Published in Issue 9 of Visionary Tongue, Samhain 1997.
On the lake by the house where we lived, my father rowed to his death.
On that eerie morning I remember watching him from my bedroom window as he set out across the lake; the water still and voluptuous, caressed with tendrils of mist. It was going to be hot that day, the dawn moist and steaming, the fog ready to lift like a shroud from summer’s molten pourings. The boat drifted silently across the water. The lake, with her dark wet depths, seemed to beckon to him like a mistress. Everything was very quiet, as if the trees were holding their breath, and the birds had ceased their singing; they all seemed to be in some terrible conspiracy together.
Then the fog swallowed my father up, and he was gone. He never returned.
Later, in the midday heat, the empty boat drifted desolately back to shore. The plants and trees wilted as if in sorrow. I wandered around the edge of the water, while the police searched endlessly downwards in vain. The lake was very deep; dark and cavernous, and in my mother’s despair seemed to reach down to hell itself. They never found him.
A week later, we left.
We had moved to the house by the lake during a golden summer. The three of us – my brothers and I – were full of the boundless energy that only a child can know, awe-struck by the vastness of the lake that was to be our haunting ground. Though we were strictly warned about the dangers of the water, we secretly dreamed of adventures to come. I was the middle child, and the only girl, yet could run faster than the other two, and climb just as high. The house too was a source of delight, far larger than our previous home, and surrounded by trees that seemed to watch over us. Up the cinnamon dusty drive, and round a corner, lay the orchard full of cherry and apple trees. We spent many golden times there.
With the passing of time, the lake held less appeal for me. In my pre-pubescent agony, all too aware of my ripening body, I would not go semi-clothed around my brothers, though they teased me for it. However, my relationship with my father did not change. He was a quiet man, not prone to outburst or outward show of emotion and he weathered my turbulent moods patiently. And when my mother’s voice rang through the house in anger, cruel words slicing like knives, he simply shrugged; a slight stoop to his shoulders, the only indication of upset. In my stilted adolescent years, angry looks often passed between my mother and I, but my father’s strength was constant.
On the day we left, I sat forlorn in the back of the car, gazing out of the window as the house grew smaller behind us. It seemed sorry to see us go. I wondered if, when our mourning was past, we would return. The house dwindled in the distance, and then it was gone, lost among the trees.
A year passed; a grey year, full of shadows and bitter tears. As a child, whenever I had woken screaming from nightmares, or fallen from a tree like a soft, ripe fruit, it had been my father who had soothed my tears and kissed my bruises away. When the wind roared, and the nettles stung and I thought I would never stop hurting, my dad had always been there to wrap me in his big arms and keep the world at bay. Now there was just a tangible emptiness, an achingly clear recollection of him, a hollow where he should have been, and no-one to kiss it better.
But, gradually, the fiery pain subsided to a dull ache and we began to live again. After twelve months of staying with grandparents, my mother decided to take us back home. I was surprised that she felt able ever to go there again. I was unsure of my own feelings. It was home, yet now there was someone missing. Could I ever look out of my bedroom window again, and not see him drift into the fog forever?
It was late summer when we returned to the house by the lake. The year was in full bloom and nature was well endowed, her ripeness ready to burst. As we drove through the orchard, the sun was red and low in the sky, and the trees blushed as we came by. Then we rounded a corner and there was the house. It looked empty and strange, and I wondered if it could forgive us for having deserted it when it too was grieving. It loomed closer, then I saw a window wink at me in the sunlight, and sat back in my seat, holding my breath. We all looked tentatively at one another, full of emotions and uncertainties. My mother looked at my brothers and I as if for reassurance. My eldest brother, sitting in the driver’s seat, put a hand on her shoulder. ‘It will be all right.’.
One by one, we climbed out of the car, all coming to stand beneath the house as it towered over us. The slamming of car doors was the only sound to break the silence.
Then, we walked through the door together.
Motes of dust were captured and suspended in amber rays of sunlight that beamed through the windows. The house smelt alien, and felt unlived in. Silently, we drifted from room to room, and when the others had renewed their acquaintance with the place, they slipped away to their own rooms to unpack. Yet I could not settle and wandered about the house, trying to catch the shadows that hung on the edge of my vision. I wondered if the angles of the house really did look different – or had I simply forgotten them? Memories paused on the threshold, trickled from the floorboards, and began to gain momentum as they rushed about me.
Yet as I wandered, I felt the house had changed. On the day that he drowned, my family had talked of a terrible mistake, a tragedy. My father had always loved the water and it seemed natural to them that he would take a boat out, even so early in the morning. Yet I had watched him as he floated across the water, and I remembered the look on his face, as he cast one final glance back at the house. I knew that it had been no accident.
The house had seen it too. This was no longer the carefree home of my childhood. He was missing and the house seemed to feel it. The floorboards creaked angrily beneath my feet, as if to mirror my own pain. As the dusk crept in, my recollections were tinged with unease.
That evening as I sat on the stairs and remembered, memories swirled in the twilight shadows around me. I recalled my first kiss in the cherry orchard on an evening late in May, when the air was awash with the scent of blossom; the hollow where I lost my virginity on a stormy midsummer night while the lake kept watch. I remembered picnics in the woodland in summer; and walks with my father through rust coloured leaves in Autumn, our breath coiling like smoke; and chopping firewood in winter when the lake was silver in the snow. And I recalled all the times I helped my father in his vegetable garden, my dead father, my dear old Dad, who wasn’t coming home. Tears lulled me to sleep that night.
