NONFICTION ISSUE #21

Siskiwit Lake with unnamed island. Photo by Thomas Jefferson Stevenson. Image courtesy of the Historic Green Shed Museum in Cornucopia, WI.
*Image: Siskiwit Lake with unnamed island. Photo by Thomas Jefferson Stevenson. Image courtesy of the Historic Green Shed Museum in Cornucopia, WI.

 

 

Cornucopia, Unincorporated

by Nancy Wyland

 

I pack the car with sweaters and books, my laptop and my yellow Labrador, Shelby. It’s a 500-mile trek to Lake Superior, where I hope to clear my head for a few days after a failed love affair following my recent divorce. My destination, Cornucopia, Wisconsin, is an unincorporated village within the town of Bell (pop. 230) and boasts The Northernmost Post Office in Wisconsin. It’s so far north, in fact, that my childhood vacation spot sells T-shirts bearing a road sign: End of the Earth – 2 miles, Cornucopia, WI – 4 miles.
When I was younger, Dad often remarked about Cornucopia being “unincorporated,” as if this were a point of interest or amusement. I could tell it had something to do with the town’s size, but only after I looked up the word “unincorporated” did I realize the charming irony of a village proclaiming its independence within a town of 230 people.

unincorporated — adjective

1. not chartered, as a self-governing village or city; lacking the tax, police, and other powers conferred by the state on incorporated towns

2. not combined into a single body or unit; not made part of; not included

Although by definition Cornucopia is not included in the town of Bell, its self-identification within Bell has managed to embrace the population that lives there. Indeed, it was only in adulthood that I realized the town of Bell actually existed—that it comprised Cornucopia. Even today most of the locals have a Cornucopia mailing address. Internet searches for “Cornucopia, Wisconsin” turn up numerous sites with town photos, history, and local information. Searches on “Bell, Wisconsin” call up sites bearing 2000 Census statistics and the home pages for Taco Bell and Wisconsin Bell.

In “Corny,” as it’s affectionately termed by locals and regulars, there’s nothing to do, and, by virtue of that, everything to do. Here, a person had better be inventive and amenable to introspection. Here, television has always been fuzzy; reliable radio is a crapshoot; and traffic along Highway 13 is intermittent at best. In fact, the village slogan, “What Happens in Corny is all over Corny,” is a nod to its intimacy. Ehlers General Store (est. 1915) is the only game in town, but at least there you can get mosquito repellent, beer, tampons, and homemade pear butter in a pinch.

In Corny, it is possible to spend a full hour spellbound by a katydid’s jerky dance or the overlapped scales of a pinecone. I once killed a couple hours locked inside a family friend’s International Harvester Scout at the local dump, waiting amidst a sweaty pile of kids for black bears that never materialized. No matter. The suspense alone filled our dinner conversation that evening. Here, these voids are somehow rich with mystic profundity. Without question, we wouldn’t give five minutes to any of this back home, where our Corny family didn’t seem to fit inside the fabric of our daily routines.

When I was a kid, my summers there were spent fishing the clear waters of Siskiwit Creek, chilling my marrow in Lake Superior, paddling down the Brule River while my sister Lisa lazily steered our canoe in and out of low-hanging branches chanting, “Stroke! Stroke!” Evenings, we gathered driftwood so Dad could build fires on the beach, over which many a blackened weenie and marshmallow were sacrificed in the name of fire play. After the meal Mom tossed our paper plates and cups into the flames and, before we left, a bucket of sand over the coals. It was all tidy and self-contained. For those weeks, my sisters and I were the lords and ladies of sand castles, pioneers of America’s Great Lakes and sea caves; we were forest-dwelling, rock-climbing, berry-picking sisters and daughters, safe within the Wyland Family hammock of summer, insular within ourselves.

We formed a kind of team there—Team Wyland—with Mom and Dad more like teammates or spectators than coaches in our summer games. They guided us in baiting a hook or steering a canoe, but their watchfulness over us was relaxed, as if setting us loose by degrees, a little further each time. They watched Lisa and me struggle back the time we swam too far to the pier, when the tide nudged us up onto the sandy shore, breathless and grateful.

