Matthew Stringer

Writer’s comment: I think everyone has a few magical places tucked away in the secret mists of their conciousness. Some of these places are real, some are found in books, while others exist solely in the imaginations of their possessors. Although real, Fish Lake is such a magical place for me. The event which gave birth to this story is probably the most remarkable occurrence of my life—it was surreal and mysterious even then, and its mystical qualities have only grown in the intervening years. In a very real sense, my meeting with the Indian has been a true secret. It took much digging for me to unearth it again, so carefully hidden and preserved it was in the dusty archives of my memory.
      Many thanks go to Dr. Steinke and his reverence for freewriting. Huge chunks of the narrative were made possible only by the flow of as many words, emotions, and observations onto paper as my tired writing hand would allow. The result, I hope, is that the reader becomes as enchanted by the magic of Fish Lake as I did.
—Matthew Stringer

Instructor’s comment: From the start of English 103A Matt Stringer used his journal like a pro. He said to me in a Special Writing Journal Entry that accompanies the final version of each essay: “The real impact and boon of this paper were the amount of freewriting I did to work through the rough spots. The part about where the Indian came back for me was written three different ways before I settled on one.” Matt was also actively hearing what his peer group (Laura, Renee, and Phuoc) said and wrote. And in the re-drafting of “Secrets,” I began to see he was working out another secret, this one related to a quality often called “low” in both exposition and narrative—how the projected interest must be at least as important and sustained as the momentary interest.
      Matt taught himself that secret—with his marvelous subject, the journal, drafts, and the peer group. He regulates the projected interest in “Secrets” without ever making it smell of the lamp. The seemingly effortless energy of this fresh-voiced essay became carefully distributed in ways that suspense is too clumsy to describe. Here's one that can quietly get and pleasurably hold your interest.
—Jim Steinke, English Department

The first real secret I ever had began when I was nine years old. I’m not talking about when someone tells you something and you keep it to yourself—it’s more like when you know something or have seen something that no one else has, and telling someone about it takes away from your pleasure, from your secret. My secret happened at Fish Lake.
      The summer trips that my family took to that small natural lake tucked neatly into the Trinity Alps just south of the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation became somewhat of a ritual. It was an activity that just sort of happened of its own accord once every year, and we all just seemed to be along for the ride.
      My dad said it was the fact that the lake was too small for motor boats, giving him some time for some peaceful fishing. My mom claimed that it was that the place never seemed to be crowded, no matter when we went. In any case, it was pretty well agreed upon that Fish Lake was our place, and anyone we brought up there was our guest.
      Now, my family could never really be considered in the Grizzly Addams-class with respect to the outdoors. That is to say, our adventures to the wilderness always included at least one tent, three weeks’ supply of food (for a week-long trip), a gas barbecue, radios, bicycles, and a moped, and one year we even took a small house-trailer with a privy and a sink. Purists and naturalists would call it “car camping” with a derisive snort, but this was about as close to nature as my family was going to get, so I took it as a blessing rather than a curse.
      The fact was I liked going to Fish Lake. It wasn’t so much the beautiful wilderness or the millions of things to do. These aspects were nice, but this small campground was something more to me. I guess it all really started when I encountered the Indian.
      I spent a lot of time by myself as a child, an amazing feat considering I had three brothers. As a result, I spent a lot of hours of my vacation just walking through the woods and the campground, around the lake, and over all of the roads. I don’t know exactly why my parents understood my need for solitude, but my mom didn’t seem to notice when I was gone for such long stretches of time. When I would return, our eyes would lock for the briefest instant, and I would think, she understands. That seemed to be good enough for both of us.
      The summer of my ninth year was our second trip to the lake. There was a small general store at the junction of the access road and Highway 91, and it was a good twenty-minute walk from the campground. My travels often carried me to the store, sometimes to buy some candy or baseball cards, sometimes just to sit on the steps and have a coke. The storekeeper was a plump woman whose age seemed beyond measure to me. Her hair was dark but streaked with steely grey, and there were millions of tiny wrinkles around her eyes, which were a soft and trusting brown.
