The lake was not so close to the house you could throw a rock into it–something Iris had determined decades ago during each summer. It faintly glistened beyond a grove of birches and ubiquitous pines, and the half-fallen ones winter had damaged, one day to be seasoned and made into firewood. The ground was boggy beneath her feet, smelled strongly of rich mud. The sky blazed a hard blue above the whispering lake and the land about it.
“But the lake is there making its music,” she commented, surveying the property, arm outstretched.
“I suppose so, with complete indifference to us,” Elliot said, pushing fists deeper into his jacket pockets. It was cold despite it being on the cusp of spring, and his eyes burned from driving three and a half hours after a bad night’s sleep. “How about lunch and a strong cup of coffee? I’m beat.”
“You go ahead then,” Iris said and walked toward the woods, leaving him to take the luggage in as well as food for a three day week-end. Her suitcase, that is; he’d lightly packed a gym bag. She had wanted to make sure there were adequate clothes for the changeable spring.
It was too much to take in. The monstrous months of the virus, still going strong. A slowdown in their respective jobs. Then Grandpa Bolo’s death. He’d been expected to make good on his decree that he’d be a hundred and not a day less as he moved from this realm to the next. His health had been great for so long they believed him. His brain was snapping-quick, his outlook positive. Until he was fifty, he’d been a hardware store owner and sold it for a very good sum. Living in northwest woods for the latter part of his life, he was entirely content except for the loss of his wife too soon. But despite all those good things, a massive stroke snatched him at 94.
“Why was he called Grandpa Bolo?” Elliot had once asked after they married.
“Everyone called him ‘Bolo’. His mother’s maiden name was his a middle name–Bolonger–and he hated his first name, Horatio. He used a nickname form of his middle name since he was a kid. My sister and I decided to just call him Grandpa Bolo.”
“You grandmother’s name, wasn’t it a country type name? A folksy name…” He hoped he didn’t sound derisive.
“Nana Nell. A mentor all my youth, as you know…” She had been anything but ordinary. Iris smiled at the way her names rolled off the tongue. Her grandmother had died when Iris was twenty-four of cancer, seven years before she and Elliott married. And now, how quickly another ten years had passed.
Elliot sighed, almost rolled his eyes, then caught himself in time. How awfully folksy it all is, he thought, then saw her smile flush her skin with undeniable radiance. His initial response was submerged. His own single mother, Nancy, which he’d called her since he was young, was another sort of story.
Maybe that conversation–or what was left unsaid–ought to have told her more, though it would have been more than she could acknowledge then. And he might have known that whatever was kept subterranean was bound to resurface sooner or later, but he believed in control of his thoughts and feelings.
Iris and Elliot found the property untended, scrappy, but that was to be expected. Leave wild land to itself and you get more wildness. Of course, it wasn’t utter wilderness; there were more places dotting Spirit Lake’s waterfront and beyond. Grandpa Bolo’s property was built in 1920. It’d been renovated more than once by the two families who had owned it. The lake was also smaller than many in Washington, still with few year-round residents. The family place was big enough–two stories–to be called a proper house. But the cedar shakes were weathered, its wide porch long ago had sloped a bit, it welcome more a yawning nod…it appeared a worn out, oversized cottage. Which is what Nana Nell called it. But Iris could recall when it seemed like a woodland castle, a place beaming with color and delights and good will.
She felt her grandfather’s presence strongly and stood with eyes closed.
Iris had always thought of it as home, period. She was moved and excited that it had been passed down to her. Since their mother has died of the same cancerous disease, she and her sister Carrie were next in line. So she, too, was part owner. And settled long in Miami not far from their bridge-playing, golf-happy father. And neither was anxious to return except for a short visit. One day, after the pandemic had wound down, she’d come a few days. Father was more about visiting at his condo. So Iris was more than welcome to the house.
Elliot emerged from it with a sandwich in one hand, a mug in the other. He raised it toward her, full of steaming brew. “Are you having one, now?”
“Not yet! I’m off to look around.”
The path, though well overgrown, was not hidden from her. It had been created between brush and trees aeons ago; so many feet had pounded the dirt long and hard. She pushed away branches and bushes, sidestepped a clump of vines, wound her way through elegant birches, which she stopped to touch, face close to its white peeling parchment. Soon enough, lapping green-blue water greeted her.
