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Two thousand miles from Hollywood, California, Fenny Ness would have preferred any sort of date with Destiny to the one she was on now.
She was ice-skating on the frozen surface of Tall Pine Lake with Craig Asper, who, when he wasn’t falling, was trying to get Fenny to invest in his motivational tapes business.
“I get letters from guys who were on the brink of bankruptcy,” he was saying, taking Fenny’s arm as he wobbled on the ice. “Knowing that we helped them not only get back on their feet but ignited their earning power is really satisfying—makes you sort of understand how Albert Schweitzer and those other humanitarian guys felt.”
It had taken Fenny a while to understand that the many stupid things Craig Asper said were not jokes; that he did think his “Strike While It’s Hot and Earn!” tapes could perhaps save the world, or at least those interested in lighting a match to their earning power.
“Why do you make so many references to fire?” Fenny had asked earlier in the Northlands Inn dining room. This was a young man whose main interest, when she knew him at Bemidji State, had been beer, not blazes.
“Because fire is energy,” said Craig, gazing into the table’s candle flame with what Fenny thought was an interest bordering on pyromania. “Fire is power. The sun is a ball of fire and without the sun we’d die.”
Fenny waited a moment for further elaboration, but there was none, and she made the first of many surreptitious glances at her wristwatch. Fortunately, she hadn’t brought a swimsuit, so she had a good excuse for declining his invitation to take an after-dinner dip in the Jacuzzi and suggested they go ice-skating instead.
“You can rent skates from the hotel,” she said.
“Great,” said Craig, with none of his usual salesman’s enthusiasm.
Right in the middle of his lecture on buying real estate with no money down, Craig took approximately his tenth fall.
“Enough of this Hans Brinker shit,” he said, rubbing his tailbone. “Let’s go back to the lodge and have a drink.”
“Go ahead,” said Fenny. “I’m just going to skate a little longer.”
Craig Asper shrugged. “However you get your jollies.”
Fenny watched as he stumbled in his skates up the wooden walkway to the small trailer the hotel had set up as a warming house and returned the wave he gave her just before he opened the door. Then, in the long clean strides she’d been unable to use while holding up the wobbly entrepreneur, she skated around the shoveled rink and then skated around it again, backward.
“She’s fast,” said a little boy, who on double-bladed training skates was making his way around the rink with his mother. He was right; Fenny was fast, and without the burden of Craig Asper on her arm, she felt she could almost fly.
The Rainy River cuts an aquatic border between Minnesota and Ontario, Canada, and situated on the south bank of this river was Tall Pine. It was an aptly named town, one that inspired tourists to remember poems they had memorized in junior high school (“This is the forest primeval . . .”) and to send postcards with scribbled exclamations: “It’s like Hal and I have been set down in the Christmas tree farm of Paul Bunyan!”
International Falls, at thirty miles to the east, and Baudette, at forty miles to the west, were the nearest metropolises, and it was there that the citizens of Tall Pine did their bulk supermarket and clothes shopping, where they got their driver’s licenses renewed and their backs adjusted.
When Sigrid Ness’s mother died, she and her husband, Wally, returned to Tall Pine for what they thought would be a two-week stay, long enough to bury Lena Nordstrom and take care of her affairs.
The couple hadn’t been to their native Tall Pine since their wedding, having spent their entire married life in pursuit of international travel.
Sig was boxing up fishing lures in the general store/bait shop that had been in her family for over fifty years when Alma Forslund, a friend of her mother’s, had come in and told Sig how happy she was to see Lena’s daughter in the shop again and when was the blessed event?
“Blessed event?” said Sig, thinking for a moment that the woman was referring to the upcoming close-out sale.
Alma patted her own tummy. “It’s sort of a sixth sense of mine. I can tell when an egg’s incubating—even before the hen knows what hit her.”
The doctor who had brought Sig into the world confirmed her pregnancy.
“I’d say you’re about two months along.”
Sig merely stared at him, as if she had just been told she’d won a lottery that she thought was no longer being held.
After sixteen years of a childless marriage, Sigrid and Wally Ness assumed it wasn’t in their cards to bear fruit and multiply, and now, having conceived, they realized they were dealing from a whole new deck.
“So what about Belize?” Sig asked Wally, referring to the place that was next on their agenda.
“What about it?”
