I started this story two years ago, just before the pandemic hit. It wasn’t something I was in love with so I let it sit unfinished for a while. I’ve added an ending and got around a rough draft to share with all of you Prose Lovers. Enjoy!
It is cold here. In the winter, the snow piles in pillows over everything, turning the whole landscape into a dazzling contour of white. A deadly beauty, a frozen sort of beauty.
During summer the birds come back and the tourists return and the world blooms again for a brilliant time with people and flowers and miles of endless green. But winter… It’s almost as if winter swallows everything whole. The birds leave, and the people go, and the flowers die. And I am left alone.
I could walk out into my yard on the first cold snap and shout into the growing darkness, but no one would hear me. The lake would wash against its pebbly shore while the empty cabins up and down my dusty track would ignore me, their faces to the dark, deep water, and the even darker deep of the wooded shoreline opposite.
Perhaps a coyote might bark in the distance.
Perhaps the wind might shiver in the trees, trace ruffles across the water.
A distant motor may wind, but on the lake or in the air, I cannot tell.
Wise men say humans crave companionship, the closeness of another person. Summer teaches me the truth of this, when the families come in pairs, throwing off real world worries for a week of wild beauty—a beauty which, they assure me, is heightened by the people with whom they share it.
But what do men say of solitude? Of Thoreau at his Walden? Of hermits who shut out the world?
Do people say I am a hermit?
If only they knew how trapped I feel sometimes. How homesick for warmth and for sunshine.
When the geese lift flapping from my lake one last time—a raucous screeching, honking chorus—I walk to the water to meet them and lift my arms hoping I too can fly .
I have always loved nature. That is why when the opportunity opened for me to be the caretaker of a small camp situated at the end of a long, dusty road in the middle of the Maine wilderness, I took only a week to really think of the logistics. It wasn’t a matter of talking myself into saying yes; it was more a matter of logically making it happen. Living in the woods all year round, never having to face an angry customer or client again sounded like a marvelous opportunity after years of retail service. I packed my decades-old Land Rover with all my earthly belongings, said goodbye to my Grandma (the only one who cared), and drove north toward Maine.
Camp Gray Water nestled itself in the nearly untouched Maine wilderness at the edge of a wide, long lake. This was northern, inland Maine, not the craggy, mountainous coastline of Acadia, and the only tourists who came to Camp Gray Water were the more adventurous types or those looking to drop off the world map for a month or so.
I had no problem with dropping off the world map for a couple years.
My house is the oldest looking cabin, nestled behind the rest, at the far end of our dusty track. In fact, the road ends at my doorstep and snakes back toward my garage as two rutted tracks divided by grass. Mine is the only cabin that has a garage, necessary to survive the winters here and not pancake my Land Rover beneath feet of snow that never melts. Behind my garage is the camp barn where the boats are stored come winter and where the tractor and the plow reside, and where most of the winter provisions for the camp are stored as well. Behind the garage lies the forest.
When I say forest, I don’t mean “woods” like back home, a small patch of trees and hill separating you from your neighbor by half a mile or less, not even the vast patches of unsettled greenery in some of the more rural valleys back home. No, this is a true forest, stretching for miles, dark and dense, impenetrable. My barn is the last of civilization for miles. The weathered timbers of its rear guard me from untold things. I’ve woken to bears in my backyard, grazing one more time before hibernation. They say there are no wolves in Maine, but on some of my loneliest, quietest nights here, I’m sure I’ve heard them crying far, far off. Across the lake some nights, I’ve heard the rustle and rush of big invisible animals crashing through the trees. Most likely moose or deer, who sound massive when on a heedless, reckless rush.
I learned how to drive the tractor, work the plow, how to shop for a colony of empty buildings, and how to survive snow storms that seem to last a week. What to do when your food is almost gone, and how to conserve when your heating oil gets low.
Most of all, I’ve learned that the lonely cold means death.
There is freedom in being alone. You choose when and where you want to meet people. There’s no crowd to impress, no heart to disappoint. There’s no one there to argue with when you make up your mind.
