“‘And this also,’ said Marlow suddenly, ‘has been one of the dark places of the earth’.”
—Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
Dad clambers into the boat with the grace of a roller skating giraffe. Clutching the tackle box in one hand and lugging our rods in the other, he’s able to muster up enough balance to keep him from toppling right over the other side and into the lake. Me reaching out and grabbing the edge of his lifejacket probably helps as well.
“Whoa geez,” he mutters. It takes him a second or ten to regain his equilibrium, the now sharp rocking of the boat from side to side not aiding the process in the slightest. Arms spread, he shuts his eyes, takes a deep breath, lets it out slowly. By the time he’s fully exhaled the boat’s perilous oscillations have been reduced to a slight lateral bob. His eyelids flick open and the corner of his mouth turns upward, removing a few lines (and a few years) from his face. “Thanks, hon,” he says.
Lowering himself onto his haunches, using his posterior to locate the boat’s cold, metal rear bench, he wheezes, “Yeah, well, you weren’t any help.”
“Hey, I had this,” I say, chipper, holding up the backpack containing the day’s sustenance: four mortadella sandwiches, a handful of granola bars, a couple of bottles of beer for me and a two litre bottle of Coke for Dad.
“Neat thing about backpacks: you can wear them on your back. Just imagine what you can do with not one but two free hands,” he chides.
“Oh hush, we made it into the boat, didn’t we?” I set the backpack down between the tackle box and the bailing bucket and turn toward the river. The sun, just barely over the horizon, has turned the surface of the water an incomparable shade of reddish gold. The splashing of our little boat against the dock has hardly disturbed the vast stillness encompassing the river’s surface.
“True. Now let us hope I can actually get us away from the shore.” He braces one foot against the stern and begins pulling on the starter rope.
I eye his attempt warily. “You do know how to work one of these, right?” I inquire.
“Oh God, I hope so,” he says through gritted teeth. But the motor churns to life on the sixth yank, the suddenness of the ignition enough to make Dad jump.
“Easy now,” I snicker.
“Ha ha.” He straightens up, grabs the tiller and revs it quickly with a twist of his hand, churning the water at stern. “Now we’re talking.”
“Yessum,” he answers inattentively, too focused on the intricacies of the outboard.
“Maybe we should untie the boat, first.” I nod toward the two ropes still lashing us to the dock. Dad doesn’t look up, but slowly takes his hand off the tiller and reaches for the rope closest to him. “Be a dear and get the other one, would you.”
A minute later and we’re puttering away from shore, Dad revving the motor with an almost childish glee. I wonder if it’s possible to get noise complaints this far north, especially at this hour. Then again, cottage country residents tend to be early risers.
Yesterday, when our car crested the hill overlooking the campground, I thought the river below was a lake at first: the distance from the dock to the forested wilderness on the other side is three or four times the width of any of the rivers I grew up within driving distance of. Mom says the cottage area is located along a bay, which explains it a little, but it’s still almost too much to behold. It takes a full minute for our boat to reach the middle of the waterway before Dad takes it east—there’s better fishing near the rapids to the west but he says he’s not comfortable enough with the boat to risk running us aground or smashing into the rocks. Always the optimist, Dad.
As we round one of the river’s wide, almost imperceptible bends, his arm shoots up. He’s pointing at a sixty foot cliff jutting out over the water. “When we were in our mid-twenties, your mom and I went diving from that spot.”
“You’re kidding,” I gasp. He has to be. The man gets nervous stepping onto a descending escalator. No way anyone, my mother included, could get him up on that bluff, let alone make him leap from it.
“I might have been more than a little inebriated at the time, mind you,” he elaborates. That’s fair. “I would have had to have been. She didn’t say how shallow the bottom was, or how rocky.”
“So what, did you and Mom leap hand-in-hand, like lovers committing suicide?” I prod, chuckling.
“Hey, you laugh, but that probably isn’t too far from the truth.” He guns the boat, taking us near a round, rocky island near the more heavily forested side of the river. It’s decorated by a few poorly irrigated trees, their trunks bleached white from constant exposure to the sun and not much else. “And later that evening, we swam out there and built a bonfire.”
