“And the mournful heart call of a loon crying for its lost mate still echoes over a moonlit lake in the North Woods as Sam picks up his brush.”
By Don Kenton Henry
He put down his palette and lay his brush across it. The forearm of his painting hand came to rest across his thigh and he sat upright on his stool, taking in the canvas before him. The day was dimming, and through the large window of his cottage, on the lake, he could see the Common Loons. They nestled among and just beyond the reeds and cattails of the cove, some fifty yards out, beyond his boathouse and pier. The silhouettes of spruce, with their conical spires, reflected on the glass-like water beneath them. Interspersed were the splashes of brilliant crimson, yellow, and orange foliage of the hardwoods, like brush strokes of oil paint from his palette. These colors faded, seemingly withdrew, into the mist which rose in tandem to catch a half moon rising. He tried to capture all this. This was the scene he sought to bring to his canvas. This was the scene he had always promised Grace he would paint for her. Countless nights they had sat by the lake and listened to the lonely mournful wail of the loon. It is a sound which simultaneously evokes solitude and yearning and, once you hear it―it sticks with you the rest of your life. Grace, who had grown up in the North Woods, said she never grew tired of it. The wail, she said, “Is one in a pair calling, ‘Where are you?’ And moments later you will hear the other saying . . . ‘I am here’. It’s both a heart call and an answer,” she had said. And, as she did, she had turned to him and smiled. Smiled more with the gleam in her green eyes than her rose hued lips. She was always the poet. “Capture me that, Sam,” she had said. And Sam had vowed he would.
Now he sat and listened to that eerie wail as it punctuated the fall of night over the lake. And he knew he must finish this scene before the loons migrated through the heart of the country to the Gulf and Eastern shores for the winter.
He walked outside his studio and down the stone walk to the pier. He looked through the mist at the moon and made a long and mournful call of his own. He called her name. But no one answered. Not Grace. Not even a loon. Perhaps if he could find her and bring her the painting he had promised . . . perhaps she would come home. He would raise his brush anew with the sun. For now, he returned to the cottage, put away his paint and brushes and prepared for bed. Would the dream come back the way it had each of the last three? Would he, as he had each night, try to find her and bring her home? And would he, each time, awaken in a sweat, calling her name? Last night he had thought he was so close.
The first night, he had found her on the patio of that sidewalk café in Paris where they had met when he stopped for coffee. It was spring and he had gone to Paris to study the work of the masters at the Louvre and throughout Europe. He was the young and aspiring artist. She, the poet-waitress studying literature as an exchange student. It had been love at first sight, three years ago. She had followed him to Rome for the weekend, where they threw coins in the fountain. But, in his dream, she simply left his bill on the table in Paris and never returned. He rose to follow her inside and then awakened, trembling.
The second night, he found her at her parent’s 25th-anniversary party. Two years ago, they had stood and watched her parents toast each other, and friends toast the both of them. She had raised her glass and said she wanted a marriage like theirs someday. Afterwards, he had told her they could start “today”. She agreed, but said, “Let me, first, finish my master’s. And, secondly, bring me that painting you promised me”. But in the dream . . . when he suggested marriage . . . she just lowered her head and seemed to cry. This dream had really shaken him. Wasn’t their love always something neither had questioned? Wasn’t it obvious to all who knew them, they were meant for each other? The sheets he was clutching were soaked when he bolted upright in bed. Why would he have such a dream and . . . even more so . . . why would she leave him?
The third night, he dreamed they were at her graduation party. After years of part-time jobs and long nights of study, long drives and weekend visits to see him in the Upper Peninsula―weekends in which Sam painted while Grace read Shakespeare and Chaucer to him―she got her master’s in Comparative Literature from the University of Wisconsin in Madison. That day, at that party, he toasted her then whispered in her ear, “one down”. And she whispered back, “And you still owe me that painting.” One year ago, they leaned back in each other’s arms and smiled as she said that. But, in the dream, she pulled back and walked away, responding without a word. Again, he awakened in a cold, soaking sweat.
And here it was, one year past her graduation. In the meantime, his father had died from a sudden illness. Along with Grace, he was Sam’s best friend. A doctor, it was he who Sam most trusted for advice. It was he who told Sam to pursue art―”follow your passion, son”―when his mother had begged him to study math and science. “Be a doctor―like your father!” she had said.
“Be happy,” his father said.
And now his father was gone and so was Grace. Just as suddenly as he, she had disappeared. Not just from his life, but from everywhere. Just dropped off the face of the earth with not as much as a good-bye. In his dream, he goes to visit the roommate she last had in college. Sarah knows nothing of Grace’s whereabouts. Grace’s parents claim the same and don’t care to talk with him further, simply saying, “We are sorry.”
