Chapter 1 1
I HAD DRIVEN UP FAST. When I set out from the city, it was still dark. There were not many cars on the highway. Dawn breaking as I turned off the 400. No one had removed the dead animals from the side road to Honey Harbour yet. There was a young raccoon, bloody teeth bared, its chest squashed, arms pawing the air, and a large snapper, its house smashed, its guts strewn across the road. Too much night traffic. But not even one car now.
It was quiet at the marina. I couldn’t see the Limestone, though that was usually the boat they took out of winter storage first. The Hunt, a much smaller boat, had been left for me at the main loading dock. There was no one else at the docks, at the pump, or on the veranda of Jim’s cottage. Perhaps the guys who ran the place for him had been told to take the rest of the week off. They were usually cheerful and friendly, offering to haul the bags to the boat, making rude comments about my city garb, offering to come and keep me company in the evening while I waited for the rest of our family to arrive. I was not used to silence at the marina.
When I headed out, it seemed to me that the Hunt was the only boat on the lake. Perhaps April was too early for other people to be this far north. There was a chill in the air. The ice had barely gone out, and the birds that wintered in the South had not yet arrived. When my hand touched the water as I tied the boat up to our dock, it felt painfully cold.
The cottage, too, was strangely quiet. In the old days it had always been noisy. Kids running and shouting, Gina doing her ridiculous exercises on the dock, country music or opera wailing away inside, the men chopping wood or repairing the roof, or moving rocks to make an easier path into the water. Sammy had been quite useful, then, and James, to my surprise, had fitted in with the rest of the family. Years ago, there used to be a lot of bellowing and even some laughter. My mother would try to relax, read, or give strident orders to complete some task we had been putting off. The last time I was here, though, there had already been too much silence. Since I hadn’t come to the cottage often then, when I did, I was aware of the overall gloom, the sadness that had settled on the place. Mother spent most of the time in her room, gazing at the birdfeeders, her book lying unread on the bed. She left all the cooking to Gina and me. I knew I couldn’t face the ghosts of summers past.
I carried my bags up to the deck—I had brought up only two bottles of wine, because I hadn’t expected to stay long—and placed them carefully at the glass doors while I hunted for the key.
It wasn’t under the small rock where we usually hid it after we locked up at the end of the season. Hardly surprising, given the winter snowdrifts, the strong winds that had blown down some of our roof tiles and broken branches off our one remaining ash tree. While I scrabbled around among the musty, dead leaves, I thought I heard something scuttling toward the cabins. Maybe a squirrel or a chipmunk, but I saw nothing when I stood up. Still no key. I searched under the steps, no key, and nothing on the big nail where Gina preferred to hang it.
We had fought about that.
We did not have the warmest relationship, my sister and I, but we rarely engaged in open combat. It was more of a standoff. We knew each other too well for prolonged battles, but toward the end of that gloomy summer two years ago, we had allowed ourselves to express the anger we both felt—at least, I know I felt—but had kept under control. I found it oddly liberating. We argued about a whole lot of subjects we had avoided before. Mother’s choice of a condo and how long she would be able to stay there, Scoop’s ashes, Father’s mansion, Gladys, Eva, and why she kept showing up (Gina was sure that she still hankered after our father, and I was equally sure that she was secretly gay and in love with our mother). Gina suggested once that Eva had something on our parents, a secret they didn’t want her to reveal. (I thought that was ridiculous; if she had some sort of hold over them, she would cash it in, not take it in time spent at the cottage.) We argued even about little things like cleaning the place and who left dishes out the last time. Everything except William. I stayed quiet when she talked about him.
The fight over the placement of the cottage key was one of our nastiest, and it ended by not ending. It started with each of us explaining our different positions—me saying the key had to be in a place where no one could easily find it, Gina saying that everyone put keys under rocks and that our mother preferred the nail option. I viewed bringing our mother into the discussion an unfair thrust and parried with a variety of instances of my sister’s ignoring our mother’s wishes. From there, the fight escalated.
Given that we had grown up together, we both had a veritable smorgasbord of each other’s failings to choose from when we decided to be nasty. These days, our fights veered off into mutual accusations of indifference to Mother’s needs, then on to the familiar grounds of sibling rivalry over holiday plans (whose plans had most inconvenienced the others) and selfish or inconsiderate choices of long ago. I brought up her failing to show up at our mother’s bedside when she had been ill a few years ago. Unusual for Mother, she had asked for some help with her shopping. But, as was usual with our mother, the shopping wasn’t what she had meant. For reasons that hadn’t yet been obvious, she had become afraid of being alone at night.
She had been proud of her independence. She not only didn’t ask for help, but she also rejected all offers of assistance—and that attitude was still there that winter, three years ago. She insisted on doing her own Christmas shopping with only Nellie’s help and ignored our, I thought unanimous, decision to reduce the volume of gifts and the attendant headaches. We would each buy a present for just one person, drawing a name out of a hat. She wanted to buy gifts for everybody.
Gina said that it was a ruse. One of our mother’s completely unnecessary ways to show affection and demand, by implication, the same in return. I thought it was her basic insecurity, her feeling that unless she continued to earn respect and admiration, she would cease to matter. As she once described it to me, if you are no longer who you have persuaded yourself you are, then you are no one, a nonperson. That remark had been in response to my suggestion, long before her diagnosis, that she needed a break from her endless schedules, that she could allow herself time to relax.
Back then, she had been a respected academic, a sought-after public speaker. A couple of years later, she was still able to deliver her Current Affairs Lecture at Trinity College, yet she persisted in repeatedly proving her own relevance. She worried that she had been supplanted by other, more effective, or worse, younger speakers.
