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.

 

A Springtime of Fear, Forest and Water

Photo: Cynthia Guenther Richardson

The land was wilder than it let on at first look, the road curving about it protectively for miles on end, with glimpses of properties blurred as Cal sped by. The forest was piney, dense and secretive. White paper birch groves showed off in flashes of sunlight. The deciduous trees wore bright green and spread their arched branches about like many-limbed dancers. He breathed here as nowhere else–not that he had not been other places more beautiful or dangerously intoxicating. But this landscape erupted seemingly from another time and had remained there. He was entering it again as the aqua Mustang took over. It nearly drove itself as coolness of shadows took turns with a weak heat of late spring light upon his face and arms.

Soon enough he downshifted and slowed to turn off at the beaten gravel road leading into the village of Snake Creek. He passed a couple of spandex-attired cyclists–tourists, he suspected–  as they nodded and swerved onto the dirt. A truck bounced past him going the other way; the Klimper brothers with sons and a shaggy dog in the back.

The village’s main artery was not so different from when he and his parents and sister lived just beyond its borders each summer. He passed The Clarion offices and the Bluestone Cafe owned now by his old friend Clarissa; the small shops for sweets and ice cream, one for odd trinkets and t-shirts and a shoe store for practical boots and fancy sandals. The only hair salon, A Cut Above, had a picture window that flashed in the sunlight. A field stone and wood library always caught his eye. His mother had been instrumental in getting it refurbished and re-stocked over thirty years ago. Not far from the village his father had taught music at United Ministries Summer Arts camp (UMSA) for what seemed forever. They’d lived in one of the large cabins built for staff. Cal and his sister, Kirsten, grew up living a dual life of strict discipline centered on the arts, and living free and happy in woods and water.

And now he was back. Not for forever, but for long enough to restore his anxious soul and nourish his numbed senses.

Ring Lake. He could see it sparkle and undulate as he drew up to the side of the road. He cut the engine, sat a moment. The lake never failed to put his mind on pause. He suspected his collages–the photojournalists with whom he had kept company for decades–would make snide comments about his chosen paradise. After all, hadn’t they been about everywhere else, documenting sights that horrified, illuminated and moved them? Joe Rasmussen, his oldest friend, his mentor, would understand this return to the old places, this “safe zone”, Cal imagined, but Joe was gone. Lost in the Amazon. Or hiding out.

Cal blinked away the image of Joe being enveloped by jungle; Cal had agreed to wait outside their pick up plane. Joe would for certain understand why Cal was cruising down this road on a sunny morning, if not exactly in the right way. He’d pull his neck back and stare at Cal as if his friend had gone and lost him mind, yet he understood how that might happen.

“Ah, a woman! She must be mighty powerful to distract you from finally–how many years since you took time off?– relaxing up in northern Michigan! And you’ve been trying to find me, too… Well, a good and real love never hurt anybody, despite all the naysayers.”

He should know, having been married far more than was reasonable. Cal got out of the car and watched a sailboat make its way toward the shore. He could almost still see Joe’s lopsided smile, his grisly white beard and his dancing, squinting eyes wreathed with wrinkles. He saw him turn away as he did that day, pumping the air with his fist as he disappeared into thickets of monstrous vines and tangled vegetation and raucous or sneaky creatures: Joe had taken off for one last chance at filming the most gigantic, mind boggling anaconda ever.

The familiar fear shot right up his back bone and it nearly lodged in his brain to expand and paralyze him before he took deep breaths, then moment by moment slowed his heart rate. Nothing was worse than dread fear, the visceral poison of being scared, how it’s tendrils shot into you with a ferocious grip and held you halfway alive, halfway toward death. Panic, it was called by the shrinks. But to Cal and his compatriots, it was just unadulterated fear, provoked by adrenalin that was fired off by something terrifying. Or even the sheer possibility. There were a lot of things to fear in the world. And when you were taking pictures of it up close, the fear could ruin you. Or be tamed by years of disciplined will, the basic training of in-depth experiences. It might save you or it might kill you; you had to decide fast.

There was nothing to fear here. Joe was far away, he vanished months ago, and there was not much more he could do about that now. If ever.

Ring Lake was turning that perfect blue-green that changed to more navy in the center depths, teal in shallower waters. Cal held this color along with the scent of water inside until he was calm. Until he felt his feet firm on wooded, rich earth once more. He was as ready to try to move on as he’d been in a while. He looked toward the peninsula seen through a thinner group of jack pines.

Should he walk up to the white chapel-house? Should he even attempt to see her? Bother her, really; she was not one to take random visitors. But she had seemed to be interested in what he said at the Bluestone Cafe as they sat together with family friend and Cal’s most loyal and original mentor, Will, editor of The Clarion.

But what was he thinking ? And how could he possibly know what she was thinking? And why this woman–after so long being on his own?

Sophia Swanson was…she was more than a tad eccentric, lovely and capable. She was mute. Had been since her husband died almost a year before. Cal turned back to his car and leaned against a door. Sugar maple leaves twirled in a shifting breeze. Squirrels raced up and down their favorite trees, chipmunks scurried about and the birds sang their lungs out. He watched the lake’s ever-changing waters, considering options and possible outcomes. He could just turn around and head back to his sister’s house on Grand Traverse Bay.

******

In her old life, if anybody had told Sophia she could be so indecisive as to feel half-mad with uncertainty, she would have vehemently refuted it. But there she was, sitting in her cozy kitchen with Daedalus, her husky-German shepherd, and he was looking up at her expectantly, patiently. It was a long while that he sat at attention, sympathetically alert to her every move. She’d have chuckled if she could but smoothed his broad back again.

She was trying to decide if she wanted to try only a very short swim–more like a good wading, then trying to submerge her chest, perhaps– in the still chilly Ring Lake or take a long nap or critically review her last two paintings leaning against a wall in the loft. The paintings interested her less; she was not so good at it though she found pleasure and peace at the easel.

A glance through the sliding glass door to the deck gave her second thoughts about the water option. It was just starting to cloud over some. Besides which, she didn’t want to go swimming, certainly not in May and not even in the swampy heat of July. The old Sophia wanted to; the new Sophia refused so far. But if she entertained the idea long enough, she might change her current mindset.

Everything in life took practice, didn’t it? Being a youngish widow certainly took practice; being a mother whose only child, Mia, now lived with an aunt–that took enormous work to accept, every moment. More like gradual surrender. No one stole her daughter but they may as well have. When Thomas died, it her life was brazenly stolen. He may as well as have taken them down with him, into that very lake outside her door. It felt as if he did, but they were left dripping with relentless life which became an urgent desire to live, if that was needed, only in limbo. At least, so it was for her. Mia was learning to unthaw the frozen grief and move on back in Vermont. Maybe Sophia should give up and go back east and live with her sister, too. But a woman who does not speak cannot succeed among speakers.

Sophia’s closest Snake Creek friend, Clarissa, had first come up with the idea of swimming about six months after he was gone.

“It’s simple, really, you just have to get moving, honey.” Clarissa spoke into a mug of hot chocolate one snow-spun night. “It’s a fact, the brain releases chemicals for healing and good thoughts!”

