The Fiction

Property Lines

From the Christmas, 1997, issue 

(No. 1)

Tara leans her rolled sleeping bag against the rest of her gear—a small cooler with a weekend’s supply of food, a four-litre jug of drinking water, a knapsack full of clothes and magazines, a Walkman she has borrowed from her sister. The public dock pushes out into the water in a T-shape, with the base anchored in the lake bottom and the crossing line a floating, detachable raft. Several small fishing boats are pulled up onto the sandy launch, and a white canoe is tied to a metal ring at the “T”s end. She wanders the dock, looking without interest at the speckled glare of the water. When she steps near the edge of the raft, the lake rises through the cracks and soaks her sneakered feet.

She grabs a Diet Coke from the cooler and retreats from the dock to a shaded boulder to sit and wait. Despite the time of year, the sun is unbearably hot. Tara scratches her watchless wrist. Clicking footsteps ring on the dock wood. She opens her eyes. A tall, slim, balding man is struggling to lower two heavy cardboard boxes to the dock. He squats awkwardly, grunting, his chin pressing hard on the lid of the top box. He is wearing a dark brown suit and scuffed brown dress shoes.

He stands back up, straightens his jacket, and turns to look at Tara, casually slipping his hands into his pant pockets. The man smiles, showing his top teeth, and smoothes back his thinning hair with a quick hand. He smiles a moment longer, turns suddenly, and strides, clicking, onto the raft. Tara closes her eyes again to avoid witnessing his soaker.

At the sound of an approaching outboard motor, Tara allows herself to wake up and makes her way back to the pile of gear. The brown-suited man is nowhere to be seen. There are no boats in sight. The sound of the motor comes from a sheer line of cliffs butting against the water directly across the lake from the dock. It’s a small lake with many islands and coves, like she’s heard about from other people’s summers.

A fibreglass powerboat painted turquoise green rounds a point to Tara’s right. The suit flashes off the plastic windscreen. The boat looks old and slow compared to those at the landing. Its pilot is a blur of blue and grey.

“Glorious, isn’t it? ”

Tara turns to see the brown suit mounting the dock, a brown leather carry-on bag hanging from each shoulder by long leather straps. He looks like an old horse with saddlebags.

“The weather, I mean. Who would have thought we’d get a weekend like this in October. I might even jump in the lake if it stays this warm.”

Tara nods, smiles, means to say something but can think of nothing. The old green boat slows suddenly, drops its nose in the water, and coasts up to the dock. Behind the wheel is a woman dressed in a dark blue jogging suit and floppy white hat. Her hair hangs past her shoulders, stringy and pewter-grey. She cuts the engine and jumps from the boat before it stops moving. Tara and the balding man watch, unsure and expectant, as she ties up behind the canoe. She fits the description Tara has been given: shortish, dumpy, with a bit of a craziness in her eyes.

“You’re Joan? ”

“That’s what I am. I’m Joan. And that makes you a friend of the Wilsons.”

Joan holds out her hand to Tara; it’s not a hand held out for shaking. Tara passes her knapsack to Joan and brings the water and the cooler to the boat herself. The brown-suited man clicks to the end of the dock and hands Tara her Walkman.

“Susan never mentioned there’d be two of you, or I would have brought the bigger boat. This is just my little runabout.”

Tara and the balding man look at each other. The man smiles meekly.

“It’s just me, I’m afraid.”

Tara sends a meek smile back toward the brown suit. He reaches out his band to help her over the side of the boat.

“I’m Gordon.”

“Tara.”

A long wood-strip powerboat starts noisily toward them from a far island. At its bow is a young border collie barking into the wind. Joan nods her head and shouts over the noise at Gordon.

“So you’re with the Rheinholts, then? ”

“Yes. Just for the weekend.”

Cold spray jumps up over the side onto Tara’s arm. They are passing by the rocky bluffs she had seen from the dock, heading around the far side of an island. She turns her head back and sees the wooden boat beside the dock, the pup running back and forth across the parking lot. She sees Gordon heave an oddly-shaped black case over the side of the boat onto the seats. The case catches the sun and flashes out a slick shine.

They pass between the island and the cliffs. The doors of an empty boathouse yawn wide toward them, the water inside black and still. There is an old cottage on the island, made of stone with wooden shutters nailed over the window frames. There is a child’s doll on the floating dock by the boathouse; a plastic baby, naked, its hair hanging in the lake, its arms reaching up.

