It was the very end of Indian summer, when a gust of wind blows soft then edgy and everyone starts to long for fireplaces crackling with heat and magic. Not another family picnic. Though those who camped overnight got their big bonfire, as our family reunions were held at Grandpa Curtis’ rambling old house at Ring Lake, after which he closed it up most of winter. Reunion dates had never changed despite differing school start dates. Everyone in Michigan was expected to come. Those who lived elsewhere were expected to come, too, but were forgiven if they just couldn’t find ways or means. Grandpa Curtis saw to it that every family was reminded with a phone call. It was the men who managed the planning of things though we all knew the women did the most actual work.
We kids did what we wanted, that’s how I remembered it.
I had been tidying my bedroom after getting ready for the last minute emergency trip. I opened the shoe box of photos moldering beneath tax folders and almost tossed the lot after indulging in a brief reverie. But I felt Mom might like me to take a few to the hospital where she lay recovering, waiting.
I was riveted by her image, a darkly pretty hippie mama with deep brown, flowing hair–second from right. She looks pleased enough to be there once more, perhaps skeptical about how the day and night would turn out. Guarded, I think, as she had gotten divorced that year and no one liked to hear of that. That’s me behind her, right side, aggravated by the random photo taker or dry, prickly grass on my legs or sun punishing me with its glare. Maybe missing my absent dad. I am not a day time person even now. And I never liked those clingy lacy anklets and Mary Janes. I go barefoot as much as possible except when on stage, of course; I wear what my character wears then, no matter how uncomfortable. But I think Mom just wanted to prove she was a good mother to keep me, her only kid, so clean and all tucked in, calling me “my sweet dumpling”, which was dropped after I refused to further answer to it.
Now I wish she would call me that one more time.
Mom’s task at the reunion was to provide her walnut and chicken salad with poppy-seed dressing; also help with the makeshift table (sawhorses, 2×4 planks) settings of paper plates and such. She said her part was easy; she only made three tasty recipes and the other two weren’t favored there. Plus she was a poet so wasn’t expected to do some things. It was an insult, she told me a few years later, that she was teased about writing poetry and not being too domestic. At the time I thought it meant she was different and special. I loved when she read me children’s poetry at bedtime. It still does make her special in my view, though she says poetry making has been a liability more than an asset, at least financially. But much feels like a liability to her these days, since her health started to sputter.
Mom’s first cousin Deena is seen displaying a peace sign with characteristic bombastic laugh. Her squinting daughter– my second cousin–Leanne and I were best friends in the way cousins can be though she was and is three years older. She wanted to lead the way, but I wasn’t an obliging follower. Rufus, her brother, is the one scowling in front. He never did quite get rid of that look; it remains one of an array of expressions. He did get more handsome.
One reunion when we girls were eleven and thirteen, we did something daring. This was after swimming and chattering and eating meals like a continuous buffet; while grownups were sloshing beer around the bonfire and somebody, likely Uncle Oscar, was wailing on a badly tuned guitar and faking a country song; while Mom and Deena and a couple other women were out back in the garden smoking a cigarette or maybe a joint. We took off. That is, Leanne wanted to hang out on the long rickety dock but when we got there and sat a bit, I realized what good fortune we had. The tethered rowboat bobbed on the wavelets. No one else was around. The moon was more than half full and beamed kindly. The light was apricot gold going to silvery blues, dusk to twilight.
“Let’s take it out,” I said and stood up, hopped down with a soft splash, waded out a little and got in.
“Are you goofy? Our moms would tan our hides.”
“They’d never know. Everyone is busy. We can row to the Point and back in fifteen, maybe twenty minutes. No one will even notice. Get in.”
I did just that, careful to not create undue rocking as I settled.
“No. It’s too dangerous. We don’t even have the life jackets.”
I shook thick hair back from my face, took a rubber band from my wrist and twisted a half ponytail in it. “You scared? We take this heap of wood out all the time. Come on.” I grabbed two life belts left in the hull and dangled them at her. “Here, just in case we need them.”
