Yellow Canoe

by | Mar 9, 2021 | Fiction

YELLOW CANOE by Patricia McCrystal

The grandfather is drifting alone on the lake, his yellow canoe oscillating in lazy crescents. He has reached the sweet spot in the middle where the stilted depths turn into what he calls “the bathtub,” a small perimeter where canoes and kayaks drift freely like toys circling in the bath. Here, no current will carry the canoe edgeward into the corner of a dock or the overbearing embrace of nearby blackberry brambles. It is so quiet that when he closes his eyes, he can imagine he is the only human being around for hundreds of thousands of miles, the first purveyor of this tiny corner of the world, held fast in the middle of a watery blue eye pressed into the earth. He imagines the lake’s primordial gaze forever fixed on the greater swath of blue above, studying the social conduct of the sun as it moves through new landscapes and cultures, learning the soft silence of stratus clouds and deep, guttural dialect of dark cumulonimbus. At night, the lake observes the moon’s cool ethereal gaze cast like an x-ray over the world, everything illuminated alabaster, the secrets inside every man laid bare before her scrutiny.

The grandfather hears a shrill cry and stills his breath. Indian grass bends in the breeze, a bumblebee investigates the yellow paint of the canoe. He exhales once he is certain it is only marmot or mountain squirrel, not a grandchild calling out, voice straining across the water.

The second-home families have all packed up and cavalcaded back to their first homes, to Denver and Dallas and New Jersey, and soon the summer children will shed their tanned skins and awaken in their beds as fall children, sent pounding toward the school bell in new sneakers, cheeks flush with nerves and brisk air. At lunch, the fall children will bite into bologna and cheese sandwiches and fish the last potato chip out of the bottom of the bag and lick the salt off their finger pads, fingers lost in their mouths as they suddenly remember the taste of cured trout and smell of wood smoke and sound of boats softly rocking against the dock, the lullaby that briefly held them close and suspended them in time, cradling them from the shock and strain of growing older.

From somewhere uphill, the grandfather hears a reed-thin note. It flits down into the valley, sustains and then drops into a rich baritone before flattening into silence. A bull elk searching for its partner. The call receives no response, and the grandfather wonders how long it will take for his grandchildren to find him. He considers which room in his cabin—in that precise moment—his grandchildren are peeking into, calling his name.

The oldest of the two, Lily, is likely up in the attic, jumping from rafter beam to rafter beam, the ancient planks groaning and bowing at obscene angles under her red flip flops. His granddaughter is drawn like a moth to a flame to all things potentially lethal or at the very least disastrous. She endured such appalling self-inflicted calamities as a toddler: mashing her meaty hand on the red coils of the stovetop after her mother made oatmeal, stuffing a furious bee into her mouth at the playground, flinging herself from the top of the stairs and bouncing down with unimaginable buoyancy, like a stuffed animal flipping from head to tail until she reached the bottom and stopped, sprawled out on the wood floor, eyes wild not with pain or fear but something closer to astonishment tinged with pride, a self-reckoning spreading over her toddler face that seemed to say, “Holy hell, I don’t know why I came into world this way, but I’m here for it.”

Luca, the younger, is undoubtedly shuffling on hands and knees around the parameter of the kitchen, not yet ready to throw in the towel on the potential lurking inside each cabinet and behind every electrical appliance. The boy still exists in the beautiful realm of six-year-olds, where dream and reality and archetypal memory are sewn together in a seamless tapestry, informing and enriching the boy’s tellings of what has already passed and what is yet to come. Luca will likely search for him in the cabin’s smallest of spaces, pulling open the cupboard beneath the sink and peering under the couch, guided by the memory of having found his grandfather tucked beneath the couch once before, coy and shrunken with a weathered finger pressed to his wrinkled lips conspiratorially. Understanding that grandfathers are never to be trusted to play by the rules.

