by Brian Reickert
“On the Lake” placed third in Southern New Hampshire University’s 2021 Fall Fiction Contest.
Marc stepped into the canoe, sat on the caned seat, planted an oar on the rocky lake bottom, and pushed away from shore. Dylan waved goodbye to his mother who stood barefoot in the sand. It was dusk; nearly too late to be on the lake. Marc didn’t turn or wave. The breeze was cool on his face, and the effort of paddling felt good in the muscles of his arms and back.
Dylan laughed and plunged his hand into the waves that spread from the bow. He talked quietly to himself and stared into the darkness below the water’s surface, opening and closing his fingers, feeling the pull of the current. Marc glanced over his shoulder. She was gone. He slowed his pace and paddled along the shore.
“Dada, where do fish sleep?” Dylan asked.
“Down on the bottom, in the plants that grow there.”
“Do fish dream?”
“Yes, I suppose they do.”
“Like Levi? They dream like dogs dream?”
“Yes, like Levi, only fish don’t run or chase squirrels in their dreams. Fish swim in their dreams.”
Marc imagined Alison walking the dirt road back to the cottage. The road made a channel through the forest. Allison walked barefoot, careful to avoid rocks and debris. Marc watched her ascend the front stairs and disappear.
They turned the corner of Emerson Cove, and the lake opened before them. Dylan turned and leaned into the bow of the boat, his arm hanging over the side, his chin resting on the spot where the curves converged. He pointed to a heron standing in the grass near the shore.
“Dada, what’s that bird?”
“That’s a heron.”
“Do you see how he stands on one leg?”
“Yes, how does he do that, standing on one leg?”
“Practice. He stands on one leg all his life.”
“That’s funny, Dada, standing on one leg when a bird has two.”
“It helps him to hunt.”
Eagle Lake is long and wide. Its banks are dense with birch and pine. Cottages and cabins dot the shore. The dusk light fades.
Already the days are so short. It will be dark soon.
A flock of geese cuts across the sky.
“Dada, what are those birds?”
“Canadian geese, buddy.”
“Why do they do that, fly that way?”
“They take turns leading the flock.”
“Why do they take turns?”
“When the leader gets tired, he falls back, and another takes over.”
“Do they fly a long way?”
“Yes, a very long way.”
Dylan picked a stone from the canoe’s floor and tossed it into the lake. Marc stopped paddling and rested the oar across his knees. He looked at the veins of his hands and forearms; they were thick with blood. He reached forward and zipped Dylan’s jacket up around his neck.
“Are you cold?”
“No, Dada. Where is the sun going?”
“To the other side of the Earth.”
“Does it go under the ground?”
“No. The sun is deep in space, far from Earth. It looks so close because it’s so big.”
One Saturday, seven years ago, when Alison was pregnant, they drove to the museum and walked among the outdoor sculptures. Alison’s belly was round and full. The world was thick and green. As they sat in the shade of tall pines, ten-foot aluminum sharks hung from the trees above. The shark’s bodies were bent to suggest the circles in which they might have turned. Marc lay on a bed of soft needles. Alison sat on the wide, level cut stump of a long fallen Eastern White.
The sky is pink, orange, and purple. The wind has ceased, and the water is still and smooth. Dylan sits on a cushion on the floor of the canoe, his back against the wooden seat.
“Dada, the sky is all colors.”
“The sun is setting.”
“What makes the colors?”
“Gasses in the atmosphere.”
“The atmosphere is like a blanket around the Earth. It protects us from space.”
“What is space, Dada?”
“Space is emptiness, Dylan. It’s what the Earth and the sun and all the universe moves in.”
Last night Alison did not look at him as she spoke. He sat at the kitchen table. She stood with her back to him, her arms folded across her chest, staring out through the sliding glass door. Marc watched her reflection in the darkness of the glass as she spoke.
“I’m barely here sometimes, and if I’m here at all, it is only as a membrane, a curtain between this and everything, or nothing. I’m not sure.”
What was I to say? How did she interpret my silence? As patience?
That Saturday at the museum, seven years ago, Marc and Alison sat in the shade beneath the sharks that turned in the trees. Alison sat cross-legged; eyes closed. Marc lay on his back, watching the afternoon sun filter through the limbs.
“You know,” Alison said, smiling, “I think he likes it here.” She brought her hand to her belly. “He’s moving so much.”
“All this sun and fresh air is making him restless,” Marc replied, raising himself on an elbow, “He wants out.”
Alison opened her eyes and said, “I wish we could stay right here forever.”
A fish broke the surface of the water, and then another. Marc thought of the vacation he went on with his parents to the Rhode Island coast. He remembered eating crab cakes and drinking cola in the sun. He remembered the fear and excitement he felt as humpbacks breeched beside the boat. They lifted their thick, shimmering flukes and pounded the water’s surface.
Later that afternoon, he and his parents walked along the pier and watched them unload the day’s catch. The smell of the fish overwhelmed Marc, and he vomited into the green ocean.
That evening, his temperature rose, and as he groped his way toward the bathroom of the rented cottage, he heard his parents arguing in the kitchen. His father pounded the table. His mother cried. Marc stumbled into the bathroom and vomited into the sink. The following morning, he lay in bed, drenched in sweat and shivering with chills. His father patted his forehead with a damp cloth. His mother sat beside him, holding his hand.
Marc cleared his throat and spat into the lake. Dylan was asleep. Marc took off his own jacket and laid it over his son. The first stars pierced the dim sky overhead. The moon was nearly full.
Help me to be strong; to be patient.
Marc closed his eyes and breathed deeply. He imagined himself becoming empty. He opened his eyes and watched Dylan sleeping. He rested the oar across his knees and reached down to wake him.
“Your neck is going to get sore, buddy.”
“Are we home yet?”
“Almost. Are you cold?”
As they neared Emerson Cove, Marc slowed his pace. The form of the shoreline was indistinct. He paddled the canoe towards the shallows, and soon its bottom scraped along the rocky shore. He rolled his pants to his knees before stepping out and pulling the canoe onto the beach.
“Can you walk, Dylan?”
“Carry me, Dada.”
The boy wrapped his arms around his father’s neck and rested his head on his shoulder.
“Did you have a good day, buddy?”
“I guess so.”
Marc walked the dirt road towards the cottage with Dylan asleep on his shoulder. The trees were tall and full, and the road was dark. By the time they reached the cottage, the sleeping boy had grown heavy in his arms, and his breathing had slowed to a light snore. Marc carried Dylan up the narrow stairwell and laid him in bed. He removed his sneakers and clothes and covered him with a blanket. He pushed the hair from his forehead and kissed him. He closed the door and walked downstairs.
Alison stood at the sink, her sleeves rolled to her elbows and her hair pulled back from her face and pinned behind her head. As Marc walked into the kitchen, she glanced over her shoulder.
“How was the lake?” she asked, turning back to the sink.
“Great. A little too dark though. I had some trouble finding the cove.”
“Where is he?”
“Upstairs, asleep. I had to carry him home.”
“He had a long day.”
“Yeah, it’s been a long day.”
Alison turned off the water and dried her hands. She walked to the stove and filled a mug from the steaming kettle. She placed the kettle back on the stove.
“Marc,” she said.
He leaned against the fridge and crossed his arms.
“Yeah?” he responded.
“Listen,” she said, and then was silent.
He pushed away from the fridge and walked to the sliding glass door. The glass reflected his image. He stepped closer, and his face disappeared. The outline of his head framed a view of the back deck, beyond which columns of trees receded into darkness.
Category: Competition, Featured, Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Student