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A bit of vocal magic ...
(The editor, on vacation in Northern Michigan, filed this report about a day of curious encounters.)
By Charlie Haeffner
Bois Blanc Island, Michigan, July 29 -- Did you know that reptiles and inanimate objects on this Island can talk? On Mondays?
Hard to believe, I know, but I encountered several such oddities during a hike through the woods and along a rocky beach on one of my Mondays here.
To be specific, I listened -- enraptured, at first, but then impatient, since they tended to drone on -- to a snake, a turkey, an old abandoned boiler, a lighthouse and a rock, though not in that order.
To say we each had a conversation would be misleading, since they did most of the talking. I suspect it had to do with the fact that they can only talk on Mondays, and thus tried to get as much in as they could before silence settled on them for the succeeding six days.
The Monday thing was brought to my attention by the snake, who in point of fact was fourth among the conversationalists -- but the first to explain that particular rule.
"Monday, Monday," he sang, emulating the Mamas and the Papas. "So good to me. Monday Monday, it was all I hoped it would be." You ever hear that? Love that song. That group was something else. Monday's my favorite day, you know. It's the only time we get to talk, me and the rocks and whatever. What a stupid rule, don't you think? What's wrong with talking on the other days?"
"Well, I, uh," I said. I was kneeling on a narrow dirt-and-mud roadway in the woods of Bois Blanc, near the Island's north shore. I had been walking there with my son Dave and his girlfriend Ali on our return from the Island Lighthouse, a remote attraction most readily accessible by four-wheelers or bikes. We had opted to approach the Lighthouse largely on foot, driving our van as far as we dared before the road narrowed too much, and then hiking the final three miles. Now we were on our way back to the van.
Ali had actually spotted the snake first, and sort of gave a little shriek. Dave was a distance up the roadway, and thus oblivious to what was happening. "It's real," she said, realizing that this green reptile was not in fact one of the many branches that dotted the pathway.
"Of course I am," said the snake, which elicited another shriek from Ali, who quickly backed away and looked at me as though stricken. It was a bit too much for her to fathom, and she turned and walked away toward Dave, though I don't think she told him what she'd heard. He probably wouldn't have believed her, anyway.
"What's wrong with her?" said the snake, twisting to watch Ali depart. "Ah, well ... where were we? Oh, yes. That Monday rule. It's a stupid rule."
And he went off on a diatribe against bureaucracies and bosses, and then expressed the hope that one day he would be able to communicate like this on any day he damn well chose. The monologue took a couple of minutes.
"Now," he said, "if you don't mind, step carefully around me. Some bicyclists just about got me a short time before you arrived, and I don't fancy being ground down into this mud."
"No problem," I said, and snapped his picture before carefully backing away and resuming my hike, eventually catching up with Dave and Ali.
"What the heck was that?" Ali whispered to me a short time later. "That didn't really happen, did it?"
"Don't know what you're talking about," I replied, though of course I did.
I also didn't share with her some oddities from earlier in the hike -- starting when I had separated from her and Dave to photograph an old, mysterious boiler lying on its side in the woods 30 yards off the path. There I had encountered an even more disturbing conversationalist ... which is to say the boiler itself.
Nor did I tell her about the Lighthouse talking to me during our visit on the far end of the trail, nor about the rock on the shoreline that called up to me from its place among thousands and thousands of rocks. His name was Fred, though I thought he looked more like an old woman.
The boiler is, in local lore, a head-scratcher. Nobody seems to know if it was part of a railway system that operated in the woods in the days of Island lumber mills (doubtful, locals say, since it's far removed from known rail paths), part of a lake vessel or part of an extinct lumber mill itself. It has no markings except for some hand-painted white numbers on one side.
When I wandered into the woods to photograph it after spotting it from the narrow roadway early in our hike, I planned to be gone from the trail for but a few seconds. I snapped photos of the boiler from three different angles and then took a step away, intending to depart. But I was stopped by a voice -- gender unclear. It came out muffled, but a little on the feminine side.
"Don't go," it said. "Not yet. I need to tell you something."
I whipped around at the sound, which seemed to come from the boiler -- or perhaps from the mouth of someone hiding on its far side. So I worked my way around its perimeter, ready to go "Ah, hah!" to Dave or Ali or whoever had snuck up on me. But I didn't find anyone there, and by turning toward the roadway saw that my traveling companions were indeed a considerable distance away, continuing their walk.
"It's me!" said the voice, breaking the silence. "The boiler."
I shook my head to clear my mind, and drew closer to the metal hulk, peering inside a couple of openings, figuring somebody was inside. But nobody was there.
"Oh, brother," I said.
"No," the voice said. "We're not related, although I think we share a love of history. You're always writing about the history of the Island and this region, I'm told. So ... let me give you a bit of little-known history."
And he -- or let's say she -- told me how she had been part of a vessel that sailed the Great Lakes many decades ago, and how a great storm struck the region on one of that ship's outings, and lifted the vessel clean out of the water and spun it around and turned it upside down and shook it until the boiler dislodged and fell to the shoreline of the Island and bounced through a narrow opening in the tree line and landed where it lies now.
I studied the position of the boiler and wondered how else it might have gotten there and figured, what the heck, her explanation was as good as any, and thus very possibly true. She would, after all, know more about it than I.
"The good thing," she said, "is that I'm still close to the water, and so I catch the lake breezes and hear the waves lapping at the shore. It is really close to my element, and at my age and in my condition I can't really work any longer. So this is a rather peaceful retirement."