In this regard Luca is not wrong, for at this very moment his grandfather floats, reclining at the bottom of his yellow canoe on the lake while his grandchildren scour his cabin for him, a gross debasement of all things dignified in the game of hide-and-seek. Meanwhile his grandchildren search his yawning 1930s cabin in vain, rusty nails eying their tender pink feet as they run from room to room, reporting back to one another through the walls: “not here!” Their calls escape through the cabin windows, collide with the elk bugle still haunting the air outside.

The grandfather imagines his daughter arriving at that moment to pick up her children, back early from her long weekend with her husband; the discovery of the grandchildren bounding through the battered cabin unaccompanied sending an electric shock of alarm and anger through the mother’s body. He imagines her waiting for him on the dock as he paddles near, shaking her hair out like a mare trying to rid its mane of flies, her expression of vexation since girlhood. She will list all the disastrous items in her father’s home on which her children could be impaled, or choke, or be stabbed or burned by or trapped behind. She will swivel her slate blue eyes to the lake and remind him how quickly water can swallow a child, and he will reply quicker than a sneeze through a screen door, which she will tell him is not funny, has never been funny.

The grandfather will not respond but will stare into his daughter’s anchor-blue eyes longer than what is comfortable, and she will look down at the weathered dock beneath her feet and refuse to meet him at the threshold of his memories. His little brother’s eyes were the same color. His daughter knows this because her father has reminded her of this truth more times than she would like to remember.

But despite the many indecencies of aging, he will tell his daughter that this is a grandparent’s power: to see his grandchildren’s profound ability to navigate the world with and intuition and gusto, to test their weight on each rafter before putting the next foot forward. The parent is forever burdened by endless alarm bells that drown out these radiant moments of capability, each minute of their child’s life charted on a graph: death on one end of the x-axis and all measures of success—including survival—at the top of the y, all moments wondrous and terrifying reduced to tiny red dots charted somewhere between the two points.

The bull queries the valley again and the whistle comforts the grandfather, conjuring the winter train that roused him from sleep when he was young, his little brother a lump in the darkness in the next bed, sky through the curtains a layer of plush pink over twilight blue ground which meant it was still early and he’d sigh, voice joining the train’s, and nearly shudder with pleasure knowing there was still time yet until the world needed him, until the cans of lard at the packing plant needed sealing, just a bit more time to dream.

The grandfather knows Lily and Luca will not give up on finding their grandfather, and he considers ending his trickery soon, picking up the paddle and piloting his yellow canoe toward the cabin, sneaking upstairs and standing behind the shower curtain in the bathroom. He imagines being discovered by Lily and subjecting himself to a smattering of indignant protests: I checked here already! Where were you, really? Meanwhile, Luca will greet his grandfather’s smoke and mirrors with pure delight: Grandpa is magic, is larger than life, he holds the illusions of the world in his weathered palms, skin tan and creased as a walnut pilfered from the edges of the garden of Eden.

The breeze has become persistent, nudging the nose of the yellow canoe and turning the boat in slow circles, impatient as the arrival of fall in the high alpine valley. The grandfather understands that as long as the game of hide and seek does not leave the valley, his grandchildren are safe. As a teenager, he fit himself into alleyways small as shoeboxes and basements tight as the space behind his mother’s dryer, reveling in his ability to hide from his own parents’ influence—no matter how many times his father’s monstrous shadow seemed to pace back and forth in front of his eyes, he was finally out of reach. For the first time since his baby brother’s death, he felt free, a lone sea captain empowered with choosing which waves to skirt and which to turn and face head-on. In accepting baggies and needles that held the power to erase memories from the other men who hid alongside him in those tiny alleys, those cramped basements, he imagined steering his captain’s boat toward the waves and inviting icy cold waters to crash over him, shocking his system clean before swaddling him in a deep, warming numb, second only to a mother’s womb, the first space where he and his brother had both hid until they were ready to enter the world.

