The Call of the Loons

Christmas, 1998 / No. 2

Right after dinner, as soon as “free play” period is announced, Myra hurries down to the dock and claims her favourite canoe. Two weeks ago (on July 17, 1952, to be exact, a date she’s sure she’ll never forget), she passed the solo test that allows her to take it out alone. She kneels reverently in the stern, the wooden ribs cutting into her knees, the bow riding high, practicing the silent art of paddling that Laurie has taught her. Slicing the blade deep, twisting it slightly so it causes barely a ripple coming out, bending her whole torso forward into the next stroke, she begins to feel the rhythm taking over her body. “My paddle’s keen and bright. Flashing like silver, swift as a bird in flight. Dip, dip, and swing,” she sings to herself, bearing down with each beat, as the slender craft cuts swiftly through the water.

She watches Laurie, his blue beret cocked rakishly over one ear, patrolling the designated area in his canoe like an aquatic centaur. Now and then, he reprimands a camper who’s gotten dangerously rowdy, or tactfully prevents a too-eager swain from spiriting his girlfriend off to a small nearby island. Too soon he blows his whistle to signify that it’s time to return the canoes to the beach and put the paddles and lifejackets back in their proper places in the boathouse.

As usual, Myra stays behind to tidy up after the others have trooped noisily up the hill. There’s always a paddle left standing incorrectly on its blade rather than its handle, or a damp orange lifejacket carelessly tossed toward a peg and abandoned on the floor. Laurie doesn’t mind if she lingers, as long as she’s quiet; sometimes he doesn’t even seem to notice she’s there as he sits leaning against a post at the end of the dock, smoking his pipe and watching the last streaks of colour drain from the sky.

“I missed you yesterday,” he says suddenly, his back to the spot where she’s standing in the shadows. Her throat constricts so that she can hardly breathe. “Where were you? ”

“They made me stay overnight in the infirmary,” she says. “Stupid Marilyn who sleeps in the bunk above me told Barb that my coughing was keeping her awake and she was afraid she’d catch my cold.”

“Are you feeling better? ”

“Sure. Dr. Johnson gave me some cough syrup, so naturally I stopped coughing. It was so stupid. They could have given it to me without making me stay in that horrible, miserable place. I hate it there.”

“Oh, it’s not so bad.”

“It is so. And I hate that Pat—that nurse.”

“Ah, yes, Pat. She’s not so bad either.”

Myra thinks she detects a note of mockery in his voice. He’s treating her like a baby. And she isn’t a baby. She’s fifteen. Old enough to know what it is to be desperately, hopelessly in love.

“You wouldn’t say that if you knew what she said about you.” The minute it’s out she’s sorry.

Laurie takes a long slow pull on his pipe. “I can barely see you back there. Why don’t you come over here and sit down.”

“I’ve gotta get back to my cabin,” she says.

“You’ve got fifteen minutes,” he says, still looking out at the lake.

Myra sits down, her feet dangling over the water, her hands under her knees tightly gripping the rough edge of the dock. She bends her head so her long silky hair falls forward, smooth as a curtain, hiding her face. Her heart is pounding so hard she’s sure he can hear it.

“Will you be coming back as a CIT next year? ” Laurie asks.

“I don’t know. My mother says ‘counsellor-in-training’ means your parents get to pay while the camp owners get to use you as free labour.”

“Your mother’s got a point.”

She presses her arms tightly against her sides to control her shaking. “Are you coming back? ”

“Nope. Afraid this’ll be my last summer at camp. I’ll be starting my internship next spring.”

“Where are you going to intern? ”

“I don’t know yet. I’ll be applying to a few hospitals. I’d like to get into the General, but the competition’s fierce there.”

“My father’s at the General.”

“I know.”

“You do? ”

“Of course. Everybody knows your father.”

She turns her head and glances quickly at Laurie. His eyes look so deep and sad. She knows his father died when he was very young. She struggles to restrain herself from brushing a stray lock of sun-bleached hair off his forehead.

“So what did Pat say about me? ”

“Oh, nothing.”

“Come on. You said you heard her. Who was she talking to? ”

“Barb. She took me over to the infirmary and, after the doctor left, they were talking in Pat’s room. They thought I was sleeping, but I wasn’t. I could hear every word they said.

“Hey, you’d make a terrific little spy. So what did they say? ”

“I can’t tell you.”

“Sure you can.”

“No, really.”

“Here I’m going to all the trouble of getting special permission to take you on that five-day trip next week and you won’t even tell me what terrible things people are saying about me.”

