All the Avett girls are strong swimmers. In a county of cattle ropers and turkey shooters, this is what we’re known for. There’s nothing more peaceful than diving below the surface. The lake is my secret, my refuge.
But this is not a love story.
Asher Phipps is four years younger than me, but a good deal taller. When he was hardly more than a baby, his daddy, Otha, died in a threshing accident. Afterward, Asher’s momma was no good for anything anymore, so he started tagging after me. He had a sweet country lisp and a toy duck on a string. He used to follow me everywhere.
I watched him on yellow afternoons, showed him how to make pets out of beetles, and dolls from corn husks, took him swimming in the creek.
Now, he’s mostly grown and we haven’t spoken in years, though I still see him nearly every day in the summers. Sometimes, his mouth is open like he’s about to say something, but the sound never makes it all the way out. Sometimes I catch him looking at me, this raw, ragged look that I don’t know how to answer.
Before this business of misfortune and grief, he was the golden one, hero-strong and best-loved. As for me . . . well, I’m the girl from the lake. It’s been a long time since they didn’t find me strange.
Asher’s change was sudden, whereas mine happened so slowly that no one could make note of it for sure. I might have always been this way.
It wasn’t his momma dying, although that happened. And it wasn’t the recession, or not getting that scholarship. All those things were bad enough, but when he lost his sweetheart, his store of strength, of perseverance seemed to end.
When she died, the whole town turned out for the funeral. I did what I always do—went out to the lake and swam deep, looking for answers. In the murky glow of a stifled sun, I saw blackness and shadows, indistinct. I saw nothing.
This is not a story about revelations.
Before there was the lake, the town was situated at the lowest point in the country, snuggled in tight between two hills. When the steel plant came in, they needed water for cooling. They tore down the houses, carted out the planks and shingles. They left the foundations like a monstrous ruin, a long-forgotten world down in the weedy tangles and the mud.
On most days, I visit. I swim out to the middle and dive right down to the bottom. There in the gloom, I am closer to our past, running my fingers through silt and slime, reaching for a world that used to be ours, all lawns and carports, leaning garden sheds. Avett girls can hold their breath forever. I wind my way between rotting stumps where trees supported tire swings. We used to live here. I would live here again if I could.
This is not a story about coming home.
Asher runs what used to be his daddy’s bait shop, only now I guess it’s his. The shop was there when people used to go fishing in the creek, and now that the lake has taken over, the shop stands farther up the slope, just off a pair of barbecue pits and a rickety picnic area.
During the slow hours, Asher sits out on one of the broken-down picnic tables, waiting for sunset, for closing time. The girls from town come twitching around to see him, smiling cherry-red smiles and flirting with their eyelashes. They all want him to take and marry them, if only to have that triumph, to prove they each are fine enough that he’ll love them. If they can make him love them, then anyone will love them. His eyes are always somewhere off in the middle distance, and tragedy has a glamour to it, if you only wear it right.
This is not a story about sorrow.
It’s a slow, hot evening in August and when I come trudging up from the lake, I’m not startled to see a herd of girls gathered around Asher.
He looks up, looks past Annalee Marquart and Callie McCloud, to where I stand with my dripping hair and sopping canvas shoes.
“Viv,” he says, and his voice sounds cracked and rusty. Just my name. Nothing else.
Callie glances over her shoulder. She’s younger than me, but aggressively put together, with curled hair and heavy lipstick. When Asher stands up and pushes past her, she looks stricken, then furious.
He comes across to me, eyes fixed on my face. In the trees, seven-year cicadas are crying clear to Colvern County. “Viv,” he says, “can you tell me something? Just tell me what it’s like when you dive?”
And I don’t say anything, because it’s not the kind of thing you can say. I know what he’s asking, but that’s not the same as knowing how to answer.
I would comfort him, console him for his loss if I were still his friend. But was I ever?
This is not a story about loneliness.
How can a person ever know the true, honest heart of another?
This is what I’m thinking as we stomp and thrash our way through the canebrake with black flies and no-see-ums whining around our heads. This is what makes the goose pimples come out on my arms and the shudders run through me. Not the chill of my wet clothes, not anticipation of the crisp, authoritative splash when I break the surface. But this, this certainty that Asher is too far from me now to ever know me again and yet, he wants an antidote, expects me to cure him of his pain. At the bottom of the lake, there are the gloomy shipwrecks of memory, but no answers.
Fools like to talk about the little town church. They say it wasn’t dismantled, but only left behind. They claim the steeple stands even to this day, dark and ghostly, just visible when the water gets low. That’s nothing but a tale. I’ve been down a hundred times and never seen it.
This is not a story about God.
Asher wades out first. Just stumbles forward and plunges in. If it were me, I’d have walked farther down the shore, to where the bank slopes off and the ground is all bare gravel and fine sand.
He goes deeper, water churning up around him, and I’m struck by how badly I want to comfort him, fix it all if I could. I raised him half his life, but that was years ago, and it’s taken me this long just to uncover the mysteries of the place I grew up. I don’t know him anymore than he knows himself.
From the bank, I watch him flail away from me, toward a world he can’t survive and can never understand. The world on the bottom is mine alone, not because I conspire to keep it, but because no one else in the history of our incurious little town has taken the time to explore it.
“Asher,” I call, and then start after him. “Asher, wait. Why are you doing this?”
“Because you’re the only other person who knows what it’s like,” he says, looking back over his shoulder. “Because you know how it is to wish and wish for something you can’t ever have back.”
“It was never like that.” And now I’m splashing after him, shaking my head. I say it unashamedly and right out loud. “I never loved our town until they sunk it.”
He nods, but won’t look at me, standing hip-deep in the artificial lake, run through on the realization that I’m not broken. That he is wholly alone in his sadness, when all this time, he’s been so desperately sure it was the two of us.
His eyes are a pure, moody ice-grey, like swimming out to the center. Like going under.
This is not a love story.
Photo by flaneurin
Our prompt for the month is Arthurian Legends