Perhaps it was her form of blackmailing everyone into appreciating what she did. An extreme case of impostor syndrome. Or a reasonable dread that her failing memory was no longer a secret.
Naturally, no one would ask Mother whether Gina’s contention about her preference for key placement had been correct. Gina had mentioned several times during that winter her amazement that I had managed to be invited to give readings throughout the month and that all my readings were far from home, so Gina must have had her way with the key, the reason I couldn’t find it.
After about twenty minutes rootling around under nearby rocks and feeling along the edges and undersides of all the steps and everywhere a key could have fallen from a nail, I stomped upstairs and tried the glass door. It was unlocked. Strange, I thought. We always lock up when we leave. But as I slid the door open, I had the weird sensation that I had already done this, that the damp leaves on the mat had been left there by my own boots.
The living room looked as if we had just left for a quick trip up the lake. There wasn’t that familiar musty smell we used to comment on when we opened the cottage. Seat cushions pressed down where we had sat, chairs facing one another, the Scrabble board still on the coffee table, a couple of cups nearby, the unfinished puzzle on its table, Mel’s baseball glove and ball near the couch, fishing rods with their dangling lines in a bucket, ready to deploy. There was still ash in the fireplace and logs in the iron log-box. Perhaps the photographs were a bit more faded, but they were still standing up in their plastic frames. But I was sure at least one photo was missing. At first I couldn’t tell which one, because there was such a plethora of family pictures, so many from the time Gina and I were gawky children, and so many more of her children as they went from babies to almost teens. Well, that’s not exactly right. There were a lot of photographs of Gina’s daughter, Mel, but only a couple of photos that included William seeming almost relaxed. He had been carefully posed, I am sure. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been looking up. He usually stared fixedly to the right.
My mother had put the pictures out herself and added to them as the years went by. She used to fuss about their placement, making sure no one was in the back row more often than anyone else. I used to count the number of pictures of me and compare them to the ones of Gina. I always came up short.
The missing picture had left a thin line in the accumulated dust, suggesting that it had been there as recently as last summer. There was now a small gap in the area where Gina and I were teens and our mother was young and still pretty. She had remained attractive, in a small, fragile way, well into her sixties. The lines in her face were so muted that, ignoring the obvious fact that I was much bigger-boned than Mother and Gina, people would say the three of us must be sisters. Lines had started to appear on my face, I think, already in my very early thirties—a series of thin, knife-edge lines on my forehead and a couple of softer downward ones from the corners of my mouth. “It’s because you frown too much,” Mother had said when she noticed me looking at my face in her round magnifying mirror. “You could try being less worried about things.”
When I didn’t reply, she said, “Or you could try standing on your head for a half hour every day. Let the blood circulate to your face.” She told me she had found standing on her head restful.
I turned on the electricity and went to check the toilets. I had watched the men starting and closing down the water often enough, it should, I thought, be easy to restart the system.
I turned the taps full on, nothing happened.
Oh yes, of course, the pump.
I hated going into the basement. Despite the tiny gaps that remained between the concrete slabs of its outside wall, it was murky and stank of decay and, I thought, peanut butter. Early in the season, Father used to drown mice in a bucket he kept there with peanut butter smeared around the rim. They would fall into the water after they scaled the outside of the bucket. “They’re really stupid,” he told Gina and me as we watched the desperate creatures trying to get out. You could see their little claw marks on the inside of the bucket after Father threw their tiny bodies into the woods behind the house. “Lots of animals like a good meal of mice,” he told us. “They’ll be gone by tomorrow.” And they were. I know; I looked.
I tried to ignore that memory and instead remember how to turn on whatever it was that our father and, later, Sammy used to turn on when we first came up.
The outdoor furniture and summer things occupied the space at the front of the basement. The water tank was way in back where there was impenetrable blackness.
There was no point in turning the water on in the cottage if there was no water coming into the tank.
I thought it was getting darker.
I went upstairs to look for a flashlight. Amazing how warm it was inside the cottage. The afternoon sun had been bright and the wide windows captured the heat just as they held in the cool air in July.
I should start a fire in case the evening was cold. April was a deceptive month here. Some days it would be warm enough to walk around in shorts, then it would snow and we were back into winter. There was a pile of wood by the fireplace, a bundle of kindling and old newspapers.
The flashlight didn’t work. Whoever had used it last—and I put my money on Gina—hadn’t taken out the batteries when she left, but why would she remember to do that when she hadn’t even thought of locking the doors or putting away the Scrabble or puffing up the cushions on the sofas? I tried and failed to feel sympathy for her.
Best to leave the water till morning.
I put my groceries into the fridge and closed its door. It had begun to hum contentedly.
I made the bed in my room. The sheets felt frigid as I spread them out and patted them down on the mattress. We always left the sheets and duvets in big plastic bins for the winter. They had a damp, musty odor, with a hint of rosemary. We used dried rosemary instead of mothballs. I plumped up the pillows in their too cool covers. Would I have to get a sleeping bag? I couldn’t remember where we had stashed the sleeping bags. I hadn’t used one since that disastrous camping trip some years ago.
James and I on the French River. What could I have been thinking? It rained the first day and drizzled the rest of the week. I was not an experienced paddler, and James was impatient with my “lily-dipping.” I hated sleeping in the cramped, damp tent reeking of fetid socks, and James had forgotten to pack the padded ground-sheet. He had also left the whiskey behind. I had shivered all night in my dank sleeping bag, while James snored happily in his. Luckily, I had brought along a bottle of Chablis, imagining it would be good for celebrating our first night in a tent. As it was, I drank it all on our second night while James slept. About halfway through the bottle I had proposed a toast to James’s solid back.