“I’m going on that trip? ” Her delighted smile frames her perfect teeth.

“Well, it’s supposed to be just the CIT girls, but we’re short one person, so I said there was someone in your cabin who was really good at handling a canoe…”

“Oh, please, please…I’ll do anything…scrub the pots…”

“What did Pat tell Barb? ”

“I didn’t really know what she was talking about.”

“What did she say? ”

Myra studies the reflection of the soles of her brown and white saddle shoes in the water. “She just said you weren’t going to get away with treating her like that.”

“Like what? ”

“I don’t know. And she said that even though she wasn’t—you know—she was going to let you think she was…‘make you squirm,’ that’s what she said.” The words are tumbling out now. “She said she only came to this camp because of you, but nobody was supposed to know you even knew each other—especially Mr. Jessop. She thought you were different because you gave her a ring and everything, but she found out you were the same as all the other med students. You all thought you were God’s gift to nurses and you needed to be taught a lesson.”

“Whew!” Laurie lets out a long breath. For a few moments he’s silent, then he turns to Myra and smiles. “You could get a job spying for the R.C.M.P.,” he says. “Now you’ve got to promise…this is our secret. Not a word of it to anybody.” He takes her hand. “Promise? ”

“I promise.”

Halfway up the hill, she stops and looks back. He’s still sitting on the dock; she can see the lonely glow of his pipe in the dark. She would do anything for him. Anything. She presses the hand he had held to her cheek. They would live on a tiny remote island in Algonquin Park. Just the two of them. They wouldn’t need other people. Every evening they’d take their birchbark canoe out onto the lake at sunset, then they’d sit together by their campfire under the stars, and in the morning they’d awaken to the call of the loons.

Preparations are underway for the last trip of the season. Laurie’s in the tripping shed going over the supply list with Don, one of the other trippers.

“Take a whiff of this bloody wannigan,” Don says, wrinkling his nose in disgust. “These damn pots were put back without being washed properly.”

“Don’t worry about it. There’s a kid on this trip who’s just dying to scrub pots.”

“You mean Myra, the nubile little wench with the big, baby blue eyes? ”

“That’s the one.”

“Better watch out—she’s jailbait.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’ve got her trained.” Laurie opens the large white tin box with the red cross on the lid. “Will you look at this? Antiseptic’s spilled, calamine’s almost empty, no gauze, not even a frigging Band-Aid.”

“No time to pick them up now. The girls’ll be coming by to drop their bedrolls off any minute. Did I tell you that Shirley wanted to know if she could bring her hair curlers? ”

“By the time she’s carried a canoe and a pack over those three portages we’ve got lined up for them, her hair’ll curl by itself.”

Myra approaches the doorway nervously. She hasn’t seen Laurie since their encounter on the dock two nights before. She wonders if he’s been deliberately avoiding her. The message that she’d be going on the trip had been delivered by Don, who had also instructed her in the finer points of rolling a good tight bedroll around an extra change of clothes and wrapping it in a groundsheet to keep it dry. “Where do you want my stuff? ” she asks him.

“Just drop it over here in the corner,” Don says.

Laurie doesn’t look up.

Myra stands on one foot, rubbing the other against her calf. “Anything I can do to help? ” she asks.

“Yes, as a matter of fact, there is,” Laurie says. “Take this list over to the infirmary and tell them we need these things for the trip. I’ll sign for them later.”

“Sure,” she says, setting off at a run.

Don watches her go, noting the white shorts rolled high above her smooth tanned legs. He looks at Laurie with raised eyebrows and shakes his head.

“She’s just a kid,” Laurie says.

“Yeah. Right.”

Of course he couldn’t say anything to her with Don there, Myra tells herself as she hurries through the woods, careful not to snap a twig with her soft leather moccasins. Just like an Indian. Or a spy. She comes out into the clearing in front of the infirmary. The screen door squeaks as she opens it. No one in any of the cots today. The doctor’s office is locked. So is the supply room.

Pat’s door is ajar. She knocks softly, waits, then goes in. The room is narrow; the thin mattress on the metal-frame bed is made up with hospital-like precision, the corners perfect, the grey blanket tight. It looks as antiseptic as an operating room and as unlived in—except for some scraps of paper scattered over the top of the dresser at the far end of the room. Myra pieces them together easily. It’s an enlarged snapshot of two people—Laurie and Pat in formal dress at a dance, his arm around her shoulder, hers around his waist. A gardenia corsage is pinned to her strapless tulle gown; her frizzy blond hair is pulled back in a sleek roll. Myra studies Laurie’s image intently; she has never seen him like this—the dark suit and white shirt accentuating the leanness of his frame, the sensitivity of his chiselled features. She moves the two halves of the picture apart. Much better. Once in a while maybe they’ll leave the park and go into Toronto so they can get dressed up and go dancing. Maybe they’ll even live in town in the winter and save the island for the summer.

