Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Iris and the Legend of Spirit Lake

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.

“Mmmm.”

“I keep hearing things out there.”

“Probably so.”

“Remember when we woke up to skunk stench that one morning years ago?”

“Uh-huh.”

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.”

“That’s terrible.”

“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.

Wednesday’s Words/Short Story: Talismans

“No, no, no, no,” she responded and turned her back hard against her father, looking out his study window, letting her gaze follow the rolling yard as it met up with Kayla’s yard and house. “Not there, not now! Why would we do that with Meredith coming back in two months and…everything else?”

Iris didn’t say what she most wanted to; she seldom did when it came to that topic, the missing mother matter. Chris Wells knew that; he didn’t say what he wanted to, either. It wasn’t appropriate to share such thoughts. He had a responsibility to two daughters, one smart and increasingly bold teenager, and one talented but more timid young woman soon to graduate with a Masters in Music Education. Who could a man talk to in this house? There was Ruffy, his aging half-wolf, half-German Shepherd companion, and Franklin-from university-and he got on well and…honestly, not many more wanted a good chat, much less an intimate one, with someone they had known as half a twosome for twenty years. Even if his wife–ex-wife– tended toward brash, more adventurous than he but easily bored and thus prickly, and remiss at home in ways he could not longer bear to well recall.

After almost two years, he had no wish to clearly recall anything of the life they had tried to build and turned into tinder.

So at this time, there was no one. He knew, as well, that Iris was still flailing and it wouldn’t be a picnic to trundle her off to the north woods. Despite the warming weather of late May, and their A-frame cabin and astonishing beauty of Lake Menatchee and its forests. Her mother had loved it there more than most places. And they had lasted only six days last year.

“Well,” Chris said calmly when Iris stamped her foot as if she was not sixteen but four, “it’s already settled. I need to get away to work on this book. So pack clothes and your other needs for two months.”

Iris threw him her deadly look as she rushed out the room. Wait until Kayla heard this one, they had had several plans. Good ones. And with that crushing thought, she raced downstairs, over to Kayla’s.

Chris sat back, hands locked behind his head; a tiny moan escaped, then he sat upright and poured over the last notes taken on the socioeconomic uses and meanings of color, his right knee bouncing in exasperation.

*****

Iris sat on the deck, crushing a small dry pine cone with the toe of her sandal. This place–her parents and Meredith who had loved it’s lofty ceilings and great windows, the bright lake frontage. The cabin had been a jumping off point for her mother’s outdoor adventures, while a meditative haven for her father. But for Iris it was halfway between the two, and now neither when she didn’t want to be there. Like the other two years since she her mother left.

Iris was desperate for company and Kayla was pleased with the invitation, as ever, but declined with tons of apologies. The annual trip to her grandparents was coming up sooner than later– and who wouldn’t prefer San Francisco to the backwoods?

Meredith would eventually come; they got along in a distant sort of way. Though she might persuade their father to stay the whole summer. In the meantime, Iris was on her own. She kicked the brittle, flattened pine cone off the deck and stood, hands on hips, uncertain what she wanted to do then ran down to lake’s edge. A beaten trail wound down a steep slope so her body was driven downwards, propelled into shadiness and washes of light as enormous fir trees simultaneously comforted and loomed over her.

“This was our mother’s place, too, but she’s living on a boat in the Mediterranean with that, that–rich rat, that creep, that disgusting old guy!” she said to the dirt and the sky. She almost tripped as gravity and speed thrust her onward until her feet met with large stones and she skidded, breath coming hard, hands on knees as she bent over a minute. She took a break on the end of the dock, scanning the lake. Feeling calmer as the gentle waves lapped close to her toes.

Our row boat, she thought, I love that heap of a boat. She completed the padlock combination, opened a dilapidated shed door and narrowed her eyes to make out things in the murky space. There it was, set up on a blocks, its green paint faded and peeling in spots, oars hung on a wall along with faded orange lifesaving vests, fishing equipment, various hand and yard tools. She leaned against the coat’s hull and studied the clear green-blue waves several feet past the door. It felt good there, safer, and Iris was more at ease than she had felt in a week. She thought of the dock, how they all used to jump off and make shallow dives, then swim to the floating raft several yards out for more diving and playing. Her jackknife dives.

It all seemed long ago, and she felt older than she wanted to be, for once.

“Hey.”

A dark shaggy head popped around the doorway and she was met by the grin of a stranger. She shrank back, then strode into the near-blinding sunshine, shutting the shed door. She glanced up to the A-frame for no good reason; her father was absorbed in his research.

“Hey, yourself, you’re standing on our beach–who are you?”

He stuck his hand deep into jeans pockets and shrugged. He looked a bit older than she was. His bare feet were late-spring-soft; it wasn’t easy to walk along a shore like that, the rocks were big, numerous. He wore a faded black T shirt with an ancient Jim Morrison photo on it. And on his right wrist was a worn piece of tied red yarn.

“We came early, staying awhile at Coan’s Cottages, over there. ” He pointed across the lake where there was a narrower width. Six pale shingled cottages sat in a row, a bit dreary but homey, one might deduct.

“I know where they are. I see people hanging out when we come up each summer. Never there long, though. So you’re new? Then you don’t know you have to get permission to cross other peoples’ lakefronts, I guess.”

“Sure, I know, but most people aren’t even at the lake yet, it’s not the week-end or summer. I didn’t know you were here until now.” He took his hands out of his pockets, scratched the back of his neck, slapped a forearm–a fleeing insect took off. “I’m Jax, anyhow.”

“Iris. Now you should leave, okay? I have things to do. Have a fun stay.”

Jax’s dark eyes flashed with a sharp humor; he motioned a sort of saluting goodbye with an index finger flicking off forehead. As he turned, all that mussed, longish hair flew away from his neck and he walked away, briefly into water as the shore disappeared, then past trees and bushes huddled close. She couldn’t see where he was going. But she was satisfied he was gone–for the time being.

During a long trek into green and teeming woods, she became acutely aware of chorusing birds, and flitting, sometimes biting insects and spring peepers and garter snakes escaping her feet and wildflowers in glowing groups here and there; scents of water, mud, rock, pine, life in its glory. She settled into herself and the landscape better. The young stranger crossed through her mind once and she shook him off.

When back on the deck, she could just make out a guy who looked a bit like Jax. He got out of a canoe, pulled it up by the Coan’s dock. Maybe he wasn’t walking, then. He’d just been on the lake, canoed over, pulled it ashore at the empty lot next door to her dad’s. To do nothing or mess around. She hoped it was an accident that he’d come upon her. She let go a shiver but it wasn’t fear, exactly. More like when Ruffy came up to her before she had seen or heard him, before she’d ever thought to call him.

Chris started dinner, tuna tossed with noodles, and a side salad. Food he thought pleased a teenager was often not what she wanted. She was back on the deck, he’d noticed. Seeing her there, light brown hair waving over her shoulders like her mother’s had…he winced. And what if Iris was miserable and he could never do anything about it? What if he couldn’t get his work done here, either?

She spun around, feeling his deep set eyes on her, waved and then to his surprise, smiled.

******

“What does the color red mean?” she asked him the next week. She could have looked it up but he knew certain things.

“It depends. It’s the color of blood, of course, and fire. It can symbolize energy, passion, strength, action. Courage. It is a powerful color, certainly. In the West we tend to think it means aggression or violence, but that is not the case in many places. I would say–“

“Hmm…got it.”

