In our kayaks we crept around the edges of Lake Ballinger, counting and identifying species. The day was cold -- "The day is cold," Dan said aloud, composing the nature-writing report he would later create, the reason we were there. "The day is chilly. The day is chill. No. The day is cold."
The day was cold. Fall at last, after our short, fitful, insistent summer. The day was dim and cold and the sky low and gray, a mist of earthbound cloud sighing and sagging to the shore, falling among the blooms of the asters and dampening their electric purple color. October was still on my mind, the beginning of the end of the year.
I cut my paddles deep into the black water and pulled and exed them above my head in a blur, and felt the droplets of lake water fall on my face like rain, but no matter how hard I paddled, wherever I looked at the water it moved in an even reticulation of silver and black, and gave me the illusion of sitting absolutely still. I made myself dizzy, watching the water hold me immobile, and then glancing up at the shoreline to see alders and the spent stands of sweet flag speeding by, dead brown leaves above a quiet core of hopeful green stem. I would speed away and reach out and brace my knee against the rib of the boat, and stab my paddle deep into the unmoving water, and, fighting my boat's keel, turn in a ponderous circle back toward Dan, paddle back into the range of his words. "...alder grows thick on the shoreline. Alder grows in profusion on the shoreline." Paddle away again, stillness and motion, turn. "...leaves of lilies, golden with the change of season." "That's good," I told him, and paddled away again, and turned.
Finally I grew tired and simply sat on the surface of the lake, out where all was silent. The cold surface rippled here and there, gases from the decaying layer rising in slow bubbles. The gentle movement seemed to me the visual equivalent of a room full of soft voices, faceless speakers murmuring, mouth to ear, to loved ones, words inaudible to me, but the fact of words all around me.
There was a tickle in my sleeve. I laid my paddles across my lap and probed into the sleeve, and drew out a caddisfly, long-bodied, delicate, its veined wings half-folded. I laid it on my spray skirt, where its threads of legs folded before its head, a posture of absolute exhaustion, like a man fainting into sleep at the supper table, head on folded forearms. Its body was silvery-blue, cold blue, and the powder bloom along its length put me in mind of blueberries, and then all at once I remembered Mel's mother, the cake she made that summer, an American flag with strawberries and whipped cream for stripes, a field of blueberries for the stars. She had loved rough collies, and her home was beautiful and warm, and now she was gone, and so was my friendship with Mel. I thought perhaps her voice was one of those speaking on the surface of the lake, rippling it, leaning her mouth to her daughter's ear, and I could feel the warmth of her words even if I could not hear the sound of them.
I picked the caddisfly up gently, held it on my fingertip until it composed itself, righted its wings, and flew away.
Last night I dreamed of the curved ribs of boats, of Paul's body holding mine against the boat's wood, of the water speaking against the hull. I dreamed that Mel drifted in distracted thought past a doorway, and I saw her go from left to right, looking away, carrying a baby girl in her arms. I dreamed of wings over water. The day was cold. The leaves of the lilies had turned golden with the change of season.