The screen door squeaks. Myra moves away from the dresser just as Pat bursts into the room. “What are you doing in here? ” she demands, her tall, solid figure blocking the doorway.

Myra feels like the chipmunk that got trapped in her cabin last week. One of the girls chased it into a corner with a broom and laughed as it stood there on its hind legs terrified and trembling. “They sent me over from the tripping shed for some first-aid supplies.”

“So what are you doing in my room? ”

“I told you. They need some merthiolate and stuff for the trip.” She shoves her hand into her pocket. “Here’s the list.”

Pat pushes her aside, grabs the torn picture and crumples it. Myra watches as she turns, a flush rising from her neck, mottling the fair skin of her face. She holds her fist in front of Myra. “My God, it was you, wasn’t it? You little sneak. Of course. You told him, didn’t you? ”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You were here. In the infirmary. That night. Did he send you over here to spy on me again? ”

“I told you. I came to get supplies.” She inches toward the door.

“They know that no supplies leave here without authorization. Are they trying to get me fired? ” She grabs Myra’s wrist, digging her blunt fingers into her skin. Her clutch is painfully strong. “What did you tell him, eh? ”

Myra tries to pull away, dragging Pat with her out of the room. “Leave me alone.”

“You’re in big trouble, you know.” Pat’s voice is menacing. She drops Myra’s wrist suddenly, and follows her through the infirmary. “What were you doing in my room? Stealing things? ”

Myra hurries down the path toward the dining hall, Pat at her heels. The lunch bell has just rung and campers are flocking in. She heads for her cabin’s table and sits down on the end of the bench. Pat sits on the bench of the table behind her, leaning toward Myra’s back. “What were you doing in my room? ” Myra can feel Pat’s breath hot against her neck.

Other girls sit at the table chatting and laughing, oblivious to Pat’s presence. Myra tries to join in their conservation.

“What were you doing in my room? ” Pat says. “What were you doing in my room? ” she repeats again. And again. And again, her voice not audible to anyone else over the general din.

Myra leans forward, hunching her shoulders, pulling her head turtle-like toward her chest. Pat leans closer. Myra chews on a piece of bread. She can’t swallow it. It’s hard to breath.

Myra has always been taught to respect her elders. Her mother’s friends have often remarked on how polite and well-mannered she is; a model student, she’s the one most often chosen to clean the blackboards, to hand out the exam papers. In the five summers she’s attended this camp, her counsellors have consistently given her parents glowing reports on visitors’ day.

Coiled tightly, she turns her head warily toward her tormentor. “Cut it out,” she says, the words catching in her throat.

“What were you doing in my room? ” the voice repeats, relentless, insistent. Unbearable.

Suddenly, Myra is on her feet. She can hear her voice screaming as though from a great distance, can sense the sudden, shocked silence in the room, can feel the heat where her hand connected with Pat’s face. Then she’s sprawled outside on the lawn, crying uncontrollably as a group of worried-looking girls gathers around her.

“All right now, what’s this all about? ” Mr. Jessop, the camp director, is looming over her, Pat at his side.

“I couldn’t help it. She wouldn’t leave me alone,” Myra’s voice comes out in staccato bursts between sobs. “She kept bugging me and bugging me and bugging me.”

“She’s hysterical,” Pat says. “She needs a sedative.” An outline of Myra’s hand is etched in red on her cheek.

“Pat and Myra, we’ll discuss this in the office. Everyone else, back to the dining hall. Everything’s fine. Finish your lunch,” Mr. Jessop orders.

Pat shoots Myra a triumphant glance. Myra has often wondered how Marie Antoinette must have felt walking toward the guillotine. Now, making her way on trembling legs toward the office, she thinks she knows.

Mrs. Jessop is on the telephone when they come in, assuring a concerned mother that her son has been getting his allergy shots. Mr. Jessop motions to her to hang up. He leads Myra to the couch. Mrs. Jessop sits down beside her and puts her lean, tanned arm around Myra’s trembling shoulder. She’s known Myra since she was ten. Myra’s father performed her hysterectomy last winter. “There now,” she says, handing her a Kleenex, “try to stop crying and tell us what happened.”