Beyond the island the lake narrows, two shores reaching in toward each other. They round the bend to their left and Joan slows the boat, hugging the shore. She points to a small green cabin on a wooded lot across the water.

“That’s me over there. I’m pretty much always around if you need anything. You’ll have to walk around the end of the lake, though. It’s a good hike, but you look up to it. Otherwise, I’ll be around to pick you up Sunday afternoon sometime. What did you say your name was? ”

“It’s ‘Tara.’”

“Well, it’s not a normal one, but it’s lovely.”

“Thank you. It’s Irish. I think it means “lake-in-the-glen-by-the-dale” or something colourful like that.”

“Uh-huh. Well, there’s not much you can say about Joan. About as plain a name as there is. There anything you’ll be needing right off? You know there’s no hydro? You’ll have to use the wood stove for heat. Don’t let this sunshine fool you—it gets nippy at night.”

“They warned me.”

“What do you plan on eating? ”

“Oh, I’ve got plenty of stuff in the cooler. Fruit, veggies, granola for breakfast.”

“Uh-huh. A neighbour of mine just brought over a great big thing of bacon. Thick cut. You like bacon? ”

“I don’t eat meat, actually.”

“Uh-huh. Well, this is the place. I’d help you up with the stuff, but I’ve got to get back and feed the mutts. Hear them kicking up a fuss over there? Mastiffs. Hell-hounds—I breed them.”

The boat slows and bumps up beside a dock jutting out from a mass of steep-sloping rock. A thick, bright yellow rope snakes up the side of the bluff and disappears over the top. Carrying out across the lake are the deep-throated cries of Joan’s hungry dogs. They bark from their stomachs, urgent and low. The sound bounces around the rocky shoreline.

“They recognize the sound of my boat. Nothing smarter than a hungry dog.”

“Rugged” is the word they used to describe this place to her. Tara waves at Joan’s receding back, thinks about shouting thank you, but doesn’t. She takes note of her shrunken horizon. The sun is already filtering through the trees on the far bluff. She ties her supplies with a rope net she has brought with her, and drags it up the rock face after she has made her own climb.

There is one room, a loft above the back half, and a wooden deck that reaches to the edge of the cliff. The door is latched but unlocked, the windows shuttered. On the table in the centre of the room is a note under the salt shaker. “Welcome. Please make yourself at home. If you use the stove, please bring in more wood for the next visitors. There is nothing of any real value here. No guns or liquor. Please latch the door on your way out. Thanks—the owners.”

There is a small couch, a comfortable chair, a counter with cupboards and wash basin, a double bed in the loft covered with an old crazy quilt. There is a bookcase filled with musty paperbacks: Agatha Christie, Stephen King, John le Carre. There are old adjustable oil lamps with freshly trimmed wicks. Nothing of any real value.

Tara sits at the table, flipping through an old copy of Chatelaine. She pauses over a recipe for chocolate marshmallow brownies. She answers the first three questions in the quiz, “HOW WELL DO YOU HANDLE YOURSELF,” but gives up at “Do you have any habits that you must perform before you start your day, i.e. have a cup of coffee, cigarette, etc.”

She wanders out onto the deck. The air is now uncomfortably cold, the sky a deep blue, speckled with stars. She hugs her arms around her chest and leans over the railing. A crescent moon floats on the surface of the water. There are lights on in cottages all around the lake. She sees the bright yellow and white of electric lamps, the flickering blue of televisions. A car starts somewhere across the water, and Joan’s dogs yelp tentatively.

On the mattress when she pulls back the quilt there are three tiny brown pods that look like wild rice. Tara picks one up and examines it in the light of an oil lamp. When she squeezes it, it bursts open, covering her fingertips with a grey, puss-like fluid. Eggs, pupae of some unknown creature, insect, that lives in the walls, floor, mattress.

She wipes her fingers with toilet paper, sweeps the remaining two pods into her hand, and tosses them into the wood stove.

“Me or them.”

She replaces the quilt and sleeps on top of it, bunched in her sleeping bag, a balled-up sweater for a pillow. If there are noises in the night, she does not hear them. She becomes aware of an ash-coloured light on the walls of the cabin and is relieved. She doesn’t feel like sleeping in.

