Sometimes at dusk we would see him come out from the hidden interior of his island. For years we had no idea who he was or what he did until the darkest night of the year. It was the summer solstice and there was no moon that night. A light breeze was blowing and the night air had a slight chill to it. We left our small cabin in the woods early that night, thinking that this would finally be the night when our questions might be answered.
Several years ago, we bought a small cabin in the woods on Beaver Lake. It was our weekend getaway from the hustle and bustle of our busy lives in the big city. A small getaway with a loft bedroom looking out over the lake. We would light a fire and sit by the window enjoying the calm serenity of our &escape from the city& cabin as we affectionately called it. Only one bedroom with a primitive kitchen and outhouse, water was drawn from the nearby well and brought in by hand. A far cry from our luxurious penthouse in the city but we somehow felt more at home here than our city digs.
It was a cool November evening when we first saw the stranger emerge from within the Island, or so it seemed. We had just bought the cabin and were determined to use it as much as possible. At first we thought we were both imagining things but the shape and movements confirmed a man. He seemed a small man, hunched over and he seemed to be carrying something over his shoulder in what seemed to be a bag. The bag was almost as big as him. At first, we both thought we were imagining things. He seemed to float across the water and disappeared into the far woods. We never saw him come back.
The Island was fairly large with no buildings and near the far shore. It looked like the Island was connected to the mainland by a shallow causeway. We had hiked around the lake when we had first bought the cabin and noticed large no trespassing signs on the island. We didn't dare cross with those menacing signs promising that trespassers would be shot. Some of the signs showed bullet holes in the rusty metal.
This particular night, we scouted a small hidden alcove in the trees where we were sure we wouldn't be seen. Our only companion was a small bag of trail mix and a bottle of water. We had been crouching in a cramped position for what seemed like hours and felt foolish spying like this. Suddenly, we heard a rustling of the bushes and could barely make out the silhouette of the man carrying a bag in the darkness. He had a slight limp, favoring his left foot. He seemed to be laboring under the weight of the bag. He moved slowly, as if thinking where his next step should be. It seemed like hours before he disappeared in the thickness of the trees, winding his way up the slope. Just before we lost sight of him, he stopped in his tracks, slowly turned around and then it seemed like he was looking directly at us. A shiver went up my spine, thinking that he had somehow spotted us. It was almost as if he knew we were there all the time. After what seemed like an eternity, he turned and continued on his trek. When we were sure he was long gone, we scurried out from our hiding spot and ran back to our cabin like a couple of scared teenagers found out for the first time.
Back in the safety of our small cabin, we feasted on granola bars and opened a bottle of white wine. Not exactly gourmet fare but we were grateful for the cool wine. We were determined that we would find out when he returned and more importantly, eventually where he went. We mounted a vigil by the bedroom window where we had an unobstructed view of the island. We didn't dare light a fire to ward off the chill for fear he would somehow see us spying on him.
It was nearing daylight, the first signs of light showing in the eastern sky when we finally spotted the stranger making his way back to his Island. Somehow, he seemed to have more energy, his limp seemly having been miraculously cured during the night. Of course this was improbable but didn't stop us from coming up with all sorts of strange reasons the following day. He was just about to disappear back into the darkness of the woods when he stopped and looked directly at our cabin. It seemed as if he was looking right into our eyes. We both looked away and ducked below the window, like young children caught in the act. After a minute, we mustered up the courage to peek and noticed he was gone. We looked at each other and thought there was no way he could have possibly seen us. All the same, why did he stop just then and look right in our direction? That question would haunt us all day as we went for a cooling swim in the cool clear lake water and again over dinner of barbecued hamburgers and cold beer. Our curiosity peaked, we were determined to solve this mystery. The fact that he somehow seemed to know exactly where we were didn't deter us and we made up of minds to go out again soon.
That night, we didn't dare go out for fear he would be more attentive of his surroundings and be on the lookout for us. The following day, shortly after breakfast, we loaded up the back packs with ample water and snacks and set out. Our goal was to try to see where he went and more importantly what was in that sack he carried. After a few false starts, we found a well worn trail thru the woods that seemed to come from the direction of the Island. Our hopes piqued , we set out at a brisk pace. The trail seemed to take the longest route possible but upon closer reflection, made good use of the terrain so as to eventually reach the summit of the hill with barely a slope. We had reached the summit barely winded but to our consternation, couldn't see the destination, only a narrow winding trail going down into the thickly wooded forest.
An hour later, we could see what appeared to be a clearing a short distance ahead. We pressed on, our curiosity piqued with renewed vigour. As we stepped out into the small clearing, we both stopped at the same time, our jaws dropping and wondering if the incredibility of what met our eyes was indeed real. Nestled in the small clearing stood a small Tudor style house built entirely out of stone. A smaller building partially finished stood off to the side with a pile of rocks ready for the last wall. The walls were crafted expertly with each rock seemingly fitting perfectly with its mate. The front door was hand hewn from a single piece of white oak, with two letters exquisitely carved into the front, C.D.. Openings either side of the door were provided for windows, not yet in place. The roof shingles seemed to be individually hand made.
