The first sighting occurred on a late afternoon soon after Dae bounded out the door before her, barking furiously after a squirrel who’d just scampered off. The water before them was uncharacteristically still, mirror-smoothness reflecting only heavy clouds. Stillness, often a first sign of a thunderstorm, had settled deep in Sophie’s bones when she awakened and she’d felt a peace, despite knowing there might be a storm. She had worked hard at this, the coveted equilibrium required to live a life she valued.
She stood with flat of hand to brow as if that would help her better discern a cause of the flicker of light. Unease pricked her insides. A glimmering spot above a gun metal Ring Lake disturbed the day. No spare light filtered down as raindrops plopped onto the deck. As she stepped closer, the glinting glided away at a rapid pace. A green canoe was briefly outlined, a small body in it. The big dog had seen the person, too, as he or she rounded the narrow peninsula–Sophie’s land–then slipped away. His sharp barks were more greeting and farewell than warning; the canoe was gone.
Dae ran to her and licked her fingers; both hands hung at her sides limply, as if she was deflated. It was nothing to think twice about, the lake was open to all for boating and other pleasures as long as weather allowed. But not so often did she see people on the water when a storm was brewing. Sophie shivered in the cooling wind, her eyes unavoidably drawn to Stump Island. The community island. Thomas had nonetheless tried to commandeer it to work on limnology research notes.
That he’d tried to reach, perhaps, that summer night. But his boat faltered, his body sank, languished in muck on the lake bed.
She could not speak of it after nearly a year. In fact, could still not speak at all.
She signaled to Dae and they entered her remodeled and historical chapel-house. Once inside she paused. Distant thunder and lightning illuminated the expanse, now textured with waves. A curtain of rain fell and semi-darkness spilled over all. The husky-German Shepherd mix took his place on the rag rug before the fireplace, despite no fire. He panted lightly, blue eyes following his mistress. She closed the curtains on French doors to the deck as he lay his fine head on massive paws, eyes closing.
In the loft, Sophie removed the silk caftan that covered a leotard, then lit three pillar candles and danced, or rather acted as if she might still dig deep into that primal force and bring forth movement, coppery, white-streaked hair cast off her back as she floated, lips quivering. The elegant dog lifted its head. Listened.
The second sighting happened as Sophie was driving down 137 in her truck. She was off to Haston, not far from her village of Snake Creek. Dense white pine and hemlock, a grove of birch flew by as a mostly green blur as she barreled down the road. It was also that kind of day she thought of as cornflower blue and forsythia yellow, filled with a promise of more heat to come and a day of small pleasures. She would get errands done, then stop for a steaming chai and warm chocolate chip cookie at her favorite coffee house, then stroll along Lake Michigan. Clarissa–Rissa to closest friends–said she might meet them if she got done with her restaurant supply run in time and felt she could take a half hour to relax. Sophie turned up the music, a lively pop tune. Behind her Dae sat with twitching nose pressed into sweet air a half-opened window afforded.
They were perhaps fifteen minutes out, the road empty except for towering trees lining either side and a raptor circling above. Around a wide curve in the opposite direction roared a blue sports car, top down, and at the wheel was another bold shimmer as had been seen at the lake two days before. The two-seater began to slow, presumably to approach a private road to the new Nine Lives Spa and Resort. The woman’s long champagne blonde hair unfurled like a fancy scarf freed by spring wind. Soft sunlight bounced off it spinning golden filaments. Her skin appeared an ordinary, not tanned, tone. She wore something coral.
Sophie’s eyes shifted between blue car and winding road and resisted the impulse to slow down, as well. It was no doubt a woman from down state, likely Detroit, here for a pricey rejuvenation vacation. The patrons had begun to show up more in the village already. The place offered Tai Chi, Bikram yoga, a eucalyptus steam room, an indoor-outdoor Olympic sized pool with hot tub, fancy massages by the hour, earthy skin treatments and all the rest that no one she knew wanted to undergo, much less could afford. In truth, Sophie would like the steam room after a deep massage. She already practiced Tai Chi but swam in the lake as tolerable in summer like everyone else did. No one was happy about the resort other than Rissa’s husband, the developer who sold off the waterfront parcel; he was tight with the investors.
