The letter came out of the clear blue sky.
It was a long time ago, and I’m not going to claim it was one of those the-day-JFK-was-shot events that you retain in perfect memory. But for more than 40 years I’ve been trying to make sense of what lay behind that letter—the needs, the hopes, the desires—and I can’t swear I’m any closer to understanding it now than I ever was.
It was waiting on the table by the front door when I got home from school, and I could tell right away it was from Canada: stamps bearing the image of the Queen, Air Mail twinned with Par Avion. The handwriting, in pencil, was loopy and unfamiliar, and I stared at the Manitoba return address in bewilderment. The sender was someone I hardly knew, someone who’d barely crossed my mind since our brief encounter a few weeks earlier.
I unfolded the letter, written in lined paper torn from a notebook, and began to read:
I don’t know if you remember but I am the boy who took you fishing at Eagle Falls ...
Remember? The trip to Manitoba was all I thought about, my own private episode of American Sportsman, endlessly repeating in what these days would be called high-def. I was a 14-year-old on his first fly-in fishing trip, a 14-year-old whose tackle box, filled with Flatfish, Mepps, Dardevles, and so on, had launched more fantasies than the pictures in Playboy.
There was the floatplane base on the Winnipeg River, with its gleaming Beavers and Otters tied to the docks and its hard-looking bush pilots smoking Players. There was the spruce-birch forest of eastern Manitoba, so vast it made the plane seem like a toy, and the rocky mantle of the Canadian shield, stretched like a furrowed skin over the knotted muscles of the earth. At first the landscape was veined with brawling, west-running rivers; then, as the Beaver droned north, it glinted with the mirrored reflections of lakes—one of which, Moar, was our destination.
Dad and I landed walleyes and northerns by the dozens. The time passed in a blur of bent rods and yowling reels, and by the afternoon of our third day, with the plane to Winnipeg due any minute, the trip was already a fantasy come true. It lacked only a trophy northern pike, 18 pounds or better. I’d caught a lot of fish for a kid my age, but I’d yet to notch a really big one. On Moar Lake, I knew my chances were better than they’d ever been.
It unfolded as though scripted. The plane had just winked into sight when, on what was literally my last cast, I hooked and landed the northern of my dreams. Its back looked as wide as a submarine, its head as broad as an anvil.
As we raced back to the lodge, I stared in giddy amazement at the great fish sprawled across the bottom of the boat. When we passed the cluster of tents where our Saulteaux guide, Isaac Bushie, lived with his family, his wife, a plump woman wearing an apron over an old-fashioned print dress, came to the shore and waved. Isaac’s bronze face broke into an enormous gap-toothed smile; he spread his arms wide in the universal gesture for “big fish,” and his wife clapped her hands in delight.
For one of the few times in my life, I felt like a hero.
The boy who took me fishing at Eagle Falls was their son, Wilson. He’d been among the crowd on the dock the afternoon we arrived at Norse Lodge, helping moor the plane and unload our gear. I didn’t notice him at first. Our attention was taken up by the lodge’s proprietor, Clive Rampton, a hulking man who looked like a mob enforcer—beetling brow, perpetual five o’clock shadow—but whose bluster was mostly façade.
“Welcome to Moar Lake,” he said, his voice a clipped Canadian brogue. “There’s still time to get in some fishing, so after you’ve gotten situated in your cabin bring your tackle and I’ll have Wilson”—he nodded toward an Indian youth in a blue cloth jacket—“take you to Eagle Falls. It’s a pretty spot, and you’re sure to catch walleyes. Wilson will take good care of you.”
Wilson had skin the color of saddle leather, a mop of jet-black hair, and the slender, loose-limbed build of a long-distance runner. He smiled a lot, spoke very little, and seemed terribly earnest. He looked to be about my age, but in response to Dad’s question he said he was 16—two years older than me.
But I wasn’t all that interested in Wilson’s vitals. I’d been building up a head of steam for months, and I was here to fish.
