I. The Mountain
She says she wants to climb a mountain. It is raining, but they will try it. A few steps from the cabin she says what's that, stopping to hover over a tiny coral-colored creature.
It's a red-spotted newt. A terrestrial eft. She has never heard the word newt. They follow him on their knees as he scampers into the shelter of red pine needles. "See," he says. "This is one of those times it's good to be so small. I would have walked right past him if it weren't for you." (Later that night, the light of his lantern will splash across a wet granite boulder at his feet, and he'll see a half dozen of them squirming there in the dark.)
He wonders about those families with litters of children. How do they ever get to know each one? Since his son was born he sees how hard it is even to find her among them. It takes time alone with her like this, he thinks. All the time he had with them this summer, and yet so little of this. It is like talking to an old friend he's missed, to attend to her words and thoughts without his attention divided. The trail is a wave of hairpins up West Rattlesnake Mountain. He shows her how to lean into it. He climbs behind her, so that if she slips while scrambling up rocks he'll catch her, and twice he does. He offers her a palanquin of shoulders. But she is five, and she will do this herself. A tree they pass looks like it has a face. A chipmunk in the brush is a diamondback, his clicking cheeks the daunting castanet. A mist settles in among trees thinning with elevation. "We are climbing into the clouds," she says. "This is exactly what I wanted, Pops." Her satisfaction puts a lump in his throat. "This is the most magical place I have ever seen."
And this is before the view from the top of the mountain she's climbed, the serpentine shore of Squam Lake below interrupted by docks that only allude to cabins under the canopy of trees. A fox, she says, has left her a gift of leaves prematurely red. It is a sign he is watching them. There are pools in the granite where Pegasus drinks. She sees him for a second, out in a cloud. His wings at least, she's sure of it.
What he would give to believe in anything like that again.
In time they descend. There is thunder with the rain now, still miles away. Still. She puts on her horned hat and becomes a unicorn who leaps across boulders and gallops down mountainsides, responding to his inquiries with whinnies and neighs.
He tells a unicorn who won't break character that tomorrow she must show her mother the top of that mountain. Wet boots and wet jeans by the fire: "Someday when I'm old and walk with a cane, I will remember climbing that mountain with you," he says to the sleepy unicorn on his lap.
II. The Lake
My son wakes from his nap the next day while the girls are still up on the mountain, and he wants to go out in the canoe. Down on the dock, I casually tighten the child-sized life jacket and sling my own over my shoulders, wondering absently whether I should return my cell phone to the cabin knowing it would be ruined if we were to tip.
But the lake is calm and we easily slip along the shore paddling only from the stern. The boy sits on a cushion in the middle of the metal canoe, facing me and jabbering about superheroes. Soon I don't even need to shift the paddle to starboard to keep the boat straight because a wind is blowing strongly from the direction of shore. A few minutes later it is all I can do to keep the canoe from heading out deeper into the lake and an honest storm is upon us, with rain and thrashing waves that occasionally crest over the gunwales and I am nervous and my son takes note. The canoe itself, unmanned at the bow, has become a sail taking us across the lake. The wind is so strong I cannot physically turn the canoe back towards shore. I experiment with different fruitless strokes, exhausting myself by rowing the boat backward to a standstill just to keep it from getting any further from shore. I eventually abandon the seat and shift to the middle, my son now between my knees, and use all my strength rowing into a turn that should point us back towards the specks of my wife and daughter now watching all this from our dock. Even leaning into the turn, no luck. The sun will be setting soon, and I have nothing left. With the risk of capsizing into that rough, cold water with any more effort, I just guide us windward towards an island in the middle of the lake.
The cell phone. My fingers are numb in my pocket and the ship adrift as I fumble to make the call. "I just can't turn it around," I tell my wife. "I can't physically do it. I think we need to be rescued." I know she can tell I'm not fucking around.
The canoe runs aground on rocks near the island. Without that phone we'd have been crusoed out here. We'd be sleeping with the loons tonight. My boy never cried once during the worst of his father's panic. "Don't worry," was all he whispered. "I'm a superhero."
They filmed On Golden Pond at this very lake in September 1980. I remember that scene where Henry Fonda's Chris-Craft crashes into the rocks. I might be clinging to the same boulder the old fart did in that movie. There is not another vessel in the water on this huge goddamn lake. A motor boat should be coming soon to tow us back to shore, my wife said. As soon as they can get there. There had been a moment out in the sudden storm when I felt powerless, when I stared down into the cold, unfathomable water and imagined some sort of kinship with sailors or any man brought past the brink of his ability to do anything about his fate, the horror of finding himself at the mercy of elements that have no capacity for mercy (or any other such sentiment). Five minutes later I'm remembering sepia-toned melodramas and standing in six inches of water half expecting a rowboat to pull up next to me powered by a single girl scout with an empty spot on her sash for a Rescue Flatlandlubber badge.
As I consider extricating the canoe from the rocks and trying again for shore I finally hear the putter of a low-horsepower engine. I let go of the boulder to wave my oar in the air, and as the boat lurches a bit my little boy knows by the break in the clouds over my face that his safety is close enough he can finally cry.
It is not the H.M.S. Tagalong after all, but a modest skiff manned by three burly Romanian boys who toss me a line and pull the canoe alongside them. They transfer my crying son into the boat and make him giggle by exaggerating Transylvanian accents. Even though I've just been unmanned, there's adrenaline in me that feels better than any drug. My boy is safe and warm wrapped in my shirt and my arms and we're headed back to shore while I promise these jocular vampires a six pack of beer. "These are real superheroes," I tell my son. The sun has set but there's still enough light to watch the island grow small as the engine slices into waves that settle into the calm shorewaters of the cove.
Wet boots and wet jeans by the fire: I tell my wife that I will never forget that feeling.