Looking at each other, we knew we had to explore further. We walked up to the door expecting it to be locked, but it opened effortlessly on well oiled hinges. We entered a well lit room with dark paneling and a large fireplace. There were signs of burnt wood embers still in the hearth. The room was completely bare but for one large wooden rocking chair facing the far window. Questions went thru my mind, wondering why this hermit of a man would build such a cabin so far out in the woods. We were about to leave when we heard a noise behind us. Turning at the same time, my heart stopped when, standing there was the hermit of the man looking at us with disdain in his eyes. What are you doing here and who are you he bellowed. I'm sorry I proffered, we didn't mean any harm. We were just curious my wife added, she went on to explain where we lived and how we saw him on many occasions going into the woods at dusk. I added that the workmanship of the cabin was second to none, a real beauty and that he should be proud of himself. At this point, he seemed to exhale deeply, as if he was somehow relieved. He walked over to the far wall and sat heavily in the rocking chair. Up close, we could tell he was quite old with a weather beaten face. It was like the weight of the world was lifted from his shoulders.
Many years ago he started, I bought this land with my wife and I promised her I would build her a cabin in the woods where we could retreat from the noise of the city. She wanted a stone cabin and the only place where we could find just the right stones were on that little island. We both cleared the land and started hauling stones every time we came up. About 10 years ago, she fell sick and never recovered. She made me promise to finish the work without her. Last year, I fell and broke my leg. It took me 3 days to reach help. Since then, I haven't been able to carry on as before and now, I fear I may not finish. We could see tears welling in his eyes, knowing how important this project was to him.
For the next few hours, we listened to his story, realising the hard life Andrew, as we found out what his name was, endured. An immigrant from poor Polish parents, he made his life by opening a small shoe store. Devoutly Catholic, he met his wife at church and the first time they spoke, it was evident they had a lot in common.
Later that afternoon, as we made our way back to the cabin, we vowed to help Andrew realize his dream. We would use our vacation time to help him finish his work. The next day, we put on our dirtiest, grubbiest clothes and made our way to the island. Standing on the far shore, we called after Andrew but there was no answer. Making our way across the shallow causeway, we followed the well worn trail until we came to a natural rock quarry. There was no sign of Andrew, no sign of a cabin or life on the island. As we had come this far, we put as many rocks as we could carry in our backpacks and started toward the unfinished cabin. We were half expecting to meet up with Andrew along the path but we were disappointed. We were grateful for the gentle slope while carrying the rocks and made good time to the cabin. There was still no sign of Andrew so we left our bundles of rock in the small pile that he had started.
For the next three weeks, we repeated the same task, hoping that we would meet up with Andrew again. By now , there was quite a sizeable heap of stones, more than enough we were sure to finish the last wall. Under a tarp behind the house was mortar, sand and a wheel barrow. We could only imagine how many trips were needed to hand carry everything this far into the woods. Two weeks later, we stood in front of the finished shack. Still after all this time, there was no sight of Andrew.
Later that night, as we sat by the fire looking out over the lake, our thoughts went out to Andrew, wondering what had become of him. The cabin in the woods was finished, dedicated to the woman he loved. Autumn came and went and still there was no sign of our friend. We closed up our cabin for the winter and set off back to the hustle and bustle of the big city.
Spring came late this year and we were anxious to return to our home away from home. The cabin was just as we had left it. We were hopeful that we would meet up with Andrew, wondering what his reaction to the finished cabin would be. Spring and summer passed and still, there was no sign of Andrew. Several times during our stay, we would make the long trek to the cabin in the woods only to find it exactly as we had left it. We had resigned ourselves to the fact that something had happened to him and that he would never see his dream of the cabin finished realized.
Autumn had arrived and the leaves on the trees had turned and fallen. We had decided that on our last day before leaving, we would make one last trek to the cabin. Upon reaching the clearing, the distinct smell of smoke assailed our nostrils. We both looked at each other, wondering if Andrew had returned. We ran to the cabin and saw smoke coming from the chimney. Our hopes restored, we knocked on the door only to have them dashed when a middle aged man opened the door. We stood there dumbfounded for a minute until he spoke. He addressed us by our names yet we had never seen this man. He went on to explain that Andrew was his father and that he had fallen ill last year. It was only then that he found out what his father was doing and promised to fulfill his dream. He went on to say how dumbfounded he was when he first came up mid summer expecting to start work on the cabin only to see it finished. He took a picture and showed it to his father one week before he passed away. He said he seemed to finally be at peace once he saw the finished cabin. We went on at length about how we first met Andrew and when we no longer saw him, how we undertook to finish his cabin, which he built in the memory of his wife.
We left the cabin late afternoon and wound our way back to our small cabin. Closing up for the winter one more time, we reflected on how our lives had been enriched by this chance encounter with the man on the Island.