“Well, I know people have babies all over the world, but I’d like to have mine here.”
Wally took his wife in his arms. “I am so glad you said that. I want to stay here and have the baby, too. I think it’s time we settled down.”
“You don’t have to sound so apologetic,” said Sig, laughing. “I think we should settle down, too.”
Still holding one another, they laughed, in the delighted way of a long-married couple that finds they still can surprise one another.
Throughout Sig’s pregnancy, she and Wally worked on reconfiguring Nordstrom’s General Goods & Bait into two separate stores. They sold Lena’s drafty Victorian house in town and moved into the log house that Wally had inherited from his long-dead parents.
“We’re not settling down permanently,” said Sig, who with an upside-down mop dusted years of cobwebs tatted into the corners of the ceilings.
“Absolutely not,” said Wally. The couple felt a need to reassure one another that they weren’t giving up adventure, only embarking on a slightly different kind.
“Birds’ nest,” said Sig resolutely. “But they still fly.”
Wally nodded. “I don’t see any clipped wings around here.”
Fenny (her given name, Honoria, was dropped when as a toddler she had made her parents laugh and declared, “Me Fenny”) was soon to experience her parents’ wanderlust when at three weeks of age she was loaded up in the Dodge van and taken on a holiday trip through the Southwest. She spent her first Christmas at a campground outside Carlsbad, New Mexico, being rocked in front of an aspen-wood fire as a big-voiced woman from Tenafly led campers through peppy versions of “Good King Wenceslas” and “O Holy Night.”
Sig and Wally were thrilled at her arrival, but they felt the major concession—staying in Tall Pine and giving their child stability—had been made and that few other concessions in their active lives were necessary. Conversely, Fenny was included in everything. As an infant, strapped onto her mother’s back while Sig and Wally cross-country skied deep into the woods, she watched moonlight fall like blueing liquid across the snow; at six months of age, cradled in a life jacket between seats, she took her first boat ride.
The Ness family home was two miles outside Tall Pine proper, a log house whose front door faced a lake and whose back door was just yards away from a forest.
Fenny thrived there. By age six, she knew how to bait a hook and cast a fishing line, how to tie a slipknot, how to dive off the dock Wally had built. She could tell which trees belonged to the spruce family and which to the pine; she knew how to roll up a sleeping bag into a tight, neat cylinder and how to get her bearings by finding the North Star in a sky overwhelmed with pinpoints of light.
In the summer, the Ness family sat fishing until sunset striped the sky with colors, the water gently slapping the sides of the boat as orange darkened into red and red bled into dusk. In the spring, when the last of the ice gave way in big chunks, Fenny stood between her parents, watching vees of geese return from their winter vacations.
They roasted chestnuts and popped corn in campfires by Tall Pine Lake, they pitched tents in forest clearings, they carried lanterns through a frosty night to rescue a baby wolf trapped in the burlap sacks that covered the tomato plants.
When marooned inside, the Nesses’ idea of entertainment was not sitting in front of a television set (which they did not own) but holding contests in birdcalling (Sig always won—she could give a lonely loon hope), knot tying, and target practice. Sig and Wally were not hunters, both disliking the taste of game; target practice for them was more a test of skill and hand-eye coordination.
Once Lars Larson, a hunting and fishing guide and their nearest neighbor, stopped by to find Wally, Sig, and Fenny perched in three corners of the living room, casting fishing lines at a Maxwell House coffee can in the middle of the room.
“Anything biting?” he asked, scratching the back of his broad, blond head.
The Nesses had kept the bait part of Nordstrom’s General Goods & Bait and expanded on it, turning it into Wally’s Bait & Camp. It smelled of fish and worms, the hardware of new rods and reels, tent canvas and the sweat and funk of canoeists who had stopped by to share their stories after weeks spent exploring Lake of the Woods or Rainy Lake or any of the other dozens nearby.
In the summer, for fifty cents per fish, Wally cleaned the catches of neophyte fishermen and -women whom he had, hours earlier, outfitted with bait and bobs and advice on where to find biting northern and walleye pike. It was a profitable sideline, and Fenny was often called upon to help; she could scale and gut a five-pound muskie in under two minutes.
