Mavis was Sarah’s cat. She lived to be 23 years old and had a lot of inner strength. She could sit in the road outside Sarah’s house and make cars stop by staring them down. She once beat up Sarah’s horse.
When Mavis was dying, she let Sarah hold her, though she was not generally a cat that liked being held. Sarah said, “I’m sending a little piece of my heart with you. And if you could leave a little piece of your heart with me, that would be great.” And so Mavis died.
Afterward, when Sarah talked to an animal psychic, the psychic said, “Mavis wants to communicate with you but she can’t get through because you’re so sad. She wants you to know that your two hearts are one.”
That was a turning point for Sarah. It inspired her to accept her new boyfriend’s offer to support her, and as soon as she can sublet her house she’s moving with him to The Hague. “Mavis sent me this chance,” she told me, “so I don’t feel like I can turn it down.” I only met Sarah for the first time today, but I know exactly what she means.
Problem is, I don’t have a Mavis. I didn’t go to an animal psychic when my dog died. I didn’t go to a priest when my dad died. So how do I know when the universe is trying to help me out, or when I just happen to be in its way?
So far, the walk with my new best friend Sarah has been easy. Up the shallow river of a northern Minnesota hillside. Sarah and me and our mutual friend Ellie, back in Ellie’s hometown for the weekend. They tell me it’s the hottest summer on record here, and the river is shallow only because it’s also the driest. So dry, that for much of the walk, the cold clear water is only at our ankles, and then only at our knees. And the sun is so hot that the cold feels good.
Also in our group is Josh Cole, who either used to date Sarah or Ellie, or grew up with Sarah or Ellie, or all of the above. It doesn’t seem important. All that matters is the sun and the water and the peaceful sounds as we slosh our way up this magical river, walled on either side by fir trees and prickly shrubs that Ellie could probably identify by subspecies, if I asked her. But I don’t. Her expertise can be exhausting.
Instead, I catch up to Josh Cole and try to make conversation. “So, this river runs down into Lake Superior?” He nods and keeps walking.
I’m not sure why they call him by his full name, but it suits him. Josh Cole. Compact and complete. He doesn’t say much, but his eye sparkle. I heard from someone in the bar last night that Josh Cole has a hole in his head. Trepanation, it’s called, where they drill into the top of your skull, and it opens you up for greater spirituality. Josh Cole doesn’t seem the trepanation type, but up in northern Minnesota, there’s not a lot to do in the winter. Or at least that was the joke in the bar. As we walk, I try to steal glimpses of the top of his head.
When we get to the first waterfall, it’s easy enough to scale. The water coming over the rocks is barely more than a trickle. Climbing up and over it to continue along the river, our tank tops get soaked, but it’s okay because the sun is so hot. Ellie takes pictures with her disposable waterproof camera, and Sarah and I pose.
Sarah asks if I am coming to the party tonight. “Sure” I say, “if Ellie brings us.”
“Of course I’ll bring us,” snorts Ellie. “We didn’t drive all the way up here to sit in my parents’ cottage all weekend.”
“Oh, good!” Sarah beams. “I can show you where Mavis used to stare down the cars. Sometimes she’s still there.”
“Wow. Neat.” I follow Sarah up the river, ignoring my cold feet, and the fact that Ellie is still behind us with her disposable waterproof camera. She knows I’m sensitive about my back view, so she’s probably snapping pictures galore.
Sarah’s not sure what she’ll do in The Hague, but the fact that Mavis would send her exactly what she’s dreamed of, a wealthy man with a sexy accent who wants to support her in pursuing her destiny, is all the direction she needs. “The whole time Mavis was alive, I could never leave here. Especially when she got older, she was like, my excuse for not getting out into the world. And now she’s telling me, no more excuses.”
I wonder if Sarah could decipher what my loved ones are trying to tell me. Like the other night, when I dreamed I ran into Dad’s old buddy, Joe LaGrippe. He said that Dad was not dead, but alive and well and living in Milwaukee. He’d returned to his childhood love of the cornet and was now playing in a jazz trio. I asked if Dad was a good player. “He’s okay,” Joe said. “Not great, but pretty good.” No, I can’t share this with my new friend. Her dearly departeds deal in European millionaires; mine are just mediocre musicians in Milwaukee.
The second waterfall is a little steeper than the last. It’s over an hour into the trek and I hate to admit that I’m starting to feel chilled. Back in Chicago, Ellie warned me that I wasn’t cut out for this. “You have no idea what it’s like up north,” she said. “Forget the swimsuit. Bring some sweaters and a lot of bug spray.”
“No swimsuit? In the middle of August?”
“Believe me. Stupid tourists die all the time in Lake Superior.”
“Then why are we going?” is the question I didn’t ask. Because of the way she rolls her eyes when I say things that annoy her. And I agreed to this weekend months ago, so I figured I might as well get it over with. But the fact that we arrived in a heat wave, when even the natives were dipping their toes into the big lake, made me feel a little, well, Superior. “Gee,” I said as we drove into a pretty lakeside town and Ellie pretended not to see kids frolicking on the beach, “sure wish I had my swimsuit.”
I didn’t have to turn my head to know Ellie’s eyes were rolling around like magic eight balls. She sped past the harbor to her parents’ cottage. I’m never sure why Ellie and I are friends. Maybe she’s the difficult sister I never had. Maybe Dad sent her to teach me something important! No, that’s impossible. When we met, he was still alive and well.