She lies still on the mattress listening to the morning birds, hardly thinking. Quickly, the loft becomes too warm; she descends the ladder and opens the door to the deck. The sun is a crushed violet sphere an inch above the far trees. Below, a purple-grey mist hides the lake.

“Tourist brochure beautiful.”

Somewhere across the water a spring stretches, creaks back, a screen door bangs shut. She lights a fire in the stove and fills the kettle from her water jug for coffee. She waits in a chair on the deck, red, one-piece long underwear for warmth, knees hugged to her chest.

A third cup of coffee. Tara walks the property in a long bathrobe and sneakers. Young, bluish pine, half-bald scrub oak, dry, green moss, and scaly, black lichen. There is a constant feeling of altitude. She is always equal to the horizon, most of the landscape below her. The rock is insistent, unyielding; a thrust into the sky.

She steps out of her shoes, drapes the robe on a gentle rock slope, and stretches out in the sun. The lake sounds are distant—whining engine, faint shout. The rock face is cool through the robe, the sky cloudless. She thinks about sunblock and skin cancer, wonders if the lateness of the year will protect her. She chooses not to think about it.

Tara knows he is there, but can’t be sure if he has seen her. She can’t hear anything over the music in her earphones but she has seen a metallic flash and movement in the trees. They told her she would be left alone.

He doesn’t fully emerge until she has replaced her robe. He is wearing green work pants and a red plaid shirt. He appears to be in his late fifties or early sixties. He is smoking a cigarette and flicks the dead ash into the palm of his hand before dropping it to the ground.

“Wouldn’t want to accidentally hit that dry stuff with a heater.”

Tara peers through the brush, trying to locate her cabin.

“Hi. Jack Sherman. You a Wilson, then? ”

“A friend. The Wilsons aren’t here this weekend.”

“Oh, a friend. Tell me, you know anything about the paint all over my trees? Someone’s put a bright pink stripe on a couple of my nice pines, looks like a survey mark or something. I figured maybe the new owner, this what’s his name, Wilson, must have been trying to figure out the property line, you know.”

“Sounds reasonable.”

“Yeah, only he’s got it all wrong. There’s a stake just over there in the bush and he’s sprayed trees a good forty feet into my land from there. I mean a little paint don’t bother me just so long as he doesn’t get it into his head that they’re his trees and starts knocking them down for firewood, you know.”

Tara nods her head and looks concerned, tries to seem more than half-clothed.

“You can’t be up here alone, a pretty young woman like yourself.”

Tara smiles vaguely; not an answer either way.

“We’ve been up here full-time for twenty years, my wife and I. We go to Florida for a couple of months once the snow flies, but otherwise it’s here. She isn’t too well these days, my wife. Doesn’t have her wind any more, some kind of lung condition—emphysema or something. Doesn’t leave the house much any more.”

Jack licks his thumb and folds the tip over the glowing point of his cigarette, squeezing it out. He puts the dead butt in his breast pocket. Tara reaches down to pick up her coffee mug, holding closed the top of her robe with one hand.

“But, I’ve bugged you enough. I’ll get out of your way. Maybe you might want to mention the paint to your friend when you see him. No, don’t you go, I’ll get out of your way. You enjoy your weekend, you’ve got the weather for it anyways.”

He waves a finger at her, sweeping it up and down her robe.

“And, uh, don’t worry about that, you know. Feel free, I mean. I only came over on account of the paint, and I won’t bug you again. Feel free. Beauty like that should be uncovered, I always say. Enjoy.”

Tara smiles again. She remembers her grandmother. Take the compliments where you can get them. They’ll stop coming soon enough.

Tara takes the wrong path. The cabin is off to her left when she reaches the clearing. She is near a lean-to that shelters the woodpile. Two chipmunks chase each other in circles around the split logs, wildly rustling the fallen leaves. There is no smoke from the stovepipe. She loads small logs into the crook of her arm.

It is cooler inside the cabin than out. On the counter there is a wire basket of fresh eggs and a package wrapped in brown paper. On the table there is a green, two-litre wine bottle with the label removed. In the package are several pounds of bacon, thick cut. In the bottle is hard apple cider. Tara goes onto the deck and looks out over the lake. On Joan’s property, three huge, slate-coloured animals are running and playing, solid as bears. The turquoise boat rocks on the black water beside the dock.

“Uh-huh.”

