Clamdigging

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I blamed the March rain, because I wanted to go to the lake.

I looked out the window at the droplets pooling against the glass. I  wanted to see the ducklings in Turtle Bay, but Mum and Dad said the weather was too cold and rainy. It was Spring Break. Back in those days, I liked to listen to the radio, and just recently, I had been listening to the radio in my room, while the rain darkened our driveway and ran down my window. My favorite song was Sister Golden Hair, by America.

It seemed a long time between March and July, but that’s how long I waited to go to the lake. It was that July when 10cc’s I’m Not In Love was in the charts and Paul McCartney & Wings were too, with Listen To What The Man Said. We waited to board at the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal, standing around by the open trunk drinking iced tea, eating the tuna sandwiches Mum had made.

That was the summer I first went clam digging, in 1975.

After the sandwich I sat in the back seat and watched the water trickle down the brown rock walls. I think in school, the teacher called that erosion, when the water runs down the same place for so long it takes all the sharp edges away. I wondered where the water came from. All I could see at the top of the rock was fir trees. It must be leftover rain. It got everywhere.

I watched the seagulls as they floated around in the air and made raspy calls and dive-bombed the bay’s surface. I wondered what the world must be like beneath the floating driftwood and seaweed on the dark water.

I heard that familiar sound I liked. It’s the clanking the ramp makes when Dad drives onto the boat. The ferry spent the next two hours leaving a wake between islands and I thought about how boats couldn’t leave footprints. I slouched in a seat by the window inside and watched passengers walk the deck, the winds of the Sound teasing, pulling at their hair and jackets. Soon then, we were off the boat, along another coastline highway to a small town with a couple of shops, a few fenced yards, and small neat lawns. Mum went inside the corner store to buy milk.

Highways turned to gravel roads and clearings and lake water. Lake water to Dad tying the boat to the dock and a pyramid of boxes slowly dismantled, and sent up the cool
soil trail past the huckleberry bush to our cabin steps.

It was then I saw how our cabin had been spending the winter, the woods and the lake its only companions. Dried brown pine needles lying thick on the deck and a tribe of cobwebs guarding the window corners. Fabric hanging in place of doors over the cupboards, hiding the plastic bowls and the coffee mugs. Behind the door was that mirror Dad used to shave in, his electric razor left at home.

And first days at the lake were full of the usual things after unpacking, investigating paths between the forest ferns and separating the s’more destined white clouds from between fingers. It was that night that I felt different, though. That night when I lay awake in the dark in my bottom bunk bed. I tucked my sleeping bag under my chin and waited to fall asleep, but all I could hear was a loon’s cry on the lake that I heard through the cabin wall. My sister in the top bunk looking out at the trees, the lake behind the trees and the night sky.

Not that you can see a loon’s cry. I could have gone out onto the deck, or wandered down to the dock. I might have seen the loon’s shape on the lake. I might have seen it dip down beneath the surface. I know I would get as far as opening the cabin door, my fingers on the handle before I was told to go back to sleep.

When my uncle and my dad had built the cabin, Mum said, she guessed they didn’t think about putting in a window there. Maybe your sister will trade with you, Mum said.

I always brought a plastic bag of stale bread crusts up to the lake. When the ducks arrived I had just finished breakfast. I put down what I was doing, and grabbed the bag of crusts from the counter. Two ducks crossed the middle of the bay, swimming by the dock with three grown young ones trailing behind them. I rushed to reach the shore. I hoped the duck parents would recognize me and change course to where I stood by the lake. The mallard in front led the others. The paddling headed towards the bullrushes at first, but one duck, alone, noticed me. Then the others saw, and turned back. The ducks were good at grabbing the bread before the crusts were too soggy and sunk.

That afternoon, I went to my uncle’s cabin next door and watched my aunt bake in the kitchen. She started making cinnamon rolls. She pounded and rolled the dough into a rectangle then buttered the surface, and sprinkled the dough with cinnamon. Then she rolled the dough up and cut the roll into pieces. I asked her about all the ingredients she put in the rolls so I could make some.  She said the recipe was her own and she only gave it to people when they got married. Both my sister and I would have to wait until then, she said. I said that was a long time to wait.

That evening Mum let me know I would have my chance. My sister was staying at friends across the lake, so I could sleep in the top bunk. I thought about how lucky I was. At bedtime, I climbed above my empty bunk, up the ladder and crawled into the top bunk. Though the light was leaving I could still see things through the window. It was better than I thought it would be, looking out at the dark branches and the stars. I fell asleep before long, but in the night I awoke and realized I was moving. I was falling and I landed on the cabin floor. I was unharmed, I thought. But I was stunned, and disappointed. I climbed into my usual bunk, afraid I would fall again.

The next day, I smelt coffee and heard echoey outside voices and laughter from my aunt’s. I got up out of my sleeping bag and dressed. At my aunt’s some of her family were in the kitchen. My sister was back. The sky was cloudy and overcast. Mum and Dad were there and I asked my Dad what was going on. He said we were going to the end of the lake to get clams to make clam chowder.

I had heard of the place at the lake’s end, where the lake turned into a beach with an ocean. The lake was dull that day, as if someone had poured all the light off the lake and put it in a jar for another day. When we reached the lake’s end the water narrowed and we found a place to tie the boat.

We walked to the beach. I couldn’t understand how I could be on a lake one minute and then be by the ocean the next. I looked across the beach at the cloud and grey rocks and the view across Agamemnon Channel to Nelson Island. We weren’t there long when a man appeared on the beach. I say that he appeared, because one minute he didn’t exist. The next he was on the beach talking to us. My dad and my uncle stood closest to him. The man spoke to the group. He asked what we were doing, and he said we shouldn’t be digging for clams there, because the beach was part of somebody’s land. I didn’t understand what he was talking about. He was speaking his piece, although he didn’t seem angry or dangerous. Just telling the group of us. He said what he wanted then left, and everybody seemed to forget him, and carry on with what they had planned.

For my first attempt at clam digging, my contribution wasn’t great. I was too busy thinking about what the man said, and looking at the islands and watching other people dig for clams. I think one of the adults put a couple of clams in my bucket to make me feel better. When the other’s buckets were full though, the group left to go back to my uncle’s cabin. That was where the tall silver pots waited on the stove. Steam rose from the rims as the clams cooked and then my aunt made the chowder. After dinner I had talked to my aunt and told her about falling out of the bunk. That I had wanted to sleep there because that bunk had a window. She said nobody was in the spare room upstairs and there was a view onto the lake and just a normal bed, no height to fall from. I could sleep there tonight.

After I had my chowder that evening, before I headed up to my room that night, my aunt handed me a cinnamon roll on a plate. “There,” she said. “You don’t need to get married to eat them.”

I sat at the table by the wood stove and unraveled the icing covered bun, until it was gone.

I still don’t have my aunt’s cinnamon roll recipe. I checked with my sister, who got married twenty years ago, and even she doesn’t have it.

I tried to figure out when I would have this recipe, but it just seemed to be like quite a few things, wishes spinning around in the air, like clothes tumbling in a dryer. I lit a candle on the table by the bed when I got upstairs.

I lay there, looking out at the lake from my bed, with songs in my head, songs from the radio, and Sister Golden Hair. I looked out at the wild, and at the black top of the acres of lake. In a second, all the light left. I believed then the lake and the trees along the shore held everything that had gone to sleep. Like the whole country was in there, and the mountains around the lake were there, guarding me in the cabin.

This is a work of fiction. My own story is very similar to this story, but I have taken liberties to make the story more compelling, and parts of the story are fabricated.

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