cleo’s secret

story and images by idio

Cleo agreed to go. At any rate, she heard herself say “Yes” to her mother. Then the second thoughts came. After all, what would a fifteen year-old girl do in the quiet of cottage country with two old folks for three weeks? At the bottom of it, she really wanted to go, mostly to get out of the city. T-dot, T-drop. She needed to escape its ways. Chat-chat-chat. ru goin to g’s house on fryday? lol. yadayadayada. She wasn’t against the chat-chat-chat overall and she did a certain amount of yadayadayada, but she had noticed something very strange. All these really bright kids who only two years before talked deeply about rain forest depletion, consumerism and what happened after death, now seemed so eager to get on the bus of shoes and cell phones, nasty things written about so-and-so on j’s blog and hotly curious discussions about whether p’s breasts were real or not. It wasn’t that Cleo was cynical or angry. Yes, she was a little heavier than t and a little more clever than w and decidedly shorter than c, but this was just being confused and fifteen and it likely had some kind of purpose she figured. It was something more than that.

The idea of going to summer camp made her lips curl too: slim girls in tankinis poised like Venus Flytraps waiting to see how many boys they could lure. She realized that she was being a bit dramatic. Yet she wondered in her journal how it was that everyone seemed to be winging their way into adulthood and consenting to take part in the strangest social rituals, so strange, in fact, that they were merely stolen from somewhere else.

Maybe she was a hippy child, but her parents were never really hippies as per a standard sociological test or anything like that. They did spend some time living in an alternative community when they were young. They apparently learned serious things about life. She was probably brainwashed by some of that. Nevertheless, she could see for herself that somebody had apparently injected her friends with a big syringe of some kind of drug that had turned them into people who needed to convince everyone else, and themselves, that they were really smart, sophisticated people of the world when they were really just kids who needed something interesting to do. Cleo knew that she wouldn’t end up like a black-white-movie spinster, but something in her had turned on too, something that secretly wished for the same kinds of things as everyone else. Was this a problem? Is “problem” the wrong word?

When her mother mentioned that she could go to spend some time with Aunt Isabelle and Uncle Roger, it clicked – even if it was the click of another of her brother’s popsicle sticks as he tried to finish his grade 8 science project.


Cleo inwardly forgave her mother for not having the air conditioner on in the car when they turned off the 400 and onto a road that snaked along a river where the water sparkled and ran fast. As if on cue Cleo pulled the i-pod buds from her ears. The cicadas buzzed and her mother was singing something smoky in French.

“Hello daughter. This is called earth,” her mother said in the same smoky tone turning to look at Cleo for a moment overtop of her sunglasses. “Welcome.” Cleo smiled a cheeky smile in return.

“So, will I have to do stuff for Uncle Roger?” Cleo asked. She knew “Roger” was pronounced in the French way, Rowjay, but she got a kick out of pronouncing it with a “g” as in “girl,” Raw-ger.

“Stuff?” her mother replied.

“You know, like washing him and changing his under things … stuff.”

Although Uncle Roger was her mother’s brother, both he and Isabelle were considerably older than Cleo’s mom. Cleo knew that Uncle Roger was well into his 80s and that Aunt Isabelle was 79. Roger had become wheelchair bound some years ago when it was clear that he could no longer walk on his own. For much longer than that, it had appeared to everyone else that he had retreated into himself. He did not talk, other than strangeness, and Cleo had no memories, other than photographs, of him as a vigorous man. Isabelle, on the other hand, was mobile and altogether full of sauce and stories.

“Are you worried about ‘stuff’?” her mother asked.

“Mom, please don’t answer my question with a question, somehow inviting me to reflect on the nature of the question. I just need to know.”

“Well that’s up to you if you want to help out. There’s no expectation, I’m sure. Isabelle does well on her own and the nurse from North Bay comes a couple of times a week.”

Cleo was prepared to admit to herself, at least, that she was a little apprehensive at the prospect of “stuff.” She looked out the window at the river. It had turned into a lake. The dark forms of the pine trees sped by in a cool blur and the sunlight upon the water beckoned to her from beyond.

“So tell me again something about this place that Uncle Roger used to run,” Cleo asked after a time looking out at her shifting image of the lake.

Cleo’s mom paused for a bit, “Your Uncle travelled for many years when he was younger, North America, South America, Asia pretty much all over. He met some incredible people and, I suppose, was somewhat incredible himself. He started a kind of school to work alongside others. It was a place where people came to live … to live like genuine people,” she said without a drop of sarcasm.

