The following story originally appeared in Matthew Cheney’s new collection, Blood: Stories (Black Lawrence Press, 2016). It originally appeared in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet #21 (2007). This is the first time it has appeared online.
— Weird Fiction Review Editors
They wouldn’t allow us near the lake when they hauled the bodies out. We stood, huddled against each other, at the edge of the road, looking down the grey embankment at the police trucks and the rescue equipment, the boats, the divers, the men in uniform standing between us and a last view of all we had lost.
I insisted on going to the morgue and making the identification myself, though Gabe told me someone else could do it, my brother or his, someone.
—It shouldn’t have to be our last memory of her, he said.
—I want to go, I said. I want to see her face.
When he said again someone else, someone else, I screamed at him, I pounded his chest with my fists, and, in the end, he agreed, and went with me, and it was done.
For a few weeks, ours became a community of loss. Other parents, ones I’d never liked before, became my friends, their stupidities and thoughtless comments over the years swept away by what we shared in grief. We cooked for each other, we talked for long and empty hours, we exchanged memories, hoping that words might bring some life to the death we lived. Gabe and I had never been religious, but we began going to church because other parents would be there, and because any rituals were comforting.
The lake became a sacred place. Even as the water froze in winter and the shores grew thick with snow, there wasn’t a day when I didn’t find other parents there, standing on the bank, looking out at the calm water, our faces placid, our eyes incapable of tears. We stood like beacons or totems or guards, at dusk or dawn, morning and afternoon, not waiting so much as bearing witness to the peace that seemed so unjust.
There was an investigation, of course. They said it was a mechanical failure, that the brakes on the schoolbus gave out as it came around the corner, the speed at which it moved was not excessive, the driver was not at fault. The lake gets deep very quickly, they said, and the water was cold, the force of the impact enough to stun, wound, even kill the passengers.
No fault. An accident. A very unfortunate accident. A tragedy, the newspapers said and the television reporters said and the condolence cards said, and we, too, said: a tragedy.
We were left to live inside the shadow of that tragedy, and we carried on as best we could after the funerals, after the burials, after the cards and flowers were packed away, after we got so we could walk past the closed door of her bedroom without pressing an ear to the wood to listen for what we knew was not there. It was months before Gabe or I could open that door, and when we did it was a bright day, motes of light drifting through the room, and we sat on the bed, hands together, and assured each other it was all right to cry.
By summer, the lake had dried up. The muddy crater that remained quickly filled with sand that no amount of rain made wet.
We had lived eight months without Julia, and I went to the lake every day. I and the others who stood faithfully on the banks watched the water drift farther and farther from the shore, but no-one ever ventured out to where the lake had been until the water was gone and the mud turned to dry white sand. When the sun shone down, the sand was too hot to touch, and so we waited until evening to walk, always barefooted, into the crater where the lake had been. All of the parents were there every day, kneeling down, fingers pressed into the sand, digging. Soon, there was a breeze that never died. It blew soft clouds of dust around us.
Gabe stopped going after a week.
—What do you think you’re going to find there? he said.
—I don’t know, I said.
He stood in front of me, blocking the door.
—Why do you want to be there, then?
—I don’t know, I said. Where else should I be?
He sighed, and I knew what he thought. He had returned to work, had won every case he’d tried, tripled his income, bought us a new car and talked about moving somewhere else, a place where every inch of everything could not summon memories. He never told me to go back to work, but every day he suggested something I could do, something that would distract me: volunteering at the hospital or library, joining the board of the conservation society, learning golf.
—I already have something to do, I said.
—You spend your whole life at that goddamned lake.
—It’s where I should be.
Now, standing in front of the door, he said quietly:
—Please don’t go.
—I have to, I said.
