Some time after my sister’s funeral I packed a small back pack and disappeared into the Maine wilderness. A friend had lent me her cabin, a place so primitive I would be using firewood to heat and cook. While the cabin had electricity, it had no central heat or traditional stove.
The taxi driver who picked me up in Portland was a retired mechanic from Camden named Gus.
“There’s not much there where you’re going,” he told me. “Lots of critters. The Coyotes up here are wily as hell.”
I could see his old eyes looking at me in the mirror. I knew what he was thinking. A woman goes into the woods alone. And I wasn’t a Mainer so I was an anomaly. I would be the talk at the coffee shop.
He said, “Good place to get lost. Nalbert’s store’s about a two mile walk if you need anything.”
On my first morning in the cabin I woke to loud tapping. I sat up quickly, eyes wide. A large squirrel was at the rear window, its front paws slapping the glass. Then it stopped, turned its back to the glass, and spun back to face it. Tap.Tap.Tap. This went on for some time, the miscreant obviously attacking its reflection in the window. I finally moved to the window and tapped the glass twice. “Okay, okay,” I said. “I’m up.” The animal sat up on its hind legs, examined me with several jerks of its head, then darted up a sycamore tree.
It was warm in the cabin, but the stove had gone out and I had to make coffee and breakfast. I dressed, put my coat on, and went out the scarred front door to get firewood. The wind was from the east, blowing to the water, and the air held remnants of oak and salt and moss. The trees were jettisoning their leaves, and they rained over the canopy in a delicate silence. Crows cawed and squirrels pawed the leaves. In another month, the ground would be frozen, the pond nearly solid enough to walk across. I thought of my husband and son, how I had told them I had to go away. With Sidney it was a look he had seen for weeks, so words were few. The night before I left, I sat on Zach’s bed and tried to explain why I had to go. “Sometimes when you lose something, pieces of your heart go everywhere,” I said.
“Where do they go?”
“It’s like a puzzle that breaks apart. The pieces are all over the floor.”
He considered this. “And you miss Aunt Kate, huh?”
I nodded and kissed his forehead.
A clan of turkeys ran out the forest now, their gobbles piercing the quiet morning. My eyes stung in the frigid air, and I remembered why I had come outside.
After getting the stove lit, I made some strong coffee and scrambled an egg. I set up a writing area in the loft, using an old oak table and an uncomfortable chair I furnished with bed pillows. From the desk I could turn to my left and gaze out the window at the pond. My laptop blinked at me but my fingers typed nothing. I carefully climbed down the wobbly ladder and poured more coffee. I lifted the iron hatch to the stove and stoked the fire. It was hot and filled the cabin with a wooden permanence. I decided to let the fire die out as the sun was beginning to warm the rooms.
I looked at my watch. It was eight and Zach would be getting ready for school. He would be clutching his pillow, even while brushing his teeth, his fuzzy white hair a disrupted matrix.
At the funeral service my son had been inquisitive. We had dressed him up in a suit and he looked like a toy version of a man. “How did they get Aunt Kate in there?” he had asked, staring at the urn. Sidney gave me a glance.
“Well, when the body is no longer needed, it’s made into small flakes.”
We sat there in silence, accepting looks and handshakes and kisses.
Growing up, Kate was the impetuous older sister, always challenging me to duels. She spent our childhood proving that she could do anything I could do, and getting me to do things I wouldn’t; bumper surfing behind cars in winter, swimming naked in Green Lake in the summer. Her Buddhist origins started early; she believed, even as a child, that squashing an ant had dire consequences. And in all this, Kate had a perceptive, clairvoyant notion of how fleeting life is. One day while walking to school, we saw an enormous Red-tailed hawk circling the pristine blue sky. In an instant it suddenly went nose up and dropped, its wings ceasing and folding into an incongruous mess. Against the wind, the feathers seem to ball up, and the hawk became a spiraling embarrassment to its grace. After it fell, Kate squinted into the sky, motionless, then turned and embraced me.
The following night was colder, and I woke more than once to retrieve the lost comforter. Dreams foiled my sleep. Kate standing in the doorway, then again next to the window, the Red-tailed hawk perched on her shoulder. I woke shivering and soaked in sweat.
