I have a weakness that I’ve fought to hide all my life. It’s a fear that I’ll be trapped within a group and I’ll disappear. Every so often, in bank line-ups, fire drills or shopping malls, I get the urge to bah like a sheep. When I was in high school, I used to feel the fear as I filed in and out of my classes, until finally, one day I stood up in class and walked out, never to return.
The freedom I felt that day, realizing that I could be independent, that I could walk alone, was exhilarating. Last week I began to notice the old anxiety creeping back, but couldn’t place where it was coming from, until one morning as I crossed a busy street on my way to work, I found myself part of the moving mass of workers rushing to their offices. The tension welled up, all around me was a sea of empty faces. But a crazy man with a garbage can lid on his head rescued me as he chanted and tapped the lid. Our eyes met and I smiled. He smiled back. That exchange let us know we still existed. The rest of the week I avoided the morning rush but it didn’t calm the gnawing worry.
Yesterday my husband decided that we both needed a visit to the cottage for a quiet weekend away from the city. In no time we had packed our skis, sweaters, extras socks, cocoa and marshmallows into the car and were on the road by mid-morning. North of Barrie the dirty gray slush disappeared and a thick, white blanket of snow covered every branch and limb. Its heavy layers were stiff from the bitter cold; they sat like folded meringue seeping over the chiseled rock walls along the highway.
We reached the lake to find a huge patch of ice cleared of snow and a hockey game in progress. Snowmobile tracks crossed each other, braiding paths through the snow in all directions. The sky was gray and a few cross-country skiers glided far out on the frozen lake. Pulling on our ski pants and sweaters, we rushed to dig our cross-country skis from the car and load up our knapsacks.
In the distance, we could see our cottage, nestled in the trees on a small island. The island is dominated by a huge, bald rock outcropping. It was nicknamed Baldy years ago after a fire burned down all the trees on the top of it. The trees are slowly growing back, but the name has stuck. One side of the rock has a sheer face reaching up to the sky. We could see that Baldy was covered with patches of white snow, although its steep walls of dark rock were still bare.
With heavy knapsacks on our backs, we rushed to ski down the small hill leading to the edge of the frozen lake. We followed snowmobile tracks across the thick snow that covered the ice. About halfway along our route the snow turned to slush for a few meters where a deep channel passes between Cedar Island and our island. My heart began to race. I knew we were crossing the deepest section of water, where currents were probably running swiftly under the ice. I thought of the huge cruise boats that tour through this channel in the summer. We stopped to listen. The silence wrapped around us.
We made our way around the slush to the white, hard snow a few meters beyond. But from then on, we stopped every few minutes to listen for sounds in the stillness. We reached the island to find the dock covered with a few feet of snow. As we neared shore the ice began to crack. Backing up slowly, we reached out to the edge of the dock — finding its safety familiar. Pulling ourselves onto the dock, we took off our skis and sat with our boots hanging over the edge. The last time we sat there, our feet had been skimming the surface of the water. We listened for sounds we might recognize. But the familiar sound of water lapping against the dock was noticeably missing. A blue jay called out, his cry seemed to welcome us and we wondered if he might be the same jay that had heckled us all summer long. The deep snow made the climb from the boathouse to the cottage slow.
Halfway up we stopped to catch our breath and take in the snow-covered forest around us. A woodpecker tapped in a tree high above. We found the cottage colder than the outside air. Ice crystals had formed on the windows and we could barely see in. We lit a roaring fire and turned on all the heaters. Gradually the cottage began to warm and the ice melted from the windows. We ate supper in front of the fire, bundled in electric blankets. We could still see our breath. We spent the evening reading in front of the crackling fire. I was reading White Lotus by John Hersey. The story is about slavery, about people crammed into ships, with their identity taken and their freedom stripped away. The slavery and the loss of self-worth in the story played on my recent anxieties. I kept comparing the slave life to that of a corporate employee. It was hard to find differences
My husband nods off over his book and the fire spits. A scratch at the window startles us. We listen to the stillness, nothing. We look out the window but the light carries only a few feet, the blackness beyond is impenetrable. We listen to the stillness for a few minutes. Then we hear a low growl, it sounds like a very big, angry cat. We turn off all the lights and search the darkness, but the night is pitch-black. We can see only the faint outline of white snow. Again a silence fills the forest and we decide to snuggle into a warm bed and look for clues of the scuffle the next day.
We woke to find a fresh layer of snow covering everything. Small flakes were still falling; seeming to dance between the tall tree trunks. The cedars and pines stood still, wrapped in their thin blanket of snow. We explored the island to see what changes winter had brought. The snow-covered landscape creates a different world from the summer island we know so well. Hard ice connects the surrounding wilderness to our safe little island. Deer, fox, bears, wolves, and maybe even cougars have access to this rock. But there are few signs in the snow. A fox seems to have made a home here but his tracks are faint, having been filled in with the recent snowfall. We can’t find any sign of the scuffle we heard the previous night.
In the forest a woodpecker has left wood chips scattered at the base of a tree. As we climb up the steep grade of rock, I place each foot into the unbroken snow and feel strong. I feel the air in my lungs and the blood coursing through my veins. Here, on this rock, we are free. We reach the top of the hill and can see the rest of the lake stretching out for miles in all directions. The wind sweeps through the fir trees, but they shelter us from its bite.
We watch as two ice fishermen walk to the middle of the lake. Their voices carry up to us. They sit down on small folding chairs and work at cutting a hole in the ice. We turn away from them and hike along the ridge following the fox tracks. The pine trees are whispering to each other. We lie on top of the deep snow to listen to them. We hold mitted hands. The snow makes a comfortable cushion beneath us. A plane flies low overhead. We can see the skis it uses to land on the snow. In the distance, a dark sky threatens more snow. We’ll have to pack our things and leave shortly.
As we make our way to the cottage I refuse to follow our footprints back. It’s harder going, but there is something about breaking the smooth snow with your own foot, about creating a single track that shows you exist. It’s like the call of a single chickadee in a quiet forest. It says “I am here.”