My grandmother was Catholic, and so was that lake.
Some of them-the Catholics, I mean-believe that Hell stretches deep into the earth beneath
us, that instead of magma and bedrock, you’ll see heretics entombed in fiery coffins, misers pushing rocks endlessly under the watchful eyes of Plutus, and the gluttonous marinating in freezing mud and filth.
Deeper still, at the very center, Hell has frozen over. These are where the treacherous lie, in
their undead agony, paralyzed by ice from Lake Cocytus, the Wailing River, as it is so nicknamed, though I suspect very little wailing goes on here. Just the chattering of teeth.
Lakes, in any case, are silent.
The ocean whispers, unendingly, and sometimes if you stand at the edge of the shore at
night and close your eyes, you can hear the secrets of the depths. Old secrets about the beginning of the world, and predictions of the end, and sometimes a piece of advice. Rivers shout, and they shout nonsense mostly, though a few shout for you to piss off and go home, though the frothing water usually serves as a better warning than the noise itself. Streams and brooks, as you know, babble, and gossip like young girls eager to trade rumors about another unlucky girl who is not within their circle.
But lakes are different. Lakes have much to say, many stories to tell, but they remain silent.
The bigger ones feel like tangible emptiness. That much water surely must be the ocean, and hold the same vastness. But when you sniff the air, there’s no salt. The sand is younger, sharper, and cuts your feet if you don’t know where to step. Fish litter the shore. Their eyes are always gone, and there is an absence of flies around them. Lakes keep their secrets, they do not speak, so people assume they mean them no harm.
That’s why people keep dying in them.
The Great Lakes are just as the name describes-great. They lie at the edge of the United
States and Canada, the Midwest’s nautical claim to fame. People don’t seem to know how large these lakes truly are. Working together, they could cover over a third of Europe. Lake Superior alone could just about swallow Austria, but Superior isn’t my lake.
My lake is the baby of the bunch, Lake Erie. Like all the others, he’s deep, about two
hundred and ten feet at his deepest, and people forget that that’s still deep enough to swallow the sunlight that tries to touch those sandy depths. He’s cold too-in the winter he freezes over entirely, and a lonely lighthouse will be covered in waves that splash up and freeze midair, like daggers suspended over an endless gray sky.
It was winter when it happened, though I don’t live by the lighthouse. I was at the shoreline
for some godforsaken reason, probably just bored and unable to think of anything more interesting to do other than sit in the cold and be miserable for a while. It was mid-January. I remember that because that’s when everything turns ash gray for a solid three months before daffodils and crocuses start to build up the guts to peek out through the snow. We’d been in gray mode for barely three weeks and I was already entertaining myself with slushy beach walks.
It was evening, and the invisible sun was rapidly setting. The beach was abandoned, though
I could see a few of the shoreline houses in the distance turning on their porch lights for the night. Though the clouds hung low and heavy over me, there was no wind. Ice had coated the lake, and it silenced the gentle rush of waves against the sand that I was used to hearing.
Then I heard something else.
It was distant, and rolled like thunder, but more than distinct enough to make me jerk my
head up and look around wildly. It was some kind of horn, not a car’s, with an odd breathy start and even odder lilt at the end that almost made it sound like it was saying “Hello-o-o-o-o-o!”. If I was forced to identify it, I suppose I would call it a foghorn. Didn’t sound like any foghorn I’d ever heard, though. But I looked towards the direction of the foghorn and froze.
Over the water, there was a light.
Like I said, I didn’t live near the lighthouse. There were no boats on the water. And yet,
there it was, a perfectly placed light with a foghorn that greeted me like another person.
It seemed to stare at me for a moment, sallow yellow but steady. I stared back, frozen, as if
daring it to blink first. It didn’t-merely slowly shifted, disappearing for a moment before
reappearing, and I realized it was slowly rotating.
“Hello-o-o-o-o-o-o-o!” The foghorn greeted me again.