No-one brought children to the lake, though of course there were brothers and sisters, cousins, friends. The survivors, the living. I rarely saw children in town, even. Once, though, I saw a boy running down the street, his face glistening with tears as he screamed for his mother. Every car stopped in the street and every person stopped moving to watch him. He ran between people and between cars, he flailed, he fell to the ground and stood and fell again. His screams grew louder, more piercing, and the crowd shivered as people took tiny steps away from him, until finally one woman, older than most of us, approached the boy and touched his head gently and smiled and embraced him, kissed him, held him until the rest of us began to move again and continued with our days.
I returned to the lake. Holes dotted the sand. A father and mother had dug so many feet into the lakebed that all I could see of them were hands rising out of the hole to drop a few more grains from their fingertips. For a moment, I thought the pair had found water, but when I looked again I saw that the sand at the side of their hole had been moistened by blood from raw hands.
My own hole remained more broad than deep.
I’d forgotten all the names of the children, and, what made me more sad, the names of the parents — my true companions, the only people who understood the language I uttered when I chose to speak, the only people who didn’t look at me with sympathy or pity, because who among us had enough to spare? I remembered knowing their names, but I did not know them now. Now they were strangers again, and I feared them, feared they would find what I was looking for and would destroy it, feared they knew what I was looking for when I did not.
I watched the other people around me and hoped my hole would not engulf theirs, but I feared it would, because though I tried to force myself to move closer and closer to the center I had dug, all I could do was pull back the sand from the sides. I knew the others were watching me. More and more each day, I could feel their eyes staring, I could hear the whispers caught by the ever-present breeze.
The other people had begun to push their piles of sand into my hole to keep me away. I did not blame them. I would have done the same.
—I’m buying a house in Colorado, Gabe said one night late in the summer. You can come with me or … not…
My hands ached from swollen joints, broken fingernails, and cracked skin. I covered them with lotion every morning before I left and every night when I returned, but the sand was stronger, it was wiping my flesh away.
—How can you leave here? I said.
—I can’t stay.
—Who do you know in Colorado? You don’t know anybody. How will you get a job, how will…
—I already have an offer from a firm. It’s very good money. In Boulder. Everybody I know says Boulder is a wonderful place to live, it’s heaven.
I ran out of the house and drove in the old car to the lake. The sky was full of clouds, but bits of moonlight shone through and drifted over the white sand. I sat near the road, my back against the front wheel of the car, and stared down at the place where our daughter had died.
Only a few parents remained, digging, and their shadows spread across the sand like chasms. As I watched them, I realized words had formed on my lips, and the words became whispers: Eliza, Tommy, Maria, Lily, Jack, Tizzie, Eveline, George, Lucia… I whispered them all through the night, again and again and again until the dawn, giving words to memory and to the wind.
Sometimes in the middle of the night I would go into Julia’s room and turn her little radio on very low so that it whispered to me while I sat on the floor, my fingers drawing patterns across the carpet. I imagined the radio told me stories — stories dreamed up by young people who had grown old, the sentences left as remnants of a writer’s youthful self, some part of that self preserved in each word, alive now in the whispers weaving their long-ago life into my own.
Two days before Gabe was to leave, water returned to the lake. It bubbled up through the sand into puddles, filling all the holes. One of the diggers screamed, Water! and seconds later I felt cool liquid against my own hands. Murmurs and cries echoed through the breeze. The puddles spread and joined until the entire lake was one thin sheet of water, and the water rose. Not until the water had reached our knees did any of us move to the shore of the lake. The last to leave was a small woman with short red hair. She swam from the far side, and when she climbed out of the water to join us, the light blue dress she had worn every day had shed all the dust and dirt that had encrusted it, and it clung to her body like seaweed.
Within only a few hours, the lake was as deep as it had ever been.
—The water has returned, I said when I stepped into the living room where Gabe was looking at a TV show about politics.
—Shhhhh, he said. I’m watching this.
—Did you hear me? The water’s returned.
—Will you shut up! I’m watching this.
