“Look for the entrance sign for Judge Magney State Park,” Jill said, so Betsy looked.
They had gone through Grand Marais a few miles back and Betsy had seen why Jill smiled when she called it the Scandinavian Riviera — it was a pretty little town, especially in contrast to the hardscrabble villages they had gone through. Like Duluth, it was on a steep hill that stepped down to Lake Superior, but just as this hill was much more modest, Grand Marais couldn’t hold a candle to Duluth, much less the Riviera. And therein lay the joke: Scandinavians, who dominated Minnesota culture, were presumed to be an unassuming people who would find this modest little town just their speed.
Highway 61 ran alongside the lake. The trees were still mostly pine, with the occasional cluster of birch. The snow cover was deep and fresh, and by the plumes of exhaust coming from other cars, the bright sun hadn’t managed to raise the temperature anywhere near freezing.
The sign was easy to spot; it was one of those green billboards the federal government puts up. A dozen yards past it was a commercial billboard with an American Indian feather headdress on it announcing the entrance to Naniboujou.
Jill slowed, signal blinking, and made a right turn onto a narrow, snow-packed lane. A hundred yards away was a two-story rustic building covered with black wooden shingles under a gray roof. A scatter of trees marked the broad lawns beside and behind the lodge. A shingled tower marked the front of the building, and all along the wall beside it were tall, many-paned windows rising to peaks, framed in red.
The car crunched to a halt in the parking area, and Jill shut off the engine. “All out,” she said. Betsy, very stiff, stood a moment outside the car and took a deep breath of still, bitter-cold air.
As they walked to the lobby door — which wasn’t in the tower, but alongside it — Betsy saw the restless surface of Lake Superior barely twenty yards away. No beach was visible, just a shallow drop-off at the edge of the lawn to blue water. She could hear little waves shushing.
“Come on,” said Jill, and Betsy saw her standing beside an open door.
The lobby was very small and strangely shaped. Shelves between the door and a single double-hung window were full of sweatshirts in various colors. A shelf under the window held collectibles and books, a theme that continued on more shelves. The rest of the room was mostly a check-in counter, with a wooden staircase and a door marked Private beyond it, amid a whole collection of odd angles.
The dark-haired man behind the counter greeted Jill warmly by name, and Betsy wondered how often Jill had been here. Betsy glanced to her right, through an open doorway, and her eye was startled by a large open space painted in primary colors. She went for a look, stepping into a room forty feet long and two stories high, full but not crowded with tables draped in midnight-blue. There was a man in a brown uniform sitting alone at one of the blue tables, lingering over a cup of coffee. There was a huge cobblestone fireplace at the far end, with a small fire burning brightly. A pair of cranberry couches faced one another in front of it. A row of French doors marched down each side of the room. One row looked out over the parking lot, the other looked into a sunlit lounge.
Betsy took another step into the room. Every inch of wall and ceiling was painted from the smallest box of Crayolas in unshaded blue, yellow, red, green, and orange. Squiggly lines, jagged lines, and rows of the pattern called Greek keys covered every surface — except between the French windows, where there were big faces, with Aztec noses and tombstone teeth and half- moon ears. It was startling, bold, amusing, wonderful.
“Come on, we’ll drive around back,” said Jill.
“Our room’s easier to get to through the back door.”
“Oh. Okay.” Betsy, trying to look some more at the room and follow Jill at the same time, stumbled, and Jill caught her by the arm. “Who painted that room?” Betsy asked, as they went out into the cold again.
“Antoine Goufee, a Frenchman. It was back in the twenties, and I hear they haven’t so much as touched it up since.”
“What was he smoking, I wonder?”
Jill laughed. “It is interesting, isn’t it?” She started the engine. They drove around the side of the building, which stood at a more-than-ninety-degree angle to the front portion. Jill pulled up at the far end. There were four other cars already there, like their own, crusted with road salt. “Let’s unload.”
The back door was unlocked. It let into a plain wooden stairwell that smelled faintly of age, and at the top of which was a landing with a couple of fold-away beds. Through a door there was a richly carpeted hallway paneled in golden knotty pine. Prints of nineteenth century Native Americans punctuated the walls.
Their room was all the way at the other end of the hallway, through a door set at an angle. This place is really full of angles, thought Betsy.
