple of times, opened it, took out a couple of sweaters and then kept going. I just stood there watching this pathetic scene, thinking that it would have been better if she had killed me. She and my daughter left with nothing.”
Otter stopped as Gavin continued to trudge forward in the snow. The Ojibwa had apparently lost his ability to keep moving. Gavin wasn’t surprised. Otter’s story was shameful. But he could not find it in himself to give up on any soul, least of all one so clearly in search of forgiveness. Gavin turned to the native and challenged him. “Why don’t you kill yourself?”
“I can’t do that!”
“If you are not going to kill yourself, you must keep moving.”
Misery Bay didn’t exist as a town so much as a lone mission school and outhouses that acted in wintertime as way stations for loggers on the way to the interior. It was situated in the middle of a stand of birches. A screen of spruce had also been planted to protect against the brutal north wind. Looking south from the mission towards Detroit he saw nothing but Lake. The area near shore was covered in angles of ice; further out the deathly cold water roiled.
They arrived on the solstice and asked leave to stay until St. Stephen’s Day, December 26th, the feast of the first Christian martyr. On Christmas Eve snow started to fall. The ensuing blizzard was both gentle and relentless. On Christmas morning the children were excited and woke up early. On the table Mary, who ran the orphanage, had laid out presents, which she gave to each child in turn, starting with the youngest and ending with the eldest. They were the modest presents of a pioneer household: crafts made from local materials; simple things like mittens, multi-colored scarves and ornate boxes whittled out of oak and decorated with pine-cones and acorns.
When everyone had received a present, including the two guests, Mary had the children kneel together and say a prayer of thanks. Then she leaned forward to them conspiratorially and asked, “Do you know what today is?”
The children giggled at her easy question and then shouted back “It’s God’s birthday.”
“Actually it’s the birthday of the Christ child.”
“But God the father and God the son are joined in the Trinity, so Jesus’s birthday should also be God’s birthday.”
“You are quite right, my little squash.” Mary affectionately scrambled the precocious Huron’s dark hair, which made the girl both scowl and smile. “We’ll make a nun of you yet.”
“Are you a nun?” Gavin cut in to the conversation. Otter sat quietly by the fire and watched.
“No. I am not yet married. But there aren’t too many men out here so I guess you could say God’s my date.”
“I honestly didn’t expect to find a mission here.”
“Gavin, though you think that missions are for China and Africa there are also heathens to convert in Christian Canada. I am trying to spread the word of the Lord to the Ojibwa and the Cree. In many ways it is easy work because so many of their myths are like ours.”
“It’s beautiful to see someone doing the Lord’s work, Miss Kilcoyne. Would you consider taking your work somewhere else, perhaps to Manitoba?”
She laughed wickedly. “All the young men ask that question. No one ever wants to stay. Would you stay? I now you won’t, because you couldn’t even wait out the winter. You’re on your way to Manitoba right now.” She placed his hands in hers and pulled him forward so that she could whisper in his ear – “I’ll tell you this and I would never let the children hear”, she looked to ensure none were about, “it’s very dangerous out here. We’re on the other side of the line between civilization and wilderness. If that fire goes out and we can’t restart it we’ll die. My family thinks I’m crazy for staying here, but I don’t think that I can leave. At least not while there are children to care for.”
He felt her warmth and wanted to pull her closer. She suddenly stood up and addressed the children. “Remember the song that I was teaching you. Let’s sing it for our guests.”
The well-disciplined children arranged themselves in a choir formation in front of the fire. They were beautiful children with large, dark brown eyes and straight black hair. Though their clothes were worn thin they were clean and colourful. They tentatively, then more firmly, started to sing:
“Twas in the moon of winter time when all the birds had fled.
That mighty Gitchi Manitou sent angel choirs instead.
Before their light the stars grew dim, and wandering hunters heard the hymn:
While the children sang Otter and Gavin drew their blankets tighter around themselves. Despite the hot fire, the cabin was draughty and the air was frigid.
your King is born, Jesus is born,
In excelsis gloria.”
