Wintering - Peter Geye
For my boys, Finn and Cormac
And for Dana
The country between Lake Superior and the Lake of the Woods is, like the whole watershed between Hudson’s Bay and the Valley of the St. Lawrence, a rugged assemblage of hills, with lakes, rivers, and morasses, of all sizes and shapes, in their intervals. It is, in fact, a drowned land, whose waters have assumed their permanent features by a balance of receipt and discharge.
They all communicate practically with each other, either by water or by portages, so that the traveller may reach the Lake of the Woods by many routes, differing only in danger, labour, and directness.
—JOHN JEREMIAH BIGSBY
OUR WINTERS are faithful and unfailing and we take what they bring, but this season has tested even the most devout among us. The thermometer hanging outside my window reads thirty-two degrees below zero. Five degrees warmer than yesterday, which itself was warmer than the day before. I can hear the pines exploding, heartwood turned to splinter and pulp all up and down the Burnt Wood River.
As if the cold weren’t enough, yesterday brought another unkindness. Gustav Eide came bearing it: his father’s red woolen hat—the one he wore almost every day, the type children wear tobogganing—found by those Bargaard twins as they ice-skated out past the breakwater.
It wasn’t the first time Gus came knocking this winter. Back in November he held his own hat in his hands. Gus, with his father’s lonesome, lazy eyes, standing bareheaded but buttoned up outside my door.
“I hate to drop in unannounced, Berit,” he had said then.
“Since when do we stand on ceremony around here? Come in.”
He stepped inside but stood with his back against the door, his eyes studying his bootlaces. I’ve seen much of this town’s woe, its suffering and tragedy, and have marked it all. While I stood there waiting for Gus to speak, I knew my own everlasting sadness was suddenly upon me.
“He disappeared last night, Berit.” He spoke without looking up. “He’s gone.”
I turned and stepped carefully to the bench under the window and sat.
“We found tracks heading up the river,” he said.
I looked up at him, now looking down at me. I thought of sitting at his father’s bedside the evening before, holding his hand, singing to him. I thought of how Harry had looked at me, his gaze seeming to go through me and into some past only he could see. I was disappearing from his view. This I knew.
Gus came and sat next to me on the bench. “That new sheriff—Ruutu’s his name—is leading the search. We went all the way up past the lower falls. The dogs lost his scent around the Devil’s Maw. Ruutu’s down in Gunflint right now, calling for more help.”
He reached over and held my hand, a gesture he surely learned from his father and one that calmed me down, at once familiar and uncanny. There are depths to those Eides no sounding line will ever reach. I knew this about Harry and I have come to know it about Gus, though on that November morning he knew me much better than I did him.
“They’re not going to find him, Berit.”
He let my hand go and sat back and rubbed the cold from his cheeks.
“Why would you say that? He can’t have gone far,” I said, thinking again of that faraway look in Harry’s eyes.
“We’ve heard this story before, haven’t we?”
“Speak plainly, would you? For the benefit of an old lady?”
Then Gus looked through me just as his father had only hours before. “People searched for don’t get found here. Not in these woods.” He closed his eyes and shook his head as though to banish some thought. “Put on some coffee? I’ll tell you how all this happened.”
So I did. I went to the kitchen and filled the kettle at the sink. As the water poured from the faucet I glanced upriver, where I have kept my eyes more or less since. Two stories began that day in November. One of them was new and the other as old as this land itself. Both of them were borne by the river.
Ruutu and his deputies and Gus and his sister, Signe, and the good people of Gunflint spent a week searching for Harry, every dawn following some new dead end into the wilderness, every dusk emerging from wherever they’d been, tired and cold and no closer to finding him. Gus stopped by each evening to tell me where they’d looked, assuring me every single time they’d