The blue car downshifted as it arrived at the turn off, then stopped just short of turning. Sat there idling. Sophie slowed enough to get a fast peek at the driver. The petite woman looked over a shoulder; huge sunglasses obscured most of her face. She caught her flying hair with a hand as she gazed at Sophie, then abruptly took off down the driveway, engine purring.
Dae had been keen to look as well but offered no response. Sophie pondered the coincidence. Was it the same person she had seen at the lake? And if so, who was she and why might she be interested in her? The driver looked too polished and self-impressed to be a regular Michigander. She didn’t even look like a usual buyer of northern summer cottages. More akin to Sophie, perhaps, an East coaster. Did Sophie know her from somewhere? Were she and Thomas acquaintances of Bostonian friends of hers; had they met at a dinner party or lecture?
Sophie gripped the steering wheel, sped along the curving road. Maybe the driver had another interest–if indeed, there was a true interest and not some prurient curiosity. Maybe Ms. Champagne Blonde was a reporter after the story of the suspicious death of Thomas Swanson, famous biologist. And his wife, Sophie Swanson, well-known dancer and choreographer. Once of the Bostonian bramin (which they were not unhappy to leave).
She hit the wheel with her palm; she wanted to be no one of any interest, to have less of Thomas in her life now. Dae’s head rose to rest at her shoulder and she patted his head. Her eyes burned; she blinked to refocus on the road. It wasn’t going to happen, a story. She didn’t want to be found, didn’t even respond to old friends’ cards and notes, nor to emails. That life was abandoned when Thomas retired. She had long ago agreed to come with him, leave her career behind at age 45. Despite any regrets, despite hellish losses–including that of Mia, her daughter, now living with an aunt–this was meant to be home. There was no turning back, anyway.
Grief had a way of weaving you into the landscape from which pain erupted. It was a sore comfort, a remembrance of hope and a scarring rawness even as the aching was, bit by bit, subdued. And she had to start over from here, nowhere else.
A fragrant, almost warm blast of air mellowed her thoughts as the window was rolled down. The day was still new, it would be salvaged. Sophie was a pro at such things.
She felt deep pressure under her ribs, an urge to scream but when her mouth opened only a rush of soft air mixed with the breeze. Dae, on the other hand, whined, eager to run.
And the third sighting was other than what Sophie might have imagined.
Rissa waved as she wound her way between tables then sat on the wooden chair with a thump, uniform askew, dark hair stuck to her forehead. She blew up at her bangs to cool off. It was busy at Bluestone Cafe, the thriving restaurant she owned and managed.
“What’s going on, lady? Sorry I couldn’t meet up but I was running late Thursday and the supply order wasn’t quite right and then I got into it with Stan about numbers tallied!” She flipped a hand in the air, dismissing the annoyance, and smiled. “I’m glad to sit a little. But you don’t usually come in during rush hours. Did an appointment bring you in?”
Sophie shook her head, pulled from her soft leather bag a medium-sized notebook and shoved it across the table top. This was the means by which she talked to her few friends. She’d written about the two times in a few days she’d seen who might be the same woman. She hated to admit to such an odd and likely irrational worry but she was starting to think she was being followed by a stranger. She described her the best she could and asked if her friend had seen anyone like that.
Rissa frowned as she read. Sometimes Sophie had fears that couldn’t easily be tamped down, much less erased. But it was best to take what she intuited or felt seriously. She was not a crazy person despite what some suggested but a hurt human being who was still healing. That night of the drowning was a complicated story.