Iris shifted in her chair and he went back to his book. Ruffy lay down between them on the floor before a cold fireplace, his movements fluid, front paws placed one over the other. He was a quiet dog, hence the nickname in jest as he rarely, despite his intimidating appearance, let loose a loud bark or a growl. Oddly, his ex-wife didn’t like him much, thought he was too stealthy, might turn against them, so Ruffy avoided her, taking to Chris and the kids easily from the start. They had long ago become family. The oft-imposing, elegant Ruffy released a little groan as Iris smoothed wiry fur on his handsome head.

“Okay, just what does a piece of red yarn or thread on the wrist mean?”

“It is worn for a few reasons–it depends on which wrist, too. The person. What they mean to gain from it. Why?”

“I just saw it. Tell me what you know.”

“Well, a red bracelet might be knotted seven times in the Kabbalah tradition, and a prayer is said when knotting it. It is for positive energy and protection, but men wear it on the wright wrist; on the left, women do. It is a sign also of purity, and it gets more technical if I go on, Iris. But it also is a a sort of talisman to some who wear it, that is, to ward off the evil eye and bad luck.”

“Oh. How interesting. As a kid I always wanted to wrap ribbons or colored tape or found thread around my wrists. But that just made me feel more fancy…Still, there was that ring.” She glanced at it on her finger and smiled.

She fell still, musing about what sorts of things people did to feel better. Safe. Like her wearing a silver ring with two floral shapes on it. She and Kayla had spotted in a grassy place by a creek. It was after her mother had left them. It fit, and somehow it helped to have found it and it went right on as if meant to be, so she hadn’t taken it off.

Chris nodded at her, shut his book and watched his daughter and dog resting.

“Is it uncomfortable being here without your mother?”

“Sometimes.” She rubbed her forehead. “Not really, anymore. It was and is our family vacation hideaway. I mean, Meredith and you and me, not just her.”

“But she was so into the great outdoors…”

“We all have been in different ways, if you think about it, Dad. Like your big bonfires and ghost stories and s’mores. Meredith’s sailing with her friends. Me in the woods and diving off the raft. You and me trying to fish…”

“And your mother hiking in the hills on her own, taking you girls on long rides in the rowboat or setting up the tent for you two, then you and your friends some nights.”

“No- you remember it wrong, Meredith and I set it up a lot more as we got older just for! Mom did like to sit in there all alone, at times–she called it her time out…usually after she got mad at us. She got so frustrated with us! But you–you taught us about the stars, Dad, and fire building and wild plants.” She patted Ruffy a last time as he rolled onto his side, then she jumped up. “I sorta hate being here and sorta am glad, I miss her a lot at times, but still feel angry and confused about her decision. But I am also okay.”

She grabbed strands of hair and wound them around her fingers, a nervous habit from childhood. She gave them a small yank and let go.

“Stop worrying so much or you’ll drive me nuts! I’m not a child, right? I can deal more than you think. Since we needed to come up north for more of your writing and researching time, I can cope for a month or two–we both have to… Anyway, we’re here now. Just us. And Ruffy. Okay, Dad?”

“Deal,” he said and went back to his place in the botany book. “But if it gets too sad or weird, let me know…” he mumbled at her back. He glanced at Ruffy. It’s you and me, us two guys, and you are like my own talisman. But Ruffy was snoring, there but not there. In his own nirvana… as he always seemed to be, awake or asleep.

Chris suddenly longed to hug his daughter but it was too late–at least now, this time.

Iris was stuck in a hallway, half-wanting to run back and jump on his lap, throw her arms around him and plant a kiss on his stubbly cheek. But she wasn’t that little girl, anymore, was she. A lump rose up in her throat and she unstuck herself. Grabbing binoculars she walked closer to the water, checked on Coans’ Cottages. How dumb of her to resort to that! She walked on, wondering how Kayla was doing, loneliness felt like a small stab. She checked in with her phone.

******

By the time she and her dad got out the rowboat it was a bit humid and looked a little like rain. Nothing much was forecast that they knew of, so they lifted and pulled and slid it in the water. He took the oars and rowed with gusto while she and Ruffy sat relaxed, faces to a damp gusty breeze. The water was choppier than when they had begun but it was a good ride along the lake shore, then in deeper water. Sunlight sparked the water then hid, then was flung as sheer ribbons across waves, then was gone. And still gone. The wind cooled. Ruffy sat with nose up, ears, sharp.

They were moving closer to shore in a few minutes, just in case, and were soon to pass Coans’ Cottages when the first rumbles filled the air. Chris rested, looked into the darkening sky. Ruffy stared at the increasingly metal gray water and then at the shoreline. He liked water but he was not a happy long distance swimmer.

“We haven’t far to go, about fifteen or tenty minutes back to our place, maybe, if I row hard. The wind will make it harder to row against the wave action.”

“I can take a turn if you want, I’m pretty strong!” She had to shout over the thunder and the rising wind.

“That’s alright, Iris, I can manage! Have to get at it now!”

The wind came up hard out of the northwest, that bass rumbling grew, and raindrops splashed on their skin, fur, the boat. Even Ruffy blinked in the heavier wetness. Then thunder rumbled so loud and deeply that he lifted his head and howled briefly. Lightning gashed the heavy pewter sky. The rain let loose.

“Got to go ashore, Iris, we’ll go to in here!”

In under five minutes they were there and Jax was already waiting, wading out with an older man. They pulled the rowboat ashore and hightailed it up to the cottage as torrents of rain lashed all animate and inanimate things, Ruffy racing ahead of them, big body stretched out, so lithe and fast, looking even more like a wolf on the run.

Stamping small rivulets from their legs and then shaking their wet heads and tossing shoes and jackets in a pile, they were soon greeted by a slow burning fire and a woman holding out bowls of chili.

“How about some food and drink? You, too, doggie. Or wolfie!”

It was Garth and Kath Ruskin, Jax’s uncle and aunt, who welcomed them so readily. As they gathered on benches around a heavy trestle table they were soon jabbering as if they had known one another more than a few minutes. Chris and Jax thought separately how crisis did that, even if it was just a sudden spring storm, it made strangers into friendly partners in problem solving, or it maybe just felt safer huddling together. After the chili came more endless adult talk about work, economics and sports and Lake Menatchee as compared to other lakes so that finally Jax bent his head toward Iris, who slumped with chin on a hand.

“Want to move over to the couch?”

“That sounds… risky.” She smiled and rolled her eyes.

He acted shy and even blushed, she thought– his skin was tanner than she’d realized, it was hard to tell–and they moved themselves off the table bench and to the couch by the fireplace. Ruffy roused himself from beneath the table and trotted after them, his long tail hanging low.

“Wolf dog, eh? A good one.”

“Yes, he is. How did you know so fast?”

“Well, he looks wolf, and a neighbor had one. Not so good, killed all the chickens they had and rabbits, but he had a sister in crime.” He gave a shrug, eyebrows up. “That’s how that goes. We have lots of dogs on the reservation as well as other animals.”

She turned to look at him better then averted her eyes, embarrassed. She may not have guessed he was Native American–isn’t that what he meant? She wasn’t going to ask.

“I never liked rabbits, the’re rodents, I think.”

“Not at all, they’re both mammals but rabbits are only rabbits, harmless.”

“One bit me as a kid.”

“You handled it wrong?”

“True, I did.” She stuck her feet out toward sizzling red and orange flames. “Why are you here with your aunt and uncle, if I can ask.”

“I live with them. Auntie Kath is my mom’s sister…mom was white. I’m half Odawa, the reservation is in northwestern Michigan, not too far. But I’ve lived with my aunt and uncle for three years now. I might go back, don’t know yet. Depends on me and my dad…”

He placed one foot and then another on top of Ruffy’s back. Iris tensed, thinking the dog would rouse and be irritated but he didn’t move. Jax had said his mother was white, so she must have died, she thought.

“My mom lives on a boat, so she’s also, well, gone.”

