No one with a shred of sense would venture near the lake without first making an offering of tobacco to the Underwater Wildcat.
Agawa Bay, August 2010
“What is that?” Alyssa says.
He looks to where she’s pointing and sees it as they zoom past, a yellow road sign depicting the silhouette of a horned cat-lizard with a spiny back and tail. “Not a clue.” Below the ominous picture it says 25km. “Whatever it is, we’re heading straight for it.”
This is their first trip to Lake Superior Provincial Park and they haven’t yet learned of Misshepezhieu, the water spirit of Ojibwa folklore whose thrashing tail, according to legend, is responsible for the lake’s violent and unpredictable storms. Over the next week they will see the likeness of that Great Lynx portrayed in red ochre on a wave-beaten cliff face, a four hundred-year-old warning to anyone who might set out on the water. In those days of yore no one with a shred of sense would venture near the lake without first making an offering of tobacco to the Underwater Wildcat. But on the ten-hour journey to the park this man and his wife have no knowledge of the pictographs or of the ancient legends. They’ve prepared no offerings and the moment they arrive they fall victim to Misshepezhieu’s wrath. The sky roils with angry clouds and they can hear the wind even before they step out onto the beach that is their temporary home. The struggle to set up their tent is nothing short of monumental as the wind tries to tear the fabric from their hands, tears at the very fabric of their marriage as they shout instructions and obscenities at each other that are lost in the gale. After almost an hour they finally have it tied down to nearby trees so it won’t blow away and they collapse inside it, frustrated and exhausted and relieved.
For the next two days they’re pummelled without respite. It beats upon them every moment, fills their tent like a balloon, pursues them in their dreams. No way to cook or make a fire, or even to converse. For two days just ceaseless wind and heavy onrushing clouds and the roar of six-foot waves obliterating all other sound. They eat dry meals of nuts and cereal and potato chips in the car, struck dumb by the power of the lake. When their eyes meet he sees what she’s thinking: What a terrible idea, camping in a tent on the edge of such a gigantic lake. It had seemed like such a good idea in theory: waves crashing on the pebble beach, glorious sunsets, pristine night skies free from light pollution. But they hadn’t counted on this unrelenting wind. From the shelter of the Mazda they watch the waves breaking endlessly in walls of angry white froth. Gulls stand in the shallows, lined up in an honour guard. The birds sway as water surges at their feet.
On the evening of the third day their luck finally turns. The wind weakens and though the lake still rages it at least becomes feasible to build a fire and light the barbeque. As they cook dinner the clouds roll off into the distance to reveal an azure dome of flawless sky. After dinner he sets up his telescope in the sand and then they sit and watch the sun recede into a pyramid-shaped glow; Alyssa snaps pictures, her hair and face gilded by the golden light. Their marriage is mature enough that it doesn’t require the constant affirmation of speech and they sit in comfortable silence, willing time to slow its progress, to grant them just a few extra moments of serenity. Such a small request, yet he has learned by now that time is a slippery commodity. The tighter he tries to grip it the faster it disappears, sliding through his clenched fingers like sand. Once full dark has settled Alyssa retreats to the tent while he sits out on the beach in extra layers to insulate against the breeze, the spray from the waves. Alone now before the immensity of the lake, he is captivated by the night’s vast secrets, by his awareness as a solitary creature afloat in the universe’s incomprehensible expanse of nothing. A third-quarter moon hovers over the water, its reflection cresting the small waves like electric currents, as though the water possesses its own inherent vitality. The Milky Way arches bright overhead, pooling into molten silver near Sagittarius in the south. He leans over now and again to gaze through his rich-field telescope, sweeping across the infinity of stars. He happens to be glancing upward when a fireball meteor erupts from the blackness above and splits the sky, leaving a brilliant streak across his vision. It feels like a blessing from the universe.
Alone now before the immensity of the lake, he is captivated by the night’s vast secrets.
