Once upon a time, on the jagged North Shore of Lake Superior,
one family made a summer home. They built one large
house with two bedrooms, a picnic house jutting out over
the cliff, a guest house, and a caretaker's house. These houses
were made from wood and stone, but their souls were made of magic.
The four buildings stand on a promontory between two pebble
beaches. When a storm comes, the force of the waves scours them
down to bedrock, drags them out to sea, and then hurls the rocks back into the cliffs.
this has happened for thousands of years before houses were ever dreamt of, and
each nor'easter has sculpted the cliffs anew like the hand of God creating Eden.
Even in the house, the floor vibrates slightly with each wave.
Turning off the main highway, an uninitiated traveler might think the path
could plunge directly into the Lake. Only trees are visible- the houses
nestle at discrete distances behind the protecting pines. Lake House, the
largest of the homes, is a comfortable frame structure. Thirty feet of
windows overlook the Lake. An immense stone fireplace made from round stones
as large as loaves of bread guards the great room. The ceilings are
beamed and low. Windows are everywhere, and every wall not supporting a
window has large, circular mirrors built into it. Every angled view
shows Lake or Tree.
Now, generations after the original owners' vision, it is named "Halcyon Harbor."
anyone with courage and a credit card can stay for as long as want.
The magic of Halcyon lies in its talent for distilling the truest
personality of every resident. Over the years, I brought almost
everyone important to me to my Lake House, and knew that each person
who entered would be a slightly different one by the time he left.
Some of these visits were warm, nurturing, dear. Sometime they terrified-
a few were profoundly sad. Always, even in the most casual of moments,
they were honest.
five of us first came there as a "piano family:" our college teacher and four
ex-students. nervous about traveling together and giggling about
morning hair, pajamas, (or lacks thereof), it was the first time any of us
would spend extended social time with PF. we whispered about calling
him by his given name rather than academic title; we wondered if we'd be
uncomfortable in the absence of a scheduled, more formal event.
we joked about him showing up, taking one look around, getting twitchy,
saying "Too quiet!" and speeding back to civilization in his aging Peugeot.
over the next years, we five visited Halcyon many times.
Once, on the last morning we were there, all of us gathered at the breakfast
table. The sunlight danced on the Lake, the air blew cleanly through the
pines and we were all reluctant to leave. We could feel the city
drawing us back to itself. Someone put an old Maggie Teyte recording on-
beautiful, melancholosexual Duparc songs. We all fell silent. The
sharing of the House and the beauty of the music suddenly gathered
all of our disparate Lives and created a single, glistening moment
poised forever like a tear at the corner of a lover's eye. After
an eternity, the singing ended.
We sat motionless as the water calmed itself. After a few minutes,
PF abruptly stood up, retreating to his room, his eyes red. He'd
been moved to tears- we weren't to acknowledge it. He returned
with his suitcase in hand, ready to leave, practical. We avoided
eye contact by watching the Lake. Nobody spoke. Standing quietly behind
me for a few second, he bent down and kissed the top of my head.
"All right now, see you back in town." he said. He
hesitated a bit more. Silence. None of us had spoken.
The door closed quietly, and we heard the Peugot starting, outside.
our time together had ended with the song.
once, when winter was at its most unforgiving, in the slow ice-time of january, we all went to Halcyon. we would plan elaborate dinners, work at crossword puzzles, drink enough to be sentimental (for that was still hard for some), listen to schubert, and be silent. When we wanted companionship, we would sit by the fire- when we wanted to be alone with our thoughts, we watched the Lake. some years, even in winter, the Lake would refuse to freeze over- its surface would lie still and adamant as my mother's expression on a crisp morning, set and grim and holding icy depths never known and, thankfully, never spoken. some nights, the fire would burn low and we'd watch the Lake in darkness, the only thing visible the occasional light from a passing sea-going vessel. frozen or not, Superior always held our secrets without comment.
yet there would be warmth with us, the five, brought together through music, the teacher and his no-longer students who were now close friends. there would be silence filled with schubert; there would be scrabble games rife with conquest and defeat that somehow gathered more significance than double-word-score, Q and Z. there would be meals carefully prepared, discrete turnings away, microscopic leanings-toward, companionable smiles, thoughts unvoiced but tacitly understood.
we were five and we were one, bound together with silken cords of schubert and faure'. there were songs of strauss, sonatas of beethoven, nocturnes of chopin, all accompanied by shots of good vodka or akvavit. we would stay up late to make the days last longer and then retire securely to separate sleeps.
one night, two were drowsing by the fire, two were staring into the dark (the Lake was out there, listening for our words.) one sat at the table, alone, a reading lamp describing a small circle on the table where an unread book had rested for hours. there might have been brahms.
"you". he said, breaking the silence. he indicated us four, together, separate, quiet, full. "you are the people i want with me when i am dying."
the Lake heard, considered, hissed, nodded. two looked away, fearful. i drew strength and word from Lake and answered for us all: "we will be there. i promise."
a million waves later, a thousand sleeps later, a handful of winters later, promise became event.
of the four of us, one left- his refusal to care was his mind's refuge.
another stayed, but her own complexities demanded most of her time, and he understood.
i stayed, but was wary- i had promised, but i was afraid it would be too sad to bear.
the last one stayed to fight his own demons, and took on his shoulders the demons of the one who was leaving.
that long-ago night, the Lake lie in wait, listening for our decision. somewhere in the background, music still played, but the sudden chill made it feel more distant.
in the Great Room, the fire, once so cheerful, once so inviting, once so easily tended, had gone out. it was time to go Home.
postscript: 6 years later, summer: one, watching the Lake alone...
and the warm breeze hummed shyly, with ever so subtle a motion, against the lake's clean surface, like the first note of a nocturne, like the first exploratory touch of an experienced lover's hand. the water's surface slowly became attuned to the motion- nothing so monumental as a tide nor so final as a wave, but a gentle, singing, undulating, sighing voicelet, moving with the wind as a field of wheat moves when touched by the breath of god. and these minute vibrations sang the the lake alive, and the lake sang the girl alive, and the wind and the water and the girl were one; and they spoke and listened to one another, and knew one another, and comforted each other, and as the lake's voice thrummed in the waning light, she remembered her friends with love, and she was no longer afraid.