"Congratulations," I said, and -- feeling more than a little odd talking to a boiler -- excused myself and hustled away to rejoin the hike.
"Come back and see me!" the boiler called as I put some distance between us.
After Dave and Ali and I had reached the Lighthouse property -- once state-owned, but now private property -- we determined that nobody was around to chase us off, despite "No Trespassing" signs. We took the requisite shots of the structure (locked so that adventurous types wouldn't climb the spiral metal staircase inside), and then headed toward the beach a short distance away down a crumbling concrete walkway.
I was bringing up the rear, and so the words didn't reach Dave and Ali.
"Good to see you again," a voice said, and I turned, looking left and right, trying to figure out who had addressed me. Seeing nobody, I turned to resume my beachward journey, but the voice spoke up again.
"It's been 50 years since you last visited," it said. "You remember, don't you? I know you do, because you wrote about it in that first book of yours."
My head snapped back and I looked up at the Lighthouse.
"Yes," it said, "it's me. Your old friend the Lighthouse. I'd invite you in, but the door is kept locked now. Besides, you probably aren't any better about heights than you were when you visited as a child."
"My God," I said, realizing that either I was going nuts or this Island was, as I have long suspected, rather magical.
"Not God," said the voice, "just an old acquaintance. Welcome back."
The Lighthouse was correct. This was in fact my first visit in half a century to the site, a locale I had used in the first of several books I wrote about the Island. I had been there as a young boy during a family outing, and had been scared to pieces by a climb up the Lighthouse's metal stairs -- accessible back then. The experience was early validation that heights and Haeffner did not mix well. After that, various chances to revisit the site had fallen through for one reason or another.
"Most of the people who visit," the voice said, "are first-timers, curiosity seekers. And there aren't all that many of them, I'm so remotely located. So a friendly face is welcome."
And he (if I can attribute gender here, as well) continued on, telling me about some of the crazy tourists he'd seen, some attempted break-ins, some wild parties on the beach, and on and on and on ...
When he wound down -- paused to catch his breath, I think -- I quickly made my apologies and escaped to the beach, where Dave and Ali -- and a lunch of some sandwiches we had packed -- awaited.
After lunch, I meandered up the shore -- which was full of sizable rocks, and absolutely no sand -- until I reached a sharp curve in the Island perimeter and rounded it. I was immediately struck by a cool breeze out of the southwest, and saw in the distance the tourist mecca known as Mackinac Island.
I took some pictures, noted that several sailboats were making their way toward that island as part of the annual Port Huron-to-Mackinac sailboat race, and then headed back toward our picnic site. That's when I heard another voice.
"Pssst," it said. "Down here. Hey, watch your step. Now ... don't move. Look down. I'm just outside your right foot."
And there was a rock, about a foot in diameter and four inches thick, looking up at me. I say looking up because it had a face of sorts -- a small mouth, a nose, a distinct left eye and eyebrow, and the remnants of a right eye.
"You're kidding, right?" I said.
"No joke," said the rock, and I thought I saw a slight movement in the mouth area -- though I suspect that might have been the product of an overactive imagination on my part.
"Why would a rock want to speak to me?" I asked.
"Because you're a writer," it said to me. "And you can tell people to watch the littering out here. You think it's pleasant to live someplace where people dump their garbage on you?"
I looked around, noticed remnants of some campfires, and in them some debris. A few bottles dotted the landscape, as well.
"Well, it doesn't look too bad," I ventured, but was cut off.
"Easy for you to say," the rock told me. "But if it was your home, and somebody dumped anything there -- and I mean anything -- you'd probably go ballistic. Am I right? Huh? Am I right?"
I shrugged in acquiescence, and looked over to my left, where I saw Dave and Ali approaching me. Ali stopped to take a picture, but Dave kept moving in my direction.
I lowered my voice. "Okay," I told the rock. "I'll convey the message."
"Good man," said the rock. "Just tell them Fred sent you."
And with that I moved on to meet Dave.
After we returned to our cottage on the other side of the Island, I was seated alone on the wraparound front porch, massaging my feet -- sore from the long hike -- and replaying the day's strange events in my mind when I heard what sounded like "Hey, you!"
I looked in the direction of the voice and saw a large wild turkey resting in the side yard, looking at me.
"What?" I said.
"You have a lot of nerve," the gobbler said to me.
"I'm sorry?" I responded. "I don't know what you mean."
"Yes, you do. You look at me and what's the first thing that pops into your head? I'll tell you what. 'Legs and dark meat.' That's what you always ask for at Thanksgiving dinner, isn't it? Don't bother answering. I can see it written on your face. How would you like it if I looked at you and thought 'Arms and white meat.' How'd you like that, huh? You wouldn't, would you?"
I shook my head, and told the turkey to scram.
"Get out of here," I said. "I've had a long day. Go bother somebody else."
And I walked inside, heading for the medicine cabinet and some aspirin to calm the headache that had just struck me.
The walk out to the Lighthouse and back had evidently taken its toll, I thought to myself. I was reasonably receptive when addressed by a talking boiler, a talking Lighthouse, a talking rock and a talking snake. But now, here, back at the cottage, I found myself annoyed at the words of the turkey. Of course, he'd been fairly aggressive and decidedly negative, and I've never accepted personal attacks very well.
But even so, you'd think I'd find it within myself to match wits with a dumb bird.
I looked at myself in the medicine-cabinet mirror, and shook my head.
"I need a vacation," I said.
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