Pat remains standing. She can feel the ranks closing around Myra, shutting her out. It’s a familiar feeling. “I caught her snooping around in my room,” she says.

“Hold on, Pat,” Mr. Jessop says firmly. “We’ll hear what Myra has to say first.”

“I went to the tripping shed to drop off my bag and they asked me to go over to the infirmary with a list of first-aid supplies they needed for the trip.” She chokes back a sob and continues. “Laurie said he’d sign for them later.”

“I would never give out medical supplies to a camper without proper authorization. They think they can treat nurses like dirt—sending this little sneak—I caught her in my room—look where she slapped me.”

“Wait,” Mr. Jessop snaps. He turns to Myra. “Then what happened? ”

“Well, Dr. Johnson wasn’t in, so I went to Pat’s room to see if she was there.” She looks up at Mr. Jessop through tear-filled eyes. “She was supposed to be there, wasn’t she? ”

“And then? ”

“And then she came in and grabbed my wrist and started yelling at me.” She begins to cry again. “There, there,” Mrs. Jessop says, patting her shoulder. “And then she followed me to the dining hall and kept bugging me and bugging me and bugging me.”

Mr. Jessop is worried. Parents didn’t pay all that money to have their sheltered children bullied by his staff. He glares at Pat. “Now, what do you have to say for yourself? ” he says.

“Oh, what’s the difference,” she says. She starts for the door, then stops. “Look, I thought I’d lost something. A ring. I ran up to see if I’d left it in the rec hall. I was just away for a few minutes. Then I thought maybe I left it under some stuff on my dresser, so I ran back and she was there—at my dresser—messing with my things.”

“Are you accusing Myra of stealing this ring? ” His voice is steely. “That would be a pretty serious accusation.”

Pat feels as though someone has just pulled a plug and all her energy has gone down the drain. “I’m not sure it was…I don’t know. I’m not saying anything. Who’s going to believe me anyway? ”

“Now hold on a minute. Myra, did you take a ring? ”

Myra looks at Pat, standing dishevelled in the middle of the room, patches of perspiration making her white nylon uniform stick to her body. Her upper teeth protrude slightly, her eyes, beneath their light-coloured lashes are red-rimmed. She looks, Myra thinks suddenly, like a drenched rabbit. She wonders how she ever let herself feel threatened by her. “I didn’t see any ring,” she says. “All I saw was a picture of…”

“Forget it,” Pat says. “I’m sick of these spoiled brats and I’m sick of this place and—”

“That’s obvious,” Mr. Jessop interrupts. He looks at his watch. “There’s a car going into town at two o’clock,” he says. “It can take you to the bus station.”

“It’s rest hour. I’ll walk you back to your cabin now.” Mrs. Jessop leads Myra to the door, her arm still around her. “Congratulations on being chosen to go on that five-day canoe trip with the older girls,” Pat hears her say brightly as they go down the steps. “I hear you’ve made great progress in your canoeing classes this summer.”

Myra dabs at her nose to hide her grin. “Laurie’s a really great instructor,” she says.

Five days of paddling in Algonquin Park, four nights of campfires and sleeping under the stars. Eight years difference in age isn’t too much. Her father is eight years older than her mother. As soon as she gets home, she’ll have to start working on Daddy about that internship for Laurie. Daddy never refuses her anything.

It’s the third day out and it’s Myra’s turn to be in the bow of Laurie’s large supply canoe. The early morning mist has not yet burned off the water as they paddle silently across Little Joe Lake. Along the shore, the trees stand like ghostly sentinels; a tiny island ahead seems suspended, mirage-like, on a cloud.

“Hey, slow down,” Laurie says, laughing. “We’re getting too far ahead of the others. Those lily-dipping girls don’t paddle the way you do, you know.”


“Nothing to be sorry about. You’re doing great. In fact, you’ve been a terrific addition to this trip. Take a break and we’ll drift for a while till they catch up.”

Myra turns around carefully as she’s been taught, keeping low. She leans back facing Laurie, slowly drawing one knee toward her chest, arching her ankle. Across the lake a loon calls to its mate. She knows that this is another one of those perfect moments she’ll remember forever. In her pocket, her fingers close around a small hard object. She puts her hand over the side of the canoe. The water feels warm and silky. She opens her fingers and trails her hand languorously as the ring drops to the bottom of the lake. She doesn’t want the stupid thing anyway. Some day Laurie will give her a much nicer one.