Shielding her eyes, she scanned the barely moving water, found a few boats, people with fishing rods lowered. The lake’s surface sparked with sunlight. Across the expanse, she studied the cottages and cabins. Iris wondered if the Harris family was in, if the robust Peabody brothers were doing alright. She hadn’t seen the Harrises at the funeral (where the few that made it stayed distanced). She’d heard they were in Arizona, camping out with their wealthy son. Was Marietta Holmes still taking care of her granddaughter and unemployed daughter– or had those two moved on since November? There were many people she had missed a long while, and others that she might not yet know. The assembly of souls in the township of Garner totalled less than 125, she guessed.
Which was what Elliot hated–it’s insular smallness. Or, rather, strongly disliked–he’d not tell her he despised visiting there longer than three days, even if he felt that way. She already knew he got restless and stated strong opinions if she pled for any longer. There were plenty of things he said entirely free of constraint–but her family and this place…that was a different matter. Sacred ground, he’d termed it with a half-smirk once. And Iris did not correct him, for it was true for her. She did not understand why he didn’t feel the same about his own family history; he just wasn’t close to his few relatives.
“There is a reason it’s called Spirit Lake, and it’s a lovely one,” she’d once told him. But he hadn’t asked why so she hadn’t said.
But there it was, spreading out before her. She could see both distant ends of the lake and her eyes traced the squashed oval shoreline, pausing at bird sightings and noting a new paint job on a cottage, wondering who it was hauling out the canoe. The breath that she took filled her up with fresh air. Peace. Just beyond the treeline were far purplish peaks of mountains that shone whitely with snow in the thin light.
It was time to get back to Elliot. Though Iris could not think of many reasons why other than food and coffee.
“Are you awake?” he asked, touching her shoulder.
“I keep hearing things out there.”
“Remember when we woke up to skunk stench that one morning years ago?”
He wondered what else. Raccoons. Coyotes or a even wolf? No, wolves didn’t live here, did they? Bears were known to roam the mountains surrounding them. He’d seen tracks before. Mountain lions, for sure, those wily cougars.
Iris shifted, pulled her pillow closer under her head, sighed softly. She had been sleeping. Now she’d be listening, too. But only a moment. Hadn’t Elliot been a country boy until age fourteen? But that was Kansas. She yawned.
He blocked out the image of a cougar padding onto the porch, peering into the undraped living room and kitchen windows, sniffing about the door. He lay on his back, staring into a thicket of dark. In Kansas, he’d look out and see nothing for miles. The vacuous or storming sky. Fields of undulating corn, yes, but not an impenetrable density of trees, not bears on the hunt. He preferred open expanses. After ten years of marriage and living in Washington, it was still a challenge to get comfortable with endless forests, the sinuous mountain or valley roads. That is, if they must be in the country, at all. Why, he once said to his friend, Tom, did they keep planting trees all over when there were already so many you couldn’t see where you were going?
He and Nancy, his hard working, divorced mother, had left Kansas for Las Vegas and never looked back. If he had never gone to university, then taken that first financial consultant job in Seattle…but, then, he loved city life, the hustle. He couldn’t wait for the pandemic to wane, to get out there once more.
And if he’d not come to Seattle, he’d not have met the talented artist, Iris Merriman, his future wife.
No, he’d have not met Iris. Things would have been different. Easier, maybe. Lonelier, maybe.
There it was again, a rustling, a shaking sound–a bush tangling with an elk as it walked through? He could deal with that okay, just get a rifle. He knew a bit about hunting. Still, give him skittering lizards, even a rattlesnake. Elliot turned, balanced on his side, listening hard, finding shapes in the dark he was certain weren’t likely there. Thinking: two more days to endure in the weirdness of country.
At the dock things were happening. Birds rising up and falling across a cool curtain of air, their early morning songs skimming the lake, circling treetops. Squirrels rooting around and gossiping. Fish emitting bubbles that popped up at water’s surface. Little dark whirlpools that twirled, eddied, vanished to secret places below. Soft tangerine and candy pink-tinged branches of black-green pines. Color of many tones washed over the languishing body of the lake like slinky raiment.
