Prologue continued…

There was a wood stove with chinks in the iron drum revealing hot ember, a dry sink with a galvanized pail of river water next to it, a yellow enameled breakfast table and two rusted chrome chairs with most of the rubber feet missing, a half-loft with a steep ladder and a mattress. A Pyrex pot steamed on the table. The old man poured the hot liquid into two thick mugs, gestured for Jay to take a seat, picked up a mug and blew across it to cool the tea, a bitter concoction of dried Labrador leaves and spruce shavings as it turned out.

Then he said, “Are you angry with me?”

The question surprised Jay. “Why would I be angry?”

“You should not be, but you might be. If you did not understand.” He examined Jay for what seemed like a couple minutes. “I did not take you in after Madeline died. I knew they could take better care of you, those state people. I liked to drink then and was not willing to raise a young kid. I never let them know I existed. I’m glad you are not angry with me.”

And so Jay moved in with his grandfather. They extended the loft with scrap lumber so there would be an extra place to sleep. He slept on blankets, telling his grandfather he was too young to need a mattress. It was luxury after the potato barn. From the first day, they seemed to get along as if they’d always lived together, Jay willing to fit himself to his grandfather’s routine.

One day his grandfather said, “I named you. When you were being born I was waiting outside in the yard, letting the women be. A large blue jay flew on a birch limb, looked at me for a long time, said nothing. They usually come in pairs, but this one was alone. Just so you know.”

His grandfather had not stopped drinking. Not in the least. He made his own liquor using a wood-fired pot still, and though hesitant at first, he began to teach Jay his secrets. The moonshine itself was straight forward—mostly a potato mash with some corn thrown in. What made it remarkable was the inclusion of Amanita muscaria mushrooms.

“Most people will tell you they are poisonous,” he said, holding Jay for a moment with his deadpan stare. “They are, but I know a few things.”

The mushrooms grew in a certain part of the woods among the birches near the river. Jay and his grandfather harvested them as the veil ruptured and the gills began to open. They carefully cleaned the cap of nubs, trimmed the root, and hung the mushrooms upside down from the cabin’s rafters with bits of string. Once dried, the fungus was simmered in river water for hours, creating a rust-colored tea, his grandfather very attentive as he stirred the pot. To this cold tea they added measured amounts of raw moonshine, along with an essence boiled from black birch buds and fresh shoots of red spruce; herbs—dock, saxifrage, betony, and wild sage; and roots of young borage and elecampane. The mixture sat for several months in white-oak barrels and once ready was strained into clean quart beer bottles and stoppered with whittled-down wine corks. It was an ancient recipe and one that his grandfather adhered to like an alchemist. He was precise about this one aspect of his life and nothing else.

They made enough extra liquor to sell to a few customers so they could buy shells for the .30-30, his grandfather’s Bull Durham or Bugler, and the few things they couldn’t shoot, trap, forage or grow—salt, flour, sugar, and yeast. They drank almost every evening. Did nothing but hunt, fish the Lower Beaulieu, garden some, distill, chop wood, and drink. It was quite a change for Jay who had never drunk anything stronger than a little wine. After all the years he’d spent studying and working indoors, or training as a boxer, he was finally back in the wilderness, and as he continued to live with his grandfather, something began to gather inside him.

There was an old sweat lodge down near the river. It hadn’t been used in many years, and Jay asked his grandfather about it, wanted to rebuild it. His grandfather resisted. “Why mess with the past? Let it rest where it died. Most Micmacs are Catholic now anyway. They made sure of that. Never understood why Madeline gave in. I guess after she got sick, she weakened. It is difficult to be strong when you are sick.” But after a few weeks of Jay’s prodding, they dug a new fire pit, cleared and deepened the earthen hollow inside the lodge, cut young alder and black ash and repaired the canvas canopy, spread cedar boughs inside. They started to take sweats.

They heated rocks in the pit. Jay shoveled the glowing stone into the hole in the center of the lodge. Both of them inside, the door flap pulled closed, they poured water on the rocks and added sweetgrass. His grandfather told him, “What matters in the sweat is the heat of the rocks. Let the rock bring the smell of the earth into your lungs. Let the steam bring you out through your pores. Know you are nothing. Then you can start to become something. You can bring questions into the sweat. Many times they are answered.”

Jay had a question.

One night he took a long sweat alone. When he finally crawled from the heat, he stretched out against the cold ground, steam pouring off him as if his skin were smoldering. He could feel the entire enormous mass of the earth against his naked back, the curve of the planet as it moved through space. He stared up at the sky, at the infinite heavens, got that incredible understanding of distance, where everything is so close and so far away in the same instant. A meteor cut an acid-green pathway across the sky, the woods springing alive in a flare of radiance. And then there was a voice inside his mind. At first he did his utmost to ignore it, to shut it out with the boundaries of logic, but soon he knew it was real, and though it didn’t speak in clear words, he sensed exactly what it was saying.

The next morning he packed his duffel bag. He explained his decision to his grandfather and thanked him. The old man listened, barely nodding his head, his face expressionless. Jay waited. He gave it a few minutes, then simply shook the callused hand one last time and walked off down the dirt path after two years in the woods.

 

***

The timer signaled the end of the final incubation interval, and Jay’s thoughts returned to the laboratory, the cat having long since asked to rejoin the outside world. As dawn began to blue the glass-brick windows, he noticed something he’d never seen before or ever expected to see. The structure in the holding vessel seemed to be pulsing, not from movement but with shifting color. A prismatic rainbow beauty not unlike the wet skin of a trout just pulled from the Beaulieu. He almost turned, half-expecting to see his grandfather standing behind him. Instead he reached down and touched the cell aggregate with his fingertips.

What happened next changed his life and many lives forever, like a fresh channel of rushing water broken free from a river that can never be held back again.

 

To be continued…