My family tried to get back to normal and settle back into the house and their lives. But I could not, and spent hours furtively watching the house from among the trees. I was sure it was biding its time. It seemed too quiet and stared at me too long sometimes. The lake too had changed; it was an enemy to us now, and we all kept away from it. It had killed my father and refused to give him back to us. I was afraid to go too near it; it lay like some benign creature, yet what else lay in its depths?
The summer dragged on endlessly. I hated this season for it had taken my father from me. The heat felt like warm, fetid breath on my face, and the abundance of nature only served to mock my sorrow.
One day, I was walking through the trees by the lake, remembering, as usual. I felt that fate had dealt me the cruellest blow of all. I had been the closest to my father and did not have the bond with my mother that the boys had. My brothers too were strangers to me nowadays, sullen and moody. Since our return, we all seemed to have scuttled to our own corners to brood. My father’s absence was oppressive.
I came to a clearing and noticed a hush. A bird watched me quizzically and the trees had stopped swaying. Suddenly, I realised that I stood face to face with the trees who had watched my father row to his death. They had not warned him. My brother and I had grown up playing in these trees; they had heard all our whisperings. I had always felt that the surroundings of the house were benevolent, yet now, it was as if they had conspired against us. You knew, I thought, you knew but did nothing. I hit the trees, again and again, till my hands were bleeding. Then, I ran back to the house.
That night the bad dreams began. I had nightmares, where the trees spoke to me, eager to assuage my doubts about them. They murmured ominously and the lake laughed. I also began to dream about the morning when I saw my father drifting across the water. In my dreams the trees were trying to warn him, but they could only whisper and he could not hear.
One night I dreamed that I lay on the banks of the lake, staring deep into its depths. My father was talking to me through the water and trying to grab me and pull me down with him. I could not move. As in the other dreams, I could not hear what he was saying as he mouthed words at me. I wanted to talk to him, yet I was afraid to join him down there. As I tried to crawl away from the edge, his hand shot out of the water and grabbed my wrist. His touch was icy cold. After that, I would not go near the lake. I was afraid that my father’s hand would plunge up through the surface and drag me down.
The days sweated by. My mother stayed in her room all day, with the curtains drawn against the daylight, gazing at old photographs. My brothers always seemed to be just around a corner. I could hear them whispering throughout the house. I had no-one to talk to. Sometimes, I would hear soft laughter behind me, and think my father had come into the room. But when I turned around, he was never there. I knew that he was still down there in the lake somewhere and felt unable to let go. There were so many things left unsaid. I desperately needed to talk to him again. But he was dead.
One night I had the worst dream of all.
I dreamed that I came downstairs for breakfast, but standing on the stairs could not hear the usual clatter of dishes. Something seemed wrong; the house was deathly silent and my heart began to beat faster.
I opened the kitchen door. My brothers were sitting at the table, grinning. My mother came across the room and put down a bowl of food. She was glowing. She looked happier than I had seen her in a long time. Then I saw why she was smiling. My father sat at the table.
He must have dragged himself out of the lake and across the lawn to home. Weeds clung to his legs. His clothes were tatters, as was the flesh of his hands that even now were lifting the bowl. But his face was the worst thing. It was so decomposed I would not have recognised him but for his eyes, his grey eyes, that turned and looked at me.
My mother smiled. ‘Look dear, your father is home.’
I stared at her horrified. But look at him, I wanted to say, what is wrong with you all? Look at the state of him. Instead all I could do was open my mouth in a silent scream.
I woke early that morning. My bedroom window seemed to beckon me and I dragged myself towards it. Gazing down, I saw the lake was covered in fog, just like that morning a year ago. I half expected to see the boat drifting across the water, taking my father to his death. But the lake was empty, patterned with the phosphorescent mist that floated and swirled above it like a ravenous, ethereal creature.
As I made my way down the gloomy stairs, the house was deathly silent. In the mirror, my reflection watched me as I passed. The kitchen was empty, for everyone was asleep and still in bed.
‘Tick tock,’ said the clock and then stopped.
I wandered outside into the oppressive heat. Clouds of midges droned about the lake. They seemed to watch me, and the trees bowed low before me. I walked to the water’s edge and tried to see down into the darkness, wondering if my father was down there waiting for me to rescue him. But the lake sighed; she was not willing to give up her lover so easily. I stepped closer. The trees whispered and the fog curled around me like fingers. I looked back at the house; it appeared to be grinning.
Then, almost eagerly, the mist parted and the boat came drifting towards me; empty, save for the oars. It bumped gently against the shore. I paused. The midges had stopped dancing and watched me uncertainly. The trees wrung their branches together in great agitation. Their leaves scraped me as I walked forward, as if trying to stop me. I stepped into the boat and let it take me to my destiny. Looking back over my shoulder, I saw my bedroom window, watching again, as I disappeared from its view.
Gazing into the voluminous depths, I imagined that I saw my father waving to me from far below. I felt no longer afraid of the lake. It seemed that I was keeping an appointment made some time ago, as if I had been claimed the morning I had watched my father being taken. Silently, the water opened up and, smiling my last smile, I slipped into it. As I fell, the lake swallowed me and the darkness pulled me down.
Later that morning, the sun rose and the trees basked in its glow, glancing warily about. The house awoke and went about its business. A solitary boat floated on the edge of the water. In its azure, darkened depths, the lake breathed. And we waited.