Wednesday, April 28, 2010
'Lilith,' by John Collier. (Wiki Commons.)
Time stood still and held its breath for a moment.
Mason Richards sat poised on the bench of the canoe, paddle halted in mid-air. The tinkling drops falling into the still waters broke the heavy silence. A spare, balding figure, wearing his characteristic variable-grade aviator-type spectacles, the recently-divorced Mason was enjoying the dawn. He sniffed the chill but clean air. A light, cold fog came down from the hills. He needed to clear his mind, and get on with life. To focus on something other than problems once in a while. To break the obsession, with work, and money, debt and repayment, and not incidentally connected to these thoughts, his ex-wife Eileen.
The sounds of his own breath, and the boat moving forward through the water, were harsh and unnecessarily loud. He tried to ease the paddle in and out of the water a little more smoothly. This was moose habitat. Yes, it was definitely good to focus on something else for a while. Off in the distance, gulls plaintively called, and nearer, off to the southwest, or upriver somewhere, a heron let out a distinctive ‘cronk-cronk!’
Mason found himself holding his breath in anticipation, so he let it out with a deep, relaxing sigh. He saw something move through the trees on the left bank ahead of him, just a pale flash that couldn’t possibly be a moose, or a bear. It was just too light—unless it was some kind of albino. Mason stared at the darker gaps through the black spruce lining the edge of the bay. To call it a shore was going too far. From his perspective, the dark upper halves of the trees on the hillside stuck up over the cattails. To his right, or northwest by his reckoning, the hills were all lit up by the nascent sun.
Thick ranks of bulrushes over two meters tall obscured any sign of terra firma over there. He had one more night alone with himself in the park, and then it would be time to leave. Mason made a promise to himself that he would get up before dawn, and paddle to the mouth of the Nipissing River; where it entered Cedar Lake. Come hell or high water, he would attempt to find and photograph a moose, even with what was admittedly an inferior camera. The shot would never be worth money. It was simply for his own satisfaction.
A kind of challenge, not even technical, or physical, but more…spiritual.
Whether he got the shot or not, it was a symbol of something in his future. At his age, he might have twenty or thirty good years left...a man could get a lot done in that much time. The key was not to waste a second of it.
Mason promised himself that he would make all kinds of changes, starting just as soon as he got back.
Yesterday, he had actually seen a moose, but yesterday, he was too dumb to bring the camera. Awakening early, he got bored and went for a paddle. His campsite was only a kilometer away. Upon reflection, he realized they must come down here every day, before too much canoe traffic got going. The moose fed on weeds, amongst the cattail swamp, which extended for fifty or a hundred metres from shore in places. The deep channel, the only place clear of weeds, was quite narrow, curving back and forth all over the place.
The actual watercourse was hundreds of metres wide at the mouth. He was a couple of hundred metres in and still going. It was hard to say where the river mouth began, or where this arm or bay of the lake actually ended. Further up, he knew from previous trips many years ago, that the Nipissing was ten or twenty metres wide, and ankle deep. It was an unusual, yellow-coloured stream that came down, shockingly cold, from the highland dome of Algonquin Park.
He was pleased by what he found, as his canoe rounded the end of a clump of bulrushes.
There was a short, narrow alley in through the cattails, and he could see the black bottom coming up. But there were no clumps of waterweed. And there was even a small stretch of beach visible at the end of the passage. It was a bad idea to get caught in there, if an angry bull moose, sporting a two-metre rack, should decide to cross the river at exactly the wrong moment.
He dug in the bag tied to the thwart ahead of him for a small digital camera, and began to set it up on his screwed-down little aluminum tripod, specially-modified for this boat. He made sure it would flash, as it was still fairly dim. The sun was up above the top of the hill, directly in his eyes. In the event that a moose came down, he wanted a picture. But all he could do in an emergency would be to ram the boat up into the cattails, and be prepared to get out and dodge if necessary. Mason had temporarily forgotten, almost, about the flash of something up on the hillside.
Maybe he would get a chance to find out what that was. Mason’s next three strokes were gratifyingly silent, and he held the paddle straight out behind, making minimal steering inputs to keep her heading up the middle of the channel. One thing he had quickly noticed on this trip, as he watched other paddlers, was that the inexperienced ones gave distant, early warning of their coming, because they were always clunking the paddle against the side of the boat. While he hadn’t been a bad paddler to begin with, by focusing on his technique, he was getting a lot better. It was something to savor, something that when done well, was done for its own sake, for esthetic reasons. No one else in the whole wide world cared if he could paddle a boat or not. It didn’t matter and so it was profound. It held meaning in ways that his career as a family portrait photographer did not. Paddling in the dawn mist was real, so real that a man would kid himself that he could live out here, when the truth was that man was addicted to civilization, to comfort, to ease, and sloth and luxury. It was more than that, it was also the love of action, the need to be entertained, and to be amused.
