By Nancy Martin
Every summer, my parents took my brother and sister and me to our summer house on a Canadian lake that is so far from civilization that some weeks we never saw another human being. It was--and still is--a beautiful place. The large "cottage" had been built my our logging relatives over 100 years ago, and it is located in a forest of fragrant pines only a few steps from a lake that is very clear and very, very deep. (Did you know that one measure of the purity of water in a lake is the size of the leeches?) Due to logging in the area, the bottom of the lake is crowded with trees that had been submerged when whole rafts sank in bad weather, became lodged and turned--essentially--to stone. It makes ideal habitat for fish.
The decomposing logs have also turned the lake black.
One year after my grandmother died, my grandfather came with us to vacation. He was a gentle soul and really more of a berry picker than a fisherman, but he decided to try his skill at trolling for bass. For several mornings in a row, he got up before dawn, climbed into a leaky boat and puttered out into the deepest channel of the lake to drop his line. As the sun came up, he was a small, solitary figure shrouded in morning mist.
My mother and I were in the habit of getting into the old canoe for a pre-breakfast paddle around the lake to look for birds, bob cats and (for me, anyway) the occasional Boy Scout troop that might be camping in our wilderness. Later, I realized our morning canoe excursions were a way for my mother to stay within rescue distance of my grandfather without embarrassing him.
One morning, as we padded around "the point," a tree-studded penninsula of land (where--according to family lore---our great-great grandfather had sat in a sauna every afternoon drinking whisky and avoiding his Bible-reading wife) we heard my grandfather's wavering voice in the distance, calling to my mother.
We skimmed across the lake to reach my grandfather, who was so shaken he could barely hold onto his fishing rod. He had hooked something and tried to reel it in, only to discover a hideous black monster coated in slime had clamped onto his lure.
I took one look at the hulking thing and choked down a scream. It was a primordial throwback--some kind of mutated sea creature--stinking of putrefaction and surely evil. My grandfather was nearly fainting with fear.
My mother ordered me into the boat with him in case he collapsed.
And she set about disentangling his fishing line from . . . well, what turned out to be an ancient trea limb he'd managed to drag up from the bottom of the lake, encrusted with black goo and bubbling with decay.
It wasn't anything to be afraid of. And yet, I'm sure my grandfather never recovered from the fright. He died within a year, of a heart attack.
Researchers believe that some people can be so terrified by an experience that they are literally frightened to death. (Which is a feeble effort to turn this post into a Halloween blog!) In the fight-or-flight syndrome, a bad scare can send so much adrenaline coursing through a person's veins that he can die.
Later that summer, my mother took my siblings and me across the lake to the "diving rocks"--huge granite cliffs that we climbed and dove from. When we'd had enough diving, she told us we were old enough to swim back to the cottage---across that deep, black channel of water where my grandfather had been so terrified. We were strong swimmers, so the distance (about a mile and a half) didn't worry us, or the speed of the current or the cold temperature of the water.
But I reached the middle of that channel, and my imagination began to conjure up the denizens that might lurk in the depths below me. I imagined demonic creatures with fangs and fins with claws. Surely at any moment, one of them was going to surge up from the blackness and devour me.
It's the first time I remember being truly frightened for my life. Yes, it was all in my childish imagination, but the physical response was the same as if I'd been menaced by a monster alligator in the Amazon river. My heart felt as if it might burst. My hands and feet froze like blocks of ice. I couldn't suck any air into my lungs. Stars exploded before my eyes until I nearly blacked out.
As a writer, I've used that memory dozens of times. Trying to transplant our feelings into the minds of characters is work we do every day.
I'm betting this group of writers can remember the first truly terrifying experience of your lives. How about sharing?