Among the rocky outcroppings and narrow trails, I find my footing. Smaller rocks slide out from underneath the larger ones; I wobble on my left foot but come down stronger on my right to counterbalance. Each step along the Lake 22 mountain pass takes me upwards and out—along a ledge, but I’m not afraid. It’s the highest point I can imagine at this time.
In the clearing, the lake is a dark turquoise and the surface calls to me to break it, but I won’t. At the bottom of many lakes are the broken bits and pieces of dismembered bodies—mostly of the young—who dove in headfirst. The most I’ll do is kick off my shoes and slide my feet into the water.
At the edge of the lake, I sit and tentatively lower my toes, then my arches, and then my ankles into the icy water, which feels smooth and clear. I can see straight to the bottom, and it holds jagged edges of rocks, the limbs of trees, and small plants. Occasionally, I think I see the body of a tiny fish flash before my eyes, but it’s rare, I believe, to see much else. At least, I’ve never noticed much else before.
My eyes trace the edges of the rocks over and over again. The same lines and shapes, under the cool turquoise water, become familiar, but something else seems to be tangled up in the lines. Something that moves. At first, I think it’s just some kind of leafy plant, trapped between the rocks, but it’s iridescent— as if it had scales—and is more fish-like than plant-like. It moves quickly, darting in between the rocks, trying to catch my attention. The form is unfamiliar and not quite as graceful as I’ve come to expect aquatic life to be.
“In a trance, I bring the rock down hard…”
Carefully, I lower myself into the water, still wearing my jeans shorts and a sports bra. I expect to feel the sharpness of rocks on the soles of my feet, but they’re far below me. I reach out my hand, under the surface of the water to see if I can feel the plant/fish creature I expect to be there—and something smooth glides underneath the palm of my hand. Out of the corner of my eye, I think I catch a gleam, a sparkle, or a glimmer of something I’ve never seen before and that now, I want to see more than ever. I swim out towards the middle of the lake—following the path I think it’s taking—chasing ripples and bubbles that sometimes surface—swimming for what seems like hours until I reach the shore on the other side.
It takes some effort to pull myself onto the bank and look out at the water. Every ripple and glimmer on the lake turns my head. Then, about five feet in front of me, the surface bubbles in a most unusual way, as the top of something rises. I recognize the shape of a head that seems more human than fish- or plant-like in form. The head is smooth and dark green like moss. It glistens, slick with algae. Its eyes are open and gaping wide, as a sorrowful expression spreads upon its face—and it wails as if it were a human child— shrieking so desperately, I feel as if my heart will break if I don’t help. The teeth inside the mouth are brown and rotten, and the crying is so desperate that I’m consumed with pity that’s instantly crushed by repulsion. Brown, greenish warts, studded about its face at intervals, twist and pull themselves into grotesque shapes as the crying and shrieking continue. I tell myself it only wants solace, comfort, but I just want to make the noise go away and I’m sorry that I ever followed it here—or gave it any hope. As it climbs from the depths of the lake, it stretches its sorrowful arms outward as if it were asking me to hold it—to make it stop crying, but menacing, reptilian claws are attached to those hands, and I wonder if this is its purpose: to pull me in and devour me. Fully emerged from the water, it’s only the size of a toddler, and I start to remember stories. Horrid stories of newborns locked in rooms without any love or human contact. They develop into wretched, hopeless monsters. This creature, submerged and forgotten—undiscovered and unloved—is someone else’s monster. Not mine. It’s not mine.
Now, it steps out onto the bank, with sharp claws for feet, which match the hands. I inch backward, closer to the tree line behind me, and stumble upon a rock. I tower over this creature, but it has an advantage if it intends to seek its revenge—to act out on the unfair circumstances it has been given.
My heart can’t take any more. Picking up the rock, I slam it down hard over the top of the creature’s head. Its face shows confusion, betrayal—and it begins to choke and struggle and shriek some more. In a trance, I bring the rock down hard in a steady rhythm until I hear the cracking of bones, piercing of flesh, and the screaming stops. I tell myself it’s a mercy killing. The underside of the rock is thick with blood; the skull is broken—and then I bury it, face-up, in the sand. I tell myself I’ve done the right thing, but even now, I think I hear someone calling my name when no one else is around and the wind starts to blow.
This summer is particularly difficult for the headstrong, yet the sensitive woman I believe my daughter to be. Perhaps I clung too tightly or expected too much. Reams of computer paper—freshly printed with essay prompts and short answer blanks piled up on my office desk—and I was willing to help her with each one. Day-by-day, the deadlines would pass, and I’d worry about her future and remind her of how smart and talented she is and how she shouldn’t waste her gifts. Then, I let her know how disappointed I was to realize that she would be the only one in the family to have not gone to college.
“Mom, I don’t know what I want to be or do. How can I apply to college if I don’t know?” she asked.
“You just pick something, Nora—anything. Then, you can change your mind, but only once—”
“I want to explore the world.”
“There are plenty of study-abroad programs, and I have college applications for you in other countries—like Ireland or England or British Columbia—all of them wonderful places.”
