THE LOON CRIES AT DUSK
Magic surrounded his canoe.
FishHawk felt it as a physical presence, vibrating through the cedar hull, rising the length of his torso, zipping through his arms to his hands. His fingers tingled. His mind buzzed with strange clairvoyance. Many times today he questioned whether he’d been struck by lightning.
But he knew it wasn’t lightning. This was magic. Kiko-Ru’s special magic.
The village shaman had worked another miracle. Kiko-Ru performed his ceremonial christening on this splendid dugout before its maiden launch this morning. FishHawk had barely paddled clear of the village inlet when he’d noticed large schools of fish following in his wake. Big fish came from the far corners of the lake, attracted to the boat like buzzards to a fresh kill. More experienced fishermen had told him what to expect, but he had been a doubter.
He no longer doubted.
FishHawk paddled. The enchanted canoe rode low in the water, burdened by the day’s catch. He looked over his haul with pride, the bow stacked three high with large bass and lake trout, glimmering in the late afternoon sun like silver medallions. His fellow villagers would eat well this week. FishHawk thanked the Great Spirit for Kiko-Ru’s masterful conjuring. Fishing had never been so easy.
He breathed in the pungent fishy scent, the bright tangy smell of freshly carved cedar. FishHawk felt great honor to be selected to pilot this grand canoe. It was a fine craft, steady in the rapids, solid and durable. He admired the craftsmanship of the prow, intricately chiseled into the head of an eagle, the painted eyes so very lifelike. He believed those eyes could actually see. FishHawk was convinced that the canoe was a living creature with a mind of its own. All he had to do was paddle. The canoe seemed to know where to go.
Some mysterious inner communication told him to stop paddling. The magic at work.
He pulled the paddle in, let it clunk on the floor. The lake was but a whisper of breeze, the tinkle of softly rippling currents. He leaned over the side, saw his painted face in the wavy reflection of the water—the whiteface, the bold red and blue slashes streaked across his cheeks and forehead, the porcupine hair headdress that looked like a bird’s nest atop his head. He felt drops of sweat trickling down his chest beneath the rawhide vest. All master fishermen of the village—the a-su-hi-is—wore this garb. The paint made his face feel tight. The headdress made his scalp itch. The vest chapped the skin on his shoulders. He was uncomfortable, but FishHawk wore the fisher’s outfit with pride. Today was his first day as one of the respected a-su-hi-is, and he sat tall in the canoe.
Beneath his reflection, FishHawk saw a gathering of largemouth bass, gliding back-and-forth the length of the canoe. He knew they were waiting for his command. He dipped his fingers into the water and moved his hands in slow circles. The bass began to sway in unison, moving languidly as blades of swamp grass rustling in a slow current. His power over these lake creatures fascinated him.
He stood and snapped his fingers, left hand first, then the right.
With each sharp snap, a bass leaped from the water into his hand. FishHawk snapped and caught, snapped and caught . . . hands a blur, catching and tossing the flying fish onto the pile in the bow. Within minutes the hold overflowed with flopping, writhing fish. FishHawk wished he could take more, but even a boat possessed by magic had its limits.
FishHawk sat, retrieved the paddle.
The rowing required much more effort now. He felt a tired ache in his arms as he paddled across the wide lake. But it was a good ache. A productive ache.
As he paddled, FishHawk took in the incredible sunset. He marveled at the low-lying sun peeking through the trees, setting the far shore ablaze in a crimson fire. The surface glowed a brilliant orange, the color of ripe pumpkins at the fall harvest. He squinted against the glare, thinking how beautiful this land was, the land of his people. So peaceful and undisturbed were the surrounding hills and tiny pine-scrub islands that dotted the lake.
In the distance he heard the mournful cry of a loon, a lonely call that signaled the turn of day into night. He heard the call a second time, echoing over the water, eerie yet reassuring.
The loons watched over the Cherokee like proud parents.
FishHawk heard the lonesome cry a third time. A thin smile creased his painted face. He knew he would arrive at the village safely.
Starting over at age sixty-two is like jumping off a cliff tethered to a frayed bungee cord.
Cal Blevins envisioned himself dangling at the end of that cord: the rubber unraveling with each shriek-inducing swing over a deep gorge, the pulse-pounding excitement followed by moments of sheer terror.
This free-flying scenario played in Cal’s mind, over and over. It consumed him in a dark way as he drove north from Atlanta. Like a film loop of some tragic news event. For ninety miles he had watched himself hanging on for dear life. Like he was some fool contestant performing an idiotic stunt on reality TV.
Things really aren’t that bad, are they? Cal figured this new start should be a positive development. So why the bleak outlook?
