by Thomas R. Willits
part 1 of 3
SweetJesus, sonofMaryandJoseph! The rapid, nonstop outburst came from my left, almost piercing my eardrum. I had to wince away from the pain. I turned, ready to tell Paul he’d made me deaf in the left ear and maybe the right ear, too.
Then I saw it for myself on the surface below. My anger subsided, and I actually smiled. Yes, it was a doozy; a real whopper.
The rope swung pendulously back to our elevated bank, ready for its next victim of sacrifice. I waited my turn with a tinge of hesitation. The ripples were perfect in every detail, right down to the symmetrical patterns of undulating water dispersing outward to their eventual demise.
I aspired to the same result but knew almost certainly it wasn’t possible. Not unless I could rewrite the laws of physics. And since I had flunked physics in high school, I didn’t think that was likely to happen.
“Nice one, Tubbs!” Paul yammered, admiring the water. “That one must have been ten feet high!”
As the rope swung back to the bank, Paul seized it firmly in both hands. Above, the rope hung from its pivoting point in a large oak limb about twenty feet above.
Nearly two weeks before, right after school let out for summer, Paul had climbed up and caught the rope as I threw it to him, and he made a nice, tight knot. Now the four of us were ready to waste our hard-earned vacation at the lake. I didn’t have much choice; that’s where I lived.
Actually, my house was up on the bank, about three hundred feet nearer the main road on this, the western side of the lake. On each side of the lake a road intersected another one that ran east and west. On each access road near the lake were about thirty or forty homes.
Paul had accused me and my family of being rich, but I denied it every time. I liked to be believe our home was fancy and maybe my parents had two decent vehicles but I wouldn’t go so far as to call us “rich.”
The lake itself wasn’t entirely glamorous, mainly because the responsibility fell to the residents to take care of the lake, and from what I could tell, they had begun to shirk that responsibility. The lake was fine so far, except for driftwood at the south end that needed clearing. It didn’t bother us any for swimming , although in the past it had been a great spot for fishing.
Rather, the land around the lake needed clearing and cleaning, and fewer and fewer people were volunteering for Saturday work crews. It wasn’t hard work when fifty or more joined together, but once their schedules filled up with more important duties, the lake started to show neglect. In a way I felt bad or ashamed, somehow.
About eight people still helped at the end of the week. We met at the equipment shed at the north end. We cleared trash and picked up aluminum cans and plastic bottles. We recycled them when we could, and any money we received went into the lake’s maintenance fund.
The last time I checked, the monthly budget for our upkeep of the lake amounted to about two thousand dollars. Most of the funds went for road equipment, for repairing the two main drives along the lake, and for new gravel every six months or so. This money came from the state.
Once we had a homeowner’s fee dedicated to the fund, but several of the residents petitioned to cancel the fee. I can’t remember how much it was, but it may have been around a hundred dollars a month each. I remember because my dad brought it up at the dinner table, and he remarked about what he could buy with it if he didn’t have to pay the fee: a new set of golf clubs for his work’s regular outings. At about a hundred dollars per house for about forty houses, the the allotment for upkeep and repair would have been a lot bigger.
That was about two summers ago, perhaps in the spring before the hard rains came. I remember, because the south-end road flooded that year and was covered with dead logs and trees. No one could gain access on the south side; they’d have to drive completely around the lake to go to town.
Finally, a few of the ones who still cared for the lake went out and sawed up the logs and hauled them off so people could get through. I helped on Sunday because I’d had soccer practice the day before, and most of the driftwood had already been cleared.
One member of the crew who still volunteered was an old Native American named Jim Crowghost. He’d lived at the lake for more than thirty years, even before the first houses had been built. He didn’t say much as we worked, and I wondered if he ever spoke at all. He seemed sad, almost depressed, as if the world itself were ending.
While we were working, I decided to strike up conversation with him and see if I could get him to speak. It’s just that it was so damn awkward with him there and silent all the time. No: “Good morning, howya doing?”; no: “Aftanoon, folks. Anythang bitin down at the lake?”
We walked past the south entrance to the lake and the big wooden sign which stood as the welcome wagon. The words Shiriki Lake were carved into the thick, square sign. The letters were painted blood red.
I turned to Jim and decided to make conversation. “What does the name mean, anyway?” I asked. As soon as I did I felt embarrassed because I assumed, since he was a Native American, he would know what it meant.
He turned to me, surprised that I was speaking to him. and I thought I might have knocked his sense of being right out of his grasp. He glanced at the sign and continued to drag two chopped limps behind him as our group headed for the dump site. He didn’t answer, and I felt I had injured him in some way. I wanted to take back the question and remain silent like everyone else.
I felt the silence grow increasingly worse after he didn’t say anything for almost a minute and a half.
At last I heard him speak. “How long have you lived here, son?” He spoke in fine English. Next he would tell me I was an inconsiderate, rich brat and I should mind my own business. “At Lake Shiriki? How long?”
My face turned red with embarrassment and also relief. I realized now I might be rude, so I tried to recall exactly how long it had been. “Since I was six, I think,” I answered. “After my birthday. We live on the west side.” We were now on the east side. I glanced over my left shoulder and Jim turned to see.
