Far Side of the Lake
Fiction - Third Place
She was the first to walk me down there, trundling behind my gawky big sister. She used to order us not to skate at the far end of the lake because it was deeper and a current ran toward the falls. She said it would never have thick enough ice. But I heard her tell the single neighbor man once why she really didn't want us going there. That's where that woman drowned, that crazy woman. That weird hippie. Drowned herself on purpose. Wrapped in things she made, like a mummy. Dyed cloth, like some Arab woman dressed in rainbow-colored clothes. Thought it was bad luck or something, pushing fate to skate over where a woman drowned. My brother and sisters and I stayed where we were told to.
My friend from school talked about the woman later. He always knew everything. Used to tell me stories when we went to the lake to hide out and drink beer. We liked that far side because it was more isolated and because no police cars could come there and say we should be in school. My friend told the same story as my mom but with more details. Said the woman drowned herself because of a man. Said people always do like that. She loved the man so much, and they were together. Found out the man went to live with his wife when he went to another city every two weeks. Had been telling the woman it was business. Told her the truth when he returned home for good. The woman who drowned wanted to have a baby with him before that. Went crazy, went to the lake instead.
It was the first girl I loved who told me the woman drowned the year I was born. My girl was a folklorist at the museum. She studied stories of the city for fun. She said it was real, that a woman did drown there, but after 25 years, the story had become as wild and varied as a fairy tale. She said the woman was pregnant, according to the legends, or that she killed the man's wife and made the body look like herself. Said people went looking now for her ghost, looking for the billowing rainbow cloths appearing in the water. She said all the versions have the rainbow-cloth wraps. She and I walked that far side, and my girl said she had once crawled on the ice to look for the woman's face beneath it. She was a believer in spirits, or at least she hoped.
My mother died from smoking a year ago, drowned in her own way. My school friend still hides out and drinks beer, but like me and the story of the woman, he is 35 now, so he should not have to hide. He's drowning too. The first girl I loved became sad, so sad that she didn't care anymore for folklore. She moved to the mountains to try to find a cure. People drown all the time, it seems. Some people drown and still wake up every morning.
There was another with whom I walked the lake. My last story-sharer, the second girl I loved. I took her to the far side not long after we met. Told her about the woman, a simple version I liked to tell myself. Beautiful woman, broken heart, madness, drowning in colors. The second girl was a reader and told me about Ophelia. I said they were the same. She liked that. We always came here looking for the floating cloth, but more often we told new stories or I told her about everyone else, those who also knew the lake. The place had never seemed so joyful.
But my second lover is gone now, gone today. Gone yesterday and the day before. Three days gone back to the place she claims to belong. Snow has fallen like it has not in years. I told her once that we used to skate the lake, but she did not believe me. She had never seen cold in my town. Now a week of cold, two days of snow, and her three days gone. I sit alone in my room on top of the hill, up from the lake looking at it and thinking of the cold. I sit too long inside and I sicken. Bananas in a bag grow overripe fast. They work on themselves. In no time, they are black and rotten, no good to eat.
I bundle up like when I was a child. Boots, gloves, cap. Make my way down to the lake and walk the shore to the far side. The entire lake is thickly covered in snow, but here there are circles without any whiteness, damp dark well mouths many feet across. I stand alone and look at this place, and in the middle, near the falls, I see a dark spot shaped like a huge cocoon. Shaped like a woman wrapped in cloth.
I step onto the ice and break through to the bottom. Ice is always thin at the edge of the lake because the ground keeps it warm. I step further out and feel cracking, but it holds, so I push off my other shore-bound foot and stand on the lake. Mom would have had my hide. I shuffle toward the middle slowly, looking back to see my tracks turn black from the water at the surface of the ice.
At the spot, I kneel in the snow at the edge of the dark. There is ice. It is clear as glass, clearer than water could ever be. The water below it is pitch black. No light can get into the lake when it is coated in snow. I stare down into the ice looking for the face of the woman. I see the last wisps of the fleeing snow clouds there. I see myself. But no woman. The sun is on my back, and I can tell it will warm today. The area where I am kneeling has joined the cocoon in wet darkness. Still I can see no face, so I scoot over the shape, slowly. I look and look, and there comes a face, not hers and not mine. There is that face and then another face and another and another, four faces in succession, floating up and showing themselves to me before drowning again and transforming into the next. They turn under the ice like the turning seasons, one after the other in order. My legs are soaking wet, my back is hot from the sun. I watch them come again and again, and the cocoon expands and the water builds around my now-numb hands on the ice. The last face, the fourth, holds beneath the surface for longer than the others. It holds and I stare at it and it holds, and then it is gone and I am looking at myself. Then a strange face appears in mine, a woman's face, and the cocoon fills with color and I drown.
John Stinson is a Baltimore native and a teacher at Johns Hopkins University. His stories have appeared in Glimmer Train, Berkeley Fiction Review, and other magazines.
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201