It was a good breaking of dawn. The best way to greet life was to meet it as the sun did.
At the end of the dock–newer than recalled–Iris was wrapped in a nubby woolen blanket. She sat forward in a creaky folding chair. Opened her sketchbook, chose a colored pencil. She looked and looked, began to render what she saw, felt.
As she drew, she remembered. Sitting there with her grandmother at her side, each of them engrossed, the quietness a blessing.
Nana Nell had been an artist, making baskets, ceramics. Collages of nature’s treasures. Small watercolors of wildflowers and lake scenes, sometimes of tiny people melding into the landscape. She’d taught Iris how to hold a pencil and brush, to loosen her grip. How to daub different paint pots and make new colors. To make interesting things of yarn. To see with soul and heart, not only her eye. To render designs with thoughtfulness and care. By the time she was in high school, she knew she wanted to be an illustrator and got her degree, then became good enough that in time she was able to freelance. She drew pictures for children’s stories, for magazine articles, if needed financially, even for ad campaigns. Her favorites jobs were books, though it could be taxing to come to an agreement with everyone about how to execute what moved her while complementing the story. The other jobs were just jobs, but she enjoyed all labors.
Here, though, she could let her hand tell any story it wanted. Or represent with no embellishment just what was noticed. It was as if her eyes and brain carried sensory input and a feel of a place, animal, person or any other thing, and with speed and glory: suddenly it would flow from the tips pencils or charcoal or brushes. A direct line of energy. A charge of clarity. A liberation of everything that mattered to her. She loved most the natural world’s magic. All she had to do was sit and wait for it to arrive from her body’s perception, then race into her being and back to her fingertips.
If only Elliot understood this. He failed to accept that she did not want to be a strictly commercial artist. He had at first encouraged her art shows but the galleries were small, the openings soft, the rewards not nearly as much money as he had hoped. Still, she’d developed a website; sales increased over time. And she kept getting contracts for the other work. In time, he stopped thinking about it, let her be. He made the greater contribution to their coffers and future. He worked hours she’d never withstand, he believed, with her artist ways and temperament and that was alright, he conceded, as long as it kept the peace. But it often was not the key that he’d wished. She was so….adrift in her own small world. As he was, he guessed, in his. And seldom the twain did meet in recent years.
He had just awakened before she appeared. He didn’t dress, but slouched into the porch swing with a fleece on, hungry and tired. He had taken a look about and found no sign of intruding creatures around the house perimeter. He deducted he’d conjured up the sounds. But wasn’t convinced.
Iris’ sketchbook and pencils were clutched close to her chest as she approached the house. She was often magnetic, her straight long hair drifting about narrow shoulders, long legs taking the dirt path with ease. As if she was meant to always walk briskly without ever tiring. Not a big woman, she could disappear as well as gradually command a space. It was her focus, the zeroing in on people in any setting that so captivated. She might be studying momentary light on the planes of their faces, but they appreciated her gentle attentiveness. They wondered what she saw. As he had.
Now Elliot frequently waited for her, patient at first, then frustrated as time went on. For her mind to come forward to meet his, for her gaze to lock with his in a signal of passion, for her work to take up less room and make more for his work, his day’s events and needs. Sometimes he felt like she’d long ago started a migration to another land. Had left him by the side of the road, free to join the trip or turn and go another way. She cared but she was missing, somehow. He couldn’t put his finger right on it. They had argued about their separateness more and harder lately. Ever since the Spirit Lake house had become hers.
Hers. Not theirs. He’d never thought it could be any other way.
“Had breakfast already?”
“I haven’t. I was waiting for you.”
She gave him that smile, the one that said all is well in my world and let’s have a good day. So he followed her inside, hopes lifted. He knew he had to make the best of things over the weekend. He wanted to and yet part of him pulled back, waiting again for her to fully see him. Anxious that this house meant more to her than he did. That they had come to a fork in the road.
Iris felt his worry rise from his body like the cold he needed to better dispel. She let it pass her by. She knew what made sense for them, and she knew she loved him. One way or another, their destinies would work out right.
