“There’s Clair,” my husband Scott says, pulling his binocs from the windowsill.
All loons are named Clair.
Many times on the lake I’ve approached a loon from our kayak, Major Grey. As long as their babies aren’t near, the loons don’t seem to mind the quiet presence of a kayak. I’m always amazed at the hugeness of loons – they are more like great black and white barnyard geese than polite-sized ducks.
This particular Clair confines herself to an area of the pond about fifty feet from our dock. There she paddles away the afternoon.
“There she is,” one of us will say to the other, the level of discourse between us growing lame on these humid summer days.
As I stand on the dock and watch her, I’ve become convinced that this is a loon with very little on her mind. This is a loon with some sort of psychological attachment to 100 square feet of pond. Is she watching a phantom nest? Just what is she doing? We don’t know and it bothers us..
On Saturday the heat gives way after a thunderstorm. My son Marty and I are on the porch listening to the new Harry Potter on CD. (We’ve already read the book but are now listening for clues about what’s to come in the final installment.) At the end of disc six, I say to my boy, “Let’s see how close we can get to Clair.”
At the pond’s edge, we pull our plastic tubes from under the kayaks and quietly launch off the dock on our bellies. We paddle out to Clair with expert little motions of our hands and feet. We communicate by hand signals and mind reading. I take a northerly flanking approach while Marty takes the direct route that is more his style.
Though we are both just twenty feet away, Clair still doesn’t seem to notice us. The only thing that’s changed is that she looks a lot bigger. She’s one big bird. We look at each other and nod then move in another few feet. Marty, his hair blond from the sun and grown out long for the first time, shakes his bangs from his eyes and gives me a look that says, “Well, here we are, Mom, floating on tubes in the middle of the pond looking at a loon that doesn’t care if we live or die.”
I’m heartened by the fact that he doesn’t feel compelled to say it out loud. I take his choosing the nonverbal option to mean that he does regard it as a special mother/son/loon moment to be remembered all his life. I give him a little shrug and begin to paddle my tube gently back to the dock.
“You want to go swimming?” I ask, throwing my tube onto the runway. Based on our maneuver, it seems that we can dispense with all this loon sensitivity we’ve been practicing and go back to being our loud and splashy selves.
“No,” he says, looking up at the gray sky. “It’s kinda cool.”
I watch him walk up the hill to the house, his beautiful back, thin and tanned, with its little starter muscles beginning to ripple as he climbs over the granite outcrops in the yard. At 11 and a half he’s turning into something other than a young boy, but I don’t quite know what it is. I let him go. The next HP disc has the Gryffindor-Slytherin quidditch match and I know he wants to hear it.
Without further consideration, I turn around from my son and dive off the dock into the deep, clear water. After last night’s rain, the water is colder than it’s been. At the surface I see Clair on the waterline and swim toward her. The late afternoon is heavy and quiet and there is something about swimming up to this bird that feels like a covert operation. Already I am composing lines of an essay in my mind – about Marty and Clair and the water. It feels slightly presumptuous but I am helpless to stop.
Clair is directly in my line of sight when a second loon surfaces between us just a few feet away. I am startled and breathless at my sudden proximity to this enormous and beautiful bird. This isn’t a part of the essay I am writing. The visitor begins to swim toward Clair and utters a short call of greeting as she approaches. This is not the long, haunting cry we hear at night from the lake, but an inquisitive little, “Hey, what’s up?”
Clair closes the distance between them and I hear them making quiet loony conversation, little clicks and cheeps I’ve never been close enough to hear before. As I start to swim nearer, the water becomes shallower and I feel the occasional weed wipe around my legs. I don’t like the occasional weed. I like deep, clear water without a hint of muddy squish or slimy rock. Like Hemingway’s fisherman, Nick Adams returned from the war in the short story “Big Two-Hearted River,” I’m not interested in anything to do with weedy places right now and possibly ever.
I stay there treading water, separated from the loons by my own embarrassed discomfort. As the loons circle one another and privately converse, I wonder about all the other things the lake contains – other mysteries and fishy covert actions that I can’t begin to fathom. Each spring we see and smell the evidence of muskrats having used the space beneath our dock as a storage unit for their cache of freshwater mussels dug from the lake bed. But I’ve never seen them at it. Occasionally we see a turtle near the water’s edge, but as soon as it’s spotted it turns shy and sinks out of sight. We live right here at the water’s edge but so much is unknown to us; so much goes on without our permission.
Suddenly the visiting loon flips upside down and disappears from sight. Clair resumes her patrol. The spell is broken, and I kick backwards to deeper water and the dock.
As I approach the house the sound of Jim Dale reading Harry Potter greets me through the open windows. On the porch Marty is draped on an armchair with his long legs dangling over the side. He’s both listening and reading a book about the Red Sox. His twin brother Colin is lying on the rug choreographing some major engagement with his Playmobil guys. Pirates, Vikings, gunslingers, astronauts and Roman legionnaires all armed to the teeth with highly detailed two-inch plastic weapons and a couple of catapults enter into a grand inter-historical/cultural battle that includes lots of sound effects.
“Shut-up, I’m trying to listen,” says Marty without looking up.
“Okay, okay,” says Colin, launching a tiny cannonball into an oncoming phalanx.
Neither boy says a word to me as I pass through the porch on my way to change into dry clothes.
“Thank God,” I say aloud to Clair as I spot her on the pond through my bedroom window, “for the Red Sox, Harry Potter and Playmobil.”
We’re not in the weeds yet.
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