Tonight, he will fall asleep as he has the last three. He will keep a candle lit and, lying on his side, gaze into the picture of the two of them in Paris. The one he keeps on the nightstand. Tonight, he will find her. If only in his dream. Tonight he will, will himself―if only in his dream―to find her! He will have finished the painting and he will give it to her. He will have captured the two love lost loons who have found each other just beyond the mist , on a lake of mirrored glass, under a half moon rising. He will fall to sleep and call her name as the lonely loons of his lake make the same sad call for their love.
And so he does. In the dream, he applies the last brush stroke of paint to the moon’s reflection on the water. He stands back and surveys the months upon months of work he has put into this piece. Time and again, the light wasn’t right. The moon had disappeared behind bad weather. The leaves had faded or the loons had left for their migration south. And it had to be right. Because it was what Grace wanted. And knowing that his colors were like poetry, and nature spoke in rhythm with his brush strokes, and the loons, through his hand, called from the oils, the canvas, and his work, as he calls to her in his dreams . . . he knew she would answer. When she saw it, she would come back and stay. And he wouldn’t even ask her where she had been. He’d just take her in his arms and never let her go again.
Once again, he drifts off to sleep, thinking of Grace, Paris, and Rome. But, in his dream, he is back in the cottage, in front of his easel. He lifts the canvas from it and takes it through the French doors of his studio to the stone path. It is foggy as he makes his way down to the pier. He walks to its end and gazes through the mist. He calls out Grace’s name once more. It’s a mournful wail like the loon’s. It’s the call of a lost and broken heart. Any creature on “God’s Green Earth” would know that when they heard it. It’s the same in any language. In a moment, a loon answers. It’s the tremolo ― the long, unearthly, wavering call of a loon announcing its presence. But it’s not Grace. Or is it? Could this be a sign from Grace? Could she be here, somewhere in the fog and the mist?
Then he hears a voice call, “Sam”. It’s his father’s voice. He peers through the fog in its direction. “Dad? Dad is that you?” he answers.
“Come here, son.” his father replies, from somewhere in the direction of the cove. Sam, painting in hand, walks off the pier and wanders through the fog. “Dad, dad―where are you?”
Slowly the image of his father reveals itself to Sam as he approaches. His father is seated on a log of fallen hardwood, the same one on which Sam often sat with Grace as she tried out her poetry on him. “Dad . . . why are you here, dad? Have you seen Grace?”
“I’m here to bring you a message. Grace is here but she doesn’t want to speak to you. She wants what is best for you. She wants you to be happy. Go back to your work, son. Go back to your art and to your passion. Your time with Grace has passed.”
“I can’t do that, dad. I have to find her. I have this to give her,” he answers, holding out the painting. With that, he hears a gentle sobbing coming from a curtain of spruce trees behind the fallen tree. He weaves his way through them and finds Grace standing, her hand out as if to signal, “stop!” “Don’t come any closer, Sam.”
“But Grace, I’ve been searching for you all these nights! I have this. I have the painting I promised you!”
“Yes. Yes, I see. It is beautiful just as I knew it would be. Just as we were. You captured me that, just as I asked of you. But now our time is over. You must go back. Follow your art. Follow your passion. Follow your dreams, Sam. But do not follow me!”
“No, I must! I don’t . . . I don’t understand,” he said. Then he awakened.
This time, he was not soaking in sweat. This time, the room was cool. Fluorescent lights above him caused him to squint his eyes as they adjusted. He blinked and tried to focus them. Someone leaned over him and a hand removed something over his mouth. It released the cool air under it and the warmer, heavier air of the room took its place. It smelled of chemicals.
“Can you hear me, Sam?” the voice of the person hovering over him said. “Can you hear me?”
Sam nodded his head weakly. “Where am I?” he attempted to ask.
The man in the blue gown said, “You’re in the hospital, Sam. You and Grace were in a terrible accident four nights ago.”
“Grace? How is Grace? Where is Grace!” Sam tried to rise but the doctor’s hands held him steady. His mother appeared at his side and also put her hand on Sam’s shoulder.
“Sam . . . his mother said while breaking into soft tears, “Oh, how I wish your father were here to tell you this . . . Grace is gone, son. She died instantly. And for four nights we thought we had lost you too. All signs were, you were gone. But for four nights, I prayed for a miracle. Your airbag saved you, but just barely. Oh, how I wish your father had been here to tell you this but . . . Grace is gone.”
“He was, mom. Dad was here.”
And the mournful heart call of a loon crying for its lost mate still echoes over a moonlit lake in the North Woods as Sam picks up his brush.
*the wailing of a loon calling its mate: