by Annie O'Shaughnessy (2001)
I need to recover a rhythm in my heart that moves my body first and my mind second, that allows my soul to catch up with me. I need to take a sacred pause, as if I were a sun-warmed rock in the center of a rushing river.
-Dawna Markova, from I Will not Die an Unlived Life
I am crouching still near a tree on a loamy ridge, my two hands spread around the trunk. I am feeling grateful for this tree that I remember because of its mossy smell and thick crevassed bark. It tells me that the beaver pond is near where one white pine shoots 100 feet up out of the tannic water, which means I am close to camp and food and sleep.
I get to the pond’s edge, across from the point where my tent sits. There are no trails and the boreal forest is thick with scrub pine and dead-fall. Early afternoon sun brings out the wave of deer flies, one chews on my shoulder blade while prickers dig into my shins. I can see my tent across the pond, 100 yards as the crow flies, but probably a mile walk around the edge. I take off my clothes and rush to the edge of the pond, but even as the whine of the deer flies intensifies, I just stare at the water which is so dark I cannot see the bottom. Darker shapes appear as I stare, including a large fallen pine tree which leads from the shore and disappears into the depths. A fear takes hold of me, as it does every time I contemplate diving into this pond water. I shake my head to loosen its grip, feel a deer fly land on the small of my back and I dive. I swim as hard as I can, my heart banging away, my eyes closed. After twenty strokes I remember the old pine and open my eyes afraid I will hit it. But I am far past it and now I do the trick that always relieves my fear: as I lift my arm to pull through the water, I watch the bubbles as they leave my nose. I concentrate on my breath. Soon I am laughing at myself. Fear is at once humbling and freeing.
Two hundred strokes out I stop and tread water to look around. I have out-raced the deer flies and now I see a pair of loons swimming nervously back and forth twenty yards away. I must be close to their nest. This is my second day, I hope by the end of the week they will have relaxed with me in their home.
I force myself to look down at the water that hides my naked body. I am trying not to think of my white toes dangling five feet down, looking like fish bait or worse — snapping turtle bait. As a kid I thought something I could not see would grab my toe and drag me under water — a freshwater version of JAWS. But stil,l I have always been drawn by the orange-brown color and rich-with-life smell. It is the smell of fishing with dad and my brother, and the smell of excursions with my brother and sister in our old row boat deep into the swamp a mile from our house. I love to recall the reverent silence between us as we drifted farther and farther back into the swamp away from the sounds of the road. Back there other sounds took hold of us: the quiet creaking of the oar lock; the turtle’s claws scratching as it scurried off the fallen, half submerged tree; the song of the red-winged blackbird as it announced its territory to us. Young as we were, our souls opened easily to those sounds and the almost-sweet smells of decay, connecting us to what is nameless and peaceful and old inside. Fantasies came to me there — of being a brave explorer deep in a northern wilderness. I would feed that feeling, and my brother and I would exchange the looks of bold adventurers. Back in the swamp we never bickered; we just listened, were silent with wide eyes and felt as if we were part of something important. Today, the velvet water cleans away the sweat and the blood, soothes the deep scratches. I feel like an Amazon woman.
Near the edges, leaches like to wait for warm bodies, so when I reach the other side I scurry up the slippery rock and stand to look across to where I had started. The loons are quiet now, gliding back to their nest. I close my eyes and feel the sun soothing my worn muscles. I am aware of my body. I look down at the scratches and bruises, the big and small scars. I look at my muscular body and the breasts that nursed two babies. I think of how I tell my six-year-old daughter that scars are great stories that never fade — reminders of our play and adventures. I examine my size twelve feet. Sasquatch, Big foot, Herman Munster — I have heard them all. But today these feet worked as powerful propellers through the water and I am grateful as I massage the high arches.
I feel the ache in my shoulders from yesterday’s portage and recall my dad firmly placing his hand on one shoulder when I was eight and saying, “Good solid girl.” I love that my dad taught me how to hammer asphalt roofing, how to make a fireplace poker in his forge, how to tear down a wall and build a new one. I love that he celebrated the Amazon in me.
Today I am smiling wide and proud of this body that carried boat and gear down to the water’s edge; that paddled against the wind across the bay to the foot of the wetland stream. The body that hoisted the laden canoe over five beaver damns, that carried boat and canoe up the trail for a mile to the secret pond; that sleeps comfortably in a tent alone out here listening to the hoot owl, and the loons and the cacophony of bullfrog music; the body that jerks upright at midnight with the sound of a buck’s snort and heavy stomp of his hoof; the body that gets up early and bushwhacks to the top of the mountain.
I lie down on the warm rock at the edge of the pond and I close my eyes. My breath feels easy and light, my belly is soft and where a hard gnarled knot used to be under my sternum, a warmth spreads beyond my skin, around the blue sky and sun and back in again.