Michael showed them the sack with the whiskey.
"Ill just take this. Im not hungry." When he tasted his untouched coffee, it was cold as well.
Beyond the Hunters Supper Club, the big swamp took shape and snow was falling before they reached the cabin. They followed the dirt road to it, facing icy, wind-driven volleys that rattled against the windshield and fouled the wipers. As they were getting their bags out of the trunk, the snows quality changed and softened, the flakes enlarged. A heavier silence settled on the woods.
As soon as it grew dark, Michael opened the Willoughbys. It was wonderfully smooth. Its texture seemed, at first, to impose on the blessedly warm room a familiar quietude. People said things they had said before, on other nights sheltering from other storms in past seasons. Norman Cevic groused about Vietnam. Alvin Mahoney talked about the single time he had brought his wife to the cabin.
"My then wife," he said. "She didnt much like it out here. Naw, not at all."
Michael turned to look at Alvins worn, flushed country face with its faint mottled web of boozy angiomas. Then wife? Alvin was a widower. Where had he picked up this phrase to signal the louche sophistication of la ronde? Late wife, Alvin. Dead wife. Because Alma or Mildred or whatever her obviated name was had simply died on him. In what Michael had conceived of as his own sweet silent thought, he was surprised by the bitterness, his sudden, pointless, contemptuous anger.
He finished his glass. At Alvins age, given their common vocabulary of features, their common weakness, he might come to look very much the same. But the anger kept swelling in his throat, beating time with his pulse, a vital sign.
"Well," Norman said, "all is forgiven now."
Michael, distracted by his own thoughts, had no idea what Cevic was talking about. What was forgiven? All? Forgiven whom?
In the morning they helped Alvin secure the cabin. His twelve-foot aluminum canoe was in a padlocked shed down the hill. Getting the canoe out, they found the padlock broken, but the burglars, in their laziness and inefficiency, had not managed to make off with the boat. One year they had found the bow full of hammered dents. Still working in darkness, they placed the canoe in its fittings atop the Jeep.
A blurred dawn was unveiling itself when they reached the stream that would take them into the islands of the swamp. There was still very little light. Black streaks crisscrossed the little patch of morning, the days inklings. They loaded the canoe by flashlight. Glassy ice crackled under their boots at the shores edge.
Michael took the aft paddle, steering, digging deep into the slow black stream. He kept the flashlight between the seat and his thigh so that its shaft beams would sweep the bank. Paddling up front, Norman also had a light.
"Nice easy stream," Alvin said. "I keep forgetting."
"It speeds up a lot toward the big river," Michael said. "Theres a gorge."
"A minor gorge," Norman said.
"Yes," said Michael, "definitely minor."
"But it gets em," said Cevic. "Every spring they go. Half a dozen some years." He meant drowned fishermen.
Yards short of the landing, Michael picked up the flashlight, lost his gloved grip and sent it tumbling over the side. He swore.
They circled back, and riding the slight current got a look at the flashlight resting on the bottom, lighting the weedy marbled rocks seven, maybe eight feet below.
They circled again.
"How deep is it?" Alvin asked, and answered his own question. "Too deep."
"Too deep," Michael said. "My fault. Sorry."
"No problem," Norman said. "Ive got one. And its getting light."
Copyright © 2003 by Robert Stone. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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Southern Gothic fantasy with a contemporary flare set in Savannah
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