The Aurora Borealis dances above North America during a strong solar storm. Photo by Nace Hagemann. Visit the photographer’s website at Nace Hagemann Photography.
Whistle on Whiteface Mountain ♦
A Novel by Melissa F. Kaelin
Excerpt from Chapter 9
This is an excerpt from my novel, Whistle on Whiteface Mountain, which is under consideration by a NYC talent agency. The excerpt features a scene at the Lake of the Clouds in the Porcupine Mountains.
WEDNESDAY, JULY 17, 2013
Cold air, light clouds and a galaxy of stars greeted Clarence, who stood high above the river in the Porcupine Mountains. Overtop of his charcoal beanie, he wore a headlamp with the white light switched on. He planted his feet firmly on the basalt rock cliff, and set up a tripod under the moonless night.
“Steady as she goes,” Clarence called down the rocks.
Another tripod made its way up the cliff, this one held high in the air by the young man behind it. He was decked out in athletic apparel, and he wore a multicolor knit-hat streaming with braided tassels. The young man smiled broadly, revealing teeth so white they were visible in the dark. If it weren’t for his wildly colorful clothing, he would’ve blended in to the night with his short, black hair and copper-toned skin.
“Tyler, lad, why don’t you set that down until you get the lay of the land?” Clarence asked. “Turn on your headlamp.”
“I got it,” Tyler said, without an ounce of hesitation. He wore a headlamp too, but it was switched off. He wasn’t even using the dim red light designed to navigate the dark. Tyler fumbled over the uneven ledge, dipping the tripod toward the ground, before he found his footing on the rocks. He stood about 30 feet away from Clarence, occupying slightly higher ground.
The two men had spread out on a long, narrow escarpment, attempting to set up a photo overlooking the Lake of the Clouds. A Coronal Mass Ejection, which had fired from the surface of the sun a few days ago, was predicted to make impact tonight. If it was powerful enough, the Earth’s atmosphere would open up to the solar wind, funneling in a wave of electrons and producing a vivid display of Northern Lights.
“Move the tripod to the left,” Clarence said. “Let’s capture a silhouette against the night.”
“Of me?” Tyler laughed. He picked up the tripod, scanning the rocks for another flat surface. “It was your idea to come up here. I didn’t even know there was a mountain range in Michigan. You guys call these mountains?”
“You’ve been spending too much time in Canada,” Clarence said, teasing him. “Not much compares to Banff.”
“You said it!” Tyler was studying the northern horizon. “Sure is easier to catch a glimpse in Alberta.”
“No doubt that it is.”
“When was the last time I saw you on the Aurora Chasing trail?”
“A year ago? Maybe two?” Tyler pondered the question. “Seems like it’s been quite a while.”
It was quiet and still all around them. Set against a pristine wilderness, the Porcupine Mountains were wound through with rivers and old-growth Hemlock forests. Clarence reveled in the quiet energy of the forest at night. Even when their voices were muted, he and Tyler could hear each other loud and clear.
“Get in the frame,” Clarence urged. His camera was set up on the tripod and ready to fire.
“Are you getting something?”
“The faintest hint of green. Now, lad, this is going to take some time. I need you to choose a position, and hold very, very still.”
“For how long?”
Clarence didn’t answer. Instead, he adjusted the settings on his camera, capturing as much light from the sky as possible while still keeping the guy in focus. “Now, don’t move.”
“Like this?” Tyler, ever the star of his own antics, had struck a pose that required some skillful balance. He balled his hands into fists and held them out in the air, while he lifted one leg and bent his knee, to create what might look like an action shot.
“You serious?” Tyler cocked his head.
It was all for fun, but getting a crisp night shot took planning and commitment. Tyler balked at being frozen in time, eager to set up his own astrophotography shots. He lost his balance, and tilted toward his last leg standing, dropping out of position and jogging a few feet to catch himself.
The shutter on Clarence’s camera clicked.
