It’s been a month since the Mothership exploded, and I’m out on my last expedition of the summer. We’re three days into a grueling headwind-and-drizzle canoe trip, skirting along the border trail in Southern Ontario. Basically I’ve been dragging Chem-Dad and the boys and all their gear across these impossibly long portages, driving them like wet mules. A chill, late-summer rain jabs at us horizontally as we slog through one choppy lake after another, and no one has said a word since I tore Chem-Dad a new one this morning.
I was standing on a craggy bank, trying to get a snapshot of those moose petroglyphs north of Basswood Falls (the ones so clear it looks like someone came out there last week, did them with a stencil and a $2 can of red spray paint, but are really two thousand, five thousand, maybe ten thousand years old), and Chem-Dad T-boned my canoe, sent the bow right into my shins. I gave him hell, told him he was the cock-suckerin’est bitch I’d ever had to guide. Said, “What would you pansy-asses do if I got a broke leg? Don’t you realize the radio’s useless this far out? Line of sight, remember? Line of fucking sight.”
That was this morning.
Chem-Dad is some kind of mid-management chemist- bureaucrat at a drug company in Philly. I don’t know which one. Don’t care. He must not be a very good one because when they first got off the bus with their troop and got assigned to me, I found out what he did for a living, asked him, “You got any drug pens? I love those Zoloft pens, things last forever.”
He just put up his palms, shrugged, gave me that Alfred E. Neuman look.
It was disappointment from minute one. That’s the way it goes with the Scouts, twenty of ’em drive up in a couple vans or a charter bus, and on the way the Scoutmaster decides who all the assholes are, sticks them in one crew so everyone else can have a good time. I always get the asshole group. It doesn’t matter to me though, this is my last trip to the Quetico and my last chance to make it to Little Argo.
When we were still in base-camp I was showing them our itinerary on a wall map in the gift and tackle shop. I only had to say two things to get them to follow me wherever I wanted to go.
I put my finger on the map and said, “Here. Little Argo—nice campsites, awesome fishing.” I could see the boys react to the word awesome, their faces tense with anticipation, the word bouncing around between them telepathically. “Northern pike the size of your leg,” I added.
Chem-Dad scrunched his nose, gawked at the map through his bifocals, said, “Geeze, that’s pretty far. How far is that?”
I had part of the map obscured with my forearm, hoping they wouldn’t notice.
“Round-trip?” I asked.
“In miles, or in rods?”
“What’s a rod?”
“Sixteen and a half feet.”
“In miles then,” he said.
“About ... a hundred, a hundred and ten, depending on your route.”
I knew it was more like 140, so I said again, “Awesome fishing.”
That was three days, thirty portages and seventy-five miles ago. I don’t know what that is in rods.
By the time we get back from Ely I can feel the seeds digesting, acidic bile cramping my gut. I park the truck, and Loechner and I creep across camp in the dark down to the landing on Moose Lake. I’ve got an Indian blanket and a lighter I found two weeks ago, floating near a portage head on Kekekabic. Loechner has a bottle of water, a dime bag of crap-weed, and a dugout oney that’s clogged as shit with resin, so we’re living the motto: Be Prepared. As quiet as we can we pull a canoe off a rack, hijack some paddles and vests, and launch into the lake.
The water is calmer than dead calm. This is afterlife calm, I think. And the only noise I hear is the whorl of our paddle blades cutting the surface and a loon calling unanswered from miles away at the south end of the lake.
We ate the seeds on the way into town. Six each. Pink, acrid Hawaiian Baby Woodrose seeds—Argyreia Nervosa. Bought some OJ at the first open gas station, and chugged it down on the drive back, trying to get those nasty kernel chunks out of our teeth. And now, as we move frictionless across the water, I can feel my spine straighten and a kind of warm static flowing down from my brain stem.
The rain is fizzling, and there’s about an hour of sunlight left, so Chem-Dad, the boys and I set up on an island at the north end of Thursday Bay. We unpack our gear and pull the Alumacrafts up on shore, out of the water.