“Did you have a nice swim?” Mom asked with cool regard from behind a book while I gasped for air, clutching my knees to my breast buds.

If she only knew, I thought. It was sometimes hard to tell just how much Mom knew about our internal lives. For some reason I still don’t understand, I didn’t want her to know anything about mine, I just wanted to know she was there. That intrinsic sense of having a protector with superhuman abilities is something I believed only as a child. As I grow older, I’m acutely aware of this magical gift, to have known this comfort as I knew then the breath in my body would continue to come. Mom was our lighthouse keeper on the beach, emitting both welcome and caution. Now that I was safely on shore, there was no way I was about to tell her what had happened.

The plan had been to swim out to the pier, climb one of its posts and walk back to shore. The posts, we found, were covered with a slippery green slime that thwarted any attempt to grab hold. There was nothing resembling a ladder or foothold to get onto the dock. I couldn’t even wrap my arms around the posts to catch my breath. Lisa and I were both weak swimmers, exhausted by our venture to the pier. The only thing to do was swim all the way back. Then I remembered Mom’s teaching me how to float on my back years before. She had slipped one hand under my waist and the other under my neck at the base of my rubber swim cap. “If you arch your lower back just a little, you will stay afloat,” she’d told me, though I could never quite master this. I could keep my upper body afloat, but my skinny legs wanted to droop below the surface. “It’s a good thing to know how to do in case you ever need some time to catch your breath.”

So, I float-drooped under the pier, screwing up my nerve for the inevitable long swim back to shore. My ears filled with water, muffling the taunts of seagulls flying freely over us. I floated next to Lisa for a few minutes in the nippy water, gently rocking with the waves while we gathered our breath and contemplated the cloud-covered heavens. I thought of Mom back at the beach reading on a blanket, watching the two of us float under the pier. From so far away, she had no sense of the panic rising in us, no warning that we were in danger. And although Lisa’s presence provided me a measure of comfort, I was aware for the first time in my life that I would have to save myself.

____

Shelby sniffs at the crack in the window, inhaling nanoparticles of pine resin and melted snow, moose poop, molded bark and sunshine. We’re getting closer. Mom and Dad first came up here before they had Lisa and me. I’m not sure what drew them to the Great North Woods, but home movies show the two of them on a bridge that overlooked canoeists paddling the Brule River. Dad had once told me when they married, their combined possessions fit into a single barrel. I imagine that pitching a tent in the wilderness for a week was about all the vacation they could afford back then. They didn’t take us along until we were a little older, but I remember that the two of them returned alone once when we were small. After our sister Janet was born, Mom experienced postpartum depression. She needed to get away. The three of us stayed with neighbors for a few days until Mom and Dad returned. Mom told us her heart sank when Janet seemed not to recognize her and cried in her arms.

I never brought my own boys, Alex and Miles, up to Corny. I had hoped to see my sons with some sense of my Corny instilled in them, to recreate the idyll as a parent, this time on Team Newkirk. But they didn’t have this kind of traditional summer vacation spot. This was partly because their father had little interest in a sedate vacation and wouldn’t give Corny a chance. I was also unsure that the boys would embrace it the way I had as a kid. Their childhood was immersed in video games and computers, mini-bikes and four-wheelers. How could I expect them to know the gentle pleasures of a week spent throwing rocks in the river or digging holes on the beach so deep as to draw water?

Instead, we hit a different place every year: Los Angeles, Colorado Springs, Chicago, Omaha. If you ask them, they will tell you they enjoyed all of these places. Yet I know there is only one place for which they long in the way I long for Corny—their childhood home. Neither their dad nor I could afford to keep the house in our divorce. In effect, I closed up their childhood, ready or not, when I left the marriage. This maternal insult would prove costly. Alex kept his distance for a while; Miles stopped speaking to me altogether.

What do I hope to find in Cornucopia? Some sense of these lost childhoods—theirs and mine? I wonder if the future has found this place, where time was easily pocketed and expendable as loose change. Of course, it must have. Along my route I see that entire stands of birch have been cleared, those impossibly white trees that have always embodied Cornucopia for me. Because the birch is a short-lived tree, those just harvested may have been mere saplings, like me, when I was last here. Yet the birch endures in Northern Wisconsin. It is quick to plant more generations, prolific in squandering its winged seeds to the wind. All it takes is a scorched clearing for the cycle to replay itself, for loosed seeds to settle on a patch of dry land, take hold, and rise. Perhaps this is one reason the birch is a favorite of mine. It is something of a phoenix, both magical and hardy.