“They came there to learn how to live?” Cleo asked somewhat dubious.

“It’s amazing what can happen, Cleo, once people simply let go of the violence and stupidity that everyday life feeds into them and be …” She trailed off. “Yes, I that’s right, just be.”

“Just be?” echoed Cleo.

“Yes,” her mother said like Cleo would know exactly what she meant.

Finally Cleo simply said, “Mom, you’re going a bit fast aren’t you?”


The roads got smaller and smaller as they approached the cottage, branching like blood vessels reaching out ever finer. Cleo’s mom turned down a lane marked by a tatty sign, “The Petries”. There was a beautiful collection of lake rocks around it that contrasted with the sign.

The cottage was old-school. It was hunkered down beneath a grove of white pine and spruce trees and painted cottage green. A stone chimney climbed up from the gabled roof and the old glass in the windows warbled in the light. Despite its nostalgic look, the cottage that had been fitted with electricity and the modern things some years ago by Cleo’s father and several friends of Uncle Roger’s from the days when he was director of the school. Cleo had been to the cottage many times, but never with the prospect of hearing her mother’s car back out of the lane leaving her behind.

As Cleo’s mom inched up the steep lane, the sunlight came quickly and densely as they rolled out of the coolness of the trees. Isabelle came out of the cottage and raised her hand to shield her eyes from the sun, and when she saw that it was Cleo and her mother, she danced a little dance that made her look like a puppet. Cleo laughed. The car stopped, and she tumbled out to run and say “Hello.” Isabelle took her into her arms and kissed her forehead and whispered something sweet to her that only Auntie Isabelle could whisper. Cleo and Isabelle stood arm in arm as Cleo’s mom approached.

“Ah Diane, how nice to see you, ” said Isabelle in her rich tone, leaning to kiss.

Diane came up and Cleo slipped away from Isabelle’s side with a soft word in her Aunt’s ear. She turned to go down the long rambling stairs to the dock. She heard her mother and Aunt Isabelle speaking in French as she went to check-out whether all was as it should be, as she remembered it.

The hammock was tied securely between two aspens on a rock ledge leaning out over the water below. The lake washed gently onto what little beach there was. The scarlet red canoe was lying mouth down on the dock with its beautiful ribs of sugared cedar just visible. There was a good breeze and not many bugs. The cicadas buzzed mysteriously overhead with a sound that pulsed from everywhere all at once. She turned to look up at the cottage and saw Uncle Roger in his chair looking out over the lake and waved to him. Although he did not wave back, she felt that he saw her and that said hello in his own silent way.

Cleo scrambled up the rambling steps, creaked open the screen door of the cottage and walked through into the lake room. The smell of fire smoke and pinesap welcomed her. He held her Uncle’s hand and kissed him gently on the wrinkles of his forehead.

“Hello Uncle Roger,” she said in the French way. “I’m so happy to be able to come. Thank-you for having me,” Cleo said with definiteness.

They had lunch together. Isabelle was a good cook and gave everything a unique touch. They ate lake fish and salad with fresh fiddleheads. Mostly Cleo listened as her mother and Aunt Isabelle chatted about family and the news of the world. When time came for Diane to leave, Cleo hugged her mother and said goodbye tenderly but without ceremony. She watched her back out of the lane with the tires softly crunching the gravel. Before she realized it, there was only the sound of the cicadas and the dopplerized propeller of a passing plane. The summer had begun.


Time passed strangely in the first week, running in flows and eddys. Some things stood out while the rest of it flew quickly by. Cleo canoed and played Gin with Aunt Isabelle. Then her Aunt started to teach her Bridge, this she remembers very clearly. “All card games lead to Bridge,” Isabelle intoned with raised eyebrows. Actually she called it “Honeymoon Bridge.” Cleo liked that. She had a clear image of a young couple tossing stones into the water.

She remembers helping her Uncle Roger. She remembers his scent. Beneath the crusty smell of old age, he had a turnip kind of smell, a little spicy and a little buttery. She liked that. He needed help to dress, to eat, to wash and to go to the bathroom. She gave considerable attention to most of these tasks, but she left the bathroom chores to her Aunt.