“Well, lad, that’ll be interesting.”
Tyler laughed. “I couldn’t hold it!”
“Might be wise to start with both feet on the ground next time,” Clarence said good-naturedly. He moved his camera into preview mode, and he mused at the digital image. With his index finger, he traced the falling action he’d watched in real time, and observed how Tyler’s body took form in the photo. A thin, white layer of color moved from where the silhouette once stood, and nearly wiped out on the rocks, before disappearing on the left side of the frame. “There’s a ghost in this shot.”
“Maybe it’s the Aurora,” Tyler countered.
“That’s alright. I’m going to set up some star trails.”
“Alright.” Clarence chuckled. “Go on then.”
In his seventies, Clarence was a spry old man. He hadn’t thought twice about scaling the escarpment in the dark and shooting star trails and Aurora with a guy in his twenties. That was the easy part. It was the standing still, waiting for the camera to work its magic and capture the night sky, that was the hard part. Especially on cold nights like this one.
A cold snap had blown in from Canada, and the temperature in northern Michigan plummeted to a mere 38 degrees. Factor in the breeze, and it was finger freezing weather. Always prepared for the unexpected, Clarence reached into his coat pockets and fetched a set of thick gloves. He slid the gloves over his wide, wrinkled fingers, and sat down on a fallen log by the hemlocks. He reached into his pocket once more, and pulled out a single film photograph.
The photo was folded to fit in his pocket, but he bent back the edge and gazed into its face.
Warm green eyes stared back out at Clarence, softened even more by a broad, cheerful smile. The girl’s auburn hair was pulled back in a tight ponytail, and she hugged her arms close around her body, bundled up in a thick blue coat. Behind her, snow blanketed a frozen lake, and beyond her, the Aurora Borealis glowed green to match her teardrop eyes.
“Laura,” he whispered.
His daughter had been lovely and bright, and she had grown to a tender age of 10 before she died from a brain tumor. He looked up from the photo, and saw Tyler come strolling back across the rocks.
“It’s in the bag,” Tyler said. “I’ve got it set to shoot one frame every five minutes. That should do the trick.” He plopped down beside Clarence, saw the photograph, and lowered his voice to a whisper. “Who’s the girl?”
“The light of my life,” Clarence said. “My only child.”
“Where is she now?”
“Following the torches, I suppose,” he said. “To paradise.”
“It’s an ancient Inuit myth.” Clarence combed his fingers through his silver beard. “The indigenous tribes of the North believed the Aurora Borealis were torches. The flames were lit by their ancestors, who carried the torches through the sky, leading their loved ones to paradise.”
Tyler studied the old man’s face.
“Just some old folklore,” Clarence said.
“I’m sorry,” Tyler said. “How long has it been?”
“Is that why you live alone?”
Clarence had to stop to consider the question. Surrounded by a thriving natural wilderness, he didn’t think of himself as a loner. He was, of course. Until he found an excuse to meet up with his nocturnal companions – sky-watchers, star-gazers, storm-chasers.
“You do live alone, right?”
“Well, sure,” Clarence said. “But it wasn’t always this way. Laura’s passing was quite unexpected. It was too much for Veronica to bear.”
Clarence nodded. “She used to be. She left me and moved to another state, to leave all this behind.”
“Why did she leave?”
“Well, lad, I can’t answer that. The truth is I don’t know.” Clarence bent back the edge of the photograph again, and gazed at his long lost daughter. “I guess it was something she had to do. But when she moved away, it left me alone in our house in Grand Rapids. So, I sold the place and moved north.”
Tyler stood up. “North is a solid choice,” he declared. He looked down at his elderly friend, who was still gazing into the photograph, and gave him a firm pat on the back. Then he turned toward the cameras, and went to check on his star trails.
Clarence glanced up, if only for a second. He ran his gloved fingers over the glossy photograph, tracing the shape of his daughter’s hair, her nose, and her crooked smile. At eight years old, the girl in the photo had seen the Aurora that night, staying up late to go with her father to his favorite lake in northern Michigan.
