Black Lake was Pop’s favorite place. Nestled in a tiny forest valley deep in the mountains, it was nearly a two-day deviation over rough terrain from the main hiking trails just to get there, so most people never bothered. Pop could enjoy getting back to nature alone with the plop of fish snatching insects from the lake surface and the cries of victorious hawks as they swooped off with their prey. It was the solitude that he liked, having a small patch of the world just for himself. Until he decided I was old enough to accompany him. The first trip hurt so much, and I didn’t want to ever come back, but I didn’t have a choice. At the turn of each season, we went, every year.
It was barely a lake in terms of diameter, but it was deep, the water colored black due to the dark granite of the surrounding mountains. In the winter it froze into a solid patch of cold night. You could walk out onto it and stare down into solid black nothingness. Sometimes Pop did that, for hours. On occasion he would make me do it, too. But I never found anything down there, and I don’t know if he did either. He never told me.
Even in summer those waters were frigid, but Pop dragged me out for swims anyway, even though that black lake chilled my naked skin blue. That’s how Pop liked it. “The wild shows men how to be men,” he would say, “carves off all the fat city softness. Men have wild needs.”
I didn’t know if women have wild needs, too. Pop never brought Mom or my sisters. Just me.
My skin remained blue and shivering until I got the fire going. Pop withheld my clothes until I did. “Comfort has to be earned.” At least he let me use the matches, though sometimes he would threaten to burn my clothing, telling me how I didn’t really need it. And if I was still cold at night and we had to zip the sleeping bags together, that was one of the natural things men did in the wild. There in the tent lurked another kind of darkness to stare into.
He taught me more of those things, painful lessons about tying rope snares and ligatures that required breaking bones to escape; about how little pressure a honed knife edge needed to break skin, and how much was required to cut bone; how to swing the hatchet from the shoulder so the blade bit deep, whether I was chopping firewood or killing a mule deer his snares caught. A spray of red mist struck me in the face the first time, and I wept as my body shuddered violently at the impact.
Pop didn’t like that. “It isn’t how men behave in the wild,” he said. He showed me how, again and again, until I learned.
I didn’t cry the last time. The blade bit deep into the bone, and when my elbow shuddered at the sudden arrest of momentum it felt like a birth, not death.
Pop would have been proud, I think.
Afterwards I went for one last swim, though very briefly. I burned the clothes in the fire, as well as the superfluous backpack. In the morning I’ll hike out from Black Lake for the last time, carrying only what I brought with me.
The winds have turned. Winter will be here soon.
Good-bye, Pop. I hope you find whatever you were looking for down in that deep black.