The beautiful voices of the Huron children settled around them like snow.
Gavin thought that he would have no trouble sleeping once the children had been put to bed. But he couldn’t sleep so he rose and prepared to go outside for a walk. He exited the mission building with no incident. Once outside, he was surprised to see that he was not alone: Mary Kilcoyne was standing by herself right at the point where the cabin light ended, staring into the darkness. She ignored his approach and continued what she was doing, which was singing the English version of the Huron carol the children had sung earlier:
rest ye merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
Remember Christ our Savior
Was born on Christmas Day;
To save us all from Satan’s power when we’d gone astray.
O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy.
Tidings of comfort and joy
The mission yard was both peaceful and sinister in the flickering light of the cabin fire. It took no effort to imagine the agents of Satan lingering in the cedars and the pines. There was comfort here too, but it ended at the point where the light was swallowed by the cold night.
The next day, the feast of St Stephen, Otter and Gavin began to walk inland along the spine of the Niagara escarpment.
“Otter, you said you were a teacher?”
“I am still employed as a teacher, but I go through the motions. I have lost my skill.”
“What do you mean?”
“I did nothing for a year after my wife left me but eat vegetables from our garden. I didn’t tend them but they grew anyway. After some time, I got more energy. I started fishing every once in a while. One day I hooked a giant catfish, bigger than I have ever seen. I struggled with it for an entire morning. Do you know how long a time 3 hours is if you are fishing? Most times it takes seconds to land – or lose – a fish. But Catfish was playing with me. It was angry play.”
Gavin was puzzled by Otter’s personification of the fish.
“Do you know anything about totems, Mr. McKinnon?”
“I have read a bit about the myths and legends of Canada’s aboriginal people.”
“You know that every clan has a totem?”
“The totem of my clan, the Waussee, is the catfish. We are teachers. After that struggle with Catfish, my totem, I lost my ability to teach. That was punishment for my destroying my family.”
Recalling their conversation on the ferry Gavin asked, “Did you forsake Catfish or did Catfish forsake you?”
“I think it’s more complicated. I left him no choice.”
“You speak as if you have no hope, my friend. But you know the difference between good and evil. I am certain that you can be redeemed.”
Otter sighed. “Perhaps, though I don’t think so: the reason why I despair is because I feel that it is too late. I cannot undo what I have done. Now I have no choice but to wait for death to vanquish my spirit.”
“Your spirit will be condemned only if you abandon God. There is no reason to do that.”
This time the rueful expression on Joshua’s face could be called a smile, but the conversation nevertheless ended. They trudged through the snow in silence.
The walk up the escarpment was brutal but invigorating. By the time they reached the top they had stripped down to light jackets. When they crossed the crest of the escarpment the north wind blasted them and they had to bundle up again. At times the wind was so strong that they could not move forward. The next two days involved walking from gulley to gulley. In the gullies and creeks you could shelter yourself from the wind and, if you were lucky and the air currents were favorable, you could light a fire.
It started to snow. The world became progressively whiter, and the air became muted and heavy The air was still chilled as it entered their lungs, but breathing was not painful.
They encountered their first logging camp two days north of Misery Bay, in a town called Silver Water. They heard the camp 3 hours before they entered it. The final approach was harrowing as they walked directly into a line of trees that were in the process of being felled.
The town of Silver Water was no more nor less than a lumber camp, though it was different from the camp at Misery Bay and those along the Bruce Peninsula: most lumber camps in this section of the world were made up of young Scottish and Irish men. The crew that lived here was a community of French Canadians, métis, and their native wives. The squaws sat perilously close to the camp with their papooses, patient, covered in many layers of filthy, though colorful, blankets.
The crew paid for their supplies in cash and furs; there was no trouble.
They proceeded north to Sandy Lake. On the second day they heard voices in the distance. Several hours later they encountered an Irish crew at the intersection of two roads. They were very rough and angry looking.
