Testament

by

I picked a fine time to be lucky, if that’s what it was. I’d never won anything in my life. No stag-and-doe party door prize, no scratch-and-win lottery, no fifty-fifty draw at a ball game. I won survival. If you’re reading this, so did you. Or someone ancestor before you.

My friend Derek and I were about fifteen minutes south of Cochrane when his truck radio cut out. I’d caught a ride from Montreal the day before and crashed overnight with him. On this day, he graciously offered to drive me and my dog Chester the four hours from North Bay to catch my flight. At least Derek had accepted some cash for gas, which his old Ford pickup sucked like a furnace. Now he fiddled with the controls but couldn’t raise a station anywhere on the dial.

“You try, will you?

I glanced at my phone, a habit I was about to lose. I’d expected there to be a signal around this sub-arctic town of five thousand souls. Nothing. None on Derek’s phone either. And no luck with the radio. I switched it off. Just another thing to be fixed on an old truck.

We passed a few trucks on the road north out of Cochrane, past the airport and to the waterdrome on Lillabelle Lake. Derek was able to pull up right next to Tommy Stillman’s slip. The old man was stowing supplies in the back of a battered De Havilland Beaver. He tossed me a glance as I shouldered my backpack and waved Derek good luck on the return to North Bay. I wonder often how far he ended up getting.

“You Kyle?” asked Tommy.

I shook his hand. Chester sniffed his leg then wandered to a nearby strip of grass for a pitstop.

“Dana didn’t say nothing about no dog,” Tommy said.

“Sorry about that. Chester’ll be happy sitting in my lap.”

The old man grunted. “You’re lucky you got here on time. I wasn’t going to wait.”

“You are Tommy then,” I said.

He nodded, motioning me to hand over my backpack, which he had to jostle before he could get the hatch closed. “That’s what they call me.”

My aunt had told me that Tommy would be dropping me at the lodge with the last of the season’s supplies. “He’s old, he’s Cree and he’s ornery,” she said, “but he’s one of the best friends I have. He’ll fly on to his band at Green Lake after he drops you off.”

I realized there was someone already in the plane, a woman with a young child.

“Something’s going on,” Tommy mumbled, opening the door and waving me in. The woman offered a weak wave. “This is Doris. She and Kate been seeing the doctor here in Cochrane.”

Chester jumped up ahead of me. His appearance brought a smile to the young girl’s face. She reached out to accept a lick. “What kind of dog?”

“I was hoping you could tell me,” I said. “All he knows is that he’s a good dog most of the time.”

The Beaver coughed to life. Tommy handed a spare headset into the back. The woman motioned for me to take it. “Move up to the front here if you like,” he called over the noise.

“Something’s up,” he said again once I had the headset adjusted. “Lots of chatter from the tower here but nothing else.”

“I don’t understand.”

“That makes two of us.”

The Beaver snuck away from the dock. I listened to the old man mumble with the control tower at Cochrane Airport that must have controlled flights into and off the lake. Minutes later he throttled up and the old aircraft began to skip across the water. I noticed a light snow had begun.

“I guess things will freeze up pretty soon. You’ll be switching the pontoons for skis.”

Tommy said nothing. The Beaver lifted clear of the water and banked slightly to the northeast.

“How old are you?” he asked about ten minutes later.

The Beaver’s big radial engine had settled into a rolling drone. Everything in the aircraft seemed to vibrate.

“Twenty-three,” I said. “Just graduated from university.”

“Dana says you’re taking a year to work for her.”

“She’s my aunt,” I said. “My dad’s younger sister.”

His fingers flickered over the radio controls as he talked. “Nothing,” he said finally.

“Radio went out in my friend’s truck just south of Cochrane,” I said.

Tommy drew a hand down his face. “Something’s up.”

“You keep saying that.”

“It’s still true.” He glanced over at me. “Guys in the tower in Cochrane couldn’t even raise Sudbury. Like everything’s down south of the forty-eighth parallel.”

I shifted in my seat, adjusted the shoulder harness. “What’d do that?”

Tommy was selective with responses. This time I wasn’t getting one, but my nerves wanted to hear voices. “There’s that new flu bug going around, on top of COVID,” I said. “Supposed to be bad. Maybe it’s coming on harder than they expected.”

He scanned the horizon as if checking for bugs. “You inoculated?”

“Got my fourth shot a couple of weeks ago.”

This seemed to satisfy him for the moment.

“How old is your plane?”

“This one was one of the last built,” he said. “1967.”

