Beside a lake in the northern Ontario wilderness, fifteen-year-old Zachary Tayler lives a lonely life with his father, his only neighbours a leech trapper, an eccentric millionaire and an expert in snow. All Zack has for company is the harsh and moody landscape, which holds both beauty and terror in its depths and whispers with the promise of dark, secret spaces and undiscovered worlds.
Summer and life change with the arrival of the mysterious Eva Spiller, who is determined to find the spot where her parents disappeared in a floatplane after flying off from the lake. While trying to navigate between summer and winter, the living and the dead, the past and the present, Zack and Eva grow closer. The people of Sitting Down Lake will have to rely on each other to come to terms with the past and realize that death is never final: something always remains.
In his fifth novel, award-winning author Tristan Hughes has created a vivid and poetic coming-of-age story about loss, absence and redemption.
Review Quotes and Endorsements
"Superbly accomplished ... Hughes' prose is startling and luminous." Financial Times
“Eye Lake is a sturdy and ... compelling novel, ripe with luminous prose and well-sustained metaphor, a fine investigation of isolation, work, family, the Canadian pioneer spirit and the doomed communities that linger in opportunity's wake." National Post
“Hughes has done an exquisite job plotting Eye Lake, but this is only a small part of the novel's pleasures ... [A] deeply satisfying read.” Quill and Quire
“Rarely has there been a more endearing storyteller ... [Hughes's] story of a small town growing and declining on the whims of a few outsize personalities also is the story of families, boom to bust.” Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Folded within the seemingly simple narratives of Hughes' novel, is a lovely rumination on what it means for the world to end, however small that world may be.” This Magazine
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About the Author
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By Tristan Hughes
ParthianCopyright © 2017 Tristan Hughes
All rights reserved.
My name is Zachary Taylor and I mostly grew up in two places. One was a few miles outside a small town called Crooked River in northern Ontario; the other a camp on Sitting Down Lake. To begin with we migrated from the one to the other each season like a small flock of geese; first my mother and father and me, and then just me and my father. We spent our summers at Sitting Down Lake and the rest of the year at the other place, which we never did get around to giving an official name. As the crows flew they were only about forty kilometres apart, but to me they were like two quite separate hemispheres. Back then there was no road linking them, only the railway tracks.
To get to the lake we'd take the train from Crooked River, hitching a ride in the caboose. There weren't any scheduled stops at the lake but, if you arranged things with the driver, he'd bring the train to a swift standstill there, so swift it sometimes seemed it'd not fully stopped at all. I always picture us arriving at a hurried trot, a hobo canter, amidst a frantic tossing of bags and cases. And this is how each summer began – watching the red of the caboose recede into the distance, surrounded by the scattered debris of our stores and belongings as though we were the lone survivors of some kind of disaster.
But once it had disappeared, and we'd turned our heads, a sandy, horseshoe-shaped bay would spread out in front of us, with two small islands of naked rock in its centre and at its mouth three larger ones, topped with pines and spruce and birch. It seems to me now the surface of the lake was always glittering when we arrived. Up close its waters were as clear as air. You could see a long way down. The bottom, even if it was twenty feet below, appeared only just beyond the reach of your fingers. There were big trout out of sight in its deepest parts. If you caught one you could feel the clean cold of that deepness on its body.
For the next weeks, and sometimes months, this would be our home. The real disaster, as I thought back then, was that we ever had to leave it.
Our other home was different. Officially, for the purpose of school and municipal taxes and such things, we lived in Crooked River. But in reality we lived fifteen minutes' drive away; a negligible distance by car but a much longer one in other ways. Crooked River had no suburbs: there was the town, the few homes – like ours – straggled out along the highway, and then an awful lot of nothing for a long way in either direction. You lived in town or you lived out of town, in the bush. Tax purposes aside, there were no purlieus or other in-between places.