“I say we stay here, dip our feet and tell ghost stories or something.”
Leanne sat with folded hands in her lap, chin up a tad, a picture of quiet resolve. I had thought teenagers rebelled all the time–like Rufus tended to–but no, Leanne was right on target for Best Attitude of the Year. She was only thirteen, though.
I started to free the boat’s rope from the dock. “Well, I’m going without you then.”
“Jupiter, you’re a pest, you know I can’t let you do that. The parents would freak out.”
I hated hearing her say my whole name like she was acting as my Mom. “Jupe” was what I was called, sometimes “June”–even worse– if my name was misheard as “Juniper”. So when she grasped my forearm I yanked it back, just enough to cause her to tip toward me. To save herself from getting dunked in the lake she had to half-fall into the boat. She sat opposite me, gave me an unconvincing death stare from under wimpy eyebrows.
“You’re in big trouble!”
“Naw, now we’re set!” I grasped the handles, plunging the oars deep into metallic purplish-blue water.
“Sometimes I wonder what’s wrong with your brain. It’s got to be that poet gene. They’re still going to freak out–but let’s go and get it over with…”
I let the poet dig pass and began to row away from our spot on the bright and noisy shore, into the falling silvery veil of twilight. Daytime with all its knowns and givens was leaking out of a slow-thickening dark. Twilight was like the changeling in one of Mom’s poems, neither one thing or the other but better.
Meter Point was a tiny peninsula, close enough that we could just see it, and along the shoreline windows were aglow. The oars had a congenial creak as water pushed from them resisted the work of my arms. But it was good. It wasn’t hard to do what we were doing–we had rowed all over, not much without older people accompanying but still. The more rowing done the more I tingled head to toe. I felt older than Leanne, braver than ever. I breathed in and out with audible gusto as she held onto the sides of the boat grumbling about things I didn’t want to make out. But her protests grew skimpier as we glided along.
A shrill whistle ripped the moist air. Leanne frowned at me and I, back at her.
“Rufus. Has to be his whistle, darn it!”
“What d’ya want, Rufie?” Leanne called out.
I steadied the boat a minute; he’d have to be dealt with, a real let down, but I had half a mind to keep on going.
“I saw you two steal the boat so I followed you on the piney path. Let me in on it. I’m so bored. Bring it closer so I can hop in.”
“No!” I yelled, though with some restraint. “We had to get away; this is our outing!”
“Yeah, we won’t be gone long, anyway,” Leanne backed me up. “Go sneak some beer or something.”
Rufus laughed with a syllable of expelled air: “Huh!”. He was fifteen and thought he was worldly-tough. We knew he drank sometimes. “I wish it was that easy, squirt. But I’ll get the moms if you don’t come over here–and then what?”
We considered this. I knew that Leanne could go either way. I knew that I did not want our mothers interfering with my small freedoms. I didn’t want Rufus there, either. It was a lose-lose situation but better to give in than to bring parental wrath down on us. I rowed closer to the dirt and rock shoreline and he waded out and climbed in. Stood there shifting his weight to bug us; we rocked back and forth. He looked really big in the low light; his wide, bony shoulders blacked out a view of the moon. I felt like giving him a big push out.
“I’m rowing,” he commanded.
“If you have eyes to see you can tell I’ve got the oars.”
“Aw, let her row, it was her idea to take us out. She likes it.”
He sat his lean frame down with a thud next to his sister. The boat swayed more. “It’ll be a lazy, boring ride. Listen, I’ll take us back, right? You’ll find out how fast this thing goes with my hunking biceps. Now let’s see what you can do, kid.”
“We’re lopsided now, dummy, someone has to adjust.” I gave the oars a jerk.
