By Sarah Wheeler Hedborn
This is a tale told by women:
In the middle of the lake, so distant from the shore it is barely noticeable if you aren’t looking straight at it, the water parts just a little, sending ripples around the tiny creature that has poked its head out of the deep. Only if you are watching carefully will you see it emerge again, this time leaping into the air, taking a great gulp of the scent of the forest, a full view of the forest. It is the MotherFish, who is still recognizable as a woman. The curve of her belly, the softness around her gills, the gentle calm of her eyes, the surprised O-shape of her mouth all tell us who she is.
This is the tale told by the town:
When the 911 call came into the police station, no one was particularly surprised. It happened every so often that a stranger unfamiliar with the lake would wander in too deep, that a cat would run off the end of a pier, that a drunken teenager would be cajoled into jumping by his friends. And the same result would happen each time. The sheriff would heave himself out of his chair with a guilty sigh, pack himself into his patrol car, and speed off to the scene to find the stranger rescued by locals, the cat wrapped in a towel and yowling in its owner’s arms, or the teenagers fleeing the shore, leaving beer cans in their wake.
What was surprising was that the call was about a child. Most people knew better than to let their children near the lake. They told little boys and girls that Lake Jenny ate children who wandered too close to the shore. Pets, teenagers and strangers were a whole other story. Pets could take care of themselves, while the lake spat out bitter teenagers, and was wary of strangers, who were usually just as wary of it. But children were naive, curious, sometimes foggy as to their intentions; whether they wanted to touch the slick surface of the waves or scoop buckets full of water was always uncertain. So parents lied to their children. And the children grew into teenagers who despised and feared not just Lake Jenny, but all water everywhere. Teenagers grew into paranoid adults who knew better, but who lied anyway and told their children the same stories.
This is the tale told by the lake:
It is cold, the depths are cold. The water is greenish, brownish, bluish, light filtering through seaweed and bouncing off the sandy lakebed. The lakebed is hard and rocky and old. No one has seen the very center of the lake. The floor there is older than the trees and darker than the sky in the blackest night. There is an undertow, a drop-off. It is not evil, or selective. It is a natural part of the landscape of the lake. This drop-off is sharp and sudden, sooner than the people of the town realize. It comes quickly when they wade into the water, so quickly that they say it comes for them. The water is heavy and dark. The seaweed is thick and slimy, and clings persistently through no fault of its own. It drags them down, traps all but the fish who know their way through it, whose scales are sharp enough to cut through the thick choke of weeds. The rocks are all unique. Some are shiny, some sharp, some smooth, some light. Some are embedded deep in the sand, while others jut out to slice the unwary foot. Some hide leeches; some rocks serve no purpose at all. The fish are plentiful as there is much to eat, to live on in this lake. The life here is full, busy, yet tranquil. The lake is the way it was made to be. It has no fault. It is only what it can be. It only does what it was created to do. It is not evil; it is not selective. It is only a lake.
This is the tale told by the town:
What was surprising was that when the sheriff arrived at Lake Jenny, there was no sign that anything was wrong. The lake did not look like it had just swallowed a boy. The trees surrounding the banks did not seem disturbed by the calls of a child panicked by the water’s force or temperature. The birds were not silenced by the groan of the water's gulping. The surface of the lake glimmered and sparkled so brightly in the sun like nobody had ever disturbed it. Even the thin ring of sand at the water's edge showed no defacement by the small footprints of the child.
"What's happened here?" the sheriff said to no one in particular. And because the lake was so still and peaceful, he half expected no one would answer.
"Tyler boy's in the lake," muttered a male voice.
The sheriff glanced around him for the owner's voice and was then aware of the tight group of adults standing two feet back from the water's edge. They were men and women, some young, some old, but not one of them was a Tyler.
"Mrs. Tyler doesn't even know yet," said another voice, as if they were all thinking as one and knew the sheriff's next question before he did.
"Mrs. Dziedzic ran to get her." This was a woman's voice, high and tremulous with emotion unlike those around her.
"Has anyone gone after him yet?" The sheriff asked this, but he already knew the answer. "Did anyone see him go in?" the sheriff asked when he knew no answer was coming.