The boys are fifteen or sixteen years old, and all they talk about is professional baseball and loose high school girls. And I can’t tell any of them apart; two of them are Chem-Dad’s sons, but I’m not sure which because they all have that same stupid, weary towhead gaze about them, and if I’m not mistaken, at least two of them are named Brad. I’ve been pretty roughneck with this crew so far, and I know it’s not their fault. It’s the dreams. Right now Gina’s probably trimming and hanging a whole bedroom full of buds to dry, and every night I’m wrestling with the Vamps in my sleep, running, escaping through the woods. By the time I wake up, lying numb and painful on the ground, I’ve already had a long night’s journey.
So, when the Brads get to whining about the death march and the rain, I tell them there’s nothing in the first aid kit for their chronic vaginitis. I offer to drop them off in Pansyville on our way to the day spa.
While they struggle with their tents I pull out the chuck box and start fixing dinner. I always cook. I’m supposed to teach the tenderfoots how to cook, but I don’t like diarrhea and sandy food and hate undercooked rice, so I do it myself. You let these kids cook and three out of five attempts end with scalding foot burns and a steaming, muddy pile of noodles, al dente.
On my first trek I had the Scoutmaster, Skipper Steve, cut some onions for my famous trail fajitas, and he comes back like fifteen minutes later with a pile of meticulously diced cubes, each one clinging to a tiny piece of moldy onion peel. As I picked every one of those bastards clean I decided to spare myself the pain from then on.
After dinner I boil the dishwater and tell Chem-Dad and the boys to get their smellables together and hang the bear bag. They all grumble.
“I don’t think a black bear would swim out to an island like this for no reason,” says Chem-Dad.
“Exactly,” I say, “and if you don’t hang that bear bag they’ll have all the reason they need.”
“Look, I seriously doubt a bear can even swim that far.”
“Hang the goddamn bear bag.”
At the south end of the island, on a treeless jag of rust-veined igneous rock, we pull the canoe up and turn it on its side in the little makeshift campsite. We sit on the crag on our PFDs and lean back against the canoe, look up at the curdled swath of Milky Way above us.
“What the heck is that?” says Loechner.
“Mars,” I say.
“Ah, bull. That’s like a plane or something.”
“No way, dude. This is the closest it’s been in sixty thousand years, supposedly.”
Loechner doesn’t get it, and the way the seeds are treating me, I doubt I could make any sense out of it if I tried.
We take a couple of nervous tokes on the oney and talk, trying to distract ourselves from the toxic gnaw in our guts. He tells me he’s decided to stay here at the end of summer, keep away from the Twin Cities tweak scene. Says he wants to rent a cheap place in Ely and blow it up with grow lights.
“You ever grow indoor?” I ask.
“Ah, heck no, but I’ve been putting plants out in cornfields since I was sixteen, ya know.”
“It’s different,” I say. “Not like outdoor. Indoor’s a whole different thing.”
I tell him about the timers and fans, the light poisoning and humidity problems, the smell and the hassle of trying to dispose of hundreds of pounds of wet, used soil and piles of evidence every couple months.
“Ain’t cheap either. Those lights are at least two-fifty, three hundred bucks new. Don’t even bother unless you get a thousand watts or more.”
This is me covertly worrying about Gina, at home in Mon County, watering the plants I started a couple months ago, almost mature now. Thought makes me cringe.
“But it’s scary, dude. You’re sitting on plants every fucking day for months and months, and it’s a cycle so you can’t stop cause it takes forever to get going again, and you’re thinking about them all the time. Like when you’re in class you’re wondering if someone’s stealing your shit, at home you think any second the Feds are gonna bust in and fuck your world. When you’re in bed, you hear some noise, you just know it’s cops, your heart starts pounding.”
I want to tell him about the nightmares, about the midnight terrors, the chase dreams, the maniacal psychosis come harvest time. I should tell him about the way the anxiety threads itself into every moment, conscious or not, how it manifests when your defenses are down, and how your mind still contemplates the consequences when you’re in vulnerable sleep, animating them with oracular dreams.
I start wondering if Gina’s having the dreams, the ones with the Vampire-Nazis, Federales, SWAT team troopers in black,; or the ones I have about Bear Fork washing away in a flood, or Bear Fork burning down, getting struck by a comet, or Bear Fork getting squatted by some Buckeye yokel while we’re away. I think she’s not; it’s my own private torture.
