A Memory, By Timothy B. Barner
Every summer, back in the Seventies, Dad and Mom took all seven of us kids on a seven-hour trip to Otter Lake, Quebec. The station wagon was packed up tight with us and the luggage, even tied to the roof with ropes (the luggage, not the kids) and we played travel games like Waldorf Cafeteria and told long jokes like Purple Passion that lasted for miles and often ended up with a pretty bad punchline. In the case of Purple Passion, the punchline was. “Always look both ways before crossing the street.” Now you won’t have to endure the rest of the joke.
The trip took forever. When we headed north across the very long Thousand Island Bridge, we tried to hold our breath for the entire expanse, yet always fell short. Beyond the bridge lay Canada, vast and untamed. We followed the Ottawa River, past log jams and sleepy river towns, then crossed and headed into the great wild North, finally arriving in the small town of Otter Lake, where most of the signs were in French. We left the pavement there, following a gravel road for a few miles into the forest, and came upon the farmhouse where we would stay.
Our purpose was to visit Grandma and Grandpa. Grandpa would rent the farmhouse every summer from Mr. Vlaski, who spoke English and Polish, but not French, which caused trouble for him as a business owner in French-speaking Quebec, but that’s another story. Grandpa loved to fish, and he caught great northerns in Canada. I never caught his love of fishing, although my older brothers did. We had many pictures of Bud and Steve holding up people-sized bass. I have one of myself holding up a sunfish the size of my hand.
The Otter Lake cabin had no electricity and no running water. Mom and Grandma used a gas stove and Dad fired up a Coleman lantern after the sun went down. The hiss of the lantern was a mainstay of our visits.
Water was fetched from a spring in the woods behind the cabin. My brothers told me not to go farther than the spring since the woods continued for hundreds of miles. I would watch out for bears back there. Without central plumbing we used an outhouse, which was fun to go out there at two in the morning. But the most fun thing about that farmhouse in the middle of the great north woods, was the second floor.
Mr. Vlaski ran a campground on Otter Lake, complete with cabins, rowboats and ... not much else. The farmhouse held all the mattresses for the campground on the second floor, in great piles that took up all the length of that long, attic area. Each pile brought to mind the story of the Princess and the Pea, piled ten or more mattresses high. As soon as we arrived at the farmhouse, us kids would drag our bags to the second floor, up the creaky wooden steps that turned in the middle, to the high-ceilinged room. Once up there we would choose a pile and climb up to the top of it. That’s where we slept, and we picked the highest pile of mattresses that we could find. Thank God we didn’t roll over in our sleep.
On long, dark nights in that spooky attic, with no overhead lighting and knowledge of the vast forest merely a short walk away, we told ghost stories between the mattress piles, past the midnight hour: The H Man, Mad Murdoch, and the story about the creature with the long, green fingers and the ruby red lips. I heard the voice of that creature relay the tale, from far down those attic steps, unseen around the corner, as I cowered shivering on my high mattress pile, staring at the point of the dark, wooden ceiling.
“Timmy I’m on the first ... step. Timmy I’m on the second ... step. Timmy I’m on the thirrrd step. Timmy I’m on the fourth step. Timmy I’m on the fifth step. Timmy I’m on the sixth step. Timmy I’m on the seventh step. Timmy I’m on the eighth step. Timmy I’m on the ninth step. Timmy I’m on the tenth step.” He grew louder with every step, until by the last he yelled, “Timmy I’m in your room!” Then he said, in a voice of menace, “Now do you want to see what I can do with my loong greeen fingers, and my ruuuuuuby red lips?”
From way up there, on my pile, quaking with fear, I shouted, “No!” And heard the sound of the creature falling back down the stairs.
Blessed silence followed, yet I still shook, because I knew the silence would not last. Soon the voice would sound again from far down those creaky attic steps.
“Timmy I’m on the first ... step. Timmy I’m on the second ... step. Timmy I’m on the thirrrd step. Timmy I’m on the fourth step. Timmy I’m on the fifth step. Timmy I’m on the sixth step. Timmy I’m on the seventh step. Timmy I’m on the eighth step. Timmy I’m on the ninth step. Timmy I’m on the tenth step.” Still growing louder and more menacing with each step, until once again, “Timmy I’m in your room!” A short silence to build the suspense for what I knew too well would follow. “Now do you want to see what I can do with my loooong greeeeen fingers, and my ruuuuuuby red lips?”
The sound of the creature came, tumbling down those steps.
The darkness seemed to envelope me in its clutches, as the wind moaned through cracks and the shutters banged against the side of the house. Before long I heard a heavy, hairy foot hit the lowest step. “Timmmy I’m on the first ... step.”
I held myself close, whispering comforting words. “It’s only Phil. It’s only Phil.”