One of the group, a youngish woman, tiny and shaking, pointed to the left and behind them another several feet away. There in the shadows of fir and elm, and oak and pine, glowing white among the shades of deepening green, was a small knot of children, some young, some old. Their eyes blinked at the sun dappling the darkened forest, and they wavered as if being pulled deeper inside, as if they didn't want to come out. Because the sheriff knew the forest was no better than the lake, he walked quickly to the children and pushed them into the light. They gasped as if the air had changed along with the light.
"We didn't do it," one of them said.
"We didn't do it," the rest echoed, but they didn't answer the sheriff because they didn't know what he was thinking.
"I didn't ask that," the sheriff said.
"He went by himself," said a girl at the back of the group. She was short and thin and scrubby-looking. Her face was scrunched into a frown, her voice clear and strong. "He went in there all by himself, Mikey did. He did so," she said indignantly.
"I didn't ask that," the sheriff repeated.
"Well, that's how it happened," the girl said. She was younger than most of them, maybe 8, maybe 10. "That's how it happened."
"Did anyone go after him?" the sheriff asked the children.
"Uh-uh," muttered the group, not in unison, voices echoing off one another, bouncing back and forth through the group. The sheriff assessed the group of children and knew they were as skittish as they were cautious.
"Stay here," he told them. "Don't move." And because his voice was calmer than their parents', because it wasn't marked by the traces of panic and pain, they were more afraid of the sheriff. He was all at once kind and serious, solemn and terrifying.
The sheriff walked closer to the edge of the lake, but not too close. He didn't let the sand or damp touch even the tips of his black shoes. Someone would have to go in there, and soon, he knew. He could remember this lake from his youth. He had lived here all his life and remembered how he had been drawn to the lake as a child, how he feared it as a young man, and how he stayed away from it now, in middle age. He had never married. He didn't want children. It surprised him to realize, just then, that he had never even considered it, not in this town with a lake that people taught their children to fear. They only swam in the public pool. Their water came from private wells and they only fished out of town. No, children did not belong near this lake in this town.
A man moved to the sheriff's side and cleared his throat. He nodded, indicating behind him, and the sheriff knew what he meant. Mrs. Tyler was here.
This is the tale told by the trees:
From this high it can be hard to see below, down to the forest floor. All the action is up here, reaching for the open sky and white sun. The forest is dank and musty, too cool and lonely. From up here, the life below seems cold and stark. It is a long drop to the lake and the water is sometimes glassy, sometimes choppy, but always dead, reflecting back all that it sees, but never allowing a glimpse into the life below. So it is better to be a tree, here in the light, tall in the sky. It is better not to notice the children who flirt too close with the gentle lap of the water's edge. It is better to stay silent despite the breeze so they don't notice how much we've seen from up here. It is better to be a tree.
This is the tale told by the neighbors:
Margaret Tyler was neither an outgoing nor a shy woman. She was just who you’d want for a neighbor. No parties, a sturdy husband and one eleven-year-old child, a studious boy who kept to himself and didn’t ride his bike in driveways or down the middle of the street. He didn’t slam the doors of the house, or call out his window to friends below, or chase dogs across his neighbors’ lawns. He didn’t throw stones, set off fireworks, steal fruit from fruit trees, or berries from bushes. He didn’t carry squirt guns or chew gum. He wasn’t disrespectful and he wasn’t lazy. For the most part, Mikey was seen and not heard. He was the model child.
On Tuesday, a sunny early day in June, Mikey wheeled his bicycle onto the driveway, pumped up a tire with an air pump, fiddled with the angle of the seat, then slung one leg across the bike and slid on. He looked both ways, then crossed the street on his bike. He rode slowly and carefully away from the neighborhood in the direction of where the other children lived.
Later that afternoon, when the sun was high and still climbing, Margaret Tyler came running out of her front door, letting it slam behind her, calling and screaming and shrieking. She stood in the middle of the yard, twisting a towel in her hands, then ripped it in half and flung it, one piece to the right and one to the left. She cried and hollered, and her voice rattled windows and nearly rang doorbells. Neighbors came to stand on their porches and were so disturbed by what they heard that they couldn’t think of what to do.
Margaret Tyler bent to the lawn and grabbed handfuls of grass and dirt which she hurled first in one direction, then the other. The neighbors were startled to see the clumps of dirt land in their own yards, so much so that they couldn’t even protest.
