The Promise
  S.D. Gale

In 1990, while my father was peacekeeping in the Golan Heights, I was enjoying the tail end of a yearlong stay at my grandparents'. During the last week of August Uncle Marty and I were out fishing in an old red and green rowboat. I was staring at my red and white bobber some twenty feet off the bow, smelling earthworms and soil, and hoping for another bass to strike so we could row home for a pan-fry lunch. Marty sat shirtless in the morning sun, his skin like worn-in leather. He surveyed the calm water of Percy's Bay as if he were the captain of his own fishing boat on Lake Ontario, which he spoke of often. I'll make a go of it, you wait and see, he would say, exhaling a bitter breath of his homebrew ale.

Not truly my uncle, Marty was one of those distant relatives linked by a stringy chain only Grandpa Williams remembered. Together they had served in the Royal Canadian Regiment's Airborne Brigade and later the Canadian Airborne Regiment. They had fought alongside each other in the Korean War, making them closer than blood.

"Keep your eyes open. Something doesn't feel right here," said Marty, his harelip and missing teeth producing a sound like a busted harmonica. The harelip he'd been born with; the missing teeth were the result of a hard parachute landing.

I nodded as I always did when he said he had a feeling.

"Pull it up," said Marty. "Pull." He pointed portside. I lunged and clutched at the chain fish-stringer, rocking the boat. A fierce tug-of-war ensued with an unseen opponent just below in the tea-coloured water.

Fish bat in hand, Marty scrambled from the stern, seized the chain from my hand, and heaved the stringer into the boat; on the end, a plump three-pound smallmouth bass—our soon-to-be lunch—with its soft underbelly torn open as if a novice had attempted to gut it with a steak knife.

"By thunder," said Marty. He teased the bat back and forth and scanned the surface.

"I couldn't see anything," I said.

Marty shook his head and huffed. He wasn't buying it.

I peeked shamefully over the bow: a trail of bubbles headed out toward the deeper water at the bay's mouth. Marty sat down, holding the stringer. The bass swung in between us like Grandpa's plumb bob, guts dangling a few inches below a half-eaten tail fin. Marty lifted his cap and gave his head a scratch, frowning.

I knew what had happened. The elusive monster that had been haunting Otter Lake residents for generations had struck again: Bonesaw, the giant snapping turtle. The Ojibwas from Parry Island called it an ancient spirit. Grandpa called it a leviathan. He spotted it devouring a catfish on the shore one afternoon while marking his property line, and tagged its shell with orange spray paint.

"Nothing left, eh," I said.

Marty glared at me, his face going crimson, then deftly opened the stringer's hook, slid the hook from the gill, and hurled the bass at the trail of bubbles. "Take it, bugger." He pumped his fist wildly in the air, muttering an oath, and then grabbed his rod and began winding the line. I did the same without a peep, because in the Williams clan you remained quiet in times like these, if you valued your hide.

When Marty's bobber and wormed hook popped over the gunwale, he tossed the rod down with a clatter. I set my rod down and assumed my position as loyal first mate and navigator, remembering Uncle Marty's promise: if I did a good job, he would gladly take me on to fish Lake Ontario when he bought his boat. He swung the oars out, plunged them into the lake, and began rowing.

As we left Percy's Bay, a mother teal was swimming in with her ducklings. She was quacking and circling them, darting here and there to poke them into formation with her bill as they bobbed like corks, struggling against the waves. I wondered if Bonesaw had spooked them and they were seeking safety. The only other sounds were the oars grinding and knocking in the oarlocks and the rhythmic swoosh of water as we headed for homeport, sea rovers returning without plunder.

***

Come noon, I was sitting at my grandparents' kitchen table. "Why's Aunt Rosie grounded?" I asked Grandma, as I peeled the crust from a bologna sandwich. For two days, my aunt had been holed up in her bedroom listening to Corey Hart and Cyndi Lauper instead of hanging out with her boyfriend Tim, a longhair with an earring and a Pontiac Trans Am. I'd heard her caterwauling to Tim on the phone one night, telling him she "wasn't feeling the whole move to the city thing." I’d listened on my hands and knees, ear to the crack of her door, as I often did when hunting down good gossip.

"Mind your nose," said Grandma. She was standing at the counter with her back to me, looking out the window, washing dishes. On the windowsill, the second hand on the lighthouse clock ticked slowly—slower than usual, I was certain, as if time itself wanted me to suffer in misery. My hand darted out and spun the lazy Susan on the table, sending the salt and pepper shakers rolling off. I quickly grabbed at them, then stood them up on the table.

"Why do you have ants in your pants? Fishing didn't take any wind out of your sail, I see." She pulled the drain plug. "Don't leave the crust this time."

