Lady of the Lake
Ten on the cusp of eleven, the soles of her feet tender and white, Vivian knew about sidewalks and parks, not the wilderness. Her father drove up to her mother’s bare San Francisco apartment in the Red Dog, a truck that had once been red and once been a Dodge. But having lost a “d” and an “e,” was now just a dog. He wore his black beret, for Fidel, he said, and talked about farm workers and political assassinations and starting a screen-printing business in Colorado. Her mother, dizzy with dreams of Jesus, no money to buy shoes, relinquished Vivian and her little brother to the Red Dog for the summer. But only the summer.
“If he doesn’t bring you back, that’s kidnapping,” she hissed in Vivian’s ear, then stuffed a cross in her pocket, sending her out the door with her clothes in a garbage bag. “You’re a child of God, don’t forget. And don’t do that weird thing you do.”
That weird thing. If Vivian was weird, she was a chip off the old block. Her father had built a life on weird. Perpetually nomadic, one summer a dockhand, another year a bouncer, always printing t-shirts that failed to sell. At first, while she was stuffed in the back of the camper with her brother, taking the scenic route to Grand Lake, Colorado, Vivian didn’t understand these new rules. Which were no rules at all. No prayers, no sitting in silence, no confessing of sins, real and imagined, no endless reading of that book.
They stayed at her aunt’s house in Grand Lake, a rustic rental in a vast forest of pines, overgrown Christmas trees, forest floor rough with boulders and sharp brown needles. A labyrinth that scared her the first morning she explored. If she walked far enough, she found small cabins housing men who did not want to be found, abandoned shacks falling down, a fire pit with charred bones, from what, she didn’t know.
But her aunt’s house was crowded, and they slept in sleeping bags on the basement floor, squeezed in next to cousins she’d never met. With nothing to do inside, a maddening boredom set in, until finally her father said they were going to explore the lake. A field trip of sorts.
So they went, up the road, under a canopy of pine. Air spongy with soil and mildewed bark, turning to something danker, foul even. Rotten eggs. Sulfur. The lake was more like a swamp, Vivian realized, as it came into view. A flat plane of lily pads, the pale green of tree snakes, umbrellas for the fish that swam below. The lily pads seemed like magic carpets she might ride, float away to the middle of the lake. In the distance, where the water cleared of plants, a small island beckoned. It seemed close enough to swim to, although her father said it was miles away. Vivian’s pulse hurried as speckles of sunlight bounced off the island.
She could reach it, she knew.
“Bet I get there first!” One of her cousins, tan as tea, splashed in. Vivian’s little brother, pigeon-toed, quiet, unless he cried, sat down on the swamp’s bank.
“Go play.” Her father laid on a beach towel with his six pack of Schlitz, in his revolutionary beret, long brown hair in waves past his shoulders. His goatee hovered between Colonel Sanders and Lucifer, but a smile that, when given, was the glint of light on water.
Vivian’s stomach rumbled with unanswered dreams of lunch. Revolutionaries did not worry about things like cheese sandwiches and potato chips. They drank “vino” and beer and smoked pot and talked about Che Guevara.
Vivian took one gingered step into the swamp, then another. Her mother would say this place was impure. Cold, squishy rot between her toes, water dark, a snarl of roots. What nobody tells you about lily pads is all that lies beneath the surface, neither elegant nor ethereal. Just muscle and sticky black slime. Vivian slowly advanced, her fingers running along the velvet green pads, flowers floating in the air, like artichokes after steaming, thick petals, sharp tips.
She moved up to her waist, wearing an oversized t-shirt of turkeys standing on top of a man. The caption said, “Don’t let the turkeys get you down.” Her father’s design, another shirt printed and unpurchased. Her long sandy hair dragged the water’s surface, eyes an icy blue that made adults uneasy.
“Stop that. You’re making me nervous,” her mother would say when Vivian looked at her for too long. Maybe her mother didn’t like what Vivian saw. The bare apartment, the single bag of brown rice in the cabinets, the thin mattresses on the floor.