In the afternoon they walked. Iris showed him again her favorite places. All those years she had come for the summers; she was a full Spirit Lake citizen by age five. The tiny store, run by the Hedlund clan, two miles down the road, where you got bait and most everything else in a pinch. Like a convenience shop, just less interesting in inventory than a city’s, Elliot noted. The hilltop view where you could see the mountain range more fully, their mighty breadth and height leaving them both struck by nature’s grandeur, as usual. The place where she found butterflies amid brightly bobbing wildflowers spring into summer. The best picnic spot under massive oak trees by the lake where her family laid out ham sandwiches and devilled eggs, veggie sticks with dill dip and sun brewed iced tea. And the family recipe, a dark chocolate cake with cinnamon. Elliot shared a couple of picnics like that; excepting the bees, flies and ants, it had been nice and tasty.
“Let’s get out the rowboat,” she said and tugged on his hand.
Before he could protest, she pulled him into a galloping run to the boathouse by the dock. It felt good to be there with him. He was calmer, more accessible than in the the city where he and everyone else seemed so compressed. Concentrated on matters of importance, the race to make money stack up. She felt he’d made a vow as a kid to be a Success before anything else could claim him. She’d known this from the start, but back then he was able to be vulnerable, too, more malleable under the engine of driving energy, curious about so much more.
“I’ll row, it’s in my blood, this boat thing,” she said teasingly, “and you always put us into a circular pattern to nowhere.”
“That’s true. We didn’t have boats in my part of Kansas…I still might learn.”
“What? No lakes of rivers in that state?”
“Well, not so I noticed. A sea of corn or grain, yes.”
“I wouldn’t have been the same person without water and boats. I’d have gone stir crazy being landlocked. There is something about skimming the water’s surface, being shown a panorama like this, watching life over and under the surface..it never fails to make me fall in love all over again.”
He had to agree it was pleasant, the rocking of water, the line of neat cottages and rustic cabins, others out in their boats. Like postcards you’d send to a buddy, proclaiming how much fun is being missed, a huge fish on a line prominently displayed. But he didn’t fish and the truth was after a half hour, he wished he was reading a newspaper or texting at a sidewalk table of The Merchant’s Coffee Shop. As he preferred to do on non-working Saturdays. Even if it rained–there were canopies and umbrellas set up, even in the pandemic.
Iris put up her oars, one on each side.
“Doesn’t it feel safe out here? I mean, from the world, from illness. And so many other sad events.”
“I suppose so. But I’d rather be in touch with that world, too. Live within it. I mean, we can’t run away from things. Or we just shouldn’t. We have the responsibility to do what we can, carrying on and planning for a changed future.”
“Yes, I know. But people manage the best ways they can, not always the same as each other, right? We all have different ways to achieve those goals.”
Oh, here it comes, he thought, our great divide. He looked toward the sound of a truck rumbling over some gravel road, likely a few ATVs or an earthmover to shove dirt around to make way for a new house. Garner was beginning to attract attention from city dwellers. That appealed to him, the investment aspect. But so much of the land was privately owned already, it was hard to get in. Except, they had an “in”, didn’t they? Or she did, anyway.
“So we have noted before,” he said. “I like to be in the mix; you like to step back and work from the edges.”
She grabbed the oars and rowed a little more to pass a couple fishing nearby. “Not fully stand back, just to get more or better perspectives. Use my talents the ways I feel work best.”
He looked at her quizzically. “What are you getting at?”
“I’ve been thinking.”
“Yes, I know. We keep beating around the bush, don’t we.”
“Well, much has happened this year. We feel so much less certain of anything, It takes thought.”
Her strong slim arms pulled on the oars in a rhythmical manner, a slow but steady power so that they crossed over the lake toward the house with the slightest lurches, then more gliding, each stroke moving through the chilly water almost soundlessly. She was good at this, had a way with the lake no matter the manner in which she approached it. She had such a feel for lake life.
Iris could swim across it; he couldn’t swim well even in a pool though he could almost dive well. Iris could sail the green Sunfish very well; he never had and then when he tried, they’d capsized. Iris could tell the weather by the direction, speed and shape of waves against the shore, the sound of wind in trees. She had grown up near Seattle in a smaller, woodsy suburb, but she had learned about most important things in and on Spirit Lake, it seemed. Elliot had learned on the fly as his mother worked as a blackjack dealer in casinos. But he knew things, too. They just were not in her knowledge pool–as his were not in hers.
She let the oars drag a bit in the water and looked right at him. “I want to stay, Elliot.”
“Of course you do, you say this every time we come here. And you lost your beloved grandfather and you miss the old times…”
“No, I mean, yes, that is true. But I meant that rather than rent out the house by summer and for a long while as we discussed, I want to just live here. To keep it for us to use.”
“You can’t be serious. Alone, you mean? I have to go back to the city. What about your own work? Friends? What about us?”
“I have figured it out. You’ll drive over all the weekends you can. I’ll come to the city, too. I can freelance anywhere– you know that. My friends? They can visit eventually, when it is safe, and vice versa. I have a few old friends around here, too. We could make it work, Elliot! It seems so perfect–we each get what we want and still have each other.”
Her expression was so intense, she looked like a giddy teenager. It seemed suddenly absurd, the whole thing. Was this what she’d imagined when the will was read? How had he failed to miss it?
“The whole time–you had this planned, didn’t you Iris?”
She shook her head and started to row hard again. “I didn’t, truly, Elliot. But ever since we drove down the private road to the house I felt like it was where I most belong. Once and for all. I might discover otherwise, I guess. But I want to try it for six months, at least, see how it works out.”
“You can’t mean this.” It was sinking in with a feeling akin to horror. She wanted to leave him then, essentially–end up living here? They’d made a sound plan, they would keep but lease the house, then someday perhaps build a tidy cabin of their own on the lake. For holidays. For investment purposes. And the land was worth something.
Once more she let the oars dangle in placid water, dragging and leaving barest wakes on either side.
“Don’t you see that it’s what Grandpa Bolo wanted for me? He gifted the place to me–and Carrie, who doesn’t even want it. He knew how I loved Spirit Lake and the forest and mountains, its people, the way of life. He knew it’d be good for me to still love and watch over it. I don’t really trust others to do that right…” He had turned away, hands holding tightly to the boat’s sides. “Elliot– I can paint and make things so happily here. There’s much to inspire me. I can do really good work here again, I know it–I’ve been stuck, almost bored lately as you know. This might be the answer to it all.”
“Yes, your selfish answer to our situation, our being out of sync, your artsy world versus my commerce world..it is such a mess, isn’t it?” He stood, angily gesturing toward shore, at her, and rocking the rowboat. “I can’t accept this, it isn’t good enough for us both!”
The boat began to tilt and sway side to side.
“Elliot, be careful sit down now!” she called out.
But he was off balance, falling fast, and as he grazed the edge going over, he thought, this is how it ends? Iris dove in deeply and the cold shocked her hard but there he was sinking, arms waving, legs flailing, and she breast stroked her way to him, grabbed him around the waist and pushed upward with all her strength, her legs beating the water, her free shoving the stunning water away, reaching and straining toward light and air. He was heavy, heavier than he should be, and she realized he was pushing against her, fighting, afraid of drowning, afraid of taking her with him, perhaps. She clamped him with her arm around his chest, held his back to her front, plowed ahead, up and up before her lungs burst. They broke through, bobbed upward with the force of it.
“Elliot,” she sputtered, “stop fighting, we’re safe!”
He was gasping hard, coughing and choking, and grabbing the side of the rowboat when a motor boat came up fast.
“You need help? Oh, Iris! My gosh, let us help!”
The big bearded Peabody brothers, still hearty at sixty and sixty-two, hauled him complaining and gasping over the side of their boat, checked him over, threw their jackets over them. Then the older brother joined Iris in her boat and rowed her back. The younger one whisked Elliott over in the motorboat.
Chattering teeth made her clench her jaw. They’d nebeen in not more then two or three minutes, that was good, but still, so cold. “Never could keep you straight, look like twins.”
“I’m Adam, that’s Mike,” he said, and laughed as if it was a joke. “Good thing you can swim.” He cleared his throat. “Might be good to teach your husband.”
“Yes,” she agreed. “Grateful for your help.”
“Anything for Bolo’s folks, rest his soul–any time.”
Iris blinked back tears. Her hair streamed, her jacket and shirt clung to her chest. She’d lost both loosely tied tennis shoes. The ones she had left there a few years, just for the lake.
