The land was wilder than it let on at first look, the road curving about it protectively for miles on end, with glimpses of properties blurred as Cal sped by. The forest was piney, dense and secretive. White paper birch groves showed off in flashes of sunlight. The deciduous trees wore bright green and spread their arched branches about like many-limbed dancers. He breathed here as nowhere else–not that he had not been other places more beautiful or dangerously intoxicating. But this landscape erupted seemingly from another time and had remained there. He was entering it again as the aqua Mustang took over. It nearly drove itself as coolness of shadows took turns with a weak heat of late spring light upon his face and arms.
Soon enough he downshifted and slowed to turn off at the beaten gravel road leading into the village of Snake Creek. He passed a couple of spandex-attired cyclists–tourists, he suspected– as they nodded and swerved onto the dirt. A truck bounced past him going the other way; the Klimper brothers with sons and a shaggy dog in the back.
The village’s main artery was not so different from when he and his parents and sister lived just beyond its borders each summer. He passed The Clarion offices and the Bluestone Cafe owned now by his old friend Clarissa; the small shops for sweets and ice cream, one for odd trinkets and t-shirts and a shoe store for practical boots and fancy sandals. The only hair salon, A Cut Above, had a picture window that flashed in the sunlight. A field stone and wood library always caught his eye. His mother had been instrumental in getting it refurbished and re-stocked over thirty years ago. Not far from the village his father had taught music at United Ministries Summer Arts camp (UMSA) for what seemed forever. They’d lived in one of the large cabins built for staff. Cal and his sister, Kirsten, grew up living a dual life of strict discipline centered on the arts, and living free and happy in woods and water.
And now he was back. Not for forever, but for long enough to restore his anxious soul and nourish his numbed senses.
Ring Lake. He could see it sparkle and undulate as he drew up to the side of the road. He cut the engine, sat a moment. The lake never failed to put his mind on pause. He suspected his collages–the photojournalists with whom he had kept company for decades–would make snide comments about his chosen paradise. After all, hadn’t they been about everywhere else, documenting sights that horrified, illuminated and moved them? Joe Rasmussen, his oldest friend, his mentor, would understand this return to the old places, this “safe zone”, Cal imagined, but Joe was gone. Lost in the Amazon. Or hiding out.
Cal blinked away the image of Joe being enveloped by jungle; Cal had agreed to wait outside their pick up plane. Joe would for certain understand why Cal was cruising down this road on a sunny morning, if not exactly in the right way. He’d pull his neck back and stare at Cal as if his friend had gone and lost him mind, yet he understood how that might happen.
“Ah, a woman! She must be mighty powerful to distract you from finally–how many years since you took time off?– relaxing up in northern Michigan! And you’ve been trying to find me, too… Well, a good and real love never hurt anybody, despite all the naysayers.”
He should know, having been married far more than was reasonable. Cal got out of the car and watched a sailboat make its way toward the shore. He could almost still see Joe’s lopsided smile, his grisly white beard and his dancing, squinting eyes wreathed with wrinkles. He saw him turn away as he did that day, pumping the air with his fist as he disappeared into thickets of monstrous vines and tangled vegetation and raucous or sneaky creatures: Joe had taken off for one last chance at filming the most gigantic, mind boggling anaconda ever.
The familiar fear shot right up his back bone and it nearly lodged in his brain to expand and paralyze him before he took deep breaths, then moment by moment slowed his heart rate. Nothing was worse than dread fear, the visceral poison of being scared, how it’s tendrils shot into you with a ferocious grip and held you halfway alive, halfway toward death. Panic, it was called by the shrinks. But to Cal and his compatriots, it was just unadulterated fear, provoked by adrenalin that was fired off by something terrifying. Or even the sheer possibility. There were a lot of things to fear in the world. And when you were taking pictures of it up close, the fear could ruin you. Or be tamed by years of disciplined will, the basic training of in-depth experiences. It might save you or it might kill you; you had to decide fast.
There was nothing to fear here. Joe was far away, he vanished months ago, and there was not much more he could do about that now. If ever.
Ring Lake was turning that perfect blue-green that changed to more navy in the center depths, teal in shallower waters. Cal held this color along with the scent of water inside until he was calm. Until he felt his feet firm on wooded, rich earth once more. He was as ready to try to move on as he’d been in a while. He looked toward the peninsula seen through a thinner group of jack pines.
