We left on a mid-August morning in Danny’s old silver hatchback. I was at the wheel because Marisa didn’t know how to drive; she sat barefoot in the passenger seat, watching cows and pine plantations and pro-life billboards glide past. Now and then, she fiddled with the radio dial, and the static would resolve into a Christian music station or some local diviner’s talk show. As we sped north on 35, I could feel the twin beating hearts of Minneapolis and St. Paul fading behind us and the lesser heartbeat of Duluth strengthening ahead.
We stopped for lunch near Cloquet, then pressed on, following a rusted station wagon with a Fond du Lac tribal license plate. At last we crested the hill overlooking Duluth and saw the port city spread out below us, the aerial lift bridge like an archway to the mighty Superior. In the distance, the coast of Wisconsin oozed from the seam between lake and sky.
We snaked our way onto Old Highway 61 and drove northeast along the coast. Now and then I caught a fleeting glimpse of the crimped blue surface of Lake Superior through the trees lining the shore. Duluth was still a warm tolling bell behind us, but ahead I felt the sparks of the towns on the North Shore, like fiery beads on a string. Two Harbors, Beaver Bay, Silver Bay. And if I stretched farther, Grand Marais, and beyond that, Grand Portage.
We weren’t going that far. Soon after passing under the rusty tracks of the old taconite ore dock, we turned off onto a dirt road, the wheels of the hatchback spewing up gingery dust behind us.
When we reached the outfitters, we tumbled out of the car, eager to stretch our stiff limbs. I kicked off my sneakers, tossed them into the backseat, and laced up my hiking boots over wool socks. Marisa strapped on a pair of Chacos, and we crunched across the gravel parking lot to the building beneath the tall pines. Inside, a wiry man in a plaid shirt and an orange hunting cap gave us our permit.
Out back behind the shop, a young woman fitted us with paddles and helped me heft our rental canoe. It was yellow Kevlar, not so handsome as Grandpa Wong’s weathered aluminum Grumman, but lighter. I started down the path to the lake, bearing the canoe upside-down on my shoulders, while Marisa returned to the car to begin hauling our gear to the entry point.
By the time we’d loaded our Duluth pack, the tent, and our other supplies into the canoe, it was late afternoon. The surface of Sawbill Lake was dark and calm. Shreds of cloud lay scattered across the sky’s shining dome. After Marisa stepped daintily into the bow, I plopped into the stern. I pushed us off from the landing, and we sank our paddles into the lake, cutting our way swiftly northward.
Nobody in the family quite understood how my brother Danny had come to marry Marisa, perhaps least of all Danny himself. The circumstances under which they had met were mysterious; last summer, Danny had gone on a fishing trip up north with his buddies, and he’d come back with Marisa. He said they’d met in a bar in Duluth and he’d offered her a lift to a relative’s in the Cities. But none of us had ever heard of that relative again, and within a month, Marisa had moved in with Danny. By Thanksgiving, they were engaged. The wedding was in March, a dicey month in Minnesota, but at least it didn’t snow on the day of the ceremony.
I wasn’t sure of my brother’s good judgment, but Marisa fascinated me so much I didn’t care. She had straight, crow-black hair, golden brown skin, and very dark eyes which sometimes flashed red. Her last name, Kuoppala, seemed improbable. But this was the least of it. People give off magic like cinnamon buns fresh from the oven give off steam. That’s why I can sense concentrations of people, why to me a big city is like a bonfire and the chamber of a drum at once. But Marisa didn’t leak magic like everyone else around me. She felt different, neither giving off nor drawing in, but sort of warping the stuff the world was made of, tugging it in odd directions. She felt wild. And I would have orbited her like her own moon forever if I could have.
That Thanksgiving, just after she and Danny became engaged, was the first time we really talked. We were at Uncle Tim and Aunt Rose’s house. Though most people had finished their meal, the kitchen island was still laden with food: the platter of carved turkey meat, the Styrofoam containers of roast duck and roast pork from House of Wu, the red-rimmed slices of char siu, the cranberry jelly shaped like the can it came in. The mashed potatoes were on the counter next to the rice cooker.