I finally got out of bed and quickly grabbed my jacket to get firewood. I had stacked several logs at the front door but had already gone through them. I needed the stove this morning for certain. It wasn’t light yet, but there was a full moon and I could see wisps of fog hovering over the green ferns and sumac. I started back to the cabin with an arm full of firewood and let it drop to the ground. My commotion sent an owl into the grayness, a frantic thudding of wings that stirred the morning forest. I sat down in the cold leaves and recalled looking at the pictures arranged around the foyer at Kate’s service, the pictures of Kate as a baby, at seven, at twelve, in high school. Kate hugging Frisk, our beloved Golden Retriever; Kate and her partner just weeks before she died. Elizabeth had approached me at the service and stood in front of me for a long time. Then she had stepped forward and hugged me in a grip so intense it nearly knocked the air out of my lungs. When she let go, she held me at arm’s length, her face drawn. It was as though she had said, Now what do I do?
There was light now, the sky birthing a glow of whiteness, as though a switch had been turned on along the horizon. I stretched out on the ground and watched a maple samara spin to the earth. Then another, lifted in the eastern flow, landed somewhere I couldn’t see. I wanted to put my grief there, settle it into the ovaries of a samara, let it find the peaceful earth beyond the pond. In the maple tree that emerged from that ground, a thousand samaras would take flight, a thousand Kate’s embedded within.
On my third morning I did not wake until seven, and I had no visits from Kate or the Red-tailed hawk. The sun was just coming through the windows in a yellow haze, but I didn’t want to leave the down comforter. It was cold again, so I knew I had to get the stove going before I froze. Tap tap tap. I stood with the comforter wrapped around my body and moved into the front of the cabin. “You again,” I said. The squirrel was back, up on his hind legs pawing the glass. The light was angled in such a way that every hair on the rodent’s back lit up as though fiber optic wire, the ends glowing in yellow dots. “I’m up,” I said. “And I’m going to write.”
Writing to me has always been cathartic. When it found me, it could transport my state of being to another continent. Somehow words put me at ease with the world, and from there I could exist indefinitely. I found myself there, finally, before dawn, and I wrote for hours. My only disturbance was a wood pecker furiously pounding a pine tree outside the loft window. When my eyes grew tired, I closed my laptop and went for a run in the woods.
The pond resembled black glass, so calm it looked as though you could walk across it. Fog blanketed the water in thick wisps. Geese cut through the center of pond, dividing the water for a time by a rippled line. As their calls echoed through the air, I thought how forlorn they sounded, as though they were calling to a lost love. Geese were extremely loyal creatures, staying with their mates until death. When an offspring or mate died, they mourned by secluding themselves, refusing to interact with others. They often refused to mate again. Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz observed that geese mourn like children; “their eyes sink deep in their sockets and the head hangs” as though something has fallen away.
My feet gave out after about a mile so I stopped to walk for a time. My breath sent out plumes into the chilled air. Across the glacier pond, the bank quickly climbed in a steep slope. The trees that lined the bank were bare and rotted, most merely stumps. The beavers had been busy this year, and I could see an enormous beaver hut along the waterline. I sat on the cold ground and looked out over the pond. There was something else breaking the water, and I squinted at the corner of the pond. Silhouetted against the breaking morning light I saw the beast’s antlers slowly cutting through the still water. Its pace was slow, lazily thrusting through the blackness as though it was in no hurry to get to the other side. The geese took to the air, squawking and flapping yet staying in a perfect line. I watched the moose get closer to my side of the pond, its antlers slowly rising out of the water. When his head was visible I was amazed at the bulk of it. Then the rest of him came out in a powerful lunge. It stood there, just feet from me, tossing its head side to side with massive shakes. It snorted and seemed to sneeze, like a great dragon exhaling smoke as water shook off its thick coat. Its antlers were enormous and covered in green moss, as though they were trees growing out of its head. It turned toward me and glared. The yellow light of the morning angled on the antlers in such a way that the green moss seemed to glow. The animal shook its head one more time then turned its husky flank and made its way along the pond line, the antlers bold in the silhouette and disappearing for a time as it bowed its mighty head to the ground. When the beast became a muted shadow, a smudge at the far end of the waterline, and vanished altogether into the trees, the geese came back the same way they left, in perfect symmetry, aligned because nothing had fallen away.
I left the house undone yet seamlessly intact
Where moose beasts appear from nebula ponds
Their moss antlers peering like antennas from God
I left the forest where coyotes picked clean
an animal skull
and left it to the ants and sun
I left the glacier pond
transparent, for the first time in years
As though spring plucked the ice off
and inhaled the sediment shyness
The glacier pond where lethargic shadowed bass
Began their dance to the deep shale bottom
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