The last Stepping Stone brought us to a lowlands shore, a dry marsh covered with tall grass, cat-tails, scrubby brush. The treeline was a good fifty yards inland. The road that we had left on the other side was now replaced by a broad, well-worn river trail, a trail as old as there were human feet to travel it. Grandfather chose to follow the flow of the river, southeastward. And because the way rivers find their course in life, ever so slightly downward, descending to an eventual distant sea.
The reflection on the wide shallows of the river magnified the moonlight. We walked in full moon wonder. The trail went on, closely keeping the river's course. The river kept stretching wider and wider; as if to give warning that these waters were soon arriving somewhere.
We passed a family of deer, scrounging for nips of grass peeking through the snow. The fawns, two of them, were nearly full-grown; the buck looked as if he had ruled these woods for many seasons. They watched us as we passed, giving way but a cautious step or two, but little more.
Ahead, towering over the grassy riverside, a solitary tree, no leaves, few limbs, only three. I assumed the tree had already lived its last, its final wood now lingering on, a memorial to its having hung on to life so long. On each limb three fish hawks perched, surely sleeping away the night, sleeping with that one-eyed sleep that birds of prey can somehow do. They did not turn a feather as we made our way beneath them, not one feather. Apparently we meant nothing to these three hunters.
Beside us the noisy river began to quiet, a sure sign that the waters were deepening, slowing, preparing for something changing up ahead. Across the waters, the opposite bank suddenly went away, and on our side, the open marsh turned sharply to the right. I looked ahead and there before us appeared a world of waters, as if we had come upon a sea.
"Fort Cadillac," my Grandfather announced rather unexpectedly. "Boy, we have made it to Fort Cadillac."
I saw no fort, no stockade walls, no guard towers, no cannons, no gates, no soldiers on patrol.
"Yes, Fort Cadillac, " my Grandfather stopped to begin his lecture, "the first settlement by the French here at the confluence of the these rivers."
With a motion of his lantern, we turned inland. As we neared the tree line, the terrain began to rise. The gradual rise became a stedy climb. Into the trees, though not yet thick enough to call it woods, probably cleared land that had been left behind some time ago. My Grandfather was searching for something with his lantern. His growing frustration abruptly ended. "Get over here!"
"You see. There are the foundation stones. If you look both ways you can see where the walls once stood."
I took a few steps to follow the stones, half covered with snow, half-buried in years of encroaching growth. He called me back. We set our lanterns on the stones next to the ones we chose for our chairs, our new blue-eyed friend sat facing us, between us.
The Old Man began to tell the story that how in years gone by, here at this confluence of the rivers, they would gather. The soldiers gathering for battles, some they won, some they lost. Trappers and traders, here for rendevouz. The first explorers made camp here and met here the souls who had been here long before they had been so-called discovered. And here before even they gathered here, centuries of noble cultures long forgotten in our human memory but not in the memory of God.
And as the Old Man told story after story, the other Old Man residing in my lantern's light, the Old Man Oak I had nearly forgotten, seem to add his raspy thoughts, seasoning his old friend's tales with addition of details not first remembered. The Old Men's accounts led us through the remainder of the night. And there and then, the darkness began to ever so slightly give way. I found relief in sensing that the long, long darkness had finally begun to fade.
Our blue-eyed friend who had slipped off to sleep, awoke, arose, and began to stretch.