Tara eats two bacon and egg sandwiches for her lunch. She fries the bacon first and uses the hot fat for the eggs. She drinks three glasses of cider. When she has finished eating, her skin feels oily. She rubs her hands on her face and down her neck to her bare shoulders. She sits at the table for long while, sleepily breathing the bacon, rubbing it into her skin.

She awakens curled up on the couch, sneakers still covering her bare feet. Her head is dull and there is the taste of stale apple in her mouth. The cabin is darker but she can see blue sky through the screen door. It has grown cold again. An autumn breeze blows through. She sits up and wishes she had a cigarette. She gets up from the couch and lights two oil lamps. The light makes the room seem warmer. She clears the table, puts the used dishes in the basin, and tries to remember the date.

The memory of a dream ghosts through her. Golden light, music, echo, the banging of screen doors. She stretches up, takes her Walkman from the floor of the loft and goes out onto the deck, letting the screen door slam. She sits on the wooden rocking chair, blinking awake in the cool wind, and tries to find a station with no music. She wants people talking—news. The sun has sunk behind the trees to the west. The light around her is green-filtered.

The later it gets, the farther she can hear. American stations bleed over the border. Sports talk show from Chicago, baseball from St. Louis, open-line from New York, medical question and answer from Detroit. Blood in my stool, a lump in my armpit, bleeding gums, sore joints, swelling, my daughter won’t eat, my husband snores.

“Complain, complain, complain.”

It is dark and much colder. Swift clouds flow over the moon. Tara pulls the tiny speakers from her ears and shuffles back inside. There is a scratching at the back door. She moves a lamp to the small table beside the door and lifts the latch. A racoon scurries back just beyond the frame of lamplight. The meat is still unwrapped on the counter.

Tara grabs a corn broom and bangs the handle on the cabin floor. The racoon shifts in the darkness, blinks. She reaches out with the handle and pokes the racoon in the side. It hisses and lunges. Tara drops the broom and slams the door.

“Make yourself at home.”

The morning is wet. Tara wakes to cold water dripping on the back of her hand. It is early, sullen. She wipes her wet hand across her eyes and thinks about swimming. She wonders about the depth of the lake and the temperature of the water.

“Would they ever find me? ”

She gets up from the bed, starts the fire under the kettle, and stares out the screen door. She can see her breath. The rain has stopped, but water from the leaves above taps the deck. There is a metal pail at a corner of the railing, overflowing with rainwater. Tara peels off her long underwear and pushes open the door. The deck wood is slick, water clinging to it in sheets. She stands naked in the cold air and pours out the bucket over her head.

Her lungs empty and for a moment everything around her is hard and real. Her eyes will not close. She rubs her body fast—her face, her feet. She finds her voice and cries out in sharp, high clouds. She stares down at her belly and below at the drops clinging to the dark blond hairs.

Standing next to the open stove door, she dries herself with a towel. Her skin feels sore, scraped. She pulls on a pair of sweat pants and a thick cotton sweatshirt. She puts on thick socks and her sneakers. When she sits down at the table with a coffee, she is conscious of the fabric of the clothing running across her skin. Her body is hyperaware, feeling everything at the same time. She tries to concentrate on what might be missing.

The sky clears and the air becomes warmer. Frosty mist rises from the clearing around the cabin and filters through the bush. Tara finds the corn broom by the woodpile and leans it against the porch railing. She walks slowly along the path, picking her way around puddles. Through the trees she spots a bright pink stripe, a scar on the trunk of a stunted oak, and farther on, another.

She reaches the edge of the bluff as it cuts through the woods; massive green stone falling out from beneath itself as though it has been undermined. Below, a lush, dark ravine runs down to the lake. The old stream bed is grown over with fern and tangle; a cinematic jungle scene minus the monkeys and elephants. She sits on an edge of rock, dangling her legs. Water seeps through her sweat pants, but she doesn’t move. Music has begun somewhere.

Echoing out from across the lake are deep clear tones of a musical piece she does not recognize. The notes are recklessly thrown out, lacking certainty. A solitary musician not far away, on an instrument Tara has a shadowy memory of from high-school music class. French horn. Deep, awkward—an instrument of accompaniment.

“Mr. Gordon Brownsuit and his shiny black case.”

Deep and awkward, with no particular audience in mind. She begins to laugh.