Mason hadn’t really spoken to another person at all for the last two, maybe two and a half days! At some point one would go mad. All alone, stuck out here in some little cabin, at the end of one very long and very dicey road in the middle of winter. Yes, to be a wildlife photographer was his big dream as a kid, but then reality hit. Everyone and his brother thought they were a wildlife photographer. It was very competitive. But not everyone could find the money to make an investment in a portrait studio. Ultimately that was where his talent lay, in getting the store off the ground. In the years of routine picture-taking, he had completely forgotten the joy of chance, accident and spontaneity.
Mason would have to do some deep thinking about that. What could he do to try and elevate his photography back up to the status of an art, or even a hobby? To at least make it fun and challenging again?
This trip was valuable in so many ways, not the least of which was the enforced introspection. There was a need to confront one’s issues before they overwhelmed you.
He was just congratulating himself on finding this unusual place, and peering for signs of tracks on the beach, when the most stunning redheaded girl Mason had ever seen in his entire fifty-three year life came down out of the bushes. With startling, big, dark blue eyes, she was almost completely naked, and barefoot. While her long coppery tresses partially obscured her breasts, the sight of her mons veneris, with its characteristic patch of brilliant red hair, was enough to convince him. She was like Botticelli’s painting of Venus arising from the waves, without the fig leaf. He wasn’t mistaking what his eyes were seeing. She was almost completely nude except for some kind of weird costume.
The girl, magnificent as she was, must have been close to two metres tall, and about sixty-five or seventy kiloss. She was simply ravishing. The mere sight of her made his heart begin to pound in his chest. In her long, green, velvety harness-like apparel, oddly enough, looking like the heavily-padded ropes in the front of a typical museum display...
No! He suddenly realized that she had something, something as thick as your arm, and long, and a kind of dappled green and it was moving! She had a snake around her neck!
It was all twisted around her, lovingly riding along on its mistress’s shoulders.
“What the?” he blurted out, with an insanely foolish look, a half disbelieving grin, and a kind of horror.
The snake must have been three or four metres long. He realized with a start that it weighed almost as much as she did. This was amazing; simply amazing. He couldn’t believe his good fortune. She looked like some goddess of classic antiquity, her pale skin making her an alabaster statue in the warm, reflected rays of the sun, still not penetrating into the river valley bottom. She stood there, inscrutably watching his approach.
Mason had absolutely no thought of photographing her. Not yet, at least not without her permission. He dug in with the paddle, sending the boat beach-ward, trying to be nonchalant, and kind of non-threatening and non-judgmental at the same time. But Algonquin Park was a public place, and he was more within his rights than she was. He really wasn’t looking for trouble, but this was just so fascinating. For any photographer, this was the opportunity of a lifetime, really.
Almost as if sensing this, she struck a dramatic pose and stared into the snake’s face for a long moment, lips framing silent words. His breath caught in his throat. This girl was amazing; there was no other word for it.
Was this some kind of an act, or what?
He was just trying to figure out what to say, or where to start; that was when the girl, staring deeply into Mason’s eyes, still standing tall and majestic at the water’s edge, casually bent over and gently released what he saw to be the blunt, shockingly large head of the animal, from her left hand. He saw the thing uncoiling from around her slender shoulders, as it begin to slither into the water.
“Oh, hey,” he called.
She just ignored him, as the animal slowly uncoiled and slid from around her waist and shoulders and torso, then down one long, pale; shapely leg. Her eyes came up and found his.
“I don’t think that’s a very good idea,” he told her, trying to sound light-hearted in spite of his disapproval. “Unless you’ve got that thing trained.”
Mason found himself stiffening uneasily in his seat, yet still trying to make a joke out of it.
Mason Richards’ gunmetal grey eyes were riveted by her expressionless face as the girl straightened, and he saw with a sick fascination that the tip of the snake’s tail was disappearing into the water. He saw its dark form, a series of s-curves disappearing, going from the lighter sandy area into the weeds and darkness. It was coming straight for the boat.
“But he is trained,” she told him calmly, staring into his eyes with a kind of never-ending, sphinx-like calm.
With his breath frozen in his throat, all his questions died on his lips.
Mason Richards watched, his heart rate accelerating, as the snake came up beside the boat, and then surfaced, right beside him. It wriggled in close, eyeing him with its head out of the water, and with its long yellow tongue tasting for his scent. And then it began to slither up onto the boat. Mason screamed and screamed and screamed, even as the boat tipped over with a resounding splash into the cool, calm, tea-colored water. But it did him no good in the end. He didn’t even get a picture.