“On that tiny island? What’d you use?”
“Driftwood. Ridiculously dry, so it goes up like a rocket when you take a match to it.” He points the tiller at the other side of the boat, veering us away from the island, this part of his story done. “You need a fire out here at night. No light pollution, so it’s dark as Hell.”
I twist around on my seat to face him. “You ‘more than a little inebriated’ for that as well?” I tease.
He peers slyly over his glasses. “Hey, you let me have my indiscretions, missy, and I’ll let you have yours.”
“No, I’m serious,” he amends, gunning the motor. The river is narrower up head though it’s still the width of a small lake. “And, I won’t lie, it’s part of the reason I took you out fishing today.”
Consider my eyebrow cocked. “Wait, really? We’re not just here to fish?”
“I’m not going to lie about that, either: we’re probably not going to catch anything. I’m terrible at fishing, and I don’t think you’ve ever done it, so we might as well make the best of our time.” With his free hand he unzips the backpack and retrieves a s’more granola bar. He eyes the wrapped snack for a second before handing it off to me. “Open this for me, will you? I can’t one-hand it.”
Dutifully, I rip open the wrapping, break off a half-inch of gooey granola, marshmallow and chocolate, and give the rest to him. He bites into the bar, shakes his head, and mutters “Cheapskate” through a half-chewed mouthful. I respond by popping the snack tax into my mouth.
When the morsel’s well down my oesophagus I go on: “So is this some kind of serious discussion we’re having? Are you ‘rapping’ with me?”
“In a sense. You might consider it The Talk.”
“Oh, ew. No thanks.”
Quickly, he clarifies, “Well, maybe that was a poor choice of term on my part.”
“Seriously? You’re not getting Mom to do this?”
“Out here? No way, not with her motion sickness. And in any case, it’s my story—one she’s heard in horrifying detail several times before.” He takes another deep breath. “Annie, up until this point I’ve avoided the whole overly-protective father shtick, partly because I never wanted to alienate you but mostly because I lack the energy to chase off every boyfriend you’ve had with a hatchet.”
“Like Uncle Xavier did?”
“That’s between him and the authorities.” He coughs into his fist. “Regardless, the thought of you going off to Ryerson in the fall is enough to make me a little nervous.”
“Right, you’re worried about me alone in a sea of Ryerson horndogs.”
He holds up a finger, says, “One: oh God that’s a horrible image.” Another finger. “Two: horndogs, really? Do people still use that word?”
“Hey, you tell me language is cyclical how many times a year?”
“Very true, but we digress.” He takes us closer to the southern shore. Another cottage area has popped into view along that side, dotted with cabins so extravagant only the rich could afford to rent them. “I won’t wax moral or alarmist, or anything like that, but if you take anything away to school this September, it should be the admittedly very strange story I’m about to tell you.” When we’re nearly past the rich-person cottage ground, he lets up on the throttle, slowing the boat to an easy trawl.
“Annie, do you know what one of the original purposes of a fairy tale was?” he asks.
I pause to consider. Of all the countless literary conventions and trends he’s breathlessly explained to me over the years, this hasn’t been one of them. I shake my head.
“A cautionary tale, meant to scare the crap out of children, keep them from doing anything unadvisable: ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ teaches us not to stray from the well-lit path, shows us the danger of talking to strangers; ‘The Three Little Pigs’ shows us the importance of not half-assing a job. Basic folklore.”
“…and most folklore is educational,” I add, remembering one of his many lessons.
He nods. “Well, old folklore, anyway. Modern folklore is primarily for entertainment, but this is beside the point.” He takes his hand off the tiller, allowing the boat to coast along the shore. “Today, I’m going to tell you one of those old fairy tales, the scary kind. Or the funny kind, depending on your sense of humour, which if it’s anything like mine means you’ll probably get a kick out of it. And while you might come to doubt me over the next couple of hours—for very good reason, I should add—let it be known that everything I’m about to tell you actually happened. Rather, happened according to the best of my memory.”
I stretch my legs, find a more comfortable sitting position, and nod. “Well then, go for it.”
“Right then.” He clears his throat. “Have I ever told you about my friend Richard?”