A normal lake is knowable. A Great Lake can hold all the mysteries of an ocean, and then some.
- Dan Egan, The Death and Life of the Great Lakes
The air inside the cabin was quiet and heavy, the smell of dust and mould filling the old man’s nose as he inhaled deeply. Still, it was good to be back. Everything seemed to be as he’d left it as he shuffled the familiar circuit through the small kitchen and living room and to the tiny bedroom in the back. The floor creaked in all the right places — unlike his bones, which now seemed to creak in all the wrong ones.
He sat down for a moment on the end of the bed, stripped of all its blankets in the fall to reveal the musty but still functional mattress beneath. Rubbing his palms against his denim-clad knees, he blinked with bleary eyes, almost sure he could hear the echo of Marjorie’s voice from the kitchen telling him he had better not be wearing his muddy boots into the bedroom — she’d just swept — and the shouts of laughter from the kids in the cabana next to the cabin. Those summers had seemed to last forever.
With a sigh, he stood up and fetched the sheets and quilt from where they sat folded neatly on the shelf in the closet and made the bed. He surveyed his handiwork when he’d finished, giving the floral peach and white checkered quilt one last tug on the bottom corners. Neat and tidy and square.
There was a long day of tasks ahead of him: checking on the well and the outhouse, inspecting the exterior for any damage or critters who had decided to make themselves comfortable during the long cold of the winter. He opened all the windows, humming as he went. The sunlight streaming in was welcoming, casting swaths of brightness across the slatted wooden floor. Maybe he could convince Lucy and Jeff to bring the kids up this summer; it had been ages since he’d last seen them. Always so busy with work.
He plugged in the fridge, nodding with satisfaction when the light blinked on as he opened the door. Hand towels were moved from the bottom drawer to hang cheerily over the handle on the oven door. A new washcloth for the sink. Each cupboard and drawer opened and inspected.
When he’d finished, he brushed off his hands on his jeans and grabbed a sandwich and a bottle of lemonade from the cooler he’d set down in the doorway when he’d arrived. The screened-in porch just off the entrance had seen better days — it could use a fresh coat of paint and a handful of rotting boards replaced — but it still got the job done. Maybe something he could pay one of the summer kids to do. There were always a few bored teens hanging around the local diner, more for the air conditioning than the ambiance.
Easing himself down into one of the blue adirondack chairs — his back had seen better days, too — he ate his ham and cheese sandwich and drank his lemonade, listening to the wind rustling through the leaves and the light trills of the shore birds. He rested his hands over his belly when he’d finished and closed his eyes, feeling the lull of contentedness overtake him. It was good to be home.
He awoke with a start, a muffled cough of inhaled breath caught between his throat and his nose. Dusk had settled in while he’d slept, leaving the porch twisted and overgrown with shadows. How had he slept so long? The entire day had vanished…
As he stood up abruptly, a shock of pain jolted up his spine, momentarily taking the air from his lungs. There was a dull thud of glass against wood as his forgotten bottle toppled over at his feet and a trickle of lemonade interspersed with ants drained out across the planks. His heart was racing and he wasn’t sure why, but he gulped in a few breaths trying to fight his rising panic. If he was to have a heart attack out here, no one would find him in time.
The initial hot spike of pain was beginning to subside — he’d stood up too quickly, that was all — and he mentally ran through a checklist of symptoms. He wasn’t nauseous. Not sweating. No crushing pain in his chest. He gingerly lifted his left arm up and shrugged his shoulders. Everything felt normal.
Forcing out a huge exhale, he nearly grinned at the overwhelming sense of relief. Everything was fine. He was okay.
He’d just slept longer than he’d planned and startled himself awake. Not surprising, given the physical exertions of opening up the cabin. He wasn’t as young and fit as he used to be.
He picked up the crumpled piece of wax paper that had once held his sandwich and then the fallen bottle, shaking out the last drops of liquid and the last few drowned ants that hadn’t been as fortunate as their compatriots. In the distance, the loons were starting up their nightly calls across the water.
It was easy to forget how dark it got out here, without all the city lights diffusing their glow into the sky, artificially hiding the stars from sight. Out here, with the darkness closing in around him, taking his little cabin in the woods into its hands and cradling it within its fist, it wasn’t a far stretch to taste the primal fears that the first people to occupy these lands must have felt: a realization of how small we were in comparison to the depths of the universe around us; blown about at the mercy and whims of gods and nature, of storms and famine, of beasts and wonders.
He hadn’t turned on any lights inside earlier — why would he, on such a sunny day? — so the gathering blackness was ravenous and he could now no longer make out the half-bent birch tree he knew stood less than thirty feet away from the porch door.
Had it not been for the complete and utter darkness, it’s likely that he wouldn’t have seen it at all… the tiny glint of green light in the grass near the tree.
He cocked his head to the side and squinted. Maybe just a firefly.
But it didn’t flicker. Didn’t move. Didn’t dart off into the sky to join the others. There were no others.
Just this one.
Closing his eyes tight, he silently counted to ten in his head, and then opened them again.
It was still there.
His heart was still beating quickly, like the dull thump of the toppled bottle falling over and over again; he could hear it in his ears. Wiping a hand across his forehead, his fingers were left clammy and damp. Maybe he was sweating after all.
He set the trash from his lunch down on the chair and took a careful step forward. His legs were shaky, but he didn’t feel unstable or like he might pass out. Still, he waited another moment before taking a second step. No sense risking a fall. He took the stairs carefully, too, not that there were many, his gaze fixed on that strange little light. It might have flickered when he reached the bottom but it was definitely still there. Definitely still something not quite right…
As he walked closer, he could see something else… An egg?
He stooped down, parting the long grass at the base of the tree. Not an egg. A stone. And the green light was emanating from somewhere underneath it.
Gingerly, he picked it up between his thumb and forefinger and looked closer. Not just a regular stone — a Petoskey stone; he could see the distinctive pattern of the fossilized coral thanks to the dim iridescent glow. Odd to find one here — he’d collected them from the beach as a child, and then later with his own children and grandchildren, but he’d never found one in the woods before.
So, what was special about this one? He turned it over, placing it in his palm so that he could examine the underside. Some sort of viscous liquid was seeping from a central point, and a spider web of thin cracks were spread out around it. The light was coming from the liquid itself; brightest where a thick droplet was forming and then fainter and fainter down the tiny strands marking the fissure. What was this?
A bead of sweat broke free from his hairline and rolled down his cheek, but he scarcely noticed. There was a heaviness in the air, like an approaching thunderstorm, and his Adam’s apple gave a slow bob as he swallowed. He glanced from side to side in the artificial calm that descends when something is inevitable; the eagle’s talons pierce the hare and, for the briefest of moments, the hare experiences the exhilaration of flight.
The old man touched the substance oozing from the stone and the light arced and danced as it penetrated him cell by cell, invading him, changing him, spreading exponentially inward in a single breath, in a single lub-dub of his aging heart valves opening and closing.
For the briefest of moments, he flew.
And then all was dark.
A.Y. Jackson (1882–1974), Lake Superior Country, 1924, oil on canvas