At Sunday dinner, Duke announced he’d built a lake on their grandmother’s property. A man-made lake, he called it. Once it had been a spring-fed brook or a pond but Duke had dug it out to form this lake upon which the children were meant to boat and fish. In the summer they might even swim. But then their mother cautioned that the lake might be filled with snapping turtles and the children were advised against ever going near it alone. One of them could snap a child’s leg right off to a stump, their mother warned.
Their mother said that Duke was a lackluster man. He was their mother’s stepfather. No one called him Father or Dad. No one called him Grandfather or Poppa. To everyone he was Duke.
My daddy planted this orchard, their mother said, as she always did, when they walked out among the rows of trees. McIntosh and McIntosh and McIntosh. The children thought it was funny that their mother called her father her daddy. They didn’t even call their own father their daddy. It was a name for her use alone.
It was spring now, the earth supple with snowmelt. The children wore grown-up sweaters over their Sunday clothes, sleeves rolled up once and twice. If I had known we were going for a walk, we’d have brought our galoshes, their mother said. But it was meant to be a surprise.
The trees were still budless but soon the leaves would fill in, the flowers open up. Soon the orchard air would be heavy with bees and robins. The sun cut through the clouds like milky tea. There was a feeling of snow in the air. The man-made lake was out past the orchard, back near the piney woods. The children expected a sandy shoreline and whitecaps. Mountains in the distance. A loon.
Duke walked ahead and talked to their mother, telling her about the backhoe and how much dirt was taken out and where the water would come from. He talked about stocking the lake with fish, maybe putting out a raft for the children.
He would buy life jackets, he said, for the little ones. Their mother informed him that her children knew how to swim, thank you.
Push through the tall grass brown from winter, trampled down. In summer it would be tall as a child’s waist and thick with spit from insect eggs. The grass that said, ahhh. Ahhh. Ahhh. It pulled at the children, wrapped around their ankles, cut slivers in their skin.
There was the man-made lake. Rectangular, sad. Duke held out his arms to encompass the lake. You’ll swim, he told the children. Right here.
The children thought of the wedding photo of Duke and their grandmother. Her short lacy dress, a pale blue. Her hair set. Glasses, dark and angled. He had his arm around her, like he would protect her. The children would not swim in the man-made lake. They never would.
Their mother threw a stone far out into the water and they all watched the ripples push away and away.
KF: Anyone who is familiar with your writing, knows that nature features beautifully and prominently in your stories. Did you grow up with a close relationship with the natural world or was it something you cultivated as an adult?
MC: Thank you for your kind words! I absolutely grew up with a close relationship to nature. When my dad was still alive, he kept us outside a lot. Took us hiking, skiing, taught us how to canoe and fish. And even though for the first eleven years of my life I lived in Montreal, my summers were spent in the woods on a lake and my winters in the Laurentian Mountains. I have always loved to be outside. When we moved to the Adirondack Mountains, I was 11 and spent a great deal of time outside, in the woods, on the water.
As an adult, my relationship to nature is stronger than ever and my husband and I encourage such a relationship to nature in our son. We have numerous bird feeders and spend much time at our local Audubon societies and nature preserves. He can already identify many types of birds and insects.
KF: Have you ever had a close encounter with a wild animal and if so, can you share the story with us?
MC: So many. In the Adirondacks, we would frequently see deer, bear, foxes, etc. But it wasn’t until my husband and I lived in NH in a community that was wooded but also suburban that we (who had both grown up in the woods) saw more wild animals than either of us ever had (other than when we toured the US and Canadian National Parks). The two most thrilling sightings (they weren’t encounters as I was inside) happened within a few months of each other. The first one was when I was nine months pregnant and looked out my office window just as a large black bear walked through our backyard. Then, when my son was a month old, I was walking by the front window when I saw a young moose in our driveway.
Where I live now, my desk window looks out into our side yard which borders a brook. If you’ve followed me on twitter then you’ll know in the past few months, I’ve seen a river otter and a great blue heron right outside my window. We always see deer out there and the other night we watched an opossum make its way through our yard. If I am ever not thrilled to see a wild animal then I will feel something has died inside of me. I even enjoy watching the squirrels as they savage our suet feeders.