____

One summer, Dad carved us driftwood canoes, palm-sized vessels with tiny birch-bark sails secured by toothpicks. Wood so light from months—years maybe—of being water-swept on and off sandy shores, tenderized against rock cliffs and baked dry in the summer sun. Wood so light that for my father to carve along the grain with a pocket knife was an act of delicate devotion. He hollowed out the centers just enough to keep water from coming over the top or through the bottom, just enough to keep them afloat, as if his daughters might actually board the things and paddle into the wilderness out of his sight.

My sisters and I would float them down the Siskiwit Falls. Our shrieks of terror followed their tumbles down rocky steps, and hope held them fixed until we could free them from an eddy or stick-jam. We cheered when they’d suddenly bob to the surface like lost divers scrabbling upward. We set them on their way until there was nothing left to do but watch and wait. Then they were simply gone. The brief joy we took in the seaworthiness of what our father had created assuaged the immediate loss.

Each trip to Corny was highlighted by some unique event like this. Mom had us paint ladybugs onto the smooth oval stones we’d found on the beach. Dad grew a beard. We watched a golden retriever dive for giant rocks and come up with the right one every time. We canoed through a sea cave. We picked blueberries. We filmed a porcupine climbing a tree. Always I hoped to recreate these experiences the following year but a new one took their place.

Now that I’m 48, nearly the age my mother was when she died, I wonder what the Corny experience meant to her. Had I known her longer than 16 years, I know I would have one day asked. As it was, Mom was to me a kind of Everymom. I didn’t think of her as a woman or a wife, or as an interesting person. I took her motherly gifts as if they were bequeathed to me like my lungs and legs. And I gave very little back. When I had my own children, I did not want them to see me as a monolith on a beach. I wanted them to know that I, too, had breath in my body. I, too, had been a child, and knew silliness and heartbreak and hope.

Once, shortly before Mom died, I found her weeping at the edge of her bed. It scared me in the way a car wreck unnerves passing motorists. I had never seen her cry, so I sat down next to her and asked what was wrong. “I just feel like I don’t belong anywhere,” she said. It made no sense to me at all. She belonged right here. Yet this was before I knew anything about depression or unexpected life turns. At 16, I had no sense of time running out, of the reality that while it may be a perfectly respectable job, a lighthouse keeper can never leave her station. “I just don’t feel like I belong.”

I know there will be sadness waiting for me in Corny, yet in the space of the last 30 years—between the family hammock I once shared here and my empty house today—I can’t seem to reconcile the elements of family I’ve gained and lost. There are no children in the back seat on this trip. No children in the driver’s seat, either. Team Wyland and Team Newkirk have disbanded for good. Now it’s Team Pre-Menopausal Woman and her Lady Dog. Team Bitch.

____

 

Copy of Ehlers Store Calendar photo of Siskiwit Bay with Bark Bay in background, Circa 1950. Photo by 'Chick' Sheridan. Image courtesy of the Historic Green Shed Museum in Cornucopia, WI.

Copy of Ehlers Store Calendar photo of Siskiwit Bay with Bark Bay in background, Circa 1950. Photo by ‘Chick’ Sheridan. Image courtesy of the Historic Green Shed Museum in Cornucopia, WI.

The landscape is beginning to change as I head farther north, and suddenly I’m aware of the road signs. We breeze past Long Ago Lane and Bittersweet Drive. I consider who named them. Was it someone like me, seeking comfort in the familiar sight of birch trees? Fireplace Road. Moonshine Alley Road. Marjoram Road. Suggestive, inviting roads. Whimsical, storybook roads that make me want to park at their mouths and explore deep within the forest shroud. Roads on which I’d like to live, yet whose green and white signs emit a summer-camp vibe, as if they aren’t real roads at all but dead-ends marked only to charm tourists.