Sophia looked up from the fireplace, startled, shook her head vigorously. Why was Rissa being suddenly insensitive? Thomas breathed his last breath out there. He fell off the boat, slipped into swirling black water while skies crackled with lightning, never came back up to say a good-bye or to yell for help or even her name. Or that’s what she imagined. The thunder and lightning, her husband raging against everything so that he finally took up arms against the natural world he adored more than all else, and lost. Or he chose to lose the life he had, and in so doing, he left them in the nightmare of shock, sorrow and anger.

No, don’t think of it, don’t go back to all that happened again.

But Rissa persisted.

“Why not, though? Of course, yes, he drowned…I’m still sorry for it. But you’re a professional dancer and choreographer. You have to move that body more or you’ll just curl up and die, too. That’s not what you want. You can power walk a bit, you even ride a bike if you need to. And you can swim again.” She looked at Sophia as if she might just will it to happen for her. “Don’t ever say never.”

Rissa had a habit of speaking bluntly, as if her truth was clear and dominant. Sophia’s eyes stung with threat of tears but she sent them away. It was hard to hear because her friend was right, If she kept lying in bed and sitting about; if she refused to even walk along the lake’s shore; if she never did another dance warm up exercise much less a spin with a tiny leap– she would not go forward toward anything good. But her body rebelled. It ignored itself, mostly. Her very vocal chords even refused to give sound to her thoughts. Yes, her body was on hiatus. It was better than before, those first weeks when she was nearly catatonic. Now she was just speechless as a stone. But a stone that moved about with encouragement.

That next pretty morning Rissa hooked her arm in Sophia’s. They hesitantly walked at the edge of narrow beach along the small peninsula, land upon which stood their own–now, her own–renovated historic chapel. The water roared in her ears. Pebbles were hard and sharp under her rubber sandals and yet the lake looked like a magnificent– and beastly– creature. A giant open mouth that could swallow them whole. Alive. In in a few days she returned with Rissa, then others who appeared without asking –Anna and Will, Sherry and T.Z. and Frank. She finally walked in a couple of inches with bare feet. Closed her eyes, stood long enough to really feel the oddly neutral, silken touch of water. She began to concede Ring Lake could be, at times, a benign thing, breathtaking in all its moods and friendlier once more with children playing out on the raft and many water skiers, the fishermen and women, people swimming out to the small island from their ramshackle houses.

But she did not go any farther than just above her ankles. And that felt an inch too much.

Sophia thought now: if I just run out there and jump in with Dae and we go out a few freezing feet, get all wet, and then turn back and come in–maybe I will shock myself out of this phobia. Dae will not let me drown, he will swim with me. I can run back in, take a long hot shower and later when Rissa comes by she’ll find how strong I actually am, that I’ve conquered it.

Dae whined at her pleadingly, tail all a-wag, so she got up and opened the slider to let him out. He turned to look back at her, head cocked. She stepped through. The two of them padded down the deck steps, into the grass now greenly growing again after a hard winter. The big dog dashed on, zigzagging across the long yard and to the lake.

Sophia hung back, arms crossed over her soft, high bosom, stood with feet apart. Her heart raced and then steadied as she walked closer to Ring Lake. She felt an edgy gust of wind, a chill left over from Canada’s colder store of air. There would be no swimming today, of that she was certain.

“Sophia? Hi there!”

She pivoted, hands hovering before her. Dae barked feverishly as he made a hard dash for the person walking onto their territory. And came to a halt, the bark a mere squeal as he was soothed by a man who had entered her domain.

*****

Cal roughed up Dae’s ears and petted his back and head lavishly.

“I thought to leave you a note first but since I was in town to do an errand for my sister Kirsten, I decided I may as well see if you were around. I hope that isn’t too rude a thing to do. I mean, to presume you might be here and then see me…”

Sophia tightened her lips into what she hoped passed for a decent smile. It unnerved her she hadn’t heard him, that she might not register a person coming up behind her. He must have heard Daedalus barking earlier, looked past the driveway and down to the lake. But Cal Rutgers was okay. She thought he was, at least, and Will and Clarissa had assured her he had grown up at the camp and the village in summers, was a good guy. A little bit famous. Well, fame didn’t mean a  thing to her. She had had a good bit of fame with her dance troupe before Thomas moved them to northern Michigan from Boston. Before he died, Thomas Swanson was well established in the fame department, a research scientist, author, lecturer. A highly regarded biologist who specialized in limnology, the study of inland waters. She had many bad thoughts about water and the ironic nature of his death, as well as about fame.

But he was congenial and smart and he looked pretty good to her despite her desire to not look at him at all. She looked up, smiled more naturally, and his eyes crinkled back at her.

He studied the lake as he came down the easy slope to stand beside her. “It seems we’ve run into each other a few times at Rissa’s Bluestone Cafe or at the newspaper office or once at the library. I hoped you would show me around your peninsula.” She spread his hands out to include the entire scenario or lake and land. “I love it so much  here, you know… I had to come back to see if it had changed into something more plastic. And it hasn’t.”

She nodded her head to the side and back, in the direction of the chapel-house.

“Ah, well. Yes, my minister great-grandfather’s, then minister grandfather’s chapel. A beautiful little historic chapel. It’s true that I wasn’t happy with you and your husband buying it. But it’s done and it looks okay–from out here.”

Cal did not want to see the inside and he was relieved she didn’t offer to take him there with another head nod. He wasn’t ready to see it made an ordinary house. But he did like to revisit the peninsula, so they were walking  along it’s shore and he fell silent. But then she stopped him and put her hands together as in prayer, as in a plea for forgiveness or at least some genuine acceptance. Her eyes, somewhat almond-shaped and hazel, revealed emotion reflecting a true regret. He was taken aback.

There had been such good times here. The simple services, the feasts, the sort of games boys and girls played–tag, capture the flag, dodge ball–after church services. Grandfather Rutgers passed when he was  in his late teens. Cal hadn’t seen the chapel more then two or three times since then and now, it was a house. He set aside mixed feelings of regret, nostalgia and disappointment, even some anger. He just gave her raised eyebrows paired with a vague smile, the sort that says, maybe, but okay for now… Cal hoped she caught it; he didn’t have much more to say about it yet.

He noted a passing urge to tuck back a stray strand of her length of sandy hair. Her face was unadorned, free of pretense. They walked on the length of the peninsula and back again, then found a nice spot at the edge of a stand of pines.

It must have been a good fifteen or twenty minutes that they sat under the trees watching nothing and everything. Suddenly Sophia took his arm, tugged at it and then, embarrassed by the somewhat intimate gesture, let go. They moved toward the water. The waves slapped rhythmically against rocky beach, carried away the tension in their bodies, shook free their minds of worry. The clouds had moved on and sunshine was like a scarf, light and soft as silk, lain over their frames. Sophia took a step and then another. Dae, seeing her move into the lake bounded over, splashing them both.

She got up with Cal and to hid surprise, they walked into the water, the dog prancing about them. She was nearly as tall as was he–over six feet. He paused briefly over her desire enter water yet infused with a mild wintry chill, and how odd it was to take a virtual acquaintance along but he said, “Is this going to be okay? It’s cold!” and she nodded as shallow wavelets passed through her pants, slid onto skin and rose up each leg, every small advancement a growing internal agony. Then: all the way to her knees. And she stopped, clutching Cal’s arm despite her usual need for reserve.