I went to the kitchen and poured myself a glass of milk. I sat at the table, looking out the double windows at the back yard, where shards of starlight sprinkled over the garden I had neglected all summer.
Eventually, Gabe trudged upstairs to bed, but I waited in the kitchen with all the lights turned out until I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore. I lay my head down on the table and slept.
A week after Gabe left, people began to say they saw faces in the water, the faces of the children. I still went to the lake each day and stayed long into the night, but though all the other parents around me knelt down on the bank and looked into the lake, I could not force myself to look. Their squeals of joy, their sudden outbursts of love and happiness, disgusted me.
I had begun to remember their names now, too, though I could not remember which names went with which children. (Were Richard and Beatrice the parents of Lucia or Tommy or Eveline? Were May and John the parents of Eliza, Jack, George?)
For the first time, children visited the lake. In the beginning, they came alone and stood far away, but soon enough a few children — siblings, I’m sure — walked down to the water, where the family knelt together and stared into the gentle ripples. Some of the children shed tears into the water, and some yelped or wailed, but most were silent.
I began to spend more time at the house, packing up Gabe’s things and hauling them to the post office in town. I enjoyed filling boxes with his collection of Matchbox cars, his racks of neckties, the many books he’d bought and never read. He had taken with him only what he could fit in his car.
—What do you want me to do with the rest of your stuff? I asked.
—Doesn’t matter, he said, getting into the car. He drove off without looking at me, without waving goodbye.
I could have destroyed it all, the books and neckties and Matchbox cars, the NFL mugs full of pens that didn’t work, the portable television set, the camping gear we’d never used. Destroying Gabe’s things didn’t occur to me, though; all I could do was pack them up, put labels on the boxes, and bring the boxes into town day after day. Most of the clerks at the post office weighed my boxes and charged my credit card without comment, but one clerk, Marsha, talked to me, first about the weather and the heaviness of the boxes, then the Red Sox and the absurdities of postal bureacracy. I enjoyed seeing her, but as I brought more and more boxes to the post office, I became self-conscious, wondering what people thought of me, and I tried to go at different times each day so I might get a different clerk, but there were only three, and one day Marsha said,
—Are you sending all her things away?
She covered her mouth with her hand suddenly, as if to put the words back in.
—I’m sorry, she said, her voice so soft I could barely make out the words.
—It’s okay, I said. These are Gabe’s things. He needs them more than me.
As the house became barer, the bookshelves empty, Gabe’s closet left with nothing but bits of lint and dust, the walls freed of all decoration, I found it easier to sleep at night and easier to breathe during the day. I called a moving company and had them take away all of the furniture except for the kitchen table.
Some days I never went to the lake at all.
Finally, the house contained nothing of Gabe’s. The only room I hadn’t touched was Julia’s.
When I brought the last of the boxes into town, one of the other parents, Stephen, followed me to my car.
—Haven’t seen you out at the lake recently, he said.
—No, I said, I haven’t been there.
—Don’t you want to see the children?
—I don’t think so. I don’t know.
—They smile at us. We saw Tommy. Our son, Tommy. We saw him. He smiled at us. He’s happy now.
—I’m glad, I said, and closed the door of the car.
Driving home, I slowed as I passed the lake. Cars clogged the sides of the street. I was sure what the parents said was true, that they saw their children’s faces floating like reflections in the water and the faces were smiling, joyful. If I had thought it was some sort of mass delusion, I would have been more tempted to park my car with the others and walk down to the lake, to kneel on the shore and wait for Julia’s face to slip across the water. I yearned for the comfort of fantasy, of relief from the grey life I lived, but the only fantasy that appealed to me was one I could control, one I could turn off, a world I could escape from when I wanted and return to at will.
After two months away, Gabe called.
—I miss you, he said.
—Yes. Of course I do. I just … needed some time on my own.
Silence for a moment.