“That’s kinda cool, though–nearby?”

“In the Mediterranean.”

He let out a low, quiet whistle and Ruffy lifted his head a second, put it back down.

“Yea, left with some idiot she met at a gaming table. She likes to gamble…”

“Huh, my dad likes to gamble but not lately. He drinks too much to gamble well. But he makes good art still.”

“Why? Oh, never mind, sorry.”

“It’s okay. She was climbing, on a narrow path in Idaho’s Rockies–after visiting her parents–and slipped, fell. My dad, he hasn’t gotten over it, I guess. No one has.” He touched the red yarn bracelet with his fingertips, put hand over heart. At his neck hung a cord with a black stone she hadn’t seen before. He caught her glance. “Obsidian, it grounds me more.” He touched her hand. “Nice ring. You might like pink opal- it helps heal.”

She bit her lip, breathed in and out slowly through her nose, it always helped.

Jax saw her then with a sweeping look: her open face; her hands which she used to talk; her bare feet, the square toenails –and fingernails– free of polish. Eyes that did not look away but noted him, too. He let his head lower and he watched the dance of flames. The soothing fire crackled. The adults’ talk had begun to be only a low drone, and they heard beer cans fizzing as they opened one by one.

“It’s stopped raining,” Jax said.

They got up, opened the door to press their hands against the screen door that remained shut.

“The perfume of it all, you know? So fresh out now,” she said.

“Yeah, good, isn’t it?” he said as he pushed the screen door wide open.

Ruffy followed them out the door as Chris, Garth and Kath found an easy lull in the conversation. They watched the young people; Kath nodded at her husband and he smiled back.

“Thanks, you two, what life savers,” Chris declared with beer can raised high. “Welcome to Lake Menatchee. Come by next week for the first bonfire of the season.”

“We’ll be there,” Kath and Garth agreed.

Jax, Iris and Ruffy were down the lake shore by then, skipping stones, Ruffy chasing them into the water. They later sat with knees pulled up on the dock and watched the sky. Venus blinked and shone, Mars took its reddish flare to its usual spot. The sun slipped lower and lower, then there appeared as if by magic brush the tender colors of a stormy day ending, the vast silvered and navy dome above waves rushing and hushing, trees swaying, and soon the air seemed lit with rose and coral and hues so delicate, so entwined it was hard to know where one left off and another began.


Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: Chapel House and the Lake Spirits

(Courtesy of Pexels; photo by Wendy Wei)

They’d been scheming for a couple of weeks, the four of them, meeting after school, texting far too late into the dark chill right before Halloween. Nels was a master planner; he could be counted on to come up with the best party ideas, or just stuff to do on Saturday nights. He could put together impulsive hi-jinks, outrageous and funny–at least to Casey, Tran and Marika. He stirred up their excitement with his words. Not even as tall as Tran, he seemed bigger and taller, and thick messy hair flopped over his forehead, almost hiding eyes. His friends and associates described him as “magnetic” and it wasn’t far off. Others gossiped, said sure, he was creative but sort of nuts, sometimes cool but also tacky. At times, unnerving. That energy infused him with a mixture of danger, mystery and ebullience, resulting in unusual scenarios which he sketched in his journal and colorfully imagined– quite cinematically. He wanted to be a director some day despite his father’s likely ridicule. That he was a theater nut softened his extreme reputation at school.

“Yeah,” he said quietly, rubbing his palms together, “I have the plan at last for Halloween. That mute woman. You know– on the peninsula, Ms. Swanson.”

“Sophia Swanson…why her?” Marika was braiding Casey’s hair but her hands paused. His words brought up a sense of unease, not excitement. She was widowed after her husband drowned and she hadn’t spoken for over two years.

Tran thrust his long, skinny legs out, closer to the heat of the fireplace. “She’s an interesting one. But maybe too chancy–she isn’t our usual Halloween target. Why not play it safer? I graduate this year, remember, and don’t need bad press.”

“Well, wait a sec, her husky-mix dog doesn’t run loose and she’s likely to be alone, so little risk. Nothing actually will be damaged, right? ” Casey hands felt the braiding progress and she indicated Marika could finish. “It depends on what you have in mind, Nels.”

“You know I believe a good scare is good fun, and there are advantages out there, like approaching by the lake in a boat, or walking up the dirt road and waiting until after midnight. Nobody goes out there to trick or treat. So we can be the first!” He opened wide his arms. “She could use a real Halloween moment, don’t you think? To shake things up?”

His booming laugh careened off vaulted ceilings of the large split log house. From the corner of his eye he saw his mother from her spot in the dining room. She got up, walked by them and upstairs, waving a cheery goodnight as she ascended. She went to bed early when Nels’ dad was on trips, which was often.

“So, what’s the plan already?” Tran asked as he jumped up, restless with interest already.

Marika shook her head, frowning, but she knew she’d join in. They’d been the Birch Woods Clan, BWC, since fifth grade, well over six years–a silly name they’d come up with during a childish secret ceremony so long ago. But it kept them loyal even now.

Casey checked out her braid, got up, and stood by Nels. Her man, first and last.

“Here’s the beauty of it…” Nels began, and they all stood at attention before him as if compelled, even though they weren’t, not really. And they’d never been caught, even if many suspected they did the crazy Halloween deeds. They knew how to act fast and get out in time.

******

“Here are your groceries,” Will said and handed the two bags over to Sophia.

She smiled gently, lightly bowed in her dancerly fashion, her hands set in prayerful mode as a thank you. He liked to watch her move in simplest ways, as she’d been a dancer for decades; perhaps one day she’d return to it. She managed her life alright despite not speaking. Will was kind to shop for her if she had a more challenging day. Sophia marveled that he had time or interest. At 74, he was not without impediments. And his wife Anna’s long recovery from a stroke didn’t seem to faze him much. The lines around his observant eyes just deepened and his dear face seemed thinner. His spirit stayed positive.

The chapel-house–so named since it’d been a historic chapel before the Swansons renovated it–was warm and fragrant. Scents of eucalyptus and clove as a white oak fire smoldered teased his nose. A smell he thought of as “the old chapel” lingered and made him think of thin, yellowing hymnal pages, winter’s damp woolens and bodies packed together in an iron wood stove kind of heat. And Daedalus– called Dae– her elegant big dog, wagged his luxurious tail, licked at his hands. It was not easy to leave her inviting domain but he had to hasten back to Anna. Their lives were changed but still good, if harder than they’d planned when he’d left his post as editor at The Clarion.

How fortunate I am, Sophia thought, to know this man and Anna. He had always and was now looking out for her yet ran these errands and stayed a few moments to catch up. She liked to visit them in town.

“So what’re you doing for Halloween tomorrow? I see you actually carved a jolly pumpkin for the porch. Coming out for the library’s family event? Or to the Bluestone for pumpkin cookies and coffee, at least?”

Her eyebrows shot up–she smiled, shook her head slowly.

He knew better than to ask. She didn’t naturally gravitate to social events; it was nearly impossible to communicate as it was. Sophia pointed to a DVD cover on the mantle. He couldn’t make out the title but knew she liked the classics, so nodded. Likely some old Boris Karloff. At least that–she could find some laughs here and there.

They exchanged a few more words and he took his leave after she gave him a quick hug. She was thirty years younger than Will was, but he appreciated her litheness, that long ginger (threaded with white) hair about her face (usually pulled back), appreciation in those strong arms. She needed to find someone to love her, someone who merited shine of her talent and smarts and beauty, he mused. He shut the door behind him with a tip of his hat.

