I wake to find Zando curled up next to me in bed, scruffy tail resting on his nose. Shivering, I pull my sleeping bag tighter around me and huddle into his fur, willing myself to forget the greater significance of the chill that sinks into my core.
Zando is my dog. Scherzando, actually. That's music for playful sounding... Italian I suppose. I got it from a Tchaikovsky piece back when my dad made me take piano lessons.
I try to get back to sleep but can't ignore the multitude of goosebumps rising on my forearms, or the blood on the dry, chapped skin of my knuckles. I can no longer deny the facts: summer is over. I have to leave. I momentarily entertain the idea of staying all winter, but the rather disturbing image of my frozen corpse being discovered by an unsuspecting park ranger prevails over any illusion I have of a cheerful winter on the river.
Yes, I live on the river. Not in one of those falsely rustic camping mansions on a private island, but on the river, in the river, of the river. In a boat. I moved to the St Lawrence four-and-a-half months ago and still have only seen a fraction. I could have made better time and gotten a few more in, but you sort of fall in love with some and hate to leave. That's how I felt about Grenadier Island. On a summer weekend, it can be insufferable due to the sheer amount of boats that park; for a few hundred metres, the main beach looks out on a sardine-esque yacht party. They pollute the night with bright lights and thundering EDM and leave beer cans floating in the water. However, on a weekday, especially since September, Grenadier is the place to be. Years ago it was a large farm and, although it has for the most-part been left to grow over, remnants of the life of the farming families remain. Best of all is the immense tree just behind the beach, the finest tree I have ever found. I spent an entire week on Grenadier, explored every inch of the island, and sat high up in that tree to watch the sunset colour the river and then fade it to black. Another place I've spent a great deal of time is a small private island, abandoned and nearly overtaken with moss and wildflowers. I camped there several times travelling between other islands and never saw a soul. It is docked at this island that I write to you now, that I admit the time has come to leave the river and return to the real world.
I push down my sleeping bag and awkwardly lift my legs over Zando so as not to push him off the thin bed. In the summer he slept on the floor, but in the past weeks it has been too cold to sleep alone. As I stand, I brush his nose by mistake, causing him to lift his head and yawn. I pull on a hoodie and jacket over my pajamas, jam my feet into my hiking boots and step onto the rickety wood of the dock, followed by Zando. It's seven o'clock but still dark. I strain my eyes to look at the island, the familiar dusty slope beyond which stands the old forgotten cottage, and wonder once again what the place's history might be. I walk the length of the dock, eaten away with age, to the island itself, eager to stretch my legs and—less eagerly—make some decisions.
The question is: when am I going home? Today? Tomorrow? A week? How long can I afford to stay now that the temperature seems drop lower each night? Going home means explaining myself, finding a job, dodging questions about why I left in the first place. I remember my mother's strained voice the day I left, choking back tears as she berated me for my inability to happily live a normal life. Hers was a cry of concern, not of cruelty, but when one is on the receiving end of such a lecture it can be hard to tell the difference. She will be ecstatic to have me back, although if she expects the wayward child who left her to return a content and well-adjusted adult, I'm afraid she will be thoroughly disappointed.
I reach the top of the hill, where the shrubs and dirt are replaced with long grass, wildflowers, and the occasional small tree. I pause a moment to watch Zando curiously nose his way around a rotting stump and wonder with a touch of apprehension: What will everyone say when I go back?
I can see myself walking in the front door—no, I won't even make it to the front door before my mother rushes outside to greet me. She'll tearfully throw her arms around me, water pooling beneath her dark eyes, and ask: “Did you finally get that out of your system?” I'll sigh and shrug my shoulders and she'll cry some more. I'll try to explain, but she won't understand, at least not until she has a few days to think it over. Maybe someday she'll come around, but I don't know.
My father will wait until I come inside and talk to me sternly about the time I wasted, the money I spent, the plans for the future I so gleefully threw away five months ago. “What are you going to do now that you're back?” he'll say. “You'll have to register for the winter semester at university, or get a job at the very least. Make back some of the money you spent on your little excursion.” I won't argue with him just yet. I'll let him calm down, admit that he's happy I'm back... then I'll lay out all my plans, tell him about the thinking I've been doing. That after being completely self-sufficient for four-and-a-half months, I must start making my own decisions about where to go long-term. He'll be a bit taken aback, but slowly he'll start to feel pride at the clarity and maturity of my words, maybe even tear up a little at my assertion of independence.
Or not. Maybe they won't listen. Maybe they'll just be angry. I can't really blame them if they are.
My friends won't understand. There's no way. They'll be caught up in university life, trying to settle in, rushing to complete assignments and labs between res parties and whatever else. They certainly won't be too sympathetic about my return from a life of secluded holiday, having anxiety just at the thought of getting a part-time retail job. They'll tell me to be smart, to do something sensible for once so I'm not broke and depressed in twenty years.
I don't know what I'll say to them. Maybe I won't say anything. I don't want to fight. I came here for peace.
Peace I'll be deserting as of today.
The knot forms in my stomach, the kind of cluster of anxiety that can chip away at your soul for days. I haven't had that feeling for months. Probably the last time I felt this way was...
I sigh. I have my answer. It's not the one I was hoping for, but it's the one that's right.
By this time, I'm about ten metres from the front entrance of the decrepit house. The first couple times I came, I went in and explored. It wasn't too interesting, just sort of depressing. I turn around and walk over to the largest tree on the island, lean my forehead against the cold, rough bark, and take a long breath of crisp St. Lawrence air.
You see, I'm terrified to go home. Last time I felt this scared was the day I blew my tuition fund and bought the boat, the day I decided to leave in the first place.
So I know I have to do it.
I walk back down the shrub-covered slope, watching the tips of my boots sink into the soft dirt with each step. I stop just before I reach the dock and turn around to look at the island, the top of the run-down cottage in the distance, the sky, which is at a rosy halfway point between night and day. I turn, take the step from the dusty ground of the island to the cold grey wood of the dock, and walk back to my boat. There is a finality in my movements that even Zando seems to pick up on.
I sit down at the front of the boat for a long, silent moment, watch the ripples of waking sunlight on the subtle waves of the river.
I start the engine and, with one last sigh, begin the long putter back to Gananoque.