It took about forty-five minutes by canoe to get to the island. It was supposed to be faster, about twenty minutes or so (and ordinarily the lake is calm—the kind of place where you could take pictures of the mountains reflecting in the water), but that afternoon there was a storm far away, maybe in Canada, and there were winds coming from the northwest, and one of the guys who had done the trip many times said he had never seen it like this, never seen the wind come out from the side that way. There were six of us: two canoes with two people each, and two single-person kayaks—a group of friends’ friends; no one person knew more than two people in the group. The waves were small but still they splashed up and over the side of our canoe, so that about ten minutes from the island my knees were completely submerged with the water we had taken in. “Turn to face the waves,” Libby yelled back to us, and just as she was saying it again, one of the guys in front dipped his paddle in the water the wrong way so that his kayak turned parallel to the coming wave, and we watched as he tipped. I laughed—we all laughed—with excitement and paddled over to him. His dry bag and oars were floating in the water. He was smiling, but his eyes and the unnatural way he held his mouth open suggested the water was cold. We tried but couldn’t flip his kayak back over. He then tried to get in our canoe by pulling himself up and over the side, and just as he seemed to be getting in, he swung his leg over a little too hard and tipped the canoe. Like that, we were in the water, now three of us. The water was very cold, and I could see our cooler and other things floating. The remaining canoe and kayak came to us, and we waded over, slowly handing them our dry bags and paddles. Libby and the others looked big—like leaders, heroes almost—as they directed us, pointed to items still floating, and took in one thing after another. When I look back, what feels most vivid is not how cold the water was, but how small we were, on the surface of a lake inside the mountains.
Our canoe was completely submerged but not sinking any farther. It looked a bit ghastly as it hovered just a foot or so beneath the surface, as though it were some sort of relic, something from a long time ago. I tried to lift it, but it was too heavy. One of the more experienced guys, the one who brought most of the supplies, asked me to grab the rope from the front of the submerged canoe—to hand it to him—and before long they were towing it in. The three of us who were in the water started swimming to shore, a laborious, thirty-minute swim made harder by my jacket. It wasn’t long before the other two managed to get out ahead of me. From time to time, I had to stop and wade, gasping for air and increasingly concerned by the difficulty of the currents. I tried a backstroke, but the water splashed over my face and into my nose and mouth. I stopped to choke it up, surprised that it was fresh water. I had never thought about drowning in fresh water. I considered discarding my jacket but didn’t want to leave it, so I kept swimming, dragging it along with each stroke. Eventually, we all got to shore, and once we did, it seemed inevitable that we would. The others had started a fire, and before long those of us who had swum were down to our briefs, leaning toward the fire with our toes up and our hands wrapped around our elbows, our clothes hanging off the trees.
Once we were warm and dry, we got dressed again with clothes from the dry bags. We had beans from a can and sausages that we heated over the fire, and a collection of varying ales, hoppy and tart and dark, which had kept cool in the cooler and in any event would have been cold in the night. We passed around individually wrapped pieces of licorice that had hardened in the cold but were tasty as we chewed on them. One of the guys sipped from a bottle of brown liquor and passed it around. At some point, I was the kind of drunk where I wanted nothing more than to just sit. Up above, the stars had been pulled forward from every direction, and I noticed that as I moved my gaze from one part of the sky to another, I saw more stars, different stars. It was a simple phenomenon, essentially a truism—we see more details wherever we decide to focus—but in that moment, there was a certain universality to it that felt profound, that I could not know one thing without losing focus of another. I was overwhelmed. My friends and their friends were out by the water, and I could hear them laughing and occasionally calling out to me, but I made no response. It was unlike me, but what I needed at this moment was to be unlike me. It was so dark that every few seconds I could see satellites, little lights too dim to be planes, blinking as they moved across the darkness. Peter joined me for a beer. “Those are satellites, right?” I asked. “Yeah. A lot of them are abandoned. They will just orbit forever.” It seemed sad and beautiful and otherworldly to have old machines circling us forever. I imagined big box computers, keyboards and mouses with wires like tails, fax machines, a cotton gin, magazines with news of the Korean War, images of Joseph McCarthy, the moon landing, dots and squiggles from paintings of Cy Twombly, advertisements for laundry machines—the past as a ring around Earth. I wondered if someday the rich would shuttle their bodies into space as a form of burial, so that they would wander through all of space and time until they landed somewhere else. I wondered if that was how, one day, one form of life would find another. “Vanity,” I said, not knowing what I meant to say next. I hadn’t noticed until then that Peter had returned to the water and joined the others. Still, I couldn’t move. It was a strange thing, but in those minutes, I felt the bigness of the universe without feeling the smallness of my own life, feeling not immortal but indelible. I knew then that I wanted to die feeling that way, knowing that our significance in life comes not from what we have but from what we are a part of, and we are all a part of something so big and improbable that its significance is a premise, not something that needs to be concluded—and that not even death can take this from us. I wanted to share this feeling. It felt good to stand and stretch. I put my cap on and went to join the group. They were passing around beers and laughing about a story from a weekend many years ago in Mexico City, and soon I was laughing too. The moon was rising out over the eastern horizon, and it seemed unusually big. At some point we were back by the fire. At some point we poured water on it and stomped until the last of it was gone. At some point I was rubbing my hands with sanitizer, taking out my contacts by the light of my phone. The last thing I remember was the sound of tent zippers closing in the night. In the morning, the lake was calm. I was the only one up, the rest of the tents still zipped. I drank coffee from a tin mug and watched a trout with muted colors and white spots patiently make its way along the shore and wondered what a trout might think on stormy days.
SINA KIAN grew up in Virginia and now lives in New York City. His short stories have appeared in The Georgia Review and The Yale Review Online.