By midnight the crew is sleeping and I’m in a canoe floating in the middle of Thursday Bay, pulling oney rips out of John Loechner’s little dugout, making only enough motion to hit the pipe and keep myself facing north. The Alumacraft is like a compass needle now, pulled in line by the visual magnetism of the northern lights as I give the paddle a slight jostle every few minutes. I’m stoned and dumbstruck. The night is pristine and the auroras are pulling themselves into domed, crystalline formations, alternating white and green.
I’m vacillating between feelings of gratitude and guilt, thankful that I’m out here to see this tonight, thankful that Loechner gave me a pinch and a pipe before my crew launched. But I feel selfish for not waking the others to see this. I keep telling myself that I’ll go get them when it peaks, but it’s still getting brighter, the tones deeper. The trees on the Canadian side of the lake are backlit now like stage props. Seeing something like this could change your life, especially a dude like Chem-Dad. He even mentioned how much he’d like to see the lights while he’s up here.
But I feel like this spastic display of solar chemistry is for my own private viewing, like I came out and summoned it with a burnt offering, silent prayers. So, fuck changing Chem-Dad’s life, I’m busy changing mine.
The night paddle is the best, with or without the spectral fireworks. The water is always calm, the nights are clear, and if you’re alone it seems like you’re the only thing moving in the universe—and the whole world reacts to your every J-stroke. It all becomes resistanceless. Moments like this, with my head tilted back gazing up at the skyline, I can’t help but think of John Loechner. People outside the camp, the folks he knows in Ely, they call him Tacklebox. He’s been coming up here for years, used to take trips out here as a kid. He knows the people who run some of the big outfitters in town, and they’re like family he’s been around so much. One of the few guides who can come up in the summer without looking like a weekend warrior.
He was the first person I met when I got to camp. I was a day early and he was on the prep-crew. He’d just rammed the bank in a tiny forklift and dumped a pallet of dried milk into the dirt. He had that oh shit oh shit look on his face so I ran over and helped him lug these plastic wrapped bails of powder before he got caught.
We met like that and I didn’t quite know what to make of my man John at first. His head is a little long and he has a weird eye. I never know about guys with weird eyes, it’s like you can’t read them too well cause you don’t want to get caught staring at their eye, and if you are watching them you get distracted by the eye, forget to read them.
Loechner was there with me the night the Mothership went down. He’s been at base-camp on bait and tackle detail all summer, since he wrenched some shit in his shoulder on his first BWCA trip, dropped a seventy-five pound Alumacraft on his head, fell down under it. He told me he must’ve tripped on a root, but in my mind he’s dropping his battery-powered depth finder and gagging on it like Chaplin.
He gets all the gossip from off-water crews and fills me in when I’m back in camp. Told me a bunch of people in Ely saw it, someone called the Air Force and all that.
“Aw shoot, it was even in the paper. They think it was a satellite or something.”
“No fuckin satellite,” I said. “That thing was huge.”
“Everyone kept seeing helicopters up north of Basswood, and that kid Andy from Texas said he saw a campsite all burned out on Little Argo.”
“When was that?” I asked.
“Last week. It was still smoking.”
“Little Argo,” I said.
When you go to work at one of these Scout camps it’s like joining a militant cult: all this indoctrination, all the classic Jonestown elements, the repetition and preaching, routine enforcement, sleep deprivation, strict dress code. Me and Loechner went through it together. We probably sat through ten different one-hour “youth protection” classes. Like we didn’t know enough not to pork some little kid, like a VHS tape would stop some sick fuck anyway, but they’re relentless. There’s training sessions on everything, and they somehow recruit these veterans of the system, these twenty-year- olds from BYU, to do the systematic programming. These guys will stand up there for an hour and a half talking about the right way to stuff a Duluth pack, like it’s the sworn gospel.
They even teach you how to shit.
Well, this is Loechner’s second summer working here but he had to sit through all the training again, because that’s the way they do things here, and repetition is the cornerstone of any successful brainwashing scheme. Besides, one can never overemphasize the importance of covering your turds and avoiding the appearance of pederasty at all costs.
