Story Time: Campout.

March 10th, 2009
Okay, I’m finally lazy and sadistic enough to inflict some story on you. In other news, I’m touched to report that a random spambot saw enough potential to leave two messages on earlier posts, like a cat leaving bits of half-eaten mice for you. I’m all choked up.

This was the setting: miles upon miles of snaking bays and channels and big blue bulges of fresh, clean water, perfectly paired by the islands; large and little, that wrapped themselves around the waterways.

The islands were rocks. Not made of rock, or covered with rock: rocks. Enormous, beautiful smooth domes and hummocks and heaps of granite stone that looked older than time itself. The sun was dipping lower in the sky, and they were warm as toast under its rays.

This was not a place of sand, gravel, or dirt. Oh, they all existed, here and there, but only on the sufferance of the rock atop which they perched, like a badly-made toupee upon the skull of a bald man.

There were trees there, too; evergreens, growing on what appeared to be their own discarded needles, a thick, prickly carpet of brownish pins. Moss made squishy mats in the crevices of the islands, and lichens teal, black and brown were sprinkled on the hard rock like salt-and-pepper.

This was the setting. Now, one particular island…

It was very large indeed, but the jagged outline of its shores blended with the many other islands around it, making it near-impossible to tell one landmass from another in the endless bayscape. Unless you’d seen it on maps, it could be anywhere from a mile to a hundred in length, width, and any other directions you cared to name.

There was a little campsite on it, with a wooden shelter for when it rained and people didn’t quite feel like hiding in tents, and a metal firebox on a pole, grill-topped, open on one end. There was a wooden dock. And cruising up to the dock was a large boat.

Seven or eight people of two different families got off the boat, unloading massive amounts of luggage with them, most of which was food. The boat’s driver, Edward, was one of those men that can deliver a perfect five-minute monologue on the virtues and vices of any engine ever built for any vehicle, in a way both beautiful and disturbing. He stood six-foot-two, seemed much larger by sheer force of personality, and had a spectacularly large red beard that made him look sort of like a Viking in a baseball cap, needing only an iron skull-cap to fulfill the image.

By the time the mob on the dock had gotten their belongings sorted out and were putting up their tents, another, smaller boat was within sight of the island. It contained another eight or so people, of three different families, with precisely the same quantities of food and exactly the same difficulties in getting themselves off the dock. The driver for this boat was named Jonathon, and although he wasn’t as mechanically minded as Edward, he could play a guitar like nobody’s business, and therefore Ed was predisposed to forgive him his inability to instantly name the serial number of any boat shown to him. He was an annoyingly cheerful man of Chinese descent, with a mouth that was always on the edge of a grin.

The third boat showed up as the second lot were leaving the dock, and it contained roughly the same amount of people as the first pair. Items were disembarked, children ran onto the rock beach, and various dogs were let loose to run around and either sniff or bark at one another.

Within half an hour, the various items and supplies and so on and so forth were all stowed away and all the tents were up – a surprisingly small number, since three families were sleeping on their boats. After another fifteen minutes or so, assorted items of edible nature were being produced by several of the adults, notably the driver of the third boat: Stuart, or, as he was more generally called, “Stewie.” Stewie was a shortish, roundish man who was to cooking what Ed was to complicated bits of metal that went “phut!” except with more universally applauded end results. People appreciate getting somewhere on time, but they really appreciate having something to eat once they get there.

As Stewie finished preparing the marinade for a host of pork chops, some of the teenagers, followed by their throngs of prepubescent sycophants, searched through some nearby bushes until they located a mossy stump hidden in a thicket of prickly juniper bushes. With winces, scraping of skin and the odd expletive, they lifted the tree-segment from its hiding place and carefully carried it to the circle of foldable camp chairs that had been set up around the firebox, placing it reverently in an open spot. It was made of some unidentifiable dark wood and old in a way that had no truck with years or seconds or any other human way of measuring then to now, life to death.

After the placement of the stump, activities broke down into three groups; the adults sipped pre-dinner alcohol and talked around the cooking food as it roasted on the firebox grill, the teenagers sat around playing a game or three of rummy, and the children skittered up and down over the rocks holding sticks (rifles and handguns), fighting imaginary wars.

As the sun began to apprehensively slip towards the treetops, the pork chops came to a delicious, messy end; slurped down and then chewed up by all ages alongside heaps of Caesar salad and creamy noodles. The little kids skittered off to play again and the adults and teenagers cleaned up, talking among those their age, beginning to slow down for the evening, moving closer and closer to the fireside ring of chairs.