Eagle Falls, where Moar Lake pours into the Berens River system, appeared at first as nothing more than a hole in the skyline. But when Wilson landed the boat and led us down the trail to its edge, we saw it for what it was: a cascade of water the color of strong tea, sheeting over a broad lip before churning to froth and braiding through a series of bouldery pools and channels. The roar was deafening; Dad yelled that he’d follow the trail downstream, and I yelled back that I’d stay here and fish the water closer to the falls.
I flipped a perch-pattern diving plug into the current, let it swing into the slack water on a tight line, and was fast to a chunky walleye almost as soon as I started the retrieve. Wilson was standing on a ledge above and behind me, leaning on a long-handled landing net; I looked up at him to flash a smile, but he’d beaten me to it. He held the net out, wordlessly asking if I wanted his help landing the fish, but—trying hard to project an air of nonchalant professionalism—I shook my head no.
The walleyes at Eagle Falls weren’t large, but they were feisty, and willing, and of a gorgeous copper color the likes of which I’d never seen. Best of all, there seemed to be no end to them. I hooked and landed fish after fish, exchanging silent smiles with Wilson every time, until he pointed to his wrist and went off to round up Dad.
For me, it was a great start to the trip. But for Wilson—and I’d had no inkling of this at the time—it was something more.
Next morning, we were placed in Isaac’s charge. He proved a terrific guide and, despite speaking almost no English, a delightful companion. I didn’t see Wilson again until the floatplane came to pick us up two-and-a-half days later. He materialized on the dock, and while I was still flushed with the excitement of catching the big northern, I remembered my manners and made a point of saying good-bye.
“Bye,” he said, shoving his hands into his pockets.
He ended his letter with an outline of one of those hands, and the closing Your friend, Wilson Bushie.
We exchanged letters on and off for several years, Wilson and I, and at the end of that period—my high school years, basically—I scarcely knew him any better than on the day we met. If he’d been a baseball player, his nickname would have been the Saulteaux Cipher. He divulged few details of his life, and what little he told me was vague, even evasive.
What I do know is that he moved around a lot. The return address on one letter would be Norse Lodge, on another it would be a suburb of Winnipeg, while on a third it might be Berens River, a Siberia-bleak village in the bush of northern Manitoba. At times he attended school; at other times he stayed with relatives, and what he “did” then was impossible to determine.
In my utterly romaticized vision, Wilson followed Isaac’s lead, fishing, hunting, trapping, guiding, eschewing the enticements of the corrupted outside world to live self-reliantly off the land. (It’s worth remembering that those were the days when lodges still touted the “instinctive” abilities of their “native guides.”) I have no doubt that Wilson had some of these skills; one of the dining room servers at Norse Lodge, a college-age girl, gushed that going on boat rides with Wilson was “amazing” because he always saw birds and animals before anyone else did.
But I think he was an indifferent outdoorsman, not wholly rejecting these traditional pursuits but not embracing them with much enthusiasm, either. Like many Native Canadians and Americans of his generation, he had a foot in both worlds, one old, one new, and keeping his balance while being pulled and pushed in different directions was an ongoing challenge.
Once, an outfitter Dad had been dealing with told him that he’d hired several Saulteaux to cut ice for a string of outpost cabins north of Moar Lake (the blocks were stored in cellar-like excavations and insulated with sawdust), and he thought Wilson might have been one of the crew. That was a labor in keeping with my image of Wilson, but when I asked him about it in my next letter he responded No, I never went with anybody to cut ice.
In fact, his response to most of my questions was some variation of “No”: No, we don’t have any secrets for catching fish. No, there aren’t many ducks and geese up here. No, I’ve never seen a wolverine.
Of course, for someone of my interests, it was incredibly cool to have “an Indian friend from Manitoba,” as I described Wilson to my friends at home, always with a touch of pride. A cynic would say that I objectified Wilson, that I regarded him as little different from that big northern pike—another trophy from my trip to Moar Lake—and I suppose there’s some truth in that. I was, after all, a typical American teenager, and thus one of the most self-absorbed creatures on the face of the earth: a mile wide, an inch deep.