After a while, though, all that indoctrination is a bad joke, because you get out there on the lakes, twenty portages over the border, and these people you’re supposed to be fostering and guiding become so much baggage, and you start telling them just what you think of them. And I did slap that one kid, right on the face, but he was fucking with my food, and I told him I would smack the shit out of him if he did that again. He just looked at me with that smirk that said, “I’m a Junior Woodchuck, and I’m seventeen, and you can’t touch me because of youth protection guidelines,” and he jerked around with my trail mix so I gave him a full palm-punch across his smirk.
Later Skipper Steve (overpaid lawyer from Phoenix) was like, “Did you slap so and so?”
And I was like, “Yep.”
“Good," he said. He paused for a moment, didn’t smile, just said it again, “Good,” and walked off. He must’ve understood that I’d done the kid a favor. The boy’d been going around being a cock his whole life but no one ever bothered to let him know.
Loechner laughed when I told him about it later.
Now, coasting back and forth across the fluid borderline, I think about Loechner, and about Little Argo and the Mothership and all the antic weirdness in the sky up here. I think about ten- man war canoes three hundred years ago, skirmishes on these lakes; displaced New England tribes winning out with plundered black powder, aggression and succession banishing the petroglyph recipe to mystery. I bathe in the auroral downpour, locked on true north, until my neck aches and the paddle back to the campsite starts seeming like a long-overdue chore.
But this might not be a nice thing, the thing I’m doing with Loechner. It’s like saying to someone, “Here, I’m going to make your brain have a peculiar itch that you’ll never again be able to scratch.” Those lock-and-key transmitters in Loechner’s tweaky little noggin have never felt anything like this and he’s liable to like it.
It’s a nasty thing when you get right down to it, but unlike some sacraments, the upside to the Woodrose far exceeds the down. Though, for Loechner, it will be a curse, a lifetime of confused and jittery conversations with garden supply clerks and part-time greenhouse girls.
“African Albino Baby seeds, they’re like endangered or whatever, rare seeds, you know.”
“What does it look like?”
“I dunno, but the seeds taste like when you put your tongue on one of those square batteries, bad like pennies or something.”
“We’ve got African Violets?”
Honestly, I’m new to this particular regimen myself, not really sure if it’s a tough nut, or what. I do know that they get in you, the seeds, in your head, start getting religion in a weird way, thinking about it all the time, these metaphysical puzzles, obsessive riddles you pose to yourself with no verifiable answers. Constant reminders of how much you will never know.
Six semesters of existential philosophy and I never understood skepticism till I started swimming with the Woodrose. Even when you come down, even weeks later, there’s still that doubt—some plants prove there are two worlds, but the seeds, they make you wonder which one you belong to.
All I really know is that when I’m on the seeds I become someone else, Alfred P. Woodrose. This guy can see into the past, a thousand years, five, ten thousand, he can see people acting the way they did back when the world was going to last forever, before anyone figured out how to take it all apart.
Just after dawn Chem-Dad gets the Brads moving, hands each one a blister pack with some pseudoephedrine pill in it. That’s his thing, diphenhydramine at night, “for the bug bites,” and uppers in the morning for no discernable reason other than cranking them out. I can’t say much about it, and honestly, I force them each to eat two packs of dried cocoa with every breakfast no matter what we’re having, so I’m a co-conspirator.
I’m sitting on a log by the fire ring, whipping up a mess of cocoa-bannock flapjacks for the crew, mixing it in an aluminum pot on my lap, feeling good, singing my pancake song.
“At Saint Alfonso’s pancake breakfast ... where I stole the mar-ja- reen, and wheedled on the bingo cards and blew up the latrine ...”
Chem-Dad scrunches up his Dopey skeptical face and says, “Zappa?”
I raise an arched eyebrow and think, maybe this dude’s not so bad, I mean, if he speaks Zappanese, this trip might turn out.
Then he’s like, “Yeah, I saw Zappa once.”
“No shit?” This could be his moment of redemption.
“Far-out,” I say, and for about a second, since I’ve never met anyone with a first-hand Frank encounter to share, I’m mildly engaged by something Chem-Dad has to say.