He turned his attention back to the road, thinking about his destination, trying to chase the image of himself as a bungee jumper. This area of the Blue Ridge Mountains, carpeted by the Chattahoochee National Forest, had been his sanctuary since he was a boy. Cal looked forward to living at his Loon Mountain fishing lodge, a place that had always smoothed out his rough edges. Situated on cozy Lake McDowell, his summer home had long been a refuge from his hectic corporate executive life in the traffic-clogged skyscraper madness of Atlanta. He and his ex-wife Sandra bought the lakefront property and built the three-bedroom cabin twenty-five years ago. Back when the marriage was a happy union and the kids still believed in Santa Claus. Lumpkin County Chamber of Commerce brochures referred to Loon Mountain as “The Emerald Throne of Georgia.” Cal couldn’t have put it better himself.
He turned onto Mountain Road, the meandering ribbon of asphalt leading up to the lake. Moby yipped appreciatively from the back seat. Cal glanced in the rearview. The black Lab sat next to Cal’s guitar case, slapping his tail against the door, sticking his nose through the crack in the window to get a sniff of the sweet Georgia pine. Moby knew where they were headed. The dog loved Loon Mountain. Especially Lake McDowell. Lots of squirrels and chipmunks for him to chase. Cal smiled. He knew Moby had his little canine mind set on the lake and a brisk swim. Somewhere in the hound’s ancestry lurked a creature with gills and fins. Had to, the way that dog took to the water.
Cal steered his Explorer under the thick canopy of trees. Twilight shadows stretched across the road. He turned on his headlights and the asphalt uncoiled in front of him like a large black serpent. An earthy aroma drifted through his open window. Cal smelled the lake in the distance, an inviting mossy scent. He inhaled deeply. Up ahead, a deer darted across the road, the dusky blur of a small buck.
He thought about recent events that led him here. His layoff from Southwick Packaging after 22 years of dedicated employment. Marketing Director had been his title on the day they gave him his walking papers. No gold watch or retirement dinner. Thanks for everything and best of luck, they’d told him. Just three years shy of a full pension. Then there was his divorce from Sandra, a marriage that had slowly unraveled over 35 years. Sandra had the ‘growing apart’ explanation down to Jungian precision. Cal was still working on his assessment. And as usual, the only winners were the lawyers.
Time for a fresh start. He should be ecstatic. And yet his future never looked so uncertain. The bungee-jump scenario seemed appropriate.
He passed the signpost that announced Loon Mountain’s population of 837, passed familiar billboards for Lonnie’s General Store and Carleton’s Boat and Bait. The Cherokee Lane turnoff branched into the woods to the right, a narrow tar-and-gravel road that led to the first group of residential properties on the lower ridge. Mountain Road switched back to the left, following Brighton Creek. Cal could see the tops of smooth boulders dotting the middle of the stream and the browned river reeds lining the banks. Not much rain since his last trip up here.
He passed several outlying cabins—hunting lodges, dark and unoccupied. The small game season didn’t begin for another three weeks. Once the season opened, this hillside would be crawling with orange-vested hunters and the ridge would echo with the sharp cracks of gunfire.
The Explorer climbed the mountainside, Moby getting more excited the higher they went. Cal circled the east side and broke into a clearing—Ellery’s Pass—that offered a breathtaking view of the valley below. The dying sunlight threw spangled shadows across the ridge, the rolling forest resembling a bejeweled patchwork quilt.
Just as quickly, Mountain Road forged into a dark tunnel of trees. The grade steepened and Cal felt the four-wheel drive downshift. Up ahead, the road brightened with the lights of a construction crew. Cal slowed as he came into an area with enough halogen rigging to rival a Hollywood set. Several half-cleared lots, lit up bright as high noon. A backhoe and a grader spewed plumes of oily black smoke as the machines labored to topple trees and level the earth. Further up the road, Cal saw new construction, three houses in various stages of completion. He heard the pounding of hammers and the whine of a saw, could smell the sap of fresh-cut lumber.
Moby growled at one of the carpenters walking along the side of the road. These workers were an affront to Moby. The Lab didn’t appreciate their loud intrusion; they were trespassing in his kingdom.
“Easy, big fella,” Cal said. “They’re just doing their job. We don’t own this mountain, after all.”
Moby looked at Cal, a sad cast to his eyes. Whined a little, then backed away from the window.
Cal shared Moby’s outlook. For years there had been no new development up here. Cal’s cabin had been one of the first built on the lake, and remained for many years one of just a handful of developed properties scattered along Lake McDowell. Loon Mountain—the Emerald Throne nestled between the Appalachian Trail to the north and the ghosts of the Dahlonega gold mines to the south—had been a rustic paradise, a place of solitude and introspection. Then, five years ago, Atlanta Magazine published an article about this area, complete with stunning color photographs, and suddenly there was a yuppie stampede. Cal started passing more BMWs and Mercedes and Saabs on Mountain Road, began seeing larger homes being built. The corporate yuppies from the big city a hundred miles due south had a new place in which to compete.