Duke brushed against my thigh, his tail thwacking the table leg. I smiled. "Yeah, Grandma," I said, and then slipped the crust under the table. Duke snorted and took it from my hand.

Grandma whirled around. "Doesn't mean feed it to Duke either, brat. When you're done eating everything on your plate, you can use some of that energy to cut coupons. The IGA and Giant Tiger flyers came in this morning. And maybe later you can give Grandma a foot massage with some of that peach lotion."

Duke scrammed, and I changed the subject. "Do the people moving in have kids?"

"No." She was staring at me, leaning against the counter, a dishtowel slung over her shoulder.

"No boys?"

"No children." She grinned. "Melanie came to the door earlier looking for you."

"Oh, really." I felt my face warming. I glanced down at my bowl of tomato soup, hoping it could rescue me from her stare.

***

At 6 p.m., I stood halfway up the concrete steps, waiting patiently for Grandpa to return home from his job at Ontario Hydro. Grandpa, Uncle Marty, and I had built the steps last August when I first arrived. We’d worked bare-chested the better part of the day. I first glimpsed her spying, like an intrigued doe, from behind a large maple tree: where the deer trail started.

There were forty-seven steps in total. They climbed up the Canadian Shield bedrock, which formed a natural amphitheatre behind the house to the driveway above. An engineering marvel to rival the St. Lawrence Seaway and CN Tower, Marty would say after a few homebrews.

Three quick honks blared from the driveway. I bolted up the steps, snapped my heels together, and slapped my hands against my thighs like a soldier standing at attention just as the Dodge pick-up parked. The truck door creaked open, and then slammed, and a moment later Grandpa's hat appeared at a rakish angle over the crest, followed by the man himself. He wore a maroon t-shirt with the yellow Airborne Regiment's parachute and wings insignia on the chest. We locked eyes. He grinned and so did I. This sacred ritual repeated daily. He marched down the steps swinging his metal lunchbox at his side as if he wanted nothing more than to be where he was.

"Hey, Grandpa," I said, my voice echoing off the bedrock.

"Hey, buckshot."

I preferred buckshot to "brat," "dear," and even “Brandon.” I zeroed in on the lunchbox covered in regiment stickers, and headed up the steps to intercept him. "Got a little treat for you," he said as he hugged me close, rustling my hair with his hand. I could smell the Old Spice aftershave, a persistent smell that clung to him even after a dip in the lake. He passed me the lunchbox. "Don't tell your grandmother. She'll nag about me spoiling you, again."

I chuckled. "Thanks, Grandpa." We began walking side by side down the steps.

"See any deer on the road coming in?"

"Not today. What about you, catch any fish?"

"Yeah. Uncle Marty took me to Percy's Bay. I caught a big three-pound bass. But Bonesaw got him on the stringer."

"What'd I tell you?" He nudged me with his hip.

"Keep the fish in the boat and your toes out of the water," we said in unison, then laughed.

Shaking my head, I looked up into his squinting eyes. "I'm gonna miss this place."

He patted me on the back, which seemed to harden more every week—his way of toughening me up. "You'll come back to Otter Lake one day. Maybe even to Croft's Cove."

After several more steps together, I broke formation and sat down, plunking the lunchbox between my legs while Grandpa continued down to the house. I unfastened the latches and then flipped the lid open. As always, two mints lay at the bottom amid orange peels. I smiled and squirreled the mints into my pocket for the night's meeting and closed the lid and latched it shut.

"I'll see you at the dinner table in a few minutes," Grandpa said firmly. He was watching me from the screen door.

"Yes, sir."

Dinner was a serious affair. After all, the Williams patriarch had an image to maintain and a clan custom stretching back generations to uphold.

"And be careful. You don't want those mints to melt," he said, grinning playfully, and then slipped into the house.

A minute passed. I stood, catching a whiff of pineapple-glazed ham with scalloped potatoes, and picked up the lunchbox. As I started down the steps, I heard the flapping of my grandparents' Canadian flag over the cedar-shake roof, and watched its silhouette in the dipping sun.

***

After dinner, my bath, and Grandma's peach lotion foot massage, I crept throughout the house and did some recon.

Uncle Marty was drinking homebrew, strumming and whistling along to Gordon Lightfoot's "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" in the basement. My aunt was talking to Tim on the phone in her bedroom, and from her murmurings under the door it sounded like she was hatching a plan to sneak out and hit a party across the lake. After crawling along the hall to the TV room, I poked my head around the doorframe to see Grandma sitting in her chair, watching Anne Murray in Concert, shaking her feet, humming along as she always did while Grandpa nodded off in his recliner chair, snoring.

