DRAGGING THE LAKE

A young boy finds his summer taking a peculiar turn when his mother goes missing in Ethan Chapman’s short story. Illustration by Cristian Fowlie.

My father stands on the edge of the pier with a cigarette hanging limply from his mouth, watching me as I come up for air. I clamber into the boat and take off my goggles. I look over at him and shake my head and watch his posture sink ever so slightly, then I slink to the bottom of the boat and lie on the floor out of his eyeline, dripping and spreading and congealing.

For the past twenty-five days, he has stood on that pier sucking cigarettes down to their nubs, watching me as I search the lake for some sign of her. I’ve found nothing. The water is deep but clear, and as I search under its surface, I watch fish rush past and crabs crawl sideways away from me, as if suspicious to turn their backs. But, despite the water’s clarity, there’s only so much I can see.

After a while I sit up. He’s still there but I don’t look at him. Instead, I look around the lake and feel the last of the summer’s heat around me, trapped and lingering, pleasant yet oppressive, and then feel that cool slice of something else underneath. It’s a late August evening and, while it’s been hot and muggy for most of the summer, a chill has now attached itself to the breeze, signalling that autumn looms just over the horizon and with it, school. Flies hover above the surface of the water in the evening twilight, bouncing and dancing around each other while some steal away and land on my burnt shoulders. I beat them away and then grimace from the touch. From the weeks being out here in the heat, day after day, my sun-dried skin has wound itself taut around my body; any touch or movement threatening to split it into dusty pieces of parchment on which is written the memories of my summer. I’ve spent nearly every day of it looking for my mother.

 

*
 

Twenty-eight days ago, my mother and I were both laid on the grass by the lake. It was a warm morning and threatened to be an even warmer afternoon. We had brought a picnic and around us lay scattered remnants of sandwiches, biscuit and cracker crumbs. The summer holidays had only just started and everything felt full of possibility, the way a bright morning feels before it reaches mid-afternoon and those possibilities look different. We had lapsed into silence, not from any argument or disagreement but a mutual trailing off into thought. I lay propped up on an elbow watching an ant struggle with one of our sandwich crusts while my mother stood a short distance away at the edge of the lake. A pier jutted out farther down the shoreline like a solitary finger but she made no move toward it. She just stood there, toes in the water, staring out into something. I gazed at her for a while then turned to watch the ant steal away our leftover sandwich, falling off the picnic paper and flopping into the grass. When I looked up, she was gone. I frowned and looked towards the pier but couldn’t see her. I looked back toward the place she had been and saw the water rippling, as if trying to reassert itself after being disturbed.

Had she gone in?

I looked up and down the shoreline but her clothes were nowhere to be seen. Had she walked in with them on? I looked around, expecting her to be over by a tree or lying on the grass but she wasn’t there. She had gone.

I sat still and waited for her to reappear, until the seconds turned into minutes and every second after that became a sharpened object that needled more panic into me. I called her name, softly at first, and then I began to shout for her. My anxiety began to swirl while the water remained calm. Birds chirped somewhere out of sight. Everything was normal, everything except the torrent that was pulsing and building inside of me, the surroundings shimmering and dulling around me, pulling in and out of focus as if I were looking at them through a broken screen. The day became too hot, the light reflecting off the water too bright, everything vibrating and threatening to explode.

I screamed variations of her name as if trying them on for size: ‘Mum! Mother! Mummy!’ She responded to none of them.

At some point, I stopped calling for her. I waited there until evening, just sat there, my throat raw and in pieces, until eventually a numbness crept over me. There was no worry or anxiety anymore. That had vanished along with my mother. Now there was only an acceptance. I just somehow knew that she wasn’t coming back.

I watched the shadows steadily reach out from the bottoms of things as night took over from day and hoped that my cries might still be carrying to wherever she was, reverberating off the water like skipping stones or flashes of light. But, when the shadows began to engulf everything and she still hadn’t returned, I picked up the picnic basket and walked home.

After I told my father what had happened he disappeared for a couple of days. A few afternoons later, as I sat in the kitchen, I watched his truck pull back into the driveway. A small wooden rowing boat lay in the bed of it. I watched him get out and stand by the door.

‘Son,’ he called. ‘Son?’