“A person who looks like that would stick out like a sore thumb. Summer people haven’t taken over yet…but the resort is up and running, yeah, so…Maybe it’s a case of mistaken identity if she thinks she knows you, that can happen. But, no, I haven’t seen any one just like that. Champagne blonde? We just have badly bleached straw blondes!” She chuckled. “I think you should keep an eye out, tell others if it keeps happening, anyway.” She narrowed her eyes and thought. “I wonder if that husband of mine has seen this person around. If anyone would recall a woman like that it’d be Sonny. I’ll ask.”
With a shrug, Sophie picked up her notebook and tucked it away. Rissa lay her hand on her friend’s.
“You do okay with the thunderstorm this week?’
Sophie smiled assent.
“That’s good. Not bad, no power losses. Gotta go, girlfriend, catch you soon.”
Sophie squeezed her hand and let go. After she finished off her iced tea and cinnamon scone she paid the bill and left.
Rissa watched her go, the tall, lithe form and legs and arms swinging, the gingery-white hair that fell nearly to her waist in a loose braid. She wished her a happy afternoon and no strange sightings.
The main thoroughfare of Snake Creek paralleled the eastern shore of Ring Lake. Right across from Bluestone Cafe was the old field stone library and behind that, an inviting grassy park. Beyond the library ran the waterfront with the public beach and boat rentals. Sophie ran across the street, toward the shoreline. She had brought a book to read on another unusually sunny day. Mainly she wanted to be among a few people though she was always somehow apart. At times her house felt so small, constraining, bound in echoing silence; it could barely contain her then and she either worked on the property or went into town.
In the morning Sophie had gotten up early, walked with Dae, made an apple pie for her older friends Will and Anna, who’d had a stroke. Then she’d sat on the deck listening to fado music, the most plaintive and bittersweet of all choices. She’d caught herself drifting into a dreaded state of longing and sorrow so put the pie in a bag and went for a short visit with her friends. Dae was left behind for once. She half-wished she’d brought him as he loved to race about park and shore. Everyone knew him, admired his friendliness, agility and handsomeness. He was her buffer, she knew that.
The waterfront was busier than usual but it was a Friday, almost May–more people were coming to visit. She sat on a bench under a newly leafed poplar. After reading a few pages she looked up and down the shore, watching people hunt for attractive rocks and toss a few, play ball.
And there sat Ms. Champagne at southern end of the rocky beach, knees drawn up to her chin, pale hair blowing about. Alone. Sophie started that direction, wishing she had a friend with her. What would she do when she got there? Ask who she was and why she was always around when she was still so damned mute?
The woman turned and saw her before she got there, her legs flattening onto the rocks, hands grabbing the brilliant mass to tame it again in a ponytail. Then she got up, shifted her weight. Sophie stopped about ten feet before her. She dwarfed the stranger from her height of six feet; the other woman was nearly a foot shorter. And so much younger, perhaps 30, 35?
The woman offered a tentative smile that drew wider when Sophie did not respond in kind.
“Hello, I’m Signe Johansson. I know we’ve skirted each other a few days. I’m glad you came to greet me as I’ve been trying to figure out how to approach you.”
Sophie inclined her head at Signe and found her open-faced, eager to talk so offered her hand. Signe knew who she was, so no speaking was necessary. Her notebook might yet be useful, she would wait.
“Can we find a bench so I can explain…?”
They walked with only the lulling noise of waves to the spot Sophie had been reading, sat, then half-turned to each other. Sophie stared at the woman’s sparkling white and red tennis shoes. She glanced up, had burning desire to ask her ten questions and bit her lip. Signe smoothed her black khakis and took a deep breath.
“You are the Sophia Swanson, I know that. And I knew your husband, your famous partner.”
Sophie’s lips formed his name as alarm spread over her gaunt features.
“Yes, Thomas…I worked in the same building at Boston University. The Earth Sciences department where he lectured many years in between research trips.”
Her dark blue eyes–too bright, marred with redness– locked with Sophie’s.