When he found his baby brother’s body and dragged him out of the lake, his brother was still more than just a body. His lips were blue as the stripes on his shirt, blue as the sky leering above. His eyes blinked twice, firing off two rounds of false hope, before stilling in their sockets. He was twelve years old, his younger brother only seven, and he had been ignoring his brother in the forgivable way that older brothers do sometimes, counting longer than necessary while his brother hid, lost in thought about any number of things; the bike he wanted for this birthday, the raven-haired teenager sitting on the bench outside of the ice cream shop. His brother had always been a terrible hider, but a capable swimmer. He will never know what depths his baby brother was trying to reach that morning, how far he had been willing to go to vanish from sight, to forge his own way.

The grandchildren will not discover their grandfather’s hide-and-seek indiscretion for at least another year. One day, Lily will squint through the bay windows and see his yellow canoe floating, seemingly unmanned, in the middle of the lake. She will gasp as the brim of his hat winks out from over the lip of the canoe. The grandfather will be jarred awake from his catnap by a blow to the side of his boat. He will rise and, to his horror and delight, be nearly knocked overboard by Lily’s searing glare, her eyes conjuring hurricanes from her low perch in the grandfather’s kayak (which she dragged out of the weeds all by herself), the dayglow orange of her life vest (secured tightly around her chest, like he taught her) illuminating the underside of her chin and nostrils. Her jaw will be set in a scowl, lips poised to extoll him for his gross negligence of children and his crimes against humanity as a cheater in hide-and-seek, both deserving of swift and rigorous punishment by man and God alike. Then her eyes, creased into half-moons of hatred, will wax into full, bright globes, overtaken by the same feral instinct that has animated her since birth, and she’ll whisper wickedly, “Let’s not tell Luca.” She will dart a look over her shoulder to the grandfather’s cabin, and its dark windows will offer a commiserating pantomime of dumbness—Who, me? I didn’t see a thing.

The grandfather hears what sounds like boulders the size of planets grinding past each other behind the thin veil of clouds that have settled in over the lake. He feels a cool, polite tap on his forehead, and the sage and pine needles exhale a sweet perfume in anticipation of the rainfall. He knows that floating in a metal canoe in a lake during a thunderstorm is one of the first lessons in street smarts that his own father taught him, before his game of hide-and-seek grew bigger and bigger until it sprawled out across the state, the grandfather hiking and hitchhiking past rows of evergreens and groves of shuddering aspen, past dilapidated farm houses and pocket-sized gas stations, sauntering on until the knees of his jeans were bleached white with wear and paper thin as moth wings, only stopping once cars outnumbered pine trees, where steam unfurled from the manholes beneath his warn sneakers like hot breath from the internal inferno. And very slowly and all at once he wasn’t a boy anymore, and he had found a place to hide where his parents and baby brother’s ghost could not follow him, and learned more about street smarts than his father ever hoped he would.

But the grandfather also knows the lake is small, and he can feel electricity in his right knee if the lightning gets too close, and knows the clouds carrying the late summer rain are in a hurry, muscling through the atmosphere to outrun the swift shift of seasons that will step over the mountains and into the small valley soon enough, the cold curling up and settling into an uninterrupted slumber until May. And so he waits, eyes closed, face to the clouds, listening to the quiet applause of the rain on the water, held fast in the blue eye of the lake for a just a bit longer.



Photo used under CC.

About The Author


Patricia McCrystal is a fiction writer and poet from Arvada, Colorado. Her short story “All Possible Exits” received a 2020 Pushcart Prize nomination, and won the Slippery Elm 2020 Prose Prize. She received her MFA in Fiction from Regis University in 2021. Her work can be found on the stage on PBS and Head Room Sessions, and on the page in JMWW Journal, Atticus Review, Slippery Elm, Heavy Feather Review, South Broadway Ghost Society, Fellow Magazine, Birdy Magazine, and more. Patricia is also an editor for the Hard Times workshop, a community program hosted through Lighthouse Writers Workshop and Write Denver.