Danny and my uncles were watching the football game in the den, and I was slouched on the sofa in the living room, hiding from Grandma Moy so she wouldn’t keep urging me to eat more. Suddenly I felt that wildness right next to me, and I looked up into Marisa’s nearly black eyes.
“Can I join you?” she said.
She perched on the sofa beside me, the cushion barely dipping under her weight. “Danny told me you’re in college?”
“I’m a sophomore at Carleton.” The term was over, and I was on winter break through New Year’s. “Where did you go to school?”
“I didn’t go to college,” she said.
Abashed, I began to apologize and then broke off, fearing it would only make things worse. I cast about for another question. “So you’re from Duluth?”
She gave a noncommittal hum and craned her neck in a gesture I couldn’t interpret. After a moment, she said, “No, not Duluth. Just… the north.”
“On the Iron Range?” I asked, thinking of her Finnish surname.
My brother’s fiancée shook her head. I decided to shut up. I didn’t know where to look, so I pretended to be interested in the glossy stuffed walleye mounted above the fireplace. With its mouth agape, it looked like it was gasping for air.
“They’ve told me about you,” Marisa said suddenly.
I started. “What?”
“I think every family gathering I’ve gone to, someone’s pointed you out to me and said, ‘That one’s magic.’”
A frost settled over my skin. My relatives weren’t exactly gossips, but we mostly all knew each other’s business. And once someone was eligible to come to family birthdays or dim sum or Thanksgiving, even someone as obviously an outsider as Marisa, they counted enough as family to be told certain things. Those “certain things” included, of course, me and my oddity.
“What else have they said?” I asked. Before she could reply, I added, “I’m not a diviner. I don’t have powers. I just feel magic.”
Marisa probed me with her gaze, and her eyes flashed red. I couldn’t disguise a shudder. I regretted the slip because I wasn’t afraid of her and didn’t want her to think I was. She seemed to be waging a silent war against herself over whether to voice her thoughts. In that moment, I wished I did have powers, so I could hear them.
But she didn’t speak, and we kept staring at each other, and slowly, by some intuition I couldn’t fathom, our knowledge about each other collected like rainwater at the tip of a bare twig until it fell in a plump drop of understanding. She knew I could sense her difference from the ordinary human beings in the house, and I knew she knew, and she knew I knew she knew.
We hugged the lake’s eastern shore and passed a small island of rocks and pines. It was too late to go far this evening. We’d be looking for the first free campsite.
Suddenly, a loon appeared on the water a little ahead of us. I went still mid-stroke, water dripping from the blade of my paddle. We were close enough to see the loon’s white collar, the white speckles dappling its back. Then, just as quickly, the bird dove and vanished.
Marisa had frozen too, but now she resumed paddling without uttering a word. I matched her strokes, and the canoe arrowed forward.
The sky took on a bronzy cast as the sun slid behind the conifers crowding the western shore. It wasn’t long before I spotted an unoccupied campsite. I maneuvered the canoe up alongside a fallen tree that rested above the water, and Marisa stepped out of the bow. I steadied our craft against the tree while she lifted the Duluth pack, the food pack, and the tent and deposited them on the ground behind her.
The sky had grown overcast as we landed, and it began to sprinkle as we pitched the tent, driving stakes into the ground with our heels. I lit the camp stove on top of the fire grate, and we stood in our rain jackets under the swollen gray clouds while the water for macaroni and cheese came to a boil. After dinner, I looked for a place to hoist the bear bag. The woods surrounding the campsite consisted mostly of arborvitae and birches with few good-sized perpendicular branches. At last, I tossed the carabiner-weighted rope over a likely-looking limb and raised the canvas bag of food.
“That’ll have to do,” I said. Marisa looked indifferent. I couldn’t blame her, but I would still need things to eat after she was gone.