By the time the sun sank out of sight, all above age ten were seated comfortably in camping chairs, beers, pops, and water bottles snuggled into the chair’s arm-holsters. A bag of chips was produced and began to pass around the circle, clockwise. It’s a Friday night, and they’ll be here till they leave on Sunday afternoon. The moment was right, and so Jonathon stood up, walked over to his tent, and began to extract his guitar case. Simultaneously, all of the absentee youth suddenly appeared in their parents laps, waiting expectantly. Unbowed and unbent by the abrupt weight of attention upon him, Jonathon shuffled back to his chair, where he busily removed his guitar from its casing, which he delicately leaned against the trunk of a tree at his side.

He passed his hands over the strings of the instrument and made a few adjustments as he twiddled out small chords and notes. The air of anticipation thickened throughout the charcoal-flavoured air, and the fire puffed out a few sparks in delight. One or two people glanced at the still-unoccupied stump and smiled.

Jonathon grinned and strummed his way into the opening bars of “Oh Jean.” As the first notes brushed their ears, the audience, which was also the chorus, began to grin and rock back and forth with the rhythm. Then, as Jonathon broke through the intro, they began to sing.

The second the first words left their lips, stumbling noises sounded from the beach, the shuffling and thumping of large feet. As the chorus rose up – full-volume, as the ones who couldn’t remember each and every verse grasped onto the song’s memorable core – the feet halted, with their owner just outside the firebox’s circle of light, hanging back reluctantly.

Jonathon freed one hand from his playing for a moment to wave in an encouraging manner before returning to his instrument. Several of the children howled encouragements in between badly-pitched verses.

Shyly, slowly, the shuffler slipped into the firelight. It crept up to the empty seat, the stump, and it sat on it very carefully.

It blinked. Its eyes were its most striking features – perfectly round, and at the moment the red colour of a loon’s in summer. Like a bird, it couldn’t move them in their sockets, and it turned its big head from side to side to watch things as they moved; Jonathon’s fingers on his guitar strings, the bag of chips (sour cream and onion) as it passed from hand to hand, the glittering of the fire’s light on eyes and metal zippers of jackets (the evening was a bit chilly).

Its eyes were striking, but it was a striking thing.

It was made of rock and moss, lichen and evergreen.

The branches and stones that made the bulk of its frame looked more like miniature trees and hills than anything else.

And the waters that beaded on its skin, crisscrossing everywhere like a spider’s web of moisture, were closer to lakes and creeks and pools than dribbles and droplets.

It was a bayscape in motion, and it was very lonely for most of its time.

Now, however, it had company, and, just like anyone who lives alone for very long periods of time, it wasn’t quite sure what to do but sit in a mixture of enjoyment and shyness.

The chips made their way to it, and it took a small handful and passed them on. A bottle of water was pressed into its gnarled hand, and it accepted it. It didn’t have a mouth – it barely had a face – but somehow, the chips vanished one by one and the water bottle began to empty in fits and starts.

It liked the music. Jonathon began “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles),” and everyone waited for the chorus again before belting out the lyrics. The shuffler either couldn’t or wouldn’t sing, but it clapped along, hands making muffled thumps as they beat out the rhythm of the song perfectly. The lyrics eluded Jonathon now and then, but the song’s momentum and the steady beat and his own musical instincts carried him along just fine.

After the song, there was a brief lull in the singalong, as Edward told a somewhat dirty joke. Jonathon laughed loudest of all, and then he told a substantially dirtier one, and in such a way that most of the adult audience near-killed themselves laughing, while the children demanded to know what was so funny, destined to remain unanswered and unsatisfied. The loon-eyed thing applauded after each joke and gently rocked back and forth, tipping the old stump a little with every motion. It was only a little bigger than a big man, but it had such an air of size and mass about it that it was amazing that old stump could hold all the weight that wasn’t there. Still, it did.

The chip bag passed the bayscape again, and once more it took a small handful of chips. Once more, they vanished bit by bit, with no hint of what was happening to them. One moment the chip was there, blink, and it was gone.

Jonathon finished that song, and the next, and then he passed the guitar to Stewie, who strummed out a few tunes. He wasn’t as good as Jonathon, but that was scarcely an insult. And after Stewie laid down the instrument, one of the teenagers picked it up and played it for a song or two, putting practice to purpose. Loon-eyes listened and watched to them all impartially, keeping the rhythms in the thudding of its palms.