Satisfied I wouldn't be missed, I headed into the kitchen. I ordered Duke not to bark, treated him to a slab of leftover ham, and patted him on the head to much tail wagging before I slipped out through the back door into the twilight. I bolted for the steps; halfway up, I cut left and darted across the bedrock, and when I reached the big maple that marked the deer trail, I stopped and hunkered down in the undergrowth to catch my breath, scanning the house. The only light on was my aunt's. In my grandparents' bedroom window, I thought I saw a shadowy form and the curtain sway a moment as if someone was there, watching me. I waited, expecting the outside lights to burst on, for the door to swing open, for Grandpa or Grandma to start hollering my name. But nothing happened.

I stood up and began hiking along the deer trail, breathing the forest air deeply. The canopy was blocking most of the orange moonlight, but there were still shadows dancing and shifting on the forest floor. It wasn't long before my eyes and ears adjusted to the wild. Critters creaked and croaked and fireflies sparked to life and weaved amongst the bows as I headed toward my destination, as quietly and surefooted as a young buck.

A few minutes later, I emerged into the small clearing that overlooked the waters of Croft's Cove. On the opposite shore, the green, yellow, and orange patio lanterns on my grandparents' deck were shining. Melanie was sitting with her back to me on the large rock that jutted from the center of the clearing, her glistening black hair in a French braid. She pointed up at the sky without turning around. "It looks like a claw."

The tendrils from a purple cloud looked like a hand grasping at the orange moon. That was exactly why I liked her so much. Her ways seemed magical to me. She wasn't like the tomboys back at C.F.B. Petawawa. I scampered up the rock and sat beside her, wondering if she would hear my heart.

She smiled at me, hugging her knees to her chest. “I didn't think you would show."

"Grandma needed help." I sniffed quietly, hoping the peach lotion residue on my hands wouldn't give me away.

"Dad says the people moving into your grandparents' house are nice." Her father was the real estate agent who had listed and sold the house.

"They got any kids?" I asked, picking up a twig and tying it into a knot.

"No."

"No boys?"

"No boys or girls, silly." She giggled.

"That's too bad." I tossed the knotted twig down the bank.

She let go of her knees and leaned back. "When are your parents coming to get you?"

"Dad's still peacekeeping in the desert. So mom's picking me up on Sunday."

"My dad says peacekeepers got a tough job."

I nodded. "Dad says the same thing. It's his third time."

"This is going to be the last time we see each other."

As I was wondering how to reply, a bullfrog began croaking down below us. A thought of Melanie and me in a Trans Am like Tim's raced through my mind. "I'll visit when I get my licence. But maybe we can meet again tomorrow."

"I can't. There's a birthday party across the lake—my parents' friend." We were both silent a moment, and then she said, "You promise you'll come back when you get your licence?" Her voice was high.

"I promise I will."

She waved her arm up at the orange moon and the flickering stars. "I never saw this 'til you came."

"You'll still come here."

"Not 'til you come back." She said it in a way that made me believe her.

We sat solemnly for some time while the moonlight glimmered on the lake, waves lapping on the pebble-strewn shoreline, the pine and elm boughs swaying in the breeze. When the bullfrog stopped croaking, I looked down the bank and spotted a disturbance in the water. Something had surfaced ten feet off the shore, like a hooked submarine periscope; it turned one way then the other.

"Look," I said.

A moment later the periscope headed toward us, bobbing back and forth, and then a turtle shell breached the waves. As it crossed through the moonlight, I saw a stripe of orange paint down its centre—Bonesaw.

Melanie and I leaned back instinctively. I hoped the forest's shadows would conceal us as Bonesaw crawled onto a small strip of flat shoreline. Grandpa and Uncle Marty had described him, but this was my first sighting. Bigger than Marty's beer cooler but smaller than the rain barrel behind the house, his domed shell had rows of bumps and a jagged edge. Opening his beak wide, he lifted his head and groaned, tail thumping wildly against his shell as if announcing his arrival to the forest.

Melanie's mouth hung open. I brushed her arm and placed a hushing finger over my mouth. She nodded.

Bonesaw began digging a hole on the shore with his claws and beak. After a minute of frenzy, he climbed from the hole, spun around, and swayed his head back and forth, groaning again. A little head suddenly popped up, then another, and then another until a dozen or so turtle hatchlings began scrambling from shell fragments and sand. Once at Bonesaw's side, the hatchlings sprung up on their legs, heads high. Bonesaw crawled beneath a pine bow into the shadows, trailed by the hatchlings, which vanished one by one.

"Bonesaw's a mother," Melanie whispered.

"Let's keep it a secret. Like our spot."

"Like your promise," she said.

In that moment, as more stars flickered to life in the purple sky, as the full moon bathed us in its orange glow, I felt something deep inside awaken, new and indefinable.

I dug into my pocket. "Have a mint."

"Okay." She reached out her hand, tilted her head, and smiled. "Why do your hands smell like peach lotion?"

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