I’ve found an inverse challenge to these blessings over the last few winters. There is freedom, but there is also boredom. When you want someone else to be there, no one shows up. There may be no heart to disappoint, but there’s also no heart to delight. No one to argue with, but also no one to reassure you when you’re not certain.
There’s no one there to blame for the silly noises in the middle of the night.
I’ve never been scared of being alone.
The sun rises in the East just above the deserted end of the lake, my end beyond my barn. In winter, like today, it slices the horizon just above the treetops, the fir trees etched in peaks and furrows against the blood-red crack, the lake dark with their reflection. Some mornings the clouds hang so dark above the red rim of the world, I know it will snow that day. I listen intently to the radio and plan a trip to town if I know it will be ugly. When I first came here, I never imagined what would fill my winter days when the tourists were gone and the snow came, and the roads stood impassable. But I quickly learned that it was work, work, and more work. Taking care of the camp filled up all my days, but in an undemanding way. A way that I liked.
When everyone leaves at the end of the season, there’s the task of shutting up all the cabins and cleaning them. Once that’s done, it’s time to winterize, and when the snow starts, things need clearing, the cabins need checking. In the fall, an older man from town comes to help me chop and stack firewood for the winter. He’s one of my few regular companions. The only one who finds time to come check on me at least once a week when things become frozen.
“It’s not right… someone like you… being out here alone all this way,” he says. He says it so much I don’t even react to him anymore.
I think by “someone like you” he means a woman.
A woman alone in the wilderness. Perhaps not the wisest idea.
In the deep of winter, a heavy snowfall can make daylight seem like eternal dusk. Those days I stay inside. I’ve built a nest for myself by the front window in the corner where I curl my feet under me and cradle a cup of coffee in the morning, a mug of tea if it’s evening, and I watch as the snow grows steadily. Once the lake freezes, the snowfall obliterates it; only the snapping of ice reminds me that it’s out there, just beyond the snow dune that is my dock. I can walk across the water after the freeze, but although I am not afraid, I’ve never traveled farther than halfway.
One early December day that first winter, I stood in the middle of the lake and stared into the tree trunks of that impenetrable northern shore, which had captured my imagination on so many inky nights during the summer time, and I wondered who had walked there. Has anyone? Surely someone must have at some time, but maybe only the indigenous tribes of Maine. Maybe no one had touched that ground since.
Banks of virgin snow rose up beneath the trees, and their crowns were quilted with white sweaters, dark green peeping through as the wind blew or as a limb grew too heavy from its wet outfit and shrugged off a shoulder of white. I turned to look behind me and saw the path I had taken out to the center of the lake.
My footsteps stretched back to the other shore, toward the smoke rising from my chimney and the merry gloss of my window panes, and my tracks were the only tracks I could see.
Some winters day startle me. They dawn in a clear sky, the blue of it so opaque that it’s almost white at the very apex of the world. The chill of all that clearness crackles against the window panes, glistens from the tops of snowbanks, and glitters across the open plane where the lake hides. If I go outside, my boots will squeak against the crust of snow lining my cleared paths. The unbroken blanket beneath the conifers will crunch under the press from my snowshoes. I bundle against the cold up to my eyeballs and wear sunglasses against the glare. Man… Woman… Ghost… Who is that figure?
It is my third winter now in Gray Water, and these days are my favorite. They are beautiful, and they are dangerous. A hush muffles the world on days this cold. It is a brutal test of endurance even on those creatures built to endure it. Even the wind hushes its noise, calm beneath the overhanging branches, still across the flat bowl of the lake.
When night falls, I can hear the sap inside a tree snap from a mile away.
Jim arrives to check on me late on Saturday. The day is slipping into dusk; the dark under the trees on the opposite shore is complete. Jim’s four-wheel-drive lurches and bumps down my much-plowed path, and the sound of the engine is the first synthetic noise I have heard in days outside the rumble of my own things: tractor, generator, refrigerator, hot water tank. He stops halfway between my cabin and the next.
“Marci,” he says, his Maine accent thick. He is as backwoods as this place, as intricate and aloof as any part of this wilderness. I don’t know much at all about Jim, except that he is kind and he works hard. He wears old tatty winter gear, as if he doesn’t have the money—or at least doesn’t want to spend it—for anything new, but his attention and patience are immaculate.
