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Apr/May 2015 Fiction

Heartbreak Lake

by Leah Erickson

Photograph by Rus Bowden

Photograph by Rus Bowden


Last season's canning was dwindling; each jar of peaches, tomatoes, of blackberry preserves, she wiped clean of dust and then held up to the window so that it briefly caught the light, flaring up like something made of blown glass. Anna remembered when each jar had cooled and sealed with a loud, musical ping, in this very kitchen the summer before, when the crop was plentiful.

Now, in the second dry season, the pear trees had been the first to go. The grape vines were dropping their fruit. The corn plants struggled just to come up.

Usually water flowed down from the surrounding mountains to reach their small fields. But not now. Jack hadn't used his tractor at all that year. The weeds weren't even growing. Jack was taking extra jobs on the road crew, while Anna tended the farm and ran the shop.

It was an antique shop, run from the large front parlor of their old and sagging farmhouse. The room was crammed with dusty old things. Many old wooden chairs, porcelain-headed dolls, pieces of Depression glassware. Larger items for which there was no space spilled out onto the rickety front porch. An old iron bed complete with springs. An ancient child's rocking horse with faded red cheeks and lips. Here and there were also more random things that were not antique, car parts and pots and pans, that had just seemed to be pulled into the great eddy of disorder. There was a small hand painted sign nailed to the eves of the porch that read "Vintage Rose Antiques."

Most of these things had been in Jack's family. His family had owned the farm going back 120 years. He had lived in the house all his life. Anna had lived there since she married jack 37 years ago, when she was an 18-year-old girl.

The years had flown by. The kids were grown and gone. She was now a 55-year-old woman who spent most of her time in the company of a black cow named Daisy. Her own husband was becoming a stranger to her. When he wasn't on the road crew, he was often at the one bar downtown. But even when he was home, he seemed shadowy, furtive, less a man than a being of smoke and static, there but not.

Customers came into the shop now and then, mostly in the summer. City folk out looking for a bargain. But when there was nothing to do, she sat at the register, dreamily, head propped on her hand and gazing into a large tarnished mirror across the room. Sometimes the immense quiet of her solitude made Anna think she was hallucinating things. Sometimes she thought she heard a small, still voice saying the word:

More.

 

It was to be the hottest day of the week, so she went outside early in the morning to tend to her chores. Gathered a few wizened cucumbers. Tossed gravel and grit to the hens. But it was already so oppressively hot that things seemed to glimmer prismatically around the edges, making her put her hand to her head to steady herself.

She could not clear her mind of recent troubling news of her son, Gus. Twenty-two years old, and back on drugs. The pills again, they'd said. He had lost his latest job as an electrician's apprentice for turning up high on the job. Now he rarely left his apartment. Anna had not seen him in months—he and Jack did not get along—but surely she had to go to him, at least to talk? Between worries of him and her daughter Jessica, who worked a good office job for the county but was solitary and overly religious, she was sick with helpless concern. She loved her children with a singularity that might frighten them, if they knew of it. So she tried to keep it quietly inside.

The sky was a burning bright cerulean blue overhead as Anna walked Daisy the cow down to the lake to drink. It was a great manmade lake at the edge of their property that since the drought had been slowly receding and growing smaller; it was rimmed by land that had once been under the water, but was now parched and cracked like the surface of some strange other planet.

Heartbreak Lake, it was nicknamed. A woman had drowned herself there long ago, over some love affair gone wrong. Anna didn't know if she believed it or not, but she tended to like the dark romanticism of the name. Like the sad country songs she listened to on the kitchen radio, full of keen wounded yearning.

Daisy, her gentle friend, lowed softly, regarding her with one dark, liquid eye. Anna put her cheek against the creature's broad, black side as the cow lowered her large head to the water to drink.

Anna looked into the water's still reflection, at that relentlessly blazing blue sky, at herself, a pale little woman of middle age, with wispy graying blonde hair and large gray eyes that tilted down at the corners. Sometimes, unexpectedly, she looked like a stranger to herself. She had spent so many years too busy to look in a mirror, and at some point, without her noticing, she had grown old. And anonymous. Who am I?

So lost in thought she was, it took her a moment to notice the sun glinting on something stuck into the exposed lakebed: Something pearly, with a gently curved back. Like a small skeleton, or a fossil.

Working her fingers under it, she was finally with much effort able to extract what appeared to be a lady's mother-of-pearl hair comb. Ornate, beautifully carved in a seashell motif. Certainly very old, she guessed from the 1930's. Not a tooth was broken.

She looked around in all directions before slipping the comb into the pocket of her overalls.

Days later, after she had quickly sold the comb in her shop for a very good price, she missed it. Found herself wishing for it back. Its beauty and smoothness that seemed somehow familiar, like something long lost. Something hers. That prickle of the teeth against her fingers.

