Illustration by Andres Garzon
We were about 500 kilometers from Thunder Bay when I had something of a gut feeling this was the place, we should stop the car. I pulled off the highway and Katherine stepped out of the car on the opposite side, clutching her arms together and hopping from one foot to the other in the cold. She looked around at the surrounding trees, the grassy patches next to the road, and the clouds moving overhead.
“We’re probably the first people to walk on this patch of road,” she said, “after the guys who actually built it.”
Getting out of the car had felt like stepping onto a running track. The exact same drop in temperature you get coming out of the changing room in just running shorts and t-shirt, with goosebumps running up your legs.
The road was a little raised up, and from that slight vantage point it was possible to see just how far the forest spread out around us. The tops of the green trees filtered into the dark blue setting-sun sky at regular intervals. It was truly endless – a vast expanse of pine needles and rounded birch leaves that stretched for thousands of kilometers uninterrupted all the way to the frozen arctic ocean.
“Well off we go,” said Katherine; smiling at me; stretching her arms over her head; looking back at me.
I took a step forward and stopped.
“Oh, I should probably lock the car. Will you grab a torch from the trunk as well in case it gets dark?”
Katherine found the torch and delicately closed the trunk. I pressed the car key and the honk of the horn echoed off into the distance.
“Somehow I feel like that has made us less safe,” Katherine laughed, hopping up and down to shake off the stiffness from sitting for so long. “Some psychopath in a cabin in the woods probably heard that – now he knows we are here.”
Katherine raised her eyebrows at me and smiled.
I was glad she was still in high spirits. It had been a long drive even to get this far, and we still had a few more hours to go before we got to Longlac where her brother lived.
“We probably shouldn’t stay too long unless we want it to be midnight by the time we arrive at your brother’s.”
“Okay, well let’s try to find the lake quickly then.”
We passed under the canopy and immediately the light softened under the shade of the leaves. I looked down and noticed Katherine’s beat up old trainers – the sides had almost completely torn away from the soles – the laces were now the only thing holding them together.
“I hope we see a bear, or a moose, or something – something rare at least,” said Katherine.
“Actually, a beaver would be the best. I’d rather see that than a bear. But even a raccoon would be good,” she added, smiling and turning to face me with a little skip of her feet, scuffing the pine needles across the ground.
“I’m happy just to get some fresh air – it was hot in that car, and it’s a beautiful evening. It seemed like a shame to let it all pass by out the window.”
To be honest, I was utterly exhausted from the drive. We’d been meaning to do this cross-country thing to visit her brother for a while, but the recent news about his diagnosis had really brought a sense of weight and urgency to organising the trip. We’d each decided to take a day off work the next weekend available and try to fit the whole thing into three days.
“First one to see the lake wins a prize,” Katherine said.
“Hey – you have an unfair advantage; you could see it on the GPS . . . what is the prize anyway?”
“Biggest cut of steak when we get to my brother’s.”
Katherine’s brother had been fighting pancreatic cancer for around a year. He had just received a particularly brutal session of chemotherapy after which he had been sent home to try and rest and recover. It was a battle we’d heard about from a distance, and although Katherine had flown to visit him in the hospital in Thunder Bay this was the first time I’d been to see him, and the first time I’d visited Longlac, Katherine’s childhood hometown, so, I was a little nervous about that too.
Thinking about Katherine’s brother, it was impossible not to reflect on the arc of my own life – and sitting in the car I had felt each second of it pass in painful tedium. As the car rumbled along the road, I had found myself imagining Katherine too – sitting in her plane flying to Thunder Bay. Reflected on her face was the light of the live flight map – the plane tracing out a perfect arc of its own over Canada – moving pixel by pixel at an intolerably slow glacial pace.
If anything, it just reinforced the importance of this visit – how could something like a phone call possibly portray even a fraction of the reality of what it all meant? What did “two weeks” of treatment really constitute?
Two weeks? Such a simple concept – but it is easy to forget that two weeks is actually made up of millions of one-second intervals, and each of those individual seconds need to be lived, even if they do not go remembered. Taking a twelve-hour drive across the middle of Canada does a much more effective job at portraying that.
“I see it!” said Katherine.
There was the lake, visible between the trees – long and thin as it had looked on the GPS. It was probably about five hundred meters long, running parallel to the road – maybe one hundred meters across.
We shakily mounted one of the large boulders that lined the shore. Yellow sunlight spread out softly over the deep, cold lake; bright highlights of the setting sun sliding over the surface as if it were covered in a layer of soft fur.
“Pretty beautiful, eh?” Katherine said.
Ahead of us, trunks of dead trees stood upright in ranks spreading out into the water, their peaks incrementally descending further below the surface. I could just about see the far shore, where the forest floor rose quickly, pines and birch trees filling in the little gaps until the undergrowth was no longer visible. Small rocky islands dotted the lake here and there, filled with raggedy, wind-blown trees, their roots gripping the gaps in the rocks. A sudden cold gust of wind hit us from across the lake and I was overcome with an unexpected feeling of loneliness.
“I guess we can just sit here? Looks as good a spot as any.”
We shuffled forward on the boulder, its gentle curve steadily pulling us down toward the water. We sat down and let our legs hang, the friction of our pants holding us in place.
Katherine took off her rucksack and pulled out a plastic container of pasta salad and a fork which she handed to me.