He crunches through the snow toward me. It always amazes me how graceful the people here are when moving through the snow, as if snowshoes or knee-deep drifts are nothing at all, a dance floor to skate around.
“I brought you some bacon,” Jim says, although his hands are empty.
“Oh. Thank you.”
“And some more candles. I found some extra in my barn, thought they might be useful. We’re getting snow this week, they say.”
That wasn’t news. We were always getting snow.
“Might want to think of getting into town,” Jim adds.
“Oh, I’ll be alright,” I tell him. “I was just there yesterday.”
Jim doesn’t say anything; he just looks up at me and then turns to walk back toward his truck. He retrieves two tall, brown paper bags and carries them back toward the house.
Inside I discover one is full of candles and the other packed with bacon, wrapped in white butcher’s paper, full to the brim.
“Oh, wow. When am I going to eat all that? I’m going to have to put half of it outside. I don’t have enough room left in the chest freezer.”
“Would you like some tea or coffee, Jim?… To take the chill off?”
“No, thank you. I just came to drop things off and warn you about the storm. They say it’s going to be bad.”
“They say a lot of things.” I smile because it’s a joke between us. When I first came, I was constantly quoting to him all of the things anonymous experts said about Maine on the internet. Jim had always countered me with a stern: “They say a lot of things,” meaning a lot of things that weren’t true.
“If you get snowed in, it might be days before you can clear out. Possibly even weeks.”
“I know that.” It rankled me still that he didn’t consider that I’d done all of this before.
Jim gives me his look: not annoyed, not mean, just somewhere between stern and concerned. “People have been talking about an animal in the woods. Something that’s been leaving big tracks and stealing off livestock from one of the local farms. If you get snowed in, don’t wander too far into the woods.”
“I never wander too far into the woods.”
Jim lifts an eyebrow. “I know you. You strap on those snowshoes and think this whole forest is your backyard.”
“That’s not true. I’ve never gone to the other side of the lake.”
Again, Jim gives me his look.
After he discovers a few more supplies in the back of his truck, he says goodbye to me from the bottom step of my porch and reminds me of the radio, if the electric and the phone go out. “If it’s a long one,” he says, “let me know you’re alright.”
Coming from Jim this is a bit unsettling, we’ve weathered many storms the three winters I’ve been here, many bad storms, but life goes on. That’s what has to happen.
Later after it’s grown quite dark outside my cabin windows, I turn on the radio to see if I can find a weather report.
The snow begins in the early morning before I wake up. The sky is full of it at dawn, a gray and white sky heavy with its burden. Before light begins to seep through the small crack between my curtains, I hear the wind pick up in the trees, crying with a low moan as it eddies past my cabin. The whole world is hushed at dawn, except for that moaning wind.
Dawn is gray, and the wind shakes the forest surrounding the camp. Waves of snow slant outside my window panes so thick I cannot see the next cabin. The lake is hidden, shrouded in a veil of gray and white. The storm diminishes my world into a hazy view of my front porch; the steps pile up with snow, my paths losing their trace into oblivious white. Gray Water transforms into a world of white.
There’s nothing to do but read.
At six o’clock the power cuts out, and I find myself in a solitary world. I scratch a match and light a few candles, locate my headlamp. It takes me a few minutes to bundle up enough to brave the icy snow. The wind whips the snowflakes into my eyes, stinging them; the cold makes them water even more. The flakes dance in and out of my single beam of light, whirling up, down, sideways in the light.
The generator starts up without a skip, rattling its metallic, man-made rhythm into nature’s furious chorus. The generator will keep my refrigerator and my freezer running so that my food doesn’t spoil.
A sudden wash of golden light flashes and then glows in the darkness behind me, and I turn as the lights come back on inside my cabin.
There are drums of fuel inside the barn, enough to keep the generator going for days if it comes to that, however I must be careful in my rationing because I also need fuel to run the tractor to clear myself out of the snow. I am not scared. I’ve been snowed in for over a week before. The first time it happened, I almost went crazy because of how alone you feel, but I prepared myself better for the second storm and for every other storm after that. I feel at one with the lonesomeness now.