 

The drought went on for weeks. The lake continued to shrink. And on its expanding dried banks, she found more treasures.

A hand mirror in mother-of-pearl that matched the comb. Some sort of small iron hand tools that she could not identify. Valuable old coins. A jewelry box covered in sharkskin—her grandmother had had one just like it when she was a child, and she knew its texture right away, though it was aged and damaged, the skin peeling away.

Also she found a strange looking animal skull, with huge, dark eyeholes and long, fang-like teeth. This spooked her, but she put it on a shelf in the shop anyway. For company.

All of it sold. There was almost enough money to make up for the lost growing season.

She had told Jack nothing about the gifts from the lake, but she hoped to surprise him with the extra money. She made reservations for two at a restaurant out off the freeway. It had a large wooden deck in the back, strung with colored lights. It looked out on a lovely field edged by woods, a ridge of blue mountains in the back. Elk would come out at dusk to graze. Anna was entranced by their handsome profiles against the misty field. Flushed with wine, she looked into Jack's face, trying to search out that gleam of love, a flash they sometimes shared, even now. Because that night she wanted more. She wanted to make love. It had been so long. Sex to her was the rush of life itself. She could lose herself entirely in her own passion. Leave bite marks in his shoulder when it was all done. It had always amused Jack that few would guess what Anna was really like...

"Is there something wrong?" she asked. Because he would not quite look at her. "Just tired," he answered, and he did look tired, and he had been coming home later and later from his road crew jobs, often smelling of alcohol.

So she kept quiet. She did not want to mention the road crew, she knew he found the job humiliating. A sign of his failure. And she wanted the evening to be happy.

Also, she did not mention to him the thing she had seen that day when she was down at the lake, something so wondrously odd it had been preoccupying her mind ever since, like an afterimage burned into her retina: off towards the middle, where the water was deepest, something was sticking up out of the water. Just the very tip of something she could barely make out, solitary and steadfast. It looked almost like the very top of a church spire.

 

A Friday. Anna started up the truck for a trip to the feed store, plus there was a list of other errands to do on the way back. As she drove through the small downtown, she approached the road signs and the noise and rubble of the site Jack was working on. She prepared to honk the horn if she saw him.

As she got closer, her eyes were able to pick out the flash of orange safety vest across Jack's familiar, slightly stooped back. That posture she knew so well, she could spot it anywhere. A slight smile played across her lips.

He was talking to someone, arms crossed in what she knew from experience was his defensive stance. It was a woman, a girl, he was talking with. Couldn't be more than 25, long brown hair and short shorts, denim with metal studs down the sides. The girl was upset, crying, saying something angrily with her finger in his face. He had his jaw set and was looking down, scarlet faced.

Something stopped her from honking. Anna felt stunned, as though her head were suddenly pushed underwater and she couldn't breath. She just kept driving, unseeing, forgetting what it was she had gone out for.

In a daze she drove back to the house, braking so abruptly in the driveway that she fishtailed, gravel spitting everywhere. Squawking hens flapped out of her way, but they were only feathery blurs to Anna.

Thirty-five years. What does it all mean? This house and these animals and these grown children, strangers out in the world. The stranger that sleeps in my bed. What does it all mean?

It was the lake she was running to, even before she realized it. It was the lake that lately she had come to feel as a healing place, as consoling to her as a loving mother. And as she got closer and closer, it occurred to her it looked in some way different. The sun glimmered off of it hectically. It was like a shimmering electrical field, full of power. No longer like a gentle mother, it was now reaching into her chest, gripping her heart, and yanking Anna toward itself, forcefully.

To steady herself she kept her eye on the lake's center, on the church steeple that had seemed to be rising higher and higher. The sight of it made her heart pound, as though in danger or pleasurable anticipation.

She kicked off her plastic garden clogs, took her wallet and keys from the pocket of her overalls and tossed them mindlessly to the ground. Rushing to the water, she was soon knee deep. Waist deep, she closed her eyes and dove under.

The surface water was warm as blood, but as she swam forward, deeper, there was a sudden chill to it. She was aware it might have been a mistake to have jumped in wearing her clothes. The overalls would become sodden and could pull her under. Stupid girl, she could hear her dead mother saying in her mind, between drags off of her menthol. Careless girl! But this time her mother's voice didn't fill her with shame as it did when she was young. She was strangely indifferent to it now.

Deeper. She opened her eyes. What she saw was green. Swirls of moss and emerald. There were plants and grasses reaching out like tendrils to grab at her arms and legs. Her own hair, which she wore defiantly long for a woman in her 50s, lifted up writhing from her head. She could feel it sway, and its lively weight pulled at her scalp in a not unpleasant way.