Mostly he sat in his comfy chair by the big bay window looking out over the lake. He slept, and he murmured and he cried, and even cried out sometimes. He smiled a very fine smile. And, sometimes, the look in his eye cast out on a hundred thousand miles. She sat with him one evening and watched a storm move in from the southwest. Sitting with Uncle Roger she felt the system move and move in her feelings too. The grays and blacks and magenta purples expressed hard-to-explain things in her, growing up maybe, a certain awareness of time. She felt her Uncle really present beside her like he was on this journey with her too. When the storm passed she looked to find that he had nodded off.


Early in the second week Aunt Isabelle announced after doing the dishes while taking the rubber gloves from her hands, “We need supplies, Cleo. I’m going to drive into town tomorrow morning.” She looked right at Cleo. “I’m going to need you to stay here with Roger.”

It felt like an important mission had been laid upon her.

The next morning Isabelle explained everything to Cleo that she needed to know. Isabelle showed her where the emergency numbers were and what she should do if anything “needed to happen.” Cleo couldn’t quite figure that out, the way that Isabelle said “needed to happen.” She wondered at the phrase, as if the universe had a schedule for these things. It stuck with her.

“Darling, I won’t be gone long. Roger will be fine. Just look in on him every now and again.”

Cleo was a bit insulted with that. Of course she would look in on him. She was intending to do more than that. She bit down on the urge to say it to Aunt Isabelle, but she thought that if she said something that she might not do as she said. Strange. She had never noticed this before, this push and pull between different parts of herself. Somehow it brought her back.

She remembered playing on a swing set in Ypres Park one afternoon with the sun falling between dark gossamer trees and the sound shunting of trains in the distance. She must have been 3 years old. She remembered watching her feet vaulting into the sky with each thrust and feeling the point of utter stillness just before falling back. There was something special in that point of hovering between two worlds. She realized now that it was probably her first real memory, the moment where she woke-up to herself.

Isabelle loved cars. Cleo saw that she enjoyed pulling down the long drive with speed and skill. After she left, everything was quite silent, as if nature de-tuned out of hearing for a short time.

She washed the breakfast dishes and got her uncle settled in his chair by the window. She flipped through his collection of vinyl records and found a recording of Beethoven’s piano sonata opus 110. She settled the needle deftly into the groove.

The music started so beautifully, a dream becoming aware of itself. Feathers and sky and light. There was the smell of flowers. A running up a hill. Then a looking out. A cool freshness. Thoughts without words. Somewhere totally different now. Not a particular place.

She walked over to look at the jacket. The pianist was Artur Schnabel. She could feel something really wonderful in the music and in his playing of it. She enjoyed music and studied the piano. She was going to audition for the Conservatory this year. She looked at her Uncle. He was beaming with energy. He knew the piece well. She took a seat at an angle to him where they could both look out over the lake.

The music was just shifting to a section of minor chords, very strident, moving in their knowing. The feeling of being in a room with Roger so close and not talking was strange for her. After a short while Cleo found that it was actually quite relaxing.

The music moved back into something hopeful, though complex. Rolling chords of ascending and descending arpeggios all at once. Then a lilting motif that recalled the opening of the piece, but with a minor feel. Someone was saying goodbye. Powerfully and without sentiment, though potent in its inner resonance. A tolling of a bell, growing louder. The echo of it. Someone whispering something in the corner. Then a wild conversation, purposeful and moving all around itself.

When the music ended there was the click of the needle in the final grove, sliding and popping, going round and round. The room rang.

Being with Uncle Roger was interesting to her. There was relaxation in it and fresh thoughts, fresh feelings. Wow. She listened closely to the end-of-record skip. She deepened her breathing and felt at home in her body next to her Uncle. She felt his joy, his attentiveness. Yet, his features betrayed nothing. His over-sized glasses, his plaid shirt, his roving whiskers, his painfully frail body and the faint smell of urine all spoke to his age and condition. She knew, though, that if she moved close she would get a wiff of the spicy turnip smell.

She wondered whether it was possible to bring him down closer to the lake. The long rambling stairs gave a challenge and brought in a pang to her moment. They sat for quite a while looking and seeing too. Finally she got up to lift the record. There was a new silence.

“You’re quite right,” Uncle Roger suddenly said in a high whistling tone that cut through the air between them. Cleo turned with a start. He did not turn to look at her, but continued and said, “Life can be a shambles.” He raised his hands up, cupped in a poor-boy gesture.

At first she thought that maybe he was replaying a conversation from years past. He seemed so disconnected from his appearance, but she felt sure that he was speaking directly to her. What he said turned her thoughts to thinking about why she chose to come here in the first place: to escape the camp, the city, the chat-chat-chat, the frustration, the headlong run over the cliff into shoes and cell phones.

