After a few sips of whiskey I’m relaxed and tired. I’m in the north woods at my cabin, away from airports and the spooky clamor of human ambition in pistons, pumps, engines and machines.
I’d been traveling for two days and was tired of being treated like a number. Most people looked through me as if I were an apparition. But now it’s dark and quiet. I step outside to see the stars. I hear a rustling in the bushes, a bear? I go back inside to the photo album.
Picking it up I note its pages, like me, are becoming more flexible as the cabin warms. I start at 1975 and stop at a picture of my father, a dark-haired, bespectacled 41-year old wearing an orange hat and brown flannel shirt, suspenders resting off his shoulders to the side. His blaze-orange pants are unbuttoned at the waist and stained with blood. He stands in soggy boots, his chin sporting a deer hunter’s stubble. His stern visage and wry smile look back at me. I mourn the passing of this sturdy rooted man.
Other hunters are in the photo too and the men stand in front of three deer hanging from a tall oak, brown leaves covering their November hunting ground. The deer’s tongues are sticking out and parting their lips, small sharp teeth hold them in place. My father’s trophy 8-pointer hangs by a rope tied over its antlers. The necks of all three deer are stiff; they stretch upward like misplaced branches.
The wood burning stove hisses and crackles. My shoulders slump at the sound. I’m here hunting memories when a loon breaks the silence. A loon speaks in wail, yodel, tremolo or hoot. A wail rises up to me from the lake, it’s elegy as I remember how my dad sat here for hours gazing at the lake, contemplating cancer and his final relinquishment.
The loons and I share a need to rest. They’ve recently flown 3,000 miles completing their spring migration from the Gulf of Mexico. My flight was 4,000 miles. Tonight their cry is half Mariachi. It’s an eerie sound, like a Mexican trumpet’s high note.
The Ojibwa of this area speak of the loon as mang, meaning “the most handsome of birds.” It’s also the most ancient, existing long before humans. Echoing over Big Casey Lake, their spring calls are loud, much louder than summer yodels when leafy trees mute the decibels of their haunting.
I’m tempted to walk 33 steps downhill to the lakeshore but also reluctant. The ashes of three souls have been spread there, people I’ve known. I’m afraid the Mariachi will raise up ghosts I’m not ready to see. Once, an otherworldly push at the lakeshore knocked me over. I wasn’t ready to feel it again.
I’m in the cabin where I’m surrounded by tools: knives, hammers, camera, saws and a rope. The rope’s no good for corralling cancer cells. It cannot capture the thing rustling in the bushes, it will not lasso the ascending brown leaves in a whirling sidhe, or stop-up that thing which sits among the wood pile and whispers during my dreams.
Coming to this cabin when I was young, my parents avoided talk of ghosts, but they warned my brothers and me of bears in the north woods. And because the chance of seeing a bear was lodged in the back of my mind, a carved wooden bear head secretly placed on the woodpile scared me to death when I was not expecting it. That’s when I learned how illusion works: You believe through suggestion that you see what you don’t see but believe you have seen.
I think about illusion, and how I’m primed for shape shifting. The loon’s tremolo echoes over Big Casey Lake. I shiver and reach to grasp history: a rustling of leaves, a rifle blast, and a dark shadow moving by the tall oak. My teeth cannot hold these imprints in place.