It was a wonderful feeling, she was coming to realize, this freedom in weightlessness. The ecstasy in the fact she no longer needed anything—her husband's love, her house, the shop full of things. The deeper she went, the freer she felt. She no longer even needed breath.

After a time the greenness resolved itself into shadowy objects down below her at the very bottom, where columns of light broke here and there through the water. The first thing she was able to recognize was a bench. An ordinary-looking park bench of sodden, flaking wood, resting down at the bottom of the lake. How strange, she thought. Closer, she came, like a scuba diver. The bench faced a little winding path, which curved gently to and fro and then over a little wooden arched bridge of the kind Anna had seen in Chinese gardens.

It looked like a submerged village green. Further up ahead, she made out what had brought her here in the first place, the little church with stone steps and arched wooden doors, which were coming off their hinges and swaying in the water. Its spire disappeared into the unseen, sunlit surface.

Something about the church and the village green struck a gong of memory in her head. She knew this place, knew it well, like a picture postcard from the past, addressed just to her.

And then, in an instant, she remembered. This was her grandmother's town, where she had gone for the summers as a little girl. Once Anna surmised this, she wondered how she could not have recognized it immediately! Her heart bloomed in her chest like a rose. This was the little church she had walked to in the mornings for vacation bible school!

She knew the way to her grandmother's house. Didn't she? As she stood still thinking, her body lowered itself down, and her toes settled into the soft sand. It had been so long since she had been here. Not since the '60s, which was when her grandmother died unexpectedly of a stroke, leaving her feeling alone and devastated.

Think! She reimagined herself as a little girl with plated hair and bobby socks, white patent loafers with bright pennies in them. Her body was young, pliant, and full of light and energy. Once the illusion felt real enough to her, her body knew which way to go.

Down the street and around the corner, and she saw in the quivering watery light, the third house on the left. The craftsman bungalow with the octagonal roofline over the porch. She swam down the flagstone path and did not even feel compelled to knock first—she had always been welcome simply to come in.

It was all the same inside as she remembered. The couch upholstered in blue roses she could still see through the green of algae and water rot. The tall sideboard that had held the china figurines, all of which were now loose, floating and bobbing up at the ceiling. Anna swam up and grabbed one. Cinderella in her ball gown, the paint on her blue dress and her yellow hair flaking away, but her pink lips still smiling, and she was still beautiful.

Anna let go of Cinderella and she spiraled away up, away, out of her fingers; she felt a great sadness go through her as she watched the figurine disappear. As though she had returned to her most safe and precious place, but it was too late. Everything was too irrevocably changed in the years she had been gone.

She drifted into the kitchen, which had always been her favorite room. The Formica table bobbed and swayed two feet above the floor. Tea and coffee canisters, the fat bisque cookie jar she had loved so as a child, clattered softly in the small ripples. A large, whiskered fish fluttered and darted in the peripheries of her vision like a shadow of migraine. Too late, too late, I can never come back here. It is damaged. Ruined.

Anna put up her hands to catch her tears, but it was only a reflex. The murky water swallowed them, and she was left only with the pain and the ache of thwarted desire. A feeling she felt had come to define her very soul.

But as she stood with her eyes covered, things began to shift and change around her. The table rocked back and forth like a cradle, then slowly lowered itself to the floor. The same with the wire-backed chairs. Each canister settled back to its place on the counter. By the time Anna looked up again, the cabinet doors were slowly closing, the checkered red tablecloth had fluttered down to cover the table. Two sets of cup and saucer had arranged themselves at two neat place settings. And her grandmother was there, standing in the doorway, cupping her elbows in that particular anxious gesture she had often made when she was alive.

Amazing, the way the two of them looked so alike now! The same grayish hair swirled about their heads. They were like mermaids in a woodcut. Anna had not seen her grandmother since she was seventeen. She did not expect a great scene—she had never been an outwardly emotional woman, not a hugger, not a granny who would make a great fuss. But it was with her same warm and radiant serenity that she gestured for Anna to sit to tea. Feeling somewhat shy and embarrassed, Anna did and gazed into her china cup. There was grit and what looked like a crayfish curled inside. Surely not the strong Earl Grey her grandmother had always served.

A long time seemed to pass, during which Anna fingered the cup's dainty handle in her clumsy, work-roughed hands. I'm just a farmwoman, a redneck with dirty fingernails. Grandmother must be disappointed. She had such hopes for me to turn out differently. That is why she is quiet.

But when she looked up, her grandmother was looking at her with kind solicitude. That face that was so much like her own, round but sharp planes to it. High cheekbones that could cut. But the eyes were set back into shadows and hard to read.

