As I stand on the shore of Lake Superior, the sun is barely above the horizon and the world is still wrapped in the purple magic of dawn. In the stillness it is the absence of the Lake’s chatter I notice most. She is rarely quiet except in mid-winter. Even on the calmest summer evenings, tranquil under star pricked skies, her waters whisper between pebbles on the shore, licking the boulders, sighing between rocks. But January has fashioned a straight jacket, restraining and silencing her. Instead of life, a great motionless expanse of white stretches for miles in all directions, wrapping around the indigo islands, fusing shore to sea to shore.
And so I can hear them. The ghosts. I am not sure what they are saying to me. I am not sure whose voices reach across the vast field of ice and snow to speak. They have drawn me from the quiet cabin, the snapping fire and the kettle set to boil on the stove.
I listen for the ghosts I might expect. I give them permission to speak.
My mother. She bought this property. Chose it to be near, but not on the surface of the Lake. She directed the clearing of the land, planted the rose bushes and Potentilla and thyme, tied pink flagging tape to the elderberry so that the chainsaws knew to leave it be, laid smooth stones to make paths from the bunkie to the outhouse, and cleared the prickly raspberry canes each year so that the new shoots had room to breathe and so to grow and bear fruit.
My sister. She was here the summer before she died. The summer before they both died, lying in beds far, far from this shore but not far from each other, fighting cancerous deaths that crept within their bodies, racing to devour first one and then the other. She sat on this shore, on a day when the Lake was speaking, while her children, too young to know or understand, clambered over fallen trees and tossed stones into the waves. She breathed the cool air, felt the spray against her skin. She knew. She understood.
They visit me in my dreams. Perhaps they visit this place, too.
But it is not their voices I hear.
I am sure many ghosts wander these shores. It can be an inhospitable place, one that has taken far too many far too soon. The Lake, it has been said, seldom gives up her dead. Perhaps it is one of those who linger to haunt, hovering near the water or gliding through the trees, rising from the bogs and swamps or settling on rocky ledges considering their untimely deaths?
No. I know these ghost. We have spoken before.
In death, I would choose to return here. It is mesmerizing – a harsh, stunning beauty. The ancient mountains, like old men, have been worn over time, their peaks eroded, flat-topped mesas. They are no less imposing, with angular cliffs rising from the shore and marching inland for mile upon mile upon mile. The scent of pine and fir is heady, even in the chill of winter. It is a balm.
And then there is the Lake. She has many moods and a quick temper and I never tire of watching her. She transforms quickly from tranquil green, liquid ice, to black tumult, when wind and water conspire to chase dark waves across her breadth, throwing them in rolling succession against the shoals and headlands, roaring as they shatter. I know enough not to be deceived by her peacefulness. Often it is then that she is most dangerous, emerging as the mist, breaking free from confines of shore and depth and surface, creeping silently, hovering over the chilled water and slipping between islands to hang in the trees, shrinking the world to a claustrophobic nebulous tomb.
It is a place of eternal beauty. I would cross oceans and deserts, climb mountains and swim lakes to roam these shores forever. Perhaps the ghost I hear is someone such as this.
No. The voices are more intimate.
I climb down the bank and stand on the shore. There is a ridge along the edge, jagged chunks of turquoise-white ice piled in a long thick line that wanders the beach, a reminder that the Lake fought against her captors, tossing the broken pieces ashore before the cold returned while she slept and cast a frozen spell.
There are tracks in the snow. I can pick out deer. They have passed frequently enough to carve a path through the trees a little ways back from the beach, not far from the buried cobble trail my mother laid. There is fox as well. Hare. Squirrel.
I scramble over the ridge of ice and step, tentatively, onto the Lake. There are more tracks here, the racquet shape of snowshoes, two sets, going and coming. There is another trail, not far from the snowshoes. They are deep and round, larger than the fox’s; larger than a dog’s. There is only one set. I am unsure whether it is coming or going. I bend and place my hand over the print.
The ice beneath me pops, a shotgun, echoing off the cliffs at Mink Mountain, back and forth until the snow swallows the sound and silence settles again. I know it is only the Lake shifting, stretching and turning in her winter sleep. But I grow still. It has been requested of me. Commanded, perhaps. I am frozen now, enchanted like the Lake.
When she speaks again, her voice is ethereal. She breathes the sounds, movement, rippling beneath me like songs between whales, like electricity traveling a wire. This is not the conversation of the dead. It is alive and vibrant all the while it is haunting. So I listen. The Lake, apparently, has much to say.
But she is not the ghost.
Cold air pricks at my bare cheeks and sends tears dancing at the corners of my eyes. My fingers are numb. And my toes. I know by now the others will be up. The fire fed, the kettle boiled and the tea steeping. I turn and climb back over the ridge, listening to the silence, interrupted occasionally by the Lake. I cross the deer trail, over the stone path, pass the raspberry patch and begin to climb the stairs to the cabin.
I know the ghost.
I have heard the words whispered into the hush of a winter morning. They are words of mothers and sisters, of wolves and deer, of pine and birch and a Lake that cannot be silenced, even in the death of winter. They are the words of lives that have lived and long to live; lives not yet imagined. They are words longing to emerge on blank paper.
The voices of ghosts are easier to hear in winter.
I am listening.