      I saw him one day as I sat on the store’s dusty porch in the hottest part of the day. I was partially aware of the lazy drone of the summer insects in my ears, and the half-hearted radio broadcast wafting from inside the store. I loved sitting on that porch with the sun high over head, making my thoughts slow and pleasant, like a small river that goes nowhere in particular, but slowly gets there all the same.
      I was just feeling the fuzzy tug of sleep at my consciousness when my head snapped up suddenly. Something had moved, ever so slightly, in the shadows of the pine trees across the road. I peered intently at the spot where I thought I had seen movement. The day was even more still now, as if everything was holding its breath for a few moments. I couldn’t see anything, and I was just about to turn my attention to something else when it happened again. This time I was sure, so I got up slowly to get a closer look. My Uncle Bill was a hunter, and he had taught me how to be quiet in the woods, and I was quite good at sneaking up on animals without startling them. I hadn’t seen any deer yet this year, and I was surprised that one might be so close to the highway.
      I crept slowly across the road, shielding my eyes from the glare, trying to see whatever was under the boughs of the trees. I took a step into the shade and paused to let my eyes adjust to the gloom. What I saw was not a deer, as I had expected, but a man. He was standing very still and looking at me with a gaze that was penetrating even in the darkness of the trees. I felt somehow held by his stare, and it made me uneasy. I started to turn to go, my natural shyness overcoming me.
      “Wait.” His voice carried over to me, but did not seem to disturb the stillness around us. I half-turned to see what he wanted. I saw now that he was an Indian, what we now would call a Native American. He had long black hair pulled behind his head in a pony tail. He wore modern clothes, but they were very sturdy and functional, like a mountain man’s clothing. He looked at me and then pointed up towards the trees. At first I was reluctant, then I allowed my eyes to follow his motion and see what he was pointing at. Up in the trees, perched on a dead snag, was a large hawk. My breath whistled through my teeth as I drew it in surprise. I had never seen a bird of prey so close before, and its power and majesty awed me more than a little. Its feathers were a deep brown and its eyes seemed almost piercing, even from the considerable distance at which the bird rested from me. Its tail ended in large, muddy red feathers.
      As if given some silent and mysterious signal, the bird suddenly took wing and started to ascend into the sky. As long as I live, I doubt that I’ll ever see anything so amazing. At the time I didn’t fully understand my reaction to the bird, but I remember feeling that this was something important, extraordinary even. The hawk quickly disappeared from view, blocked by the trees, and it was as if I had been released from some strange enchantment, dazed but happy.
      I looked back to where the Indian had stood, but I saw that he had started walking uphill, deeper into the woods. On impulse, I started to follow him. Even now I am confounded by my own boldness, but I felt that I had just shared something real with someone, and I needed to validate it, to acknowledge it. Following him just seemed like the right thing to do at the time.
      I trailed at a distance for some time, going as quietly as I knew how, but I had the feeling that he knew that I was there anyway. He didn’t really follow a path; every now and then he’d come upon an animal trail or footpath, and sometimes he’d travel along these for a time, but he always seemed to break off eventually, as if he didn’t need trails to get where he was going. I estimated that we were heading in the general direction of the campground, but I had no way to tell for sure.
      My question was soon answered when the Indian hit a trail that I faintly recognized from my wanderings. I guessed that we were fairly close to the camp but on a course to pass just east of it. He was traveling at a steady pace, and I was beginning to tire. It became even more difficult as the land grew steeper, and I was beginning to wonder if I could keep up. I felt a strange sense of urgency, like I was supposed to be here, and I didn’t want to give up. Neither the ever-increasing distance from camp nor my aching legs served to truly discourage me, so I pressed on.
      From up ahead I could faintly hear the sound of running water splashing against a rocky stream bed. I saw the Indian hop across the small stream, deftly stepping from rock to rock. I wanted very much to stop and rest, but I wanted even more to find out where the Indian was going. I hopped to the first rock and balanced precariously. The next leap was a long one, something that my legs in their tired state probably couldn’t handle. It was too late to stop now, so I went ahead and jumped.
