Playing Violins on a Northern Michigan Dock

English instructor James McCullough, at North Central Michigan College, in Petoskey, asked his students to write essays about Northern Michigan life. Then he asked MyNorth to share six of the essays on the World Wide Web. We said yes. We are posting one each weekday until the set is complete. Enjoy the piece below by Sydney Griffin.


It was midnight. The stars shimmered above us, illuminating our path as we, barefoot, made our way along the precarious hill to the water’s edge. As stealthy as cats, we had snuck out of my friend Marie’s house and away from the evil glare of her father’s malevolent girlfriend in desperate need of a respite. Traditionally in the summer, Marie and I had adventured to new places in our town like gypsies, unperturbed by any calamity, be it unfortunate weather or the occasional injury we faced on our quests. After a few weeks of errant adventuring, we found our niche: by day, it was just a tiny pier at the edge of a lagoon, often swarmed by beady-eyed parents whose children played on the nearby playground and shrieking gulls vying for crumbs. By night, however, it became our sanctuary and stage, a place where we could talk and be merry until the early hours of the morning.

That night, however, we were not alone: clutched in our fists were our violins, Marie’s Clara and my Westley. To us, our violins were more than simple instruments: they were our partners in crime, our beloved allies and loyal companions throughout countless adventures. We had taken our violins, or occasionally her ukulele, with us on several treks around town before, but only during the day. This night, however, marked a sorrowful occasion: it was nearing the end of summer, and soon we were to part ways to attend colleges that were hours away from one another.

Hugging our violins protectively to our chests, we tiptoed along the cool pavement past piles of seagull scat and jagged pebbles until eventually we were standing at the edge of the pier. The water was perfectly smooth, like the floor of a ballroom just waiting for a waltz, and seemed to extend forever, past the houses and harbors and to the miniscule, colorful beacons across the bay where the water and the starry-eyed sky met and became one. Marie and I had affectionately nicknamed one of these beacons, a tiny green, blinking light behind which we could almost make out the silhouette of an enormous house, “Gatsby’s Light,” which kept its constant vigilance while the city slept on.

Marie and I exchanged a glance; we hadn’t thought about this part.

“So… I mean, what should we do?” I asked nervously, absentmindedly plucking at the strings on my violin. “Do you think we’ll get kicked out?”

“Psh, nonsense!” Marie waved away my fears. “If they do kick us out, so what? We’ll just come back another night, but I don’t think there’s anything to worry about – there’s no one out and about, we’ll be fine.”

I scrunched my nose in frustration, entirely unconvinced. In my mind, I could hear the wail of police sirens and the click of the metal handcuffs, my mother sobbing in the background as I was hauled away to jail, and I shuddered. “All right; at least, what should we play?”

Marie frowned. “You know, I don’t really know… want to just start with Ashokan Farewell?”

I shrugged. “Works for me.”

We raised our violins to our shoulders and locked eyes. We inhaled sharply in unison, set our bows in place, and away we went.

It was like a scene out of a cartoon; at first, the notes were frail and wispy, traveling only a short way toward the lake before dying on the rocky shore. Soon, though, the notes blossomed and took flight, out toward the bay like fledgling sparrows finding their courage. Somewhere in our performance, the sad, sweet melody of Ashokan Farewell morphed into the brighter, happier notes of Pachelbel’s Canon in D, and that’s when our melody truly flowed forth. The quiet lake had become our auditorium and the flashing lights our audience; even Gatsby’s Light seemed to listen as it blinked in time to our music. Faster and faster our bows swept across the strings as the melody continued to crescendo, like fireworks climbing higher and higher into the sky. The moment was utterly perfect… but it could not, naturally, last forever. As we neared the end of the song, we both realized, to our dismay, that we had forgotten the finale of the piece; out-of-tune notes quickly devolved into dropped notes, and the tempo fell to ruin. Too soon, our music had turned to utter chaos, and we petered to a halt. Laughing, we lowered our instruments and gasped for breath, our eyes alive with excitement. Suddenly, we heard a burst of applause: two nocturnal fishermen had been listening to us all along. Marie giggled while I blushed furiously, and the fishermen paddled away until all we could see was the wake of their boat.

Marie abruptly turned to me, grinning from ear to ear. “Sydney, oh my god, that was AWESOME!!”

“I KNOW, RIGHT?!” I squealed back, rocking back and forth on my toes. “AGH, did you see that?! It was like, UGH!!”

We giggled like naughty children, but instead of wreaking havoc and causing chaos, we had created a symphony of just two; inside, all I could feel was pure, raw happiness. With Westley pressed tight to my chest, I felt invincible – there was nothing in the world that could fell our triumph, even though we were nothing more than two crazy girls with violins at the edge of a lake, barefoot and cackling like batty old witches.

“Should we head back?” Marie asked after a minute, staring wistfully at Gatsby’s Light.

I hesitated, shuffling my feet as I watched the stars shimmering away in their nightly performance. I exhaled with a quiet huff. “Yeah, we should.”

Quietly, our heads bowed as if in prayer, we made our way back to the grass. As we walked toward the road and Marie’s house, I turned to see Gatsby’s Light still making its nightly rounds; this time, however, it was beating the tempo of the music that still lingered, like a phantom, in the cool night air.

“Next summer?” Marie asked, grinning mischievously.

I returned her grin. “Next summer.”

More Northern Michigan Essays

Riding Horses in Harbor Springs

Making Northern Michigan Syrup

Campfire Nights in Petoskey

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