“Turboprop?”

“Rebuilt it myself three times,” he said.

“You worried?”

He glanced back at the woman. I stole gorukle escort a glance myself. Chester was curled up in his own seat. His ears perked when I caught his eye.

“I am,” said the old man. “But we’ll be fine. I got the feeling we’re heading in the right direction.”

I think he meant north. To the safety of the woods.

~

My neighbour Corinne had taken in my cat. My apartment was sublet to a fellow graduate who’d snared a government job before the summer was out. My life seemed to be miraculously without loose ends. And now I was heading to Kitibinda Lake Lodge, fifteen minutes north of Kesagami Provincial Park as the crow flies. It was a remote job that would enable me to make money and not spend it—the perfect solution where my father was concerned, a man with little faith in my financial smarts, and less awareness of online shopping.

Before he went silent himself, Tommy indicated we’d be at the lodge in under an hour.

This would be my first visit. The lodge had been in my Uncle Terry’s family before he took it over back in the mid-nineties. He tried running it as an absent owner for a year or two, but it was where he ultimately wanted to be. Luckily it was where my aunt wanted to be as well. She gave up a good job in the diplomatic corps to join him as host at a fly-in hunting and fishing destination that had been a favourite with Americans and Europeans since the end of the Second World War.

But now it was late October. The lodge was closed for the season. Winter was setting in. I felt like I was living a remake of The Shining. Worst part, Uncle Terry was dead, felled by COVID the previous summer in the second year of the pandemic. Our family’s life in the north was punctuated by pandemics a century apart. My father’s dad had survived the Spanish flu in a timber camp near Timmins in 1918. Now my aunt was on her own. It had been my mother’s idea to ship me north. Aunt Dana was a force to be reckoned with, but her sister-in-law couldn’t imagine a solitary existence in the wilds for a woman in her mid-forties.

I had not seen my aunt in twelve years. She and Terry had made a trip to Montreal to visit our family in 2011. They’d moved north before I was born. No children of their own. “But many dogs,” my mother confirmed, hoping that would make me more comfortable with the prospect of limited wifi. “Life off the grid will suit you.” This was wholly unfounded. “Everything is solar-powered. And she says there’s a wood-fired boiler that heats the floors. She’s got a sat-phone hookup for emergencies. You won’t suffer.”

The solitude was the only thing that worried me until now. I’m a social creature. I need people around.

~

Tommy eased the Beaver onto Kitibinda Lake just before 1:30. I saw two dogs barking at the end of the dock, and then my aunt appeared out of the trees. She stood with arms crossed on a rocky outcropping, wrapped in a brown field coat. The dogs ran to her when she clapped, then followed her back to the water’s edge. As the Beaver nudged the dock, she snatched the rope that Tommy tossed her way and weaved it deftly through a cleat. Chester leapt to the dock and shook, then immediately made off for introductions to the other dogs. My aunt watched, looking surprised herself to see the dog. She spoke what must have been Cree and the woman smiled and waved.

“Hello Kyle,” she said to me.

I stepped into a weak hug. “You hear anything?” she said to Tommy, who waved me to the hatch and started passing me boxes.

He shook his head. “Don’t like it,” he said. “I couldn’t raise anything on the flight in here. You checked shortwave?”

My aunt sniffed. Chester had returned to say his hellos to her. She scratched his ear. “I got some shipping noise. Nothing but a lot of questions.”

“This is Chester,” I said.

She smiled at the name. “Bella and Curly,” she replied, pointing to her dogs with her hand still in her coat pocket. “Bella’s the old one, Curly’s the dumb one.”

“Your nephew here thinks it might be another pandemic wave.” We stacked the last of the boxes. “All that crap going on in Ukraine, though,” Tommy said. “And them missiles dropping in Poland this week…” His voice trailed off. I remembered my mother telling me that Aunt Dana had been posted to Germany in the early 1990s. She’d been seconded to NATO for the better part of a year as the Bosnian crisis unfolded.

“I think she left the service to escape the madness,” my mother had said at the time.

“Let’s not jump to conclusions,” my aunt said now. “One good solar flare would be enough to fry the hemisphere’s radio presence and enforce a little humility.”

I dropped my backpack on the stack of boxes. The three of us stood awkwardly. “Maybe you shoulda ordered in more, Dana.”

“We’ll be alright.”

Tommy shuffled his feet. “Gotta get back in the air while there’s light.”