—I’m taking care of a child, he said. A friend of mine’s daughter. She’s eleven. Her parents are in Switzerland, skiing. They’re professionals. She usually goes, but she has to be in school right now. She’s always seemed fond of me, and I told them if they didn’t want to have to hire somebody to take care of her, I’d be happy to. They told her to call me Uncle Gabe. Isn’t that great? Uncle Gabe. They’re coming back next week and…
—Did the furniture arrive? I asked.
—Yes, he said.
—Good, I said.
—Will you come out here?
—No, I said.
—Because I don’t want to move.
—Will I what? I said.
—With time, will you want to move, do you think?
—I don’t know. I can’t predict the future.
I told him I was tired and I wanted to sleep. He thanked me for sending out the furniture, the paintings and prints, the clothes, the neckties, the Matchbox cars, the mugs and pens. He said his house was a dream, it was big and had a breathtaking view of the plains, it had walk-in closets and ceiling fans, it had a fireplace and a cathedral ceiling in the living room and skylights in the bedroom and outside a garage plenty big enough to turn into a pottery studio, which is something I’d always wanted, wasn’t it, a studio right at home?
He said he would never come back east.
He didn’t ask where I slept now, even though the movers had brought him our bed. Perhaps he thought it was a sign that soon I would join him and we would start our life again. Perhaps.
I climbed the stairs and walked into Julia’s room. I undressed and pulled the sheets back on her bed, then lay down in it. I closed my eyes and slept more deeply than I had in years, a dreamless, restful sleep.
Night after night I slept in Julia’s bed, wrapping myself tightly in the blankets, her teddy bear clenched to my chest, the radio quietly playing old folk songs that weaved their sad, hoarse tones into my dreams.
A knock on the door one night.
I was just about to go upstairs to sleep. I stood at the door and listened to my breathing. Another knock. Another. I did not look out the peephole. I knew who was there.
I opened the door.
One of the children, the brother of Lily, stood on the front step. Behind him, arrayed in the flickering glow of the single orange streetlight at the end of our driveway, stood other brothers and sisters, and behind them, in the darkness, their parents.
—Will you come with us to the lake? the boy said.
I could not remember his name.
—No, I said. Please, I said. Please go away.
—The water is getting colder. The faces are fading. Soon the lake will freeze and snow will cover it.
—No, I said.
—This could be the last chance.
He took my hand in his. It was small and warm. He led me out into the cold night. The other children gathered around us, and then the other parents. We walked together down the dark street and to the lake.
—What is your name? I asked him as we approached the shore, but he did not reply.
Looking out at the dark water, I hesitated.
The brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers pushed me gently forward. I felt their hands against me, their shoulders and arms, hips, thighs. As we moved closer to the edge of the shore, I pushed against them.
—No, I said.
I staggered and nearly fell. I lunged out of the crowd and back toward the street. They stopped, but did not turn. I scampered up the embankment to the pavement, the hard surface somehow comforting.
I watched a little girl bend down and touch the skin of ice at the edge of the lake.
Tonight, as I lie here in Julia’s bed, silver flakes of snow fall through moonbeams and tap lightly against the window. The whispers on the radio had not predicted snow, but it is falling nonetheless, falling on the houses and the town, the church, the forests to the west, falling softly on the lake, where parents kneel over the water. I imagine the water unfrozen, and I imagine the snow falling on the faces in the water, and I imagine the faces open their mouths in joy and laughter so that, for a moment at least, the parents see the children catch the snow in their mouths as it softly falls. But I know the water is ice, and the snow has covered the ice, and the faces are not there, I’m sure of it. In the morning, the snow will lie in thick drifts in the yards and on the roofs of houses, on the sides of the roads and the banks of the lake. It will cover the gravestones in the cemetery where Julia and so many others were buried last year, it will hang like cotton in the trees around the cemetery and on the iron posts of the gate.
Tears streaming down the sides of my face, whispers in my ears, I listen to the snow falling gently through the night air, gently falling over all the living and the dead.