“Where was that?”
“A sports arena in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.”
Oh shit, that’s great, Frank probably hated Milwaukee. If I was Zappa, I would hate Milwaukee all to fuck.
“Me and four of my frat buddies drove up from Champaign...”
At this point I stop listening. It pisses me off. Chem-Dad was the frat dude at the big Milwaukee stadium show. I hate the fuck out of that dude; Zappa hates the fuck out of that dude.
“Here’s your pancake,” I say.
After the seeds really take hold, and we smoke a few bowls, we decide to take the canoe out and paddle around the island. After we launch we go out a few rods then pull our paddles in and coast. As we drift away from the island we look up and gasp, trying to believe it, trying to make sense of what we’re seeing: a great arc with long spires of swirling white light shooting like butane flames at the sky’s dome. The lake is so glass, and the sky so cloudless that the whole scene is reflected on the waveless surface.
Loechner turns around, reaches out with his paddle, I tap it with mine in a kind of tacit high-five, a confirmation that he too can see this evening’s potential being fulfilled. We paddle on toward the northern tip of the small island with perfect, silent strokes, slicing a rhythm through the water with pure, frictionless viscosity—a sensation I’ve never felt, after going hundreds of miles on water. Like until this moment I’ve never truly understood the sublime, miraculous physics of paddling.
Halfway across the island I blink and in that flash of void I have a vision, in the glint of that second Loechner and I transmogrify into ancient Polynesians, the Alumacraft becomes a dugout, and we’re off on a sacred, shamanic imperative.
At the north end of the island we pull up, roll out my Indian blanket and lay still watching the sky. Seems like I’m floating in the middle of the lake, and all I can see is sky, no city lights for miles, and practically uninterrupted wilderness from here to Hudson’s Bay. We stare mutely for hours as the auroras stretch themselves into what looks like five red hands along the horizon, with long, rippling digits pointing to the center of the sky above us.
Loechner stands up with a motion that suggests urgency only by its contrast to the stillness around us. He rubs the skin of his arms, shudders, like he’s trying to brush off the invisible dew that’s settled on us.
“I’m cold,” he says.
“You can’t be cold,” I say. “You’re from Minnesota.”
His face looks confused and earnest like I’ve just given him an SAT verbal analogy problem. His weird eye drifts up a few degrees.
“No,” he says, “I’m cold. We should go.”
“You’re shittin me. Here, just wrap up in this thing.”
He pulls the Indian blanket around him like a red-striped cloak, stands gripping it with both fists under his chin. In no time he snaps out of it and squats down next to me, suddenly thawed.
And then I hear it, or rather, first I feel the concussion on my eardrums, then the sonic boom, two quick ones almost like when the shuttle lands down at Kennedy, but faster than that, ba-boom. We look up to see this thing, this orb, this sphere of electric plasma jagging northward, crackling in a synaesthetic streak. It fractures into fifths then explodes just as it disappears behind the tree line, leaving only yellow radiant vectors in the sky.
“Fission tracers,” I say, numbly, and it’s not really a term but that’s exactly what I’m seeing. Fission tracers.
The water in Darky Lake is red, almost like the tannic acid ponds down in Ocala with cypress trees leaking their blood all over, but this is different—blacker, mean-looking. Darky’s the last lake before Little Argo, so we’re all moving at a good clip, maybe three miles per hour. At the end of Darky we paddle into a cove and look for the portage head. As we get closer I notice the water clearing up, turning pink in the shallows at the edge.
Little Argo is really more of a creek than a lake. It’s about a mile long and W-shaped. It’s narrow, and there’s a slight current as clear water flows from Big Lake Argo to Darky. We cross the sixteen-rod portage quickly, efficiently with just two canoes. Somehow a crew with three canoes takes twice as long to do each portage, and if one thing is blessing this bunch it’s the fact that there weren’t more assholes on the bus. Despite the lack of sleep I’m feeling good this morning, and I don’t let them get to me. I owe them that much at least, since I let them sleep through the cinema last night.
As soon as we get past the first arm of Little Argo’s W, I smell the ash, more like the scent of welding sparks than a campfire, and I know now the rumor was true. Chem-Dad smells it too, does his Dopey, contemplative face. I pretend to act surprised when we come to the spot where the sole campsite on Little Argo is supposed to be, only to find it a scorched and desiccated acre.