But even if my Indian friend wasn’t exactly the Indian I wanted him to be—and even if the flow of information was largely one-way—I was a faithful correspondent. Wilson seemed to have an insatiable curiosity about my life, a life I considered tragically normal. I was a middle-class kid from Sioux City, Iowa! My dad sold insurance and played golf on Wednesday afternoons! My mom did amazing things with leftovers!
And yet to Wilson this unexceptional life, breezily recounted in my letters, must have appeared fantastically exotic and privileged. The girls I dated, the car I drove, the sports I played, the Black Oak Arkansas and Grand Funk Railroad concerts I went to with my friends, my plans to attend college ... My letters must have seemed like windows into another world, a variegated, endlessly fascinating realm separated from his by an impassable divide. I wonder, now, if on some level Wilson lived vicariously through me—and if my letters made him ache for what, through no fault of his own or agency he could control, he simply could never have.
After the great fishing on our first trip, it was a foregone conclusion that Dad and I would return to Moar Lake. I was looking forward to seeing Wilson, of course, but I was apprehensive, too. What if we couldn’t find anything to talk about?
Just as I feared, my reunion with Wilson was a vaudeville of awkward silences. The kind of macho posturing and bantering that came so easy with my friends back home (Hey, man, how’s it hanging?) seemed as out of place with Wilson as snapping towels in the locker room at Augusta National, and it was painfully clear that neither of us was good at small talk. The physical and emotional remove afforded by letters made the written word a more comfortable means of communication, especially, I think, for Wilson.
The funny thing was, Wilson’s little brother, Keith, had no problems cracking wise. A pint-size banty rooster who wore a snap-brim fedora and always had a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, Keith was even younger than me—and yet he had all the swaggering self-confidence Wilson didn’t. He even stepped in to guide us one day when the regular guide didn’t show. Other than dinging the prop on rocks a time or two he did a fine job, including expertly filleting walleyes and frying up a perfectly respectable shore lunch.
We’d hoped to fish with Isaac again, but he was promised to another party. And Wilson wasn’t guiding at all, apparently, which begged the question of just what he was doing. He was evasive, as usual, and when Dad broached the subject with Clive, he said, “Oh, a little of this, a little of that.” He didn’t elaborate.
I met Wilson’s sister on that trip, too. Her name was Delsie, and she took my breath away. Glossy black hair that fell to her waist, skin like caramel cream, impossibly delicate hands: Sans the fringed doeskin costume, she was every white boy’s Indian princess fantasy come to life.
I was as hormone-addled as any other teenager, but Delsie’s beauty had a haunted quality that hit me like a cold shower. Her eyes should have danced, should have shone like dark jewels. Instead they reflected pools of sadness, as though seeing clouds building just beyond the horizon.
Delsie played the guitar, and one soft evening while we sat in the grass and watched the sunset paint the water, Wilson and I persuaded her to sing. Delsie’s voice was high and clear, and her refrain of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”—I’ve looked at life from both sides now—carried a hair-raising quaver of recognition that came from a place no girl Delsie’s age should now about.
Then, it touched me. Now, its memory breaks my heart.
A couple of years in—a small eternity, to a teenager—our correspondence began to dry up. I suppose it was inevitable. I was increasingly preoccupied with school, there were no end of other distractions, and on top of everything else I
was trying to keep it together in the wake of my parents’ divorce—a kick in the guts that, like Wilson’s original letter, I never saw coming.
I suppose the novelty had worn off, too, and while I’m willing to shoulder the lion’s share of the blame for allowing the relationship to wither, I think Wilson felt much the same way. In the hard light of day, we were just retracing our steps, going back over territory we’d already covered, hoping to find a stone we hadn’t turned over yet.
Still, I’d sent him a cheery letter to let him know we were coming back to Moar Lake. So I was puzzled, as the floatplane taxied to the dock and I scanned the faces assembled there, that his wasn’t among them.
Clive cleated a line and greeted us as we clambered out of the Beaver. I asked about Wilson.