My aunt stepped to him and wrapped him in a hug much fiercer than mine. She spoke in Cree again. Tommy wiped an eye, touched her face. His footstep altıparmak eskort bayan rang hollow on the steel pontoon. Dana retrieved the rope and shoved the Beaver free with her foot. The big radial engine barked exhaust and roared back to life, and we stood silent until the old aircraft was out of sight over the trees. My aunt took in the rest of the sky. The snow had begun again. Now the sound of the plane was gone too.

“What did you say to him?”

“I think it translates as, ‘Until I see you again.’”

She hoisted a couple of the heavier boxes. “I went to check the weather an hour ago and got nothing,” she said. “Try not to rely on the internet up here, which is a good thing.”

I grabbed a couple more boxes. Canned goods. “Why?”

“It seems to be gone.”

~

The lodge shrank in the fall. My aunt closed up the main wing and the timber frame structure became more recognizable as a house. We each had a bedroom on the second floor, where she also maintained an office. My Uncle Terry had turned the fourth bedroom into a library. Dana had an ensuite, which gave me the run of the main bathroom. The ground floor was open, combining living and dining room and a spacious kitchen. There was a Chester room by the back door with a washing machine, drier and chest freezer.

I heard the static as I came down the stairs and found her huddled over a radio on the kitchen counter. It was one of those wind-up radios with short wave and a built-in flashlight. “I listen to the BBC World Service on this every day,” she said without looking at me. “Do you understand what’s going on?” I found myself looking at her closely for the first time. She was almost as tall as my father, and with her hair short and greying, she also reminded me of him in the shoulders. But the rest of her was all feminine. She must have got the sense I was staring. She turned in search of an answer.

“Are you asking if I’m mature enough to be scared?”

“I suppose I am.”

“I thought you had a sat-phone.”

“Phone and internet connection are all by satellite. It’s so damned expensive I’m not that sad to see it all down.” She switched the radio off. “No, I’m not. Sorry.”

“I may be facing a lot of withdrawal here,” I said, “but it won’t be from the internet.”

She lifted the sat-phone unit from a countertop charger and handed it to me. The unit reminded me of an old Blackberry.

“It’s not line-of-sight, is it?”

“No. Dish on the roof. Bluetooth hook up with the modem.”

No signal.

“Doesn’t make sense,” she said. “The sky is full of them.”

“Full of what?”

“Satellites. LEOs, Terry called them. I can’t remember wha—Low Earth Orbit satellites, that’s it.”

“You’ve used it before?”

“Enough,” she said, handing it to me. “Enough, enough, enough.” She started toward the pantry, all three dogs in tow, even Chester now aware of the dog-treat storage location. “When you’re done, come and help me put away the rest of these supplies. You can tell me about your. Your life.”

~

“Should we use candles?” I asked as I set the table for dinner.

“Better save those, I think. With the solar and the LEDs around here, we’ll have electric light until the end of the world.” She paused at the cooktop. I turned and saw her grip its edges.

“Candles for special occasions then,” I said. I watched her nod.

“And tonight is a special occasion. Please light them. But use the gas lighter, save the matches.”

She’d made a moose-meat chilli. The flavour was new to me, but I knew right away I would be better off learning to enjoy it.

“Wait till you try beaver,” she said, cueing in to the difficulty I was having with the gamey flavour of a large ungulate.

“I can’t tell if that’s a joke or not.”

“Neither can I.”

She quizzed me about school, Montreal, urban life.

“What do you intend to do with the English degree?” she asked.

“That’s what my father wants to know.”

I watched her shove food around on her plate. Little of it seemed to be going to her mouth.

“And?”

“I want to write,” I said. “I’ve had a half dozen short stories published in the last two years. A few poems. Enough freelance work to keep a roof over my head. Magazine articles, mostly.”

“Do you want to teach?”

“God no. Writing is hard enough. I can’t imagine trying to teach it.”

“I hope you make a go of it.”

“So do I,” I said.

“Are you working on anything now?”

I tore a piece of bread and wiped the bowl. “A novel, short short story collection. Some poetry.” Something hit the pit of my stomach.

“Kyle. You look a little ashen. Tell me it’s not the chilli.”

I shook my head. I could hear the wind buffet the house in the short silence. “When I mentioned the novel, the first thing that came to mind was finding readers.”

She reached across and patted my hand. “Look at it as the same fear every writer wrestles with,” she said. “And I look forward to reading anything you nilüfer eskort bayan want to share.”