We turned in for the night. Cocooned in my sleeping bag, I couldn’t feel the Cities anymore. Duluth was there, faintly, if I reached, but mostly I didn’t because I treasured the stillness of the wilderness. As I drifted off, a loon ululated on Sawbill Lake.
In the morning, after a hasty breakfast of trail mix and dried fruit, we broke camp and pushed off onto Sawbill Lake again. When we reached the northern end of the lake, I guided our canoe towards the beginning of the portage and jumped out just as we scraped bottom. After unloading the packs and tossing paddles and water bottles ashore, I gripped the canoe towards the stern and swung it over my head. The tip of the bow dug into the silt as water streamed down the hull. I worked my way to the yoke and let the canvas-wrapped pads settle onto my shoulders.
“Got it?” asked Marisa.
“Yeah.” I stepped out of the shallows, my hiking boots scraping wet rocks, and started up the trail. It was 80 rods overland to the next water.
We put in again at Ada Creek, a narrow, picturesque channel through granite cliffs. When the creek would take us no farther, we hiked to Ada Lake, which turned out to be more of a marsh. I steered us along a turbid waterway through a prairie of grasses, occasionally bumping into the spongy banks where clumps of pitcher plants grew out of patches of moss.
The afternoon found us gliding through the placid, sun-bathed waters of Cherokee Creek. It was bordered with grasses and dotted with white water lilies and bullhead lilies like giant buttercups. At last, we emerged from the mouth of the creek onto Cherokee Lake. Marisa laid her paddle across the canoe and went very still. I couldn’t see her face, but I could imagine her drinking in the sight of the lake that was our ultimate destination. I half expected her to go right then, to dive into the dark water or take flight from the bow.
Instead, we navigated to a campsite in a crescent-shaped cove. My sister-in-law clambered out of the canoe and scaled the rock. She brushed past a pine and came back almost instantly.
So we landed, and hauled our gear ashore.
On Memorial Day weekend, I came up to the Cities for the visit to the graves at Lakewood Cemetery. Danny brought Marisa. We picked our way through the headstones of the Chinese Memorial section, granite plaques carved with the names of Yees, Wongs, Ngs, and Moys. Aunt Rose had brought alstroemeria from my cousin Alyssa’s florist shop, and we arranged the stalks in the metal vases at each stone.
Marisa followed us as we trooped from grave to grave but always stood at a slight distance as we bowed before each one. When we had finished, I told everyone I wanted to stay awhile longer. Nobody attempted to dissuade me. I sat on the ground next to Bak Bak’s headstone, blades of grass tickling my knees. I traced the characters of her name and her village. Car doors slammed, and tires creaked on dirt roads. I could feel when everyone had left.
But there was still something out there, a disturbance like a quivering string vibrating long after it had been plucked. I glanced up and saw Marisa standing next to the Chinese Memorial gate.
She walked over, stepping barefoot through the grass, her sandals dangling from her left hand.
“Why aren’t you at lunch with Danny?” I asked.
She shrugged, a gesture that struck me as so human that for a moment I doubted what my senses had been telling me since Thanksgiving.
“Your family is nice, but I don’t fit in,” she said at last, settling beside me on the grass.
“Neither do I.”
She laughed, a clear, musical sound, like icicles shattering. “No, you don’t, but I fit in still less.”
I couldn’t help myself. “Marisa, what—?” What are you? I wanted to say, but I had too many hapa cousins to be able to bring myself to finish asking such a rude question.
We were quiet for a while. Then Marisa looked at the headstone next to me. “Who’s that?”
“My great-grandmother,” I said. “She died when I was eleven.” My most vivid memory of Bak Bak flared in my mind: her liver-spotted hand gripping my forearm as we crossed the street leaving the St. Paul farmers market, her jade bangle wobbling around her narrow wrist.
“Did you know the others too?” asked Marisa, waving in the direction of the other graves.
“Some of them. But Bak Bak was the only other person like me in the family. She didn’t speak English, and I don’t speak Chinese, but we knew.”
