Featured in Vol. 3 Issue 3, Autumn 2014
Header Image by © Leslie M. Browning
My cousins, Corey, Lindsey, Hailey, and I call our grandmother Nanny, and our Nanny lives in a log cabin in Litchfield, Maine. Across from her street, there is a lake. We spend our summers at the Lake. Every year the water gets shallower as we grow taller. ¶ As children, our day at the Lake began when the four of us clustered at the end of Nanny’s driveway. My mother and Aunt Sally and my little sister had already set up down at the Lake. Corey gripped the beach chairs with his meaty fists, Hailey cradled the sand pails and shovels, Lindsey tucked towels under her arm, and I held the bag of sun creams and lake shoes.
We broke our cluster and galloped towards the lake after a perfunctory safety check. I usually hollered at Corey for not looking both ways before he crossed.
Across the pebbly tar of Nanny’s street, over a path on the other side, underneath the branches, we squealed all the way down. Acorns and rock fragments pierced our soles, but they could not stop us.
There was a glen before the Lake where bumblebees rotated across wild daises. Two docks flanked the area in which we were allowed to swim. Slim grasses lined the edge of the water, and we had to jump over them onto a tiny mud strand before walking into the water. Hollow snail shells both floated on the water and nestled on the lake bottom. If we jammed our fists into the lake floor where the mud was cold, we could find clams. There were twinkles on the Lake surface, as if stars had fallen overnight and floated like lily pads.
I placed my jelly sandals next to my baby sister, Emily, whose face had been peppered with sun-freckles and whose minute curls had coiled tighter in the humidity. I would have liked to stay here with her and peel grass blades and watch her squirt sun lotion, but Corey had already jumped off of the dock. Hailey was filling buckets with mud, and Lindsey was up to her bony ankles in lake water.
“We have to go under together,” she said. She fingered the edge of her bikini top.
We plunged. Lake water, all of its silt and shell bits and dead grass, had now soaked into every inch of our skin. We plunged again, moving our legs like mermaids. We had already decided that her tail was blue and mine was white.
When my head broke through the water, Corey stood in front of me. He held a handful of lake muck. I was about to flick water into his eyes when a dragonfly whizzed by my head.
I yelped, dipped underwater, and popped up to find that the dragonfly had disappeared.
Lindsey stood up in the water. Beads of it fell from her skin like snow off of an evergreen. “Shannie!”
“It’s just a dragonfly,” Corey said. In order to prove his point, he waded over to the dock where the dragonflies convened. He whacked one dragonfly, sending it into a spiral. “See.”
“I don’t like them,” I said. “I don’t like bugs.”
“They’re pretty bugs,” Lindsey said. “They look like wormmaids.”
“Mermaids,” I said. Lindsey was five. It was about time she pronounced her favorite animal correctly. “You say it mermaids.”
“I’m going to get a dragonfly,” Corey announced. He hunched his shoulders and held his arms out and bent as if he was hugging an invisible friend. Whenever a dragonfly zoomed by his face, he clamped his arms together. He, however, was too slow for the dragonfly, so Lindsey and I resumed our mermaid game.
“I want my wormmaid tail to be purple now,” she said, balancing on her hands in the water.
“No, you can’t change it, you can’t change it now, you said you wanted blue, so it’s blue and mine’s white. And it’s mermaid.”
Corey whooped as he had caught a dragonfly. I dunked under the water while he waded back to us. I lifted my eyes and nose out of the water and glared at the dragonfly cupped in his hand.
Lindsey was right; it was the color of mermaids. Pearly purples and blues and greens coated its body. It was as if the dragonfly had its own makeup set at home, like it made cream eye shadow from the insides of clam shells, like it dyed its skin with mica shavings. Its wings flickered in bursts, as it was conflicted as to whether it should attempt escape or succumb to its captor. Acquiescence meant loss, but freedom would come at the cost of scratched wings.
How could something so beautiful be so indecisive?
I looked over to the dragonfly habitation near the dock. They circled around the dock posts. I heard the tickering of their wings. Sometimes they crashed. A vagrant dragonfly would venture out over open water, and not one of his friends would follow him.