On the other side of the thick wallboard that separated the two stores was Sig’s Place, home to the craftwork of northern arti- sans. There were crocheted tablecloths; agate earrings; hand-knit sweaters patterned with reindeer and snowflakes; jars of potpourri, their fragrances dark and smelling of lake country; butter-soft moccasins, tanned, beaded, and stitched by Mae Little Feather (the most talented of her contributors but also the crabbiest); framed needlepoint samplers, their stitches immeasurably tiny; wool blankets; and patchwork quilts.
The only thing that wobbled the integrity of Sig’s Place, as far as its proprietor was concerned, was a table in the northwest corner on which perched handiwork of the church circle women. Sig had been loath to open the shop to amateurs, but she grew tired of the pressure from Benevolent Father’s Lutheran Church (known locally as B.F.), of which she was a member.
“Surely you’re aware of the reservoir of talent in our congregation,” said Gloria Murch, wife of the pastor.
Sig said no, she wasn’t aware of any such reservoir, but when Gloria had an idea, she held on to it like a pit bull and soon Sig was besieged by doodads and gimcracks and ornaments that oozed driblets of hard and opaque Elmer’s glue.
Serious customers ignored what Sig referred to as the Junk Table, but the churchwomen bought each other’s handiwork, so Sig could be certain that even a Nativity scene made of dyed Q-Tips or the bas-relief map of Minnesota constructed of multicolored macaroni shells would eventually sell.
Running their own businesses, which they did with Fenny’s help (it was she who made the stores’ bank deposits, who washed the windows until they shone, who dusted and arranged merchandise, swept and waxed floors; she who double-checked invoices, who knew when to order rods and reels, and how to bargain with Mae Little Feather without losing her shirt), engaged the Nesses, but certainly not like their passion: travel. They indulged this passion domestically (they didn’t consider Canada, right across the river, a foreign country) throughout Fenny’s childhood, taking yearly trips to far-off states during the winter, and countless weekend camping trips throughout the year.
Fenny was a cheerful and able camper until homesickness set in and she’d begin to worry if their backyard bird feeders were empty or if Sig and Wally had remembered to put the canoe in the boathouse.
Even as a small child, nothing pleased her more about their travels than the ride home, when she began to recognize the landscape around Tall Pine.
“Twees!” she’d cry excitedly, and as she got older that exclamation gave way to ones like, “Oh, it’s so beautiful here!” or “I am so happy to be home!” When she got into high school, she began making excuses why she couldn’t join them on a canoe or camping trip: “I’ve got homework” or “It’s Homecoming weekend” or “I’ve got a date.”
Sig and Wally expected a child of theirs to inherit certain qualities, and she had; she was naturally easygoing like Wally, but when pushed, could be as feisty as her mother. (“If everyone stood up for themselves,” Sig counseled Fenny, “bullies would be out of business.”) Like both of them, she had a sly sense of humor, was an excellent sportswoman and a lover of the great outdoors (particularly the outdoors surrounding Tall Pine), but as yet, she felt no compulsion to backpack through Europe, to sign on as a cruise ship dishwasher and visit different ports, to ride crowded, tilting buses up into the thin altitudes of the Andes; to do what Sig and Wally had themselves done.
This is what baffled them: How had they spawned someone who hadn’t inherited their defining trait, their spirit of adventure? How had their daughter become—it was hard for them to even say it—a homebody?
They came to the sad conclusion that Fenny didn’t answer to the call of the wild, but as Sig once said, “the purr of the tame.”
They talked over this genetic mystery as seriously as musical parents discuss an offspring’s inability to carry a tune, or athletic parents puzzle over their child’s inability to carry a ball.
“Maybe it’s something she’ll grow out of,” Wally said hopefully.
“I don’t know,” said Sig, shaking her head. “The older she gets, it seems the more she’s set in her ways.”
The Nesses had planned on resuming their journeys abroad after retirement; until then, they were content to live vicariously through their daughter’s daring and exotic travels—the only hitch being their daughter didn’t seem interested in daring and exotic travels.
After high school graduation, Fenny rebelled further against her parents wishes by enrolling in a state college close enough to commute to. She paid her tuition with a partial scholarship and money she had earned working in the shops; money Sig and Wally had hoped she would spend on airfares and youth hostel bills and tips doled out to rickshaw drivers and camel guides.
“It’s not that I don’t want to see the world,” she told her parents. “I just want to see it educated.”
“That sounds like an excuse to me,” said Sig.
Wally nodded. “You can read a book anywhere.”