He moved and was about to say something but held his tongue. In fact, he became uncharacteristically calm as I rowed; sullen, or just relieved to be out of the mix of things awhile. We had a messy, boisterous family. He might even have realized I had more strength and grit than he’d given me credit for. But he leaned back his head and stared at the sky, mouth hanging open. Stars were popping out more. Leanne gazed upward, too, then trailed her hand in the water, humming tunelessly. My shoulder and arm muscles began to burn just a little and I slowed down. No need to hurry. The air was cooling, the pretty twilight barely holding on. I could have used a sweatshirt but soon warmth began to radiate from my core and rise to my skin. The scents of stirred deepening waters and clean, rich pine bloomed in my nostrils. The darkness fell softly about my shoulders, as if to encourage me. I felt good, happier than I had all week-end. Water and open air did this, the boat a bonus. I suspected it was also true for Rufus as he surveyed the lake, his face softening in the blurred edge of darkness.
“I can see the Point already,” Leanne informed me, ever on top of things. “Keep to the left, you’re drifting out too much.”
“She’s doing alright, just being lazy but it’s okay now we’re getting closer.”
“Are there lights on at the chapel house?” I asked. “Sophia Swanson’s place?”
They were already studying the trees and the place that we all knew about and usually avoided. The place that was once an historical chapel and was renovated. We were near the area, too, where Thomas Swanson died, Stump Island on far right. I could see its spiky mound of treetops against the fading light.
“Yeah…. she’s just another person, right? Even though she’s so strange,” Leanne said. “But we could turn around and head back. Maybe go a piece the other direction, past Grandpa Curtis’ house. We know that area better.”
Rufus leaned forward. “Cut to the left, Jupe, let’s get in close, then get out and explore, what do you say?”
I looked at Leanne and she shook her head “no” emphatically. Rufus was moving about, craning his neck as if he’d caught sight of something, then gestured at me quickly to pull up to shore. A shiver of excitement rushed over me and I rowed hard toward the Point’s short rocky beach, even as my mind tried to hold back.
“That’s private property,” Leanne reminded us. “Miss Swanson won’t want us around here. She still scares me.”
“She’s widowed, so it’s still Mrs., I think. Or just Crazy Sophia,” he corrected her.
“Stop it you two, she’s just mute. That’s all, you would be, too, if your husband drowned and your daughter was taken back East to an aunt’s.”
I stopped rowing, the thrill stalling out. This was close enough.
“Get your fur down. No doubt she can be nice enough–but who knows what happened out there? She’s still freaky.”
I thought people made too much of Sophia Swanson. She had a friendly way but shy when Mom and I ran into her in a Snake Creek shop once. My mom sort of knew her and had told me the woman was so upset about her husband’s drowning that she didn’t have the strength to talk yet. But she was mostly extra talented, Mom had said, a dancer known all over.
I put up the oars and let us drift a little. Sweat tickled the nape of my neck. I worried that Rufus would jump in, swim ashore and prowl around. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea, after all. I knew the water was at least five feet deep there. I wasn’t so sure about swimming around the Point at night but it was tempting.
Before we could stop him Rufus slipped into the water–shorts, shirt and tennis shoes.
“Rufie, you could drown!” his sister screamed in a whisper. “Don’t go over there!”
“Just want a look,” he said as if he was just jogging past during daylight hours. He was dog paddling so it had to be deeper than expected, his feet dragging down, head bobbing.
He didn’t get far.
“What is that?” He pointed as he wiped mouth free of lake.
There was something there, quicksilver and powerful, seeming to swim or something more right off the Point. Sliding underwater, speeding back up, diving under again then breaking the surface silently. The unknown being emanated a soft sheen, a translucency of water and dusting of moonlight, and it swirled as it swam. I squinted and saw the elongated body, what seemed graceful fins or a tail as it swooped up and over and under, again and again. Circling something? Playing with something? Chasing something away? It was not quite human but not quite otherwise.
“My gosh…what is it?” Leanne had come over to my seat and clutched my arm.
“I’m coming in, too!” I stood up, readied for a dive.
Rufus swung around, held up his hands to motion “stop”, then raced back over to the boat and pulled himself over, nearly capsizing us.
“Don’t go in,” he sputtered as he flopped over and into the boat. His teeth began to chatter. “I don’t know what it is… but it’s weird! Maybe it is haunted around this place, Mr. Swanson did drown by the island over there! Just turn the boat around, that would be smart, Jupe. Go!”