Tears ran down Clarence’s face in large, slow drops. He looked at the black sky above the Lake of the Clouds, tracing the Milky Way with his eyes. The galaxy was brilliant tonight, appearing in shades of purple and burnt sienna. Millions of stars stretched out above him, winking and comforting him with their light. But the sky carried no torches. It showed no signs of Lady Aurora.
When the tears dried, Clarence felt alone. Tyler was just over the rocks, setting up a second camera. But this wasn’t a simple loneliness that could be solved with just any companionship.
Once a transcendent experience, the Aurora had become an obsession. It still brought him joy and inner calm, but now he needed it to fill the empty space in his heart.
Like the ancient Inuit tribes, he would watch the mysterious lights move above him and contemplate the spirit world. Every once in a while, he envisioned his daughter up there, the daisies on her green dress dashing through the sky.
Unwavering in their chase of the Northern Lights, the two men waited. Clarence would give anything for a hint of that peaceful fever. The solar wind fascinated him more than anything on Earth. The celestial phenomenon moved him to his core.
Though they stayed out all night, it was no use.
The marvels of outer space wouldn’t be visible tonight.
. . .
. . .
Bonus Excerpt: ‘A Cherry in the Crate’
This is a bonus excerpt from my novel, Whistle on Whiteface Mountain. For a little background: After the loss of her 15-year-old brother, Allison finds herself listening to classic rock n’ roll on a road trip through the Great Lakes region. She’s traveling with her dog and her friend, Danny, who is a chef and restaurant owner. Allison is a budding photographer who is vying for a job in the marketing office at Children’s Hospital in Albany, New York.
SATURDAY, JULY 27, 2013
The sun rose over the rolling hills, radiating warm light in the form of a red rubber ball. With the Gremlin parked snugly in a gravel driveway, the road stretched out before us until it reached the tree-lined horizon. Touristy signs dotted the roadway, boasting of local art and Michigan’s crop of tart cherries. The nearest sign was only a few yards away.
I leaned against the front bumper, crossing my legs at the ankles and stopping to take it all in. My Australian Shepherd sat by my side, and Danny stood casually in front of me.
“I don’t know how we got here.”
“That’s easy,” Danny said, looking up from under his fraying blue ball cap. “We took 41 up through Escanaba, found our way east on Route 2 after Munising, and caught 31 South when we reached the mainland.”
I sighed, staring off into the distance.
“That’s not what you meant.”
A look passed between us.
“I thought we could use a break.” He stepped toward me. He placed his hand briefly on my shoulder. “Let’s check this place out. Stretch our legs.”
“Isn’t it a little early?” I asked, peeling my body away from the car.
When Danny had seen a sign for locally grown cherries, he’d pulled off the road without hesitation. Just beyond the sign was a white trailer with a red and green logo, and it overflowed with cherries in wooden crates. The trailer, shaped more like a garden wagon, created a stark contrast to the lush green landscape. It stood just off the side of the road, on land that looked to be part of someone’s home or small farm.
“Really? A cherry stand? We could just get donuts or something.”
“Why not?” Danny asked. “We haven’t had anything to eat in a while. We might be able to find the owners. And I thought you would like the light.” He gestured to the east.
I lifted my gaze to see a gorgeous gradient of color. The glow of dawn gave the grassy knolls a red tint, and the sky was soaked in the early orange that beckons a bright blue day. It was the most sunlight I’d seen since we left Albany, so much my eyes needed time to adjust.
“Want me to grab your camera?”
“No. The lens is broken.”
His eyes widened. “How did that happen?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
Danny knew how important photography was to me, but he must’ve sensed my resignation. It wasn’t every day a prized possession broke, especially one that doubled as a passion and a source of income. Camera lenses weren’t cheap, and I didn’t know how I was going to afford a new one.