Marisa nodded. I looked at her and then at Bak Bak’s birth year, carved into her gravestone. 1911. I wondered if Marisa was older than that. I wondered if my brother was only one in a long line of men she had ensorcelled.
A question filled my mouth, the words both slippery and unwieldy, like ice cubes. They tumbled out. “What do you want from Danny?”
Marisa swiveled her head to regard me, her shoulders staying still. After a moment, she said, “Nothing.”
“Then why are you with him?”
“Because I cannot leave.”
The world lurched. I’d had it backwards. Marisa hadn’t ensnared Danny; she was herself ensnared. When Lakewood Cemetery righted itself, I said, “Tell me again how you met. In Duluth?”
“We didn’t meet in Duluth.” Her voice was clipped, her golden skin stretched tight over the edge of her jaw. “We met at the Grand Portage casino.”
It was news to me that Danny had ever been there. Mom and Dad wouldn’t have liked to hear he was gambling.
“What were you doing there?” I asked.
“I was with someone else then.” She held herself stiffly, her gaze fixed on some distant monument. “I couldn’t leave him because he had my cloak. He wanted me to marry him, but I wouldn’t.”
“Your cloak.” I was so close to knowing, and Marisa’s strange warping of the world had never felt so alien. Which shapeshifters had cloaks?
Marisa’s eyes gleamed red. “I am a lómr.”
“Oh!” It was like she’d shoved me off a dock, and I went plunging down into the bracing water of my memories. Danny’s and my first trip to the Boundary Waters with Grandpa Wong. Glass-smooth water at dusk, moonrise over the skeletons of fire-stripped trees, the otherworldly calls of unseen loons. Later, the Milky Way like a salt spill across the night sky. And Grandpa Wong’s story of the loon people who slipped out of their white-speckled black cloaks and walked in human form.
“Someone stole your cloak?” I said, my heart twisting once, painfully.
She nodded. “And in doing so captured me. But I would not give in to him. By the time we reached Grand Portage, he knew he would never win, at least not the way he wanted, but if he couldn’t have what he desired, he would make sure I still never went free. And then we met Danny and his friends.”
My stomach sloshed with dread.
“Danny liked me at once,” Marisa said matter-of-factly. “I saw this. And so did he. I could see something in Danny too. He was gentle in a way almost none of the other men at the casino were. But I hid what I felt because what my captor wanted above all was to punish me, and it would have been no punishment if I’d wanted to belong to Danny.”
“Marisa.” It came out a gasp. The peace that usually filled me in the cemetery had fled. The sunlight burnishing the lush grass, the stately headstones on the hillsides, suddenly all of it struck me as grotesque. “Why are you telling me this?”
“You asked,” she said, puzzled.
“Not—not—” I couldn’t push the words out. And anyway, there was no turning back now.
“He could see Danny wanted me. And so he gave him my cloak. He’d been keeping it in a wooden box in the hotel room safe. I couldn’t get to it. I didn’t see him give Danny the box. He told me he’d done it. Smiling all the while. What could I do but believe him? Of course he’d told Danny not to say a word about the box to me. The next day, Danny and his friends left for Duluth. They invited me to go with them. I said yes. I had to follow my cloak.”
“And then you followed it down here,” I said.
“Yes. I tried asking him about the box. More than once. Each time, he claimed to know nothing. I suppose if he’s telling the truth I married the wrong man.”
I didn’t think she’d married the wrong man. Not in the sense she meant, at least, because in another sense she had very much married the wrong man. I didn’t know why I was convinced that Danny had done this terrible thing when the last thing I wanted was to believe it of my brother. Perhaps it was because I couldn’t imagine Marisa, the lómr, being mistaken.
I curled my fingers around hanks of grass to stop my hands from shaking. My heart trembled, weak and fragile as a hatchling. “How can you… how can you live with him? He lied to you!”
“Danny doesn’t know the full extent of what he’s doing,” Marisa said. “And you didn’t meet the other man.”
