Travels Without a Donkey

A long, narrow arm of water, with a beach at the end of it–Tyler Cove. We pitched the tent on a hillock just back of the beach, then swam. It was not until we were cooking supper afterwards that we noticed the beginning of a majestic parade of thunderheads in the western sky. They were far away and hardly real. We went on cooking, unconcerned, over a dream of a little fire of white cedar. The thunderheads surged up, black with marvellous curled edges of light. They came fast, wind with them. The sky was slate-gray and tense around them; the lake reflected it. Gray waves edged with foam struck gloomily at the sand.

“Good Lord! That storm’s coming a mile a minute. Let’s get the grub under cover–quick!”

Over went the good old canoe, her solid back to the wind; and under her protecting wings went our carton of grub. Those thunderheads were shutting out the whole world, now; and they were pretty noisy about it–gashed and split and torn to black rags by spears of lightning…. We looked up from our job just in time to see an immense sheet of rain sweep the bay, eclipsing everything, and as we turned and ran for our little tent above the beach, the first drops struck like hailstones.

We buckled down the front flap at a sharp angle, and tested the lines. They seemed firm enough, although the tent shook and quivered as the trees to which it was moored thrashed in the wind. We had a dismal vision of that tent spreading sudden wings and taking flight in the middle of the storm, leaving us exposed to furious skies….

Storm? Where was it now, anyway? After that first flurry, wind and rain had both gone strangely still. They were hanging around somewhere, waiting and listening. Sly devils, leering out from behind cosmic tree-trunks, watching. It was very dark, an unnatural dark that rumbled and growled and was shot with fire. The storm was holding off, in ambush. We were frightened, and wished it would come and get done with it, and demolish us, if it was going to. Not so good to lie in our sleeping-bags just waiting to be demolished, and listen to the rumbling of celestial innards.

I recoiled from the floor of the tent as if it had exploded. A slight movement under me–a crackle that sounded, against my ear-drum, loud as a forest fire.

“Whatever is the matter with you?” asked Nick.

I wiped my forehead. The air was lifeless and hot. “Some damn bug,” I said. “Crawling around under the tent–almost in my ear. How can I sleep with my head on a clawing beetle?”

I shifted ground, and tried again. Sleep? With that impending cataclysm thrashing around overhead? Besides, it was worth listening to! A livid blue-green flare lit up the forest, and out of it, as if evoked by lightning, came the deep-voiced melancholy cry of an owl, like a lost spirit without a body drifting among the trees. A crash of thunder buried the owl. But then, out of tense silence, a ghostly echo–an answer from far-away hills.

I shivered, and could have bristled like a cat. “Lord, what a chorus it is! Storm growling, bass; trees listening, sotto voce; and owls…”

“Wait till the loons hop on it, mezzo-soprano,” said Nick.

They did. A long, quavering wail rose out of the lake–a wail, or was it a laugh?–insane, heart-broken; and its answer, two notes lower, a little farther off. A shaft of fire speared them, but their ghosts went on talking.

“This is almost too much for anybody,” I said. “I wish it would rain–or something.”

A mosquito overhead was louder than an airplane. He tormented one ear, while the subterranean scratchings went on below the other. The chorus was growing. Somewhere a dog howled desolately, as if he had just had the disappointment of his life. And the owls went on, and the thunder, and the trees, and every now and then the loons. A big bull-frog joined, and croaked raucously from the beach: “Awk! Awk!” And sly and wary movements and rustlings were all around us.

And then, just outside, one of the most disheartening sounds the woods know how to make–the jarring snap, half snarl and half grunt, of whatever breed of toad it is to whom that noise is a natural method of expression.

It was too much, even for Nick. He snapped on the flashlight, and shot a piece of night with it, but caught only a little porcupine ambling about outside the front flap.

“Imagine anything, even a toad, having the heart to do that on a night like this!” he mumbled. It went off again, with a horrid rasp.

“He would park right by us, too.”

The owl again, the dog, the loons, and the toad. The porky rustling. Lightning… thunder… owl. Witches were abroad. The forest was an unearthly pandemonium.

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