Max and the Midnight Loon

By

MAX silently plied his paddle as Mr. Rosiello steered the canoe from the stern. The lake was quiet now. All the summer people had left. No ski boats, no laughter around the docks, no early evening lights twinkling along the shore.

As the bow cut easily through the still water, Max thought back to his first canoe trip three years before, when Mr. Rosiello had taken him to his fishing camp on Lovejoy Pond. He remembered how his paddle kept banging against the canoe:

``Sta' zitto! - Sh-h-h!'' Mr. Rosiello had whispered. ``We'll scare 'em away if you keep makin' all that racket!''

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But just then, about 10 feet to the right, a charcoal-black head popped out of the water. Its wild, cranberry-juice eyes did not blink. Neither did Max's as the duck-like body rose silently to the surface. Two wavy black-and-white vertical stripes wrapped each side of its neck; black-and-white checks feathered its back; underneath, polka dots covered its sides and tail.

The mixed designs would have looked comical in color. But in black and white, the bird was magnificent.

Max had never encountered such a perfect creature. Never had nature created such tidy patterns - as though a master painter had drawn lines without any mistakes on the first try, and then carefully colored them in with finepoint oil markers.

Then without a sound the bird sank like a submarine and disappeared.

That was the first time Max saw a loon.

``Bravo, Max!'' Mr. Rosiello called softly from the stern. ``After three summers you're a real paddler. Maybe it's 'bout time I tell Wendell you and I are a team.''

Wendell was the self-appointed president of the Loon Society. The club never held a meeting, never published a report, never mailed letters. And none of the members knew who the others were. They were just a loose group of lake people who were worried about loons disappearing on account of crowded lakes and acid rain. Every fall they counted the loons and hoped their number would be a little larger. So, after Labor Day, Wendell roamed the lakeshore camps in his green pickup with Burr, his black Lab, in the passenger's seat and handed out assignments to club members.

Max turned back toward Mr. Rosiello with one hand shading his eyes from the western sun. ``So when did you join the Loon Society?''

``I never knew that I did join. A few years ago Wendell handed me a piece of paper out of his green pickup. All he said was, `It's loon counting time. You can do Lovejoy Pond. Better get your canoe out there before middle of October - they'll be leavinround then.' So I did. And every fall since then, I get another one of these.'' He shook open a folded sheet of paper and handed it to Max. Across the top, fading letters announced: LOON SOCIETY. Right below were the words:

Come September

we remember:

the harvest moon's

for counting loons.

Then Max read the words near the middle of the page: ``Expected tally for Lovejoy Pond: 2 adult loons, 1 chick.'' And at the very bottom: ``P.S. Final deadline: Oct. 15. P.S.S. If you do a voice count, please state so.''

``One chick?'' asked Mr. Rosiello. ``Does it say that?''

``Yeah,'' said Max. And, checking again, ``Yeah.''

``Ma no! I have seen no bambino this year. People on the lake said the loons' eggs were swamped in that nasty June storm. And the loons didn't nest again. Wendell's mistaken.''

``What does it mean - a voice count?'' asked Max.

``Well, sometimes you don't see the loons - like what's happening to us right now. Sometimes you have to count by the moon - at night. You listen for their voices coming from different parts of the lake and try to tell how many there are.''

After an hour of no loons, when Max was about to suggest that they settle for a night voice count, the boat suddenly started rocking. Max swiveled around to see Mr. Rosiello waving wildly - but silently - and pointing toward the eastern shore as his binoculars swung at his neck. Max looked and thought he saw something bobbing on the water. Then he saw two somethings. ``Loons?'' he whispered.

``Si,'' nodded Mr. Rosiello.

The two paddled quickly and quietly, staying close to the shoreline, weaving in and out among the overhanging birch limbs. When they came within 30 feet of the birds, Max said, ``Mr. Rosiello! Those aren't loons! They're just gray ducks!''

``Oh, no, Max. Those are loons. They look a little different than you remember, eh?''

Max's eyebrows scrunched together as his mouth twisted into a skeptical frown. He needs new glasses, he thought.

Mr. Rosiello chuckled and whispered, ``They've shed their summer feathers. Now they have their winter plumage. When they go south to the sea, they'll match the gray winters there. Then in the spring they'll molt those feathers and turn back into the black-and-white loons you know.''

As Max stared at the gray ``ducks,'' it was hard for him to remember his first loon. These two looked so drab. The awe that he had felt for three years slipped away.

``Odd,'' whispered Mr. Rosiello, ``they don't seem to be bothered by us. They seem to be preoccupied with some....''

Just then both loons reared up and stretched their wings out to the limit - about five feet. They flapped and pounded the water. Astonished at their sudden size, Max glanced back at Mr. Rosiello,

``What are they doing?''