The feel of Corny country starts to come back. The county road seems to lean inward as dense pine groves hug its shoulders. I feel swaddled. Hawks eye me from overhead, relaxed in their effortless circling. The chasm between me and the loud, open earth quietly closes. My car tugs me around curves that twist through the North Woods. My stomach tries to keep up. I crack my window and, like Shelby, celebrate the Lake Superior air as if starved for its flavors. Even after 30 years, the last ten weary miles to Cornucopia are welcome excitement, a familiar culmination to this pilgrimage.

As kids, we must have driven Mom and Dad crazy by this point. Lisa was always carsick, poor Janet the target of our sisterly abuse. Knees pressed to the backs of seats, smelly feet draped over shoulders, complaints of “she’s looking out my window!” and “stop touching me!” from the back seat—these make for a long trip when you’re a parent. Mom would try to distract us with games of Alphabet Roadway and “My mother sent me to the grocery store to buy something beginning with…P!” Janet stumped us for miles once with “…something beginning with S.” Turned out it was Celery.

Whether it was countenance or resignation, Mom never lost her temper when we became unruly. I had hoped to be as naturally cool when my turn at motherhood came, but have decided this is something of an innate gift. Mom had a kind of internal tranquility we could depend upon—someplace cool she’d dip her feet when temperatures rose—her own, private Lake Superior. In fact, Mom shrugged Cornucopia on like a sweater every year, something pleasant, familiar, and absent of fuss. To me, it didn’t seem so much a vacation for her as a coming home. She didn’t swim, for example, which was 80 percent of the experience for me. Instead, she’d sit on the sand, protesting, “the water’s too cold,” while the wind tossed her short-cropped golden hair. She’d gaze along the waterfront, read one of the books she’d brought along, offer advice on our sandcastles, and pass around sandwiches. She did canoe the Brule, teaming with Dad and Janet, and she enjoyed antiquing in quaint Bayfield an hour away. She blended into the background, stoking the Corny experience for us, feeding our long-term memories s’mores and sandwiches, driftwood and board games. All that time, now I have to wonder, was this where she wanted to be? I’ve been the mother now. Life’s purest martyr, bearing the burden of superhuman expectations. Lifelong protector, encyclopedia, practical planner, opponent to teenagers. Monolith. Despite my attempts to humanize myself with my children, the role took on a life of its own. In the end, I think Alex and Miles wanted me to be more like her.

____

Cornucopia, 8 miles, the sign reads, and I reach behind the headrest to pat Shelby. “We’re almost there, Baby Girl,” I reassure her. She wags her tail and breathes her Labrador death-breath into my face. Ever since the vet discovered a malignant tumor last year, her halitosis has progressively worsened. I’ve dubbed her Cancer Dog, and let her get away with just about anything. Miles hasn’t seen her in months, ever since he stopped speaking to me. She’s his dog, he loves her, and he lives only a mile away from me. I hate to see their relationship abandoned, too.

Why I’ve come to this chilly outpost looking for warmth, I can’t quite say. As it’s March, I expected the cold but didn’t anticipate so much being closed up. Even the roadside rest areas are chained off for the season. Maybe I’ve come here now because I can. For the first time in my life, I follow my own compass, though the needle may be a bit helter-skelter for now. I pulled my husband’s dream along for nearly 28 years, the country home with predictable weekends, the self-contained, uncomplicated existence that left me numb by day and longing by night. It was not unbearable, just a persistent emptiness, an ache of the spirit. Were it not for my love of the boys, I might have found a way out much earlier than I did. I hope they never learn what it is like to feel trapped in someone else’s version of happiness.

Shelby is pacing the back seat, jutting her nose into first one window crack, then another. I know she wants to run. At the country house, she used to roam loose for hours. Her territory included mossy creek beds and old growth forest like this. There were snakes and raccoons to chase, and a thousand tantalizing scents. She used to herd deer into the woods and rabbits back out again. There was always an animal carcass or a pile of fresh dung for her to bathe in.

Now in town, she must watch the outside world from her chain-link kennel. Rabbits scuttle past, just out of reach. Terriers and huskies and wiener dogs taunt from beyond the yard. Now the only available scent with which Shelby can mask her identity is the decaying breath in her body. A year ago we traded fates, she and I.