“Timmmy I’m ... on ... the ... sec-ond ... step.”
In my mind came a horrific vision of unholy fingers topped with cracked, discolored nails.
“Timmmy I’m ... on ... the thirrrrrd ... step.”
I imagined the blood-stained lips curling up into a sneer.
“Timmmy I’m ... on ... the ... fourth ... step.”
The foot crashed hard against the wood which cried out with a long creak.
“Timmmy I’m ... on ... the ... fifth ... step.”
How long, oh how long would it last?
“Timmmy I’m on the sixth ... step.”
This meant that the creature was on the landing, turning the corner. If I had the will to peer over the edge of the mattresses, down the black stairway, I would see it’s green eyes narrowly glinting through the darkness.
“Timmmy I’m on the se-venth ... step.”
Would I survive this terrible night? Would I live to see my eighth year?
“Timmmy I’m on the eighth ... step.”
I hid my head beneath the pillow, hoping for protection via cloth and fluff.
“Timmy I’m on the ninth step.”
Its voice was louder now, summoning the creatures of Hell.
“Timmy I’m on the tenth step.”
Close, so close, filling my heart with dread.
“Timmy I’m in your room!”
A sudden stillness descended on that musty attic; a stillness that beckoned to the creature, crying out for its powerful, booming voice to break through with words I knew would come; words I knew too well.
“Noowww do you want to see what I can do ... with my looooooong greeeeeen fingers .... and my ruuuuuuuuby red lips?”
The stillness fell again. I was not ready to answer the creature from deep beneath my protecting pillow, the stalwart fluff that stood between myself and certain destruction. Would I, could I keep ordering “No,” and send that creature tumbling below? Would it keep obeying my shaking voice? No, I could not continue the charade anymore. I had to end this dance with death.
In answer, my brother placed his short, white fingers against his lips and flapped them back and forth.
There were true scary experiences we shared at that northern locale as well. But I shall share them in due time.
The lake was a half mile walk from the farmhouse, down a dirt road that lead steadily down, then widened by the lake. A number of rowboats and one motorboat swayed in the waves, tied to a short dock. Otter Lake was long and dotted with wooded islands. We would row a boat out to many of these islands, giving each a name matching our names according to their size. The largest, which was actually the opposite side of the lake, was Daddy Island. It contained an abandoned wreck of a cabin which, naturally held a rich history in my childish mind. The smallest island which was little more than a sandbar, we named Timothy Island. Philip Island was large enough to host trees and a campfire shell. We rowed up and down the lake, never finding the end.
One summer afternoon, as I waded in the water by the dock, I suddenly fell in, high above my head where there was a hole near the shore. I panicked, kicking my legs and flailing my arms above my head, drowning. My sister Ginger grabbed me and pulled me out.
Yet that was not the scariest experience to happen.
A number of us rode out to Philip Island in a rowboat with Dad. We spent some time out there, possibly fishing, perhaps a fire was built and enjoyed. My brothers Phil and Paul and my sister Marie were there, as well as my cousin Gracie. Suddenly the sky darkened, the waves rose up around the island, thunder crashed and lightning flashed across the sky. Dad didn’t have enough time to untie the boat before the waves were too high to navigate. We were trapped, so we huddled up in the center of the small island under protection of the few trees that grew there, soaking and shivering, prepared to wait out the storm. But the thunder and lightning continued, and the waves crashed higher against the shore.
At the height of the storm, beyond the din of the gale, came the faint sound of a motor, which grew louder, and louder. We were unable to see the source through sheets of rain, yet out of that rain appeared the front of a boat, then Grampa seated in the rear of that boat, turning the rudder. He stood to help us into the motorboat. Realizing that we had been trapped out in the storm, as the patriarch he couldn’t allow such a thing to continue. He came to our rescue and rode us through the furious waves to the shore.
Phil and Paul were the next brothers up from me in age. As our time in Otter Lake grew short, Phil would take an old Band-Aid can, fill it with coins, bottle caps, and other valuable trinkets, then find a spot in the woods and we would bury it, and mark the spot somehow. We would find a birch tree, peel off some of the white bark, and draw a map to the treasure. The birch-bark map would be taped behind a picture in the farmhouse, so that we could follow it to the treasure the following year.
In 1979 we stayed at that farmhouse for a final time. A few years later, the farmhouse burned to the ground. I guess storing hundreds of mattresses on the top floor may not have been a good idea. I’ve never been able to go back and recently, when I sought out Otter Lake on Google Earth, I found two lakes to either side of the village. Although the village is named “Otter Lake,” the lakes are not. Of course, they’re French names, and I can’t tell which one we used to stay near. So somewhere up there in the North woods, buried shallow in a birch bark grove, is a Band Aid can filled with buried treasure.