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

(Courtesy of Pexels; photo by Wendy Wei)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you four up to later?”

“What could you possibly mean, TZ?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The odd rhyme was repeated loudly, almost yelled out:

“Four spirits move–into the night,

ghost beings–made of anger and fright,

and Thomas arrives –for Halloween,

Thomas Swanson–go to your queen!”

Sophia stumbled backwards.

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

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

Shortly there came before her one she knew so well.

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

She gathered Sophia into her strong young arms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What room, then, and how much?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not around here, then.”

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

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

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

“I’m Lettie, welcome to my place.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You look a tad familiar, is all.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

******

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lettie already brief you?”

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

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

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

“I have surely never been here.”

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

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

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

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

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

******

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

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

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

“Thought I’d find you down here.”

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

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

“Meredith Kane.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Maybe. You don’t know me.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Lessons from Cottage Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why don’t you swim, Mom?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.