When Mattie Dziedzic appeared at the top of the block, breathing hard and stumbling as she ran, the neighbors stood a little straighter and worried a little more. Mattie was small, stocky, usually no-nonsense. But now she was grey and frightened, while her friend Margaret was howling in her front yard, grinding dirt into the bodice of her dress. Mattie put two firm, stocky hands on Margaret’s back and pushed her towards the street. All at once Margaret stopped her piteous screams, and became silent and quick. She walked faster than Mattie could run, and before anyone knew it, she was at the end of the block and out of sight.
No one asked where she went. The sound of her voice hung in the air and sent electric chills through their bodies.
This is the tale told by Mattie:
By the time Margaret and Mattie reached the lake, the scene hadn’t changed much since Mattie had left. She tried not to let her surprise show, but she had been certain more police would have been called by now, there might even be divers by now. Someone would do something, surely.
But that hadn’t happened, and in fact, no one was any closer to rescuing Mikey Tyler than they had been last night before he had even gone to the lake. Only the sheriff looked aware of the situation. Only he seemed guilty and awake, on the verge of moving. He saw Mattie and caught her eye as she walked down the bank behind Margaret. He strode over to them, his face hard, eyes narrowed. Margaret almost walked right past him, would have if Mattie hadn’t caught her arms and held her tight as the sheriff spoke. He told them in quiet tones that Mikey was in the lake, and he wasn’t going to lie, it was probably too late by the time the alarm had gone out. He indicated the small knot of children and their masks of innocence and confusion, and told Margaret that they had waited before one of them went for help. That one child had since hidden and they didn’t know where to look for him. But that wasn’t the point now, since the major danger was to Mikey.
Mattie loosened her grip on Margaret just because her hands had started to shake and she could feel Margaret drifting out of her grasp, moving towards the lake.
“He’s in there,” she said, and Mattie’s fingertips were almost losing touch with Margaret.
“The divers are coming. And the boats. We’ll find him,” the sheriff said. His voice was confident, but not reassuring.
“I have to find him,” Margaret said, and then Mattie’s fingers closed tightly on any part of Margaret they could reach. She could feel flesh under her fingernails and knew Margaret couldn’t feel a thing, but if Mattie let go, Margaret would float away. She’d let herself be carried to the bottom of the lake. Mattie dug her fingernails deep into Margaret, hoping to wake her, bring her back to shore before she was lost forever.
“I want to be with him,” Margaret said, and her breath came out in a deep exhale, like it was the last breath she might take.
“Now, Margaret, we’ll find him,” the sheriff said and his casualness, his calm was so clearly an act, but one Mattie wanted badly to believe. The sheriff took a step closer to Mattie and said quietly so only she could hear, “Keep her back from the water. Get her to leave if you can, Mattie. She can’t do much here.”
Mattie nodded, and the sheriff patted Margaret’s shoulder, then walked back to the waterline where he had stood before. Mattie had a good hold on Margaret, who was so stiff now Mattie doubted she’d ever be able to move her.
By the time the divers and boats finished with the lake, no one was left to watch, not even Margaret. Mattie and Mr. Tyler had dragged her home. She hadn’t protested, not verbally, but her body seemed almost out of her control, drifting towards the lake every time Mattie and her husband’s grasp loosened. Everyone took for granted that Mikey was gone, and had been the very minute he looked into the lake. The child who ran away from the lake showed up tired and dirty before nightfall. He had nothing to say about Mikey. His parents swore he didn’t even remember being at the lake that day. They thought maybe he hadn’t been there at all. No one else really believed that. He had been there all right, and he wanted to hide just as much as all the other children. He was the only one who did hide.
Mattie lived next door to Margaret, and from there she could see everything clearly. She watched carefully from her window every chance she got, every time she passed by. Mostly Margaret stood in the middle of her living room, pale and straight, unblinking and silent. But Mattie knew that wouldn’t last forever. While the rest of the town tried to forget about Mikey Tyler and keep their children close to home, Margaret Tyler stood in the exact middle of her home, not seeing or hearing the world go by. Mattie could only guess at her thoughts, but she was pretty sure she knew. There is no other place for a mother but with her child.
This is the tale told by the children:
He went in there all by himself. He did.
They tell us the stories starting when we are young; none of them think we are too young to hear it, but those of us who are older now think we were too young then to hear about lakes that eat children and forests that grind bones.
Some of us don’t believe the stories. Which is what happened that day. Some of us didn’t believe the stories about Lake Jenny. It wasn’t long before we decided to see who was right. Mikey Tyler wasn’t picked so much as he was chosen, but all the same he marched up to the edge of the water and stared down at it.