A scrawny, wicked looking man who was impossibly thin, dressed in patched denim and stank of sweat and booze, and a blaze of roughly cut red hair on the top of his head made the introduction, “Where are you from?”
Gavin replied, “I was born in Belfast but grew up in Lion’s Head. My mother is Irish, my father is Scottish. I’ve lived in Bruce County since I was six.”
“You’re not logging here are you?”
“No. We work for Fleming. In South Baymouth. We’re bringing supplies to Sandy Lake. Then we’re going to Meldrum Bay to rest and get supplies.”
“Fleming’s a cheap bastard, so I hope he paid you up front.” The wicked looking youth laughed then continued to speak. “We’re also headed to Sandy Lake. We’re working at the camp there. What do you have to sell?”
“A few medical supplies. Some bandages. And a cold remedy.”
“Dr. Jakes, perchance?” The Irishman smiled wickedly.
“As it happens, yes.”
The Irishmen smiled and patted each other on their backs. Their gaunt leader spoke for the group without even bothering to address them. “We’ll take it all, even the bandages. I’ve got the money to pay for it right here.”
Just like that their mission was completed
The next day they walked north with the Irish crew, not exactly together, but on the same path. Much to Gavin’s dismay the Irish drank the Dr. Jakes bitter remedy as if it was booze, which of course it mostly was. When this dawned on Gavin he became very angry.
“Otter, did you know that Dr. Jakes is liquor?”
An unimaginable thought struck him, “What about Fleming, does he know?”
Otter shook his head. “He doesn’t ask too many questions about his most profitable product.” Gavin fumed as they walked slowly through the snow, following the path left by the loud, drunken crew.
The Irish crew were much faster than them, so eventually disappeared and the woods became quiet again. Their path was easier than it had been for a month. Their loads were light and the path through the forest was clear. The mostly frozen Silver River was on their left. It was stunningly beautiful in the daylight: sunshine reflected merrily on its surface. The ice and water mixed together in so many different. Ice covered logs floated languidly south, most of the time not moving at all. On each log, if you looked carefully, you could see some form of brand or logging company mark.
In the corners of the river clumps of leaves had frozen together in eddies.
Late in the afternoon they reached Slow Eddy. The presence of loggers could be found in the garbage piles and the embers of recently extinguished fires.
Yet no one was here. They set up their camp in the pale light of the late afternoon sun. Their campsite was sheltered so before setting up a fire and eating, they sat down together on a fallen tree and looked south west along the river surface. Through breaks in trees they could see the cold red ball of the sun sink into the west.
“What is that?”
Gavin pointed to a plaid covered mound amongst the tangle of logs at the south end of the eddy. Otter rose quickly and moved closer to the water. Gavin followed. As they moved closer to the river they intersected a path down to the water. The path was fresh with the marks of lumberjack boots.
The corpse had been pulverized by the logs and then frozen. Gavin had heard many stories of people clearing log-jams and then falling to their deaths. The corpse’s buddies were probably stuck on the other side of the river and could do nothing to help him as he died. Now his body had floated here.
The corpse was close to shore so without much effort they pulled it out of the water and lay it on the flattened reads at the water’s edge.
“Its too late tonight to do anything about this poor soul.”
“It’s Etienne. From the camp.” Gavin moved closer to confirm Otter’s observation.
“There. A bullet hole.” Otter knelt down beside the body to inspect it in greater detail.
“Let’s be careful tonight.”
“Yes. It’s getting too late. Let’s make a fire.”
“A large fire.”
“Yes. We can attend to the corpse in the morning. May he rest in peace.” They both made the sign of the cross as he uttered this brief prayer and then heaved the corpse into the bush, away from the heat of their campfire.
Otter and Gavin trudged up the river’s embankment back to their camp, lit a fire and sat down to eat.
