Inside the screen door of the small cabin there was a rusty padlock high up on the door. The key felt thick in the old lock and the lock stuck and Michael proceeded with some difficulty while Molly waited behind him. The handle of the door was fake brass and he inserted the second key there easily and the key and door handle turned loosely. He opened the door wide and held the screen door behind him for Molly.
Within the dim cabin the air felt cool and smelled of old wood ash, cedar and insecticide. Michael opened the shades and blinds for light, then opened the windows. He and Molly looked around the inside of the cabin. Dead junebugs lay on their backs on the floor and Formica counters and many dead bluebottle flies and a handful of dead horseflies lay beneath the windows. Michael brushed the dead junebugs off the counter and the dead flies off the old couch, then took up a broom and while Molly watched him he swept the floor, carefully sweeping the dead insects into the dustpan. He carried the dustpan outside past Molly and discarded the contents into the long, dry grass of the cabin’s clearing. He came in and checked the mousetraps, two in the cupboards, one each behind the gas stove and gas icebox. He had caught two mice. The mice, too, he carried out and threw into the grass in the warmth of the late afternoon.
While Michael cooked hamburger patties and fried potatoes and onions in bacon grease Molly sat back in a chair at the table, her legs up on another chair, looking out the large window that framed the oak woods, with the gray and green oak trees and the sparse undergrowth dried from the August sun. Michael stood at the hot gas stove with the grease cracking and smiled at her.
"Would you like a drink?" he asked.
"What’ve you got?"
He looked in the mildewed cabinet under the sink and found a bottle of his grandfather’s Cabin Still.
"Sure," she said. She stood up. "I’ll make it."
"That’s all right."
"I can do it." He left the bottle on the counter and stood over the stove. A thin layer of grease covered the top of the white stove. Molly prepared one drink with ice and soda pop from the big cooler. She drank during dinner and ate a hamburger patty. He ate three with mustard and ketchup and drank a soda pop and a glass of ice water from the well.
"Would you like to go for a walk? We’ll walk out along No Man’s Road."
They walked the dirt road as the sun set in the clear sky. They walked by young oaks that grew stunted in the poor soil of the barrens, raspberry patches bearing few raspberries, a private plantation of healthy fifth-year red pines, a scrub area burned over by the state as habitat for the sharptailed grouse, and wind-blown patches of bare, sandy ground. Michael pointed out the deer tracks in the dirt, tracks of light fawns and does and impressions made by the dewclaws of bucks.
Here in the oak savannah in the company of his father Michael had learned to fish wild brown trout and brook trout with worms, a number ten sunfish hook, and a sinker. In those days in the clear but weedy lakes he also learned how to cast artificial flies and poppers with a fly rod while fishing sunfish. Eventually he learned on his own to combine what he knew from the two styles of fishing, fishing for trout in the cold, clear streams with a careful selection of artificial flies and an antique fly rod and reel. His grandfather and brother had no passion for fly-fishing. His father was a pragmatist and would catch the trout with nets strung across the creek or with trotlines left overnight in a deep pool. Michael had fly-fished without any of them. Now, as a practical young man himself, he again fished trout with worms and sunfish with poppers.
That night he and Molly retired early, each in a sleeping bag on a twin bed. During deer hunting Michael’s grandfather and father slept on the two twin beds, and the boys slept on cots in the other room. Comfortable in his bed, he thought. His grandfather had sacrificed for this refuge. Molly conceded a love for the country. Now he had brought her into the country.
In the cool, heavy sleeping bag Michael smelled canvas and thought of his father, coming down the slope in the morning darkness under the red oaks when everything lay wet and quiet. His father had tried to make no sound, but he moved big and heavy and his shotgun was bulky. Michael was always small and light, and had conceded by that time that he would be forever. In the dark they would find the place behind the willows and swamp grass that grew along the pond, at a point where the canes met the oak hill, a vantage that allowed them to look out from under the overhanging oaks, around the willows, over the canes, and across the entire pond as it moved from their far left to the far right. Without speaking his father would settle Michael into a cradle between two oak roots and fold grass over him, then lie down near Michael, working the grass over himself. In the earliest half-light Michael could distinguish trees on the slope up and behind them and the dark fog out over the pond. He remembered the smells of their canvas shooting jackets and the wet, dead leaves and grass. Then far out into the pond, blanketed by the mist, a goose would honk to awaken the flock. In a moment came another honk, then others together. Before the sun came up and the mist lifted, Michael had heard a muffled crash on the water, then honking which grew frantic, and more wing-on-water slapping and crashing, and though he couldn’t see through the mist he heard the sounds of the geese trailing away to the left through the gaps in the trees. Then silence had returned. The morning and the pond lay still, and he and his father would lay quiet with one gun and without speaking under the oaks in the long grass.
The morning came cool. Michael got up and Molly was already sitting at the kitchen table looking out the window. On the stove he cooked hot water for coffee and washing.