“I have a small cabin back in the woods,” he remarked. He nodded ahead of our path and to the right. “Been there for many years. Bet you didn’t even know it was there, did ya?”
I shook my head.
“Log cabin. Built it myself. Well, actually, my brother helped but he’s been dead for years. So I live by myself. They wanted to tear my cabin down when they started in on these houses. They thought it would decrease the value of the lake homes. But I didn’t budge. They offered me thirty thousand for it and the land but I refused. And that was a fair sum back then.”
“Why didn’t you take it?” Again I felt like a jackass and wished I could keep my mouth shut.
“I suppose I could have and used it for a nice down payment on one of those fancied-up caddy shacks you live in. But the cabin’s special to me. I feel like part of this land when I’m there.” He studied me, discovering the confusion rising on my face. Then facetiously he added, “I mean, you know I’m Indian, right kid?”
I was instantly a radish. “Uh, yeah,” I answered. He was so down to earth it was ridiculous. “I guessed that much.”
“Well,” he went on. “Anyway, I never sold it. About ten years ago they asked me again, the folks who own the lake, that is. They offered me the same amount, and I told them just where to stick it. I was actually surprised they even owned the lake. My ancestors believed no one owns the land. I have a hard time with people who can’t understand that, but we won’t go there right now.
“So this real estate company, I forget the name, but they came out in the afternoon on a Thursday and stuck their nose in my door. Just came right in. Rudest people you could imagine. Sure, I have no locks on my door and I’m out there roughin’ it like that soldier in Dances with Wolves, but the least they can do is knock, wouldn’t you say?”
“Of course.” I smiled. He had a funny charm about him I found appealing. “So what did you do?”
He turned to me with an inquisitive stare. “Huh?”
“What did you do when they came in your home?”
“Scalped em clean,” he said calmly as he imitated a knife slicing his hair off and his eyes grew big and wide.
I recoiled back in disbelief watching his face grow blank and serious.
And then he said, “Gotcha.”
I saw a smile form inside that blank stare.
“Too gullible,” he remarked and continued on with his two limbs dragging over the gravel road. “No. I stood up and welcomed them in, like any homebody would. They even went so far to write the check that time. I must admit the offer tempted me when I saw it in actual numbers. But I refused and asked them to leave. Politely.”
“What’s it like living in a log cabin?”
“I don’t know. Same as any other, I suppose. Home is a home, so they say. As long as it keeps the rain out, it’s fine with me.”
“So what does it mean?” I asked again. “Shiriki?”
He stared toward the lake with an empty grin as if expecting it to answer my question. I could see his age and longevity. He was perhaps as old as anyone I knew.
“There’s a tale behind it,” he said at last. “It goes back a hundred years or more. I couldn’t tell it here. I need my smoke for telling tales. Ah, yes, my pipe. That’s the only way it can be told correctly. Anything else would not do it justice. If you want you can stop by later, after dark.”
My eyes shifted nervously to the right, avoiding the question he was about to ask me.
“Unless you’re scared. Or your folks keep you on a short leash. Which I can understand. Maybe you need to ask daddy or mommy first.”
“No,” I said. “I mean, I don’t need their permission. I’ll come.” I tried to sound enthusiastic but I’m sure I sounded like a nervous kid. “That’d be great.”
He pointed to a large spruce growing straight near the wood line and I saw a path leading back deep into the woods.
“There,” he said. “Do you see it? About a quarter mile in. Follow the path and you’ll end up at my front door. Around dark, okay?”
I found myself standing in front of the spruce as the sun finally set after dinner. I couldn’t see anything down the path, only more trees. I thought about Jim’s words taunting me to move on and pushed them to the back of my mind. I wanted to know what the sign meant. Why couldn’t he have just spelled it out right then and there? I journeyed past the spruce and down the path toward Jim’s cabin.
The last residue of light had faded but I was able to see the cabin clearly. It was larger than I expected. Somehow I thought I would see a cramped, one-room shack with one entrance, maybe two windows and an outhouse. It did have an outhouse, but the home itself had a warm, country feeling to it. I saw a few lights on inside and guessed Jim must have electricity, although I didn’t see a power pole anywhere. But it may have been behind the house.
A square wooden porch led to the front door. My footsteps sounded hollow like there wasn’t much under me holding up the floor. A few seconds after I knocked, Jim opened the door and invited me inside. I took a seat in a chair he offered and the first thing he asked was if I had had dinner. I told him yes and he immediately went to a bookshelf near the kitchen. He came back with a photo and showed it to me.
I took it in both hands and saw Jim’s cabin with him standing in front with someone else.
“My brother,” he said. “The otha fella. Died about two years after we finished the house. We built it with two bedrooms. He planned on staying here with me.”
I wanted to ask how he died, but I held back my urge. I had an annoying curiosity that wouldn’t quit. I handed the black and white photo back awaiting his story. He grabbed his pipe and tobacco and sat in an old wooden chair and it creaked softly when he released his weight into it.
Jim looked at me strangely for a moment and a eerie wave swept over me as if I had made a bad decision in coming here. I thought about getting up and bolting for the door. Would he chase after me? Scalp me?
Copyright © 2006 by Thomas R. Willits