All the Water in the World
A lake is a black hole for sound. The wind, the crack of a hammer, the cries of birds and children weave a rim of noise around the water, making its silence more profound. When a turtle or a fish breaks the surface, the sound appears to come from within. Maddy, who is a natural philosopher, would want to know whether it really is sound, or just the possibility of sound, that issues from such breaches. I mention Maddy because to have a child is to have a twofold mind. No thought or action belongs to me alone. This holds true more than ever now.
Every morning that summer I made my way to the dock, moving my cup of coffee up and down to prevent a spill. Some days when I arrived, the mist was a thick white lid. Some days it was lifting to expose the pan of still water. Some days I could see circles of rain popping out on the lake before the drops reached my skin. Robin never came with me. He was busy building the new room in the attic, a blank place that smelled of raw wood and glue and had a completely different light from the rest of the house. Being up in the thick part of the pines, it should feel like a tree house if it’s ever finished.
When I reached the shore, the day I met our neighbor, the mist had already cleared. The colors were intense, almost unbearably so: sap green, white gold, blue of every kind. The dock wobbled underfoot as I stepped down, making me aware of both the mass and the instability of water. I set my cup on the low table at the end and brushed the dew off the two Adirondack chairs, whose green surface was bubbled and flaking. Those chairs needed repainting, but I knew if I mentioned it
to Robin he would say in his hearty voice, “Hey, Eve, that’s a good job for you!” and I have more than enough to do while I’m here.
Standing to face the lake, I indulged in a moment of play, as though I were on a stage with the curtain closed behind me. I swung my arms. I did fifty jumping jacks. I mimed a person singing or shouting, until I felt myself to be rising, clothed in feathers and scales, a creature that forgets everything and lives by its wits.
I sat and sipped my coffee. Before me, the pine trees pointed up and their reflections pointed down, just as convincing as the real ones, and I allowed myself a few moments to believe in this second world.
At the far shore, something puckered the glassy surface. A kayak, paddling purposefully in my direction. There was plenty of time to retreat, but I stayed put. Must be the newcomers who were rebuilding the house across the way. They’d painted the house yellow. It is so exposed that we think they have violated the bylaws of the lake association charter. We think some shoreline trees must have been cut down to give them a better view. This also gives us an unwelcome view of a bright yellow house. It has even found its way into the reflection. Maddy would agree the color yellow is garish for a house. Garish may not be her word, but it is perfectly apt. Tawasentha, the highest natural lake east of the Rockies, has always been, and will always remain, a no-motorboats, cabin-in-the-woods kind of place, no matter how big the cabins have become. Forty years ago, when my father bought the lot, people built their own houses. Dwellings are still supposed to be some shade of brown or gray. The world needs all the trees it can get.
The kayak advanced toward me, dragging the shattered reflection along behind it. The occupant was a woman of about my age. She coasted alongside the dock, smiling openly. Her hair was pulled back into what resembled a reddish ball of yarn, and her arms and face were covered with freckles, which the sun had blurred but not managed to melt into a tan. The paddle across her knees was dripping from both
ends. She certainly wasn’t the person I imagined would come from that house. I sat above her on the dock and waited.
“Is everything okay? You were waving. I thought maybe you needed help.”
“I was doing yoga,” I said, touched but annoyed to hear the word help spoken so casually.
The stranger’s intense blue eyes passed over me. I don’t think she believed me for a minute. “I’m Norma. Your new neighbor.” She gestured with her paddle, scattering drops. “We’re doing things to the place before moving in. I hope it hasn’t been too much of a nuisance. The noise, I mean.”
I shook my head. When I said nothing, she raised her paddle as if to lever the kayak backward. That was when I surprised myself by inviting her to join me on the dock. By the time she had tied up her boat, wiped her hands on her shorts, and sat down, I was already regretting my invitation. Our chairs were awkwardly close, but I could hardly adjust their position now. Nor could I finish drinking my coffee in front of her, or give in to the solitary pleasure of holding the mug between my hands and inhaling the steam. There was nothing to do but gaze together lakeward. Chitchat was in order. Better to get it over with.
“You have a family?”
“Three kids. Luke’s eight, Ben’s six.” Norma grinned. “Tanner’s forty-two.”
“I’ve got one of those. He’s in his playroom at the moment.” I nodded in sisterly fashion toward the house, although in spite of the messy marriage he’d left behind and occasional bouts of glumness, Robin was as grown up as they come. I leaned forward to study a dragonfly shimmering on the arm of my chair. I’ve always been fascinated by the way they alight and lift off without warning.
Looking up, I said: “I guess your house needs a lot of work.”
“Gutting, boiling, starting over from the ground up? According to Tanner. He’s an architect. I kind of liked it the way it was.”
“I don’t think the Gibsons had touched that place since the seventies. They kept the wood shingles. They left the shoreline trees alone . . .”
“Rustic charm, I think it’s called,” said Norma.
“You’ve picked an unusual color.”
She waved at her kayak, moored below. “First thing we did. I have a thing about yellow. My mother’s favorite color.”
I did not mention the bylaws. Instead I steered the conversation toward the goings-on of the association. Any pause I filled with a question. Was she native to Pennsylvania or a transplant? How had they come to buy the lot? Did her husband’s practice give him much time with the boys? I learned about Tanner’s loopy business partner and Ben’s tantrums. I studied Norma’s face as she recounted her children’s foibles in tones of high bemusement, as if motherhood were a hilarious accident that had happened to her while she’d been looking the other way.
She stopped talking and frowned into the sun. Under the freckles her skin shone as if lit from within. I felt a longing for the easy company of women. I know my smile is an unnerving thing these days. Still, I smiled at her when she turned, and she reached out and put her hand under mine, making me jump.
“Classy,” she said, meaning I did not look like the kind of person who would paint my nails. Purple this week, with diagonal white stripes. I snatched my hand back. What on earth was she doing here? How much did she know?
“I do it for Maddy,” I said.
Norma held my gaze. “Who is Maddy?”