Her face was charged with and transformed by the electricity of fear. He knew this look well. Cal understood the murky meanings of those white-rimmed eyes, the mouth agape, so he grasped her shoulders and held her gently in place. But Sophia was not going to be held back. She shook him off, thinking like a mantra why not why not why not now I will be brave fear cannot take my life water will not kill me why not now I so loved all water once… and walked alone until the creeping water soaked the pants above her knees, halfway up her still muscular, pale thighs.

She took a small step again and gritted her teeth, stilled her limbs with arms crossed tightly about her chest, face turned up to sky, her long braid dangling just above slapping waves of spring’s lake water. It was terrifying and amazing to command the stay of her body within voluminous, amorphous liquid. A great body encompassing her own trembling body. Alone. She felt as if she might pass out or lift off the murky lake bottom or sink into dreamy depths where a minuscule hope lived amid potent fears–into the subterranean life that she’d led so long.

But when Sophia turned back to the shore, face was open and close to beaming. When she reached him she even laughed, hands held to her mouth, then splashing earthy-fragranced water everywhere, all over him. He could see she was laughing hard, shoulders shaking–but there was no definable sound from her. Nothing was heard but waves and wind upon them and his own small chortle. And some spot  in his heart just blew open, it was a mere pinhole of an exit and entrance but he embraced the sweep of beauty. Sun threw its light about them, water was a glinting, blue-green glorious expanse and all those trees stood proudly beaming fresh new greenness. Dae barked with an envious thrill from shore as they rushed clumsily out of the lake, all the way up the grassy hill. Back home, Sophia seemed to suggest when she glanced at him. Cal flashed a quizzical look.

But she knew what she could offer: the old/new chapel-house comforts and two thick towels, strong cups of coffee served with slices of almond cinnamon cake. It was enough. And perhaps a glimpse of her ways of silence, which might not continue to hide or hurt her as they had for too long.

 

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

(Hello, kind readers: This is another trial chapter (here made into a short story) in an ongoing revision of my unpublished novel, Other Than Words. One published excerpt was nominated for a Pushcart Prize years ago but it remains a work in need of more work! It may take more time and effort than I have, though I remain intrigued by the characters and themes. Thus, I have written other posts about these two and others; searching my site for “Snake Creek” may bring you to them. If not, let me know. I will post links. Thanks for reading this one!)

Sighting at Ring lake

Photo by Baron Wolman

It was the very end of Indian summer, when a gust of wind blows soft then edgy and everyone starts to long for fireplaces crackling with heat and magic. Not another family picnic. Though those who camped overnight got their big bonfire, as our family reunions were held at Grandpa Curtis’ rambling old house at Ring Lake, after which he closed it up most of winter. Reunion dates had never changed despite differing school start dates. Everyone in Michigan was expected to come. Those who lived elsewhere were expected to come, too, but were forgiven if they just couldn’t find ways or means. Grandpa Curtis saw to it that every family was reminded with a phone call. It was the men who managed the planning of things though we all knew the women did the most actual work.

We kids did what we wanted, that’s how I remembered it.

I had been tidying my bedroom after getting ready for the last minute emergency trip. I opened the shoe box of  photos moldering beneath tax folders and almost tossed the lot after indulging in a brief reverie. But I felt Mom might like me to take a few to the hospital where she lay recovering, waiting.

I was riveted by her image, a darkly pretty hippie mama with deep brown, flowing hair–second from right. She looks pleased enough to be there once more, perhaps skeptical about how the day and night would turn out. Guarded, I think, as she had gotten divorced that year and no one liked to hear of that. That’s me behind her, right side, aggravated by the random photo taker or dry, prickly grass on my legs or sun punishing me with its glare. Maybe missing my absent dad. I am not a day time person even now. And I never liked those clingy lacy anklets and Mary Janes. I go barefoot as much as possible except when on stage, of course; I wear what my character wears then, no matter how uncomfortable. But I think Mom just wanted to prove she was a good mother to keep me, her only kid, so clean and all tucked in, calling me “my sweet dumpling”, which was dropped after I refused to further answer to it.

Now I wish she would call me that one more time.

Mom’s task at the reunion was to provide her walnut and chicken salad with poppy-seed dressing; also help with the makeshift table (sawhorses, 2×4 planks) settings of paper plates and such. She said her part was easy; she only made three tasty recipes and the other two weren’t favored there. Plus she was a poet so wasn’t expected to do some things. It was an insult, she told me a few years later, that she was teased about writing poetry and not being too domestic. At the time I thought it meant she was different and special. I loved when she read me children’s poetry at bedtime. It still does make her special in my view, though she says poetry making has been a liability more than an asset, at least financially. But much feels like a liability to her these days, since her health started to sputter.

Mom’s first cousin Deena is seen displaying a peace sign with characteristic bombastic laugh. Her squinting daughter– my second cousin–Leanne and I were best friends in the way cousins can be though she was and is three years older. She wanted to lead the way, but I wasn’t an obliging follower. Rufus, her brother, is the one scowling in front. He never did quite get rid of that look; it remains one of an array of expressions. He did get more handsome.

One reunion when we girls were eleven and thirteen, we did something daring. This was after swimming and chattering and eating meals like a continuous buffet; while grownups were sloshing beer around the bonfire and somebody, likely Uncle Oscar, was wailing on a badly tuned guitar and faking a country song; while Mom and Deena and a couple other women were out back in the garden smoking a cigarette or maybe a joint. We took off. That is, Leanne wanted to hang out on the long rickety dock but when we got there and sat a bit, I realized what good fortune we had. The tethered rowboat bobbed on the wavelets. No one else was around. The moon was more than half full and beamed kindly. The light was apricot gold going to silvery blues, dusk to twilight.

“Let’s take it out,” I said and stood up, hopped down with a soft splash, waded out a little and got in.

“Are you goofy? Our moms would tan our hides.”

“They’d never know. Everyone is busy. We can row to the Point and back in fifteen, maybe twenty minutes. No one will even notice. Get in.”

I did just that, careful to not create undue rocking as I settled.

“No. It’s too dangerous. We don’t even have the life jackets.”

I shook thick hair back from my face, took a rubber band from my wrist and twisted a half ponytail in it. “You scared? We take this heap of wood out all the time. Come on.” I grabbed two life belts left in the hull and dangled them at her. “Here, just in case we need them.”

“I say we stay here, dip our feet and tell ghost stories or something.”

Leanne sat with folded hands in her lap, chin up a tad, a picture of quiet resolve. I had thought teenagers rebelled all the time–like Rufus tended to–but no, Leanne was right on target for Best Attitude of the Year. She was only thirteen, though.

I started to free the boat’s rope from the dock. “Well, I’m going without you then.”

“Jupiter, you’re a pest, you know I can’t let you do that. The parents would freak out.”

I hated hearing her say my whole name like she was acting as my Mom. “Jupe” was what I was called, sometimes “June”–even worse– if my name was misheard as “Juniper”. So when she grasped my forearm I yanked it back, just enough to cause her to tip toward me. To save herself from getting dunked in the lake she had to half-fall into the boat. She sat opposite me, gave me an unconvincing death stare from under wimpy eyebrows.

“You’re in big trouble!”

“Naw, now we’re set!” I grasped the handles, plunging the oars deep into metallic purplish-blue water.

