BY SANDRA LEWIS
Copyright is held by the author.
ON A Newfoundland night in July, my borrowed sleeping bag has messed me up. It comes nowhere near to living up to the promise of its owner. I swear she said it would rock me to sleep. Oh, sure, all’s well at the start. The bonfire’s out, my tummy is full and I’m watered. With the temperature dropping fast it’s provident to line the bag with an extra flannelette sheet and don plenty of clothes including wool socks also borrowed, which I tuck under the cuffs of my jogging pants. I am READY.
A mummy bag nearly buries my experienced camper friend, Carter. Her nose must be very warm and I’m happy for her, but my nose is cold. In my innocence its condition seems like good news after the previous two steamy practice nights when I boiled better than a lobster, in my bag, on a bed, in a shack. The host called it a shack. I didn’t. It looked like a cosy cabin to me.
“Goodnight,” I say, manoeuvring myself into my borrowed, hoodless cocoon and zipping it up to my neck.
Carter stretches contentedly, yawns, returns my goodnight and instantly nods off. Her snore’s a delicate little thing but she’s doing her best for a small woman. Faking my own stretch and yawn I flip from side to stomach as if I know what I’m doing. The truth is, I’m uninformed, like the voter who hangs his hat on the rack of a promising unnamed political party only to learn, after the fact, that the party houses closet capitalists who salivate for the day when they become the government and can lower our taxes until we have funds for a one-tiered health system known as private. Neophytes to matters such as political intrigue and the borrowed sleeping bag really need to do their homework. Catastrophe can strike. Whew. My mind is really racing. And ranting. But enough.
Last evening I did practice in the hot shack with the stiff bag zipper. That was all the heavy work to be done because of the sweltering heat which blew strong from the wood burning pot-bellied stove. No way I would try to fit the flannelette liner into the bag.
But things change. Tonight I’m in a frigid tent. The unpracticed sheet has to go in the bag and fast. Alas, it twists askew. My hands don’t reach in to fix things. They know that if they do, my head has to follow and the sheet problem will worsen as sure as grey in a Toronto November. I’ll be upside down. Although it doesn’t always matter in this life which way is up, it does matter in a sleeping bag if I want a good night’s sleep.
One hand yanks the top of the sheet up and over one shoulder. Both feet, trying to be like lobster claws, I guess, pinch the sheet’s bottom end. I’m not a lobster and my digits let go. It isn’t an earth-shattering dilemma, not in the light of greenhouse effect and homelessness, third world starvation and terrorism. It’s just that at home my sheets stretch as flat as a glassy Lake Ontario. Here on the river, which apparently flows into the south end of Red Indian Lake the night is dark, it’s bedtime, and I’m wide awake. This sheet has to smoothen up.
The tent is all soft, thick blackness and I’m adrift in the eeriness. I could be Aladdin except that Aladdin sits up on his carpet and I’m lying down in my sleeping bag. He wears a hat of a sort and I do not. Aladdin likes to float while I like stability. What, you might ask, could be more stable than the Rock beneath, you know, Newfoundland? Nothing, I guess, if I were in a house on the Rock. Even the shack/cabin would do. I need an anchor. Am I real? Who am I? Where am I? Such questions come to me when I’m unmoored, in spaces like black tents or shopping mall parking lots when my car has apparently gone missing.
Before the pickup truck bumped us here over a bouldered road from Buchans and before the car drove us from St. John’s to the pickup and before the 767 flew us out of my hot noisy city to St. John’s, the plan looked so promising. I had prepared. I took canoe lessons in the two-foot deep Harbourfront pool, swam lengths in the community pool for six weeks and even hiked city streets on Sundays. I did inner work and resolved neither to stir up political arguments with my fellow canoeists nor to complain about any discomfort whatever, including mosquito bites. Nothing would prevent Carter’s preliminary inspirational talks in the dark snowy days of last winter from taking hold.
“Oh, Newfoundland!” she had marveled. “All that fresh air! No clocks, no mirrors, no cellphones, no computers, no tv! You’ll love it!”
I’ve kept my mouth shut. No one knows the panic that coursed through me before we tumbled into the middle of nowhere. We did our last-minute check of supplies at the back of Archie’s pickup truck. The truck was about to abandon us at the hand of a local kind soul who would keep it safe in his lane for a week after which he’d drive it to our planned point of arrival at the other end of Red Indian Lake, somewhere in Mary March Park.
Adrenalin was really rushing. For reassurance my wired, shaking hands fumbled through the backpack, matching its contents with Carter’s List of Necessaries. The sunscreen sat at the ready with the mosquito repellant, in an easily accessible outer pocket. The hat was clipped to the outside. ID was pocketed inside in a waterproof pouch. Seven days’ supply of underpants and socks. T-shirts, pullover and an extra pair of jeans. A comb, deodorant, toothbrush and toothpaste. A square red cotton scarf whose purpose baffled me.
I traded my Berkinstocks for sneakers, packing them along with wristwatch, purse, mirror and whatever else spelled city, in my suitcase. The suitcase left with the truck.
I won’t complain. It’s merely an observation but at the moment Carter’s “it,” this canoe trip that I’ll love, amounts to a fight inside the sleeping bag while I float just off the floor of an invisible tent, cursing sticky socks as they toy with a twisted flannelette sheet.
“It” is not lovable. “It” can only worsen. “It” is a microcosmic look at my immediate future. Suddenly leaked of all confidence, I leap directly into macro and conjure up a moose. Moose don’t see so well. They could knock me down and trample me for no worse crime than squatting to take an innocent pee in a forest clearing. “It” could change and grow bigger than a moose. “It” could grow much worse. “It” could include a drowning.