Vivian couldn’t bear the thought of going back. So she moved toward the island, a place where a beautiful lady must live, among apple trees, she imagined, free of the rot and ruinous black mud Vivian now stood in.
For a long while, the water remained level, and she moved far from the shore, still waist-deep, lost track of her cousins, feet sliding and slipping over thicker roots, a squirming sense of wrong in the mushy silt, a shameful penetration in the squelching. A ripple disturbed the water. A slit of fear in her belly, and she looked back, couldn’t see her father or brother. She was alone now. As we all are. Although at ten, there are illusions to buffer this.
Vivian’s illusions were thinner than most. The breeze stilled. The birds stopped calling. There was a peculiar type of quiet that came on her when she was in danger, a gaze on the back of her shoulder, pebbling her neck. She felt it now, as if some shadowed creature stood behind her, watching, warning. But she must press forward toward the island. The lady there wished to be found.
Vivian stepped one step further than she should have. The lake bed dropped down by several feet. The water, chilled by the clean current of the lake’s center, turned clear. She saw her feet, white and soft, the roots she’d been walking among decorated with pursefuls of toad eggs, viscous and squirming. Little fish like switchblades turned in unison by some secret signal. She sank up to her chest, feet sliding away. The lily pads sunk under the weight of her hands. She slipped down. Her feet and toes searching for something steady, only managed to wedge themselves into a crevasse of roots, now up to her shoulders in the water.
She didn’t make a sound as the lake took her under, her face only a few inches from the surface, but a few inches is all it takes. She saw the light filtering through the water’s skin above her, thick stalks of lilies shooting up into the air, their blossoms as big as salad bowls, saw oxygen bubbles clinging to the dark underside of the lily pads, and their descent into a nest of viperous roots.
Don’t panic, Vivian told herself. It took only a second for her foot to be tangled, it would take only a second to undo it.
She reached for the roots, tugging, oxygen dying in her lungs.
He will not save you.
A face floated in front of Vivian now. Pale as snow turning blue in the dusk, eyes and lips the shadowed edge of a glacier. The lady floated, torso visible under a dress of thin white webbing. The lady looked, and saw the whole of Vivian. Lost, forgotten, stomach waning for lack of food, parents on fire with politics and God, Fidel Castro, Jesus.
He will not save you.
The lady smiled, and the pale of her lips turned black inside, her mouth a cruelty. Vivian saw what it would be. A quiet settling to the silt, taken by the roots, consumed by them. By the time her father realized she was gone, by the time emergency workers came, her body would be lost in a graveyard of lilies, eyes open, a dirge by tadpoles and minnows playing for the drowned.
If you want to live. You must fight, the lady dared Vivian. Teeth sharp in her smile. Nail tips black and razored. Something familiar about her. Something the same.
Her eyes are my eyes, Vivian thought.
Where is your blade? the lady whispered.
Vivian saw something glinting. A small knife by her feet, perhaps dropped by a fisherman, lying there so long that the roots had grown around it, as if it was part of them. She grabbed it, pulled as hard as she could, until it came loose, then thrashed at the roots around her ankle, fought them, broke them. In her haste, she slashed even at her own skin, a bloom of blood in the water. With a cry, she crushed upward, mouth like a fish, gaping, gasping, sucking in air.
As carefully as she’d made her way there, she blindly crashed back to shore, ripping at lily pads, bruising the necks of the flowers, roots cracking under her heels.
She’d always known what it meant to hide. Now she knew what it meant to fight.
“You get to the island?” her father asked, two beers down.
Vivian shook her head.
“Told you.” Her father laughed.
Her little brother looked at her bloody foot and then up at her, questioning. Then he blinked as he saw the knife.
Don’t tell, she thought, and folded the blade back into its handle, slipped it into her pocket.
They never returned to the swamp. And Vivian never told. Revolutionaries don’t cry about near drownings or starvation or sleeping bags on the floor. Instead, she played in the woods, left alone the whole of each day. She found all of its secrets, its feathers and rocks and small insects, the dried rattle of a snake, mushrooms turning to black tar.