____

I initially wanted to rent one of the Cornucopia cabins for this return visit to Corny, but they were too expensive, so I booked a room at an unfamiliar bed and breakfast at the edge of town. It resembles a Bavarian chalet, but it’s a bit worn. Check-in takes place in the smoky tavern beneath my room. The man behind the bar tells me, “I’ll get Cheryl.”

Cheryl comes out of the kitchen smiling with a pile of menus in the bend of her arm. “We have you in the Autumn Room,” she says, “but you can check out Spring, Summer and Winter to see if you like any of them better. You’re our only reservation, so you have the run of the place. The keys are in the doors.”
Cheryl gestures toward a few folks enjoying beer at the bar. “We’re having a little St. Patty’s Day celebration,” she invites with a smile.

Traditional Irish music plays in the background. Six or seven patrons are adorned in green derbies and sequined vests, and an eight-year old girl is doing her best to imitate an Irish step dance. She is dripping in green Mardi Gras beads. I overhear her ask a woman sitting at the bar, “Like this?” The woman nods and swigs her beer. An elderly couple rises from their booth, leaving the remains of corned beef and cabbage on the table. Cheryl emerges from behind the bar to say goodnight. The old man stands perplexed at the coat rack. “Somebody took my coat.”

His wife chuckles, “No they didn’t, silly. I have it right here.”

Cornucopia, it occurs to me, has locals.

Of course, I always knew this, but before now, my time here was as a kid. I only ever thought of the locals as merchants and fishermen. Characters in my summer play.

People live here year-round. Families.

I picture the elderly couple in a storybook cottage along the lake, comforted by their memories of children and golden retrievers paddling about in the brief summer waters of Superior. I imagine hundreds of birch trees felled over time to stoke the warmth of a stone fireplace. I imagine the two of them enjoying long wooded walks together in matching red-and-black plaid pea coats. I can see their whispered delight at the sight of a red-headed woodpecker or a black bear foraging in the brush. I imagine their lives satisfying and complete. For a moment, I imagine myself leaving the smoky bar with them.

I won’t let myself imagine their having lost children or dogs in their lifetime. I don’t want to think she might have taken a lover once. I can’t even bear the fact of the brutal subzero winters they’d certainly endured, when weeks passed without outside contact and the interminable intimacy raised voices and slammed doors.
I will not imagine them now, living in a single-wide two blocks from the abandoned gas station down the street, nitroglycerin tablets and brimming ashtrays on the bedside table, Alzheimer’s and carotid arteries and diabetes closing in on them.

No, I will not. I grip my fantasy tighter.

I imagine having raised my own family here in this isolated, sedate little town, and my grip loosens a little. I don’t want Cornucopia to be someone’s home town. I keep my distance from the people at the bar and eat my sandwich while reading a book in the smoky din. I order a beer and then another. It serves me better to think of Corny as a place marker for a series of “only” times in the life of my family. It was the only time Dad made us little boats, the only time I went canoeing and picked blueberries, the only time my sisters and I shared secrets over picnic-table crafts and made plans to remain best friends on our return home. Nowhere else did we see Dad’s birch-bark legs stark against black swimming trunks, or watch him grow a beard because we begged him to, just so we could see. Corny was exclusively ours. My family eventually moved from Illinois to Iowa and Minnesota, but Corny remained steadfast summer after summer, its campfire smoke and whitefish, bluebells and buoy bells hailing our return. I’m sure there were changes, slight and invisible. But no matter how rough our family’s real-world transitions could be, Corny remained fixed. We knew we could dock our battered vessels in Bell Harbor and scrape off the barnacles come summer.

That is, until the year Mom died in a car accident. We never returned to Corny after that. Dad couldn’t bear her absence there, so instead took us to Denver the following summer. It was a disaster. He had been driving the car the night of the accident and was afterward nervous behind the wheel. It especially unnerved him to be driving so far with what was left of his family. Every shadow or peripheral movement caused him to hit the brake hard, jerking the car, time and again. We jerked our way through Nebraska and Kansas, and around Denver for a week. None of us girls wanted to take the trip, but Dad was determined to honor the tradition. All I remember visiting is the Denver Mint and Pike’s Peak. We marked the end of Corny that year, and we never took another family vacation after that.

