I always loved going up to the cottage. It had been passed down in my family for generations. A rustic little box of stone and red wood, it sat in the middle of clearing down by the waters of Dove Lake, a stalwart little guardian of the serene wilderness around it.
I remember packing up all our things every summer with my Dad – fishing rods, propane grill, pots and pans, citronella candles, the whole kit and caboodle – into the back of our tiny dark green station wagon and heading up there for a week every July.
I loved those times in my childhood. My father was a stern man, but that tough armor he wore, that look he had like the world owed something and he was going to fight damn hard to get it, seemed to fall by the wayside as soon as we made our way up north. The beautiful trees and rocky hills of the Canadian Shield just brought out the good in him and let him leave all his worries behind.
My old man passed away many years ago, God bless him, and so the cottage belongs to me now. Kate and I had been loading up our own little car and heading up there every summer just as I’d done in my childhood. But that all came to a stop that one summer. I could never look at the cottage the same way after that, or think of it only in the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia.
It was two years ago that it happened. Kate had just had the baby not too long ago, and we’d decided after all the stress of becoming new parents to head up to the cottage for some time just for us. We deserved it. We left the baby with Kate’s parents, packed up the car, and headed up the highway to Dove Lake.
“I just want to sit out on the dock and read my book,” Kate had said.
That was the other thing. We weren’t just heading up there and leaving our newborn son behind just because we wanted some time for ourselves. Kate hadn’t been doing so well after the delivery. She’d still been in a lot of pain (which the doctors said was not normal, but did occur) and more troubling, had been very down since.
I talked with our doctor about what to do. Medication wasn’t necessary, he’d said. This happens after a baby sometimes and it eventually goes away. If things worsened or Kate’s mood didn’t lift we could look at other options. He agreed that heading up to the cottage to relax and take our minds off things would be a good way for Kate to feel better.
It was great to get up there. The sun was beautiful on the rippling dark waters of Dove Lake and our little rustic getaway (humble though it was) brought joy to my heart when we pulled into the property’s gravel drive. I thought of my youth, of sitting out in the little tin tippy and fishing with my Dad, and him telling me stories about the men at the factory, and how he’d travelled across Europe by train when had graduated from college, and how Grandpa used to sit out and fish on the lake with him just as we were.
I squeezed Kate’s hand. She was staring out the passenger window.
“Honey, we’re here,” I said.
“I know,” she replied heavily, and sighed. She frowned and I kissed her on the cheek.
It was always cold in the cottage. Though it was the middle of July, Dove Lake was far enough north that the temperature really dropped in the early morning and in the evening. You could see your breath in those early hours, those mornings we’d sit out on the dock and drink strong black coffee from tin mugs, and watch the mist rise from the still waters of the lake.
This year was different somehow. I was excited and happy to be away and escape up to the family retreat, but everything carried this dreary heaviness that emanated from Kate. Nothing seemed to break up the dark clouds that surrounded her; there was an impenetrable wall, a filter where all the sunshine and beauty passed in dull and gray to her, and all the beauty I knew she had inside couldn’t get out.
I tried to help. I tried to cheer her up, but I just couldn’t. Things got worse, and we argued at night, though she had even little energy to put into that. In those nights we huddled under the sheets close but were a thousand miles apart; the air in the cottage was cold but her next to me was colder still.
By the fourth day we weren’t talking much. There was just this uncomfortable silence between us, and the dark gloom enveloping her. I began to wonder what to do. I just wanted us to be happy. I suggested that perhaps we should just go home, that it wasn’t right to do it that year, what with the new baby, and how she was feeling, but she wouldn’t hear any of it.
“We came for the week,” she said, sad but resolute. “We’ll stay for the week.” She sighed again.
On the fifth day Kate wouldn’t come outside. I went for a hike. I came back to the cottage and she was lying on the bed, staring up at the ceiling.
“Honey,” I said, “Let’s go out in the boat. Come on, let’s go fishing.” Anything.
“No,” she sighed, and rolled over. “You go.”
I should never have gone.
The waters of Dove Lake were dark that day, dark and still and quiet; the air was cold and damp. I rowed out and there was no sound at all, except the metal oarlocks creaking in protest and the water splashing from their cyclic motion. I stopped when I reached the center of the lake and dropped my line. I felt alone. I worried about my wife, and about our new son. I looked over the side of the boat at my reflection in the glassy water. It was like a mirror. My face stared back up at me, tired and sad, with the dark gray clouds over that overcast day as my backdrop.
Far off near the shore, I saw mist rising from the shallows. I didn’t catch anything in those lonely hours. I felt as the last man in all the world, sitting completely alone and isolated, in the center of purgatory. No one could reach me. No one knew I was here. Nothing could lift the gloom of the mists of the lake.
I paddled back to shore, and turned to see the cottage dock coming into view, coalescing out of the mist. I pulled the oars again and their metal shackles squealed. Splash. Squeal. Splash. Squeal. I stopped again and turned to toward the cottage.
Peering through the mist, I saw a ghostly spectre emerging from the far end of the dock. It was a pale, thin form, naked, slowly treading along the boards toward the cold black waters at the end.
It was Kate.
I screamed her name and my cry echoed out against the gray sky. She didn’t slow. I began to panic and started rowing with all my strength. The oarlocks groaned and complained louder than before and I felt like I was going to tear them from the gunwales of the boat. I’d never get there in time. I called her name again and again and my distraught cries echoed out into the nothingness, into the watching trees of the North.
Again I turned and looked over my shoulder. I was too late. I watched my wife reach the end of the dock. Even from the distance I could see her standing there, starkly contrasted against the rising mist. Slowly, she looked down. She raised her eyes straight up, to the lake, to me, and then her arm in one long, fluid, languorous motion. One finale wave goodbye.
Kate stepped from the dock and disappeared into the waters of Dove Lake.
I screamed and screamed and pulled the oars with all my strength. I paddled faster and faster, faster than I ever had before, until my arms burned and every fiber of my being begged me to stop. Still I rowed, until my arms felt like they would be pulled from their sockets. It didn’t matter. There was nothing I could do.
By the time I reached the dock, Kate was already dead. Her body floated cold and lifeless in the water. Sobbing, I pulled it into the boat with me. I cradled her head in my lap and sobbed and sobbed and called for her to come back, to live, not to go.
But she was already gone.
Last year the anniversary of Kate’s death came around. Her parents and my family offered their condolences. We had a nice dinner at her folks’ place, and visited the cemetery to honor her memory. But I wanted to do so in my own way. I wanted to go back to Dove Lake and have some time alone just as I’d done every year.
When I got up there after the long drive, everything was eerily still and all the memories came flooding in a rush, like a dam breaking. It was just as it had all been the year before. On the coarse wood of the table made of logs, still folded, sat the quilt Kate had lain under the day she died.
I’m selling the cottage this year, because like I said, I can never go back up there again. I can never feel the same way about the cottage as I did before. And maybe you think that’s because of what happened, because of Kate dying, and because of all the bad feelings I now have associated with that place, overpowering all the memories of my youth.
But that’s not it. I can never go back because last year I rowed out to the center of the lake again, and in the mists of the far shore I saw Kate walking out into the water; and when I looked down into it I saw not my own reflection, but her sad face, begging me why I’d done nothing to stop her.