After dinner they put almost an entire tree’s worth of wood into a fire. The fire was so strong that Gavin was able to sleep in front of it, outdoors, despite the bitter cold. Just before dawn the fire began to die and the winter set in with a vengeance, waking him up. Under the light of the full moon Gavin saw a shadow cross the river right where he had picked up Etienne’s broken body. The river froze underneath the shadow as it moved. Though the monster had no eyes, it turned towards him and scanned his soul. Its gaze was so cold that Gavin felt as if a piece of it had been frozen into his brain. The Windigo did not linger, but headed northwest following the path of the Irish crew.
As the monster rustled away through the cedars Otter walked up behind Gavin, casting a shadow over his shoulder. “Come Gavin. Let us bury Etienne and get moving.”
“Joshua, Etienne was a Christian. He deserves a Christian burial, in a Churchyard: it is the greatest gift that we can give him. He cannot get in to the kingdom of heaven if he is not buried in consecrated soil.”
“Gavin, we should not kill ourselves for the sake of this man’s soul.”
Gavin snapped back, “Look around here. This is our fault. Etienne’s dead because we got the Irish crew drunk on bogus cough medicine. Bringing his corpse to the Church in Meldrum Bay is least we could do.” Gavin recoiled somewhat at the vehemence of his words and continued with a calmer tone of voice. “Besides, Otter, we should be prepared to suffer for the salvation of any soul. Sandy Lake is only 20 miles away. Meldrum Bay is just a little further. Etienne is as stiff as a sleigh board. Who knows, Otter? Perhaps you will redeem yourself through this adventure.”
Otter said nothing, but did help strap the corpse to an empty wooden trellis and they sullenly began the miserable journey northwest to Sandy Lake. Though they followed in the tracks of the Irish crew each step took them further into the bush and further away from the protection of civilization. The path quickly dissolved into a deer trail, often becoming completely impassable. He began to doubt that Sandy Lake, or any town at all, could actually exist in this cold and desolate land.
It took them an entire day to traverse one small cedar swamp. At the end of this day they found themselves in what in summertime would be a circular meadow, surrounded on all sides by silent cedar trees. They entered the circle and made an amphitheater in the snow. In the center Otter quickly built a fire.
Gavin slouched below the lip of their tiny snow amphitheater so that his whole body was sheltered from the wind. The fire burned hotly, but crazily. Otter sat cross-legged. He took of his hat; this caused his long, black hair to blow in what the natives called the evil wind.
Gavin addressed his companion. “I have heard stories about the bush but did not expect to see women as young and vulnerable as Molly and Mary working out here in the company of violent, drunken young men.”
“O’Connor’s crew is a site better than Boyd’s.”
“They are all heavy drinkers.”
“Boyd’s crew are murderers when they are drunk.”
“Or when they’re sober.”
“They are never sober.”
“Though I try not to judge, I still feel that Mary’s virtue is worth more than either the Québéçois or Irish logging teams.”
“All these souls can be saved? Mary can help. You know that.”
Gavin responded by rote; he had said this so many times. “I do not believe that the souls of her companions can be saved as long as they are addicted to liquor.”
“Perhaps they will quit.”
“I think you are right. But Mary is less virtuous than you think.”
“How is that?”
“Do you believe in free will?”
“I believe that God gave us free will and an innate knowledge of good so that we can choose to follow His path.”
“Do women have souls?”
“Of course. Where are you heading with this, Sir? Are you implying that Mary is less than virtuous?”
“I am implying nothing.”
“If you are implying nothing, then what do you know about Mary?”
Out of nowhere and from every direction, a warm wind suddenly started to blow. The fire burned haphazardly and a fine mist of snow began blew off the crowns of the giant cedars that surrounded them.
Suddenly Gavin understood. “You compromised her virtue, didn’t you?” It wasn’t really a question because Gavin <i>knew</i>.
“Mary would tell you that she seduced me. Ask her, Gavin”
“Joshua, should have been stronger.”