Anyway, I’m not going to let her see that I’m cold. Sarah clambers over the waterfall and turns back to give me her hand. “There’s only one more after this,” she promises.
“Is the water getting a little steeper?” I try to ask casually.
“Oh yes,” she smiles. “We’re getting closer to the source, so the force is stronger.”
“Cool!” And when I look at Sarah, I mean it. Not a full day into our friendship, I can already see that she takes every event as a gift. With her open smile and scrunchy brown hair, Sarah is a wood fairy. I can’t imagine her away from this paradise, living in a high-rise in The Hague.
And I can’t imagine why anyone would move away from here. Ellie said I’d be lucky to last the weekend, but I can totally see myself chopping wood and taking nature walks and having an innocent beer with Josh Cole. Or an innocent coffee. Coffee would be really good right now. Or hot chocolate. Or hot tea. Or a blanket.
At the base of the third waterfall I am shaking, with cold now and with fear because I no longer trust my limbs. I’ve tried once already to climb it, but this waterfall is not just a little steeper than the last one. It’s yards too high. The moment I try to get across to the place where you can safely scramble up to the next point in the river, it screams like it’s got something against you. The screams are made of water. Rushing frigid angry water.
“Last one,” Sarah chirps, but the icy screams and slippery footholds and sheer drop send me back shivering. “I really don’t feel like I can do this,” I say through chattering yes literally chattering teeth.
Sarah smiles, and says something like, “I know it feels that way” or “sometimes I feel that way.” I don’t know exactly because I can’t hear her. My ears are vibrating, the water pounding above and below us, the impossibility of the situation making time stop, but not in a way that’s useful.
Ellie is already across and above the fall. Josh Cole went first and then came back to help her and now he tries to help me, in that quiet way of his that I’ve just come to know, indicating with his foot where the ledge is.
From above, Ellie yells something about how the downward force of the water actually pushes your feet into the ledge so it’s really quite easy. Dumbshit.
But I can’t hear this. I can’t even feel my feet, much less trust them to do anything other than fold under my collapsing ankles as I topple off the ledge and crash into the rocks below. So somehow I’ve backed away and am now shivering near the bank, wondering if I can climb out, determined that no matter what, I am not crossing that waterfall.
“Go ahead,” I try to say casually, “I’ll just go back the other way.”
“I’m sorry,” Sarah says. “I know this river and there’s no other way. You have to cross. It’s really okay.” Stupid, hateful person who believes cats can communicate from the grave.
“Fine,” I spit. Powered by anger, I wade through frozen water back to the ledge, knowing I am about to die or cause someone else to, in my great panic and ill coordination.
“I’m going to be right here with a hand on you,” says Sarah with her fake fairy voice, “And Josh Cole’s going to hold you from the other side, so you can’t possibly fall.” Josh Cole reaches out a hand from the other side. My right foot slides onto the ledge and I try to move toward him. From her safe, hateful perch above, Ellie bellows, “Find the handholds!” Of which there are none.
Josh Cole motions to me to slide my feet sideways instead of trying to step. I try to imitate him exactly, just so I won’t be blamed when I accidentally push him to his death.
“Keep going,” he says. And I try to imagine my feet sliding, even though I can’t see them or feel them. I am so cold I think death would be a relief. And then somehow, his hand is pulling me to the other side. It’s over. He smiles, and then reaches out to help Sarah.
I haul myself up onto Ellie’s rock and land like a beached whale, belly on rocks, hips and legs all scratched up, before I really get the shakes. I hug Ellie and scream, “I’ve never been so scared in my life!” Which isn’t exactly true. I’ve never been so scared and had to take positive action, both at the same time, in my life.
“I told you you weren’t cut out for the country,” she says. “But you did okay.”
I did okay. The third waterfall really was the last one, as promised. And when we get to the head of the river, we step out and walk all the way back down, along a pine needle path that holds heat even in the shade. I don’t think to ask why I couldn’t have just climbed out of the river to this path and avoided the waterfall altogether.
Hours later, safe and dry, I sit alone on a picnic table and try to see Mavis. The smell of wood-smoke from the party drifts up the road. The darkness of the trees is so thick, and the light from the copper sliver of moon is just magical enough for a sacred sighting of… of tiny black shapes flitting across the sky. My heart starts to pound.
I realize they’re the bats Ellie warned me about. “They have been known to fly into peoples’ hair,” she lectured on the drive up. “But for God’s sake don’t panic. It just means you’re in their way.” I wonder if not panicking is something I can make a decision about.
I wonder if I can decide to believe in Mavis, even if I don’t believe in Mavis. She could be right beside me, staring down the bats, whom Ellie has already informed me are not blind. If I sit still long enough, they will fly away. And the sun will rise on another scorching day. And before we head back to Chicago, we’ll skinny-dip in this unswimmable lake, right near a picnicking family who pretend, very tactfully, not to notice. Ellie will demand that we pose naked for the last picture in her disposable camera. “Excuse me sir, hard as it may be for you to grok, I’m talking to you.”
The dad from the picnicking family will hold the camera gingerly. He won’t even look through the viewfinder. But there I’ll be, clearly visible and invisible, arms around Sarah and Josh Cole and Ellie, feeling pretty good about doing okay.