Her last words made me shudder, but then a hot wave of anger surged up in me. “My brother’s not that obtuse. He had to have suspected something when that man told him he could have you as long as he kept that box hidden from you. Most of his life he’s had me around reminding him the world is full of strangeness. And I’m sure he’s looked in the box! So I don’t buy it. He knows exactly what he’s doing.”
Heartsickness drowned out the smoldering rage, and I lay down alongside Bak Bak’s grave, glaring up at the relentlessly blue sky until my eyes hurt.
“Maybe you’re right.” Marisa’s voice seemed to come from all around me because I couldn’t see her. “Maybe he does know. It’s easier to bear if I make myself believe he doesn’t.”
Soon after we’d set up camp, Marisa announced she was going for a swim. My heart juddered; I thought this was it. But she just changed into her bathing suit in the tent, walked barefoot down the lichen-crusted rock to the dark water’s edge, and dropped into the lake. She disappeared up to her neck almost at once, her black hair fanning out on the surface of the water. Then she ducked her head and vanished completely. Just like a loon.
I entered the tent and opened the Duluth pack. After tossing our camping pads and sleeping bags aside, I reached into the pack again. My fingers brushed a wooden surface, and I drew out a rectangular box. Smudges of dirt still clung to the lid and sides.
I listened for the sound of footfalls outside the tent, but all I heard was the chitter of a red squirrel and the wind blowing in the conifers. Slowly, I lifted the lid of the box. Inside was a silky expanse of sable feathers dappled with white. It looked almost like someone had stuffed a loon into the box, shoving it down until only its back showed. The idea made my skin crawl, and I clapped the lid down before I started imagining the rise and fall of a living breath.
I left the box containing the lómr cloak in the tent and returned to the fire grate. There was no sign of Marisa on the lake. And because she wasn’t human, I couldn’t sense her presence. That had never bothered me before, but now it felt profoundly disconcerting. As the sun slid lower in the western sky, I lit the camp stove and made food for myself.
By the time the bottom of the sun touched the tops of the trees across the lake, I was beginning to wonder whether Marisa would come back after all, cloak or no cloak. I pulled on my fleece jacket and perched on a log to watch the sunset. The fiery sun illuminated a copper path on the ridged surface of the lake. The path faded as the sun sank, but the long clouds above turned into glowing pink ribs edged with gold.
I heard a plash of water and jumped to my feet as Marisa pulled herself out of the lake and onto the slab of rock. I hurried to the tent for a beach towel. When I returned, she was wringing out her hair near the overturned canoe. I couldn’t believe she wasn’t shivering.
We retired for the night. I curled up in my sleeping bag, trying to find a comfortable spot on the folded sweatshirt I was using as a pillow. Arborvitae branches scraped the tent, and Marisa’s sleeping bag rustled as she turned over. We’d told Danny and my parents that we would camp for three or four nights, depending on the weather. I didn’t know when she planned to change her shape, how many days I had left with her. It would have been a simple thing to ask, but I couldn’t bear to.
After the day at the cemetery, there were many nights when I lay in bed unable to sleep. I grappled with the new understanding of my brother that had been forced upon me. I couldn’t reconcile it with the brother I had grown up with, the brother who used to meet me at the corner when I got off the school bus in the afternoon, an hour after his school had let out, so that the boys who got off at the same stop as me wouldn’t throw apples from the Lyngstads’ tree at me. How could that brother have accepted that man’s heinous offer in Grand Portage? How could he have decided that having Marisa was worth deceiving her and keeping her trapped in human form for his own pleasure? The betrayal ripped at my innards.
One Saturday evening in July, Danny pulled into the driveway while I was sitting on the porch swing eating a lime popsicle. Behind me, all the windows of the house were dark.
“Where’re Mom and Dad?” my brother asked, slamming the car door.
“At Aunt Rose and Uncle Tim’s cabin. What are you doing here?”
“Dad asked me to take a look at the lawnmower.”
