Standing at its edge, I don't allow Lake Pisgah to lick my shoes; the water repulses and allures---so much like Hap, I shudder.
When Jed near drowned right after Daisy went missing, I hollered and screeched, but did not—could not—rescue him. What kind of mama won’t risk her life for her son? Muriel, a friend but at the time a stranger, stripped off her red wig and plunged bald-head-first into Lake Pisgah’s murky depths, pulling herself through the wet, wet water like a snake on the prowl. Muriel rescued Jed, even with cancer sapping her body. She pulled him clear out of the murky water and defied his thrashing. She threw a protective arm over his chest and hauled him back to me—a resurrected son to a scaredy-cat mama.
The gentle lapping of the lake creeps itself closer. I back up. Clementine sits next to me, waiting. Her muscles twitch under her fur—her barreled chest touching my calf rhythmically with her panting. She wants that water. I pat her on the head. “Go,” I tell her. So she does, splashing the world on a gray December day that hasn’t yet decided if it’ll wear a coat or fling it off. The weatherman called for rain and cold, but the muggy morning threatens to lift the gray in favor of sun, sweet sun.
What I love about Lake Pisgah is that the land around its circumference is all mine. Seldom are others here, particularly at this time of day—or year. The lake’s become my place to think, my crazy haven after the bustle of Jed and Sissy racing out the door to school. There’s a rickety Adirondack flecked white over gray boards that I’ve claimed as Ouisie Pepper’s. I crunch the mottled distance between the chair and me under steady feet. Defiance has a strange way of putting itself to sleep for the winter—in death, the grass gives up its last green hurrah, turning honey and taupe with a hint of burnt sienna. I wish I could paint grass the way I see it, but when I paint—and I do—my strokes are too broad for such intricacies. I sit in the chair and feel its boards digging into bone. I pull out my sketchbook, place a pencil to the semi-rough paper and drag a line across the page—Lake Pisgah’s horizon.
But that’s as far as the drawing goes before the liquid Voice comes to me. As a child, I hearkened God’s clear and perfect voice, beckoning me to adventures. That Voice enamored my childhood, wooing me into the woods for discovery hikes and fields for romps with butterflies. It poured over me, wooing me toward baptism after I prayed the sinner’s prayer years ago, but I didn’t heed it enough to risk my life to a gaping, wet specter that would swallow me whole.
Maybe that’s why the Voice wrecked my adulthood. To be fair, it did issue a warning in my heart, but then the Voice shifted, taking on Hap’s baritone, assuring me God told Hap to marry me. So you see? I said yes. I had to.
He was as serene as Lake Pisgah then, calm as placid waters before a gullywashing storm. I’d been standing by my car, its engine sending steam to the sky, when Hap swooped in like a cowbird, leveled those storm-blue eyes at me, and tinkered under the hood of my car. “I’m Hapland.” He wiped a rough hand on workman Levis, then thrust it my way.
“Louise.” I blushed then, felt the heat in my cheeks when I saw the admiration in his eyes.
“Louise.” He said my given name like it was something to be savored in the mouth, letting it slowly melt between tongue and teeth.
“My car—is it all right?”
“I’m afraid it’ll need to be towed. Why don’t you come with me to the station so I can talk to the guys on your behalf.” He pointed a lazy finger back to his Chevy. With a white T-shirt, rough jeans, and that car, I thought I’d run into James Dean—a benevolent one. You can bet I jumped inside, noting “Only the Lonely” by Roy Orbison, my favorite song and anthem blaring from AM speakers. I watched his arms flex as he drove me to town. I felt queenly then, riding in a horsepower-drawn carriage, next to the reigning Rebel-King of Defiance.
That reign ended, not a coup d’état like you’d expect. More like dry rot brought on by years of a slow leak; all my life has poured, then trickled, then dripped out at the feet of Hap until I am as dry as an abandoned cistern on the Texas plains. And yet I wonder: is there something inside me that’s just too thirsty, and my thirst is what wearied Hap to rage?
My pencil poised above the sketchpad, I watch as Clementine thrashes the water, then wags her dripping tail and smiles my way. She knows not to shake near me so she wiggles her golden fur at Pisgah’s edge, that terrifying and inviting place the Voice tells me to go now.
Why do I still obey it? That same Voice led me to Daisy’s killer; that’s why. You have to trust a Voice that tells you things like that. And if I’m honest, it got Hap right, at first. Maybe my inklings are correct. Maybe it was me that drowned Hap with my neediness. Maybe I wrung him inside out, when God had Hap right.
I walk to the water’s edge, feeling the shivers rise inside me. Perhaps the weatherman is right. Perhaps the muggy air will shape-shift before my eyes, darken the sky, and pour merciless rain.
A chill wind sends bristles through me and I hug myself. I watch the clouds above, remembering Sissy. “Mama,” she said this morning. “Do you think if an airplane could drop red food coloring into the clouds that it’d rain pink?”
She is an artist’s daughter, I thought. “Sure, baby,” I told her. And I want to believe such a thing is possible. And for a moment, while the breeze stiffens around me and the lake churns at my feet, I dream of flying to heaven with a watering can full of fire-engine red and sprinkling the angry clouds like a fairy. Imagine their masculine fury when they’re forced to spend themselves pink.
A drop of rain wets my nose. Clementine sits next to me, but not so close I feel her this time—she knows I don’t relish her wet dog perfume. I pat her head and note her shivering. “We’ll go soon.”
She nods—such an agreeable dog.
I see the lake dimple under sporadic drops. To my right, I catch sight of lily pads browned by winter, carcasses floating together, linked by tendrils underwater. I want my eyes to rain when I see them because I understand about winter’s lot. I’ve had my springtime. Summer’s long gone. The autumn brought Daisy’s death. Winter stole Hixon’s life. And now the long, terrible coldness has come—in my life and in this town’s. I’m sick to death of death. I nearly shout the word to those spent lily pads, but I keep silent in the rain, marveling at the quivering water, trying to capture its dance in my thoughts so I can paint it later. Paint it, yes. Submerge in it—never.
A movement in the lilies startles me. Floating between those carcasses are hiding ducks, camouflaged by umber leaves. Why hadn’t I seen them before?
Watch, the Voice tells me.
So I watch.
Clementine barks. And with her voice the ducks soar to the clouds—from near-death repose to spectacular flight.
See? After death comes resurrection, the Voice tells me.
And I thirst to believe such things. Oh I want to.
But something tells me I’ll sink first. Perhaps today.
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