It was the last thing one should expect to find in a very remote area of the Acadian woods. There, just next to the ashes of my last campfire. A bottle with a curled white note.
I resisted the temptation to open it long enough to brush away a light dusting of snow, get a fire going, and put the kettle on. I got my pack squared away and found a spot to sit myself down. It had been a hard climb. And I was no longer quite the mountain goat I used to be.
The Appalachian Ridge is wondrous. Millions of years ago it must have been spectacular. It has evolved, in a way, from Alex Colville into A.Y. Jackson. Eroded, it is for the most part worn granite hills, but there there are uplifted and tilted plates that look like someone had long ago stood a massive deck of cards on end, and let them fall.
For centuries both hills and plates have been dusted with brush and trees, though how either can find sustenance I can’t imagine. There is precious little soil. These wide bands of shale in a sea of igneous rock are geological anomalies that host tiny herds of undergraduates every spring, bashing away at rocks with their shiny new hammers. Neither they, their professors, nor I have yet figured out what bizarre cataclysm created these startling contrasts.
I reached over, grasped the bottle, withdrew again to my warmed spot, unscrewed the cap and shook out the wrinkled note. The message was improbable.
It said, “Hi. I hope you don’t mind my being here. I can understand its attraction for you. I live at 173 Aberdeen Avenue in Grand Falls. Come visit.” It was signed “G.”
When the kettle started singing, I realized I had been staring at the note for some minutes. I shook myself, poured a steaming cup and let it warm my insides. I got my bedroll ready, now thinking back to how I had come here, and what it meant to me.
After graduation I had moved to Northern New Brunswick, setting up shop as a fresh, scrubbed lawyer with my wife and two children. While practising law in small communities is thought to be placid, dull and unprofitable, it is, in fact, the reverse. It is challenging, one can make a whole lot of money, and there is often drama. Family law provided the drama, but my work on behalf of the pulp mill provided for orthodontists and bicycles.
It also provided for my wife’s medications. She had suffered many agonies through our years of marriage, burdened with joints that were insufficiently lubricated. Endless manipulations and medications served only to keep her alive longer than she would have without treatment. Not a month passed without us packing up and heading to the city so she could be examined, then to receive yet another hopeless diagnosis. After tortuous years she died, comforted that she would no longer be contending with a deficient skeleton.
At some point my children graduated and moved on. I have hardly any contact with them now. Since my wife’s death, my attention has been only on my work, and my own pain. This was my life, week in and week out, until one crackling crisp winter day, when I decided I would not go to work.
When I got up, I threw open the living room curtains and saw the Ridge in stark relief, way off in the distance. It was that view that prompted us to buy the house so many years before. We used to joke that when we first moved there we stuck out just like the Ridge did.
I was overtaken by a need such as I had never experienced. I had to reach what until then, I had only seen. I gathered up some gear, drove through the foothills, and climbed. I climbed for most of the day until I came to the Ridge. Wandering about for a bit, I happened to look up and glimpsed what seemed to be a small ledge half way up a sloping wall. It seemed inaccessible, but I searched along the base and found a sort of natural staircase. Puffing with the exertion, I made it to the top. And paused.
Clearly I was the first visitor. The ground showed no disturbance, though the rock powder was deep. Off to one side I saw a large, brown, streaked with beige sandstone that was in the process of peeling itself, as the ages took layer after layer away. It obviously had been at it for hundreds of years. Without putting a foot on the small platform I stared in wonder. I felt that there was a personal significance for me in the timeless, tireless work of this rock that sat there, immobile, as the world moved on.
I felt now that I had been called to the Ridge, and here was the messenger – a messenger who said, “Come, stay. But touch nothing. Let it be.”
Over the ensuing years, I kept my promise. I did not disturb that ledge, the Ridge or what I came to think of as my companion in solitude – a large, brown peeling rock. I was a monk, and this was our sanctuary.
But now, years later, I arrive at my sanctuary to discover that it had been violated. Well is that really what happened? It’s true someone had been here, but at the same time, I was impressed that they had shared my discovery. This person named “G” had found my ledge, come here, and remarkably, she seems to have understood how special this place was to me. And I think she – (when had I decided that “G” was female?) – understood me a little. While she had intruded, she had not violated. She had respected my oasis and my companion. I felt myself growing fond of a phantom lady.
The note called me to Aberdeen Avenue. I wanted to meet this person, no, this lady, who had touched me so gently. But I had been long without social contact, and found that I was stressing out for no reason that I could fathom. Besides, I thought, it’s Christmas Eve, and as nice as she is, she wouldn’t want to see a guy show up in smoky hiking gear, saying he came about a note she had likely long ago forgotten about.
But when I got in my car, I found that it had a mind of its own. Despite my apprehensions, it seemed to want to go to Grand Falls. Evidently I was to have no choice in the matter. I found the address, parked the car, and approached the house. It was a home that radiated warmth, despite the closed curtains and bare trees. The flower beds and shrubs had been capped as protection against the snows.
I knocked, timidly, and soon enough I heard footsteps. The door opened. Instantly I saw a face that was both new, and familiar.
“Hello,” she said, as the wind swirled around my boots and blew snow onto the hardwood floors. “Hi,” I replied. “It’s about the note.” Now as a courtroom lawyer, I had better than average articulation skills. Why I felt this told her enough I will never know. She beckoned me in with only a trace of a smile.
“Would you like tea? And do you like mince pie?”