She dissected spider webs with twigs, shimmied up the tall trees until the branches were too weak to hold her. She grew dizzy with the view of unending treetops. Looking into that infinity, Vivian wondered if the trees felt lonely, to be one lost among so many.
When she came home at night, her aunt sometimes asked what she’d done during the day. Vivian never said. This was the weirdness her mother so hated, that Vivian kept her own secret thoughts, her own sense of what was holy and what was not, something hard in the core of her that could not be deceived by their words.
Over the course of the summer, the skin of her feet toughened, her skin turned brown from the sun. She kept her knife in her pocket, lost her cross somewhere in the wilderness.
“Your mom won’t recognize you when you go home,” her father said. But Vivian couldn’t think about going home.
The swamp was not the “grand” lake in Grand Lake. A half-hour drive from the house, a small town sat on the edge of the real lake. A grey pier pierced far into its center, surrounded on three sides by trees. Behind it, a small road with a florist shop that her aunt ran, and an old west store with penny candy, although she had no pennies to buy any of those wondrous jeweled things. And the pinnacle of the summer, the Buffalo Barbecue, with burgers made of bison.
Her father screen-printed t-shirts for it. “The Barfalo Bubacue,” his shirts said. And not a single one sold.
It was the lake, not the comically small town, that held their affections. Large and flat, the blue of crayons, just enough of a pebbled beach to seem like Vivian was back in California, in love with light playing on the Pacific. They delighted in running a circuit, feet slamming against the warped boards of the pier, out to the edge, shrieking, leaping, crashing down, touching off the bottom of soft plants, then forging out of the lake, to start over again. No bathing suits. Just shorts and t-shirts. Revolutionaries didn’t buy bathing suits, although Vivian wished they would.
Her father stayed on the shore, stoned, with a cold beer in his hand. His legs stretched out, in theory a lifeguard.
Grinning, staring into space, occasionally waving at them, like they were strange aliens in an unlikely movie he was watching.
Even on overcast days, they went to the lake. Until it was the last day, before the flight home to California. The sky crept up on them, clouds silver and cottoned when they went into the water. But over the course of an hour, the dome of light above them darkened, fat drops of rain plunking like stones. Still they dove in, ran back over the pier, now dark with wet footprints, through the thick, warm air, leaping in. Vivian knew when they left the lake, she would be on a plane, her clothes in a garbage bag, back to San Francisco.
Her father called out something about lightning, gesturing for them to come back to shore.
He will not save you.
Vivian heard the lady’s voice. Hadn’t seen her since the start of the summer, searched the lake’s surface buckshot with rain, shaken by the brutal crash of thunder.
“You better come in. You’ll get in trouble.” Her cousin ran back to the beach. Her little brother looked up at her, questioning.
Vivian saw the lady’s face there, just under the water, white hair floating around her like a wedding veil.
On the shore, her father gestured for Vivian again.
The lady’s smile turned black. You’ve grown wild. Can you go back?
Vivian’s toes gripped the edge of the dock. Dark clouds like gatherings of black birds called her to fly away. What did her parents know of the glimmer of sunlight on water, raven feathers on the forest floor, quicksilver orbs clinging to the underside of lily pads? Nothing. They didn’t understand, and never would, the whole of the strange, secret world that lived in Vivian’s chest like the marbled infinity of a penny candy. The lady in the lake beckoned, smiling her dangerous smile.
Her eyes were Vivian’s eyes.
“Arthur, here.” She took the knife from her pocket and tossed it to her brother. He would need it.
In the silent threading of lightning through the air, Vivian’s toes pressed off the dock. As the electricity hit the lake, there was the recoil of a snake, then the water itself aflame with blue fire. She leaped, lifted as she was, into a field of light.
Silver Webb is the editrix of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal. She is a food writer for Food & Home and various Websites. Her poetry and fiction have been featured in Peregrine, Hurricanes & Swan Songs, and is forthcoming in Delirium Corridor, Still Arts Quarterly, and Running Wild Anthology of Stories, Vol. 5.
Bienvenue au Danse, Silver!