“Sometimes I wonder what’s wrong with your brain. It’s got to be that poet gene. They’re still going to freak out–but let’s go and get it over with…”

I let the poet dig pass and began to row away from our spot on the bright and noisy shore, into the falling silvery veil of twilight. Daytime with all its knowns and givens was leaking out of a slow-thickening dark. Twilight was like the changeling in one of Mom’s poems, neither one thing or the other but better.

Meter Point was a tiny peninsula, close enough that we could just see it, and along the shoreline windows were aglow. The oars had a congenial creak as water pushed from them resisted the work of my arms. But it was good. It wasn’t hard to do what we were doing–we had rowed all over, not much without older people accompanying but still. The more rowing done the more I tingled head to toe. I felt older than Leanne, braver than ever. I breathed in and out with audible gusto as she held onto the sides of the boat grumbling about things I didn’t want to make out. But her protests grew skimpier as we glided along.

A shrill whistle ripped the moist air. Leanne frowned at me and I, back at her.

“Rufus. Has to be his whistle, darn it!”

“What d’ya want, Rufie?” Leanne called out.

I steadied the boat a minute; he’d have to be dealt with, a real let down, but I had half a mind to keep on going.

“I saw you two steal the boat so I followed you on the piney path. Let me in on it. I’m so bored. Bring it closer so I can hop in.”

“No!” I yelled, though with some restraint. “We had to get away; this is our outing!”

“Yeah, we won’t be gone long, anyway,” Leanne backed me up. “Go sneak some beer or something.”

Rufus laughed with a syllable of expelled air: “Huh!”. He was fifteen and thought he was worldly-tough. We knew he drank sometimes. “I wish it was that easy, squirt. But I’ll get the moms if you don’t come over here–and then what?”

We considered this. I knew that Leanne could go either way. I knew that I did not want our mothers interfering with my small freedoms. I didn’t want Rufus there, either. It was a lose-lose situation but better to give in than to bring parental wrath down on us. I rowed closer to the dirt and rock shoreline and he waded out and climbed in. Stood there shifting his weight to bug us; we rocked back and forth. He looked really big in the low light; his wide, bony shoulders blacked out a view of the moon. I felt like giving him a big push out.

“I’m rowing,” he commanded.

“If you have eyes to see you can tell I’ve got the oars.”

“Aw, let her row, it was her idea to take us out. She likes it.”

He sat his lean frame down with a thud next to his sister. The boat swayed more. “It’ll be a lazy, boring ride. Listen, I’ll take us back, right? You’ll find out how fast this thing goes with my hunking biceps. Now let’s see what you can do, kid.”

“We’re lopsided now, dummy, someone has to adjust.” I gave the oars a jerk.

He moved and was about to say something but held his tongue.  In fact, he became uncharacteristically calm as I rowed; sullen, or just relieved to be out of the mix of things awhile. We had a messy, boisterous family. He might even have realized I had more strength and grit than he’d given me credit for. But he leaned back his head and stared at the sky, mouth hanging open. Stars were popping out more. Leanne gazed upward, too, then trailed her hand in the water, humming tunelessly. My shoulder and arm muscles began to burn just a little and I slowed down. No need to hurry. The air was cooling, the pretty twilight barely holding on. I could have used a sweatshirt but soon warmth began to radiate from my core and rise to my skin. The scents of stirred deepening waters and clean, rich pine bloomed in my nostrils. The darkness fell softly about my shoulders, as if to encourage me. I felt good, happier than I had all week-end. Water and open air did this, the boat a bonus. I suspected it was also true for Rufus as he surveyed the lake, his face softening in the blurred edge of darkness.

“I can see the Point already,” Leanne informed me, ever on top of things. “Keep to the left, you’re drifting out too much.”

“She’s doing alright, just being lazy but it’s okay now we’re getting closer.”

“Are there lights on at the chapel house?” I asked. “Sophia Swanson’s place?”

They were already studying the trees and the place that we all knew about and usually avoided. The place that was once an historical chapel and was renovated.  We were near the area, too, where Thomas Swanson died, Stump Island on far right. I could see its spiky mound of treetops against the fading light.

“Yeah…. she’s just another person, right? Even though she’s so strange,” Leanne said. “But we could turn around and head back. Maybe go a piece the other direction, past Grandpa Curtis’ house. We know that area better.”

Rufus leaned forward. “Cut to the left, Jupe, let’s get in close, then get out and explore, what do you say?”

I looked at Leanne and she shook her head “no” emphatically. Rufus was moving about, craning his neck as if he’d caught sight of something, then gestured at me quickly to pull up to shore. A shiver of excitement rushed over me and I rowed hard toward the Point’s short rocky beach, even as my mind tried to hold back.

“That’s private property,” Leanne reminded us. “Miss Swanson won’t want us around here. She still scares me.”

“She’s widowed, so it’s still Mrs., I think. Or just Crazy Sophia,” he corrected her.

“Stop it you two, she’s just mute. That’s all, you would be, too, if your husband drowned and your daughter was taken back East to an aunt’s.”

I stopped rowing, the thrill stalling out. This was close enough.

“Get your fur down. No doubt she can be nice enough–but who knows what happened out there? She’s still freaky.”

I thought people made too much of Sophia Swanson. She had a friendly way but shy when Mom and I ran into her in a Snake Creek shop once. My mom sort of knew her and had told me the woman was so upset about her husband’s drowning that she didn’t have the strength to talk yet. But she was mostly extra talented, Mom had said, a dancer known all over.

I put up the oars and let us drift a little. Sweat tickled the nape of my neck. I worried that Rufus would jump in, swim ashore and prowl around. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea, after all. I knew the water was at least five feet deep there. I wasn’t so sure about swimming around the Point at night but it was tempting.

Before we could stop him Rufus slipped into the water–shorts, shirt and tennis shoes.

“Rufie, you could drown!” his sister screamed in a whisper. “Don’t go over there!”

“Just want a look,” he said as if he was just jogging past during daylight hours. He was dog paddling so it had to be deeper than expected, his feet dragging down, head bobbing.

He didn’t get far.

“What is that?” He pointed as he wiped mouth free of lake.

There was something there, quicksilver and powerful, seeming to swim or something more right off the Point. Sliding underwater, speeding back up, diving under again then breaking the surface silently. The unknown being emanated a soft sheen, a translucency of water and dusting of moonlight, and it swirled as it swam. I squinted and saw the elongated body, what seemed graceful fins or a tail as it swooped up and over and under, again and again. Circling something? Playing with something? Chasing something away? It was not quite human but not quite otherwise.

“My gosh…what is it?” Leanne had come over to my seat and clutched my arm.

“I’m coming in, too!” I stood up, readied for a dive.

Rufus swung around, held up his hands to motion “stop”, then raced back over to the boat and pulled himself over, nearly capsizing us.

“Don’t go in,” he sputtered as he flopped over and into the boat. His teeth began to chatter. “I don’t know what it is… but it’s weird! Maybe it is haunted around this place, Mr. Swanson did drown by the island over there! Just turn the boat around, that would be smart, Jupe. Go!”

We all looked at the tiny, black lump of Stump Island; it was disquieting. Rufus wrapped his arms about himself to get warmer as Leanne patted his back to calm him, which agitated him more. But as he grunted and she chattered away I observed the exotic swimmer. I took up my oars and started to move us closer.

