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June 24, 2024

This Year's Cold Heart

By Robert Garnham

Tall fir trees loom on the banks of the lake, holding within them a darkness almost primeval, and when night rolls in it seems to emanate at first from the depths of the forest, spreading out as if held captive, and joining with the sky, the land, the dusk and the gloaming. Stars in all their radiance heavenly glitter the darkness, still and patient, looking, but not touching.

He just drives. He unpacks his fishing equipment from the car, enters the cabin and turns on the lights. It has taken him almost three hours to get here from the city, but the solitude does not worry him, for he would be just as lonely in the city. There would doubtless be some form of camaraderie at the bait shop in the morning, a joke or two and some local wisdom, and this would be the closest he has come to a decent conversation for many days. The last of his equipment unloaded, he locks the car and settles in for the night.

The cabin furnishings are basic. He can feel the darkness beyond the wooden walls, the silence of the forest with all its mystery, and the eternal north just out of reach, and it's a comfort to him. He's used to lurking in the city and closing his door to the world around him, he's used to the solitude, but the solitude means more out here because it's so real. Yet the solitude up here is different. It's refreshing, it's natural, indeed, it's to be expected. Human interaction, when it happens here, is tinged more with that survival instinct, that every soul is just trying to get along and stay alive in a world that is much bigger than them. He knows that it's just the same in the city, but there are so many people that it kind of swamps him. It's hard finding someone to spend some time with when there are so many people to spend time with.

He has a microwave dinner and then a whisky, and then another whisky. It gets darker and he can feel the gloom now reaching towards him through the cabin, fingers of darkness consuming the corners of the room. Exhausted from the drive, he thinks about going to bed. He goes over to the window for one last look at the lake, maybe just to convince himself that he is really here, that he is a part of this, the darkness, the fir trees and the calm inky void, and he sees a small light bobbing in the water not far from his cabin. A fisherman! he tells himself.

He goes out onto the wooden verandah, smells the sweetness of the fir trees in the darkness, and just makes out the light bobbing there.

'Caught anything, yet?' he asks.

There's no reply. But he hasn't used his voice for hours. He clears his throat and says a bit louder,

'Caught anything, yet?'

Still, there's no answer.

Maybe they didn't hear me, he tells himself. And senses dulled by the whisky, and tired from everything, he goes back inside to bed.

Yet he can't sleep. Or maybe he just sleeps for a very short while. He's in an unfamiliar plain bedroom, with wooden walls which creak and flex as the cabin settles down for the night. He stares at the rafters and the ceiling, he can sense the woodland around him and the miles and miles of endless dense wilderness between him and the tundra and the frozen north.

And it's hot. It's a clammy, balmy midsummer heat, of cedar smells and pine cone stickiness. The wooden cabin has been holding within its creaking timbers all day the warmth of the sun, a warmth which now radiates out. And he can hear the buzz of mosquitoes, the flutter of moths tapping on the windowpane. He gets up again and lets himself outside onto the verandah, where he might cool for a bit and get some fresher air.

The light is still there, bobbing away. Maybe it's his imagination, but it seems closer this time. Perhaps the fisherman might hear him now, if he's closer.

'Caught anything, yet?'

No answer. The world is deadly quiet. He can hear his own voice echoing and bouncing across the lake surface.

'How is it going? Much luck? Caught anything, yet?'

No reply from the lone fisherman.

He sleeps for a little bit, this time. A restless sleep, hot, sweating, he wakes and thrashes in the bed and it takes him a few moments to remember where he is. He picks up his watch and squints at it through the gloom, expecting to see that it's almost dawn, but in fact it is just two in the morning. He lets out a sigh.

Maybe it is his imagination, but he thinks he hears wolves howling in the forest, grizzlies growling as they lumber through the woods, and all manner of wild spirits and primeval demons made bold by the dark and intent on reclaiming the north. Nonsense, he tells himself, but now he is fully awake and once again he gets out of the bed and the sweat-soaked sheets.

He goes outside again and leans on the railings of the verandah. The lake is so still that it reflects the stars, and passing satellites, and the winking lights of aircraft high up in the atmosphere. The aircraft, he tells himself, are going to cities, cities full of people, people who have no time for him. And then sure enough he sees the lights of the fisherman.

'Caught anything, yet?' he asks.

But at the same time he says this, he hears a duck squawk somewhere in the gloom. Perhaps the fisherman hadn't heard him?

'Caught anything, yet?' he asks, a bit louder.

Again, there's no reply.

Three in the morning.

Awake once more from dreams of spirit ghosts glimpsed hesitantly between the straight pine trunks and the absolute nothingness of the forest, with phosphorescence, eeriness, silence. He wakes with a start, checks his watch once again, and groans. He gets up and he goes to the kitchen, fills the tumbler he used for his whisky with water, and gulps it down, places his palms flat on the faux marble veneer surface feeling them leave sweaty prints. It's weird, but he's never felt so lonely. He can feel the lack of humanity in the world, as if he has been forgotten, or else perhaps this lack of humanity has always been there, prevalent even in the biggest crowd, in the supermarkets and carparks, the traffic jams, the train stations. And now it's just him, and the fisherman out there, how comforting his light as it bobs on the surface of the lake, the only two souls left in the night. Again, he goes out on to the verandah.

'Caught anything yet? Caught anything yet?'

No reply.

'Anything? Caught anything at all?'


He lets out a sigh.

'To be honest', he says, 'I think it's pretty rude. You've been completely ignoring me for hours. I've come up here to get away from people like you. All night long you've been sitting there so smug, and I've been here, right here, buddy, just the two of us hundreds of miles from anyone else. This isn't the city, you know? Do you know what we are? We are outposts of humanity in the vast primal forest, dots in the wilderness, you and me. You don't say a word. You don't say a word, my friend. You know what? Because of that, because of you, I've lost my faith in the innate goodness of the human soul. I've always thought there were good people out there, and that it was just the city that was changing us, and modern society, but now I know differently. And do you know what? I don't care. I don't care if you've caught anything or not. I don't care in the slightest. Because you represent everything that's bad with the modern world, and I'm not stooping to your level.'

With that, he walks back through the door and closes it with a slam, back to his bed, to sleep peacefully for the rest of the night.

The next morning a fierce sun shines in through the thin curtains across his bedroom window. The events of the night before had felt like a dream. He feels a little embarrassed on waking, though part of him is exhilarated that he was able to let someone know exactly how he felt. He'd never been so eloquent at three in the morning. Yet underneath there was still a sense of loneliness. Such a shame, he thought, as he shrugged himself into his dressing gown. But I shan't let it put me off my trip.

He walks over to the verandah and opens the door, then peers out into the bright sunshine, to see a marker buoy with a light on top bobbing in the water a short distance from the cabin.

Article © Robert Garnham. All rights reserved.
Published on 2020-08-24
Image(s) are public domain.
1 Reader Comments
Anne Buchanan- Brown Anonymous
11:42:43 AM
Very descriptive and atmospheric , with a final
touch of irony. Love it! Well done, Robert Garnham! Xxx
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