By all accounts, it seemed as though a lighthouse had appeared in the middle of winter. I
couldn’t see otherwise-I could barely make out my own hands by this time, it was so dark. But
my curiosity tugged at me like a hook on a fish, and I knew about the rock jetty leading into the
I scrambled onto it, nearly slipping off the icy stone, but managed to find my footing. The
light was close, closer than any lighthouse I knew of, but it still rotated, and still called out to me. I kept my head down, focusing on my footing so I didn’t fall, pausing when I heard the same
“Hello-o-o-o-o-o!”, only this time farther. I looked up, shocked to find that the light had moved
from me when I looked away from it.
The hook tugged harder, and now I wasn’t just traversing the jetty out of curiosity. Now I
was annoyed. The lighthouse (I had decided it was definitely a lighthouse by now) was calling to me, staring at me, and then had the gall to pull away when I was only trying to follow directions?
Why it made me mad is something I don’t understand now, and maybe I never will. Maybe
I don’t want to.
I was moving faster now, nearly chasing this fleeing lighthouse. Before my eyes, it seemed
to never get any closer, moving perfectly in tandem with me to drive me crazy as the jetty grew icier and the rocks to walk on became more and more sparse. By now the spinning light was my only guidance. Anytime it disappeared for a rotation, I was left in total darkness.
“Hello-o-o-o-o-o-o!” The lighthouse called, and I took a desperate leap over a gap, and felt
freezing water nip at my ankles before I landed on the other side. The lake surface was fighting to escape his icy cover.
“Hello-o-o-o-o-o-o!” The lighthouse jeered, and I had to employ the three point rule-lake
and ocean kids remember this one-to conquer a particularly unfriendly rock. I could hear the wind whistling, and it bit my uncovered nose and ears.
“Hello-o-o-o-o-o-o!” The lighthouse called, one final time, and the light abruptly swiveled,
much closer than it had been before. It focused on me, much brighter than it had been before, as if the sun came back only for a moment, and only a couple feet away from my face.
I stumbled, blinded, and fell into the lake.
I don’t remember much beyond that, but I remember the cold. There’s a point in
temperature where you can’t tell the difference between what’s cold and what’s hot anymore-it all hurts the same. But you can tell it’s cold because of a few things.
Cold steals from you, very much unlike fire. The cold saps the warmth from you like a
magnet warps iron shavings, sucking your very life force from your blood. It changes you, mentally and physically, bending your spine to curl in on itself in a useless effort to stop the cold from wriggling into your center like a parasitic worm, to drain whatever the initial shock didn’t
originally take. It takes your breath too, like a solid punch to the gut, something that doesn’t help when you’re already underwater.
I remember my eyes, burning up with cold but frozen open, seeing what lies below the ice.
And it was nothing. I think I understood then, for a moment. This is what the lake was, at least for me. At least for sane minds. He feasted on light and warmth, even in July. He held secrets from when he was still a glacier, secrets he would never give up. The lake was dark, cold, and utterly alien. Not even hostile; and that was worse. He didn’t care what became of me. I was a blink in his history, a history that would long outlive me and everything I knew, no matter how many toxins we used to try and kill him.
The only other people who understand that are the dead.
I woke up in the hospital, miserable beyond belief, but alive. Somehow, someone in their
lake house had seen me traversing the jetty and watched me fall in. They were able to run down and grab me- apparently, I hadn’t gone as far down the jetty as I had thought.
They didn’t mention a lighthouse.
I had pneumonia, of course, and a few other ailments that one might catch when they
nearly drown in ice. But I was released quickly, and was able to be sick and pitiful in the comfort of my own home.
All this was years ago. The lake doesn’t freeze over as often now, and the mayflies are back
now that the water they drink isn’t filled with poison. Sometimes children will hazard a dip in the water. But eyeless fish corpses still wash up, and everyone-even tourists who like to poke things with sticks-give them a wide berth. The sand still slashes your feet. The jetty is still dangerous. Some things never change.
Sometimes, I can tell myself I saw a boat out there and was foolish enough to slip.
Sometimes, I can tell myself that the fathomless depths were my panicked mind thinking I was inches from death.
But sometimes, in the dead of winter, a chill uncurls itself in the very center of my
being, somewhere that can’t be warmed, no matter how many blankets I employ, no matter how close I sit to the fire. Sometimes, I can feel a cruel wind biting at my face, and it hurts to blink.
And sometimes, in the dead of night, I hear a lighthouse calling.
It sounds like it’s waiting.