“No, Jupe,” Rufus and Leanne said at once.

I knew it right away: it had to be Sophia Swanson. She was a dancer, right? And when I had seen her before, she seemed nearly a near-giantess (“Six feet,” Mom said, “unusual for a dancer”), athletic, graceful, it was all over her. I had thought then that she was from a foreign place, of course from earth but a far different earth than I had known or understood. She carried with her a sense of finer things, beyond time, her pale red-haired mane, her shoulders and legs and arms made of something more vibrant.

I floated around the Point just enough to see that what appeared to be a snake-like body, that being with tail or fins and super strength was a human, a woman clothed in gauzy material, a dress of some kind. She had surfaced again, inclined her head toward us and floated a little as if catching her breath, then swam swiftly to shore. I slowed the rowboat, hushed the other two. Waited to see what she’d do. We all sat as if frozen in place, voices stilled.

She emerged swiftly and fully from the blackening water of Ring Lake, as if the expanse of liquid lifted her up and up until her feet were shown good mud and rock to guide her across ground. Her stride was easy, fluid, the ankle-length dress of pale blue clinging to her beautiful form. She was not a delicate thing but towering. Even as I knew her to be Sophia, she seemed also a kind warrior to defend poetic-blooded kids like me, or maybe a sea goddess blessing the dead of Ring Lake. She had risen from the depths, then floated across a grassy knoll toward the small white chapel that had been made into her house.

“Oh…” Rufus managed, hand to head. “Man…”

“See? It’s just Miss Swanson…right?” Leanne whispered.

I felt a lump jumbled in my throat as my eyes followed her to the deck behind the white chapel house. She stood with head still, looking back in our direction. She moved across its width and seemed to be busy with something, arms lifting up. Then a soft flush of light broke open evening’s darkness, pulsing in the air. Then another and another, each light flaring and brightening as lanterns on poles were lit, seven in all.

And she was shining, oh she was shining among them. She stood there staring out over that wide, deep, swallowing-up lake. I didn’t think she saw me, though I hoped she did. I stood up tall, too, and waved as Leanne pulled at my shorts’ hems.

Sophia fluttered in a breeze, then gave an almost imperceptible bow, turned and entered her chapel house.

I held my breath as the boat drifted again. Rufus took the oars as I sat a few inches from a baffled Leanne. I wanted to let it sink in. Had Sophia seen me? Did she know how I believed in her? And what did I mean, anyway? A woman who couldn’t talk, a dancer, a swimmer in darkness. What could she mean to me, a girl she did not know. I felt like a sharp bright wind had blinded me a few hypnotic moments yet I saw it all. A peculiar wonderment, a courage that could be felt. To me it seemed that Sophia knew I had been able to know her for an instant, I mean like we can’t usually see people. Her muteness meant nothing to me. Her life felt so big. Good.

“She’s something else, huh?” Rufus said and his sister agreed.

Rufus was a strong rower and we made good time, leaving that world and renetering our own. We had been out longer than we’d expected. An hour had passed and we were greeted by cacophonous grown-ups and kids, a clot of scolding relatives that began to break apart when they saw us climb out the boat unscathed. But our shrieking mothers, my cousins’ father (restraining laughter) and Grandpa Curtis waited. Only Grandpa didn’t say too much.

“Okay, wild kids, take care of my boat in the morning. Pull her ashore, check her out, wipe her down for dry docking in the boat house. I’ll be inspecting things before you can go home.”

******

I peek into the hospital room. Mom motions to me the best she can; she has wires attached to her chest, an IV in her right arm and something clipped to her finger. An oxygen mask is close by. I am determined to not cry, not here, not yet. She had “only a medium-small heart attack”, she repeated when I held her close. She’s going to be alright now that they fixed the nearly closed artery but still, it’s harrowing to hear. I took a midnight flight and now here we are.

We chat awhile and she closes her eyes. I wonder what to do as she rests, then open my week-end bag and pull out the photos. I fan them out on the window ledge.

“What do you have there, sweetie?”

I show her reunion pictures, five in all. She smiles or frowns according to whom we’re pointing out; we gossip a little and muse over what changes the years have brought. Leanne becoming a urologist and Rufus, married with kids and a house restoration business. She especially likes the same one I do, the first one I decided to bring. Deena passed away four years ago in a car accident. I haven’t seen my cousins since the funeral. The lake house was sold twelve years ago. You can’t keep hold of the past once it has taken its leave, I think, but we try anyway.

“There she is with her ever-present peace sign flashing and that big laugh. Thank you, Jupe, for this.”

We are quiet a bit and I put aside the pictures.

“Mom, do you recall when Rufus, Leanne and I took out Grandpa’s rowboat? I was eleven. It was the last night of our reunion, everyone was around the bonfire though you were out back with Deena. The other kids were hanging around but I wanted to take the boat out. I convinced Leanne to come along.”

Mom blinks at me from her white, lined face. “You did…now I remember. You went to the Point.”

“Yes. You remember what I saw there?”

“Sure, Sophia in the lake.”

“But you never said much about it.”

“Well, I was relieved you were alright, you and your cousins. But, then, neither did you say much. No one did. We figured it wasn’t that thrilling, just a gadabout on Ring lake at nightfall.”

“Really?” I look at her more closely. Her expression is one of deep calm. “Yes, I saw Sophia in the water. She was like a mermaid, Mom. It was amazing to see her swim, like dancing with the lake. We didn’t know what to think. She was in a long dress but diving and twisting about and shooting up from the surface, swimming like something nearly inhuman. Luminous creature. Fabulous woman.”

Mom’s eyes hold mine and mine hold hers; she can imagine it as just as well as I can see it in my mind after all this time. She has a poet’s inner eye and I am her daughter.

“And then after she got out of the water, after she noticed us in the boat, she walked up to her deck and lit seven lanterns. It was as if she wanted us to know she knew we were there. That I was there. And they were so lovely glowing like that under the half-moon, in the folding darkness….I have never forgotten it, Mom.”

Mom turns her head to the window, her face soft with the sheerness of life and opacity of near death. As if she already left once but returned to have a good talk with me. She speaks to me, enunciating so I am sure to understand her.

“Sophia has been one who lights beacons for others. She hears a voice in the deep, then answers it with creations of beauty and hope. You always were one who moved beneath the surface even then, just like me, just like Sophia.”

She released a long ragged breath from pressed lips. I thought I should let her sleep but she kept on.

“Yes, we were friends in our way. Simpatico. She knew my poetry. I knew of her choreography and dancing.” She glanced back at me, eyes not fully open but clear. “But I saw her that very next day. At the gas station while you packed. She wrote it all down for me when I asked her if she was aware you were there. She said she had lit the lanterns for you–she had seen you coming in that boat. It was because you saw her and seemed to be not afraid of anything, not the darkness, not her muteness and her odd nighttime water dancing. Her way of making peace with things.” Her hand quivered, lifted as if trying to reach. “I wonder if I still have the little note from her. I put it in a book of Rilke’s poems, I think. She was rather famous, didn’t you know ? She said she expected fine creating from you.”

I crossed my arms over my chest, hands to shoulders to hold my mother;s words closer. “Oh…and I felt after that night at least two watched over me as I struggled and finally made it to the theater.”