The dragonflies do not deserve their mermaid beauty. Their corolla of jewel tones harkens of royalty, yet they spoil their colors when they let a friend flit over water all by himself. Their eyes are bulbous and bright; they see the clouds and honey flowers and tree canopies, yet they choose to stay at the dock because it provides an easy rest.
I had finally taught Lindsey how to say “mermaid” when she was eleven, but by that point, we had stopped playing mermaids. She had also stopped wearing bikinis. She came to the lake wearing forgiving tankinis and ruffled one-pieces, but the superfluous fabric did not hinder her from kayaking and diving and splashing.
We play together at the Lake, yet my feet are not as calloused as Lindsey’s are. Raised in the no-name hills of Monmouth, Lindsey is a little country mouse. We fish, and she casts off better than I do. She will pet a slug, peer under the dock, and swim towards geese. I scoot away from slugs, walk on top of the dock, and throw popcorn to geese. It’s the price I pay for being raised in a suburb.
Although Lindsey is willing to eat braised stag meat and to stroke frogs, she loves pricy lotions, body washes, and body sprays. The end table and desk in her room are stacked with pastel-colored creams in Sweet Pea, Dancing Waters, and Forever Sunshine. Whenever I take a shower at her house, I choose from a lineup of exfoliating gels with Dead Sea extracts, all in electrically-charged shades of pink and blue. Lindsey will spritz herself in Coconut Verbena even if she is wearing a Monmouth soccer camp T-shirt, Adidas shorts, and flip-flops.
Whenever I sleepover at her house, I not only have more choice in luxury body care than Bath and Body Works, but Lindsey treats me to bedtime stories. I lie on her floor underneath layers of thin blankets, and she nestles into her menagerie of stuffed animals on her bed as she begins the next installment of the saga of Lindsey, the magical unicorn with a color-changing mane. Lindsey often meets Coreylina, who is bringing treats to Grandma’s house, or gets in a tiff with the Seven Shannies: Grumpy Shannie, Sleepy Shannie, Lazy Shannie, etc. Hailey the turtle and Emily the tiny, talking peanut like to cause mischief for the fabulous unicorn as well.
I am jealous of Lindsey’s imagination. She is two years younger than I am, and two years is just enough time to remember feeling her age and to detect a detachment from that epoch as well. She is constantly reminding me of my swift-coming adulthood. When we stand in the deepest part of the Lake, the water comes to her mid-thigh and to my knee. I watch her create ripples while she swims and think, I wish the water was that deep on me. I’d like to be able to dive in the water. What will I do at the Lake when I’m so tall that the water only covers my ankles? What will I do with the Lake then? At those moments, I hate both her and the Lake itself. Lindsey and the Lake tease me.
And then Lindsey shouts “Shannie!” and dares me to swim out far with her, and I am seven-years-old again.
Last summer, when I was sixteen, I worked at my Aunt Sally’s convenience store. The store was forty-five minutes from my house and only twenty from Nanny’s, so I lived with Nanny for those months. Nanny has an entire window of glass that faces the Lake. With the frosty morning light, the Lake shimmered in such a way that it seemed as if it was a sleeping child. I’ve often watched Emily sleep in the same way; she cradles her head on folded hands, her moistened, smooth lips parted, and she breathes in the rhythm of lapping waves.
My work day began at one o’ clock, so for four hours I had freedom. I usually watched television with Nanny while we drank Irish tea. Once, Lindsey came to stay with us one night. She woke me up at eight in the morning, since she was depleted of sunlight and needed her fix of it.
Nanny was leaning on the kitchen counter when we awakened. Lindsey walked with jaunts, and I shuffled my socked feet on the hardwood.
They still ached from the last day of work.
When Nanny asked what we would do today, Lindsey chirped, “We’re going to the Lake!”
“The Lake?” Nanny asked. She cocked her head at me, “Will you have time for that?”
“That’s why I’m up so early,” I said while rubbing my eyes.