What if my canoeing partner, Archie, makes me travel down rapids? He’s the power person and the boss. He’ll sit at the back, I mean, the stern. Because he can do the J stroke he steers. I stare. He already rehearsed me. I look into the water from the bow, scouting for dangerous rocks and Nessy-type monsters. My other jobs are to paddle and obey Archie. I’m probably not all Archie wants to believe I am. Beauty rests in the eye of the beholder and his idea of beauty is likely brawn. For all I know I’m a triathlete in his eyes. He doesn’t say much and his context clues are scarce. To be perfectly clear, Archie, who could walk away from a brawl with a bear, might place unworthy trust in my pitiful cache of muscle. I know him pretty well but you never can tell with men. Some of ‘em just don’t listen. If, by chance, he harbours the idea that we’re in any way equals, he could trustfully J-stroke us over a waterfall and look back to find me making like a synchronized swimmer with my feet up and waving but my head down because it is lodged in the riverbed.
Les would listen, for sure. He’s Carter’s husband. He sleeps with Archie right now, in the other tent. Les is closer to my size and he doesn’t play boss, no doubt because he lacks Archie’s blind confidence. He and I would be a real team, as he and Carter are, in and out of their canoe. But Carter won’t share him.
I’m panicking here in the dark. Take deep breaths. Stay in the moment. Over the way Archie and Les are sawing logs and right here Carter is sawing what must be a twig. No matter, all three sleep unconcerned.
Even wide awake, they’re an imperturbable bunch. They pretend mosquitoes don’t bite and refuse even to use insect repellant. I offered mine this afternoon as they simultaneously slapped away at themselves and tried to portage. Les said I had a thing about bugs.
Stick with it, I tell myself. Focus on the sheet. Employ the shoulder manoeuvre in the attic of the bag, then put the feet and woolly socks to work in the cellar. It’s a prescription. Repeat as needed. Inch by inch the sheet smooths out, unless the drug of fatigue has simply seduced me into thinking so. Finally, I feel secure. I can sleep.
No, I have to relieve myself.
I won’t do it.
Right. I’m cold. But where?
Mental inventory reveals it’s definitely not my feet or legs, not after the heat of recent battle. My body’s heavily clothed. Hands? No, hands have stayed warm, wrapped around ribs. Head. It’s my head. Even my scalp feels cold. Suddenly Carter’s attachment to her mummy bag is easy to understand. It has a hood. My bag is merely a rectangle and all I can do is pull the zipper up to the top corner. Not even God can see me now.
It was short. The trouble is threefold. Number one problem is the swelling bladder which must be ignored. Number two is the top of my head which is in acute need of attention as it tingles with cold. Number three and the least of it is an aching jaw. My teeth are clamped onto the zipper tab of the sleeping bag. I’m Lassie in a fight with a bungee cord. By forcing my mouth open I’m set free to tend to my dome. Unscrew the thing and cradle it in my arms. Sing it a lullaby. Whatever. Cover it. Yes, cover it. With what? Every single item that I own in this tent is on my person, except for the sneakers which wait neatly at the tent flap, desperate and eager toes pointed at the ready for morning.
Morning? If only.
This thing tied around my neck must have a use. Carter would never include a frivolous item on the List of Necessaries. Economy of space means everything to her on these trips. In the wild west neckerchiefs certainly served as more than a fashion statement. Yes, neckerchiefs wiped dusty faces after a wind-whipped gallop through the Badlands. Neckerchiefs masked bank bandits. And yes, of course! Hidden under 10-gallon hats, neckerchiefs must have kept rustlers’ heads warm all those nippy nights out on the cattle range, after the campfire died and the coffee in the old tin pots sat cold. Wrap the cloth ‘round your head, woman and tie it under your chin. Who cares about style or dust or bank robberies in these here parts? We’re in the wilds of old Beothuk country, podner. Get warm.
If anybody cares, from top to toe my sleepwear now consists of the proud red, polka-dotted kerchief tied under my chin and from an old set of blue-flowered ski underwear a top which peaks coyly over the v of a shrunken blue men’s pullover; black jogging pants over new white ski underwear bottoms bought for this occasion and grey woolen work socks with a red stripe around their cuffs. I’m going to sleep.
With the third awakening there’s no question of relieving myself. I’m bursting to get outta here! Anyway, it’s been a busy night and a change is as good as a rest. In hopes the pitiful bag will hold my heat a while I snake out from the top of it.
Carter purrs while my fingers crab about for the flashlight lodged between us. My feet burrow into shockingly cold sneakers and I frantically unzip the tent flap. I sprint frantically across the clearing in search of a suitable spot, all the while tugging at the string of my jogging pants. It’s impossible to think macro now. The possible rambling of a moose is the furthest thing from my mind and dangerous waterfalls should be, too, in light of my overloaded and therefore highly suggestible bladder.
In the delight of desperate release I sigh. I’m sunk into an increasingly comfortable crouch. Out here the night is friendly, light, crisp, clear and still. The low temperature is forgotten. It’s no sense rushing back to the challenges of the fettering tent. Camp life is supposed to be more like this, not a series of distracting arguments between socks and sheets which somehow engage your brain like ping pong parliamentary war games and make you spitting mad.
Suddenly, an unimaginable brightness swathes the night and draws my gaze upwards. High above the night-blackened evergreens reigns a sky of radiant, giant baubling ice cubes. They palpitate with individual pulses, shining for attention. I could stay out here a long time, actually til the moose, bears and wolves — forget the cows — come home. Haven’t seen any cows.
I fast tuck in my shirt and tie up my pants. For sure God and the entire world can see me in this light. But stay a minute. My puffs of breath rise to those silver lumps of ice. The trees are fringed in silver. I am silver. Now I get “it,” Carter.