I know Lake Superior well: the icy layers near the bottom, the streaks of light and dark blue that cross the surface on a calm day, the flash of white caps, the meditative shushing of the rollers lulling me to sleep at night.
I spent all my summers beside it from childhood on. As soon as spring unlocked the cottage season, I was the first one in the water, faster than my brothers who were still unloading the car and faster than my parents who were busy setting up the cottage for the summer.
But my ten-year-old daughter Jenna is like my husband Donald, a little afraid of the water. She does not stay in long. She gets cold easily so I bring lots of towels to the dock when we go swimming and after, bundle her up well.
Donald seldom swims. He arrives after dinner every Friday. “Are you hungry?” I say. I always have a steak ready or fresh fish. “No, I ate in town.” His hand is in the air, outstretched. His fingers understand the latch on the upper cupboard, the bottle of scotch inside, the glass in the cupboard below.
“Daddy, I can do the crawl now. I can serve at tennis. Daddy, we hunted for mushrooms. We made a place mat of pressed leaves.” She holds it up with her long pale fingers.
He barely looks. “That’s great, dear.” He’s looking out the porch window, his gaze moving along the beach towards the other cottages. If he sees one of his friends, he wanders down, comes back late, bumping into furniture, his breath filling the tiny bedroom. “You’ll wake Jenna,” I say. His mumbles are unintelligible.
The knot in my chest eases when he drives back to town on Sunday afternoon. A new week begins. I make sandwiches for the hikes, peg out the wet towels, sweep out the sand, go down to the beach to swim with Jenna and her girlfriend, Daisy. Sometimes Daisy’s mother joins us and I ask her to watch the girls for a bit while I swim out.
I could swim forever. I could let Lake Superior claim me. I float and turn my head to find the line between water and air, the line where the waves change colours, move from mosaic to shimmer.
“Come down, come down,” the lake calls, just as it did when I was a child. I kick and dive and see the clarity of the underwater world. Perhaps a log or a stick twitches on the sand at the bottom. Sometimes, I try to scoop up a stray pebble, my fingers reaching through colder and colder levels of water. Why can’t my life take on this clarity, this simplicity? The lake holds me close.
But only for an instant.
No, I always say. There is Jenna.
I kick up and start a fast crawl to shore, let the water purl around my cheeks, move past my open, breathing mouth.
“My mother is the best swimmer on the beach,” boasts Jenna to her friend Daisy. “Look, Mummy, my hair floats,” she says and it does, long blond tendrils swaying on the water. She’s so thin. Her lips are blue.
“Time to go in,” I say, reaching up to the dock for a towel. “I’ll make hot chocolate.”
The next Friday, my husband comes with a boat and motor. A little outboard with aluminum seats. He whirrs Jenna and me around the bay. The boat tilts sending up a wave of white but he yells, “Hey, don’t worry. It’s a special boat. Unsinkable. This craft is unsinkable. Not a big motor, only five horse. A tub really. Safe as a tub.” He sees the look on my face. “Try to enjoy it for God’s sake.”
Saturday night he is restless. Jenna and Daisy are at the beach bonfire and community sing-song. They sit in the circle, cross-legged on the sand. Donald and I stand at the back with the other parents. His body, large and familiar beside me, seems as remote as the stars. He is thinking of someone else. Someone I do not know.
The night is hot, with a warm breeze from the lake, making the water move as smoothly as pleated silk. The recreation director divides the children into groups for rounds. Row, row, row your boat, sing the treble voices, a few of the adults joining in. Fire’s burning, fire’s burning. Pour water, pour water.
The marshmallows singe black, or fall in the sand or flare up in flame. The bigger kids run around waving lighted sticks and their parents call after them. Someone hands out sparklers. “Let’s go for a little ride in the boat,” Donald says throwing his spent sparkler on the ground.
“Jenna has to get to bed. It’s close to ten.”
“Do you never want to do anything with me?”
Dumbfounded. I am dumbfounded.
“It’s still light out,” he says. “I want to give my boat a little whirl on such a fine night. That’s all.” His breath smells of scotch. Alien breath.
The aluminum seats are still hot from the sun. I put a towel down for Jenna who is in shorts. I’m wearing a sun dress in his favourite colour, bright red, a useless colour lately.
We whizz toward the gap between the islands, taking us out of the bay.
“No, no!” I cry, but I see he is exhilarated.