It took two trips to bring up the luggage and needleworking equipment. The room was small, and seemed smaller because its walls and ceiling were also paneled with planks of knotty pine. The bed was a four-poster, its cover forest green, and the two windows had narrow blinds behind forest-green drapes. There was a fireplace with a dark metal surround flush against the wall, a small desk, a closet. The bathroom was little, too.
“See?” said Jill. “No phone, no tv.”
“Uh-huh,” said Betsy, looking at the one bed. It was queen size, but she had not shared a bed with another female since she was nine. Still, the thought occurred that the bed looked inviting. Despite dozing in the car, she craved a nap. Then she looked at her two big suitcases. Oh, why had she brought so much? The task of unpacking seemed overwhelming.
Jill said, “You look all tired out. Care to trust me to unpack? You take your knitting and go down to the lounge. It’s really pretty down there.”
“No, I couldn’t, really …” Betsy sighed to a halt. If she couldn’t nap, not having to unpack was a very pleasant second choice. “Well, thanks,” she said. She picked up her canvas bag and went out. There was a staircase right across the hall, and Betsy went down it to find herself in a short passageway that led to that amazing dining room. This time she was at the fireplace end. The big smooth stones, she saw, were matte ovals of granite, probably taken from local rivers, or the lakeshore. The small fire was still burning cheerfully, and the cranberry couches looked very inviting. The room was empty, the brown uniform gone away.
Betsy went for a look into the sunlit lounge. It ran the length of the dining room, but its ceiling was low and it was painted a soft, warm cream. Six pairs of windows lined the room, and groups of couches and chairs with deep cushions and wicker arms invited one to come in and be comfortable. Sunlight picked out the polished surfaces of low tables and deep window sills, the narrow green and blue stripes of the cushions, and the fuzziness of the leaves on the potted geraniums.
Betsy picked a couch about halfway down, angled so she could lift her eyes and see the lake. She had grown up in Milwaukee, on the shore of Lake Michigan, and had lived many years in San Diego, so she found views of big water homey and comforting. The clean white snow on the lawn had only a pair of ski tracks across it. A dead birch, its trunk black and white, its limbs lopped short, stood near the shore. A quartet of birds, too far out to be identified, wheeled and turned over the water, which had gone from DMC 824 to a pale blue-gray — DMC 799, perhaps — scattered with golden coins of sunlight. The lawn outside the window wasn’t very broad, and edged with the brown and red stems of leafless bushes. Beyond them was a mix of evergreen and birch trees, with here and there a narrow pine thrusting itself high above the other trees. There had been a vogue for narrow artificial Christmas trees, but Betsy hadn’t realized there actually was such a variety. She wondered what it was, and a phrase from an old book with a Canadian setting came to her: lodge-pole pines. Were these lodge-pole pines, so tall and straight?
She opened the canvas bag containing her needlework. Though she called it her knitting bag, it actually contained counted cross stitch and needlepoint projects, too. But when she was tired she liked the soothing rhythm of knitting. She took out the sweater she was making. She was doing the cuff of one sleeve, and she liked deep cuffs. Knit one, purl one, across and back again, nice and easy. She was doing the sweater in a heather mix of blue wool on number seven needles.
Across and back, across … and back. The room was warm and quiet. Betsy wasn’t a lazy person, but she was physically worn out as well as sleepy. She caught herself nodding and shook her head. Knit, purl, knit, purl, knit … Perhaps she should have changed out of her sweatshirt, she was getting very warm. She looked out the window at the immaculate blue sky, the gray branches of the trees. Something large floated into view over the trees. A hawk? No, look at that, it was an eagle — and its head was snow white, it was a real, live bald-headed eagle! As if responding to her wish, it curved toward her in its flight and glided down, lower and lower, until it was crossing the lawn nearly at ground level, scarcely six yards from the window and startlingly large. It rose abruptly near the lakeshore to land on top of the dead birch, settle its wings, and look out over the water. In that moment it seemed to become part of the tree; she might never have realized it was there if she had not seen it land. She watched it awhile, but it sat still, so she returned to her knitting.
Knit, purl, knit, purl, then turn the needles around and do more of the same back across. Knit, purl … knit …… purl …… Her head was heavy, her eyes closed of their own accord. She laid her head back for just a minute …
“Hello?” said a soft voice.