“All of them are safe places. I want to live, Mom—really live—out there, in the world.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I want to take a break and travel. I’ve never seen . . . I’ve never seen Syria, for instance, Mom. Syria is in such need of humanitarian aid. I could help! I would go to Lebanon and teach the Syrian refugee children games and art —and I’ve been learning Arabic.”
“Look, I don’t mind if you travel—even to more risky places, but I’d like for you to go with a group or something—someone who knows the area well. I have lots of contacts and I could set you up—for a week or two or something. Any longer than that and you’d need a real degree anyway—to be more useful.”
“Mom—I’ll be fine—and I’m going. I’ve decided.”
In a tear-filled rage, I told her how disappointed I was in her and that she couldn’t possibly be my daughter. In a tear-filled rage of her own, she left. So, I let her go. What choice did I have?
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In her absence, I clung to fantasies of joining clubs and activities like synchronized swimming and dragon boat racing—and I’d show up once or twice, feeling the back of my throat well up with the salt of tears, and I’d realize I had nothing in common with the absolute joy others seemed to have—just stretching from their fingertips. I’d grow tired, listless, and bored. Somewhere in the world, I had a daughter, but I let her go.
The first letter came three months later. She told me she had made it to Lebanon and was teaching sports and games as a kind of recess director. She alluded to some stories regarding the disappearance of volunteers—but no one from her group. She was being careful and learning a lot. Three months after that, she told me that although she was learning a lot, there was more she could do, and now, she realized she needed a college degree and perhaps a graduate degree. She expected to be home by the end of the year and was working on applications on her own. I told her I loved her and that I was proud of her—and that maybe she knew better than I did what she needed all along.
Three months later, no more letters were sent, so I wrote one of my own. Nothing came in return. I contacted the school in Lebanon, and they told me she hadn’t shown up for work. Not for several weeks. Now, the U.S. Embassy is doing, “all it can,” and suggests that she’s been taken—and here’s where they stop—where they let me imagine the rest: a daughter of mine, locked away alive—or maybe not—and I wonder how much longer I can wait until I know the end.
The scrabbles of rock, bleached in the sun, are the same as they’ve always been on the Lake 22 trail, but I haven’t been here in quite some time. The rocks have always felt unsteady beneath my feet, but now I’m more aware of the spread of my hips—the shifting of weight—the height at which I take this trail. How, in my youth, could I have felt so steady up here alone? Today, taking this path again—after more than 20 years—I feel a hollow disconnect between my limbs and my heart. On the back of a breeze, I think I hear, “Mom!” in Nora’s voice and I turn around, but no one is there. The voice is real and clear and so incredibly, distinctively Nora’s, but when I turn, I’m only left with sadness and a view of thick pines looming tall and large ahead of me.
“I dig ruthlessly as if trying to fill the space between my limbs and heart with some kind of useful work.”
When I reach the lake, I hear her voice again, so I jump into the water to drown out the sound—to let out a long, steady scream, blowing out as a stream of bubbles below the depths. And I swim—swimming from the sadness. On the other side of the lake, I touch land, but I imagine it’s the edge of the summer of the in-between years when I was alone and didn’t have a daughter or responsibilities. . . And then I remember. I remember something I’d tried not to think about all of this time. When I climb out of the lake, I walk towards the tree line. There’s nothing here to indicate the place where I’d once buried the hideous creature that called out to me, but I have a pretty good idea of where it might be.
Bending down, I begin to dig into the sand with my hands—scraping and pulling at the earth—digging deeper. I know what I’m looking for and what I’ve put out of my mind for so many years. The wide, hopeful eyes and desperate shrieks of a child/monster—not mine but somehow my responsibility—are no longer easy to forget. In Nora’s absence, I can’t forget. Memories are cruel that way. So are silence, the empty room, the piles of letters, and a hair ribbon of hers I found in a drawer.
I dig ruthlessly as if trying to fill the space between my limbs and heart with some kind of useful work—as if I had to prove my memory is correct: This did happen. I got rid of something and brought my daughter into this world and she lives, somewhere between life and death. I can taste the salt on my face as I tear into the ground, toiling under the hot sun until I hit something soft, but scaly.
More gently, I brush away the remaining bits of sand and find a greenish-brown mound that resembles the belly of a human being in form and shape. When I touch it lightly with my finger, it moves—pulsing and breathing—after all of these years. It’s still alive—and Nora’s voice, coming in on the wind is crying, screaming for her mother—and my heart sinks. At the edge of the lake, I find a sharp rock, which I run back over to the pulsing, breathing mound. I slice through the creature’s belly to make the pain stop—to quiet the voice. And when I think the breathing has stopped and the wind has died down, I scoop the body I’ve never forgotten into my arms, and I rock it to sleep.
Cecilia Kennedy taught Spanish and English for many years in Ohio before moving to the Greater Seattle area to write horror stories. Her first book is a collection of 13 dark tales: The Places We Haunt (on Amazon), and she has words in Headway Quarterly, The Daily Drunk, Coffin Bell, Open Minds Quarterly, Gathering Storm, and The Writing Disorder. She also keeps a humorous blog of her attempts at cooking and home repair: Fixin’ Leaks and Leeks.