I set my spoon down. “Aunt Dana—”

“Oh, please don’t call me that. Just Dana, god.” Her forehead was in the palm of her hand. “There are no aunts, uncles, mothers or fathers here.”

“You don’t know me—”

“It’s true. I’m sorry, I haven’t been much of a presence in your life.”

This struck me as a strange admission. Was she sorry?

“You don’t know me. I don’t know you.” I pushed the bowl away, and the wine glass. I’m not a drinker. “I like to think I’m an open person. I don’t do subterfuge well. I’m not asking you to be anyone you aren’t, but I hope we can be open and straight with one another. I’m here because I want to be here, not because my mother coerced me.”

She looked at me. “Thank you. Your mother mentioned you had a girlfriend.”

“Had, yes. That ended a few months ago.”

“Ah. Tying up loose ends ahead of the trip north.”

“No, she told me very casually one evening that I bored her. I told her there was an easy fix for that, and I walked.”

“Good for you.”

I shrugged. “It was a long time coming.”

“You must have some questions for me.”

I was sure I would, but none came to me in the moment. Instead, across the candlelit table, I saw that my aunt was actually very pretty.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I realize now that you sort of dressed up for dinner.”

“Sort of,” she said with a sad smile, toasting me. “To welcome you. Thank you for noticing.”

“I’m a bit thick.”

“It’s been a thick day.”

~

The next day was thick with chores. The lodge may have been closed and isolated from the main house, but it had not yet been cleaned to my aunt’s satisfaction. I collected the linens, vacuumed and scrubbed bathrooms in the morning, then helped her crank the dock back onto the rocky shore after lunch.

We did not speak of the silent world because we were part of our own. But being around my aunt seemed to trigger memories. An angled view of her face delivered scenes from some earlier time—sketchy, perhaps so much as to be unbelievable. And disquieting.

“I thought there’d be more birds,” I said between wheelbarrow loads of split birch and poplar later that afternoon.

“We’re in a bit of a hole between the summer and winter populations,” Dana said. “The winter ones will settle in soon enough. Chickadees, finches, blue jays. It’ll get relatively noisy once I fill the feeder here.”

“What made you move here?”

She adjusted a few hunks of wood that I’d piled clumsily. “Oh, a lot of things.” She lifted the wheelbarrow. “Two more loads for today,” she said.

The heating system was fired by a boiler set back in the woods. It would be my job to keep it stoked, which was not hard, as it could be loaded to last the better part of twenty-four hours.

“I keep the house pretty cool,” she admitted. “I don’t like to burn more wood than necessary.”

“Makes sense. This firewood. When did you cut it?”

“Last fall. We give it a year to cure. You’re lucky. You missed this year’s harvest.”

“You did that on your own?”

She shook her head. She had staff from April to September, a team of six that included a couple of guides, a cook, housekeeper and handywoman.

“And they come back every year.”

She loosened her coat. The temperature had snuck above freezing and we’d both broken a sweat. “Every year,” she said.

~

My parents split when I was thirteen. My older sister had already moved out and on, having taken a job waiting tables in Victoria, about as far west as she could go without ending up in the Pacific. I lived with my mother till I was sixteen, then decided to join my father in Halifax. It didn’t work out. We weren’t good housemates, me for being sixteen, he for being my father. I returned to Montreal, finished high school and CÉGEP, and attended McGill on a full scholarship—the only way we were able to afford it.

“I hear you talk of my mother,” I said to my aunt, “but you haven’t mentioned my father. Your brother.”

She said nothing.

“I had this memory bubble up on me this morning,” I went on. “When you and Uncle Terry visited us that time. I remember shouting. Not me, adults.”

She was standing right in front of me. I watched her eyes peer into me. She reached across and lay a hand on my shoulder. “How much are you your father’s son?”

“I don’t know how to answer that question.”

She nodded, withdrew her hand. “That’s a good answer, actually.” The dogs circled.

“Maybe you’re supposed to tell me.”

“Then I’ll need time.” She turned away toward the house.

“Hang on, please,” I called after her. “I’m not good with all these holes.”

“Come,” she said. “We’ll have tea.”

~

I sipped tea and waited.

“You are an open person. I appreciate that.” She stopped pacing and sat with me at the kitchen island. “I’m an introvert. A classic of the type, actually. You ask about family. I get that. Of course you’re curious. You don’t have many relatives. Your mum was an only child, your father is my only sibling. You’re, what, eight years younger than your sister? You probably aren’t close.” Her eyes always seemed to have somewhere else to go. “But it strikes me how little all that seems to matter right now.”

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