There was a moment as they climbed the logging road when Max thought they were in trouble. They had rounded another corner when Jasper hunkered in confrontation and bristled and growled with excess zeal. Max stopped and squinted, his heart jackhammering past normal exertion, eyes fixed on the twisted, gnarled stump beside the road up ahead. For that was all it was. Not a black bear. Especially not a murdered hiker. Just a storm-blasted old stump.
His released breath was all the border collie needed to also relax, and the two companions continued their hike over the loose, broken shale logging road that switchbacked all the way to the mountain's summit. Although it felt like midsummer heat still, it was in fact late morning on the day after Labour Day, and as a consequence he'd barely seen another person since they'd parked the Jeep a couple hours earlier, down in the rainforest shade. His boots and his dog's paws kicked up the sweet, dusty berry scent of a late Canadian summer.
Max was hot. His water bottle was below halfway, already tasting like lukewarm sweat, and he knew Jasper was possibly more thirsty than he was. He decided to keep going to the next large twist in the road, a good distance up ahead but clearly in the cooling shade of a stand of cedars, after which he'd make a call about continuing.
They trudged on, the gradient climbing, everything blasted and bare. Jasper, his blacks and whites blurring into greys, slunk wary and busy. Max too stayed on high alert, watching all things. Bone dry coyote shit like scorched braids. Faded du Maurier filters. A gleaming black corvid feather beside a rusted can of Molson Canadian. Spent and flattened shotgun casings. All light-peppered with the dust of a parched season. A tiny infant forest sprouting from the descending incline to their right, baby spruce and fir like hopeful stubble on an ailing face. Beyond, the hazy valley entire, with its veiny, shimmering roads, swayback barns and bright pastures, its silt-gagged sloughs and cedar-shingle roofs, tree farms and dikes, and all the women, horses, crows, coyotes, men, bears, cats, otters, children, chickens, dogs, rats, cougars, goats, geese, raccoons, and cattle that made of this flood-prone land at least a temporary home.
Reaching the shade and breathing heavily, Max knew he'd already made the decision. There'd be no great vistas today, no panoramic views of the faraway delta and distant Pacific and its scattered and sparkling island jewels. Sad, but there would be other days; the summit could wait. No, he'd underestimated the sheer fatigue factor of this early September scorcher, and needed to head back the way he'd come, find shade and water.
Laughing out loud, he yelled, "Not today, Jasper, old friend!" then was immediately chagrined by his note of hysteria in so muted and lonesome a place. Jasper sat quietly panting, accepting of all outcomes.
Out of nowhere, Max recalled the stupid fight he'd had with Becky earlier, and how, if he got into trouble here, she'd likely be as indisposed to help him as she'd ever been. He hadn't even told her his destination. Dumb. Despite the heat, his skin rippled with the chill waves of portent. The gist of their blowup was already trivial: something about a landlord, a truck, a cord of beech wood, and a conversation they both agreed needed to happen.
Labour Day. He thought about that. Only yesterday, his peers and neighbours had been up here, dirt biking and shooting, swimming and four wheeling, making a holy hellacious racket and leaving their thoughtless scraps and heedless scars across a big and tolerant land. Never seemed right to him that on account of our bigger brains we had carte blanche to make the deepest gouge. But yeah. Labour Day. He heard a story not long after he arrived in Milltown Falls about another Labour Day long ago, back in maybe the seventies or some other sepia-washed time. A town gives up its secrets in small parcels, usually, so this particular one Max had garnered from various local folk, yet mostly distilled by a gaunt, cadaverous man named Swampman Jacques in the Fisherman's Catch pub one night, down by the big river.
Like so many tragedies, it had begun as a joke. Everyone was gathered on the southern shore of Devil's Lake, and partying had commenced in earnest. One or two groups sparked up joints, a couple forty-pounders were cracked open and, at some point late on a clear galactic night, someone decided that releasing the parking brake in a camper would be a laugh riot. Short version: it wasn't. Two passed-out teenagers slipped into the lake that night, right around midnight, and never came home. Witnesses claimed to have heard the underwater screams and even what might have been clawing sounds as the van dropped into the depths. Yet even the cops knew it hadn't been done out of malice, and while the victims' families could never fully quiet their outraged grief, most of the town circled the wagons and left it alone in terms of blame, chalking it off to dumb adolescent idiocy.
