And they would. In all his years growing up on the lake, then returning as an adult to watch again, John hadn't seen many icebound loons. Their instincts were good. They rarely erred.
John, however, erred -- and often. Hadn't he done it again this morning, setting out in a T-shirt and shorts, wanting it to be summer still and finding himself butt cold now? He sometimes had trouble accepting that he wasn't twenty anymore. He was over forty -- and, yes, still six three and fit, but his body didn't work the way it once did. It ached around the knees, wrinkled around the eyes, receded at the temples, and chilled in the extremities.
But cold or not, he wasn't leaving. Not yet. There might not necessarily be the makings of a big best-seller in it, but he hadn't had his fill of the loons.
He sat rock still in the canoe with his hands in his armpits for warmth and his paddle stowed. These loons were used to his presence, but he took nothing for granted. As long as he kept his distance and respected their space, they would reward him with preening and singing. When the world was eerily quiet -- at night, at dawn, on mornings like this when the fog muffled other noise that life on the lake might make -- the loons' song shimmered and rose. And it came now -- breathtaking -- a primitive tremolo released with the shiver of a jaw, so beautiful, so mysterious, so wild that it raised the hair on the back of his neck.
It also carried a message. The tremolo was a cry of alarm. Granted, this one was low in pitch, which made it only a warning, but he wasn't about to ignore it. With the faintest rasp of wood on fiberglass, he lifted his paddle. Water lapped softly against the canoe as he guided it backward. When he was ten more feet away, he stabilized his position and quietly restowed the paddle. Hugging his elbows to his thighs for warmth, he sat, watched, listened, waited.
In time, the loon closest to him stretched his neck forward and issued a long, low wail. The sound wasn't unlike the cry of a coyote, but John would never confuse the two. The loon's wail was at the same time more elemental and more delicate.
This one was the start of a dialogue, one adult calling the other in a succession of haunting sounds that brought the distant bird gliding closer. Even when they were ten feet apart, they continued to speak, with their beaks nearly shut and their elongated throats swelling around the sound.
Goose bumps rose on his skin. This was why he had returned to the lake -- why, after swearing off New Hampshire at fifteen, he had reversed himself at forty. Some said he'd done it for the job, others that he'd done it for his father, but the roundabout truth had to do with these birds. They signified something primal and wild, but simple, straightforward, and safe.
A loon's fife consisted of eating, grooming, and procreating. It was an honest life, devoid of pretense, ambition, and cruelty. The loon harmed others only when its own existence was threatened. John found that totally refreshing.
So he stayed longer, though he knew he should leave. It was Monday. Lake News had to be at the printer by noon on Wednesday. He already had material from his staff correspondents, one per town. Assuming that the appropriate bins held articles promised by local movers and shakers -- "movers and shakers" being a relative term -- he would have a wad of reading and editing, keystroking, cutting and pasting. If those articles weren't in the bins, he would call around Lake Henry and the four neighboring towns serviced by the paper, take information on the phone, and write what he could himself -- and if he still ended up with dead space, he would run more Thoreau.
There wasn't a book in that either, he told himself. A book had to be original. He had notebooks filled with ideas, folders thick with anecdotes he had collected since returning to town, but nothing sparked an urge to hustle -- at least, not when it came to writing a book. He did hustle when it came to Lake News -- but mostly between noon Tuesdays and noon Wednesdays. He was a last-minute kind of guy. He wrote better under the threat of a deadline closing in, liked the rush of a newsroom filled with action and noise, liked the perversion of keeping the managing editor on edge.
Copyright © 1999 by Barbara Delinsky
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