"I'm sorry, Grandma," Anna said quietly. "I tried to do the right things in life. But everything just kept... slipping away from me. It seems like nothing turned out the way it was supposed to, did it? There should have been more." It had been her grandmother who had loved her more than anyone as a girl, and she so wanted to please her. It was her grandmother who had been an English teacher and had given Anna all the right books to read. And taken her to the ballet, and tried to teach her about culture, a thing foreign to Anna in her own backwoods town, in her own noisy and chaotic house with her unstable mother. She would have lived with her grandmother year round if she could.

Grandma had wanted her to go to college. But instead Anna had run away with Jack, the hard-drinking farm boy with beautiful eyes and a disdainful smile. And then the children had come. It had all been a mistake, she supposed, leading to where she was now. Alone, and so lost.

The immensity of the lake weighed heavily above their heads. It was a silence so deep, it seemed to ring in Anna's head like a bell. And though Anna was having these thoughts of her life, she felt oddly distant from them at the same time, as though it had all happened to someone else. Jack, the children, the farm all of it. Maybe this is what it is like to be dead, she thought.

Her grandmother laid both hands on the table and leaned forward, as she always had when she was about to say something important. She wore a simple shirtwaist dress, one that she had made herself. Rotting away now in large black patches, but still with the row of lovely pearl buttons down the front. Shaped just like the pearly little bubbles trailing up now from her nose and mouth.

"You've got it all wrong, dear," she at last said. It was the same even, calm voice she remembered. The acoustics were just a bit different here. Broken up. Fragmented. Fading in and out like a far-off, echoing shout. "You mistake me. That wasn't the point."

"The point?"

"I never expected you to be anything. Be as you are. It is the best thing. It is the only thing."

"I don't even know what that is!" With a desolate feeling she let go of the china cup. Nothing was stable here. It tumbled away, lost into greenness.

She had thought she had known who she was, once. When she had been a new bride at the age of eighteen. They had eloped to the beach, and she had worn a strapless white dress and a corsage on her wrist. So naïve, dressed as though for the prom. But it had felt like the world had been created for her, fresh and anew with the cries of gulls, when she opened her eyes after her groom had kissed her, long and deep. As though his blue eyes, twin planets, were the first she had ever seen. Back when love was new and miraculous.

And then the babies had come. And it almost drove her over the edge, that love, made over new once again. A feeling bordering on madness. The shuddering gasp of giving birth to a small, squalling thing, so painfully alive. I can't wait to do this again, she had whispered each time, looking into the knowing dark eyes of her babies, and Jack had laughed like she'd made a joke.

But now they were gone from her, her family. Did not know her. Nor she them.

"Do you... like it here, Grandma?"

Her grandmother looked into her own cup, thoughtfully, then looked at her. "I guess I would say it is neither good nor bad. It merely is. And always had been."

"And you. You have always been here?"

"Yes. Yes, of course dear," she said with what sounded very much like love.

Such confusion reigned in Anna's heart, she hardly knew what she wanted anymore. "I never knew you were here, Grandma. Those were your things on the lakebed, the comb, the mirror. I should have realized! I would have visited. I would! In fact... I want to stay here. If I can."

"But why, my dear?"

"I miss you. I miss the person I was with you. The person I could have been. There might be more for me here. Possibilities. Can I stay here with you? Please?"

Her grandmother seemed slightly distant now, slightly cool, as though insulted, when she said, "You may do what you please, of course. But it is your decision. And there would be no going back."

Anna shut her eyes to clear her swirling thoughts. It was so dark, so quiet there. All she had to do was let go, and float. The water was soft and forgiving. And her grandmother's presence warmed her soul as nothing else had in a long time. She could stay here and forget the turmoil that had driven her into the water in the first place. It didn't matter anymore.

But then again... there was still something inside her that craved the sun. Craved the light of day. How it felt to dig her hands into the dirt to harvest what she could. Cucumbers, tomatoes. The crop was sparse, but the canning was so pleasurable. Heat sealing the jars with a ripely resounding ping she could hear even now in these murky depths.

Could it be, she was missing her kitchen? And not only that, but the jumbled confusion of her junk shop, those musty smells and dusty crystal beaded lamps. The heft and substance of humble, human life. A silent presence in itself. More.

As she eyed her beloved grandmother, who went through the motions, a pneumonic memory, of filling Anna a new cup, she also saw in her mind's eye her living family. Maybe love had ruined her, but saved her at the same time? The quiet passion in her life that lived down deep, invisible to others, could sustain her all by itself.

Even as she thought the words, without needing to say, Grandmother, I have to go, she somehow found herself back on land again. Beside the electric, glittering lake that quietly held its mysteries within itself. The sun was hot, as though it were high noon. She lay on the scorched grass, and the pull of weight and gravity felt good. By her side she could feel the presence of Daisy the cow, regarding her with one long-lashed eye and lowing softly, like a baby.

 

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