“Small choices, peut-être, lead into big rooms,” he said like the sound of the winter wind in the empty trees. There was a chill in it, as if they were beneath a great vaulted ceiling and the coolness of the space had fallen to the bottom where they sat.

His face brightened as a child’s does when talking to angels. He gave out a small cry. Cleo didn’t know what to do. She waited in exile. Finally turning to her with that long look of a hundred thousand miles, he said, “Anyway, love is beyond knowing, and only the heart can see.”

He spoke to Cleo in perfect clarity. The coolness she sensed was, in fact, perseverance. What he said, she found that place in herself. She was not confused and fifteen. She wondered, just then, in an astonishing way, whether she had been here before.

Yes, with her Uncle. She did not have to know what that meant. She was amazed at the hard-to-describeness of it. She was chewing on a knot of leather falling through the emptiness.

They sat in silence. Cleo wanted to quiet herself. Even though she might not have, she said,  “Uncle, I’m having this strong feeling of déjà vu.”


Then he sprouted his lips, and he said, “Yes, I see that.”

Cleo laughed like she was watching Ms. Turner’s wardrobe malfunction at the senior dance. Roger enjoyed to hear her laugh. From herself.

When she looked again at him, he appeared to her like he must have been as a younger man. His jaw sloping out and his forehead arching up. His cheeks falling like heavy drapes over his bones. She had seen pictures. But this was something different.

She watched him closely. Then suddenly it was if he was falling back into the world out of which he’d come. After a moment or two, he closed his eyes and went to sleep.


Cleo felt a strong desire to swim. She changed into her suit, turned on the baby monitors, placed one beside her uncle and took the other one with her down to the dock. Her feeling of déjà vu clung to her, but she could not see it directly. It evaporated whenever she turned to get a good look at it. Down at the dock she looked out over the lake as it began to stir in the late morning breeze coming up out of the west. The lake opened up just beyond the headland of their little bay, and she saw the prow of what they called Ponderer’s Rock just rising out of the water. Diving from the end of the dock into the tea-coloured water she swam toward it.

Ponderer’s Rock. She loved to sit on it sunning herself like a mermaid, that is as long as the breeze was blowing enough to keep the flies away. It was no more than a couple of body lengths across, depending on the lake level, but it plunged beneath the surface of the lake to where its real substance lay. It was a truly massive chunk of pink granite, an erratic, dropped here after riding, once upon a time, like a surfer on the crest of a gigantic ice wave. It was a local legend. A nearby cottager, a geologist from Trent University, estimated it at over 5,000 tons. It was perched on a cleft of the descending lake basin like the submerged head of a colossus. Sitting atop it, one sat atop the most ancient of goddesses. The Canadian Shield, as it is called, is the most ancient exposed rock on the planet, and Ponderer’s Rock was the perfect place to gaze out over the surface of time.

After pondering the poetry of the expanding moment, Cleo slipped in again to the water and, taking a deep breath, dove down into the gradient light that opened into the darkness below. She swam down against the buoyancy of air in her lungs until the pressure started to squeeze her tight. Letting go of all of her air, she hung beside the great substance of Ponderer’s Rock suspended in the water of time. Her heart pumping wildly in her ears, she felt her consciousness winnowing down into a tiny seed within the pure instinctive force to get air.


Aunt Isabelle returned, hands full of groceries. She had all kinds of gossip from town and Cleo relished having tea with her in the afternoon down by the water. She laughed to hear her Aunt bring the town to life in her stories. Jane Rintjema was pregnant. Cleo used to swim with her in the summers she spent at the cottage as a kid. Jane was eighteen now. Isabelle suggested that she could ride into town tomorrow with the Moody’s down the lane and visit with her. On another front, the town now knew that the disappeared funding for the new library went into buying Tony Walker a flash condo in Toronto.

She thought about telling her Aunt about Roger. In the end she figured that it was as it was, or rather that it is as it is. She did want to hear that he had such episodes every now and again. She did not want the specialness of what he’d said to be drained away. And so it remained Cleo’s secret.

In the evening, she played Honeymoon Bridge with Isabelle and later in bed with the crickets sounding, she repeated to herself what her Uncle had said, “Love is beyond knowing, and only the heart can see.” She took it apart like a delicate, intricate thing and was amazed to find what lay hidden inside.

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