Betsy opened her eyes and saw a woman had come to sit across from her. The woman was very fair, dangerously thin, with short, pale-blond curls. The sunlight made them gleam like a halo. She was wearing a powder-blue-and-white Norwegian sweater with elaborate pewter fastenings, the cords and voice box of her neck prominent above it. She had her own canvas bag with her, a light blue one with dark blue wooden handles, and had brought out a counted cross stitch pattern of a Victorian doll wearing a lace- trimmed dress. Her fingers were very slender, separating two threads from a cut length of lavender floss with a tender delicacy. Betsy was sure she didn’t know her, yet the woman looked vaguely familiar. “Hi,” Betsy said. “Are you here for the stitch-in?” asked the woman. She opened a ZipLoc plastic bag and took out a damp blue sponge, folded it in half like an open mouth, then closed it on a section of floss — some women declared that floss was far less liable to knot or tangle if dampened.
“Uh-huh,” said Betsy. “I’m from Excelsior.”
“That’s down near the Twin Cities, isn’t it? But I hear we’ve got people coming from as far away as Chicago. I’m only from Duluth.”
Since she didn’t introduce herself, perhaps Betsy was supposed to know her. Seeking a clue, Betsy said, “This is my first time at a stitch-in.”
“Really?” The woman put the tip of the strand of floss in her mouth — Betsy smiled; here was another floss licker, and never mind that she’d already dampened her floss. “This is the first time I’ve come to one at Naniboujou,” she continued, deftly threading her needle, “though I’ve been to lots of others. And of course I’ve been here many times. I just love this place, even though they make us stand outside to smoke nowadays. Maybe it will help me quit.”
Betsy nodded, remembering how she decided to quit the day she found herself standing outside in a chill downpour, damp and shivering, shackled to Mistress Nicotine. How much worse it would be in this frigid climate! But she did not say what a friend said, “Smokers of the world, unite! Throw off your chains!” Because it was no laughing matter and teasing only made things worse.
So instead, Betsy said, “I can’t get over that dining room.”
“Yes, it’s just amazing, isn’t it?” The woman picked up her fabric — a natural color linen, Betsy noted. “I first came here twenty-seven years ago, on my honeymoon — ” She bridled just a little, obviously thinking Betsy was surprised to learn she was old enough to have been married twenty-seven years ago.
So Betsy politely said, “You don’t look old enough to have been married twenty-seven years,” though that was not true. Sunlight can be cruel, and it clearly showed the tiny lines of a woman in her mid-forties, at least. Face lifted, too, Betsy thought, noting the oddly-placed creases in the woman’s cheeks when she smiled. Though very thin people’s faces creased differently when they smiled.
“Oh, yes, I have two grownup children. My daughter still lives at home, but my son is out of college now and looking to work in environmental protection. Do you have children?”
“No,” said Betsy. “We tried, but it turned out I couldn’t get pregnant.”
“How sad. They do give you a link to the future, I think. What are you working on?”
“A sweater. I’ve learned to like all kinds of needlework, but knitting I find most soothing.”
“I like counted cross stitch best for relaxation. It takes my mind away from my troubles.”
As if reminded, the woman stopped stitching to look a little downcast. Impulsively Betsy asked, “Is it something you want to talk about?”
“Well, people will see us together, I suppose. And wonder. You see, my husband and I are divorced, but we’re trying to get back together. Since we honeymooned here … ” She blushed and looked away, out the window. Betsy smiled; that someone less than eighty years old could actually blush when mentioning her honeymoon was as charming as it was silly. “I wonder … ” The woman paused again. “This is just too stupid,” she said, drawing a deep breath. She put her stitching away with swift efficiently as she murmured very quietly to herself, “I must go get Eddie, then.” And she stood and strode out.
Betsy frowned after her. Who was Eddie? Oh, of course, her ex-husband. And Betsy thought she recognized the lure of a nicotine fix, too. Probably wants to borrow a cigarette from him, or ask him to join her in one. Poor thing, Betsy thought, remembering her own struggle against the habit. Maybe that’s how she stays so thin. Though the woman didn’t look just fashionably slender, she looked emaciated. Perhaps she was ill. Maybe this attempt to reconcile was triggered by a serious illness, perhaps something caused by smoking. Betsy tried to think who she knew, or should know, who was ill with cancer or emphysema. But no name came to her, perhaps because she was still a little sleepy. She looked down at her knitting and picked up her needles. Was the next stitch knit or purl? Knit. She set off again on the cuff, but the cozy silence made it difficult to concentrate. Not that it was hard, or anything, just knit one, purl one, knit one, purl … No good. Yawning, she let her hands descend into her lap.