“We’re going to kayak!” Lindsey said.
“Well, you better hurry,” Nanny said, “by the time you get the kayaks out and down there Shannie will have to leave. Now, eat breakfast.”
“No-,” Lindsey said. Her face gleamed. “Let’s eat breakfast on the kayaks!”
I looked at Nanny. She shrugged and said, “Well you better hurry,” before she reached over the refrigerator to get us a lunchbox.
Lindsey and I packed a breakfast of yogurt, apples, grapes, and an unhealthy amount of Fig Newtons. We crammed Newtons into our mouth, our lips and chins peppered with crumbs as we laughed at our venture.
We cracked open the bunk house and unearthed the kayaks. We dragged them down the craggy hill of Nanny’s house towards the lake. With a check right, left, and right again down the street, we crossed. Kicking our shoes into the kayaks, we pushed off into the sand with our bare feet, and paddled onto the expanse of water.
Underneath our kayaks, the lake-grass undulated to the tune of our paddles. The fresh sunlight coated them in a sheen. Lindsey reached down into the water and pulled out a strand of lake-grass that curled in a ringlet.
“Shannie, it looks like your hair!”
She threw it onto my kayak where it landed with a splat.
Once we had settled in a spot where the water was so deep that we couldn’t see any lake-grass, I held out my paddle and Lindsey reeled herself closer to me. I handed her a yogurt container.
As I ate my breakfast on the lake, I noticed how the persnickety, prickly pain of my feet had been soothed by the rocking of my kayak. With my legs spread in a butterfly shape, I leaned into the seat and bit into my Fig Newton with little chomps. Whenever Lindsey drifted from me, she held out her hand and I pulled her back. Lindsey tossed bits of food for the fish, and she threw grapes at me. The sunshine illuminated her tanned face, and she lifted her head towards it as if she was gazing at a portrait of herself at MoMA.
When we finished our breakfast, we paddled around the Lake. We chased a loon around. We passed underneath a bridge while a truck rumbled overhead. We plucked lily pads and shuddered at their slimy undercoating.
It was when Lindsey asked me if the boy I had been dating that summer was my boyfriend that I made peace with her perpetual youth. When my lips rounded in preparation for an answer, no adage with which I could enlighten her materialized. Instead, I slapped the water with my oar and said, “I don’t know.”
Neither of us knew anything about love. I had no answer to her question, and when I told her about my quasi-romance, she could not think of a definite label for it all either. If a friend my age had asked me the same question, we would have chewed up and spit out every detail of my situation, analyzing it bit by bit and concocting plans. Lindsey, however, was fourteen and too high on sunlight and summer to care. For however distant our age seemed to me, to the outsider we were only two girls on the Lake. Our giggles resounded the same way. We both wore our hair in braids. She had sucked me into the mindset of a fourteen-year-old, and I realized her power as my own fountain of youth.
My birthday is August 14th. At the end of the summer, after I spend a season at the Lake, I collect another year.
During the cold months, my mother, sister, and I visit Nanny, and the Lake is always there through the glass of her wall. But in the autumn, the verdant green of the glen mellows into a thick, opaque orange, and the water takes on a richer and velvety blue. The stars that had dappled the surface of the water sink. The colors of the Lake ripen and peak; they cannot retain the tender hues of summer.
We had a spiteful and endlessly inchoate winter that year. There had been no snow for months, so the world was suspended, and every person felt the tension in the skies, the indecisiveness of the clouds. With the Lake water shifting and rippling in the winter wind, its dynamism an anomaly in the winter, we were reminded of summertime, and any temptation we had to run down to swim was tempered by the acrid cold.
In January, the Lake finally froze. For the next six months, I cannot measure the Lake depth against my legs or kayak with Lindsey, and this heightens my anxiety. I feel the weight of my seventeen years. I cannot breathe underneath it.
Shannon Viola attends Gettysburg College where she studies Classics and Italian. Her previous publications include Teen Ink, Calliope, and Cleaver magazine. She attended the Bread Load conference and was a winner of the 2013 Mayborn National History Contest.