``They're straightening out their long flight feathers, getting them all aligned.''

Furiously beating their wings, the loons lifted up with great effort, with their feet dragging behind on the water. Soon they were in the air over the canoe. With faces upturned, Max and Mr. Rosiello twisted their bodies to watch the birds fly over the lake toward the sun and then arc back toward the east. Within a minute and a half, the loons had vanished.

``My glory, but they're fast!'' said Mr. Rosiello, speaking for the first time in a normal voice. ``They may have heavy solid bones, but they sure are made to fly.''

``Wait,'' cried Max, ``where are they going? Are they coming back?''

``Hmmm,'' replied Mr. Rosiello, ``I think, Max, we were barely in time to count them. I think they are going to their winter home.''

``Right now?''

``Si.''

So Mr. Rosiello marked on Wendell's loon counting paper: ``Oct. 15: Two mature loons sighted as they left Lovejoy Pond for the fall migration.'' Then he added, ``No voice count this year.''

That evening, Max and Mr. Rosiello decided to sleep on the dock so they could watch the full moon overhead and hear the rippling water beneath them. As they settled into their sleeping bags, Mr. Rosiello gazed up and began to mumble:

Sea of Knowledge, Sea of

Rains,

Wash away

our fears and pains.

Sea of Serenity, Bay of Dew,

Give us peace,

our strength renew.

Sea of Tranquility, Lake of

Dreams

bear us to sleep

on moonlight beams.

Max was staring at Mr. Rosiello with one eye out of his sleeping bag.

After a few curious seconds, he said ``What was that?''

Mr. Rosiello turned toward Max's bewildered face. ``Well, it's just a little poem I made up - I sometimes say it before I go to sleep - especially when I see a full moon.'' Max just kept staring. Mr. Rosiello continued. ``See the shadows on the moon? They have names - sea of this, lake of that. I like to say their names. They make me feel peaceful.''

``Hmmm,'' said Max, ``I never think of the moon having lakes and seas. I wonder if there are loons there, too?''

``Well, actually there are no lakes on the moon. Long ago the astronomers who named the shadows thought they were bodies of water. But then scientists discovered the moon has no moisture. The shadows are only dry plains. Fortunately, they kept the names anyway.''

``Oh,'' said Max.

``Buona notte,'' said Mr. Rosiello. He turned over, resumed his little chant - ``Bay of Billows, Sea of Clouds....'' - and drifted off to sleep.

``Good night,'' said Max. Without any intention of falling asleep, he closed his eyes and tried to picture the perfect black-and-white loon. But the image kept changing into a dull gray bird flying away from him.

Finally, he gave up his loon thoughts and let his eyes open enough to trace the moon shadows - Sea of Tranquility, Lake of Dreams, Lake of Dreams, Lake of Dreams....

``Two adults, one chick.'' Wendell's paper was floating above Max. Then the words, ``one chick'' lifted off the page and danced around him like streamers. The streamers became a sound - a far away, lonely wail. It called to Max. Called him back - back before Columbus, before the Indians, before the glaciers pushed earth into mountains. Max followed the wail further and further into time. Millions of years back. Finally, he stood face to face with a black-and-white loon. He was ancient. Max recognized him as the first loon.

He looked deep into its cranberry eyes and waited. But the wail was still calling him. And peering more deeply now into the loon's eyes, Max could see the sun sparkling on Lovejoy Pond. He saw Mr. Rosiello standing on the dock. And the two adult loons flying away. Then, he noticed a younger, smaller loon bobbing alone in the middle of the lake. He was calling Max.

Max tried to answer, tried to imitate the wail: ``whooh, whooooooooo.'' And as he did, he heard the loon's voice - no longer far away, but right there, inside him. He could understand it. This loon was afraid. But not because he was left alone. He was not in danger. But many others were.

With this thought, Max sat up wide awake. He immediately nudged Mr. Rosiello. ``Mr. Rosiello, wake up, wake up. There is a chick. I heard him calling. The loons need help.''

Mr. Rosiello turned over. ``Si,'' he said groggily, ``I think I heard him, too.''

Then Max told Mr. Rosiello his entire disturbing dream.

But Mr. Rosiello explained to Max how in old times many Algonquian Indians living in New England understood loons, too. He told him he should listen to his dream.

In the morning, when the sun shone into their faces, Mr. Rosiello and Max woke again. They didn't take time for breakfast before going out to search for the young loon. But as Mr. Rosiello headed down to the canoe, Max found Wendell's paper and wrote, ``One chick counted by voice.'' `Kidspace' is a place on The Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will spark imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, usually on Tuesdays.

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