Luther looked up at the top of the trees. Nothing. No branch moved. A little twitter of leaf here and there but otherwise, nothing. No wind. That meant that today would be the islands, across the great expanse of the lake -- impossible on a sharp-winded day -- and into the narrow channels between the seven islands where muskrats dwelled and fish were plenty. Perhaps seven a beaver would be found in his traps and that meant big money. He smiled at that thought and even hummed a tune. He couldn’t remember its name but it was the melody the ice cream truck had played to beckon the children of his neighborhood when he was growing up. With that thought he remembered his mother and closed his eyes. He opened them again to survey the sky: cloudless. Then he turned back to the stove to make his coffee.
Still humming, he filled the kettle at the sink and took the tin from the shelf. He poured the coffee directly into the pan and when the kettle whistled he poured the water over it. The familiar odor filled the boat. He shaved carefully and combed his hair looking in the mirror impassively. almost not recognizing the face he saw each day. He had decided to be more careful with his appearance so he wouldn’t be shunned so when he went to town but it was hard to keep clean when his life was hunting and fishing and wading through the mud and muck of the Mississippi.
He went out on the little deck of his boat and looked into the sky again. He couldn’t believe it: no wind! Why, just yesterday, his hat had flown across the water and almost sunk before he could retrieve it with his paddle and he battled as never before to keep his canoe straight and make it back to shore. He’d slept to the sound of the wind’s roar and had checked twice to make sure all was tied and secure. When he awakened he thought something was wrong and couldn’t quite figure out what it could be. Silence. It seemed weeks since the wind and her storms had ruined his fishing and kept him landlocked.
He poured the coffee through the stained, cloth filter that he used for years and took the steaming green tin cup back out on the deck where he sat in his only chair. He lit a cigarette, sipped the strong black coffee and planned his day.
First, he’d paddle up the eastern shore of the eastern island. These islands had no names and he’d never thought of naming them. He perceived them, and worked them, and traversed them, without feeling affection for them. No one else had bothered naming them either since hardly anyone visited them. In the five years he worked the river and the lake the dam had formed he’d never seen a soul among the seven islands. Even on the map they were just shapes. The islands above and below had names: Gray Cloud Island, Bolanger Island but no one had bothered with these and it was fine with Luther. They were his and because the water around them was so shallow no could get to them anyway. Just a man in a canoe or kayak and the folk in town only went out in their power boats so he was alone.
Luther touched the glow of the finished cigarette to the surface of what remained in his cup. It hissed and extinguished. He put the butt in the trash and poured the remaining coffee from the pan into his thermos. He quickly made a cheese and onion sandwich and wrapped it in waxed paper and put it in his pack. He jumped off the side of his house boat and turned his canoe right-side-up. He tied the pack and spare paddle to the cross beam and with the good paddle he pushed off from shore. He smiled as the boat glided across the smooth, dark water toward the seven islands already in sight before him. Only in his canoe did he feel free.
Luther had found the houseboat three years ago floating down the Mississippi all by itself. For days before it had stormed and blown. The boat had lost its moorings up river and now belonged to who ever found it. This was the rule of those who lived on the Mississippi. Luther had found baseballs and styrofoam, lumber and hundreds of plastic bottles but never a boat. When he first spied it he approached warily, expecting its owners to be inside. He’d yelled hello, but nothing. He tied the canoe to a rail and pull himself onto the deck. He peered cautiously through the windows. No one. He entered. Empty. Navigation charts on the table. To his delight, the cubboards were well stocked: sardines, crackers, soup. He sat down and made lunch as the little boat floated down the river. He found the registration papers and this years licence and dropped them over the side. “Whoops.” He scrapped the numbers from the bow. Then he slipped back into the canoe and tied the stern to the houseboats front rail and with great effort pulled it along. When he reached the main current, however, the houseboat took over and pulled canoe along backwards. Luther was embarassed to be so helpless and hoped no one saw.
Luther watched as the tree-line began to flicker and sway. A cool, soft breeze pushed through the darkening sky. The long day of calm had ended.