“Yes please, to both,” I said, as I padded in sock feet to the couch. Now I became conscious of my unshaven face, woodsy appearance and certain odour. “I must look like Paul Bunyan,” I thought. She returned shortly with the tea, sensing, I think, the incongruity of serving tea in a dainty cup to someone who perhaps looked like he had been sleeping in the street. I grasped the cup with more than a little tension.
I then became aware of a strange phenomenon. Though the silence grew long, there was no awkwardness. I found myself slumping into the couch. “Good grief,” I thought, “I’m drifting off!” It was like someone had taken the starch out of my suit.
Though she was quite obviously very tolerant of her backwoods visitor and his inept conversation skills, she saved the day by addressing the basic formalities. I was grateful.”My name is Gwen. And you are……….?”
I sat up. “I’m Douglas Jameson. They call me ‘Doug’.” I thought: “What am I saying? I haven’t been called ‘Doug’ since high school.”
“How long have you been visiting that ledge Doug? I scrambled to remember. “Oh, for about fifteen years or so. Since……”. I trailed off. I was about to tell her why I had started to go there, but I didn’t have the words to explain it. I had the feeling she knew it was more than a need to get out once and a while for fresh air. I asked, “Did you see the peeling rock?” How odd, I thought, that that image of a stone opening its heart to the elements, should come so strongly to me at that moment.
“I saw the rock,” she said. “And I saw what it meant to you. I hoped you would visit me.” This revelation surprised me not at all. But her discovery of my retreat was a mystery that I had to resolve. “How did you know about the ledge?”
“I saw you climb up there about a year ago. I do a little bird watching. I saw movement against that wall and I was curious. I hiked to the cliff and found the footholds, but by then you had gone. I knew you would be back, so I left the note. Have you been alone long?” The sudden shift caught me. Again. “Yes,” I said. And knew that she too was alone, but in a different way. “Your husband,” I said, “is away?”
“He is away most of the time on business in Europe and Asia. I guess I no longer miss him. Not that I am not lonely. But I have come to accept that this is the way things must be. I have the outdoors. I like bird watching. And I like discoveries. Like finding your hideaway. And wondering about you. And what you are escaping from. And looking for.
We were on a subject that I couldn’t confront. And with someone who, just by seeing my special place, knew me possibly better than anyone else ever had. But she was peeling me just like that rock, layer by layer. But she was doing it in a way that didn’t hurt.
“What was I doing there? I guess I was looking for you. When I read your note, I could see that you understood what moved me. Your note made me realize my life really hasn’t amounted to a whole lot, for a very long time. It brought me a trembling insight. For the first time in my memory I really felt that things didn’t have to go on being the way they were. This morning, I woke up and knew I didn’t need my ledge any more.”
I asked her to tell me about herself. “How have you been able to remain so strong, when you have had to manage on your own? Do you have friends?” I feared at once that I had committed a terrible indiscretion, implying that she was in some way inadequate.
The smile returned. “I have many friends,” she said, “as people mean by friends. We chat, we take trips. We even share little stories about our hopes and troubles. But I am not really close to anyone. None of them know me, though they think they do. By exchanging pleasantries we keep the community together in a sense, though we might each be crumbling inside.
I find meaning in myself. I don’t depend on people, or their recipes for comfort – religious or otherwise. I know that many people can’t handle such thoughts. Most everyone faces insecurity, indecision and fear, and I have lost friends, because I am often abrupt when I should be more sensitive. My sometimes innocuous observations about life are taken as a challenge to their values. But I have far too much humour to be cynical. And too many dreams to spend my life in morbid reflection.
My friends can’t accommodate the idea that life is hopeless. I’m not saying that life is without hope. Quite the contrary. But most of life is fixed, and I believe if you are to have peace, it will only come with understanding that. I would never share these views with my friends, because I know they could not deal with ‘reality’ as I understand it.”
These thoughts moved me in several directions at once. I felt she had seen the blackness of the abyss and moved on. Now, she was able to look it in the face, and get on with her life. This was one strong lady. She scared me a little. I had been living in the abyss for years, and in just one day she had moved me off my ledge. And now she was moving me into directions I had never considered before.
I asked her what she had done when she visited my ledge, knowing at once, that her experience would have been much different than mine. I had been escaping, but this lady did not seek outlets for misery. Instead, she sought ways to fulfilment. With some shame I saw that she deserved my little ledge, and my companion, a whole lot more than I did. I had only taken away from the wilderness, and had never put anything back.
“What did I do? Well, I changed,” she said. In her economical way, she had said it all. When I was at the Ridge, I thought only of what had been while my companion stoically coped with his life as best he could. Continually reborn into a new persona, he became someone new every day, while I, in a metamorphosis the opposite of his, was becoming more and more calcified.
This series of shocks caused me to almost spill my tea. Suddenly I knew that I would be seeing the Ridge, and my companion in an entirely different way. And now I would have something to offer. I might just offer up a shout or two next time I’m there. I felt my strength growing, almost as if she were sending energy to me by live wire. She could see the change in me as my burden fell away. Her smile returned.
“Will you stay the evening?” she asked. “I would so much enjoy having someone to share Christmas dinner.” By now I knew her, and myself well enough to think both the question and reply unnecessary. I could no more leave her presence than I could leap over the Ridges. I smiled to myself. Leap over the Ridges!? Why, I had already done that.
Interested in my other work? Here’s my book on success without conflict.