“Faster, Daddy,” Jenna squeals.
I hold her close. “Sit down. Stay sitting down.”
He makes the boat tilt and laughs. “Scaredy cat,” he says.
“Am not!” yells Jenna over the noise of the motor but she is holding me tight as he flashes through the gap and into the open water of the lake.
The first wave hits and he pulls the boat around and the second wave, larger, darker, hits us broadside and turns us over as smoothly as if rolled by an invisible hand.
I surface but Jenna is gone. Then I see the overturned boat, and Donald swimming toward Jenna and then reaching for the boat. I grab it on the other side.
“Are you all right?” I cry. “Is Jenna all right? Donald answer me!” The motor has stopped. Maybe it has fallen off. I cling to the gunwale, holding my body as close to the boat as I can.
I see his face on the other side. Like me, he is holding on to the gunwale kicking his legs to stay near the boat which is moving about. With one arm, he holds Jenna close to his body. She is clinging against him half out of the water. Sometimes she flails her arms across the aluminum trying to find something to grab; but the slick underside of the Unsinkable Special, now half below the surface, provides no hand holds.
“Hang on!” he yells to me. “I’ve got Jenna. She’s okay. Someone will come.”
Jenna is whimpering. I can hear her above the water noises. “I am cold, I am cold, I am cold.” The sun slides behind the island as if pulled by a cord. Erratic waves smack the aluminum, send water into my face. Other waves pass by hissing white caps. The boat turns around and around, and we turn with it. The shore has disappeared into black.
I hear my husband say, “keep holding on,” but just then a smooth roil of wave reaches up and grabs me. It turns me upside down and I am full of water, eating water, unable to find my way out of the water. The layers get colder and colder as I spiral down.
An hour later, or perhaps two, I force myself to swim under water, through the gap, into the bay. Lake Superior is pure. Lake Superior is cold but I no longer feel the cold. On and on toward the cottage, once my grandparents’ cottage, once my parents’, then mine, as familiar as my own lost life, and even at night, completely recognizable with every light shining from every window. Headlights wheel down from the road on to the property and park at the stone wall my father and brothers made long ago. Car doors slam, one, two, three. A car with a revolving light is sitting on the lawn beside the flag pole, sending out red pulses that reach to the beach and the dock. My grandfather raised the Union Jack every morning, took it down in the evening. His paintings dot the walls of the main room.
Every spring, when we first arrived, I was determined to be the first child in the water, and now I am all determination as I swim on, rise up beside the dock and walk across the beach, my hair and red sundress dripping ice water as I take the three wooden steps into the house and move across the porch into the big room. The fireplace is blazing, towels and blankets draped on the back of chairs set in front of it. I see Donald. He is lying on the long couch, his head on the arm rest, both eyes closed, tears streaming down his face. Blankets are draped over him.
I force myself to step closer. I stare down at him and see blond hair, just strands, on his arm. I lean forward. My daughter is cradled in her father’s arm. He is holding her close as she sleeps. Her face is tense and twitches a bit but her breathing is long and smooth and alive.
I watch her for another minute, the pale eyelashes on the white cheeks, the long fingers clutching the cloth of his pyjama top. Her lips move and she whimpers, but she sleeps on.
Doctor Rhymer, whose cottage is farther down the beach, sits nearby, his black bag on a chair beside him. His stethoscope is draped around his neck. He is sipping a cup of tea someone has placed on the little wicker table within reach.
In the kitchen, they are whispering. They are whispering in the front porch, on the lawn. I know they are whispering about me.
Tomorrow, at first light, they will look for me. They hope the roaring water of the open lake will wash me up on the rocks. But it will not. They will not find me. I am too deep. I have fallen too far.
They will say I let go of the boat because I got tired, or I got too cold. The newspapers will say hypothermia. They do not know that an enveloping wave took me up so gently I had no time to be surprised. It parted me from the surface and from the air and sent me spinning down into layer upon layer of water, each one colder than the next. I will never be found. After tonight, the lake will never let me go.
As I walk back, I think how someone found Donald, found Jenna. Someone must have heard my husband shouting, took the chance and put their boat into the rough water. Thank you, I whisper to these unknown people.
I pass close to my neighbours who are standing on the lawn and the beach. They are milling about, unable to think of anything else to do but unable to leave either.
I enter the water, lift my arms to greet it.