For a moment, I stand and stare at the squares of light shining from my cabin windows. I watch as the snow swirls between me and those warm lights. There’s a calmness to standing in the snow like this, something hushed and apart, a quiet beneath the sheets of snow and the press of the wind. I close my eyes and smile.
The wind flaps down from the sky then with a great buffeting noise, and the edges of the tempest squeal over the crest of my shingled roof, rattle in the eves, and swirl through the heavy sheets of snow. A darting movement grabs my eye, a shadow slinking back from the light, a movement like someone buffeting the curtain at a window. It moves so quickly, I stand puzzled for a moment, wondering if I have seen anything at all. All these winters alone have not been without their optical illusions.
I squint into the raging darkness and freeze. It’s not so much that I feel I see something, but rather the feeling descends over me that I am seen. And that I am not alone.
I stand still in the roaring darkness and let the wind and the snow sting my eyes. Do not blink.
The shadows around my house lie inky and thick, all the more so because of the warmth of the light in my windows, but standing there near the back of the house, tucked behind my upended rain barrel, and the corner of my wood shed/lean-to—I swear—something stands… or sits… haunches, perhaps? I find myself squinting to tell, and my breath comes rapidly and my heart flutters like a pounding drum.
One breath. Two breaths. Three. I let them out slowly.
Many times, during the first winter, an optical illusion sent me scampering back to my cabin to bolt the door behind me, but I quickly learned that when you’re alone too many things are frightening, and in such an attitude, I risked living my whole time here scared. Living alone meant becoming brave enough to dispel my own fears.
One breath. Two breaths. Three. I take a step forward. The shadows between my rain barrel and lean-to yawn like a hole, stuck in the side of my house. The snow wavers across my vision, and I cannot be sure of what I see or have seen. I walk forward slowly. The wind howls like an animal across the crest of my house, and down it shrieks into the crooks of my metal gutters.
Something is sitting behind my rain barrel. The hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, even beneath all the layers. I let out another breath and snap on my headlamp.
The small space between the rain barrel and lean-to sits empty. For some reason my heart beats even faster now. I notice that the snow is fresh, untouched. There are no tracks. I move back toward the window looking, and there are no tracks there either.
For a moment, I feel foolish, and my breathing comes raggedly out of my chest. I turn and look toward the deep of the forest out beyond my barn, but all I see is snow, cascading sideways through the beam of my headlamp.
7:00 seems too early to go to sleep so I sit up reading in the armchair until midnight, wrapped in a blanket by the fire. And the storm continues to rage. Gusts of wind slam themselves into the walls of my house at times, and finally a feeling of wastefulness sends me back out into the storm to turn off the generator.
The snow is so silent. This storm comes like waves, sometimes breaking violently and at other times washing smooth. Nothing greets me from the shadows, and I return to the house and to my bed.
The storm is almost finished at dawn. Now the snow is a gentle flurry outside the windows, shaking itself from a gradually brightening sky. There’s always a sense of “where to begin?” after a good storm. This one was short but plentiful. I spend a restful morning by the fireplace with coffee, a book and breakfast. The snow is so deep outside, the mounds rest even with my porch—a good three feet, at least—easy to step off into with snowshoes. Everything outdoors is buried. The snow turns familiar landmarks into indiscernible lumps, mere knolls and divots in the pearly landscape.
The conifers fold their arms down toward their sides beneath the heavy obscuring blankets; some trees on the windward side are mere cones of white. Up the lane from me the other cabins are the only brushes of brown that I can see in the white vastness. Empty windows look dull beneath the gray sky, in spite of the growing brightness of the day.
I enjoy the quiet. I am in no hurry to shovel out. I will have my childish snow day.
I strap on my snow shoes. Shoveling out is always a process best taken in stages, and from my very first snow storm here at Gray Water, I most enjoy the exploration—the tallying up of damage done, the assessment of what it will take to right everything. Mostly I just like looking at the snow-draped landscape, walking through the woods full of laden trees, listening to the hush of life after the storm. Sometimes the sheer silence of winter startles me out there in the woods where normally the rush of creatures in the underbrush would startle and the call of the chickadee reassures. In winter, especially on days after a storm, there is the sense that all sound has gone and a vacuum of wind and sloughing is left behind.