“You truly did. We all require watching over, Jupiter, sweet dumpling…so we must do for others what we need to have done…”

Mom promptly fell asleep. I stayed on as shadows flattened themselves against the bland walls and floor. After awhile I took the photographs and arranged them in a small gathering around her so the family could keep an eye on her. In case I did not stay vigilant enough, God forbid, in case I finally felt afraid in the dark.

 

Life, in Pieces

lake with sun on horizon

Morning rearranges itself into something I do not recognize, all stitched together after night’s rending. Translucent greys and rough patches align themselves in random order. I see them through the screen window and shut my eyes. It is a heavy quilt this early hour, and my body hides beneath it. It would take so much to throw it off,  just to rise.

They say it is July but I wonder, even as I sweat beneath the light layer covering me. It could be January. It is cold as ice inside the places that I think. Inside the rocky cave that has a hollowed out corner just for me. Yet a pine branch still waves at me through the skylight above the bed. The brilliance I see could be the snow for all I care. It matters less, what is imagined or is not.

A brash–so confident–robin trills. A sharp intake of breath but no, I will it to leave me to the stillness beckoning. My hand lifts to block sultry rays that prove the misconception: yes, it is summer, the burden and beauty of it both rude and magnetic. Here comes that light, it flails against my face and shoulders as if thrown from Ring Lake from a bigger, ultra sun. If it is a net it will surely capture me.

No, I will not have this, I will not rise.

Still, the day takes me in its wrenching grip, whispers: be alive.

******

I hear her feet now. How they tread wood planks lightly, moving from one side of this renovated chapel-house to the other. Mia paces in the wake of morning, as I resist. Her hair, so like mine, will fall away from her face when the breeze catches it, finally, as she seeks the tenor of the day outside on our deck. An amber light will cling to its waves and curls, revealing an innocence put on hold. Daedalus, our German shepherd-husky mix, will stay at her side. They will scan the water, waiting for something to break the tension of its surface. A fish. A floating plant. A hand. Some sign of life.

I want to call him. Dae. He knows all things, is the secret keeper, and Mia is the one who cannot bear to know. Or I suppose. She has asked things; I have not answered.

What that night of loss would bring was suddenness, like the lightning that skewered the sky’s earlier benign blackness. We sank into the abyss of a life gone sour, beautiful ripeness spoiling in our hands.

Mia was not a witness. She was with her friend, screeching, then carrying on like children do in summer storms. Now her eyes tell me she, too, is hiding despite her body moving, mouth speaking. She is almost thirteen. Not a child anymore, she has said all year. No. Not now.

I will miss her more than she will me. My sister comes soon to keep her safe from all that has happened here, may yet come. Her leaving may collapse my house. My friends or strangers will pass by, see it standing, eye its ingenious re-design. History made contemporary before their eyes. It may look like a country chapel that morphed into a house. But it is changed by ruin, a place sinking beneath its own weight. Once, as we began, it nearly floated by water’s edge with laughter.

They will say, She is in there, the door is locked against the living– we must find a way in. They will ring the bell and Dae will bark and I will sleep the way the left behind sleep, without a moment’s forethought, or any saving desire. With a fondness for forgetting.

******

“Mom? Mom.”

She touches my hand, which has strayed beyond the sheet. My fingers lift to meet hers. Eyes blink, try to focus. She likes the braid my hair is in, is almost always in. It gingery length trails down the middle of my back. She tugs at it. Perhaps she thinks this will prod me upward and out of bed.

It makes me think of the bell tower that is still there, without a bell. How many hands rang that bell, how many worshipers did it bring? To kneel and offer thanks. Or how many did it save when it was rung to alert loggers and fur traders to emergencies so long ago? To muster bravery and resolve.

How archaic is such courage— that ordinary men and women would answer the call to put out a neighbor’s fire, I think as Mia repeats my name. Does this still happen? Would someone have come to help me when…?

The bed frame creaks, mattress dips as dog and child climb up.

I turn to face them both. Such eyes, both blue as the clear northern horizon. Hers’ are from her father. I turn my head, face the wall, see photos of another life hung there. Then I do the right thing and look back at them both. But I cannot eek out a smile.

“Why won’t you just talk? To me. To Rissa, your best friend? They all keep calling for you. You can’t stay silent forever. It’s been three weeks since Dad…since he d-drowned…”

Nothing leaves me now and only enters if I can make room for it. I perhaps can stay silent forever. But I will let you know.

“Aunt Janice is coming back tomorrow, as you know. I’ll be gone the rest of this summer, stuck in Vermont, stuck helping at their bakery, probably, with Lily. I mean, I love them but–all because you won’t talk yet.”

Her pleading voice carries through the room. I take her hand in both of mine. Pressed between my palms it feels light and smooth as a flower, making a soft impression I will not forget.

Mia lies down bedside me, and Dae beside her. We are three survivors, marred by loss. Dae sighs so loudly and wetly she almost giggles and I reach my arm around to her back, press her closer to mine; we are moldable as clay these days. Our dog companion sits up, leans his head across her shoulder, reaches to mine, lays his muzzle on my upper arm.

If I weep any more, I will dissolve entirely. But I pat his head appreciatively.

“Dae! You’re suffocating me–your breath is bad!” Mia says sternly, pushing him back behind her. He obeys.

Wait, please suffuse us with your kind loyalty and vigilant regard. Your canine acceptance of such sorrows. Our dire endings, our desperate need for beginnings.

******

Mia left me to Dae’s watch. He’s nudging me. Food. We all require it.

I swing up and onto the edge of the bed with caution, swift dizziness accompanying this movement, then settling. Toes touch the floor and there, my feet, calloused, sturdy dancer’s feet, find their places and stand without wavering and take me from the bed, out the doorway, down the stairs though my hand grasps the railing like a woman old before her time.

“You’re up!” Mia cheers with both fists pumping air. “It’s only eight o’clock.”

The first day up before mid-afternoon and I immediately think: Return at once to bed. Nothing good will last once I’m in motion. She will get her hopes up, this is too soon to hope of anything but bare basics.

But breakfast begins to make things seem more reasonable. Daylight scatters shadows. My hands at work feel heavy but decent. The aroma of bacon, eggs, bread toasting pulls me closer to a familiarity with gravity. Still, the sounds of that water outside slapping against the peninsular shoreline is like a warning. I cover my ears without thinking and Mia frowns at me sadly, closes the sliding door.

The possibility of an upright day unfolds. There is more. This is real, not just the interminable mourning and bed. Not just memories and denial of the present. We might walk, even. But perhaps not by Ring Lake. It is bright as a mirror today, will blind us.

Dae joins us under the table. He licks my bare feet. He knows how they can dance, he remembers my dancing that night, even. Danced even though Thomas could not bear it. My dancing: freedom, passionate happiness.

“Mom, remember how we used to love to ski? I think winter will feel better, we can snowshoe and ice skate and cross-country ski again, right?” She held her fork aloft, awaiting my response, the soft yellow mass quivering, then ate it. “If you are talking by then.”

I get up, pretend I need more coffee. I toy with the sugar bowl.

Muteness is not a choice! I want to yell. Your father chose. He let his despair and anger win out. He took control in ways you will never know. He created  a whole identity out of esoteric matters, charted them like tiny bits of data, then tossed the whole experiment out. A scientist at odds with his love of science. The pond life Thomas adored teemed with organisms that eluded him in the end. Like us.