“I needed no second invitation to warm her on a cold, lonely Christmas Eve.” Otter’s face was impassive and his tone of voice was firm.
“You slept with her!” Other people may treat morality as something theoretical but Gavin certainly did not.
“My friend, I’m pleased to report that her virginity is still intact.”
Gavin looked long and hard at Otter. It seemed to him that for the first time he was seeing the true face of this evil Huron. To have been so carnal with one so young and vulnerable and <i>good</i>. But what could he do? He needed Otter’s help to bury Etienne. He would give Etienne a Christian burial and then give Otter his due.
Otter backed away slowly down the hill to where Sandy Lake should be. Gavin followed him, his eyes burning with hatred.
Unlike the other towns on their route, Sandy Lake did have a number of permanent structures, a school, a tavern, a general store, and a boarding house. At the center of town, at the falls where the Silver River drains Sandy Lake there was even a mill. Though there were signs everywhere that the Irish crew had passed through there was no sign of them now.
Gavin finally found the Irish crew behind the school house in a bloody heap. Their deaths had been cruel – gunshot wounds, knife wounds. One man had been cut several times with an axe. A couple of members of the Québéçois crew lay respectively outside the main area of slaughter: their team may have won this ambush but they had not.
Gavin wondered what could do this.
“The Windigo.” Joshua crossed himself and backed away.
He looked at Etienne’s soulless body then back towards the corpses of the murderous Irish crew. He didn’t give the crew a second glance and proceeded due west out of town straight into boreal forest and swamp along the Meldrum Bay road.
The bush was far more passable in winter-time than in the summer. The cedar swamps, completely impassable in the summer, were relatively easy to navigate if you stuck to the parts that were frozen. In pockets throughout the swamps, on the higher land, were ancient stands of white pine. In the stands, the ground was clear of plants making it easy to walk using snowshoes. On the ground the air was still, though sometimes the giant trees shivered, unsettling their mantle of snow and luminescent needles.
When they did not converse together, Gavin would talk with himself, or perhaps with some unseen other, Otter had difficulty telling because at these times Gavin would mutter and swear.
“Gavin, I have a question for you. Why do you want to bury Etienne? You’ve told me yourself you’re not Catholic. Why do you want him to be buried on consecrated ground?”
Gavin replied with a question, “Why do you want to leave him behind?”
“Gavin, I am helping you bury him.”
“But you advised me to bury him in unconsecrated ground.”
“I told you that we shouldn’t try to bury Etienne because I didn’t want us to die trying. Your life is precious. Your soul is even more precious.”
“Why are you helping me now? Why haven’t you simply run away?”
“I think that all my choices lead to my death. I’m continuing with him”, Otter nodded towards the corpse wrapped in stiff woolen blankets, “to help save you.”
Gavin tried to understand Otter’s inscrutable remark but could not. As they continued west the north wind grew stronger and the gun-metal sky darkened to black.
“Otter, do you think that the Windigo is here? I keep hearing strange noises and think that we are being followed.”
Otter replied “If the monster is hunting us, we won’t hear it.”
Gavin persisted. “Perhaps I am hearing other animals responding to the presence of the monster. The animals know that something strange is here. Don’t they?”
Otter knew that the Windigo was very close to them and catching up. The monster moved in the form of a persistent breeze that blew a channel of air before it; pulling dead leaves from birch trees; knocking blocks of snow off the cedars; driven forward by its insatiable hunger.
After walking for half a day they reached an area that had already been logged by Americans who had shipped the timber out north-west to the Sault. The lumber road closely followed the curves of the land. The forest on either side was young and scrubby, all but impassable until the deer ate trails through it in the summer. The road, however, was very good. Enough traffic passed from Sandy Lake to Meldrum Bay that the snow was packed. Their progress was very fast.
The Windigo enveloped them a short distance from Meldrum Bay.
While being pursued the air around them blew. Now that they were caught the air around them became still. Otter reached in to his soul, trying to find that place where God is, and prepared to die.