This is the world I step off into, taking wide awkward paces away from my front porch. First, I circle the cabin, noting the snow heaped eves, seeing here and there that patches of snow have already slid off beneath the heft of their own weight. I do the same to my garage and the old barn. Then I trek down the line of summer cottages, making mental notes of the condition of each.
As I walk, I listen to the whistle of the wind as it crosses the lake’s snowy plane. I pause, at intervals, to look across to the opposite shore, past the eddies of snow that swirl in the open, to where the tree intersects the snow in the undergrowth, standing like dark slashes of watercolor against their winter background. Even during the summer, the opposite side of the lake calls to me like a siren of mystery. “Here,” it says. “Here I am.”
Today I feel as if it stares back at me with baleful eyes.
The sun is high, but the world feels barren, ripped open to reveal a white wilderness, a desert of snow, and I am alone.
Or am I?
It is late afternoon. The thinning sunshine has shifted far to my right, and it works weakly against the tops of the trees. I stand and stare. My heart thumps inside me, right against my ribcage, bumping the bones as if it could escape. I take a deep breath, but nothing seems to bring the heat down in my body. I squint into the dense army of tree trunks that stand before me, the whole forest at attention, as highly alert as all my senses.
Coming back from the last cabin at the farthest end of Gray Water, something caught the very corner of my vision. It seemed to move for just a moment with lithe speed beneath the trees, more an impression of something seen, rather than something actually seen, but unlike other optical illusions, this time I am almost certain. The certainty drew me across the lake slowly, snow shoes krumping quietly on the top layers of the snow, and now, I stand as close to the edge of the opposite shore as I dare. If the snow were not here, I would be at the very edge of the water, I reckon—the pebbles washing gently around my feet in the lake tide. My cabin is a baby-doll cabin, a plaything nestled in the snow far, far behind me.
My ears strain against the wind-song and against the silence beneath.
What am I listening for?
Perhaps the heavy panting of an animal that could move that fast. Perhaps the telltale impression of snow beneath the press of a moving weight—like the crump of my own snowshoes no matter how slowly I step.
Am I crazy?
I look for tracks beneath the trees, but there’s nothing there, just the dent of falling snow or of smaller animals venturing bravely from their winter nests.
The trees tower over me, threaten to topple over me beneath the weight of their white caps, their shoulders sagging low. A sudden plop and the weighted boughs of a nearby pine tree suddenly spring free as the snow slides away. A snow shower feathers the air for a moment. I jump. My heart hammers against the inside of my throat now, and I can’t be too sure what I have just seen. It takes my head a moment to swim around the reality. I feel heat swim through me to my toes.
But it is only snow slipping from the limbs of a tree. The powder clears and I see that nothing is there.
I try to shake away the feeling. For a moment my eyes roam the shadows that gather beneath the trees, but I can make out nothing, just the pillow-like grayness of gloom deepening above the snow. Reluctantly, I turn away and look into the sky. To the west, the sun is being overtaken by gray clouds heavy with more snow. Round two is coming. A second storm, smaller than the first, is set to arrive before nightfall. I have a half hour perhaps before the storm brings an early twilight.
Coming across the water had been foolish.
My cabin catches my eyes across the way. It seems so tiny and far. Strange that the lake doesn’t look this wide in the summer when the dark green of these fir trees seems so close, so large and deep as if I could bound across the water in one leap. I frown over my shoulder at the forest rimming the now frozen lake. I cannot shake the feeling that something watches me from beneath the twilight of those snow covered trees, but my heart has finally calmed. It’s probably some animal, a moose maybe.
Halfway across the lake my blood runs cold. I was following my tracks back across the white expanse, but somewhere near the middle of the lake, I came across it and for a moment could not breathe.
Deep impressions next to my own, startling in the virgin snow, only feet from my tracks. They are deep craters. The kind a man would make were he not wearing snowshoes in this winter wilderness.
I lose precious minutes of daylight staring at those tracks.