I am not trying to speak or not speak, daughter. I am trying to stay alive.

When I turn, I almost say her name: Mia honey.

Dae’s head rears up as if he hears my thought, as if to say, You must speak now. But my voice was tossed about, torn out, lost that night. My eyes fill up then are dry of tears before Mia can see the truth on my face. I make a poor facsimile of a smile, bring us both coffee, open the sliding door to encourage the wind’s music entry in my home. She smiles back, lopsided as usual, but with lower lip quivering.

I will not let you take more from us, I tell the lake. Let all the knowns and unknowns you harbor settle on that murky floor of earth. 

But the lake is unassailable. Not a suspect. The lake is a bystander, and cannot take the blame.

******

The trees welcome us as we traverse our acreage. How can these be so grand and yet so humble? They have lived long, survived longer than any other. The oaks, elms, maples, birches and poplars and pines, even more. I once wanted to name them all. I have such abiding love for them it is a mercy just to walk between then, touch the bark, smell their green fecundity. My daughter and our dog scamper, finally given license to race and roam for no good reason with this bigger person close at hand. Safety is an illusion, I want to shout, enjoy it for now!

The big person: me, Sophia, known here in Snake Creek as Sophie Swanson. Six feet tall. That’s right. The one who looks as if she might conquer small territories but cannot speak of things that cannot be undone. A mother, once a wife, now a widow. A dancer who cannot now dance at all. A friend who cannot find a way to construct the bridge from grief’s too-rich anger to hope-filled caring, one small powerful movement forward that will end this isolation. Perhaps one day.

Well, I am up and out and walking with my family, anyway. I shut my eyes. Dae’s raucous barking, Mia’s high voice calling out to him. Leaves shaking their brilliant forms. Summer water pulling me like a lost dream, a possibility to re-enter another time. My long penny-bright braid stirs against my bare back so insistent heat of July reaches skin. Spills its warmth. I open eyes to see cerulean sky filling space between treetops. Lean against papery thin, peeling bark of a birch and feel something course up my legs, into my own trunk. A remembrance of strength. I shiver in the breeze as the gauzy dress flutters about my knees.

“Mom! Come see these wildflowers!”

I pick up the skirt, run toward them and just like that slip from sleepwalking into a little more agreeable wakefulness. Into a decent and surprising  moment of living.

I will probably somehow survive all this and Mia and I will find our way, I tell the birch grove as I leave it. Their leaves turn but do not disagree.

******

Before we know it, afternoon slouches around us.

Her reading, then disappearing to charge her cell phone and then to pack. Standing on the stairway, talking down at me. I hear her words, muffled syllables. I sit on the sofa by the cold fireplace wishing for fire. Wait for the landline to stop ringing.

“Mom! It’s Aunt Janice. She’ll rent a car at Haston’s airport and be here around noon tomorrow.”

She hands me the old-fashioned heavy, black phone, the one we found at the second-hand store after we moved in. A year and a half ago; time feels unfriendly, even vicious now.

“So, it’s all set, Sophia. We’ll have her the rest of the summer like we agreed and then…see how she is by early September. How you are.”

I’m better than that night, than the funeral, than the week after. I’m better now than this morning. Maybe you and our parents were wrong–I really can keep her here with me. With Dae and me. I should, I should!

“It’s so frustrating! You’re not even making one sound. I’m sorry, but this is all just…hard.”

I let out a sudden rush of breath into the mouthpiece and imagine its soft roar invading her ear. I want to laugh at her foolishness, not mine. Whose frustration is tantamount here? Who wishes to speak of even mundane things?

“Don’t be ridiculous, you know what I mean, Sophia.”

She coughs, whether to clear her throat or to pause her words, I’m not sure. Janice can be officious and prickly but she is also trustworthy and steady. I am the dancer, after all, she is the bakery owner and businesswoman.

The elegant wood clock on the mantel ticks like a metronome. Tiresome, like this talk. My foot taps air along with it. I want to say loudly as if she is deaf: my name is Sophie now, just plain Sophie.

“I’m really sorry, sister. It will all take time, that’s what they say. Whatever happened that night…maybe one day you’ll tell me. I just want you to get through this. You should come with Mia, but no you have to stay there. The scene of his death. That house once a chapel–so strange. You should never have moved, never bought it. Oh, Sophia, I do not understand what it all means. But we will do our best to support you. We love Mia so much.”

Do you still love me, though I failed to inform you of the gravity of our situation? I am the same woman as I was before, I have just been robbed. Though the robber paid, I am left nearly empty.

“So I’ll see you guys tomorrow. It’ll be good to just be with you an hour, then we have to catch our plane back.” She blows her nose.”Sorry, summer cold. I know Mia wanted to fly out alone but this is better.”

Right, you have to see what’s going on, report to the parents, I think with irritation. Granted, I am a silent sister and daughter now.

Dae jumps on the sofa, makes himself smaller, groans tiredly. Mia runs down with arms overflowing with last-minute laundry. How do I inform Janice I must go? I catch Mia’s eye, wave the mouthpiece in her direction. She drops the pile, grabs the phone as I get up and gather dirty clothes. Head to the washer and dryer. I hold up her shirts and tank top, hold it to my chest. I do not listen to their conversation. Mia will love Vermont, always has.

She will be free of the poison, that deep bruise of anguish that covers me without permission. She will not know my bitterness, the shame, the rage that have taken hold of me.

But I still love it here as much as I dread the thought of enduring each day without Mia. The rafters above, the idea of a choir in the great loft. The bell tower that waits for another bell. The woods and lake giving up stories. The sky crisscrossed with stars, planets, moon, sun. It is my home. Despite the money I will receive from Thomas’ estate, I do not want to leave.

“Will you be alright, Mom? If i go? I don;t want to, but everyone says it is for the best, how do I know? And well, maybe we can manage for a month…”

I take both her hands and we start to move in a circle like when she was a child and we felt like being silly for no reason, round and round until our heads spin and we fall onto the couch and lie there, staring at the ceiling.

“I love you,” she says, those tears again coming forth.

I take her face in my hands, kiss her soft pudding cheeks and she shrieks.

Will you be alright, Mia my beloved, in the hands of your aunt and uncle and cousin and grandparents? Yes, you will. But nothing feels certain anymore. We have lost our places. But we will find them once more even if we have to make up an entirely new sign language, our very own. Because that is how love works.

******

There will come a time when the thought of dancing will not send me into panic but liberate me. But I don’t know when. Maybe another life altogether.

I had been working on choreographing a new piece. I’d thought he was still in town enjoying dinner with one of our new friends. I was hoping his mood would be better and that he wouldn’t have drunk much beer or wine. And he appeared sober. But he was not better; he was not alright at all.

“What? You will not dance any longer!” Thomas yelled. “You are done for, too old for this, I don’t care how strong you still are or beautiful or talented! I am so weary of this, it’s taken so many of your years with me. When we moved from Boston, you agreed to leave your dance company behind, leave dancing with it. No, no more, Sophia–you must just be mine awhile! I have my breakthrough work started here. This is our family home now. It’s my turn!”