Our house sat in a clearing beside a shallow, weed-clogged pool of water which my father called 'the pond' but which my mother – who felt no need to name it otherwise – called 'the swamp'. Its water was tea-bag brown and smelt of rotting leaves and goose shit and slippery dead things. The tamaracks and black spruces surrounding it appeared in constant retreat from its brackish waters, and those which hadn't escaped them stood naked and needle-less in the shallows, as gaunt and pale as pillars of salt.
It wasn't a place to stay put in, and I don't think my parents ever planned to. Like many of their early arrangements in Crooked River, it was considered temporary. They never did get around to finishing up the house. Its walls were covered in pink siding insulation which over the years faded to grey-white, as though the swamp had leeched out its colour, as it had done to the stranded trees. Out front were the first few planks of an abandoned deck which, if you pinched your buttocks together, you could just about perch on and listen to the cars and trucks whoosh by on the highway. At night their lights seemed to come into the house and touch you. But there were never that many – and every year a few less.
Whether this explains anything I don't know, but my parents began their lives together in Crooked River just as the town itself was passing its climacteric. The iron ore mine had shut several years before; the lumber mill the year after. There were boarded-up windows on Main Street and the only fresh paint in town was on the 'For Sale' signs. Then there was the dust: an ochre-red pall that drifted over from the mine site like the last, wheezy exhalations of a dying lung, settling everywhere on everything. It covered the roads, the rooftops, the leaves of the trees. Even in June it looked like fall.
My mother's hair was the same colour as the dust. She'd been born and raised in Crooked River.
'And I always thought it was the Irish in you,' my father had joked when we first arrived there.
'Well, what do you think?' my mother asked.
'I can live here,' he'd said, looking around at the closed signs and tripping along the rutted street and choking on the dust. She needn't have said anything. He would have lived anywhere she asked him to. He would have lived on Mars, which was almost as red. 'But maybe we could find somewhere that's not exactly here.'
And so they'd moved out to the swamp, which my father tried to think of as a pond.
He was from the south of the province. He was used to suburbs. He thought it'd be like living in the country.
I was five years old when we moved. At some point I must have heard my parents use the word 'sabbatical'. My father was a junior professor of history at a university in Toronto and had arranged leave for six months, so he could go with my mother to look after her father who had fallen ill. My grandfather owned a dry goods store in town. I remember almost nothing about him as a healthy man. Later, I would discover that in many ways we were similar and I often wished I'd known him in another, in a better, time. But instead, most of my memories are folded together into this single recurring scene: of him lying on a narrow bed in a room above his store, his eyes glittering with an awful brightness, his voice as thin as paper, his pinched, yellow skin as desiccated as the goods he was too ill to sell. The first year my parents stayed they were waiting for him to get better. The next year they were waiting for him to die. And then there were the years after he died, when there wasn't a reason for waiting anymore, except that by then they'd begun to live their lives there, as is often the case with people who think they are only waiting somewhere. I never heard the word sabbatical again.
My father had started teaching history in the town's high school. My mother worked two and a half days a week in the library. When she wasn't working in the library she worked on her hobby, which was carving antlers. Every spring and fall she'd walk for miles through the bush to collect moose and deer sheds. Sometimes, if she was lucky, she'd find an old set of caribou antlers too (they'd vanished from the area fifty years before – for what reason nobody could say). Over the winter and summer she'd whittle them. Mostly she created animals of one sort or another, some of which were recognizable but others chimaeras of her own devising. Many years later, my father would tell me that she'd been taken to an exhibit of Inuit carvings as a girl and these had made a great impression on her. She also liked the Ojibwa pictographs that were hidden away on the cliff-sides of lonely lakes. We'd go to visit them sometimes, and while my father and I ate hotdogs on the shore she'd sit in the canoe and look at them, tracing their shapes on the palm of her hand.