He turned onto Dogwood Lane, the gravel road leading to his property. Tiny pebbles pinged the undercarriage of the Explorer, sounding like popcorn exploding in the microwave. As Cal approached his house, he saw a minivan parked in the driveway of the cabin next door. Tennessee plates. The For Sale sign that had been planted in the yard for close to a year was gone. Cal didn’t think the place would ever sell, and he felt a keen sense of disappointment that it had. He pulled into his driveway and shut off the ignition, got out and stretched his road-weary limbs. Moby darted out behind him and headed for the lake. Cal heard the distant splash and Moby’s yips of joy, the dog thrashing around in the water.
He looked back toward the minivan—a dark green Dodge Caravan—trying to gain some perspective on his new neighbors. Bright orange University of Tennessee Volunteers decal plastered to a side window. Next to it was a peeling bumper sticker of Hank Williams, Jr. with the legend HELL YEAH! inscribed in bold lettering under the outlaw rocker’s bearded face. As Cal walked past the vehicle, he saw the torn up front end, the jagged shards of metal beginning to freckle with rust. The headlight on the driver’s side was smashed out and the bent edge of the radiator peeked out from under the crumpled hood. The chassis was pushed in against the engine block and contorted into a pretzel shape. The bumper had been reattached with baling wire. Cal wondered how the thing had made it up the mountain.
He glanced toward the house. Lights on downstairs, second floor dark. He caught a whiff of barbecue, could hear muffled voices. Canned laughter from a television coming through the open living room windows.
Cal grabbed his things from the back of the Explorer—two canvas duffels full of clothes and his guitar. The front steps groaned under his weight. He set the bags down on the porch and fumbled the key into the lock. Pushed the door open. Flicked on the lights in the living room. The house embraced him with its musty warmth. The familiar smells of hamburger grease and cigarette smoke and stale beer assailed him. Memories of his last stay. Six weeks ago, a long weekend with his musician friends—Chuck, Glenn, and Albee—one of their semi-regular pick-n-grin get-togethers. Three days and nights of singing and strumming, living on bottled beer and burgers cooked on the grill. Live music and cold brew, with a little fishing thrown in. Life didn’t get any better.
Cal opened windows to air the place out. Took his bags up to his bedroom. He grabbed a Heineken from the fridge and took his guitar out on the rear deck. Darkness had descended over the lake. A beautiful orange crescent moon hung over the treetops, reflecting a finger of fire across the surface of the calm water. He could see the outline of his dock and the silvery shine of his bass boat below. The trail of flagstone steps leading from the house down to the dock glowed like marshmallows in the bright moonlight.
He opened his guitar case and pulled out his Taylor, basking in the rich scent of the oiled wood. Cal owned several guitars, but this acoustic was his pride and joy. A Leo Kottke Signature Model with the spruce top and mahogany back and sides, the jumbo body that gave Cal the booming sound he loved. He only wished that owning this ultra-expensive Kottke-edition Taylor guitar would enable him to play even half as well as Leo.
He warmed up with “Angel From Montgomery,” then broke into a standard blues riff, but was interrupted by a very wet Moby. Cal laid the guitar back in the case and went to attend to the dog, who gleamed with a sheen of lake mud.
Cal smiled at the Lab as he toweled him off. “You been going after those turtles again, Mobes? Some day one of those snappers is gonna bite your nose off, partner. I don’t care how well you can swim.”
Moby just wagged his tail, basking in the attention.
Cal threw the muddy towels in the utility room next to the washing machine and returned to the rear deck, Moby following close on his heels. He sat and retrieved his guitar, began picking some random notes, just doodling. Moby sat at his feet, tail sweeping across the baked cedar boards like a whisk broom, chocolate-brown eyes wide with expectation.
“Okay, I’m taking requests,” Cal said, launching into their time-honored routine. “What would you like to hear, Mr. Moby?”
Moby yipped twice, a redundant whimper, flopped his ears. Sat at attention.
Cal took a swig of beer and wiped his mouth. “I believe I remember how to play that one.” He snuggled the guitar up against his belly and strummed the opening chords to “American Pie.” Moby barked appreciatively, then stretched out on the deck floor to listen in earnest. Moby was a musician’s dream audience. It never mattered to the Lab what Cal played. Cal could run boring scales for an hour or sing horribly off key and Moby would still listen attentively. Something about Cal’s voice and the melodies he produced from the large acoustic guitar had a hypnotic effect on the dog.
Two hours and three beers later, Cal packed the guitar away and was headed inside when he heard something strange in the distance. A moaning-mewling sound, barely audible at first, then gaining in volume. Moby’s ears pricked up, listening, his body rigid and on full alert.
Cal set the guitar case down and went to the deck railing, listened. There it was again, louder, a desperate sound echoing across the lake. A wounded animal? A possum or raccoon? A loon? No, Cal decided, the sound was too throaty for a loon. A coyote perhaps? Caught in a trap? A wolf, maybe?
And then a chill ran through Cal as the moan escalated to a scream, closer now.
Moby barked and lunged against the side railing.
Another feral scream, the cry of a disembodied spirit.
Cold fear squeezed Cal’s heart as he realized the screams came from his neighbor’s cabin.