There is only one set, as if someone had walked out here after me and disappeared into thin air halfway across the lake. I distinctly remember the untainted snow when I came out this way, unfolding around me like a pristine quilt of diamonds rolling away in the sunshine.
I look up at my cabin and bite back panic. I am alone.
I should be alone.
Early twilight creeps behind my feet as I approach my cabin steps. The tracks followed my path back into camp until I lost them in the cleared walkways I had made for myself. I take a moment in the dying daylight to look around the outside of my buildings, but I find no tracks I cannot positively say are not my own.
I stand on my porch as the day becomes dark enough and the farther shore disappears into a growing gloom, and I watch as it begins to snow.
The snow is gentle. It piles in a new dusting on the windowsills as I go around pulling the drapes as full dark descends. The radio report says it will snow all night, dumping less than half of what the last storm brought. We probably won’t even lose power. It will be a silent snowfall unlike a few nights ago with the howling winds. It is my favorite kind of snowstorm to watch, and yet I pinion each window as if trying to keep out the howling snarls of a nor’easter.
Ensconced, I cook myself dinner and try to forget the feeling of this afternoon. All around me the house ticks and creaks. The rafters above me expand and sigh, almost as if someone is walking up there, but the pitch of the roof is so steep that would be impossible. Yet my eyes follow the ceiling with dread.
For a moment, full panic grips my heart and tears rush to my eyes; my throat swells and throbs as if to cry, but I swallow any noise. Focus on my breathing.
Something slams against the front door, rattling the hinges and bolts. I cry and drop the soup ladle on the floor. Flecks of stew—beef, potato, carrots—splash across the tile floor. My knees turn to jelly as I sink toward the tiles, fingers mushy and numb against the countertop as I peer over it.
I watch the door, not even daring to breathe. But it stands as normal; the coat pegs on it stare back at me, as if saying: “Oh, never mind. It’s just your imagination… This isn’t the first time you’ve imagined something like this, is it?”
The panic grips hold of me now, blossoming like fire through my body. Even my bowels feel hot, but I force myself to stand straight and inch across the floor. With a finger I pull back the curtain on the front window ever so slightly and cup my other hand around my face to block out the light of the room as I look out.
The snow-bound landscape takes a moment to slide into focus. There is no heavenly light in the snow storm, but all that white on the ground makes the world seem bright and gray anyways.
Something stands just off my porch. It gazes back at my cabin, although I cannot see its face. A man. But taller than a man I think. A man-shaped shadow of monstrous proportions with arms and legs longer than any man I’ve ever seen.
My throat swells again, and I feel as if I cannot breath. I let the curtain fall back to fill the hair’s breadth of space, and slowly I back up into the center of the room.
I am alone. Whatever is out there… There is no one to save me.
By morning I know what I will do. I cannot spend another sleepless night in my loft bed staring at the cabin door with my shotgun across my legs.
I dash all of the curtains open once dawn fills the sky and race to each window looking for signs of my nighttime visitor, but there are none in the freshly fallen snow. Now enough of the powder coats the landscape I know it will at least be another week before I will be able to leave. I cannot endure another week.
I gather a backpack of food, the shotgun and my winter gear. I write a note for Jim and leave it in the middle of the kitchen table. If something happens to me, he will find it.
Jim, I’ve gone into the forest.
I stoke the fireplace with wood and set off across the lake into the snow and the shadows.
P.S. I’m not really in love with the title. Prose Lovers, if you’ve gotten this far, help me out. What are some title suggestions that would fit? 💕
2 thoughts on “Solitary Water”
What an ace voice and uncluttered style you have here, Katie: prose poetry of landscape. Well done!
Ps. I like that you question your title, too (though I think Solitary Water is great). Your story conjures so much imagery that wants to vie for the lead role! – something about ‘crossing the lake’, or there’s (obviously) something in there about being ‘above and below the waterline’ or the transience of ice or nature, blah blah blah! Something elemental anyway.
Pps. Stand-out image for me being ‘When night falls, I can hear the sap inside a tree snap from a mile away.’ – wonderful!
Thanks so much, Nick! I’m glad you enjoyed the imagery. It’s what made me come back to the piece after I had left it. I am warming up to the title a bit, I think. 😊
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