The four to ten p.m. watch is my favorite, even in winter when the whole time is darkness. Northern Lights keep me company then, and to keep warm, I shimmy with magnetic green or red curves and waves, my shadow large in their frigid glow. Now, early summer, the entire watch is a dance of changing daylight through pine needles, and basswood leaves play sultry music behind swelling mosquito hum and chant. Mostly light enough to paint while I wait, but as night climbs up from feathered moss and fragrant sweet fern, I descend our camouflaged ladder. A cool mud smear keeps blood in my veins, fending off swarms of insect mothers, though I don’t need it to darken my bare arms.
“You look like a moose when you do that.” Jon arrives early to spell me.
“I like my moose lips.” And pucker up to offer him a taste, late wild strawberries on my tongue. We don’t actually watch much. It’s easy to hear anyone driving on the far side of the dense cedar grove, motors a foreign sound here on the edge of official wilderness. The Boundary Waters, a paddler’s splashy paradise ringing with white-throated sparrows and breaching fish.
Jon can’t stand gathering wild strawberries. “Like milking mice tits,” he always says. His au pair raised him on out-of-season nuclear strawberries, tasting of straw. He doesn’t appreciate small things, slow harvests. To him, though, these six-hour shifts are all-important, despite waiting for mostly nothing, since his mother and her corporate entourage show up rarely.
My tongue teases. I know these weightless mosquitoes will deter him from removing his clothes.
He pulls away, business on his mind. “How’s the painting?”
A final black stroke of mud along my cheek before I climb again to our deer stand. He studies pages of copper-bellied fen frog—life cycles, natural history, caddis fly prey and river mink predator, jellied egg masses and leaf mulch hibernacula. Complete fiction, all of it. His idea, that I’ve brought to vibrant verisimilitude.
He grins. “That might slow ’em down.” He slaps the sketchbook’s covers closed. A single loose page drifts off the edge of our platform.
My hand strokes his sunburned face. “Not for long.” In stock futures, Triplet Metals outcompetes his mother’s mining conglomerate, but Jon hopes his undercover campaign will return her trust, and his inheritance. Our fellow activists will stop Triplet with this new species—last year alone, one hundred thirty one rare amphibians discovered worldwide. But then the false frog dries up, and his family company accesses the lode. He had to confide in me. Stick figure frogs would never suffice.
He kisses me again, triumph near. Mud ugly I might be, but at the moment, this mansion on its remote northern lake hides only couples and a couple single straight guys. Others stay in the posh house by the wilderness a few months at most, then rotate out. I lived here long before a disowned Jon had the same idea. Occupy. And he stays occupied, secretly maneuvering, satellites at his command, unaware of being maneuvered by the muck underfoot, that protective scent I wear. It has been inside his dreams.
Tires rattle gravel in the long driveway. His eyes go wide as a screech owl’s, but our drill is uncomplicated. The Humvee’s path bends east around the fen, and from a waterproof cache I extract a signal flare, send it into the dusk. A parallel watcher at the house will clear the main rooms. The team will conceal all political efforts, slink away like salamanders. His mother is clueless.
“Vacation,” I say. Everyone has a retreat plan, and a canoe. Some will push against the Kawishiwi’s slow current, stay with friends in Ely. Jon will retreat to an unused barn on high ground near a stand of jack pine, binoculars trained on the main house. Invisible as a molecule of balsam scent, I’ll slip through penciled membranes, at home in Quetico waters, same as here. A mosquito grows heavy, unnoticed, on Jon’s exposed neck. I leave him the sketchbook.
A few strides from the tree, I push my granddad’s old birchbark canoe into a tannin-dark water trail. The loose page floats a few paddle strokes away. In it, a copper-bellied frog leaps where beakrush and fringed bogbean punctuate thick sphagnum, marking the fen’s edge. I pause. The waterlogged colors run together, create movement. My hands, a silent praise hymn for past generations, for regeneration, bury the disintegrating paper beneath basswood twigs and ash leaves.
I listen to motors growing faint behind mosquitoes and the calls of settling loons. Though fen frogs don’t sing, I hear tiny drums. With every leap, they speak. In each beat of their padded feet, I hear the Kawishiwi’s survival song.
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