“I’m not afraid of you,” he said. None of us knew if he was scared because we couldn’t see his face. “No, I’m not,” he said, and he stuck a foot out to touch the water. The gentle waves tickled his feet and he laughed. We laughed too. Maybe we were wrong about Lake Jenny.
Mikey bent down and untied his shoes, then slipped off first one, then the other, then both socks. He left them in a small pile right where he stood. Then he turned back to us and waved.
That’s all. He went in there by himself.
This is the tale told by the sheriff:
The hardest thing of all is that life wants to keep living. It is deeply ingrained in us to live. We will fight and scratch and holler to stay alive, even when it would be best to die. No one knows for sure what’s right and wrong, only what is unnatural. A parent losing their only child is unnatural. What happens in Lake Jenny is unnatural.
For years Lake Jenny was just the lake. It went by no name and since there was just the one lake in town, it didn’t need a name. Everyone knew where the lake was. Everyone knows to be careful around water. One day, and no one is really sure when or how it happened, the lake was given a name. No one knows who named it or why, but it simply became named and with that name, it became alive. Or maybe it was alive, and so it became named. Either way, it was that the lake became Lake Jenny, and no one thought anything of it having changed so suddenly. It was as if this is what everyone had suspected all along, that the lake had a name, a personality, a being. A body. A body that lived and thrived and managed on its own. The lake didn’t like visitors, and it didn’t tolerate trespassers. And so parents told their children stories that might have been interpreted as lies, or they may have been the truth. No one knows for sure because no one really knows the lake. We only suspect.
Life struggles to live, to keep its body intact, to move forward.
When I saw Margaret Tyler after the drowning, she was doing her best to die. Her husband kept his hands on her at all times because she had a strange way of floating towards the door. She was like a cloud sailing the sky on a breeze, and Michael Tyler was her only anchor. He kept the doors and windows locked up tight because her fingers weren’t nimble enough in their grief to work the locks. In this way he could protect her. I’m not certain he knew what he was protecting her from.
When I tried to talk to Margaret, and granted it was not the best time to do so, she couldn’t look me in the eye, which was fine because I couldn’t look her in the eye. I didn’t want to see the expression on her face when I told her the divers couldn’t find the body and they’d have to leave her boy buried at sea. Michael Tyler coughed and stood up, gestured towards the kitchen and asked in a choked voice if I wanted coffee, and I said sure, so he’d have something to do. People like to keep busy at times like these, so it’s good to give them something to do. I see a lot of this, death, natural, unnatural, premature, overdue, but it is always the same. Life struggles to keep on living. It breaks your heart to see it, to see good people you know unable to shake the life out of them and let the dead die peacefully. They want to hang on and fight for survival, but the only survival left is their own. That’s what they can’t realize, that theirs is the life that needs to be saved and protected now, wrapped in cotton and sheltered from the elements.
“He’s dead then?” Margaret whispered. Michael slammed doors in the kitchen looking for coffee.
“Yes, Margaret, he is,” I said as gently as I could.
“They aren’t looking for him? They won’t find him?”
I shook my head and looked down at my feet. The carpet was thick and plush, seemed brand new, I thought. Feels good under my feet even with shoes on, I thought.
“Did you do all you could? To find him?” Margaret asked.
I glanced up at her, then wished I hadn’t. She’d be able to read the guilt on my face. “Yes, we did all we could. The divers, the guys with boats, everybody pitched in.”
“Yes,” Margaret sighed. “At least I know where he is when I want to find him,” she said softly. “I’ll know where to look.”
“Margaret— ” I said, but was interrupted by Michael Tyler who came and sat on the couch beside her.
“Coffee’ll be ready in a minute, Sheriff.”
I didn’t know what else to say then, or whom to say it to. I knew that if I left before the coffee that I’d be shortening this part of the ritual for them. I’d be denying them that time during which they could tell themselves there might still be a chance. Once I was out that door, there would be no going back.
Margaret stared at me, even when I turned away. Finally, I couldn’t stand it anymore and I looked at her. Her eyes were watery and her skin was pale, greenish, greyish. She looked like she didn’t belong here anymore. Life struggles to gain a foothold on survival, but it could drop it all at once. Just like that.