I shrugged and slapped a mosquito on my leg. As Danny punched in the code to open the garage door, I retreated to the cool of the basement. He found me there when he was done tinkering with the lawnmower. I sensed him coming down the carpeted steps before he appeared in his stocking feet with a six-pack of some local craft beer. He settled on the couch beside me.
“You didn’t want to go to the lake?”
I shook my head. Too many people, not enough privacy, and I didn’t like tubing or the chainsaw roar of motorboats. But Danny knew all that.
He opened a beer with the bottle opener on his keychain, and I noticed another bottle was already empty.
“Want one?” he asked.
I wasn’t sure what had brought Danny over, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t just the balky lawnmower. Sometimes a mood came over him, and he would seek me out to tell me things I didn’t really want to hear. Usually there was beer involved. I had a suspicion it was going to be a late night, but this time I felt a stirring of eagerness rather than my typical resignation. I scented an opportunity.
My brother was finishing his third beer when he finally said, “Sometimes I envy you. You get along so easily with Marisa.”
I caught my breath. This wasn’t the overture I’d expected, or one I welcomed.
“Sometimes I still don’t know how to talk to her. I just… I don’t know what I did to deserve her. How did I get so lucky?”
You don’t deserve her, I didn’t say.
“But you seem to get her,” Danny pursued. “I don’t know how you do it. But I’m grateful, you know? I’m glad she has you.”
I didn’t see how this conversation could get any weirder or more awkward. I wanted to flee upstairs to pour myself a glass of lemonade. Anything to get off this couch. But I forced myself to stay put and stalk my quarry.
“She told me how you met,” I said as lightly as I could.
“Yeah…” My brother stared off into space, pressing circles into the armrest with the bottom of his bottle. I wondered whether he was thinking of the Duluth story he’d told the family or the Grand Portage story Marisa had told me.
“I’m scared of losing her,” he said. “I half expect to wake up one day and realize this was all a dream.”
I made a noise I hoped sounded at least partly sympathetic.
“But then sometimes I think it’s going to be okay. Because I have a sort of… As long as I…” Danny tapped his fingernails against the brown glass. I waited.
“It was the craziest thing. Right after I met Marisa, this guy gave me a box.”
I stopped breathing again. Danny proceeded to tell me more or less what Marisa had told me: that he’d been entrusted with the box, told to hide it from Marisa, and warned never to tell her where it was or let her get ahold of it. If he did that, she would never leave him. I burned with heartbreak and ached with rage again; for one blinding second I pictured myself smashing the empty beer bottles at my feet and carving my brother with the shards.
Instead, I said, “How do you know she really loves you? What if this box is just forcing her to?”
I was afraid I’d gone too far, but Danny said, “I don’t know, maybe it is. But I can’t help it. If you really loved someone, so much you couldn’t imagine losing them, wouldn’t you do anything, even something like this, to keep them close to you?”
I reflected bitterly that my brother had well and truly forgotten who he was talking to, but at least I could be assured he was drunk. Still, I wanted another twelve ounces of buffer. I plucked another beer from the six-pack, struggled for a moment with the bottle opener, and handed Danny the drink. He took a sip without looking at me. No matter how firmly I told myself I was doing this to help a captive escape, the knowledge that I was drugging information out of my brother made me feel like black sludge was dripping down the walls of my stomach.
I waited till he had drunk more before saying, “I hope you hid the box well.”
Danny laughed. “You’ll never guess where it is.” He gestured vaguely behind us, toward the backyard. “I buried it under the maple tree, where I helped you bury the goldfish you got in third grade science. Do you remember how much you cried when that goldfish died?”
Two weekends later, Mom and Dad went up to the lake again. I waited till two o’clock on Sunday morning, when I was certain it was too late for my brother to drop by unexpectedly again, and then I got the shovel from the garage and unlatched the gate to the backyard. By the light on the neighbors’ back porch, I could make out the sinuous roots of the Norway maple in the middle of the lawn. Unfortunately for Danny, I remembered exactly where we’d buried my goldfish. I began to dig.