Inside, our house was a strange and fabulous bestiary. In the living room a huge moose rack hung on the wall, with tines that tapered into the heads of fish and otters and an odd creature with the eyes of a lizard and the jaws of a pike. In the bathroom a bear's snout reared out of bone bushes and trees, off of whose branches hung rolls of toilet paper. In my parents' bedroom a set of caribou antlers had been turned into animals with beavers' teeth and eagles' wings and great bulging bellies.
Once, when I was young, I held a set of whitetail antlers on my head and, thinking myself a great wit, said to my mother, 'I'm a deer'. She smiled at me and said, 'You are. And look,' she continued, taking the antlers from me, 'now you're a heron too.' She guided my fingers over them and said, 'See. This is its beak, and here's the curve of its skull.' She told me that in any part of any animal you could find the shape or essence of another. One thing could always change into another thing. Nothing in nature was really as fixed as people thought it was. My father, who was watching us, said the Greeks called this metamorphoses. I didn't know which Greeks he was talking about and when I tried to say the word it came out more like molasses; which at least made a certain sense to me – it was what turned beans and bitter things sweet.
Outside the house my father tried to raise a garden. He bought some tomato plants and watermelon seeds, which he thought was the kind of thing you did when you lived in the country. They sprouted, and then a late frost withered them into tiny yellow leaves. I wondered if this was metamorphoses too.
I was nine years old and my parents and I were happy enough in our little house by the swamp and then my mother sat down one day in the bathtub with her whittling knife and carved her own wrists. She left no note or explanation. The ragged lines on her wrists only said what they said. She was one thing and then she was another thing.
That was towards the end of the winter. A month later the swamp thawed and my father gathered up all of my mother's carvings and threw them, one by one, into its waters. We didn't go to Sitting Down Lake that summer. My father spent most of it sitting in our front room instead. I spent most of it in the reeds and bulrushes that grew around the edges of the swamp. If I looked carefully, and for long enough, I found I could still see some of my mother's carvings through the brown murk of the water. They looked different in this other element. And then the fall and winter came and they looked different again. After freeze-up, but before the first heavy snows came, I'd walk out on the swamp and look at them through the ice. It was only the year after that they began to green over and become invisible. By then I'd begun to realise my father and I were going to be staying put. I think he was waiting again then, but for what I didn't know.
Several years later, afraid I was already forgetting what my mother had truly been like, I dove down into the swamp to try to find her carvings. I recovered only a few. After I'd wiped away the weeds and slime I discovered them once again transformed. These strange beasts, which had once appeared so benign to me, were no longer that. Looking at their taut and twisting tendons, their gaping mouths, their thick- ribbed and bulging bellies, I found myself instinctively flinching from them. There were things there I hadn't seen before and didn't want to see.
But I kept them. And every now and again I still pick them up and look at them and feel their time-worn smoothness in my fingers. I try to imagine they give me access to some part of her beyond my scant and failing memories, some aspect of her inner life I'd been too young to understand. But they remain almost as mute and remote to me as the Inuit hunters who inspired her; there are suggestions, hints and flickers of a departed mind, but beyond these only a mystery – an unnameable animal disappearing into a secret and faraway landscape. In the end we cannot share the true and utter thoughts of others, can never see or feel things as they did. When my mother guided my fingers over the antlers that day and said this is a heron it wasn't a heron I really felt.CHAPTER 2
When at last we did go back to Sitting Down Lake it was to live. My father couldn't sell the swamp house so we abandoned it. By then they'd put in a logging road which led from the highway to the lake and so now we could drive there and commute into town.
The day we first arrived it was as though I was returning there after the elapse of some great span of time, an era or an epoch or an eon, which in many ways it was: it had been a goodly portion of my short life. I looked out over the glittering bay and the islands and the curve of the horizon and it was as though a glacier had just that second passed over the landscape and scoured it clean. I could barely remember being there before, which was fortunate for me, and I wished it could have been the same for my father. But for him it must have seemed like yesterday.
