A week for writers and lit lovers

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Sammi, a story by Joan Baril

By Joan Baril
Annie searches her campsite for the perfect stone and finds it, a small boulder the size of a potato. She takes off her neckerchief, centres the stone, ties the tails of cloth together with the end of the tarp rope and flings the stone over the branch of the nearest pine. It slides softly down the other side, landing in her outstretched hand. She pulls up the tarp, anchoring the rope to the tree trunk with a clove hitch. A Sammi tip: how to raise a tarp. Sammi also taught them how to tie a clove hitch. Also how to pick a camp site, how to notice things, how to slide into the moment, how to keep an eye on cumulus clouds and monitor the wind, how to check for bears. How to move into the other reality.

It comes back easily, the other world, the slow float into tiny sensory activities: a leaf falling, a gull on its thermal, a dangle of moving moss, light sifting through the leaves.

The tarp, now anchored at all four corners, slopes against the wind, a barrier against the oncoming rain which is marching up the lake in rolling cumulus. The packs are under, the canoe on the beach tied to a birch with a fisherman’s knot, the steam from the Trangia stove moving over the needle-covered ground. The impossibly small box is safe in the tent where it will stay until the ceremony tomorrow. The bush behind her is wallpaper, dense with pattern and colour, benign and cozy as home.

Perhaps that was Sammi’s greatest lesson: it is easy.

Line, shape, contrast, texture, openness and space. Tuneless humming from the pines. The chipmunk approaches with its laser stare, a provocative twitch of tail. The chipmunk has it all, Annie thinks: glamour, intelligence, worldliness and confidence. This is his campsite; all the scraps are his. His ancestor met them here on their first trip forty years back. They’d spent the rest of that day devising traps but Sammi knew the chipmunk could never be caught. She leaned against her pine, opened her book, lifted her blue enameled mug. She was a tall thin woman with wide shoulders and big hands, the epicenter of their wild world.

Now, Annie sits on the log that once, perhaps on the third or fourth trip, they’d pulled to the fire pit using the canoe ropes with timber hitches. Without effort, Annie can channel the ghosts of many trips, starting with her first when she was a raggedy kid of seven.

Why did Sammi include her? 

“We’ll be quintupled if you join us,” said Hugo with his usual ferocious stare. Her own mom, on the couch with glass in hand, shrugged. Annie put some clothes into a green plastic garbage bag and ran across the street. Sammi produced an extra sleeping bag, day pack, plastic bowl, rain suit. A kit.

Surely Sammi had enough work with her own three scamps. Hugo alone was enough for any mother.  He left his hiking boots on the beach when he went swimming and didn’t mention the fact until they were ten miles up White Otter Lake. Sammi fashioned shoes for him out of duct tape and birchbark. When they returned a week later, the hiking boots still sat side by side, two old friends at the water’s edge.

Hugo refused to use the fishing net and the pike arced into the air slamming into his bare thigh, the barbs of the Red Devil lure lacerating his flesh with every thrash of the fish. Sammi placed her finger tips on the pike’s eyes and it subsided into a glazed trance. Using her belt, she strapped the comatose fish to Hugo’s leg and set about teasing the lure from the boney fish lips. Every time the creature moved – it was over a foot long – she tranced it again by pressing the eyes. Hugo gasped but he did not howl.  

Later, Annie, Jarrett and Lucy sulked on the bench beside the little pond outside the Atikokan Hospital. Mutinous frowns. “Stupid, dumb Hugo.” Jarrett said, “He’s ruined out trip. We had to paddle all the way back. I hate him.”

 Something moved in the grass. A turtle. Two turtles. They captured the small creatures and flipped them across the  hospital lawn like Frisbees. Annie kept an eye on the hospital door. Sammi would not be pleased. But they were lost in the wild release of anger—yelling, screaming, shooting turtles at each other. That’s when Annie found out that turtles protect themselves with projectile diarrhea. Jarrett got splashed too. Chastened, halted, they set the turtles on a log. Into the scummy water of the pond they leapt, fully clothed to wash themselves clean just before Sammi emerged with Hugo, hobbling out on a crutch, smiling, his leg bandaged like a mummy.

Now the breeze wrinkles the fly of the tent. The clouds have advanced past the farthest point of land, the lake a restless cocktail of colour, constantly shaken. Annie sips her tea, decides to use the Trangia instead of the fire to make a supper.

Everything in the food pack is sorted into stuff sacks marked BR, LUNCH, DIN. All food is packaged in zip locks, the Sammi method, waterproof, clear, hygienic. She takes out the minute steak, still a little frozen, and the oil container. The steak sizzles surrounded by canned potato slices. She nibbles the carrot and celery sticks. Dessert, fruit cake, the old Sammi recipe, awaits in its plastic container. But the tarp is attracting pre-rain mosquitoes so she sets a lighted Pic under it to chase them elsewhere.