Should he walk up to the white chapel-house? Should he even attempt to see her? Bother her, really; she was not one to take random visitors. But she had seemed to be interested in what he said at the Bluestone Cafe as they sat together with family friend and Cal’s most loyal and original mentor, Will, editor of The Clarion.
But what was he thinking ? And how could he possibly know what she was thinking? And why this woman–after so long being on his own?
Sophia Swanson was…she was more than a tad eccentric, lovely and capable. She was mute. Had been since her husband died almost a year before. Cal turned back to his car and leaned against a door. Sugar maple leaves twirled in a shifting breeze. Squirrels raced up and down their favorite trees, chipmunks scurried about and the birds sang their lungs out. He watched the lake’s ever-changing waters, considering options and possible outcomes. He could just turn around and head back to his sister’s house on Grand Traverse Bay.
In her old life, if anybody had told Sophia she could be so indecisive as to feel half-mad with uncertainty, she would have vehemently refuted it. But there she was, sitting in her cozy kitchen with Daedalus, her husky-German shepherd, and he was looking up at her expectantly, patiently. It was a long while that he sat at attention, sympathetically alert to her every move. She’d have chuckled if she could but smoothed his broad back again.
She was trying to decide if she wanted to try only a very short swim–more like a good wading, then trying to submerge her chest, perhaps– in the still chilly Ring Lake or take a long nap or critically review her last two paintings leaning against a wall in the loft. The paintings interested her less; she was not so good at it though she found pleasure and peace at the easel.
A glance through the sliding glass door to the deck gave her second thoughts about the water option. It was just starting to cloud over some. Besides which, she didn’t want to go swimming, certainly not in May and not even in the swampy heat of July. The old Sophia wanted to; the new Sophia refused so far. But if she entertained the idea long enough, she might change her current mindset.
Everything in life took practice, didn’t it? Being a youngish widow certainly took practice; being a mother whose only child, Mia, now lived with an aunt–that took enormous work to accept, every moment. More like gradual surrender. No one stole her daughter but they may as well have. When Thomas died, it her life was brazenly stolen. He may as well as have taken them down with him, into that very lake outside her door. It felt as if he did, but they were left dripping with relentless life which became an urgent desire to live, if that was needed, only in limbo. At least, so it was for her. Mia was learning to unthaw the frozen grief and move on back in Vermont. Maybe Sophia should give up and go back east and live with her sister, too. But a woman who does not speak cannot succeed among speakers.
Sophia’s closest Snake Creek friend, Clarissa, had first come up with the idea of swimming about six months after he was gone.
“It’s simple, really, you just have to get moving, honey.” Clarissa spoke into a mug of hot chocolate one snow-spun night. “It’s a fact, the brain releases chemicals for healing and good thoughts!”
Sophia looked up from the fireplace, startled, shook her head vigorously. Why was Rissa being suddenly insensitive? Thomas breathed his last breath out there. He fell off the boat, slipped into swirling black water while skies crackled with lightning, never came back up to say a good-bye or to yell for help or even her name. Or that’s what she imagined. The thunder and lightning, her husband raging against everything so that he finally took up arms against the natural world he adored more than all else, and lost. Or he chose to lose the life he had, and in so doing, he left them in the nightmare of shock, sorrow and anger.
No, don’t think of it, don’t go back to all that happened again.
But Rissa persisted.
“Why not, though? Of course, yes, he drowned…I’m still sorry for it. But you’re a professional dancer and choreographer. You have to move that body more or you’ll just curl up and die, too. That’s not what you want. You can power walk a bit, you even ride a bike if you need to. And you can swim again.” She looked at Sophia as if she might just will it to happen for her. “Don’t ever say never.”
Rissa had a habit of speaking bluntly, as if her truth was clear and dominant. Sophia’s eyes stung with threat of tears but she sent them away. It was hard to hear because her friend was right, If she kept lying in bed and sitting about; if she refused to even walk along the lake’s shore; if she never did another dance warm up exercise much less a spin with a tiny leap– she would not go forward toward anything good. But her body rebelled. It ignored itself, mostly. Her very vocal chords even refused to give sound to her thoughts. Yes, her body was on hiatus. It was better than before, those first weeks when she was nearly catatonic. Now she was just speechless as a stone. But a stone that moved about with encouragement.