Maybe it was a sign – a hint from the universe I should leave it all behind. There were many other ways to make a living in marketing. Besides, I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of working for that haughty boss in the first place. Especially after seeing the way he treated the children in the hospital.
“How long have you had your camera?”
“Actually, the camera is fine.” In the last few days, I’d developed a habit of avoiding eye contact. This clearly made him uneasy. “Only the lens is broken.”
He studied my expression, waiting for me to go on.
“Since high school,” I said finally. “Senior year.”
He turned slightly and walked toward the cherry stand, and I followed behind him. There was no one in sight, but a wheel barrel sat on the sidewalk by a modest brick house with gardening gloves strewn over the top.
Danny glanced back at me. “Was the camera a gift?”
“It was the first thing I really spent a lot of money on, when I worked part-time in high school. No one in my family is creative. Well, maybe Eric.” A lump formed in my throat. “Guess I’ll never know what he would grow up to be like.”
“Not even your mom?”
“Least of all, her.” I gazed at the red rubber ball on the horizon. “I don’t really have anything in common with my parents.”
“You don’t like to talk about them, do you?”
I shrugged. “We’re not very close. We never spend time together, so why spend too much time worrying about it?”
“How long has it been since you moved away?”
“Seven years,” I said. “Our lives are our own. What good can come from looking back?”
The scent of cherries greeted us when we reached the wagon, and I was struck by a vision.
In my parents’ kitchen, while they were still asleep, the same scent filled the cluttered room. One corner of the oak kitchen table was cleared. There, my wrists and Eric’s wrists reached into a metal mixing bowl, our hands stirring a batch of cherry coffee cake with a wooden spoon. It was a Saturday on a long weekend, and the old recipe was a family favorite.
At 3 years old, Eric was such a ball of energy he wanted to be part of everything. That day, he was my little helper. He would make a mess of the batter and scoop some up to his face to taste it, before we transferred the pale goo to a glass pan. Our parents would wake up in time for the coffee cake to come out of the oven. They would never say it out loud, but they looked forward to it too – the breakfast treat we saved for long weekends.
This whole trip had thrust me into the past – the flashbacks and dreams following me like an unshakable shadow. I wanted to push forward, to get Danny back to his restaurant. To move on. Part of me even wanted to get back in time to start my new job.
Danny wasn’t one to reveal his emotions. He turned to me then and said something matter-of-factly. “You’re so independent.
I didn’t know whether it was a compliment, a slight, or merely an observation.
Below a mandarin orange sky, I clutched a handful of ruby red cherries. It was one of those times when everything feels so strange, it settles into your memory like a surreal dream. The words we said were framed in this light. Every phrase arrived in my mind like an echo. There was too much truth to it, or not nearly enough.
“Look who’s talking,” I said. His comment was so ironic that I first formed my reply as a jab. After the words took shape, a smile formed and a laugh escaped my lips. Danny was the most independent person I knew, but I admired him for it. I wanted to create my own legacy the way he had, without relying on a single soul.
“What do you mean?”
“You’re a self-made man,” I paused. “Just think about what you’ve created. With your restaurant.”
“I didn’t do it on my own.”
“Might as well have. You put everything into Meraki Blue, and look how successful it’s become.”
“It took a long time for it to get that kind of traction.”
“But it was your dream,” I said, my voice full of admiration. His modesty tempted me to run away with the conversation. If I had achieved something like that, it’d be hard to resist telling the story at every turn.
He eyed the cherries in my hand. “Are you going to do something with those?”
I glanced down, and looked back at him. “It was your dream, and you turned your dream into a reality! Danny, give yourself a little credit.”
A man and a woman moved about in the back lawn, working between the house and a large pole barn. They hadn’t seen us yet, but they must’ve owned the produce stand. From the looks of it, they were starting the day’s work in the garden.
“Do you think they know we’re here?” I asked.
“They’re bound to come this way eventually.”