The following Friday morning, I volunteered Marisa and me to take Grandma Moy to the Hmong farmers market in the parking lot of Sun Foods on University Avenue. Somali women in brightly colored dresses and headscarves walked between tables piled with long beans, bitter melon, lemongrass, and amaranth. Marisa and I followed Grandma Moy from vendor to vendor and carried her purchases in white plastic bags. I wasn’t sure how to broach the subject on my mind, but finally, while my grandmother was inspecting a bunch of mustard greens, I said quietly to Marisa, “Would you leave if you could?”
She didn’t have to ask what I meant. “In a heartbeat.”
Later, after we’d dropped Grandma Moy off in West St. Paul and I was driving Marisa home, I told her I had the box. I thought she might leave that very afternoon. But after a long silence, she said, “I can only change back on my home lake.”
I was ashamed to note that my first reaction was relief: she wasn’t going to be gone by evening. I asked, “Where’s your home lake?”
“Up north,” said Marisa. “You call it Cherokee.”
When I woke up, Marisa was still sleeping, or at least pretending to. One of her arms lay out of her sleeping bag, and her fingertips rested on the lid of the box containing her cloak. I stumbled out of the tent and walked down to the water. The fragmented surface of Cherokee Lake shone a metallic blue, like the scales of a great dragon. I felt people approaching, four little flames, and presently two aluminum canoes approached from the creek. They saw me standing on the rocky point like a lone pine and waved. I didn’t wave back.
When I turned around, she was standing behind me with the box in her hands. I hadn’t heard her footsteps on the rock.
“It’s time,” she said.
I nodded because I couldn’t speak through the knot in my throat.
“I have yet to thank you,” she said. “So I thank you now. I owe you a debt.”
I wasn’t sure if that was true; was I not atoning for a wrong committed by one of my family?
Marisa walked to the very tip of the point, so that the water lapped at her bare toes. She was wearing plaid flannel pants and an oversize Twins t-shirt. She twisted around to set the box on higher ground, opened it, and drew out the lómr cloak. It unfurled like a swatch of the night sky, black as pitch and sprinkled with white stars.
“Should I go?” I croaked. Already, I’d been backing up on the hump of rock, so that now I was closer to the fire grate than the edge of the water. I was asking if this was for me to see or not.
“You don’t have to go,” Marisa said. It wasn’t quite Don’t go, but I would take it.
She cast off her pajamas and swept the cloak over her shoulders, and suddenly on the magical plane there was a dazzling flash, like a bolt of lightning had rent the world. I couldn’t perceive anything on the tip of the point but for a great shuddering in the air. And then it was over, and a loon was flying swiftly north across Cherokee Lake, its wings beating furiously.
I did not go out in the canoe that day. Instead, I explored the wilderness inland beyond the campsite. I clambered up a rock face scabbed with lichen and crowned with clouds of moss the color of artemisia. I wandered among young green spruces and blossoming fireweed. I skirted carpets of bunchberry and peered at the dusky berries of bluebead lilies. All I wanted was to not see the water. Somehow, that helped me forget.
I was glad when night came. Alone in the tent, I lay on my back, my arms resting on the cool nylon of my sleeping bag. I waited. And waited. The wind stirred the pines, and the waves washed against the rock. At last the sound came rippling across the water. That eerie laughter, mournful tremolos reverberating on the lake. At least two birds, maybe three.
I listened, and I was sure it was the lómr. My heart felt too full. It crossed my mind that I had not given any thought to what I was going to tell Danny and my parents when I came back from the Boundary Waters without my sister-in-law, but that worry soon drifted away. The loons kept calling. Tears gathered in my eyes and spilled from the corners, trickling down my temples and into my ears. I let them fall without wiping them away.
In the morning, as I emerged from the tent, feeling hollow and brittle, something stuck in the earth right by the door caught my eye. It was a feather, gray at the base and darkening to black, with two brushstrokes of white at the tip.