Sophia wavered at the fire, undecided what to do next, leaned her forehead against the hand carved mantle. The flames sparked and leapt until they became a scarlet canvass upon which she saw herself dancing, dancing to Stravinsky’s breathtaking “Firebird Suite.” She straightened her back, lengthened her neck and thew back her shoulders, trying to keep back any release of nostalgia with its tears. Reaching for her ever watchful Daedalus, she ruffled his fur then got to the simple task of putting away the food. But the night stretched ahead like a hall of mirrors as gusts shook the pines beyond the safety of her home–and in every intangible mirror she saw Thomas drowning and drowned, his empty boat shattered as lightning illuminated the restless north woods waters.

******

TZ and Frank were glad to help out a friend with the library’s “Kids’ Fright Night Party” but they were keen to get down to the lake so after an hour they were done. It hadn’t rained. Though a prescience of snow slipped along the wind’s edge, it was a clear, starry night. If they were lucky they’d enjoy a last bonfire with the others.

By the time they arrived at the Ring Lake’s rocky shore, the bonfire was big enough to be glimpsed from town center. Buckets and buckets of water were lined up, circled around merrymakers. There was the requisite illegal beer, pot smoked, and costumes that people sported spanning from the ridiculous to frightening. They had opted for simplest masquerades: ghostly beings, created with white grease paint and a few holey sheets.

“No one comes as that, anymore!” Marika laughed. “Good one–if simple-minded!”

“You make a good Cleopatra, how fancy if overwhelming,” TZ admitted. She wanted to like Marika but it wasn’t easy. her group was so over-the-top, and you could only give offer so much attention before it wore you out.

Frank asked, “Where are the other mighty BWCs?”

“Ha ha, we don’t go by that, anymore! The guys are eating and Casey is dancing over there, wild creature. As usual.”

“She is dressed as a leopard…” Frank said admiringly.

“What are you four up to later?”

“What could you possibly mean, TZ?”

“Duh, your usual Halloween trespass and scare tactics. You never miss a year.”

“Can’t even prove it, can you?” Tran said as he sidled up with a hot dog in both hands then gave one to Marika.

Frank put an arm around Tran. “No, but so far nothing really bad has happened so there’s no reason to collect evidence, right? I know you’re up to something!”

Tran shook off his arm and gave a hard laugh. “Spoken like the cop you will become!”

“More likely a lawyer, or forest ranger…” Frank retorted as he strode closer to the bonfire.

“See you fools around, don’t get too crazy!” TZ shouted over her shoulder as she caught up with Frank.

Marika spine tingled all the way up to the nape of her neck. TZ and Frank had gotten close to Sophia Swanson, helped her out. It made her wonder even more if this was the right person, an okay thing even in so-called fun. But Tran had left already and was chatting up another girl; he was in high gear, as was Nels. She took a big bite of the charred, mustardy hot dog and looked for Casey. Her best friend, Casey: Nels’ girl, his most loyal and avid accomplice. What was Marika doing in this sticky web? Maybe it’d be the last Halloween mischief for her. She was 17; this was all getting old. She went to the fire, faded into the chattering, laughing groups. She had been drawn to the party’s gaiety, but for a moment she leaned closer to the scorching heat, closed her eyes, dreamed of escape, of growing up and having a real life.

******

Sophia looked up at the original clerestory windows in her loft. There was already a constellation or two to be seen up high, tiny dots of light for a heavenly map beyond treetops. They’d added a huge floor to ceiling window in the lakefront wall. They…she and Thomas. She had bargained hard for it so she could have a light-filled dance studio, and use it secondarily for painting. She got a tall wooden stool and watched as the panorama revealed itself though a gateway to the world.

Often she often did this: sat with hands flattened on thighs, eyes riveted by first a slow approaching sunset, then the 20 or so minutes of the stirring blue hour. She was calmed by it, sky above transformed in sheerest colors, the lake alive with the bloom of hues. The woods and water, their powerful green and blueness. Then: it was as if wind and waters of that horrible night so ferocious returned, and the rising in her of memory of his anger, his going out in his boat. Not coming back. Her growing muteness the response she had to give when first responders arrived.

She still could not swim though she was good at it. She avoided looking at Stump Island beyond the peninsula where the boat had crashed against earth, roots and stone, useless. It was too magnetic a scene even as it repelled her. But if she didn’t look out from her snug home she’d never enter it like any other person who loves the freer life of water, wind, minerals and plants. Which she did. Only from a distance since then, a voluntary jail. Hands pressed against a barrier of glass, eyes filling with beauty, heart quivering, mind wondering.

Cabins and cottages along the shoreline blinked on one by one in navy twilight. Hers could be easily seen from the water, but not quite her body at its post in shadow. There were excited shouts here and there; a late, last speedboat careened to a nearby dock. The night was just beginning for some, revelries intensifying. Dae put head on paws, mobile furry brows like additional commentary as his eyes searched the night. Sophia gathered her shawl and loosened it about her, then stood and spun around three times, head back, hair flying. And heard tree branches suddenly scratch and brush the chapel house, her house creak and crack. At least she had an escape with a good movie, “The Raven”– for some silliness.

Sophia started down the stairs but Dae stood, ears standing upright; he stayed stock still. Then lay down again, watching. Sophia ran lightly down the stairs and found the movie to begin. When he barked once, twice, then again, she only turned up the volume. He was always barking at night creatures and twinkling lights rippling on water’s surface.

But he didn’t quiet down. She paused the DVD and ran to see what he saw. Dae was focused on the scene beyond the window; he didn’t acknowledge her.

And she saw it, too. Fire. Fire on the water.

On or above it? Reflections were impossible to separate from original sights in growing darkness as the elements merged together. But the fire was moving, two–wait, four fires. Or red lights, lamps? No. It swayed and flared as did fire. Torches, then. Each held by someone in a boat. Dae barked more loudly but Sophia heard boisterous voices–and they were making a chant or a kind of song strange to her ears. Ominous rumbling slipped across water. She ran to get the pole that opened the clerestory windows high above and hooked a latch, then opened two. Now she could hear better; they came closer and closer. There was a drum beaten rhythmically as the boat approached the peninsula and the torches, large and held aloft, burned brighter, bigger. She stood at the window and listened intently, her shawl tight about her, Dae readied with body tensed, head high and still.

The odd rhyme was repeated loudly, almost yelled out:

“Four spirits move–into the night,

ghost beings–made of anger and fright,

and Thomas arrives –for Halloween,

Thomas Swanson–go to your queen!”

Sophia stumbled backwards.

The boat came to rest at the shore and they got out, dressed in white, torches held far above so faces were unseen. The ghastly chant continued as they moved toward the house. My god, were they conjuring him, these people? Had he the will to taunt her through them? Sophia stepped farther back, Dae barked wildly, dizziness overtook her as nausea stirred. She felt it, a terrible scream, but could not let it out, and stumbled across the floor to a corner here she tried to breathe slowly, tried to be rational. But she was failing and they were coming. And she had no voice with which to call for help.

The doorbell then, heard it it ringing insistently. Every cell in her body resisted it; she froze. Dae ran downstairs growling at the heavy pounding, more noise and then there were footsteps on the stairs and she thought, this is going to be the end of me...

Shortly there came before her one she knew so well.

TZ took her hands. “Sophia! It will be okay, stand up, it’s going to be okay, it’s stupid pranksters!”

She gathered Sophia into her strong young arms.

“It’s kids, a bad prank on you and I’m so, so sorry! Frank’s out back, he’ll get them if they’re still on your property!” She gave Sophia a little shake, her own five feet eight length plus full mental powers trying to gain a little control of this woman who, at six feet, looked frail now. But TZ knew Sophia; the woman had an extraordinary will and would come around.

“I need to go and help him,” TZ siad and left with Dae.