If he’s lucky, a fleeting transcendence is achieved.
He discovered astronomy a couple of years ago. Alyssa never cared much for it. He shows her a distant galaxy or an oddly-shaped nebula, she doesn’t even see it. “I sort of see a fuzzy thing on the left, is that it?” She gives up with a shrug. A hundred billion stars reduced to a fuzzy thing, sort-of-seen. He gets this reaction often and has accepted that astronomy is a solitary hobby, a meditative activity.
More to the point, it draws him out of his perpetual struggle to prove his worth in this senseless world. His ego recedes into the background. If he’s lucky, a fleeting transcendence is achieved: annihilation of the self. It can happen. He abandoned religion many years ago and its absence left a hole in that part of him which seeks greater meaning than eat-work-sleep-repeat. In those distant galaxies there is no salvation and little comfort but at least he finds an intimate connection with the vastness of the cosmos.
The night grows frosty. Twenty feet behind him embers glow in the fire pit, stirred into occasional flame by the wind. The tent where Alyssa sleeps, though battered and misshapen from the onslaught, is calm now. He goes back to warm himself by the embers and sip from a glass of Scotch. Around him the campground lies quiet and dark. In fact from his vantage point there is no indication of any other human life. The other campers are all stowed away in their RVs and tent trailers, playing board games or watching movies or dreaming of monsters of the deep. Even the highway, a major trucking route just a few hundred metres away, has vanished beneath the sound of the surging lake.
He goes back to warm himself by the embers and sip from a glass of Scotch.
For some indeterminable period there is neither past nor future; no human history; no civilization.
Back down to the beach, where wind-rippled sand glows pale in the moonlight and the waves wash away all thought. Facing the water, it is as though he has been transported a thousand years into the past. He feels a kinship with those early inhabitants who scratched out an existence on this unforgiving land, imagines them sitting in this very spot seeking transcendence. He envisions Misshepezhieu lurking somewhere in the darkness beneath the waves, brooding silently over mankind’s folly. With that thought comes a cold feeling, a desolation which fills him, or rather empties him, and for a moment he teeters on an intangible brink, a strange duality of conflicting states of being: he knows he is only one step removed from civilization, sandwiched between the lake and the Trans-Canada, yet that knowledge is diminished by the sheer immensity of water and sky, of everything.
He observes the night as though from an outside perspective, unaware of the trivial aeons of humanity, aware only of elements and gravity and radiation, of the moon and distant stars. He thinks of nothing and feels neither the cold wind nor the misty spray of breaking waves. For some indeterminable period there is neither past nor future; no human history; no civilization.
Then all at once he comes out of this trance, feeling distinctly that some magic has transpired. The half-moon reddens to the colour of watery blood as it gradually submerges itself into the horizon. Now the only light comes from the combined glow of the stars, the intrinsic luminance of the Galaxy. The heavens beckon, the universe tugging on him, but he is oppressed by fatigue and the damp chill of the lake. He scans the sky once more, drains the last of the whisky, douses the coals and stares, shivering, at the black place where the moon had been claimed by Misshepezhieu.
The great water spirit must have been appeased by this offering, as the next day they are blessed with the finest weather, a blazing late-summer sun warming the sand, the glassy lake betraying none of its recent fury. The beach is now strewn with frolicking half-naked campers, those who slept in windproof trailers while the moon was being swallowed by the lake and furtive meteors darted among the stars. He pities them for a moment, before remembering that last night they hadn’t existed, hadn’t been born or dreamt up by whatever unthinkable being could create such strangeness. They occupied another era, another dimension, another quantum state of probability, and couldn’t possibly have existed in the world he had experienced, where monsters devoured moons and bits of transient debris caught fire around a lonesome spinning ball of water-covered rock. They could not have existed just then any more than he could have. They had all disappeared.
…the only light comes from the combined glow of the stars, the intrinsic luminance of the Galaxy.