We all looked at the tiny, black lump of Stump Island; it was disquieting. Rufus wrapped his arms about himself to get warmer as Leanne patted his back to calm him, which agitated him more. But as he grunted and she chattered away I observed the exotic swimmer. I took up my oars and started to move us closer.
“No, Jupe,” Rufus and Leanne said at once.
I knew it right away: it had to be Sophia Swanson. She was a dancer, right? And when I had seen her before, she seemed nearly a near-giantess (“Six feet,” Mom said, “unusual for a dancer”), athletic, graceful, it was all over her. I had thought then that she was from a foreign place, of course from earth but a far different earth than I had known or understood. She carried with her a sense of finer things, beyond time, her pale red-haired mane, her shoulders and legs and arms made of something more vibrant.
I floated around the Point just enough to see that what appeared to be a snake-like body, that being with tail or fins and super strength was a human, a woman clothed in gauzy material, a dress of some kind. She had surfaced again, inclined her head toward us and floated a little as if catching her breath, then swam swiftly to shore. I slowed the rowboat, hushed the other two. Waited to see what she’d do. We all sat as if frozen in place, voices stilled.
She emerged swiftly and fully from the blackening water of Ring Lake, as if the expanse of liquid lifted her up and up until her feet were shown good mud and rock to guide her across ground. Her stride was easy, fluid, the ankle-length dress of pale blue clinging to her beautiful form. She was not a delicate thing but towering. Even as I knew her to be Sophia, she seemed also a kind warrior to defend poetic-blooded kids like me, or maybe a sea goddess blessing the dead of Ring Lake. She had risen from the depths, then floated across a grassy knoll toward the small white chapel that had been made into her house.
“Oh…” Rufus managed, hand to head. “Man…”
“See? It’s just Miss Swanson…right?” Leanne whispered.
I felt a lump jumbled in my throat as my eyes followed her to the deck behind the white chapel house. She stood with head still, looking back in our direction. She moved across its width and seemed to be busy with something, arms lifting up. Then a soft flush of light broke open evening’s darkness, pulsing in the air. Then another and another, each light flaring and brightening as lanterns on poles were lit, seven in all.
And she was shining, oh she was shining among them. She stood there staring out over that wide, deep, swallowing-up lake. I didn’t think she saw me, though I hoped she did. I stood up tall, too, and waved as Leanne pulled at my shorts’ hems.
Sophia fluttered in a breeze, then gave an almost imperceptible bow, turned and entered her chapel house.
I held my breath as the boat drifted again. Rufus took the oars as I sat a few inches from a baffled Leanne. I wanted to let it sink in. Had Sophia seen me? Did she know how I believed in her? And what did I mean, anyway? A woman who couldn’t talk, a dancer, a swimmer in darkness. What could she mean to me, a girl she did not know. I felt like a sharp bright wind had blinded me a few hypnotic moments yet I saw it all. A peculiar wonderment, a courage that could be felt. To me it seemed that Sophia knew I had been able to know her for an instant, I mean like we can’t usually see people. Her muteness meant nothing to me. Her life felt so big. Good.
“She’s something else, huh?” Rufus said and his sister agreed.
Rufus was a strong rower and we made good time, leaving that world and renetering our own. We had been out longer than we’d expected. An hour had passed and we were greeted by cacophonous grown-ups and kids, a clot of scolding relatives that began to break apart when they saw us climb out the boat unscathed. But our shrieking mothers, my cousins’ father (restraining laughter) and Grandpa Curtis waited. Only Grandpa didn’t say too much.
“Okay, wild kids, take care of my boat in the morning. Pull her ashore, check her out, wipe her down for dry docking in the boat house. I’ll be inspecting things before you can go home.”
I peek into the hospital room. Mom motions to me the best she can; she has wires attached to her chest, an IV in her right arm and something clipped to her finger. An oxygen mask is close by. I am determined to not cry, not here, not yet. She had “only a medium-small heart attack”, she repeated when I held her close. She’s going to be alright now that they fixed the nearly closed artery but still, it’s harrowing to hear. I took a midnight flight and now here we are.