I didn’t respond because in that moment I felt a stab of something close to fear. It was hard to pinpoint why I felt that way. Maybe it was a premonition, a vague fear of what his grief stricken brain had cooked up for me in the days that he had been gone. I didn’t know what the boat was for but I wanted no part of it, so I stayed quiet. I watched panic begin to stretch taut across his face. He shouted for me then and I watched as he came bounding up to the front door and through it. When he saw me his face slackened with relief and he leaned against the door, breathing deeply. As he stood there I took notice of his greasy complexion, so damp I could almost see my reflection. I took note of his patchy facial hair on a face that he normally kept clean shaven. I took note of his bloodshot eyes that looked like they hadn’t closed in months; that appeared raw, burned, as if they had stared too long at something hot and inflamed. I tried not to look at any part of him, and when he told me to get into the truck I did so without looking up.

‘We’re going to find your mother,’ he said as we drove down the dirt road that led to the lake, and then began to repeat it like a mantra. ‘We’re going to find your mother. We’re going to find your mother.’

I had been looking down into my lap since we had left the house, not glancing at him once, but I looked up at him then and when I did, I saw a man at his wits end; his brain feverish and his eyes maniacal. He vibrated and twitched and jittered as if he had been hurriedly scribbled into existence. I quickly looked back down again and tried to forget what I had just seen. This person sat next to me wasn’t my father anymore.

When we reached the lake, I sat holding my seatbelt tight, staring at the spot where my mother and I had sat a lifetime ago. Part of me had expected her to be sitting there, waiting for us. Expected her to come over laughing and apologising for her cruel joke and for all the worry she had caused us. But there was nothing. I felt more emptiness begin to steal over me.

My father got out and went around to the back of the truck. I listened to him struggle and curse before finally getting the boat off the truck bed and down into the water. I heard him come up from the lake toward the side of the truck and every instinct told me to get out, to run, to get away from this desperate man who only looked like my father but inside was something different altogether. But I didn’t. I sat still as he opened the door, let him take a hold of my arm, let him put me in the boat, and I sat in silence as I let him push me out into the place where my mother had vanished.

 

*
 

For the last twenty-five days, this is what I’ve done, day after day. My father will help me untie the boat, help me into it and then push me out. Watching me with a cigarette attached to his lips, he’ll expect me to dive in and search the lake for a body, for clothing, for something tangible, because to him it just doesn’t make sense for her to disappear. But I’ve covered every part of the lake — every square inch, every round inch, everything. She isn’t here. She’s gone and I wonder when will enough be enough? When will stubbornness give way to doubt and doubt give way to acceptance? When will he know what I know? When will he assume defeat? Tomorrow I know we’ll carry on with this never-ending search. It’s become an obsession and I’m unsure whether he’s doing this to punish me because he blames me for her disappearance, or because deep down in his half-eaten psyche this makes sense to him. The two of us are trapped in our own fever dreams, me in one world being cooked by the elements and him in another, his obsession bubbling over in his overcooked brain. How long can this continue? What happens when school starts? Will I even return? My friends who I’ve not seen all summer will see that I’m not there. Will they wonder where I am? Or will I just disappear like my mother, forgotten, nothing more than an empty desk that’s eventually filled by another.

That part of my life already feels like a life lived by another person. All my memories of school and friends seem far away, like a dream that’s dissolving more and more by the day. I feel detached from it, unsure now if that life ever happened to me at all. My mother has dragged us into murky waters and now we’re stuck in our own little mad corner of the world as my father threatens to drag me away from what’s sane, from what’s real. There’s a chasm between us now that’s deeper than any lake or ocean and it’s becoming hard to remember what any of us were like before this.

But I have a secret. My father doesn’t know that I’ve stopped looking. He doesn’t know that for the past twenty-four days, I’ve done nothing but dive to the bottom, chase fish and admire the strangeness that exists under the surface of things. It’s a little foothold in a summer holiday that hasn’t been my own.

That’s not to say I didn’t look initially. That first day, spurred on by my own guilt and my father’s obsessive drive, I dived down there looking for my mother like a madman. I scraped my way along the bottom, searched under rocks, scratched and dug holes in the floor, doing nothing but kicking up dirty clouds of earth. I felt responsible and needed to find her or at least a part of her, something to make my father happy, to mend what was broken. But she didn’t want to be found. She still doesn’t.

So I pretend to go along with my father’s obsession. Burning in the heat, the water steaming as my cooked body dives into it, I pretend to search the lake. And sometimes, while he thinks I’m searching for my mother, I’ll sit on the lake floor and watch my father’s form from the pier break apart and shift in the current, his body splitting and connecting in varying degrees of completion as he stands there hoping and praying that I’ll find her. And I’ll feel safe from him for just a little while. But each time I stay under a little bit longer, because one day I know I won’t come up. Because underwater is where I can finally breathe.


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