That next pretty morning Rissa hooked her arm in Sophia’s. They hesitantly walked at the edge of narrow beach along the small peninsula, land upon which stood their own–now, her own–renovated historic chapel. The water roared in her ears. Pebbles were hard and sharp under her rubber sandals and yet the lake looked like a magnificent– and beastly– creature. A giant open mouth that could swallow them whole. Alive. In in a few days she returned with Rissa, then others who appeared without asking –Anna and Will, Sherry and T.Z. and Frank. She finally walked in a couple of inches with bare feet. Closed her eyes, stood long enough to really feel the oddly neutral, silken touch of water. She began to concede Ring Lake could be, at times, a benign thing, breathtaking in all its moods and friendlier once more with children playing out on the raft and many water skiers, the fishermen and women, people swimming out to the small island from their ramshackle houses.
But she did not go any farther than just above her ankles. And that felt an inch too much.
Sophia thought now: if I just run out there and jump in with Dae and we go out a few freezing feet, get all wet, and then turn back and come in–maybe I will shock myself out of this phobia. Dae will not let me drown, he will swim with me. I can run back in, take a long hot shower and later when Rissa comes by she’ll find how strong I actually am, that I’ve conquered it.
Dae whined at her pleadingly, tail all a-wag, so she got up and opened the slider to let him out. He turned to look back at her, head cocked. She stepped through. The two of them padded down the deck steps, into the grass now greenly growing again after a hard winter. The big dog dashed on, zigzagging across the long yard and to the lake.
Sophia hung back, arms crossed over her soft, high bosom, stood with feet apart. Her heart raced and then steadied as she walked closer to Ring Lake. She felt an edgy gust of wind, a chill left over from Canada’s colder store of air. There would be no swimming today, of that she was certain.
“Sophia? Hi there!”
She pivoted, hands hovering before her. Dae barked feverishly as he made a hard dash for the person walking onto their territory. And came to a halt, the bark a mere squeal as he was soothed by a man who had entered her domain.
Cal roughed up Dae’s ears and petted his back and head lavishly.
“I thought to leave you a note first but since I was in town to do an errand for my sister Kirsten, I decided I may as well see if you were around. I hope that isn’t too rude a thing to do. I mean, to presume you might be here and then see me…”
Sophia tightened her lips into what she hoped passed for a decent smile. It unnerved her she hadn’t heard him, that she might not register a person coming up behind her. He must have heard Daedalus barking earlier, looked past the driveway and down to the lake. But Cal Rutgers was okay. She thought he was, at least, and Will and Clarissa had assured her he had grown up at the camp and the village in summers, was a good guy. A little bit famous. Well, fame didn’t mean a thing to her. She had had a good bit of fame with her dance troupe before Thomas moved them to northern Michigan from Boston. Before he died, Thomas Swanson was well established in the fame department, a research scientist, author, lecturer. A highly regarded biologist who specialized in limnology, the study of inland waters. She had many bad thoughts about water and the ironic nature of his death, as well as about fame.
But he was congenial and smart and he looked pretty good to her despite her desire to not look at him at all. She looked up, smiled more naturally, and his eyes crinkled back at her.
He studied the lake as he came down the easy slope to stand beside her. “It seems we’ve run into each other a few times at Rissa’s Bluestone Cafe or at the newspaper office or once at the library. I hoped you would show me around your peninsula.” She spread his hands out to include the entire scenario or lake and land. “I love it so much here, you know… I had to come back to see if it had changed into something more plastic. And it hasn’t.”
She nodded her head to the side and back, in the direction of the chapel-house.
“Ah, well. Yes, my minister great-grandfather’s, then minister grandfather’s chapel. A beautiful little historic chapel. It’s true that I wasn’t happy with you and your husband buying it. But it’s done and it looks okay–from out here.”
