Hanna expected a romantic chalet at the foot of the Laurentian Mountains, not this simple cabin for three seasons buried deep in the shag of an airless green monster, pines for hair, a black lake its one evil eye — the fishing here was out of this world. If only she’d known, and understood; this was a cabin for heartier people than she, for men like these, her boyfriend, his uncle and cousins — her father when he was still getting away from it all once a year — who dropped their smelly fishing gear onto the braided rug that had surely been meant as a cozy welcome — keep this shit in one place, they said — men like these who unpacked a couple two-liter plastic bottles, once filled with soda, now vodka likely, and placed them as a colorless center-piece on the banged up and yet still hearty kitchen table crawling with cigarette burns. Theirs? They’d been here before.
This was a place, a cabin, for men like these, who’d rushed back to their rented Suburban to unload a stack of beer in cans, three layers deep, plastic ringlets keeping them square. Covered over in the rear storage space, she’d thought there was a box of groceries under there. The beers, for chasing the vodka most likely, remained out on the rotten porch, the elder of the four with the big belly and slits for eyes telling the boys where to drop them. “Set ’em as close to the door as possible, but not too close. I don’t want to be tripping if I need to take my business outside,” he’d said, and then looked to her, his nephew’s girlfriend — what’s her name. She’d have to take her business outside, as well. It was in his eyes — You’ll pee outside like the rest of us, only you aren’t like the rest of us. This will be torture for you.
It was a cabin for macaroni and cheese and hot dogs and ketchup — a meal easily prepared drunk. It was a cabin with a blackened and greasy fire pit out front, still full of the stuff that wouldn’t burn right from the last season. It was a place for a girl to wake too early in the morning and sit alone like an ugly, poisonous growth on a stump one of the boys had pissed on the night before — one of his cousins, maybe, but it could have just as easily be him.
Hannah knew the smell of dead fish would have her thinking of her mother and father, her father coming back on a Saturday morning from his week-long fishing trip, a distant look in his eyes, even for her. She’d always assumed he’d gone just a little bit savage on the lake, in the woods, but it was a temporary thing. After Sunday’s backyard party grilling fish, she could expect to have him back, daddy’s girl by bedtime; his hand sweeping the hair from her forehead still smelling of perch as he’d kiss the tip of her nose goodnight.
Hannah snuck out of bed one Sunday evening to watch her parents, her mother, as they came together—the three of them were exhausted, the annoyance of her father’s yearly get-a-way, done with. He had her mother pinned at one end of the sofa, his hands all over her, the friction of his hands over her breasts filling Hanna’s nose with the smell of dead fish even as she slinked along the floor. Her mother was still on fire, black smoke pouring out of her eyes. Her mother had smouldered all week-end, as she’d struggled to scale the fish in the kitchen sink, the scales sticking to everything, and then as she gutted the fish, heaving like she might puke. But her mother smelled just as badly as her father did. Hanna flipped over onto her back, stared up at the ceiling as the smoke began to clear, as she waited for the clean air of their family home, as she gulped, as she imagined her mother’s face, the sweetness returning as she realized this had been a temporary thing, something her husband had to do.
Her boyfriend burst out of the cabin, the heavy springs slamming the screen door shut behind him, the laces of his sneakers untied and jerking around violently as he moved toward her, his runners leaving beastly prints in the dirt to devour her own — tracked early in the morning as the men still slept in their bags. She tried seeing her boyfriend as a school boy in a football jacket always late for his next class, but the image wouldn’t gel for her.
Chalet — she’d assumed the word meant they’d be curling up under a shared blanket before a roaring fire. Tipsy with wine, his tough outer shell already melted away, he’d tell her he was in love with her. A man transformed by the ceiling timbers, the smell of musk and flames. She’d be seeing him at his best, as that someone special. She’d ignored the words fishing, my cousins, we do it every year, or he never said them, or he did and she figured she’d deal with those words when it was time. She wasn’t sure anymore.
The uncle and his two sons were still inside the cabin, done whispering loudly; using words like bitch repeatedly, and dumb cunt. She would ruin their vacation, they’d said; their voices everywhere, coming down from the surrounding trees. “Hannah. My name’s Hannah,” she’d whispered back every time she heard the b-word and the c-word, but her whispers were in her tiniest voice. There was no privacy here, nowhere to run if things got out of hand, no one to help her. She’d waited for her boyfriend’s clear voice among their hisses, but it never came, and she decided he must have been nodding his head as they’d railed against her.
Hannah never thought to ask her mother why she didn’t go along on the yearly fishing trip, but then Hannah had no clue as a child that there was such a thing as a romantic get away in the lives of people. There’d been dolls, and sometimes the girl dolls kissed the girl dolls playing the part of the boys, but never such things as muscles and strong arms, beard stubble, a strong character peppered with the occasional kindness to keep a girl wanting more. Those things belonged to her father, they were fatherly things. His fishing trips had nothing to do with what Hannah hoped this one was about.