Jonathon took the guitar again, and the Beatles thrummed through the air, accentuated by the steady, never-faltering beat of loon-eyes. “Let It Be,” “Norwegian Wood,” and “Nowhere Man” passed by before the first children began to peter off to bed, accompanied by parents more often than not. Each and every person that left that fire walked in front of loon-eyes’s stump and shook its mossy hand goodbye, and it looked at them through reddishness and nodded to them all.

It was latish – past ten probably, most likely eleven, and who needed to know the time on a weekend, on an island? People trickled away in bits and bites; the bag of chips was emptied and crumpled up and stuffed into a trash sack, loon-eyes’s water bottle was fully drained and carefully placed into the recycling container, and then, all of a sudden, there were only a few folk left around the firebox: Stewie, Ed, a teenager trying to stay awake, loon-eyes, and Jonathon, who was quietly strumming chords to himself so as not to keep anyone awake.

Ed talked about engines to the others, and motors, and other things that spun and snorted in metal cages. Stewie and Jonathon nodded and followed what they could, which was most of it. Ed knew how to gauge his audience. The teenager was too tired to notice anyone speaking, let alone pay attention, and loon-eyes sat quietly and nodded its head-like mass occasionally.

After a while (midnightish? Could be. Would be?), the teenager went to bed, leaving just the three boat-drivers around the firebox with loon-eyes. Jonathon was nodding over his guitar, Stewie’s eyes kept losing focus, and Ed kept breaking sentences into chunks with yawns. Loon-eyes was still the same.

Stewie broke the balance first, straightening up from his chair with a creak and a sigh to shake loon-eyes’s hand. He dumped his empty beer can in the recycling container. The others did the same, and then he ducked away into the trees towards his boat, a “goodnight” trailing after him.

Jonathon started to pack up his guitar, and Ed poked the fire a bit, making sure it wouldn’t spill or overflow with embers as the night grew onwards towards the end. Loon-eyes watched one, than the other, shuffling in its seat, unsure if it should be doing something or not. Once it moved as if to help fold up a chair, but Ed stopped it with a firm gesture, packing it up himself. It sat there as the two men cleaned up the last few little details of the night, looking at its hands or the fire, who could say.

The job was done, the camp was cleaned, and loon-eyes arose from its seat hesitantly, peering about itself as if wondering where all the people had gone. Jonathon appeared on its right elbow, guitar slung on his back, and Edward at its left, flashlights in their hands. Then, matching the thing’s stumbling, shuffling steps, they walked it down to the shore, stubbing toes on rocks and sliding feet over smooth stone.

At the water’s edge, loon-eyes halted, unsure again. It stopped, the tips of its needled feet brushing the edge of the dark waters, and looked about itself. A loon called out in its beautiful, mad voice, over the lake that was so many little lakes, and it seemed to relax deeply, shoulders losing that hunched posture of trepidation that had followed it for much of the evening. It turned about and stuck out its arm, and solemnly shook their hands, one after another, very carefully so as not to hurt them. Then, with barely a ripple to be seen, it ambled into the water, slipping beneath its blackened surface as smoothly as the bird that it shared its eyes with.

Edward puffed out the last few breaths of smoke from a cigarette and stubbed it out on the rocks before putting the butt in his jeans pocket. Jonathon had finished his last smoke some time before.

“One night a year,” he mused, watching the water.

“Yup,” affirmed Ed.

“One night a year… no wonder it’s so shy, eh?” Jonathon smiled a little.

“Did you see how nervous it was? Always wondered: why’s it come? You saw it leave – it was timid the whole time, because it was around so many people.” Ed shook his head. “Never got that.”

Jonathon shrugged. “It likes it. If it didn’t like it, it wouldn’t come anymore.”

Ed nodded. “Guess that makes sense. You can listen to music if you’re too quiet to sing, you can watch a dance if you’re almost too clutzy to walk. And you can enjoy a good campfire without being too much of a party person.”

“Yup,” said Jonathon, turning away from the midnight lake. “Well, I’m off to bed.”

Ed raised an eyebrow. “What about the stump?”

“We can move it back tomorrow,” said Jonathon, over his shoulder.

Ed took a look at the object in question. Silhouetted against the fire, it appeared even blacker. It looked like it had been there forever, without need for tree or root.

“It’ll stand for the night,” he conceded. “I’m for bed, then.”

They set off for separate boats, and slept till morning.

Behind them, where the circle of chairs had stood, the fire burned for another hour or so before its last coals faded into black.

The stump stood blacker still, and it stood watch all night, to witness the stars go down over the loon-haunted lake.

And somewhere, in all of that, throughout all the trees and the moss and the lichens and stones and age-old land, something felt a little less lonely for the rest of the year.

“Campout” copyright Jamie Proctor 2007.

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