Our cabin was on the shore of the bay, near the curve of the horseshoe. It was a simple building, made of planks of pine that'd long ago been painted a rusty red. My grandfather had built it, back when my mother wasn't much older than I was. The two of them had shared it in the summers (my grandmother had died giving birth to my mother and my grandfather never did re-marry). The chimney was made of stones he'd gathered himself from the far shore of the lake.
In front of our cabin the lake was sandy-bottomed and shallow, tapering gradually down until, about thirty feet out, it dipped abruptly. Beyond the edge of this drop-off you couldn't see the bottom. I'm sure if I'd ever plumbed its depth in feet and inches, or metres and centimetres, it would have disappointed me. As a child I'd thought it almost infinite. Before our return I'd played a game – I was a good, strong swimmer, and had been since almost before I could walk – which involved lugging a stone out to this drop-off and then diving from it, holding the stone in my hands, seeing how long I could hold my breath and how deep I could get before my ears popped and ached. Never once did I get close to the bottom. I'd played this game for years, and a few weeks after we'd come back I decided to play it again. But this time it was different. As I'd sunk with the rock I'd looked below into the murk and a sudden agitation had taken hold of me, a kind of panic. I can't really say what caused this sensation; I can only say that it felt like an endless plummet into places I couldn't see – as though I were drifting and tumbling like an astronaut cut adrift in space, falling forever into a greater dark. Afterwards, I nursed an unspoken fear of the drop-off and would secretly close my eyes whenever I passed over it, either in a boat or while swimming. And whenever I did this I felt as if I was living my life in reverse somehow: that I was becoming afraid of things I had been fearless of as a child.
I don't recall ever thinking of Sitting Down Lake as a lonely place, although perhaps solitude has shaped my memories and perceptions more than I have realised and others might well have thought it so. We didn't have that many neighbours. On one side of us, about thirty feet away, was Mrs Schneider's cabin, which was pretty much the same as ours but painted blue. Further along the bay, on the other side of the tracks, were the remains of Mrs Molson's house. Then there were Oskar the Finn and Lamar Spiller's places, which were both out of sight; the one beyond a rocky point, the other a few hundred yards up a narrow creek. And that, for several years, was that.
I would have been fifteen years old the year Eva Spiller turned up. I remember how slow the ice was going out that spring. It was still on the lake come the second week of May. In front of our cabin there were rocks and stones spread out all over it in what I'd come to think of as almost a pattern – like one of those ancient circles that cavemen made to welcome solstices, which was just the kind of odd and desperate thinking that tended to occur at the end of a long winter. Every day for weeks I'd thrown these rocks and stones out there to check the strength and thickness of the ice, hoping each time one of them would break through. But none of them had. Some of them were much bigger than the others, from when I'd become especially impatient. I was meant to start my job helping Oskar with his trapping but I couldn't until the lakes and ponds were clear.
And then, late one afternoon, a wind began to blow in from the south; gently at first but growing steadily in strength until by midnight it was rattling our winter windows and bending the jack pines over the outhouse. All through the night I lay in my bed and listened to the lake. It was as though some giant animal had slouched out of the pages of an old book to die there; a kraken or a behemoth; a leviathan. There was a terrible moaning and groaning, followed by the sharp, sudden cracking of gigantic bones. Until, just after dawn, it went quiet and all you could hear – but only if you listened carefully – was a shimmery, tinkling sound, as though a million tiny fairies were playing triangles.
Excerpted from Hummingbird by Tristan Hughes. Copyright © 2017 Tristan Hughes. Excerpted by permission of Parthian.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsAbout Tristan Hughes,
The Leech Gatherer,
Maps and Exploration,
Un-named Water Bodies,
Three Day Blow,
North by North-West,
North by North-West II,
Diving For Bones,
Shapes and Pieces,
The New Burn,
Into The Wind,
Green Thoughts In Green Shades,
The Long Day,