"What should we have for breakfast this morning?" he said.
Molly had been far away in her thoughts and now she returned.
"I’ll make it," she said.
Michael washed with the hot water and drank a cup of coffee with sugar, then went to the outhouse. The outhouse faced away from the cabin so it was possible to sit inside with the outhouse door open wide onto the oak woods. He sat in the outhouse with the worn leather football in his hands and stretched his fingers as far as they would go across the laces. The outhouse was for looking calmly onto the woods and for thinking about football. Michael had eventually realized that, unlike his grandfather, he himself had not the hands, arm or height to be a good quarterback. Though small, he had played quarterback for many seasons, and because of his shortcomings had performed poorly. Michael’s father had been a halfback as a senior but played his younger years at center.
From the outhouse he walked out in the woods to see the two salt licks. Deer had visited them. His grandfather had built the cabin as a refuge there in the barren country where three-quarters of a century earlier the first world record buck had been shot. In this country Michael had learned to shoot the old compound Jennings bow his grandfather had given him.
When he came in she had French toast, butter, syrup and bacon waiting. He sat down and the butter wasn’t butter but margarine and the maple syrup was artificial. As they ate a young antlerless deer browsed through the oaks twenty yards outside the window. Michael and Molly watched the yearling and Michael smiled. Afterwards, while she packed a lunch, he washed the dishes from the night before and from breakfast.
They drove out on the dry dirt roads, up the county line, then down a snowmobile cut-across and turned down a two-track drive into an oak woods near Five Mile Woods. They came to a large clearing and the ruins of a shack with a few outbuildings. Patches of blueberries spotted the clearing. He showed Molly the low blueberry shrubs, with their tight twigs and small yellowing leaves, and lifted the leaves to show her how to find the berries, and they tasted some of the tiny acidic fruit. They each carried a small bucket and started picking in the sunny clearing around the ruined shack and outhouses.
They picked blueberries for two hours, and she stopped often and smoked, and once she stopped and took off her over shirt and put on her ball cap. Michael stopped to stand and stretch and to straighten his back. They picked blueberries until lunch. Then he opened the tailgate of the truck and they ate sandwiches and pickles and drank soda pop. They each had a quart of berries.
"That tree there is where my grandpa puts his stand. You can see he’s cleared away the lower branches."
Molly looked at the straight pine, naked up the lower half and thick on top and standing out from the stunted oaks.
"Would you like to swim?" Michael asked. "I can take you back down to the bridge over the St. Croix. Or we can hike through the woods behind the cabin a quarter mile to No Man’s Lake."
"Aren’t there any beaches?"
"We ain’t got beaches here. And you can’t swim in your underwear at a beach."
"I won’t swim in my underwear."
"What kind of pansy brings a swimsuit to the woods?"
"What kind of hick swims in his briefs?"
"Boxers. There’s no difference between my boxers and swim trunks."
"Except for the hole in the front of the boxers."
They sat on the tailgate under the sun in the dry noon air. Michael swung his legs.
"There’s a beach on the far side of No Man’s Lake," he conceded.
A boat landing and small sandy beach lay on the east side of No Man’s Lake. There were no swimmers and no boats on the small lake. Molly sat on the blanket in her black bikini and sunglasses and baseball cap. Michael waded out into the water and the water was clean but not clear, green from the summer algae. He dove in and the water was cold and clean. He swam out under the water holding his breath, came up for air, and swam deep into the coldest water. He played in the water like an otter, turning and enjoying the way it cleaned the body and appreciating the varying temperatures, colder near the bottom, warmer at the top from the sun, colder over a spring. He lay on his back and kicked lightly with his feet. He thought, as he often did when floating on his back and looking at the sky, of the waters he had swum, the warm and dirty ponds where the bottom was silted and you were afraid to step on a snapping turtle, of polluted rivers and clear or green lakes with the weeds, the coontails or cabbage, and of the coldest mountain streams where you cleaned yourself briefly after a day’s hike with a heavy pack.
When he felt cool and tired he came out of the water and as he came over to Molly he felt naked in only his thin cotton boxers. Still, he was certain that she did not look at him behind her sunglasses. He came up to her and sat down wet in the dry sand next to her. The two looked out on the empty lake and calm woods. The dry air and the sun dried his skin and he sat in his wet boxer shorts. He looked at her legs and they were smooth and she had one knee up politely. When she lay back with her head facing the other way he looked at her body carefully and her breasts were flat as she lay and her one knee was up.
"Would you like to go?" he asked. She sat up slowly without looking at him.
"Where?" she said, looking out on the sunny water. He looked down.
"I don’t mind," he said. He looked across the water and squinted from the glare.
Copyright © James Jay Egan 2004
James Jay Egan lives in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where he has worked as teacher, editor and project manager. His short stories have appeared on-line at AGNI, In Posse Review, Scrivener’s Pen, Gowanus and The Circle, and in print in The Antigonish Review and Westview. He is from the American Midwest.
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