You can tell a story one way.
Or you can tell it another way.
One way, the central character shows herself to be a pest, a nudge, an 11 year old girl who can't see false advertising for what it is, a girl who forces her family to walk far longer than they'd planned, to see a sight not worth seeing.
Another way, it's an 11 year old girl who gets her family to accompany her on a long and adventurous walk in cold quiet pine forests along the shores of a chilly northern lake. Needles crunch underfoot and fragrant soft beds of pine sink slightly under each footfall, the still air refreshes, the path winds forward and the cave awaits, as yet undiscovered.
Ah yes, Suzy's Cave.
I've always had a thorn in my heart over this one.
We went on holiday to Lake Superior for a week. We stayed at a lodge, with its deer racks over the fireplaces, hot oatmeal with butter and maple syrup for breakfast, and the whole long day stretching ahead of us each morning -- only the dark and limitless pine forests out beyond, waiting to be explored. My family didn't believe in Caribbean holidays, with hot sun and coconut sunblock and raffia hats. No, not at all. We went for the more austere kind of trip. The kind where you dipped your toe in the crystal clear lake water, the water that was so deep and so green and so transparent and so fucking cold, that you said to yourself: "Heck, I'll maybe swim... tomorrow." And tomorrow it was, every single day.
So not much swimming on that holiday. Instead, we spent time reading the local ghost stories and pioneer tales, the ones where husband and wife get snowed in late October, and in April only the wife shows up at the boat launch -- her clothes ragged, her hair uncombed and gray. She, gaunt and frail, and a healing axed gash on her forearm. But no husband. No, no husband.
Yeah, that was the kind of mysterious fun our family went for. Creepy. Quiet. Introspective, I suppose.
One morning, perhaps four or five mornings in, we decided to go hiking. And when I say "we decided" I mean something entirely different. I mean, I badgered them, endlessly, constantly, continually to go see Suzy's Cave. It was only 3 or 4, or perhaps 5 miles. Whatever it said on the signpost. It was on the lodge's map. A notable venue. And not so far.
And when we got there? I'd imagined a huge, vast cavern. We'd walk in, our voices muffled at first. Then, our voices would suddenly begin to echo and bounce, and the sounds in the place would stop us in our tracks. As we then delved further into the depths of the cave, the walls would stretch away, and we'd shine our flashlights ahead and see... sparkling rock crystals, and slagtites dripping from the high arches of the roof above, with still pools of ageless water standing before us, and transluscent watered rocks surrounding us.
I had a plan. A long hike to a transcendant place, where we'd all be transfixed, stilled, and utterly flummoxed by nature's incredible, wordless wonder.
So we started out. We were not hikers. We walked. We walked. We walked. It was endless. We came to a signpost: "Suzy's Cave 4.5 miles." We walked on, the path twisting, turning. Up, down. On and on. My mother, "Jesus, Suzy's Cave had better be good!" The path continued. Up a seemingly sheer rock cliff. Grabbing onto scrub pines to pull ourselves up. On a new, higher elevation. Sweat, scratchy clothes. No one had brought water. "Suzy's Cave 2.8 miles."
Holy Lord, how far was this cave, anyway? Every signpost seemed to make it both nearer and farther. Nearer, because the distance was decreasing, but farther, because where the hell was this damned cave, anyway?"
"Suzy's Cave 2.1 miles." My heart was sinking, breaking. My sister was tired, my father was steaming forward, but my mother was bitching. "Where the hell is this thing anyway? What a great idea! I wonder what kind of idiot did the mileage on this map? Goddamn!" And then, "I hope you're happy, Ellen! I can't wait to see this damned cave!"
There's nothing really like trudging the last 2.1 miles with your mother's resentment at your back. It makes it all quite out-of-body, really.
You're hoping that this damned cave will shut her up forever, that its beauty will silence her, that she will be speechless with wonder, and that all this hot travail will be rewarded.
"Suzy's Cave .3 miles"
And then finally, here you are. A clearing, with pines all around, flat bare ground exposed in cold pale sunshine.
"Suzy's Cave," with a feeble arrow pointing toward... a narrow rift in the rock.
Everyone looks dubious.
We creep into the narrow cleft in the rock face. We walk forward perhaps 6 or 8 feet, without flashlights, into... nothing.
That's the cave.
That's what we've walked 5.1 miles to see. A big dark indentation in a rock face.
"Well! I'm so glad I got here!" My mom's sarcasm pierces me through.
My father and sister look at me, willing me not to respond. And I don't.
This has been "a story" for our family, for all these years. All you have to say is, "Suzy's Cave," and the old feelings come flooding back. Hot scratchy clothes. Tired legs. No reward at the end of the trek. Not one good thing. Not one. Just shame and uselessness.
I was talking with my sister this evening, and she said, "You know, this could have been framed in an entirely different way. Not as a story where you made us walk for nothing. Not that you were a pest and a nudge and a brat. No, it could have been a story about a girl who wanted an adventure, who got her family to take a long walk in a pristine wilderness, a girl who wanted to explore, who persevered, who reached a goal. A girl who wanted to take a long walk, out in the soft and deep pine forests in northern Michigan, to see what was around the next bend in the path."
I'm going to hold onto that idea.