This is the tale told by the town:
There is no shame in grief, but in this town, we keep it to ourselves. Margaret didn’t make so much as a peep when she started sneaking out of the house. No one saw her, and no one knew how she got past the doors and windows her husband locked. No one knew she was going at all, until one day one of the children saw her floating along, like a balloon caught in the breeze. She’d get stuck in bushes sometimes, her dress snagged on a ragged branch. Other times she’d walk into a wall and bounce lightly against it until someone came and pushed her away. Sometimes she’d get stuck in a puddle and no one knew what that was all about.
She always headed in the same direction, though. To the Lake. There were signs all over town pointing to the lake, not that we needed them. Although Margaret did seem to have trouble finding the exact route, at first. Then one day when some passerby freed the hem of her skirt from the jagged edge of a park bench, she finally floated to the exact path that led to the lake. From there it was just a matter of time, and everyone knew it.
Funny how she didn’t talk to anyone, call to anyone, ask the names of the children who had been there the day her boy drowned. Funny how she didn’t want to know anything about it. Usually someone would call Michael Tyler when they saw Margaret floating in the breeze, and either he or Mattie Dziedzic would come for her and run her right back to the house. Michael Tyler was told over and over to watch out for his wife, but he didn’t seem to know what to do. It’s like she’s walking through walls, he’d say, like she doesn’t need the walls anymore. There is no shame in grieving, we’d say, but you need to keep track of your wife. I know, I know, Michael would say, burying his head in his hands. And then another day would pass.
By the time a week had gone by, everyone noticed how pale and gaunt Margaret was. This was to be expected, we all thought. This is how it happens. By the time another week had gone by, Margaret had found her way to the lake every day. Only when she was there did she stop floating and stand, very still, by the water’s edge, leaning out over it just slightly. She never took off her shoes to wade, never once reached out a hand to touch the water’s glossy surface. In fact, it didn’t even seem like she was looking at the lake at all. She was looking through it, around it, but not at it. By the time another week had gone by, which was a total of three weeks since Mikey Tyler had drowned, Margaret Tyler was taken to the doctor because her skin had gone green. Not green like the trees or the grass, but a dull greyish green that wouldn’t wash off, and wouldn’t fade even with a proper diet and plenty of sleep.
Michael Tyler dragged his poor wife from doctor to doctor, town to town, and none of them could tell him why his wife was turning green. Not green with envy, but green with stripes, blackish jagged stripes circling her wrists, her forearms, her ankles and her legs. Margaret hardly spoke to anyone, but she didn’t seem all that frightened to see herself changing. One could argue that she understood what we didn’t, but then that was only because we didn’t want to dwell on the past. We all had our pain in one way or another, and now Margaret was having hers, we told ourselves. But we told Michael Tyler to keep his eye on her.
By four weeks past, Margaret was glowing. That looks good, we thought. She didn’t smile and she didn’t look anyone directly in the eye, but she seemed happier. Her visits to the lake happened more frequently and longer than they had before, though. Michael Tyler had given up on trying to keep her home. He buried himself in his work, whatever work he could find. Mattie Dziedzic still followed Margaret to the lake, though, so we thought it’d be safe. Mattie was real concerned, however, just as the rest of us were starting to think everything was getting better. We could see in the lines around Mattie’s eyes and mouth that she was frowning too much. She was turning reddish brown from being in the sun all day with Margaret, who curiously became more ashen and greener every day. Sometimes Mattie would stand so close to Margaret at the edge of the water that she could probably hear Margaret’s heartbeat. Other times she stood farther back and bit her lip, shifted from one foot to the other. Her hands were always waiting to grab Margaret if she suddenly looked like she might start floating again.
Mattie was a good friend to Margaret, but she was neglecting her own family. She had a son and daughter of her own, and a husband who wasn’t as understanding as the rest of us. They fought over Margaret almost every day. Really, no one could blame him, because it was starting to become a spectacle with Margaret standing, waving in the breeze, glowing and green for everyone to see. Sometimes people, curious people who had no business doing this, went to watch her. They swore she was talking to the lake, but no one could confirm this. They swore she was hovering several inches off the ground, but no one could confirm that either. The ones who liked to watch the most were the children. The very same children who put Mikey Tyler up to wading into the lake stopped there every day after school to watch Margaret stand vigil. Maybe they were close enough to hear her talking to it. Some said she cooed at it like you would with a pet, call its name then tell it it is a good boy.