            The second summer Hugo wanted to bring the long-handled fishing net. He was sure he could trap the chipmunk with it.  Sammi refused. “We’re not taking extra kit over the portages to catch a chipmunk.”  He fell into a sulk and refused to paddle. At the picnic lunch, he threw back the hardboiled egg Sammi tossed to him. “Very well, no dessert at supper.”  The fruitcake went round but not to him.

             “The trouble with my mother,” muttered twelve-year-old Hugo to eight-year-old Annie, “is that she means it.”

Hugo endured one more dessertless meal the following day after he’d slung Lucy’s teddy bear into a pine. From then on, he was more careful. Annie, the outsider kid, made sure she was never denied dessert. She ate everything, scarfing down the corn on the cob, the Kraft Dinner which tasted wonderful in the bush, the perogies, the pickerel baked in foil. Later she gathered up all the scraps and burned them, put the unburnable in the garbage bag to tote out. “The Organizer,” Sammi called her. “Keeps us on out toes.”

Annie checked the canoes to make sure the ropes were stowed, the gear balanced. She walked the empty camp site to make certain nothing was left behind, although she had overlooked Hugo’s boots. “Annie has a knot for every purpose,” said Sammi. Annie was called upon to bind up sacks, tie on hooks, cinch down the canoes on the car rack. In the winter, at home, she practiced the bowline, the timber hitch, the sheet bend, the trucker’s hitch and many others using a piece of old rope. The Knot Maker was ready.

Hugo was the strong one, the Guide with the map and compass. “He never gets lost. His accuracy is amazing.” Hugo puffed out like a whiskey jack in the wind. Lucy was the Fisherperson who brought in a huge bass as long as her arm. Jarrett was Cook, still a good cook today. “He takes after his grandmother,” said Sammi.”Everything he makes is so delicious. A true gift.”

It wasn’t until she was a teen-ager that Annie realized Sammi made this stuff up, the constant praise, the exaggeration of the slimmest talent. She hated Sammi then for what she thought of as lies, the unending mythologizing of each of them into Cook, Guide, Camp Organizer, Knot Maker, Pathfinder. “Lucy can lead the singing like no one else. Hugo can always spot the best camp sites.”  All moonshine to hold them on the stringer. Annie vowed she’d go to Quetico no more but the next summer she was back partnering with Sammi, the other three in new kayaks. A few years later, at the University of Toronto, tuition paid by Sammi, Annie’s heart drooped under the sludge-grey winter skies. Her longing for the bush, mosquitoes and all, seared like molten iron in her chest.

The August day closes with a razzle-dazzle sunset just before the wind curves down the pines and the rain roars in. Annie, in her tent, feels as content as the chipmunk in its nest.

 She summons up the sixteen-year-old Hugo who insisted they stop and pick up an owl dead by the side of the highway. He said he’d put it in the freezer at home and dissect it, maybe learn to stuff it like a taxidermist.

But a few miles on, the owl, a Great Horned, opened its fierce yellow eyes and flew to the back window of the car where it stalked back and forth on the ledge flexing its great talons. Everyone screamed.

Sammi stopped the car, told them to jump out and, reaching in, grabbed the owl around the ankles. In one swoop, she turned it upside down. The owl immediately closed its eyes and fell asleep. How did she know to do that? 

“If you want to quiet an owl,” Sammi explained, “turn it upside down.”  She carried it, still upside down, to the ditch and tossed it into the air where it straightened, spread its huge wings and zoomed across the muskeg.

The correct handling of owls was the only Sammi advice that Annie never used.

She wakes once to go outside to pee, mindful, as she crawls out, of the wooden box beside her sleeping bag. Thin coins of moonlight spatter the needled earth. She stands in her bare feet and hears the last slapping waves of the storm. The far-away world, the densely merchandized life, has moved beyond the reach of thought. Tree tops and sky fuse into polished blacks. She takes the flashlight from just inside the tent and her runners from under the edge of the fly and walks down to the beach. The moon, wearing a halo, flies across the clouds. Sammi should be here to see this, she thinks.

The pendulum swings between birth and death. The skinny little girl with the alcoholic mother stands on the curb watching Hugo as he strides across the street towards her. A turn of events. For Sammi later, a turn. A stroke and a partial death, before death. What did she remember of her Quetico summers as she slumped in the chair at the Home, unable to speak or recognize her children?

In the morning, the mist obscures the white rocks that mark the channel at the east end of the lake. It slowly thins into a silver reach of water embellished with a dozen or so boats, a mini flotilla of canoes and kayaks. Hugo paddles in the lead in his expensive Chatham kayak, his silly personal flag, with its drawing of an upside-down owl, fluttering at the bow. Jarrett and his partner have Sammi’s Wolverine, Lucy and her husband the old cedar strip Prospector, all their kids in newer boats, joyously purchased over the years.  Their paddles lift, waggle in the blue air, the old salutation.  Friends.

Annie places the urn in its wooden box on the floor of her own solo canoe and paddles out to meet them.

As usual Lucy is leading the singing. A la Claire Fontaine.

 Il y a longtemps que je t'aime, Jamais je ne t'oublierai.
(story previously published in Prairie Fire)

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