We pull up to the rocky beach and everyone hops out in calf- deep water, dragging the bows up just enough that they won’t slide away in the current. I yank off my PFD and try to decipher the scene. What used to be a campsite is clear—a twisted, rubble fire pit at the center, several flat, sandy tent pads—but the destruction is uneven. Only half the trees are burnt. Some trees are only half- burnt. There are patches of fluffy, black ash just a couple feet away from untouched blueberry bushes, weeds still growing in a row between two clutches of downed, charred spruce trees. In places the ground seems to have been torn up from underneath, and the pattern is unclear, just random and disturbing. Looking closer I see what appears to be miniscule grains of singed mica emulsified into the cinders everywhere, like half a ton of burning metallic sand had been flung across the bank by God’s own hand.
The breeze blows a cinder mote to the corner of my eye, and while I flutter my lashes to get it out, in that stroboscopic nanosecond, I’m somewhere else. In a Woodrose flashback I see myself years and years ago, when I was much more like the Brads than I want to admit, then it’s gone, and the latticed sunlight cutting through the spruce tops brings me back to Little Argo.
Chem-Dad is sitting on a log, pulling his boots off and squeezing out his socks, the Brads are all running around, kicking up ash and trying to push over charred, dead-standing trees. When a cool wind blows through the creek they all get quiet and for a moment there’s a calm in the chill.
“I saw where a plane went down once,” I say. They all turn and look at me dumbly, tired. “Twice, actually, on the same mountain. This was when I was like sixteen. I was out on a trail crew, you know, we’d build trail for a couple weeks then go out hiking in the Sangre de Christos, and this one guy, the foreman, he knew where these crash sites were, and they weren’t on the map, you just had to know. So we hiked up to the first one, I remember it was the day after the 4th of July, and this was an old WWII crash, a big bomber or something, but there was just little pieces of debris, nothing big cause as soon as it happened the military came out with dozers and plowed straight up the mountainside and drug off the wreckage. Had all this radar stuff that was still like top-secret technology at the time, so there wasn’t much left.
“Anyway, about a day later the same foreman shows us this other place, but he just points the way and sort of hangs back on the trail. This crash was different, went down in like ’87 or ’88, and it was just some dude’s private plane that plowed into the mountain one night. The whole plane was there, just a mangled pile, and like, pieces hanging from the trees still, and people’s clothes. I remember there was some dude’s baseball cap all torn up, and someone mounted a little brass plaque on a tree trunk, had a couple names and all that.
“It was surprising at first. We were playing around, trying on the clothes and shit, but after a couple of minutes everybody got weird, sort of spooked, quiet. Didn’t feel right. It was sort of like this.”
“How is that like this at all?” says Chem-Dad, pulling his wet jungle boots back on.
“Jesus, dude. Can’t you see something went down out here?”
“Looks like someone’s campfire got loose to me.”
“Are you kidding me? Look, some of these trees got their tops broke off thirty feet up. And it’s the same over there.” I point to a corresponding ribbon of destruction on the other shore.
“I don’t know,” he says.
“Come on, man, look, a couple weeks ago there was a fucking campsite here, now it’s blasted.” I can’t tell them about the Mothership, and the black copters and the Woodrose. I want to tell them about the sonic boom echoing off the lake, making my cochlea tickle and itch, but I can’t. They wouldn’t get it, he’d call it a meteor, or space-junk, some skeptical test tube crap, and they’d know I drove them out here for this, not for the fucking pike. “Well, just think, what if your troop had come out a month ago? We coulda paddled out here and set up that night. Your tent would have been right there.” I point to a charred flat spot, a busted birch trunk lying half-burnt across it.
Dopey shrugs, turns those fucking palms up. Makes me wish there had been a riot at the Milwaukee show. He could have been crushed in an ecstatic stampede, become a Zappa martyr. Died with glory.
“All right. Saddle up,” I bark.