Sophia roused herself. She had to see what was going on so followed in a moment, then flipped on outdoor floodlights and slid open the sliding glass doors to the large patio. Dae was racing after the intruders in full voice, TZ not far behind him.

The apparitions had vanished, torches flung into the fire pit sunk into the wide stone deck–burning bright, plumes of smoke curling and with stink of kerosene, the only evidence of their presence. For the boat was gone, as well.

Frank jogged back from the front of the chapel house with Dae trotting beside him, both panting. TZ straggled. Frank’s palms pushed against his thighs and he bent over, head hanging. Then they gathered about the fire pit and TZ and Sophia poured water from watering cans over the hissing flames.

“I called police, they’ll flush them out,” he said. “I’m know who they are. Unbelievable–but that’s what they do on Halloween.”

TZ shot him a look. No need to further worry Sophia–they could inform her of any outcomes later.

But they knew she wanted to ask: why? Why would anyone do that when Thomas’ death had even been investigated, she had been heavily questioned, and it truly haunted her yet? And the little gang of BWC was made of those who gave little or no thought to consequences of their decisions. Or so it seemed. Nels, that is Nelson Hartman, talented, angry son of a high powered businessman who was rarely around. And Tran? Chinese-American, moved there with parents and grandparents who never quite adapted, and for good reason: deeply embedded racism. But Casey was, well, Casey–she didn’t care for most rules and expectations, was entirely loyal to Nels.

Then there was Marika who’d broken down when Frank grabbed her arm, begged him not to turn her in, she was done with BWC, old friends or not.

“Besides, I saw something out there, it was ….” It was more than she could say, apparently.

He left her sniffling at the side of the road though it was a bit harsh of him. It wouldn’t do to have Sophia see her in such a state. Let Marika ask for any forgiveness later. Frank knew the others would collect her–unless the cops got them first. Someone–he thought Tran was also less than all in–had just left, taken the boat rather than be caught. Daedalus nipped one of them–he heard one cursing at the dog as they dashed down the road, their sheets flying. How ironic that they’d had the same simple costume idea for worse.

Frank put an arm around the shaken woman–someone he admired and respected. Who was looked straight into his eyes, subdued and angered.

“We just felt you might be on their list–they do something crazy every year…a pact they made, I guess. Trying to make a creepier night of it…I don’t get it. But that was beyond mean. They’ll face charges if you press them.” He scrubbed the top of his head in exasperation. “We all worry about you out here.”

TZ shushed him. Of course he didn’t “get” the mini-terrorizing; Frank didn’t have a cruel bone in him. But at times he talked too much when staying quiet could help more. She beckoned to Sophia they went inside where she seemed to come back to herself.

After they’d had a fresh mug of coffee with cinnamon scones Will had brought, and they’d told her about the costumed kids at the library and showed pictures, and shared their week-end plans and asked if she wanted more leaves raked yet, which she shrugged about, Sophia gestured to the sofa as if to ask them to stay and see the film. Dae, however, jumped up beside her and lay his length there, put his head in her lap. TZ and Frank said it was time to go, they had more plans. Sophia waved goodbye, her silhouette clean and strong in the doorway.

“She always looks like some amazing…goddess…” TZ said.

“Yeah, a frozen-in-time-goddess. A famous dancer whose life was put on a long pause, such creativity and big emotions shut down…”

This was what TZ liked about Frank, He looked like a lumberjack but was so much more.They got into his truck, said nothing more of it all.

After they’d gone, Sophia went up to the loft to the tall widows. She studied the water’s surface gleaming like silver here and there in moonlight. Was that movement another boat, a sudden light another torch? Was that chilled mist hovering over the little island a thing she could not define? She pressed her nose against the glass, breath obscuring her view. Was Thomas still languishing in autumn waters? She heard him sometimes, felt his presence always, his rage and brilliance, his love and restlessness. She and Dae mused on the night’s events, shivered one after the other.

Sophia got the clerestory pole with its hook, closed the latches of both high windows so that all was shut out–please, Thomas, leave me–for one more night.

Wednesday’s Words/Fiction: The Ways of Fox Lake

It is the crickets that steal her attention as she stops for a delicious drink of water at the roadside spring. Their insistent chirping, variations of a redundant theme. If it wasn’t dusk and she wasn’t getting groggy from travelling, she would’ve sped past the village. But here at the wayside she decides to look for a (most likely) dank, homely room for the night, and she will get a fresh start for home come dawn.

But Vanessa just sits in her car before turning the engine over, letting the crickets captivate her. It is one of those sounds that has beckoned and calmed her since childhood, like fireflies with their blinking soft lights, darting here and there like tiny dancers. She can’t say why–she grew up in various desert towns. Ended up in Las Vegas, to which she is returning.

The air’s rich undertow of pine and musty leaves stings her nose as she climbs back in the roadster. She starts the car, drives at a casual pace down the main dirt road, its obscure wooden sign stating: Fox Lake Corners. She unwittingly seeks out a fox’s flicking tail or triangular face along the road, then laughs at her own naivete. They are far too clever to be noted. She admires that although she is the opposite, in fact, as a showgirl, always in a center of attention, but not so much to distract from the flashier, far better paid stars. But there is an element of hiding in plain sight, just like the fox. Just another showgirl blinding the audience with sequins and feathers and long legs moving in sync, yet never really seen.

The village appears as so many others in this Midwest lake country. Tattered and slumping, blending into nature’s palette. Comprised of a gas station, general market, auto body shop, groupings of cabins and cottages among forested wooded acreage. A lake is tucked somewhere behind these; she’s been skirting such waters for days. Whether large or small, it dominates all else. That’s how it is around there: fishing, hunting, fishing, boating for fun and sweat-drenched work outdoors. The late spring light is tree-filtered and dappled, and warms her as she enters the more populated part. The village is more perky than she expected. Her shoulders relax when she spots an old–1940s?– motel; she catches a glimpse of deep blue behind it. She admits this is why she took vacation in lake country: the potential for peace. Which has mostly eluded her.

She pushes wide the low car door, climbs out and sees a man opening the motel office door to greet her.

“Ma’m. Can I help?” he says with a gap toothed smile, lifting a greasy baseball cap a half inch and resettling it. He admires the dusty green MG openly but only nods at it, and then her.

“A room for a night–you surely have one that looks directly onto the water.”

He shakes his head; thin lips stretch wide. “Lucky day. All do, comes free with the rent. Step on in.”

He opens the squeaky hinged screen door and she enters first.

Behind the desk sits a woman of indiscriminate age although she may be his wife, certainly business partner. She raises eyes to squint at Vanessa a moment too long, then smiles briefly, a hand unwittingly touching her short grey hair. Vanessa understands. Her own hair is pulled into a high pony tail but it is blindingly penny red. And there is the rest, the body that has carried her so far in the entertainment world even now, although she is well covered for this northern country. She is tall, taller than the string bean proprietor who offers her a seat. She stays on her feet. She doesn’t care to chat.

“What room, then, and how much?”

She pays $95.00 which is highway robbery but so it goes, then takes the key.

When she unlocks the room, suitcase in hand, she is surprised. It smells welcoming, like faded wood smoke–there is a small wood stove in the corner–and a soft scent of lavender, not her favorite but still, nice. Too much calico or vintage floral–whatever it is– for curtains and bedspread. Four pine walls. But it is clean and through opened curtains is the lake.

Fox Lake. She is still, breath held lightly. A wide curving expanse opens up before her. Bluish twilight encroaches upon the last of sunset rays limning the waves, and the shushing of water plays against a rocky shore. The screen window lets in a full score of soothing nature sounds. She has been at an elegant resort for a week on Lake Michigan. But it was not this tidy lakefront, not this welcoming view. She unpacks her suitcase and goes in search of food.