In fact, Mom died shortly after our last family time in Corny. We have that last vacation on film. Dad took 8 mm movies of all our trips to Cornucopia, oddly with the same, predictable opening sequence every year: a view of our cabin, panning to the path which led to the lake, followed by a scan of the woods, the wildflowers and the birch trees. There was always a clip of Janet astride a huge rock with her fishing pole in the water, waiting for The Big One, some frames of Lisa and me hamming it up for the camera from a canoe. Judging from our exaggerated mouths and operatic gestures, we were probably singing “Moon River” or “Moonlight Bay” at the top of our lungs. To Mom’s dismay, Dad generally managed to get a shot of her from behind, in her plain black one-piece swimsuit, watching over my sisters and me at the beach.

But after our last trip to Corny, Dad’s film came back from the developers with a spooky effect. Somehow he had double-exposed the film, and images of our cat, Tiger, lounging in the sun were superimposed over the gravel road unfolding on the drive to our cabin. The wildflowers made an ethereal veil over Janet as she waved from her fishing rock, and a ghostly chipmunk gathered corn kernels with fervor while waves crashed upon the shores of his hoard. At the tail end there’s a profile shot of Mom sitting at home in her lawn chair. She edges slowly out of the frame, while an overlaid image of the year 1978, drawn with a stick in the sand, is slowly washed away by Lake Superior’s tide.

____

It’s almost dark outside, and I decide to leave my explorations of Corny for the morning, even though downtown—Ehlers Store and the Northernmost Post Office in Wisconsin—is only one block away. I can do this. This is good, I tell myself. Yet, I’m uneasy. From the parking lot, I climb the wooden steps to the second floor of the Village Inn and settle on the Autumn Room if for no other reason than it was reserved for me. I feed Shelby my leftover French fries and open the bottle of wine I brought along. Once my laptop is set up at the dining table, I write about Dad’s little driftwood canoes until I’ve drained the bottle so I can sleep.
The next day, I take Shelby for a walk to the beach. Downtown, Ehlers Store is open, but we continue on toward the coffee shop and bookstore, which we find closed for the season. There are a few parked cars on the street, but not many pedestrians. We stroll behind the Cornucopia Cabins, three identical now-red cottages along the highway near Siskiwit Creek. It’s muddy, because it’s spring. I’ve been here only in summer, so the terrain looks unfamiliar. I do recognize little poop pellets along the trail but can’t identify which animal left them—bear, deer, moose. The cabins, too, are closed up, my memories of having stayed there locked inside where I can’t quite get to them. So, I walk along the edge of a small pond, where an overturned rowboat rests until the last of the ice clears. I try to recall some memory of the pond, whether I ever fished it or threw rocks into it or even immersed a toe or two, but can’t, although I know it was always here. I vaguely remember Mom telling us to stay away from it, but perhaps I’m only trying to re-conjure that protectiveness. In fact, as I circle the cottage complex along Siskiwit Creek it becomes impossible to dredge any memories from this place. I can only recall Lisa hunched over a steaming kettle one night, a towel draped over her head while she and Mom fought off an asthma attack. That and a few yellowed images of girls in pigtails and swimsuits on the front porch.

Some things do come back to me without coaxing, surprising things that engender a sensual response. There’s familiar joy in discovering a smooth piece of driftwood poking through the warm sand, in imagining its adventures after breaking from a felled tree or sunken ship. The peeling rhytidome of a birch tree tempts me to strip it bare for the simple pleasure of satisfying the inevitable on my own terms. Cattails erupted to downy surrender are duckling-soft but tough enough to hold fast to their moorings, and that powerful way the copper Siskiwit waters burble over rock shelves and pull at the reedy banks can still terrify me. I feel these elements around me as clearly as I did in childhood: thrilling and comforting and aching, yet these unfailing cycles of disintegration and rebirth meant something different back then.