The closest campsite is two miles away on Big Lake Argo, so we have to paddle across Little Argo and do one last portage before we make camp. It’s three hundred rods into Big Argo but the Brads know better than to bitch about it by now. Chem-Dad looks duller than ever with this smudge of ash on his forehead that no one’s bothered telling him about, makes him look like the Catholic he no doubt is. But the rain clouds cleared overnight, and the sun is finally starting to dry things out as we make the portage.
I let them go ahead on the trail so that I can carry the last canoe, keep an eye on the stuff they drop or leave behind. I pull it on to dry land, then hoist it up so it’s balancing on my thighs. I rock it back and forth then give it a practiced nudge with my right knee, yoke it up onto my shoulders with a single motion. The portage is narrow and overgrown into a cave of low branches and mud puddles. With the canoe on my head I can only see what’s directly in front of my feet. At the end I wade into the water and let the boat roll off my shoulders. I look up, winded, and take the scene in. Big Argo is like a high-country Caribbean: blue-green water lapping up on white sandy beaches, wide, clear skies. I half-expect to see palm fronds drooping in the breeze. The Brads and Chem-Dad are sitting in the sand already, leaning against our bulging, inexpertly-stuffed Duluth packs, greeting the first real sun they’ve seen in days.
I grab a Nalgene bottle and take a long drink of iodine water. Chem-Dad pulls out a map and studies it while we rest for a minute.
“What’s that?” says Brad, pointing out to the middle of Big Argo.
“Whoa, is that a moose?” says the other Brad.
I look out and see something big swimming across the lake to a small island a couple hundred yards away. For a minute I think it’s a moose too, then I realize it’s not.
“Black bear,” I say.
Chem-Dad looks up from his map doubtfully. When it gets to the island it saunters up on four legs and shakes off like a dog.
“Black bear,” I say again.
Chem-Dad peers at me over the map, awaiting an especially obnoxious snub, but I don’t give him the honor.
“Know what? Let’s do lunch here,” I say
Paddling back from the island at sunrise we move quickly but manage to keep our shafts off the gunwales. We haven’t said a word in hours and I don’t know what you could say. We both fear, I think, that if we talk about what we saw it will somehow make real certain possibilities we don’t have the capacity to deal with just yet. We move across the lake under a pastel sky with an impression of coral colors so subtle they seem almost fake, like the confusing colors of the restored Sistine Chapel— unreal, impossible colors. All around us morning mosquitoes crosshatch the air, sewing reality together with random, interlocking orbits. We’re lost in the low-lying fog yet we paddle right up to the landing at the Scout camp on instinct of dead reckoning.
On our way to the campsite I take the crew on a detour into a narrow, steep-walled cove.
“Where we going?” asks Chem-Dad.
“There’s some petroglyphs down here.”
“Not on the map,” he says.
I ignore him.
“Can’t we just get to the campsite?” he says.
“Would you shut up and paddle?
One of the Brads, an actual Brad, tries unsuccessfully to squelch his amusement at the abuse his dad has to pretty much take from me.
At the north end of the cove, on a flat wall of overhanging rock is a long graffiti of red marks, most of them too weathered to decipher, but in the middle, one dark set stands out: five bloody hands smeared down the rock face, stretched, about seven feet above the water line. I paddle up to the rock and stand in the canoe, which you’re never supposed to do, then I reach all the way up and lay an illegal hand on the longest palm print. Feels warm. Sunlight glaring off the water blinds me and for a second I see someone a thousand years ago, with a long head and a weird eye, mixing rust and piss and bear fat, crushing some long-extinct red seeds. In that second I feel like my nightmares are more intuition than dream.
Wes Trexler is an American malcontent whose political orientation is on the extreme edge of radical centrism. His grandmother Zelda is still alive in West Virginia, and he’s very glad for that. She used to write for the local newspapers back in the 50’s and 60’s. Mr. Trexler is currently waging a war of consciousness wherein goodwill is the sharpest possible weapon. So far, results have been mixed.
ABOUT THE RAG
The Rag is the home for literary guts and steel. We are an electronic publication hell-bent on true grit and uncompromising action. We call this “literary entertainment.” We publish new fiction monthly on our website www.raglitmag.com. You can read online, or free downloads are available in PDF, Kindle and ePub formats.