“Long, warm shower now, or a bath, both of you,” Mike said as he dropped off Elliot with a nod–and a tip of his hat to Iris.
“I don’t get it, but I see there’s no changing your mind. If I had my way, I might never see this place again. Or any other silty, weedy, stinking lake, for that matter!”
“I know.” Iris poured coffee into his thermos for the drive back to Seattle, placed the sandwich and apple in the lunch bag. If only he really was just going to leave for a day’s work and then coming back shortly. “But we will give a good try, and thank you for that. You won’t decide to throw me over in a divorce action?…”
“No.” Saying it made it a more clear and certain decision, through he’d had a niggling doubt overnight.
Iris walked him to the car. “So, you’ll be back with Tom and my car next Saturday, right? He loves the outdoors, especially fishing if I recall.”
“He does,” he said grudgingly. “Yes, and I’ll cart over more clothes and whatever else you decide. Make that list and text or email me by Thursday.”
“Yes.” When he got in and shut the door, Iris leaned at the window he rolled down. “You know it’ll all be alright if we look at it as mutually beneficial. Right? We’ve been at odds a long while, and I’ve been restless with much and you have felt neglected. You want to work longer and later hours even at home. I like early rising and early to bed. You like running every day and I like yoga…we both need some time to regroup. It isn’t just me wanting this place, it’s more, I believe.”
“I agree, Iris, it’s just not easy. And less so in these crazy times.”
“We can be in touch every day. We’ll see each other as often as possible. It will be a small adventure.” She leaned close, kissed him tenderly. It felt good, the kiss–and their farewell for the time being.
He began to back up, then stopped. “I never learned after all this time why the lake is called Spirit Lake.”
“Oh, that.” She smiled, gazed past him, to the shore beyond the trees. “I might tell you someday. We’ll see.”
He shook his head, waved at her, then left.
Nana Nell had told her one summery day when Iris was ten. They’d been drawing together the shore, the blanket covering the stones and lumpy earth, August green trees dancing in the wind.
“I make art better outside, Nana Nell.”
“Of course you do. It’s the lake.”
Iris squinted at her. “Why?”
“Because once there was a woman who ran away from home to find her heart’s desire. She didn’t want to live an ordinary life. She wanted to do something special and good for the world, but she didn’t know what until she arrived at this jewel of a lake.”
Nana Nell paused as she added color here and there to her sketch.
“Nana, what next?”
“She became a well-known artist. She also donated much of her money to help build an orphan’s home in Garner. But then, at too young an age she drowned in a terrific thunderstorm that came up while she was in her boat, drawing nature’s beauties.”
“But that’s not the full ending, child. They never found her. But she finds those who come here. Every morning at sunrise she skims the lake. Well, her spirit does, and she watches over the rest of us if we belong here. And if anyone falls overboard, she brings them back up to safety.”
Iris said nothing a long while. Then: “So those people live?”
Nana Nell nodded.
“When was this, Nana Nell? Did she have a name?”
“Oh my, it was Mary something…Mary Murray…Mary Millay…Well, it was before I was born, before Grandpa or even my parents came to be. It was before anyone can exactly recall, anyway. But the lake does not forget. And she still calls out to some, you know. She called to me, and Grandpa Bolo, and now to you.”
Iris smiled so hard her face felt it might freeze that way. “Because we’re artists!….and Grandpa Bolo loves the lake and earth, too!”
Nana Nell smiled back, patted her hand and bid her keep drawing.
“Maybe she was part of our family,” Iris said impulsively as she shaded a mountain peak.
But Nana Nell did not reply. She was busy creating.
When she had thought enough of Elliot and his leaving and her staying, Iris got her sketchbook and colored pencils and sat on the dock. A damp wind fragrant with a herald of spring on its tail came by, and warm sun soothed her sadness, and music of the lake awakened a dormant joy. Before too long, there would be sweeter rains and softer days rife with wildflowers. Creatures would venture out more, stop at her door. She would go swimming and boating. She would make beautiful things. She might just sit and attend to the water and sky. She had not felt so comforted and right in her own skin in a long while. But Elliot would call it home one day, too. He just hadn’t fully surfaced yet. Or, at least, she kept a small hope of it.