I looked out across the land, wondering how many acres they had in the backyard. It was way more than the lot back in Wisconsin.
“It’s true,” Danny said. “I always dreamed of starting a restaurant. But a lot went into the decision. Even before our college years.”
“I know. You worked really hard on that place.”
“Dad did too,” he said.
“Anthony? Are we talking about the same person?” I had a hard time imagining Danny working alongside his father to start his business. This was the same guy who lingered around the restaurant, giving unsolicited advice.
“Yeah.” Danny took the fraying ball cap off his head and rustled his thick, curly hair. His hard eyes softened, the way they did when he opened up or got caught flirting over dinner. “He taught me a lot about running a business, and he used to let me bounce ideas off him when I was a teenager. Dad was my mentor.”
“But you guys disagree on everything.”
“Right. Well, that’s just family for you.” Danny raised the corner of his lips in a smile. “I mean, Dad taught me what he could, but he wanted me to go a different direction. He tried to get me to take over his store. I wasn’t sure a restaurant gig was the right fit, and I almost did go into management. Then, when I didn’t and went to culinary school instead, Dad had to take a back seat.”
“That couldn’t have been easy for him.” It surprised me Danny had ever doubted becoming a chef. The tone of his voice gave him away, though, and it was clear he still had doubts about the decision.
“It took some getting used to,” Danny said. “For both of us.”
Still, Danny was his own person. He was nothing like his father. Being raised in a father’s image and groomed to fill his shoes ought to be enough to stamp out a person’s ambition. Or at least push them away. But there was pride in Danny’s eyes.
“Do you ever wish you had done it on your own?”
“Not really,” Danny said. “Dad was great. He’s smarter than he lets on. When the restaurant first got up and running, he really helped me hold it together. You know, there were times when it might’ve been easier to go it alone. But it all comes down to one thing.”
Danny looked into my eyes, and I fought to push down a range of emotions. I glanced down at the cherries in my hand, and I started to put them back in the wooden crate, lifting each one and setting it on the pile. I couldn’t look at Danny.
The man and woman turned in our direction, noticing us for the first time. They began to walk toward the garden wagon, and they waved and smiled from the back lawn.
“What about your parents?” he asked. “Did they do anything to help you get your feet on the ground?”
I couldn’t think of anything to say. A cherry slid between my thumb and index finger, and I let the ruby red fruit fall into the wooden crate.
“Come on. There must be something?”
“They were pretty absent from my life,” I said. “Especially in my teenage years.”
“Nothing? Not even a small gesture?”
I set another cherry in the crate, and wondered if it was truly worth sifting through painful memories just to find something to share with Danny. My upbringing in Wisconsin had been marked by long silences, arguments and parents who were completely checked out.
We had been perusing the cherry stand leisurely, but the owners didn’t seem too concerned about us being on the farm. The couple finally reached the white wagon. Then the woman took off her gardening gloves and set them on a table nearby.
“Would you folks like to buy some fresh cherries?” she asked. “We don’t usually open this early, but if you’re buying, I’m selling. We have some spreads and jams inside too, if I can interest you in that sort of thing.”
“Sure,” I said, realizing there were still three cherries in my hand. “Do you have a bag or something I can put these in?”
“You bet.” She set a few farmers market baskets in front of us. “Those work great.”
“How much for two?” I asked.
She gave the price, and I started counting out some cash.
“I’ll get this one,” Danny said.
Before I knew it, he was handing her the cash, and I was standing there with an extra wad of dollar bills. “Danny, I was going to –”
“You know, it’s okay to depend on other people sometimes.”
“I know.” It wouldn’t hurt him to take his own advice.
He moved right next to me, so his shoulder touched mine, and he scooped up some of the cherries from my pile. He slid them into the basket, letting the fruit that had slipped through my fingers tumble together into our stash.
I looked up at Danny.
“Not everyone expects you to go it alone.”
. . .
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