Which is right down the road at a small bar and grill, Lettie’s Landing.

All heads turn when Vanessa saunters in. She’s used to this, the pause and stares and ignores them, perches at the counter to order a ginger ale and a burger with fries.

“Visiting Fox Lake, I guess?” The sloping shouldered bartender pushes the plate and bottle across the counter. His eyes are deep brown; when he smiles at her, skin around his eyes crinkle above high cheekbones. “Like half the group here.” He slaps at the counter a couple times with the damp towel, makes a cursory swipe of crumbs.

“Just for a night, on my way back home.”

“Not around here, then.”

She takes a bite, shakes her had, ponytail swishing back and forth. Let him wonder over it. People can be nosy in the north country, unnervingly direct. She appreciates it but is too tired to have a such a conversation. One might say she is even feeling depressed– if they knew her well. She raises her eyebrows at him in flirty friendliness, well practiced.

“Too tan for here. Enjoy,” he says and slips away to the next customer.

The meat is well seasoned and juicy, the fat fries crisp, the place another surprise. She didn’t know simple food like this could taste so delicious. It has to be the tourist trade that brings out the best in these backwoods business people. And the bartender is at ease, might be nice to chat with if she had time.

“I’m Lettie, welcome to my place.”

The older woman’s voluminous blond hair is piled atop her large head and around her neck dangles a cord with a medium sized wooden fox attached to it. Its eyes are amber, the wood rich. She leans into Vanessa’s space but not too much, not enough that Vanessa asks for a to-go box, to shove off and go to bed.

“Vanessa. Here one night only,” she says and takes a swallow of her of soda. “Good food here.”

“Glad you enjoy it.” She stands up, stretches arms above her head, twists side to side. “Got a bad back, keep limbered up.”

“I have an aching back from driving so much. Nice to stop and breathe. To enjoy the views you have. So pretty.”

Lettie stares at her, blinks, looks at the counter, fixes on her face again. It is annoying. The woman’s eyes are round, deep blue, a bit red-rimmed. “You from around here–like, maybe in the past?”

“Oh, no, I’m a desert dweller from way back. I would not survive here in the woods.”

“You look a tad familiar, is all.”

“You probably say that to all the passersby,” Vanessa laughs and raises her bottle, swigs the last of it. “We must blend together since we come and go all season long.”

Why is she taking to this woman? She wants to finish up, walk by the lake, fall into bed.

“Nope.” Lettie shakes her head and portions of curls slip over barrettes that anchor them as she continues to appraise her. “I have a really good memory for faces.”

Vanessa shivers suddenly, frowns, slips off the stool. Not the kind of chitchat that ever interests her. Plus, time for bed.

“Goodnight, Lettie, thanks for the hospitality and vittles.”

“Enjoy your stay, Vanessa. Come for breakfast, doors open at seven.”

******

The night is silken, deep. Nothing hurts her length and breadth, despite the bed seeming at first too firm, despite her hips becoming arthritic too young from years of hard dancing. Wind is her whispering companion as she is loosened from sleep, stares over the black-blue expanse of water, the slanting rain darting across a roiled surface and spattering through the screen. But there are stars as clouds dash by. And they seem brighter than necessary as she feels their ancient light as a cool caress. She sits on her narrow bed, falls back, gathers the bedspread’s garden of flowers over her body, to her face, and sleeps on.

A night owl listens, calls out, and the fish turn over and the crickets are mute in the swell of darkness.

******

“It got to you, right? The lake air and the quiet. Gotta love this life.” Bartender Ralph winks at her as he wipes down things, grabs her plate from the kitchen, offers steaming scrambled eggs with dill and grated colby, topped with four redolent sausages.

“You been here forever, too? Seems nobody leaves the north country.” Vanessa stuffed a whole sausage in her mouth, no apologies. It was ten o’clock and she was starving.

“Naw, moved here many years ago–before that I worked in insurance, Detroit. Hated it. Love it here. Met a gal here one summer, got married, learned how to make drinks, stayed on.”

“A synopsis like that sounds good. Happy endings for you.”

“Well, we all get bruises, some slow healing wounds. I had cancer last year but am pretty good now.”

Vanessa looked at her eggs. “Sorry.” She knows about that illness; her mother knew much more of it.

“No need. Got it taken care of. So, you’re a genuine desert person?”

“Lettie already brief you?”

“Of course. She says you remind her of someone.”

“Would not be the first or last time. Must be my rather ordinary face or how much a chameleon I can be.”

“Hardly.” He raised a bushy eyebrow at her. “Lettie never forgets a face. Some mad memory she has.”

“I have surely never been here.”

“Oh, well–enjoy your breakfast,” he says, moves down to the end of the counter to serve another.

She doesn’t see Lettie as she finishes up. A couple she saw the night before is hunched in the corner, slurping mugs of coffee and each reading pages of a newspaper of sorts. A woman with a shiatsu dog at her feet sits with chin on one hand, a cinnamon bun in the other, which she nibbles. An attractive young man has his feet propped on a side chair, and slowly eats waffles topped with blueberries and whipped cream as he checks out the window, waiting for someone. Two men in caps and worn out khaki jackets are debating something, gesturing toward the lake.

The lake of foxes, how beguiling it looks. Cumulus clouds hang in a sparkling blue sky here and there; the rain has left all things shining. She eyes it’s placid, brilliant teal surface longingly. If she only had time…she would like to stay one more day. She could stay if she left very early in the morning. Another gulp of strong coffee and her eyes sweep the room again. The old guys hoot and chortle, rouse themselves, exit. The young man hails his possible girlfriend who slaps him gently on the shoulder. The couple put papers aside and chat.

No slot machines, no boozy fools, no stale cigarette smoke.

She, in fact, will linger. Just for a little while.

******

It feels more than a bit familiar but she doesn’t know why, what it could mean in some greater context. Maybe it is just her secret geography and she never knew it before. She is so used to cactus flowers, rattlesnakes, vastness of sand under and around tamed spots, burning heat, chilled indoor air blowing on her day in and day out, and gaudy confines of the stages. She is used to the razzle-dazzle, raucous applause; of sweat racing along her spine and fancy drinks often uncounted and guys breathing down her neck: hey baby wanta dance all night with me?

Here she feels much less like herself. But she is feeling more alright with that the longer she remains.

Vanessa is walking along the rocky shoreline in clean navy sneakers, searching for good stones, feeling her long, heavy hair lift and fall from her shoulders which are no longer hunched up like a bird of prey, tensed and ever watchful. She feels unsought and even unseeking. Cleaned out of old worries and the nagging emptiness. Legs feel lanky and strong again as she jogs a bit, sees a motorboat pull a female water skier across tufted wavelets and wishes it was her. She halts her steps. She has never water skied but now wants it so much she can nearly taste mud-tinged, weedy water spray on her lips, feel it release her of aches. The exhilaration. She could do that, she would love doing that.

“Thought I’d find you down here.”

It’s Lettie, catching up with her. She’s in a holey tan sweater and rumpled fisher hat, with one hand on a carved staff and another on a leash, at the end of which is an aged, dutiful Brittany springer spaniel.

Vanessa smiles, genuinely this time, and pats the dog on his fine head. “Enjoying all this before I go.”

“Meredith Kane.”

Vanessa nearly trips over a big black rock. and then presses her hands hard on her chest, mouth agape.

“Yes, ma’m, I knew you were familiar, and that’s it. Meredith came here for four summers back in late ’70s to early ’80s. Then I didn’t see her again. Or hear from her, either, and we were real friends. But something happened–I knew.”

“You knew my mother? She was here? She never told me that…”

“I knew her well for awhile. And then she got pregnant, told me at the end of that last summer. Left fast and that was it for us being friends, I guess.”