“I know you’re at a disadvantage as you don’t talk. That’s what I heard. We heard. After his death. That it was too much. I’m sorry. He was…amazing. We were…friends, good friends… ”
Sophie fought the urge to get up and leave. Who was this Signe to be following her, trespassing on her life, talking as if they were bound to make a friendly connection via her spouse? Speaking of her entirely dead husband–familiarly, casually?
“Wait, Sophie– I’m here.” Rissa’s gravelly voice penetrated her distress and then she came around to stand before them. “I’m Clarissa, Sophie’s closest friend and ally–and you are, exactly?”
“Oh, hi. I’m Signe, an old friend of Thomas’.” She smiled sweetly, too fast. “I’m glad you came. Now maybe she and I can talk with your help. I know an investment partner of Nine Lives Spa and Resort and I thought I’d come up and visit the new place and also…” her voice petered out.
Rissa sat on the end of the bench by Sophie and leaned forward . “I see, very nice, we have a great area to enjoy. My husband is a developer. I appreciate your interest. But what does any of this have to do with Sophie Swanson? Did you come to give your condolences?”
“Yes, I did. I guess I wanted to share memories with her. He was a brilliant man and a gentleman.”
Sophie drew out her notebook and scribbled a few lines. Rissa read them.
“How well did you know him and for how long? And what do you teach?”
“Hydrology, environmental interventions. I knew him for six years, he was a mentor, co-worker, a friend.” She looked at Sophie and then at Rissa. “A truly good friend,” she emphasized.
Sophie scribbled another few questions. Rissa spoke once again.
“How come Sophie never heard of you? Did you two meet, even at a public function? And why would you find it necessary to come here and talk about this friendship with Thomas? It’s peculiar.” Rissa’s nose wrinkled.
The woman took a deep breath and turned toward Rissa sharply. “Look, why are you interrogating me? I came to pay my respects, to tell Sophie how much we appreciated his work and his kindness, that’s all.”
“Funny, it doesn’t seem like that. She doesn’t even know you and you’re avoiding the real answers. My gut tells me you knew him a bit too well–“she put her hand on Sophie’s shoulder as Sophie ‘s fingers clenched her sweater–” and you’d not planned on meeting her yet now you have and with an unsavory interest. Meeting his mourning widow now…I don’t like it any more than Sophie does.”
Signe sat up straight, shoulders back. “There was a lot she didn’t know about him, that she didn’t care to know more about–she was so busy with her career and he was alone a lot–who could he talk to about his research –and his dreams? Some of us were there, that’s all I want to say! I–I just wanted her to know how much I adored Thomas Swanson!” Her voice had risen like a frantic adolescent’s. Face flushed, her blue eyes darted about, filled with tears.
“Stop there, Siggie,” Rissa said. “You need to take this to your shrink. You’ve no right to come here, say these things to her. You don’t know Sophie, not one bit.”
But Sophie got up and bent her graceful height over the sniveling Signe. Sophie tapped her lips so Signe would watch them. Carefully formed the silent words:
Thomas was never yours, he was mine–she touched her chest–our daughter’s. Now goodbye.
Rissa and Sophie left arm in arm. Sophie was not crying. She was not shaking, not wanting to run back and hurt that woman. She knew so many things Signe Johansson would never know. And she had long felt tired out by that knowledge and since his death, whittled down by grief of the darkest sorts. No, she felt sorry for this younger–and weaker– Signe, who must have been left alone. Far too lonely. And Sophie was not. She realized she finally missed her husband less than she ever had. Or, at least, the man she knew, his cynicism, his spurts of tenderness, his brilliance and dependence. And finally, the undoing of his life by a sly and ego-hungry madness in a boat on a thunderstruck night. Night of terrors, her life nearly lost, and Sophie had barely survived the man she had loved. She would keep searching for her own voice.
(Note: this is a story based on a novel of mine, Other Than Words, written many years ago. I keep revising/ coming back to it. Another post about Sophie can be found here: https://talesforlife.blog/2016/07/18/life-in-pieces/
If you are interested in reading more, let me know and I will post more links.)