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Highly Commended in the International Category of the 2015 BBC Wildlife Blogger Awards

The Call of the Loon

Common Loon, by Matthew (via Flickr Creative Commons)

"Loved the natural descriptions and the clever analogy."

"Even though this is all internal monologue, the two ways of viewing nature through the words of a fighting couple is creative and effective."

The Call of the Loon

by John Cambridge

Trent snapped the dead twig in two, flung the pieces into the fire pit. He watched them smoke, then flare into flames. Above the treetops, clouds turned orangey pink—his term for the whole palette of shades. It made Gail cringe when he called them that. They'd fade to grey as the sun set, about the same colour as his mood.

It was nearing summer solstice, in a few hours he could walk the short distance to the other side of the island and see the sun rise. The way things had been going, he didn't really care if it did or not.

He dropped into his willow-branch chair. A rustling behind him made him turn—a smile ready, a greeting prepared. It wasn't Gail. He could only see shadows in the smoky dusk. Likely a pine cone falling. She'd begged off coming to their usual evening shore fire, blaming it on the fierceness of the mosquitoes. Trent could have shaken her swan-slender neck. He knew it wasn't the real reason.

The branches he’d thrown on the fire turned to ash, and Trent wondered if his marriage was about to do the same. He couldn't recall exactly when he noticed things had become strained. At first it was, “I’m tired,” “I’ve got a headache,” “I told you, I have a bladder infection,” and for the last month or so, a plain “No.” She no longer laughed at his jokes, and he gave up trying. Talking was never his strong suit, so he stopped that, too, only speaking when he had to.

Trent reached for another beer. He planned on drinking the whole six-pack so he could crash on the couch and get some kind of sleep. Gail had said not to bother coming to bed if he smelled like a brewery. She thought he was drinking too much. He thought it wasn’t enough.

A male loon's yodel call—his warning to other loons to stay away from his territory—shivered across the calm water. He wondered which loon it was. Gail could tell the difference between the three males on their lake by their calls—named them Larry, Leonard, and Lou.

“They all sound the same to me,” he'd said.

“Oh, just be quiet and listen,” she'd snapped. “Listen, closely, there’s a slight variation in timing. You’ve got males signaling to their mates. The females will be able to tell their man is around to help. Don’t tell me you can’t hear the difference.”

He shrugged, sniped, “Like you can pick out the different drummers in a rock band.”

She didn’t answer.

Another call from the loon pierced the cooling air. This one arcing, tremulous, haunting, answered by his mate. Silhouetted against the dimming sky, giant spruce trees around the cabin muffled the sound, but he was certain Gail heard it. She loved the sound; the loon was her favourite bird. She told him they mated for life, but he shattered the myth for her. “There’s lore and there’s science, and the data they collected from banding proved it isn’t true.”

She didn’t answer then either.

Trent watched the flames and sighed. Maybe it was all a myth and no animal mated for life.

When they first came to his parents' cabin, they spent hours on spring weekends watching a pair of loons build their nest on a muskrat house not far from the island's shore. Reeds and mud from the lake bed, moss and pine needles from shore, all placed with care to form a shallow, concave nursery.

Gail pressed her body against his. "We could make a nursery in the spare bedroom."

"Maybe next year." He repeated it several times.

He'd sat with her through countless nature shows about birds—a male preening and flapping his wings, a pair bobbing their heads together—all the time wondering about the football game.

Gail had shown him an article about a black wheatear carrying stones to the nesting site: a tiny bird flying with a stone nearly a quarter of its own weight, making the trip up to three hundred times, equivalent to your average man lugging a forty pound rock from a river ten miles away and dropping it on his lawn. Three hundred times.

"Why?" Trent asked.

"To show his mate he's strong and capable, to show he loves her."

"It shows he's pretty damn stupid, if you ask me."

He'd given her something once—a red rose, on their first anniversary. He thought it was a great idea as it only required one rose. Trent was out of town for the next one, so he gave himself permission to forget about the subsequent years.

The evening stars appeared in the western sky. "Make a wish on the first one you see," his mother had told him. Yeah, right. That never worked.

He consumed more beers, oblivious to the fire burning itself out. Poplar leaves trembled in the slight breeze and waves lapped against the pebbles on the shore. Both sounds had made Gail snuggle against him and quiver with delight. A tiny hoot—the loons again—saying, as Gail put it, "I'm right here, dear."

She should be here. The quiet night-time sounds, the gentle breeze, the smell of the pine smoke—all of it would thrill her. Like the way clouds at sunset did.

She was a riot, the way she named the colours. "Look! That flamingo-pink cloud looks like a carriage pulled by a dozen horses.” On tiptoes, a lithe motion pointing at the sky. ”There! A canary-yellow rocket ship." Twisted at the waist, a willowy silhouette reached up. “Over there, a cloud shaped like an old sea captain with a rain hat, it’s close to your orangey pink but more oriole orange if you ask me.”

Maybe ...

His hand brushed against the stone in his pocket as he rose. He’d found it earlier when he was skipping stones. He'd walloped the lake with them, his turmoil subsiding when he spied the perfect heart shape. He imagined showing it to Gail. Better than roses. She would squeal with delight.

Maybe …

The closer he came to the cabin, the longer and quicker his stride. He could see her inside, reading in the rocking chair, the warm glow of the lamp lighting her beautiful face. How could he be angry at that?

He opened the door, crossed the floor, stood in front of her. She looked up, startled at the suddenness. Cupping the stone in both hands, he held it out to her.

She set her book aside, frowning at the stone.

He stepped back, wishing he hadn’t drunk the entire six-pack. “I love you.”

She bit her bottom lip and took a few quick breaths while Trent took none.

Please. Take the stone. “I’ve been very stupid."

His heart sank as she rose to her feet, her eyes moist, lips clamped so tightly together they almost disappeared. He should have remained by the fire pit.

She bobbed her head almost imperceptibly.

A loon called: arcing, tremulous, haunting. They stood facing each other, listening.

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