      It was a mistake, of course. My right foot made it to the second rock but failed to find a firm purchase there, and my arms pinwheeled in what must have been a comical attempt to regain my balance. I fell hard on the rock, painfully skinning my knee and splashing down into the shallow, cold water. I felt the tears of pain and frustration coming, and I sat in the cold water and started to give in to them.
      More painful than my skinned knee or my soaked condition was the thought that I’d lost the Indian for sure. Now I would never know where he was going, or who he was. I was crazy to think that I could follow a strange Indian through the woods in the first place. These thoughts of despair ran through my mind, and I couldn’t muster the energy to pull myself out of the stream. I bowed my head in defeat, the tears coming more rapidly, running down my cheeks, leaving dirty smears.
      I felt a firm grip on my arm, causing me to raise my head in astonishment. The Indian was there, kneeling, helping me up. He spoke quietly, in a soothing tone, and my tears stopped, giving way to my awe. His musky smell was around me and the coarse skin of his face was close to me, putting vivid images into my mind. His sturdy clothes rustled softly. I felt no fear, for in his touch and expression there was only kindness, and an odd sort of strength. I can’t say why, but in that moment I trusted him as much as I’ve ever trusted anyone. I began to believe now that the Indian wanted to show me something, that he was taking me here for a reason.
      “Wha-what’s your name?” was all I could think to say. The Indian didn’t answer, but only turned and started to walk again. Although I was wet and tired, and my knee smarted painfully, I was too curious about where we were going. I started after him again, forgetting my discomforts. We rounded a final bend in the trail and he stopped. The sound of the stream drifted from somewhere to our right, and the trees opened up ahead of us.
      The sky was blue, but an unusual picturesque cast of blue, making everything more vivid and vital. In the background were mountains just about as far as you could see—they were all wild and covered with trees, which the late afternoon sunlight angled down through, creating soft pockets of shadow amidst pools of golden light.
      In front of me lay a pond. It was covered with large green lily pads, each of which had a tiny white flower. The lilies filled the pond, almost completely obscuring the water, giving the illusion of a continuous meadow of green and white. In the places that the water did show through, it was easy to see that it was pure and clean. Frogs of all sizes were using the lilies as sun beds, relaxing lazily on the moist surfaces. There was no breeze, and as a result almost everything seemed calm and still. The occasional call of a bird and the gentle murmur of the stream were the only interruptions of the silence.
      A large fallen log jutted out from beneath my feet and angled down from the bank into the pond, forming a bridge easily large enough to support three or four grown people. It sloped gently down and out over the water for thirty feet or so, and then slid gracefully into the pond, like a giant root seeking life-giving water. The log was worn smooth from many quiet footfalls, since many an observer must have used it to walk out over the water to view the pond all around.
      The sound of insects was a gentle hum here. The scent of wet earth and spruce and young grass intermingled in the air, and I remember thinking that this was the smell of someplace that was alive, more alive than anywhere else in the world. This vitality was a palpable thing, not just something abstract, and it was powerful.
      The Indian looked at me with a strange, thoughtful expression in his eyes. I didn’t really know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. I just gazed out over the pond and let the view wash over me, enveloping my senses with its subtlety and perfection.
      I don’t know how long I stood there, and I was vaguely aware of the Indian quietly leaving, returning to the woods once more. I didn’t think to follow him this time, and at any rate I was far too tired for any more walking right then. I knew that his role in this journey was over—he had shown me what he wanted me to see. To this day I still do not know whether my meeting with the Indian was chance or whether he had sought me out. I have my suspicions, but they are based more on feelings than tangible evidence.
      I never told anyone about the pond, and I never spoke of the Indian, either. It wasn’t just that no one would believe me (I did have quite an imagination, after all); it was more like something that was a private part of me. I would return to the pond every summer, but I would go there only once, and for a brief visit only. In all the years that I went, the place never seemed to change.
      I guess that secret places never do.