Camp Innisfree was “up north,” as people from Michigan’s lower peninsula called anything north of Mount Pleasant, on the Leelanau peninsula jutting out like the pinky finger on the right hand of everyone who tries to show you where they live in the state. The fourth, fifth, and sixth graders of my small private elementary school camped here every spring—real camping in tents, the only running water in a lavatory cabin about a quarter mile away. We were encouraged to use the outhouse for our urgent needs, which was closer.
The tent smelled like feet and sweaty bodies and new vinyl at night when we all piled in three deep. We were so tired that night that we didn’t have much energy for our usual fart jokes, and we fell asleep without much fanfare. Later, I was awakened by the sounds of rustling tents, zippered doors opening and closing, and footsteps, so I peeked outside to investigate. Everyone in the campsite was leaving, heading purposefully down “the lane”—a gravel road that led both out to the entrance of Camp Innisfree and onward to the bluffs overlooking Lake Michigan.
Every other year we’d gone, we took that lane to the bluffs, which meandered through a copse of white pine trees and other foliage before opening up, in one great breath, to the horizon of the lake, so large that early explorers were certain it was an ocean. Steel blue-gray water met sky and reflected whatever was there: magenta sunsets, orange mornings, dreary charcoals of storm. We’d take a set of wooden stairs, spiraling down square-ways, to the beach to collect shells, stones, and driftwood. This spring, though, we hadn’t gone to the beach that way; we’d taken a longer path alongside the bluffs and scrambled down a craggy hill when it was no longer too steep.
I wanted to know why everyone was going to the beach in the middle of the night, and why they moved so quietly. I could hear my name being called, and clipped phrases like “come on!” and “hurry up!” I didn’t think to ask why the moonlight seemed to pass through their faces, illuminate their whole bodies like the glowing, pale blue that ghosts were often portrayed to be in illustrations so we ‘d know they weren’t real, living people.
Where are we going? I’d ask. But everyone I approached turned into a tree and would not answer.
I felt like I was being swept along in a rip tide; I couldn’t go back.
We reached the bluff. This night, the lake reflected a large moon, peaks of white dancing along the shoreline. I was a light as they were, moving without friction.
At the top of the old wooden stairs was our camp guide, a man who accompanied us each year on our class camping trip and taught us things like ecosystems and tent building and fire safety. He waved to me as children passed by him, going down the stairs. His dark hair was backlit by the moon and he was the only person who looked at me. I stood there, uncertain and chilled by the night air.
I took a step onto the deck of the stairs. Then another.
My vision streaked in front of my eyes, as though I were traveling backwards very quickly. And indeed I was—a hand had grabbed my shoulder and pulled me from behind.
It was one of the teacher aides who’d come with us on the camping trip. Her permed, blond hair was windswept and her shoes were untied, as though she’d thrown them on hastily. She had a nylon jacket on over her nightgown. “What are you doing?” she cried, turning me around to face her.
The world seemed to turn much more slowly now, and my mind couldn’t make sense of the words at first. I gestured at the stairs vaguely and mumbled about not wanting to be late. I saw that there was no one else around—no classmates, no guide. Just trees.
“Those stairs are washed out; didn’t you see that? You nearly fell!” she said. I can still hear the tremolo in her voice, the barely-contained emotional spill.
I looked down. The ground was beneath my feet, and ahead of them, the wood planks of the first level of stairs. Beyond that was air, free fall, rocks. Terrible storms had washed high waves up against the bluffs and broken the stairs from the top down.
I suddenly felt my own weight, my feet made of stones. I was heavy, solid, earth-bound again.
Issa M. Lewis is the author of Infinite Collisions (Finishing Line Press, 2017) and a graduate of New England College’s MFA in Poetry program. She was the 2013 recipient of the Lucille Clifton Poetry Prize, runner-up for the 2017 Lois Cranston Memorial Prize, and her poems have previously been published in Mom Egg Review, Tule Review, Jabberwock, Blue Lyra Review, Pearl, and Naugatuck River Review. She teaches English and Communications at Davenport University.
“Approaching Mystery” is a regular feature on Sick Pilgrim curated by Joanna Penn Cooper in which we post vignettes that dwell on the mystery of the everyday, that hang in an unresolved (and unresolvable) space of wonder and unknowability. Submit your vignette to this series at firstname.lastname@example.org