By the time five weeks had gone by, we were less interested in the lake. We were forgetting that Margaret was out there watching the water lap the shore, forgetting that her son was out there too. We had lives to lead, so that’s what we did.
This is the tale told by Mattie:
For weeks Mattie lived by the window in her kitchen, waiting to see if Margaret would leave the house again today, and every day, just as sure as the sun rose, Margaret floated out the door into the street. The first time Mattie saw her, she thought maybe Margaret was sleepwalking, that was how light and fluid her walk seemed. Sometimes in the weeks that followed, she wasn’t too sure that Margaret wasn’t sleepwalking. No one else was there to stop Margaret, so Mattie had to do it all on her own. Her husband was angrier by the day, her children were confused by the fighting, and she was more tired than she’d been in her whole life. But she’d accepted the burden of watching Margaret, and so she would keep at it, no matter what. She could have talked to Michael Tyler, but he wouldn’t be much help. Most days he couldn’t get out of bed, and Mattie suspected he may have been fired from his job.
By the time darkness fell each night, Margaret would suddenly stop floating, her feet would hit the ground and her expression looked like her eyes had finally opened. She would follow Mattie home, but didn’t say a word. She didn’t even cry or scream. Mattie couldn’t imagine losing a child and not being able to scream to the heavens, or anyone else who might be listening. She couldn’t imagine not drowning in her own tears, but most of all she couldn’t imagine that she’d want to spend all of her time at the scene of her child’s death. She thanked the heavens every day that it wasn’t her who had lost a child, and she felt guilty for doing so. Margaret was her friend and had been since their school days. To be glad that something bad had happened to her friend instead of herself felt to Mattie like a betrayal of their friendship. But there it was, her children were alive and she was grateful and relieved.
Late into the night, usually around 4am, Mattie knew because she was wakened and looked at the clock, Margaret would awaken herself and go back to stand in the middle of her house where Mattie could see her. Mattie would get up then too and wait. Margaret wouldn’t leave the house until sunrise, although there was no hard and fast rule as to what time she would leave exactly. Each day had become the same. June turned into July, and July became August. Most people in town had gotten on with their lives. Even the children seemed to have lost their curiosity and had found other places to play for the remainder of the summer. Now it was only Margaret and Mattie at the lake; Margaret watching, Mattie waiting, both for something that they couldn’t describe if asked.
By the middle of August, parents were getting their children ready to go back to school. It had been so long now that the children didn’t notice Mikey Tyler wasn’t one of their number. Her own children had not mentioned his name in more than a month. Like most mothers, Mattie frowned over the school supply list, examined the children’s back-to-school wardrobe and bought new lunch boxes for her boy and girl. That meant spending some time away from Margaret, and as guilty as she felt, it had to be done. Her husband had put his foot down.
“My children will have their mother,” he said.
“Ted— ” Mattie started to say, but her husband waved a hand at her.
“You are their mother and you will not forget it,” Ted told her. “They need you.”
Mattie nodded, knowing it was better to avoid another fight. So she spent several days dragging the children around from store to store, buying shoes and new underwear and socks, and pads of paper and unsharpened pencils. She had to fight to keep her stomach calm and her tears from falling. She could only think of how poor Margaret was alone at Lake Jenny, not even her husband to bring her home now, or even notice she was gone.
On the first day of school, Mattie packed her children’s lunches with all the things they liked. She could no longer bear to keep them from eating sweets or force them to eat their vegetables. She checked to make sure the children had everything they’d need for the first day in their backpacks, then she kissed each on the top of their heads before they raced out the door to the waiting bus. She smiled, watched them climb importantly onto the bus, waited for them to take their seats and then wave to her. Once the bus pulled away, she was free to look after Margaret.
Mattie stood in her kitchen and peered through the window to Margaret’s house. It wasn’t a surprise to not see anything at all. She knew Margaret would have left as soon as the sun was up. That it was the first day of school had not escaped her.
It was a warm day, even this early in the morning, and Mattie was hot and sweaty by the time she reached the lake. She seriously thought about going into that lake to cool off, but knew she could do no such thing with Margaret there. And then Mattie saw her, Margaret, only she wasn’t on the grass at the shoreline, she was actually in the water, up to her knees, her skirt floating in the water behind her. Her shoes were in a neat pile on the shore, waiting for Mattie. But that wasn’t what surprised her most. She had long suspected that one day Margaret would find her way into the water. No, what was surprising was that Margaret was shimmering and greenish, even her hair, which streamed down her back and over her arms. As Mattie watched, Margaret pulled her blouse and skirt off and let them go into the waves.
