(Published in the Red Rock Review, Summer 2001: Honorable Mention for Mark Twain Award for Short Fiction)
The moon pressed into the lake that night—the surface of the water placid as sleep. There were no noisy boats cutting up, only the guttural chorus of frogs, and their ballooning lungs. A lone woman sat in a nylon ribbed lawn chair, her face toward the lake. One gathered she was waiting for someone by the way she shifted her head this way and that, throwing glances over her lovely shoulder. Her longing hung in the moss-quilted trees, draped itself across the lawn. Lights shone on the other side of the lake. Like lanterns, they cast their warm appeal and the night had a golden feel.
I had just stepped onto the front porch of the cottage and was about to take my place in a chair by the lake, but upon approaching where the Silent Woman sat, caution warned me. From the shadows, there was no certainty I had seen her before. New, I surmised, to these parts. Her fingers quilted pleats in her shirt. She had a bun at the back of her head. A schoolmistress perhaps. An air about her made me renege on returning up the cottage steps to put myself back to bed. My parents expected I was fast asleep. Instead, I tiptoed closer, hid behind lilac bushes. I was the Nancy Drew of mystery and my dream was to solve the unexplained. At twelve, this was my consuming desire.
The New England air was sweet—rich in the right mix of hemlock, birch, pine and damp earth. In looking back, I should have bottled that smell, kept it handy so that I could pull it out whenever my life needed sprucing up. For a very long time, I watched her from my grandmother’s summer place. Some of the vacationers that yearly summered at the lake had no beachfront so my grandmother allowed them to use the property adjoining hers. This must explain the Silent Woman’s presence.
She had something I needed to know. My legs became wood. For the first time, as I stood there watching her, I was quite certain I had grown from the ground like the birch, my skin white as bark on its trunk and branches.
The Silent Woman put something down. Was it a journal and pen? Was she the pastor’s wife, the one we heard suffered terrible bouts of delirium? There was nothing terribly unusual about her, just a silence that cloaked her. She removed her shoes, slowly made her way into the lake. Only the slippery sound of water issued forth as she cautiously stepped over the rocks.
Was she going to give herself to the water? Horrid thought I almost said aloud. What perverse jackal sat at my heart wanting to see how far she would go? The Silent Woman took off her shirt, threw it casually onto the beach; bangles on her arms clinked against each other. She next removed her bra and tossed it too. This woman made lovelier by moonlight, bent to cup her piano player hands, splashing water onto her face, under her arms. It was as though she were rounding up the water, holding it to her nose to breathe memory back.
I parted the bushes so I could see her. She seemed to care little whether her rolled-up-jeans were wet. Perhaps a lover was quietly whispering in her ear, his lips brushing aside wisps of hair. I imagined secrets between them. The water she stood in was full with the fierce attenuation of the moon.
What could I, at my age, have known a grown woman to think as she stood knee deep in the water? No, she could not possibly be the pastor’s wife. She was too graceful for that. We heard his wife was crazier than a loon. She threw a frosted cake at the judge’s face and then proceeded to husk down every inch of clothing in public and pranced about on the lawn of the Elks. This woman was not in the least like what I had heard of the poor pastor’s wife. She was softer, and quieter.
The Silent Woman inched several feet further into the water. I held my breath. She stopped right at the spot where the drop-off abruptly bent into its darkened delirium. She must be well versed in the lay of this place, I thought, or she would have most certainly stepped into a sharp descent. I could almost see her arms, oars fighting their way up to the heavens, and the terrible whirl of water that would issue forth as she sank. However, she did not.
Her memory seemed stoked by the moon, and she carried her memory in her entire body. I had seen that before in aunts who barely spoke because memory and grief so filled them—each finger of their hands, a departed family member. I could hear the lives of others living in her. I strongly suspected she had sisters. She looked like a woman wrapped in the arms of siblings. She was familiar with her womanhood—the ease of its grace moved within her. This clued me she was most certainly from a family of daughters; sisters making sisters, participating in the creative art of being.
Oh woman of the water what do you think as you head back to your chair? Do you know that I, dressed in my twelve-year-old-eyes, have been watching you as you watched whatever you saw out on that lake? The woman lifted the towel and patted her underarms, tilted her head to dry her face. She then reached behind her head, undid the bun; a windfall of hair fell over her shoulders.
I imagined her sisters like mine, tall and willowy. That’s it I thought. She has lost her sisters to the water. Several years back there was a terrible boating accident. The man at the helm of the motor boat was drunk and he made a sharp turn, catapulting the occupants, himself included, all of whom drowned. No way would I swim in the lake after that. I imagined their hair tying up my feet, their hands like wet powder puffs brushing against my legs. For nights, after hearing my relatives speak of this, I got no sleep. From the depths of the water, I saw their watery lives; the way dance would be a constant state of being as they moved with the current. So far as I knew not one body ever surfaced from the lake’s depths. I imagined that if one had it would look much as a cookie soaked in tea.
The loons on the other side of the lake rendered the night more memorable, their plaintive calls thick as mystery. Loons had always been my favorite. ”You’re a reclusive child,” my aunts would say, ”Just like the loons across the lake.“
What is this? The Silent Woman is putting a note in a bottle, capping it with a cork. Again, she’s wading out past the dock. Swinging her arm she tosses the bottle, but not too far. I hear it splash down. Returning to the shore she folds her chair, her towel hung around her neck. The Silent Woman leaves. She simply vanishes into the night and is no more.
Curious. I am curious. With my flashlight in hand, I edge into the water. The stones seem to move under my flashlight and they look more vivid than in daylight. The frame of the dark world enhances them to the point they seem alive. Fish the size of my little finger fan out from my trespassing. I do not venture far into the water. There is a point beyond which nothing prompts me further. Remember, I am afraid of the drowned, that they might reach up and touch me with their death. I catch sight of the bottle. Waves let me pass. Holding back my hair with the ring of my forefinger and thumb, I reach down; retrieve the bottle the Silent Woman tossed.
Back on the beach, I wiggle myself into the accommodating sand. I hurry to remove the cork, take hold of one corner of the note, and slip it free from the bottle. I am spying on someone else’s life. I know this. The water placid as sleep, and the moon, like a saucer, simply floated. With my hand, I smoothed out the note—my flashlight studious. What is this? What does it say? For a moment, I held my breath, as those lost to the water must have done.
To the One Who Watched me From the Shadows:
I saw you spying on me from the bushes. The hot coals of your eyes warned me of your presence. I was, like you, once a child in the land of the moon coming down the mountains. I also watched a woman as you have watched me. My sisters and I picked Indian PaintBrushes and the illusive Ladyslippers, illegal to pick, but irresistible nonetheless. This was our favorite childhood place. The world was a circle then, and we were the center of that circle. Now my eyes fill with the labor of loss, forever searching for what has gone. My sisters will not return. Enjoy what you have. Time is a slow memory moving out—it is the boat disappearing in the fog.
In the way of care,
It has been years since I spied on the Silent Woman. I kept her note and the bottle. She is probably dead, or, at the least, very old. I often go back to the lake of my childhood. My sisters are still alive. On moonlit nights, nights of the moon coming down the mountain, I make a wreath of my arms and wrap myself in them. I often wonder if the Silent Woman’s sisters are still in the lake, if they blow bubbles with their soft mouths.