The demon was very cunning: it showed Gavin images of Otter sleeping with Mary; it reminded him that he had sold liquor as medicine to the Irish crew and had caused Etienne’s death. The images enraged Gavin. It was this rage that allowed the monster finally to take control.
Gavin stopped walking. “Otter, I’m seeing things. I’m seeing things that make me very angry. “
Otter replied in a flat but insistent voice. “Gavin, what you are seeing is a vision from the Windigo. It is trying to trick you so that it can control you. Don’t give in. Please be strong. The fate of your soul depends on this.”
“Joshua” Gavin stopped trudging through the snow, dropped the reins to the sled and turned to face Otter. “Joshua, I feel compelled to defend the honor of the woman you have defiled. Mary.” Gavin slurred his words as if drunk.
Otter looked ahead of himself and saw a break in the trees. Meldrum Bay was only a 100 chains away. He could see people there who could help him. But it was too late. The monster had found a path into Gavin’s mind. Possessed by the demon Gavin would catch him and kill him. It would be easy: he would not fight back because he had no reason to live and deserved to die.
The monster was disoriented in Gavin’s body. While it consolidated control, Otter kept walking toward the edge of the forest. Never once turning his back to Gavin, Otter angled around him and began to walk sideways to the beach. Gavin shook slightly but persistently as the monster spoke with his voice. “Otter, we’ve talked a lot about the New Testament God and the Old Testament God. I believe in both. The God of forgiveness and the God of punishment. I believe that you’ve had enough forgiveness. It is time for you to be punished.”
Gavin’s judgment was delivered in a flat tone, more a homiily than a prelude to murder. But there was murder in his eyes as he stopped and methodically withdrew an axe and a gutting knife from his pack.
A large black fish swam close to shore, oblivious of the ice. Dark eyes and whiskers poked up through the rim of the water. Catfish watched as Otter stepped backward out of the forest onto the pebbly beach, dragging the trellis with Etienne’s stiff body along with him.
When Otter reached to the beach he stopped. “Gavin! I am not going to fight you. If you’re going to kill me, kill me quickly. It is all a shame.”
Ice had begun to form on edges of Gavin’s coat and his skin had turned blue. “Why is it a shame, Otter?? Is it a shame that you want to die? Is it a shame that you deserve to die because of the evil things that you have done?”
“Gavin, you are the one who believes that God’s ability to forgive is infinite.”
Gavin lurched toward Otter like Frankenstein’s monster. Catfish stirred and fluidly tracked his movements. Gavin stepped out of the shadows of the forest and raised his hands over his heads as he prepared to strike. For the second time in his life Otter was saved by a breath. Gavin inhaled and as he exhaled the sun poked out from behind a cloud, the air around him shimmered and the Windigo withdrew into the cold shadows of the forest. Gavin stood on the cusp between shadow and sunlight shaking. The axe and knife fell from his hands into the snow. He was now free of the monster’s spell.
Catfish knew that the drama was over and dove into the frozen water of Lake Huron and was gone.
The town of Meldrum Bay was a dock, some sheds and a sailor’s church all fully functional, despite the season.
Together they dragged the trellis noisily along the pebbly beach toward the westernmost point of the island, where a tiny wooden church obdurately squatted. The dozen people who were about followed their progress with their eyes, waiting to intervene until they were asked.
“Otter, it is time to give our friend Etienne a Christian burial.”
“Indeed.” Otter was relaxed and smiling. Smiling. “Gavin, have you ever buried a body? I didn’t think so. Let me show you how to do it.” Within moments they were at the entrance to the rectory making burial arrangements with the priest. Though Otter saw nothing because he was engaged in conversation, Gavin was certain that he saw Catfish poke his head out of the water, at the tip of the dock on the far side of the Church, one last time before swimming away.
Gavin followed Catfish’s wake northwest across the Lake. In the light of the setting sun you could just see the United States of America, if you squinted. Beyond that lay Manitoba where the Government was giving away land for free.