More was said between us, but it all blurs in parts of the brain that are so hard to reach. I do know leotards and costumes were found, yanked out of my trunk. Cut into jagged shreds, heaped in a pile like a funeral pyre. He turned away as I collapsed on the floor, then walked with purpose toward me, scissors in hand. I started to run, he blocked me, then to the corner of the loft as I wailed and the storm whirled about our chapel house, treetops and their limbs calling back to me in vain.

The rest, I cannot say. He made my soul jump out. And then he left and took the boat into the thunderstorm. So they say.

I couldn’t answer their questions. I was no longer able to speak so wrote what was remembered. It amounted to more and less than they expected. He was, after all,   my husband until the end.

******

We have eaten dinner outdoors, now linger on the deck out back as the vivid July sunlight wanes. I thought she would want to talk but the meal was quiet.

“Want to go down to the water?”

I look up sharply.

“We could watch the sunset.” She pets Dae, ruffles his ears, avoids looking at me.”We could walk along the shore awhile, all…all of us. I want to be able to think good things of the lake with us three.”

That beauty, that beast of Ring Lake. I take her hand and we–Dae dashing ahead and circling back several times– walk down the sloping yard toward water’s edge. Stroll along the shore as if this was any night, any moment.

******

As we walk, my memory works despite my resistance.

This lake-and-forest country was something Thomas always desired. He vacationed in northern Michigan as a youngster, later as an adult. A limnologist, he studied inland waters for environmental purposes, and pond life in particular. After teaching for thirty-five years, winning accolades, publishing, he looked forward to semi-retirement in this land of his youth. We could have lived anywhere. His old East coast family had money; he garnered more as the years rolled by. But this is where he wanted no, had to be, he said often.

I am–was– younger by fifteen years. I had my own intergenerational dance company, was a choreographer and well-known dancer. But he declared he must have this–for his depression to ease up, for his old age to begin serenely– and so I dissolved my company regretting every pained goodbye. I thought, anything to ease his bouts with bleakness that was then further fueled by scotch. And I was sooner to be forty-eight. 

I got a teaching position at the esteemed summer arts camp at the edge of our new home, the village of Snake Creek; I knew it might turn into more. Thomas was angry with me long before that fateful night. He was jealous of my devotion to dance, my success. Independence.

I loved him for his brilliance, sophistication and attentiveness. He said he loved me because I simply cared without reservations from the start,  and his money bored me at best.

He needed me more than I did him, ultimately; I see that now. And I failed him, perhaps. Perhaps. 

I had had such hope of more. How wrong to believe it would work out well, this move, our contradicting needs. So many changes. How foolish.

 Fatal.

******

Dae prances about by the water, takes a drink, then zigzags back. He sniffs the air, the earth at water’s edge, mouths a rock and drops it. Then backs up, turns around, running to me. I stop. The waves roll in. Mia squats near the water, draws with a stick within a stretch of sandy earth but I can’t see what.

The western tree line across Ring Lake and the sky above it hold a mix of chiffon-warm colors, almost liquid as they spread. The air is humid, still too close to hot; the water is likely almost lukewarm. I inhale deeply the loamy scent of plants, mud, wet stones, lake water. It’s one I have need of, as much as forests and four seasons. As Thomas did. On that we did agree.

Dae is whining and circling me. I kneel beside him, store his great head. I never knew where he went that night, if he followed Thomas outside.

I know, it wasn’t  far from here, it was the island, they found him near Stump Island. His private haven.

We know so little of what someone really thinks or can do. We think we know, we live with a person, love, share, make it through toughest turns and boring times. Cheer each other on and raise a victory glass to each achievement and moment of bliss. And still there are those loose ends. There are subtle and bigger lies and misfired words and heartless nights in a wide, too empty bed.

You were there, Dae, I don’t know what I would have done without you.

That night, I saw him there, afterward. That much I knew for sure. His howling, his standing guard, his stalwart presence by even when the police came.

Daedalus wriggles free, runs to a clump of bushes by the stony beach. He roots for and grasps something with difficulty, then trots up to me. I open my hands, then draw back and look at him. He drops it at my feet, panting, blue eyes steadily holding my gaze.

“What’s he found?” Mia asks, suddenly beside me.

I touch the cold steel, plastic blue handles. The scissors, the scissors Thomas wielded.The blood now gone, of course, blood from the wound made on my upper back as he tried to cut my braid. The one I wrapped tight with a towel and pulled my loose robe over so no one would see it. That and all the rest that was done. And got cleaned up, stitched up in the city a half hour away early the next morning with my dearest friend, Rissa. She tried to get answers but I was not able to tell her, nor the doctor. 

That five-inch wound Mia doesn’t know about–my hair covers it–with all the other ugly details. And never will. I shrug so she won’t think anything of it. Maybe she won’t recognize they are the ones long kept in the desk drawer in the loft.

“Oh, I know those, those are ours. That’s odd.”

She picks them up, opens and closes them. I shudder. They don’t work well now. I look over the nearly still lake. The cooling breeze is elsewhere, I could pass out for lack,of oxygen.

“I guess we must have used them for something out here, yeah, maybe when I was making flags for our deck for…oh, Mom, the fourth of July…when Dad and I….when we were planning our party? The one we didn’t get to have.”

Her face crumples and I pull her to me. Let her moan again. I toss the object as far as I can. Dae picks up the scissors’ handle with his teeth, trots farther down the beach, just drops them. When he returns Mia’s head is on my shoulder, mine on top of her frizz. She takes my braid in her hand, squeezes it. I can tell, her grasp is tender, the sensation moves to my head. I blink back my own tears but fail. How can she go to Vermont? We both know it’s best for awhile. I

I am not well; she is lonely and lost.

“Why did he have to go out in that storm and just drown?” she asks for the hundredth time. “Why did he leave us?”

I almost respond,  words bubbling in my throat. They stall on my tongue. It is more like a tiny shush that slips from my lips. I don’t think Mia can even hear it. I am rocking her back and forth, back and forth while Dae lies apart with head on outstretched paws, watching the waves, the last of the sunset or maybe the oncoming darkness. This is the smallest of moments, one wedged in between millions of others. But it is one that will come back to me the time she is gone: Mia in my arms, trusting I will be more available again for her and the steely blue water flaring, afire with light and last heat as it slides away from us until morning. A morning I dread.

Her father seems near at times and now I look about and  stir. Dae’s head lifts, his ears pricked but it is nothing, only my uncertainty, a fear I never had before. This strange brew of sadness, longing and anger that makes me reel. I have much to do for my daughter. For myself. Language needs to surface, make for itself a new voice. But for now I am caught in the resonant core of silence, cannot yet leave it.

The three of us are bone tired. Twilight limns treetops and silvers the softly undulating lake. We find ourselves resting in a tentative ease. Taking in the music of Ring Lake, another woodland night settling like an old shawl about us.

 

[Dear Readers: This post about Sophie Swanson is part of a novel I am slowly re-developing. Tentatively titled Other Than Words,  it  was first completed a few years ago. An excerpt was then published and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Still, the entirety needs a lot of work. Any comments would be helpful if you care to share them. Another chapter from the male protagonist’s viewpoint was shared this here: https://talesforlife.wordpress.com/2016/01/11/other-than-words-an-excerpt/  It tells how Cal Rutgers feels about his life as a photojournalist and his first encounter with Sophie. Thank you for taking the time to get a glimpse into Sophie’s story!]