“Margaret!” Mattie shouted, running now, down to the water’s edge and into the water, the water of the very lake she had been told since childhood ate small children and left their bones for the trees. Mattie almost expected the waves to hurt, to actually take bites out of her flesh, but as she made her way to Margaret, the water only lapped at her, cooled her. “Margaret,” Mattie said, grabbing Margaret’s arms tightly and whirling her around so Mattie could see her face. Mattie gasped and took a step backward. Margaret’s eyes were glassy, yellow with black pupils, and they were no longer in the center of her face. Black stripes ran along her cheeks and down her neck. Her hair was flecked with bits of seaweed. “What have you done? Have you been in the water, Margaret?” Mattie asked.
“Yes, every day now,” Margaret said, and her voice was thin and breathless. “I can’t breathe unless I am in the water. Then I feel better.”
“You need a doctor,” Mattie said. She was so scared she wanted to run away and never look back.
“I won’t leave this place,” Margaret told her, her voice sounding like tiny bubbles popping. “I want to be with him.”
“You just can’t,” Mattie begged. “Don’t, Margaret.”
“There is no other place I can be now.” Margaret’s lips were thin and strained, making the shape of an O as she breathed in and out. “Where would you be if you were me?” Margaret asked.
“I—I don’t know,” Mattie said.
“What else can I do, Mattie? They didn’t bring him out.”
“I know.” Mattie could feel the water moving back and forth around her. How silly she must look, she thought to herself. How silly she must look talking to this naked woman who looked more like a fish than anything else. How silly of them to think this lake could hurt them when it was so obviously the only place Margaret would feel safe.
Margaret bent down until her whole body was in the water. She floated there for a second, then slid under the waves, her hair disappearing last. For several minutes Mattie watched the place where she had disappeared. Then Margaret’s body threw itself out of the water and into the air, Margaret gasping and struggling for breath. Her skin was luminescent and her lips were purple. She tried again to force herself underwater, but this time her body would only stay down for a few seconds. Mattie could do nothing but watch, helpless. Margaret wriggled away when Mattie tried to catch her, and she was moving further and further into the lake. At one point she seemed to have given up and rolled over on her back and floated back to Mattie, exhausted and shaking.
“I can’t do it,” Margaret said, tears like slime running from her eyes. “What do I do?” Margaret asked her.
“Try once more,” Mattie said softly. Margaret flipped over and plunged her face in the water. Mattie took in a deep breath, then put her hands on Margaret’s back and pushed down. She was in the water up to her arms now, her face millimeters from the surface. She could smell the fish and seaweed. She could feel the coolness rising off the surface. Margaret’s body shuddered under her hands and Mattie pressed down harder, straining every muscle she ever knew. Margaret’s legs kicked and kicked, while her arms flailed and flailed. Then all at once it stopped, and there was nothing in her grasp anymore.
Mattie stood up sharply and looked around. The water was still, as if no one had been in it at all. The sounds of splashing had stopped echoing. Now the only thing she could hear was the rustling of the trees. Mattie dropped her arms back into the water and swirled them around her, but there was nothing. Slowly, she turned around and faced the shore. Almost at once she was back on the grass, sopping wet and wondering if the lake had just thrown her out.
This is a tale told by women:
Once upon a time, there was a lake, a mother, a son, and a town of people who were very very foolish. The people of the town were scared of the lake, as if the lake had nothing better to do all day than stalk them, hunt them in their homes, lure their children to it. But the people persisted in their beliefs until one day, the son decided to test it for himself. We all know what must have happened because this is how all tales go.
One day, when the mother was watching the water, hoping for her son to come back, she discovered she was no longer the mother she had been. Oh, she remembered her son alright, and her husband and her life with them before. But none of that was who she was now. So the lake, the real lake, so unlike the lake the town believed in, decided to help her. She became the MotherFish we all know now, who swims in great circles, searching the lake, never sleeping, never tiring, never to die. No fisherman’s hook can catch her, no net can stop her, nor would they want to. She belongs to lake, and the woman she once was is not the woman she is now.
Sarah Wheeler Hedborn taught First-Year Composition for seventeen years at Northern Illinois University. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Iowa State University. Currently she lives, writes and is raising twins in a small town outside of Chicago. This is her first published short story.