This lounge was so beautiful. Beams between the pairs of windows leaned gently inward, leading the eyes up, to where the ceiling beams were painted the same color as the walls. So long as her head was already leaning back, she let it fall against the back of the couch. Her eyes closed …
She struggled awake. She’d been having a dream about a sinister blond woman who wanted her to have a cigarette, and for a moment or two she wasn’t sure she was awake yet. The couch was unfamiliar. She was in a long room full of odd shadows. The dream about the thin blond woman had been set in a long room full of sunlight. Or had there really been a woman? The dream had been in two parts, she thought, and only in the second was the woman sinister.
And she actually was in a long room. But she was alone, and it was dusk outside. Was this part three of the dream? Her nose twitched. No, the room was real, she was at Naniboujou Lodge, and there were some very delicious smells coming from the dining room, accompanied by the sound of quiet talk and clinking of silverware on porcelain.
She shoved her knitting into her bag, but left the bag on the floor. Was Jill eating dinner without her? She got clumsily to her feet and went to the door at the end of the room, into the dining room, paused to look around. There was a small crowd of perhaps thirty or thirty-five women and three men seated at the tables, eating, talking, laughing. The stitchers-in had arrived. But none was Jill.
Betsy turned, went past a long and broad counter, behind which was an old-fashioned circular red-velvet couch with a red velvet pillar sticking up out of its middle, and into the lobby. There was no one at the check-in desk. A wooden staircase, not wide, with a carpet runner, stood ahead of her. A stylized bird, a crow or an eagle, stood carved on its finial post. She remembered that bird from when she came down last time. Betsy went up. Her room, she remembered, was at the end of the corridor near the staircase, its door set at an angle. She came to the top of the stairs, and paused. The stairs turned completely around going up, emptying into a short hallway, and she had to wait till her head turned itself back around again. Through there was the corridor, and there was the angled door. Her key was in her pocket, right? Right. Funny Jill hadn’t come down, if it was dinner time. This was one of these package deals, the meals included in the price of the weekend, so missing a meal wouldn’t save her any money. Maybe she was taking a nap.
The dumb key wouldn’t turn in the lock. Betsy pulled it out and turned the knob — and the door opened. There was no light on in the room, but there seemed to be someone on the bed. “Jill?” said Betsy, but softly, in case Jill was asleep.
Betsy found the light switch, and a lamp came on. There was, in fact, someone on top of the comforter, but it was the thin blond woman. Her complexion was blotchy and her lips were blue. And she didn’t seem to be breathing.
The room was small. In three steps, Betsy was beside the bed. She looked around. The suitcases had been put away, though something dark was draped across a chair, but she was quite alone.
Except for the woman on the bed. Betsy reached out to touch her.
No pulse, no breath, skin eerily cool. This was too dreadful, this was nightmarish.
Betsy turned and blundered out, yanking the door closed behind her. She more stumbled than ran down the twisting stairs. There was still no one behind the counter in the lobby. What kind of place was this, where the front desk was unmanned and people came to die on other people’s beds?
The feeling of unreality was so strong that Betsy didn’t want to run into the dining room yelling about a dead woman. A man in a white shirt and dark trousers was standing at a lectern halfway down the room. He looked a lot like the friendly clerk who had been behind the check-in counter earlier. Betsy hurried to him to say in an urgent undertone, “There is the body of a dead woman on the bed in my room.”
He stared at her for a long moment, then said, “Are you sure?”
“Who is she?”
“I don’t know. I talked to her earlier, but I don’t think she told me her name. She’s here for the stitch-in, I know that.”
“What room are you in?”
Betsy couldn’t remember, but thought of her key. She brought it out. “Twenty,” she said, reading the number off it.
The man said, “Come with me,” looked around, and started toward the fireplace end of the room. There, he took the elbow of a young wait person with braids wrapped around her head and a coffee pot in each hand and said in a low voice, “Billie, I have to go with this woman to her room. Take over for me?”
Since they were at the fireplace end, he went out the door that let onto a short passageway, and up the back stairs she suddenly remembered she had come down originally. He didn’t ask for her key, but used a pass key of his own to open the door. Betsy, unwilling to see that still face again, hung back. “Hello?” said the man.
And Betsy heard a sleepy reply, “Hello?”
Betsy peered around James’s elbow to see a figure sitting up on the bed. It was Jill.