He sighed, shook his head, and said “He got on the moose milk and lit out for the bush. He’ll be back when he sobers up.”
“Home brew,” he explained, grabbing a duffel bag and swinging it onto the dock. ”Flour, sugar, yeast, and water. If they want to get fancy, they’ll throw in a handful of raisins. Nasty stuff, but they’re not drinking it for the flavor.”
This news cast a pall over the entire trip.I went through the motions, caught fish, and tried for Dad’s sake to act like I was enjoying myself. But I was heartsick. This was not the Wilson I knew—or thought I did. I had no right to expect anything of him, of course; hell, I’d gotten loaded myself a time or two. But a part of me was disappointed, even hurt. I wanted to believe Wilson was better than that.
Speculating on why he went on a bender at that particular moment puts me on dangerous ground—a spongy, hummocky muskeg riddled with the temptations to oversimplify and attach more importance to my place in Wilson’s life than it deserved. It could be that I’m all wrong, that his drunk had nothing to do with my arrival, but I just can’t buy that. The world that was opening panoramically for me—the world I innocently described in my letters—was closing like a fist for him. Was he suddenly ashamed of who he was? Did he think I’d judge him, and find him lacking? Or was it simply that I’d come to represent everything he could never have, and embody everything he could never be?
Whatever the backstory was, ultimately Wilson drank for the oldest reason of all: to kill the pain.
He finally showed up on our last day in camp. He was sitting on the bow of our boat with his boots on the dock when we came down after breakfast, and the change was shocking. It was as if he’d aged ten years. He looked hardened, like the young AIM toughs I’d seen on TV surrounding Russell Banks and Dennis Means. He’d grown his hair long, he wore dark sunglasses, and when I said, a little nervously, “Hey, Wilson, it’s good to see you,” his mouth betrayed only a flicker of a smile.
“How’s fishing?” he asked, reaching into the pocket of his denim jacket and pulling out a pack of Players. It was the first time I’d ever seen him smoke.
“A little slow,” I admitted.
“That’s what I hear,” he said, tilting back his head to exhale. He said nothing else.
I stood there fidgeting. “Where’s Delsie?” I stammered at last. “I haven’t seen her around.”
“Winnipeg,” he said.
“Yeah? What’s she doing there?”
Wilson just shrugged, and took another drag on his cigarette. Clive blustered out of the lodge then, enroute to the dock to light a fire under the guides. Wilson quickly stood up, flicked his butt into the lake, and said “I’ll see you around, I guess.”
“I hope so,” I said, unsure if I meant it or not.
Keeping his head down and his hands in his pockets, Wilson sidestepped Clive and hurried towards the guides’ shack, hidden in the spruces behind the lodge. He disappeared around the corner of the building, and I never laid eyes on him, or heard from him, again.
Early in our correspondence, I got a padded envelope from Wilson. Inside was a neckband of tiny multicolored beads, intricately sewn and patterned and culminating in a circular pendant, a glorious sunburst with my initials, TD, inlaid in dark green against a white field. Slipped over my neck, the pendant—an amulet, really—rested against my heart.
The note read For my friend Tom Davis. Then there was the outline of his hand, and the usual Your friend, Wilson Bushie.
I wore that necklace every day, under my shirt so I could feel it against my skin. I gave me secret strength; it reminded me of my faraway friend. Then one afternoon after football practice I was lifting it from the peg in my locker when it snagged. A thread snapped and, as I watched in numb horror, the beads spilled like salt across the cold concrete floor.
I no longer felt whole.
While I held on to them for many years, Wilson’s letters no longer survive, either. But on Moar Lake, deep in the spruce-birch wilderness of eastern Manitoba, a rock face encrusted with centuries of rust-brown lichen rises from the water. Names are graven there, names spelled out by a nimble young Saulteaux who scaled the cliff, balanced on a narrow ledge, and scratched them onto that ancient canvas. They are faint, all but imperceptible except in certain light; someday time and weather will wear them away and leave no trace.
But for now they endure, the names of two boys who fished together, once, at a place called Eagle Falls.