The Northern Michigan JournalPREVIOUSNEXT

Seasonal Break by Mark Smith

(adapted from a work in progress)
Out in the lake the jet skis circled and bucked, trailing long rooster tails behind them. The afternoon breeze pushed the heavy lateral branches of the birches closer to the ground, nearly brushing Neil as he sat in his Adirondack chair and stared out at the activity from the comfort of his shaded lawn. The cut-up buzz of the machines had become an insistent disquiet that looped itself through the backdrop of his thoughts, causing him eventually to look up from his reading. Finding himself alone in the stillness of this late summer day, his family away shopping in Traverse City, he had planned to set up shop on the shaded lawn that overlooked the lake, in emulation of the ease and grace of a mottled impressionist painting. Instead, he found himself more and more distracted by the windborne thumping of tiny hulls, and the penetrating voices that carried intermittently through the rush of waves.

The wide expanse of shaded lawn was punctuated with straight and randomly spaced tree trunks, which led the eye naturally down to the glistening lake - an exercise in depth perespective. Above, the dark branches swaying comfortingly, showing blue sky, then closing again. In between, the lake - ever bright and alive. Below, the pulsating dapple of shifting shade. It had seemed the perfect place for quiescent introspection. This was, after all, a perfect summer day in the great northern heart of God's Country.

Family memories going back 40 years attached themselves to the "cottage", in fact a lumbering great behemoth of a building, built just after the war on the site of a previous summer house, modest by comparison. The current incarnation of the Aitchison family retreat bore little resemblance to the original humble structure. The stone hearth on the north end of the house was in fact the only remaining feature of the first cottage. Just as Neil was about to persevere with his reading, he faintly heard the sound of the old rotary phone from inside. He rose from the depths of his chair, setting the book on top of the wide arm rests, and hurried inside.


Neil Aitchison sat by the roaring fire and looked out the window across the frozen white lake. Outside, the world was a whispy tundra. Snow devils raced across the lake and dissipated in mid stride. Distant snowmobiles made themselves heard beneath the window, then receded, fading eventually, only to be followed in short order by other bands of enthusiasts. Inside, the fire crackled peacefully and spit occasional chunks of spark across the old stone hearth. Black smudge from generations of use trailed up the front of the hearth, under the heavy mantle, upon which sat photo-relics of summers past: Neil as a boy, standing next to his dad on the dock with a huge fish sagging beneath his outstreched hands; Grandpa Aitchison as a young man, standing straight beside a bicycle in the shade of a sapling birch; a cameo of young Grandma Aitchison, her eyes cast somewhere to the right, resting eternally in distant enigmatic distraction; Neil, Cathy and the boys sitting at the chunky old picnic table behind the house, taken by Neil's dad just before he died two years ago.

The lazy days of summer and the winter weekend getaways - both types of event pure fabrications, more a notion than a reality. A careless summer hammock, stretched between two trees, lurched slowly in the icy wind. Even in summer it was more a notion, rarely used, but pleasant to contemplate.

Earlier in the day, before Cathy took the boys off to ski, Neil had been busy surfing the net upstairs, checking his e-mail and getting in touch with local color. A northern Michigan website had a feature story by a local writer, mentioning something about seven generations, and a commitment to the land. Yes, he had thought, yes. The land must endure. He clicked on a link for a piece of music from "Lakesong", waited for a message saying "processing sound file", and then it froze. While he was sitting there the spruce tree outside the upstairs window gave a shudder. A shift of wind pushed a web of crusted snow loose and it broke up and tumbled to the ground. Nothing was what it was cracked up to be, thought Neil, as he walked away downstairs and lit the fire. Now Neil sat by the fire and stared out at the great flat expanse of white.

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