Vanessa eyes filled. “Oh, my gosh, she passed away three years ago.”

Lettie’s bright eyes closed. “Oh! Oh dear, Vanessa…I am too sorry to hear that. I was even hoping to reach out to her again.” She let out a long, raspy sigh. “But you know what I’m saying, right?”

“This is too much. I never knew she lived here. That she got pregnant, of course, and back then it was a scandal of sorts…It was me who arrived.”

“Yes, I imagine it was if you were the first–only?– child. But she was summer folk. Her parents rented a cabin downshore every summer for those years. Three months at a time, and her father joined Meredith, her little brother, Todd, and mother on week-ends. She was from… think it was Columbus, Ohio, yep.”

“That’s right. Columbus. But she moved to the southwest after college. Had me, got a decent job.” Her heart is thudding, face shiny with unbidden tears. “You knew her, when she was so young.”

Lettie puts her hand on the younger woman’s shoulder, feels a stab of pain at her deep sadness. “Look, she was a superior gal, and a dear friend those years. She, that last summer, met the guy. They had a thing a few weeks–she got pregnant… and her family never returned. Gavin was his name, right?”

“Yes, I even met him– once. When I graduated from high school. He seemed nice enough. It was so weird, not good. He had a wife and three other kids by then. What could we say? He gave me a crisp hundred dollar bill, as if that could mend things. I didn’t know who he was, he never knew me except for my pictures, updates from mom as she felt like it. He sent me Christmas gifts, for my birthday–they stopped when I hit my teens. Mom refused to see him, but said he wasn’t a bad sort, just irresponsible and their lives diverged. I didn’t think that much of it; she was dependable, a loving mother. She was all I needed.” She bit her lower lip to stop one more trembling, embarrassing tear.

“Yeah, he was so suave, carefree, sporty like she was. They went swimming, fishing, boating, water skied even daily. I thought she was better at stuff than he was.”

“She was athletic, yeah.” She saw her mother running in the cooling dusky sandy, rocky landscapes, calling to her to keep up, they had miles to go, she could do it, keep at it, breathe and reach.

“Want to come back to my place and talk? Like what did she end up doing? Did she stay single?”

“I’m supposed to check out in an hour or so, I’m afraid. I’m a day behind schedule so must get on the road, get back home and to work. Las Vegas is a long way, still. I’m a dancer for those big revues.”

Lettie stares at the water, caught in present and past at once. “I see, my oh my.” She rubs her neck, then smiles like it is second nature to do so.

“I have a small talent for dance that supports me–but Mom was smart, ambitious; she was eventually a high level college administrator. Later she got sick, off and on for years. She married my father, Dave, my real dad. But they divorced after twenty-five years.”

Vanessa wants to say more but she also feels she has said too much. Lettie is hanging on every word, but it is just not enough and this can go on and on. She needs to get home, back to her real life, away from this idyllic and curious place. Still, it stuns her. She is so drawn to the same village and lake as her mother was. She feels she draws in and exhales Fox Lake’s air, is in concert with it before she realizes what is happening. Like falling in love. She loathes leaving it, the new and tender connection to, perhaps, a better world. A least a quieter one, where no one cares about her other life which grates and clamors and even claws yet pays her way.

She barely grazes Lettie’s hand with her finger. “Maybe I could come back later this summer.”

“Book a room now, dear. I’ll circle the date in orange!”

They take some time getting back to Lettie’s Place. They talk about Lettie’s growing up and not ever venturing far from there; about Meredith’s athletic ability wasted on a desk job even if she was good at that; how Vanessa had wanted to be in musical theater once. And Vanessa keeps looking at that beautiful water, then they are at the entrance so they have to wrap it up.

“Well, I have to say you are some like her.” The older woman pulls her sweater close despite the warm breeze that skims her face.

“Maybe. You don’t know me.”

“But I do see you, Vanessa Kane, you have heart, a good mind and much to offer, like your mom. Plus, you have her square jaw, beautiful eyes and mane of hair. A bit like the way she walked, too.”

“How do you mean–how did she walk then?”

“Like the dirt and stones welcomed every step. And she well loved it all back. At the core she was more one of us, of Fox Lake. Maybe you will be, too, who knows?”

“She did crave outdoor life on week-ends… Anyway, I’ll be in touch.”

Vanessa pays her bill, makes an expensive reservation for a coveted late August date, then climbs into her MG. Idles a moment. The pine trees rattle their branches at her, a blue and yellow lake light winks from the distance. It is the place she was looking for, she thinks; it offered a slice of peace so needed. And one day she may find her way back for good, when she has had quite enough of the spotlit stage and glitzy parties, the good money. It is beginning to take more from her than can be replenished.

Ralph and Lettie watch from a window as she shifts into a faster purr and roar and stirs up dust, the glinting sheen of her auburn ponytail lifting, her hand suddenly raised in a wave. He reaches an arm around his grandmother. Gives her a strong squeeze– she squeezes back– before they get back to the summer season’s workload.

Half a mile away, Vanessa is looking for foxes, thinks she sees a nose, the tip of a tail, skids to a halt. But only elegant wild grasses lean her way.


Lessons from Cottage Life

Coanes’ Cottages, the faded wood sign indicated, a dingy white arrow pointing the way. After a long car ride from mid-to-northern Michigan, I was ready to tumble out and gallop down the dirt path to the lake shore. Dad opened the trunk as Mom gathered up a few stragglers in the back seat. I deposited my suitcase at the door of our rental cottage and waited. Mr. and Mrs. Coanes emerged from their own cottage, dressed in the usual matching plaid shirts, greeting us with a flurry of welcoming talk. I said on cue, “Hello there, nice to be here, thank you for having us” and was thus briefly released from other required social duties.

I ran through long-limbed, shady trees and dry grass stubble, arms flailing, legs reaching, breath rushing though me until there was the same old dock before me. The lake spread out from the shore, a shimmering mirror on surface, deep and clear just below barest green-blue waves. It was rimmed by deciduous and pine trees standing close to one another, tight against gusty storms that often swept off mammoth Lake Michigan a few miles away and Canada beyond that. The calendar had already been turned from August to September so it was far quieter than summertime’s high season. A few diverse trees on the other side bore leaves in process of transformation, green to gold, red to orange. Just the way I liked it.

It was the time we tended to visit the Coanes’ Cottages,  after their busy vacation season ended and kids were back in school. I vaguely recalled them from church; my parents had known well when they had still lived and worked in our hometown. And then they retired from “good jobs” as Mom indicated, and part-time pleasure became a full-time business. By early to late fall we could stay in an unclaimed (I guessed free to us) cottage which to me far better fit the description of a cabin. It seemed a kind of luxury to me to be there though I had stayed at other lakes, for other reasons (performing arts and church camps, friends’ summer homes). The homely but decent-sized cottage, cheerful fire in the fireplace when nights turned cool; the old log walls and wood floors emitting the musky smoky scent I loved–it was a fall reprieve from our already hectic city lives. The decor of the habitat was primitive and basic to me even as a young teen, but its simplicity soothed me, reassured me with its longevity and sameness.

My parents weren’t so much true outdoors people so much as general science lovers and nature admirers. Even Dad didn’t fish or boat much (he liked tennis and bike riding) though most other people came in droves to catch abundant bass, rainbow trout, perch,  pike, whitefish and more. And also to go boating, swimming, windsurfing, water skiing, to name a few. And that was only in summer. Winter held plenty of attraction with fun activities like ice fishing and ice boating.