We cross the highway to Bell Marina, where the boats sit on land. Bell Harbor is flush with a variety of skiffs and sailboats, masts jutting to the sky, waiting for summer. Their numbers give the appearance of activity. In fact, one is hard-pressed to locate a living soul here, save for the fat black lab patrolling the docks. To my surprise, the ancient landlocked fishing boats I remember from our home videos are still here, only now they are cordoned off as exhibits of the Cornucopia Museum. Of course, all the clapboard novelty shops at the docks are closed, their caches of colored glass buoys, fishing nets and driftwood art lying in wait for the summer tourists. I’m disappointed. The Good Earth store has an Open sign in the window, but after securing Shelby to a dock post, I try the door handle and it’s locked. Other shops, including the Sea Hag, advertising “Cheese Curds/Snacks/Sportswear” are boarded up and for sale. The old Labrador observes us with disinterest as we make our way along the dock.

It’s unseasonably warm for March, but there is still ice on the beach of Siskiwit Bay. I unhitch Shelby from her leash. We are alone, and as soon as she feels the clip release from her collar, her eyes flush with eagerness. She hasn’t been off leash in nearly a year, since moving to town with me after the divorce. It used to be that in summers, she and Miles would disappear into our family’s blackberry groves. I’d peek through the prickly branches to see him grinning at me shirtless and cross-legged, plucking heavy fruit from above, Shelby splayed flat at his feet, her belly purpling as she scavenged fallen berries from the ground. I’m sure this is why he won’t speak to me now.

“Go on,” I encourage. “Good girl.” With the promise of sweet freedom at Siskiwit Bay, Shelby launches like an arrow from the bow and skitters along the ice and sand. She digs at the sand, turns up something dead or excreted and relishes it. Through the reedy dunes she trots, stopping to pee every other minute, claiming every inch of this lovely spot as her own. Occasionally she races up to me, drenched and smiling, darting to and fro to engage me in play. I toss her old tennis ball, which she briefly inspects, then ignores. I envy the way she takes the gelid surf head first and emerges, soaked to the skin, in glee.

There was a time when I could fly down the Siskiwit Bay beach. My 75-pound frame actually left the ground as I sailed lithe and quick over sands that now suck at my feet like hungry catfish. Shelby’s nearly 12, an old woman now, yet runs along the ice-covered beach, occasionally stepping onto a thinly-veiled water hole and sinking up to her neck. The dunking both startles and delights her. She climbs out and accelerates to a gallop. If Miles were here, he would be laughing.

So here we are, this old yellow Labrador and I, family remnants combing the beaches of Cornucopia for whatever’s left.

The wind is heavy with moisture from the lake, and my eyes water a little. This place, so big in my emotional memory, has nothing for me now. Its comfort was harvested years ago, its warmth gone with Mom and Dad. The kids are grown and scattered. The chill wind ruffles my hair.

I watch Shelby leap over the water wearing her wide, puppy grin. She’s a silly, solitary kind of sea creature for whom I feel tenderness and gratitude. It’s a strange, new kind of family—me and this dog. I survey the span of beach as she charges me where I stand. “Let’s go, baby girl.” Gentle but firm. I clip her to the leash, she thunders water and sand from her body. “Let’s go home.” In the space of a day, I’ve managed to see all that is left for me here. How is it that Dad knew this when he took us to Denver long ago, but I couldn’t feel it without placing the cold Great Lake in front of me or hearing the lonesome squeaks of tethered boats bumping up against an empty dock?

On the way to the harbor, I spy a perfectly square piece of driftwood peeking through the sand and a lovely peel of birch bark among the reeds. Grasping each one, warm and solid, I slip them both into my jersey pocket. Maybe I’ll send them to Janet and Lisa. Probably not. Probably, they will end up in my junk drawer sharing space with the joint credit cards, the school photos of my little boys, and the tiny screws meant long ago to hold something large and mysterious together.

Nancy Wyland

Nancy Wyland is an emerging writer from Coralville, Iowa. She received her MFA in Nonfiction Writing from the University of Iowa in 2011 and has published essays in Cedar Valley Divide, Content Magazine, Club Narwahl, Drunken Boat and Rathalla Review. Her full-time career is with the University of Iowa as a research administrator to an environmental health sciences research center.

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