Where in Canada: Call of the Water

March 23, 2017 by Jesse Ruddock

The lake in Jesse Ruddock's debut novel  Shot-Blue (Coach House Books) may be an invention, but it's based off the lakes north of Muskoka that Ruddock visited and worked on as a carpenter's apprentice growing up. For this Where in Canada, Jesse shares what a morning on a remote northern Ontario lake is like, and how far it diverges from city mornings.

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In late summer up north, I can see my breath at first light. It’s everything good about a cigarette with none of the grime. A little nod to death. My breath lifts and burns off. And I can breathe a bit deeper. When I first heard that dead Saints smell sweet, I wanted to smell one badly. I thought of the air in northern Ontario first thing in the morning, its mix of fresh and rotting pine. Shot-Blue takes place here: on an island set in deep water. The lake is called Prioleau, which means “first waters”: it’s invented, but it’s also all the lakes I grew up on: glacial, sliced out of rock, rough and cold. It might also be your lake, or the lake you dream of, if you dream of lakes.

You can drink the water off the dock and cut across it in your boat, flying low. But the lake is the boss. The waves can turn your boat into a mortar and pestle, grinding you up. There’s no cell reception, no internet, no power lines—no grid to find—only spider webs that criss-cross the paths and sparkle silver and blue, hanging heavy with dew at sunrise. Getting around these tightropes of light is something between a dance and ab workout. I bend and twist, even hit my knees, wanting to leave the spiders their blooms in full. Some days I forget and tear through.

This far out, the smallest things pack blows, from first breath to a spider web broken across the back of your hand. There’s nothing else going on—no distraction from how you’re writing yourself into existence, choosing your steps, grinding pine needles under your boot to make the Saint smell. There’s also no distraction from how the wind and weather are writing all over you.

I know I’m not in the city when I feel the wind caught between my shirt and chest. I feel the wind change by reading it on my body. If my thoughts are pushed around, it’s by the weather or by whim, memory, unconscious. With emphasis on unconscious, because the black water is sometimes just the lake, but it’s also always the void, proven by how hard it is to dive in. There’s a catch in the blood before you dive, which people often blame on the cold—how cold the water must be today! Ohhh!—but I think it’s the ritual of disappearing whole that makes our legs cramp at the edge: to jump, you either have to be crazy for a second, a common tactic, or agree to the ritual.

The rhythms that a lake like Prioleau pushes us into have always been opposite to city rhythms. That’s not new. But these days, now that the internet and cell phones are everywhere lit, the city is not just more busy and loud than our lakes. Distraction rules. It harangues. The phone comes first over and over again. If it’s not ringing, it’s vibrating, shaking the kitchen table or rolling around in someone’s pocket, which I always find kind of wildly disturbing. Shot-Blue resists. The only call answered in this book is the call of the water. The call of the sky reflected in the water. The call of the soul reflected in the sky reflected in the water. The call of language to hold on like hell and remember some of these things. 


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Born in Guelph and based in New York, Jesse Ruddock first left Canada on a hockey scholarship to Harvard. Her writing and photographs have appeared in the NewYorker.com, BOMB MagazineMusic & Literature, and ViceShot-Blue is her first novel.


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Thanks so much to Jesse for writing this piece for us, and to Jessica at Coach House for making the connection. Shot-Blue is available now. For more exploring Canada through literature, click here.


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