Although the victims themselves were less sanguine. Legends were built on swimmers who felt the pull of the restless dead beneath a surface suddenly flyblown, about hikers who glimmered then darkened from existence, fell off the world's radar, soon after passing the turnoff for the lake.
Have you ever taken a dip in Devil's Lake? If so, can you recall how warm it felt when you stepped along its shoreline shallows, your feet growing sore on flinty grey quartzite, your torso soft and frail as you waded into its hotspring heat? Was your dog there too? Did you register the infernal drone of the deer fly before you ducked your head and breaststroked toward the centre of this shadowed lake? Mostly to escape the damnable fly? Held your breath only to meet the same winged demon, who'd waited, who hadn't for a second been fooled. While your dog plunged in, his earnest smiling head bobbing toward you, to save you, since that was his only ever job, to make you safe as a lamb. There's a point where your lower torso feels like it belongs to another creature, where the warm surface smile turns instantly to cold rage, somewhere near your heart, and your dangling parts sense their imminent uncoupling.
Local legends be damned. Max was feverish with the day's heat and his own exertion, his skin streaked with riverscapes of silt drawn from dust and sweat, and as his hot, dry boots had crunched their way down the logging road, the legendary chill of the lake had become a siren for him. When he reached it near midday, it was deserted. And silent. A diving raft lay still at its centre. As he waded in, he felt a note of disquiet when Jasper balked and whined, but it was brief, and soon the collie had overcome his rare hesitance and joined his companion, both making for the raft in the middle of the lake. Forested, almost sheer slopes rose on all sides; abysmal, umbral, in defiance of a bright hot day, only the shallowest of membranes managed to absorb the smallest daubs of warmth. The cold below that surface was anesthetic, immobilizing. Max kicked out and Jasper still whined occasionally, his limbs pistoning overtime to keep up.
A moment before they reached the platform, Max felt something brush his leg. A fish? He instinctively recoiled but felt the same whispery touch on his other leg. He stopped swimming, trod water, and looked down. What he saw almost stopped his heart: a white grasping limb and, attached to it, further down in the depths, a silent screaming face. The limb's icy fingers grasped his ankle. Insanely, in the temporal dilation of trauma, Max could clearly see a watch on the wrist of that terrible pale limb, one of those old watches that used to play "The Yellow Rose of Texas" every hour on the hour, and God save him, but he thought he could hear that song now, so weak and watery, with the watch face showing 12:00, and the cold iron grip of the bleached and slime-covered hand was pulling him down into the endless dark and now Jasper was snarling and launching his sleek body below the surface and frenziedly biting the thing that assailed his master, and Max tried to help, he did, but the cold had him now, and he wondered why he could no longer see the light of the surface, and whether he had fallen asleep by the shore, and this was all a…
It was the appalling howling dog that had alerted them. Even before they rounded the corner, hidden by stands of dark silent fir and red alder, their hackles rose at the sound, both strangely aware that whatever awaited them here would likely dwell forever in nightmares yet to come. Reaching the lake shore almost reluctantly, their every instinct urging them to go home, leave now and phone this in, they stopped and stared.
A naked man lay on the rocky shore, clearly dead. Bloated and bluish, his corpse was a latticework of lacerations. Bizarrely, he was encircled by a tree limb—what appeared to be a twisted branch of white birch—and even more perplexingly, someone had placed an old-style watch around one end of it. But worse still was the dog and the sounds it made—like all the loss of the world distilled into a late summer lakeshore snapshot; the sound of eternal sorrowing. Between howls, it would lower its head, and they saw that its muzzle still dripped with fresh blood. The boys backed away, watching that baying creature as they did so, and long after the emergency people had come and gone, had asked their serious questions and swabbed and scrubbed away the scene in a way memory never could, the two boys agreed on one thing in particular—that up until that grim and awful day they'd neither seen nor heard of such a thing as a pure white border collie.