We chat awhile and she closes her eyes. I wonder what to do as she rests, then open my week-end bag and pull out the photos. I fan them out on the window ledge.
“What do you have there, sweetie?”
I show her reunion pictures, five in all. She smiles or frowns according to whom we’re pointing out; we gossip a little and muse over what changes the years have brought. Leanne becoming a urologist and Rufus, married with kids and a house restoration business. She especially likes the same one I do, the first one I decided to bring. Deena passed away four years ago in a car accident. I haven’t seen my cousins since the funeral. The lake house was sold twelve years ago. You can’t keep hold of the past once it has taken its leave, I think, but we try anyway.
“There she is with her ever-present peace sign flashing and that big laugh. Thank you, Jupe, for this.”
We are quiet a bit and I put aside the pictures.
“Mom, do you recall when Rufus, Leanne and I took out Grandpa’s rowboat? I was eleven. It was the last night of our reunion, everyone was around the bonfire though you were out back with Deena. The other kids were hanging around but I wanted to take the boat out. I convinced Leanne to come along.”
Mom blinks at me from her white, lined face. “You did…now I remember. You went to the Point.”
“Yes. You remember what I saw there?”
“Sure, Sophia in the lake.”
“But you never said much about it.”
“Well, I was relieved you were alright, you and your cousins. But, then, neither did you say much. No one did. We figured it wasn’t that thrilling, just a gadabout on Ring lake at nightfall.”
“Really?” I look at her more closely. Her expression is one of deep calm. “Yes, I saw Sophia in the water. She was like a mermaid, Mom. It was amazing to see her swim, like dancing with the lake. We didn’t know what to think. She was in a long dress but diving and twisting about and shooting up from the surface, swimming like something nearly inhuman. Luminous creature. Fabulous woman.”
Mom’s eyes hold mine and mine hold hers; she can imagine it as just as well as I can see it in my mind after all this time. She has a poet’s inner eye and I am her daughter.
“And then after she got out of the water, after she noticed us in the boat, she walked up to her deck and lit seven lanterns. It was as if she wanted us to know she knew we were there. That I was there. And they were so lovely glowing like that under the half-moon, in the folding darkness….I have never forgotten it, Mom.”
Mom turns her head to the window, her face soft with the sheerness of life and opacity of near death. As if she already left once but returned to have a good talk with me. She speaks to me, enunciating so I am sure to understand her.
“Sophia has been one who lights beacons for others. She hears a voice in the deep, then answers it with creations of beauty and hope. You always were one who moved beneath the surface even then, just like me, just like Sophia.”
She released a long ragged breath from pressed lips. I thought I should let her sleep but she kept on.
“Yes, we were friends in our way. Simpatico. She knew my poetry. I knew of her choreography and dancing.” She glanced back at me, eyes not fully open but clear. “But I saw her that very next day. At the gas station while you packed. She wrote it all down for me when I asked her if she was aware you were there. She said she had lit the lanterns for you–she had seen you coming in that boat. It was because you saw her and seemed to be not afraid of anything, not the darkness, not her muteness and her odd nighttime water dancing. Her way of making peace with things.” Her hand quivered, lifted as if trying to reach. “I wonder if I still have the little note from her. I put it in a book of Rilke’s poems, I think. She was rather famous, didn’t you know ? She said she expected fine creating from you.”
I crossed my arms over my chest, hands to shoulders to hold my mother;s words closer. “Oh…and I felt after that night at least two watched over me as I struggled and finally made it to the theater.”
“You truly did. We all require watching over, Jupiter, sweet dumpling…so we must do for others what we need to have done…”
Mom promptly fell asleep. I stayed on as shadows flattened themselves against the bland walls and floor. After awhile I took the photographs and arranged them in a small gathering around her so the family could keep an eye on her. In case I did not stay vigilant enough, God forbid, in case I finally felt afraid in the dark.