“Sorry, I know it’s not the ideal food for this beautiful moment.”
It really did look quite miserable – all steamed up from the car journey.
“Just the fact that you made anything at all is pretty great – it looks perfect.”
I took the plastic container and fork from her hands — I was starving.
“But imagine if we had the stuff for a barbecue right now on these rocks,” she replied, “that’s what we really need –the smell of smoke, oh, and that little bit of heat. Now that would be nice.”
“We can buy a small one to put in the car alongside the spare tire for next time,” I replied.
“Don’t forget the meat,” Katherine added, “if we put it with the snow shovel maybe we can keep it cold.”
She laughed, turning back to look at the view, kicking a little pebble and causing a small plop as it fell in the water sending ripples outward.
At the far end of the lake I noticed two loons together, tracing their arcs through the water, their own ripples spreading steadily out across the surface and interweaving with each other.
“So, we aren’t the only ones enjoying the lake.”
The two loons dived, disappearing below the water in a single slick motion.
I looked down. Below us, I was surprised to see some small fish swimming around the shallow waters, their dark blobs hiding their tiny intricate detail and warm beating hearts.
The reality was, I thought, that even when we were driving on that long cold road to Longlac we were probably never really too far from some other beings, tracing their own arcs through the vastness of Canada; scuffing their own leaves across the forest floor, creating their own ripples in the lake; thinking about their own next meal. Our car was not the only grand arc out here. They were all out there – meeting and spinning in unison, bouncing off, passing by each other unchanged.
I thought of Katherine’s brother’s arc, far away in Longlac, weaving and twisting around all these others – visitors desperately spiraling around it, trying to pull it this way and that. But, like all of us, at some point his trajectory would end – it would thin out and fade away – and then there would be nothing for the other’s arcs to spin around, and they would fly out and away into the Canadian vastness again on their own paths.
I only hoped this – that Katherine’s arc would not spin out and away from me. There were times before when I had felt it happening, and it had taken concentration, understanding, and patience to stop her from spiraling out into that dark vastness; qualities I didn’t feel I possessed at that moment.
“There they are again,” Katherine said, pointing out over the lake to the loons. “Just popped up.”
The sun was getting lower now, and the sky starting to change color, filling the lake with a deep rich yellow. Golden light splashed around the corners of rocks, and I watched the lake water lap at the rocky slope below.
There was a curious pattern of erosion on the slope. It was covered in these small rounded rock pools about the size of a fist. For the next few minutes I ate Katherine’s pasta salad and watched the water swirl around them.
Then, almost before I could register it, I saw something; a tiny wave of water rippled around one of the small rock-pools and splashed down, spreading out in a pool of reflected golden sunlight.
It was the smallest quantity of lake water. About a teaspoon – lost almost the instant it had appeared – diffused back into the massive quantity of lake water. Compared to the rest of the water in the lake, compared to all the water on earth, it was nothing. Compared to a twelve-hour drive across Canada, the duration of a lifetime, compared to it all: it was something totally, completely, and immeasurably small.
But something about that moment swept over me and burned itself into me. Perhaps it was the quality of the sunlight that spread out like oil over the rocks; or the two loons drifting peacefully at the far side of the lake; or the presence of Katherine sitting and quietly eating beside me.
And, if I could zoom out on the arc-like cord of rope that my life had traced over Canada, that moment would be smaller than the smallest microscopic hair – dwarfed a thousand times over by everything surrounding it. Almost a single strand of atoms – sticking out of the rope at a right angle and shining under the light, there it was, as if under a microscope – that was what I had stopped the car for.
Katherine touched my hand.
“Hey, we should probably start heading back – it’s going to be dark soon.”
“Yeah, we do still have a few hours of driving to go.”
We packed away the plastic container and got up, walking back into the forest.
“Thanks for that,” said Katherine. “It was nice to have a change of pace. It took my mind off things a bit.”
She kicked her feet at some pinecones on the forest floor and they scattered in the dirt.
“Something about looking over that lake,” she added, “a change of perspective you know.”
The trees started to thin out and the road appeared in the gaps. We emerged from the trees and looked down the road. The car was there – sitting on the tarmac like some kind of spaceship as if it had descended from the night sky above.
Katherine walked around the passenger side, passing me the torch which I put back into the trunk.
I got in and started the engine. The instruments lit up. In a few more hours it really would feel like a spaceship. Once the light from the sky finally faded and the trees either side disappeared from view, we would be back in the void again, traveling again through the massive vastness of space at mammoth speeds.
“Will you message your brother and tell him we’ll be there in about three hours?”
“Three hours, Jesus, we really do still have some way to go.”
She looked heartbroken.
“At least we don’t have to get up early – just think about when we’ll be sitting out on his porch in the sunshine with some good food tomorrow,” I replied.
Katherine didn’t reply for a while. She started typing on her phone. I assumed she was messaging her brother. Eventually, she looked up at me with those big dark eyes I had come to recognize so familiarly.
“Do you think he’ll have the barbecue out?” She asked.
“I did see the lake first after all.”
DANIEL HOLDEN is a Machine Learning researcher working in the games industry in Montreal. Most recently he completed a collection of code poetry in collaboration with poet Chris Kerr, with additional poetry and visual artwork published in Battallion by Sidekick Books.
Copyright © 2019 by Daniel Holden. All rights reserved.