She could blame her mother, but how could her mother have known? Hannah had already tried speaking with her as is she was already dead, in heaven looking down on her. What do I do? But the answer was pointless. You draw the knife towards you so the scales fly in the opposite direction.
Her boyfriend had been sent outside to put things right. They had until Sunday to catch fish, and Monday mornings was a real bitch. Hannah was scared, too scared to look up at his face, too scared to do anything but sit and wait and stare at the hands of the young man standing in front of her, so charming once, especially when he’d used that other c-word — chalet. And it occurred to her just then, that he was a man in training, that the mistake had been all his, not hers.
He pointed his fat, gnawed up finger at her — fat because he liked to work on cars in his spare time, and gnawed up because chewing the calluses of his fingers always helped him think better. “Stop it,” she’d say, swatting his hand away from his mouth, feeling useful because of all the hazards in the dirt under his fingernails. At the moment, his finger was trembling. That was trouble brewing; black smoke. You, come, he was about to insist. She could sense this. It was in his body language. She looked up; it was in his eyes, too. His mind wanted to chew the callus on the side of that index he was pointing. She stood up before he might grab her by the hair.
They should maybe walk in the woods, he said finally — the chalet, his uncle and his cousins, the beer, the grilled hot dogs, the good times — that shit was on hold. This was more important.
“Come with me.”
He turned to her when they were too deep in the woods to be heard, though the cabin would have been a fine place for her to die, she thought, gutted like a perch while his brethren watched, gutted because she’d been too needy and stupid, just a girl. She wanted to flash him a half-smile then, to let him know she understood she was so far from home. She wouldn’t put up a fight. There was no point. But she couldn’t smile, so she waited as he continued to do nothing. He seemed uncomfortable. His eyes were all over the woods, searching for the ghosts of the words he’d rehearsed on the long drive up here, when he’d realized he was on a trip to becoming a man, in that dreadful silence except for her breathing and their fidgeting, the five of them packed in tight with all the fishing gear, the booze, or he was searching for game, something to eat. He was a hunter in a Packers jacket, but he was too uncomfortable to be a hunter. Maybe he was trying to remember his uncle’s advice — slap her, kick her, punch her, and then we’ll bury her where no one will ever find her. Maybe she could blame his cousins, his uncle; he’s such an asshole, try and console this boy because this couldn’t be easy for him. She could tell him the blame was hers — she should have stayed home. She shouldn’t have been looking so hard for a guy who maybe was never hers to find, especially here where he was meant to lose himself.
Childish and full of love still, warmed by thoughts of her father in the months when the yearly trip was supposed to be out of mind, she’d had a dream. It was unexpected, smelled of dead fish, the sounds of the wild swarming her like a cloud of flies over her bed. She seen him, and knew it was him, but he was moving swiftly through the woods on all fours. Father? He slowed briefly, but only to look back at her with eyes that seemed more frightened than fierce. In her dream, she’d been brave enough, and settled in her love enough, to stay put, to let him know they shared the same mind, that she would meet with him at home, she and mother both.
“I — I –” he said.
He’d said something, but it hadn’t been about her. Panicked and feeling rushed for time, she thought how good a person she was. She wanted him to know that. Tell him. She’d made a mistake, was all that this was. Her mistake, thoughts of her mother, the determined look on her face as she’d scale the fish, as she’d kept herself from heaving into the sink.
“I — I — “ she said, still thinking of her mother.
She could cry instead, keep this from happening, but Hannah hated the woods as much as the trees couldn’t help looming over and into her, their branches piercing her skin because she had no business being here. But if she cried he might hold her in his arms, try and smother the hurt he’d caused. She tried seeing him the way she’d always imagined he truly was deep down inside, but in the picture of him, he pushed his forearm against her open mouth, her head tocking against the trunk of a tree, the smell of pollution hitting her nose because he liked to drive with one arm hanging out of the window in the city, showing his fat middle finger to whomever would look. Her head pinned, she heard the music between his ears, the screeching she hated, and she tried to bobble her head one last time because it had become second nature fawning over him as he played his air guitar.
She’d made a mistake, but she’d also become her mother.
The canopy gave a shudder then, the whoosh of the leaves sounding angry, out of patience with her, as if they couldn’t guarantee she’d make it out of the woods, let alone find her way home, but anything was better than this.
Come on, girl! That was her father’s voice in her head, half-savage, but she was his little girl still, never prey.
“It’s okay,” Hannah offered finally, “just go back to the chalet.” That last word snapping like the tail of a perch being yanked out of black water. And he did, the smile she flashed lost to him as he disappeared beyond too many tree trunks.
When he was finally out of sight, she cursed herself, him, a boy-man still, her father would never have left her here, an angry rustling of leaves masking her whimper as she turned to walker deeper into the woods. She’d search him out, believing her father would recognize her no matter what, believing it was better to lose herself in these woods, then to wake up crimped and cold sitting on a stump like a poisonous growth all night as the men rolled in their bags.