I understood that the Coanes were different from my parents’ other friends, and also my friend’s parents. They preferred a pared-down sort of life, in sync with the outdoors all year, a far more rugged life. Mrs. Coanes held me in thrall as I shyly observed her. She exhibited such energy and strength, a pervasive independent attitude. Though this was a bit like my mother, Mrs. Coanes routinely fished with success (we’d eaten the catch many times) and even hunted deer; she tackled the same heavy work as did her husband. They had ruddy cheeks and calloused hands. Mrs. Coanes didn’t fuss with make up or bother calming her curly, silvery-brown mop of hair. I thought it curious that she and her spouse dressed about the same–long sleeved, plaid flannel shirts, baggy jeans or old khakis, laced leather boots, even in summer. From a distance they were nearly interchangeable when they had their caps on. They seemed to be perpetually in a good mood, easy to be around and full of stories about game or fish they got, the customers they had met, the changing of the seasons–and good books they had read.

They also played bridge and knew much about science, art and history. After dinner we often hung out at their cabin or they came to ours. I skimmed my novels or the cottage’s crossword puzzle magazines while the four of them played bridge or Michigan Kitty or Scrabble or checkers (I might  join in the last two). I listened to conversations about our town versus the lake life as well as my parents’ various engagements and our large family. They didn’t have children, an noteworthy fact to me, the youngest of five. I learned that they both had worked at Dow Chemical Company–it was the main employer of in Midland, Michigan and though they’d enjoyed being company scientists, they loved this life more.

I tried to imagine my parents owning such a place and failed–surely not Dad with his tuxedos as conductor for concerts or playing in string quartets, and Mom with attendant elegant dresses or her work as an elementary schoolteacher. But they had other sides to them. Mom had grown up on a farm and was not at all averse to physical work–her energy seemed indefatigable. Dad loved to tinker with cars and repair things. They both camped for many years with a pop-up camper and enjoyed the relaxation it brought.

But during lake visits and while staying with the Coanes, I saw them anew at times.

I learned Dad greatly enjoyed the water and loved to sail. He put on swim trunks and joined Mr. Coanes on the small sailboat buzzing with excitement.

Mom shouted after him, “Put a lifebelt on! You could capsize and drown! Don’t go out too long or far away– I want to be able to see you!” Her nerves were not hidden though her face appeared calm soon–or taut with anxiety just beneath the surface.

Mrs. Coanes tried to reassure her but it didn’t do the trick. Mom would jump up from her camp chair, walk along the muddy shoreline and flatten a hand against forehead to shield her eyes from sunlight. She tracked the sailboat’s progress.

I’d swim awhile, dog paddle deeper and be carried out by chilly, lapping wavelets to the floating dock. There I’d dive off the buoyant wooden square again and again. Pungent scents of lake; the sweet, crisp air of early fall! And Mom wasn’t worried about me. I was close enough, she knew I was a strong swimmer. But Dad was disappearing around a peninsula with Mr. Coanes, off on a small adventure.

“Why don’t you swim, Mom?” I asked.

It heretofore hadn’t occurred to me to ask. She was in her fifties and I somehow had assumed that, like most women of the times and that age, she just didn’t want to get into a suit and be sopping wet while in full view of the public.

“I don’t like water,” she said, scanning the distance. “Never have.”

I thought about that. She daily took baths, of course, fast ones it was true but she never had mentioned a dislike of water. She washed things, she watered the garden, she bathed us kids when we were little. Did she mean she didn’t actually like getting right into it awhile? Hard to avoid when bathing. I thought this most peculiar. And one thing I liked about being close to her was that she was the sweetest smelling person I knew, even her breath.

When Mrs. Coanes had gone elsewhere I got more nosy. “So–why?”

“I just don’t like how it feels, being doused. I never take showers, you know, a quick bath in tepid water. Or a sponge bath–don’t look at me like that, that is how it often was growing up! You recall I get up before you all do to get ready, and there is a line when I get out.”

“Well, so you feel you have to hurry?…but is there one real reason why? I mean, did something happen that was scary?”

“That’s the reason why: I don’t enjoy water,” she said with quiet exasperation and got up to pace the shoreline again, hands stuffed into pockets of her attractive Pendleton wool plaid jacket. I noted her sturdier casual shoes beneath a lighter tweedy skirt.

It made no sense; it bothered me. How could a person not like the way water slipped over skin, soft and smooth and refreshing? A bath was one thing but a lake….they were full of fascinating life. Viney weeds could suddenly wind around legs, true, and blood suckers met in the muck were gross. But toe-nibbling fish were okay. I knew Mom had a real appreciation of earth sciences, had studied them in college and often talked about geology and etymology. But she had never included water life in her enthusiastic fact-sharing, either. And I still didn’t quite know why.

“Hey Mom, stop worrying, Dad is a good swimmer and he’s with a veteran sailor.”

But she had to be afraid of water; she acted worried about his safety. I tended to find my mother fearless. Even if she hid a few anxieties, she tried to faced things head on. Perhaps that was what she was doing by letting him go ahead on the little boat each year, just staying watchful rather than becoming a little hysterical. My mind wandered–did someone she know actually drown? Did she come close to it? Did she get doused with water from a farm hose by one of her many mischievous, maybe sometimes mean brothers?

I felt as if I was seeing into their lives from a different angle, with more open eyes. And I also felt somehow less confined to childhood’s real with the bits of new knowledge. What else didn’t I know about them? I wasn’t entirely sure I was ready for much more.

Mom shrugged off my words, then tossed me a tolerant smile, as if I couldn’t begin to understand such things. Mrs. Coanes returned so I grabbed a towel, happy to get off on my own, to doze and dream, get a decent tan. Then Dad and Mr. Coanes edged back into view so I sat up again. Mom waved and jumped about as if she hadn’t seen them in days. I sat up. Dad was at the helm; he was sailing the boat by himself. Yes, it was a small boat but there was something about his hair ruffling in the wind, the honeyed sunshine on his elated face, arms and back strong and that easy joy so apparent. My father, set free awhile. Free from endless labors, from even family, from public expectations. It was Dad in the midst of water and wind as the boat skimmed the brilliant teal blue lake. He brought it in nicely.

Mom restrained herself as they finished up. She gave Dad a beach towel to dry off. He was alert, excited–my often taciturn, tired father was a joyously revised one. I congratulated him on his outing and Mr. and Mrs. Coanes noted what a natural he was at sailing. Mom, smiling easily once more, slipped her arm through the crook of his and they walked back up the small hill to the cottages.

I knew what I was going to do the next day: get my chance out there on that sailboat. I had had a taste of sailing at camps and longed to sail more, like Dad.

But that night as the adults played cards, I went down to the lake and sat on the end of the dock. The waves slapped against earth and dock in the sweetly comforting way I never failed to miss when back in the city. Frogs and crickets and birds sang and chirped. I listened for loons, those strange beauties. And an entire sky opened itself to me like a magic kingdom, moon like a beacon, even a harbinger of very good things to come. If I felt a passing pang of loneliness, I imagined another teen sitting across the water doing the same as I, feeling the same tender thrill, that sweet anticipation of an entire life ahead.

Those early autumn stars stirred and settled themselves in the swaths of another night and I imagined them like pinholes into heaven. I propped myself on forearms and tilted my head back to observe them in their true glory as twilight gathered more darkness. Such a perfect, confounding universe, so many questions to ask and answer. If there was one thing I knew for certain, it was that nature was my companion and would be my inspiration and solace my whole life long. I would never feel entirely bereft or lost with nature all about me.

I understood some of why the Coanes left our small city far behind, and why Mrs. Coanes simplified her life. Looking back she was a quiet pioneer, forging her own path in the early sixties when many women wouldn’t have dared–except perhaps, other outdoors women or athletes. How fortunate I was to have known them and to have enjoyed their hospitality. To learn a little about water’s powers and that far off country of grown up life and marriage.