Cal did not want to see the inside and he was relieved she didn’t offer to take him there with another head nod. He wasn’t ready to see it made an ordinary house. But he did like to revisit the peninsula, so they were walking along it’s shore and he fell silent. But then she stopped him and put her hands together as in prayer, as in a plea for forgiveness or at least some genuine acceptance. Her eyes, somewhat almond-shaped and hazel, revealed emotion reflecting a true regret. He was taken aback.
There had been such good times here. The simple services, the feasts, the sort of games boys and girls played–tag, capture the flag, dodge ball–after church services. Grandfather Rutgers passed when he was in his late teens. Cal hadn’t seen the chapel more then two or three times since then and now, it was a house. He set aside mixed feelings of regret, nostalgia and disappointment, even some anger. He just gave her raised eyebrows paired with a vague smile, the sort that says, maybe, but okay for now… Cal hoped she caught it; he didn’t have much more to say about it yet.
He noted a passing urge to tuck back a stray strand of her length of sandy hair. Her face was unadorned, free of pretense. They walked on the length of the peninsula and back again, then found a nice spot at the edge of a stand of pines.
It must have been a good fifteen or twenty minutes that they sat under the trees watching nothing and everything. Suddenly Sophia took his arm, tugged at it and then, embarrassed by the somewhat intimate gesture, let go. They moved toward the water. The waves slapped rhythmically against rocky beach, carried away the tension in their bodies, shook free their minds of worry. The clouds had moved on and sunshine was like a scarf, light and soft as silk, lain over their frames. Sophia took a step and then another. Dae, seeing her move into the lake bounded over, splashing them both.
She got up with Cal and to hid surprise, they walked into the water, the dog prancing about them. She was nearly as tall as was he–over six feet. He paused briefly over her desire enter water yet infused with a mild wintry chill, and how odd it was to take a virtual acquaintance along but he said, “Is this going to be okay? It’s cold!” and she nodded as shallow wavelets passed through her pants, slid onto skin and rose up each leg, every small advancement a growing internal agony. Then: all the way to her knees. And she stopped, clutching Cal’s arm despite her usual need for reserve.
Her face was charged with and transformed by the electricity of fear. He knew this look well. Cal understood the murky meanings of those white-rimmed eyes, the mouth agape, so he grasped her shoulders and held her gently in place. But Sophia was not going to be held back. She shook him off, thinking like a mantra why not why not why not now I will be brave fear cannot take my life water will not kill me why not now I so loved all water once… and walked alone until the creeping water soaked the pants above her knees, halfway up her still muscular, pale thighs.
She took a small step again and gritted her teeth, stilled her limbs with arms crossed tightly about her chest, face turned up to sky, her long braid dangling just above slapping waves of spring’s lake water. It was terrifying and amazing to command the stay of her body within voluminous, amorphous liquid. A great body encompassing her own trembling body. Alone. She felt as if she might pass out or lift off the murky lake bottom or sink into dreamy depths where a minuscule hope lived amid potent fears–into the subterranean life that she’d led so long.
But when Sophia turned back to the shore, face was open and close to beaming. When she reached him she even laughed, hands held to her mouth, then splashing earthy-fragranced water everywhere, all over him. He could see she was laughing hard, shoulders shaking–but there was no definable sound from her. Nothing was heard but waves and wind upon them and his own small chortle. And some spot in his heart just blew open, it was a mere pinhole of an exit and entrance but he embraced the sweep of beauty. Sun threw its light about them, water was a glinting, blue-green glorious expanse and all those trees stood proudly beaming fresh new greenness. Dae barked with an envious thrill from shore as they rushed clumsily out of the lake, all the way up the grassy hill. Back home, Sophia seemed to suggest when she glanced at him. Cal flashed a quizzical look.
But she knew what she could offer: the old/new chapel-house comforts and two thick towels, strong cups of coffee served with slices of almond cinnamon cake. It was enough. And perhaps a glimpse of her ways of silence, which might not continue to hide or hurt her as they had for too long.
(Hello, kind readers: This is another trial chapter (here made into a short story) in an ongoing revision of my unpublished novel, Other Than Words. One published excerpt was nominated for a Pushcart Prize years ago but it remains a work in need of more work! It may take more time and effort than I have, though I remain intrigued by the characters and themes. Thus, I have written other posts about these two and others; searching my site for “Snake Creek” may bring you to them. If not, let me know. I will post links. Thanks for reading this one!)