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ADELAIDE Independent Bimonthly Literary Magazine / Revista Literária Independente Bimensal, New York / Lisboa, Online Edition  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

INDIA LAKE
By Patricia Trentacoste

 

 

 

 

Marnie’s cottage rises out of a stand of aspens on a hillock over India Lake.  The slope is a gentle one, with long grasses, stony footholds, purple tea-root, and poisonous vines.  Those, she allows to grow wild, because too much beauty makes her jumpy.  Three years ago, when she inherited the place, it was a deep-hued plum full of lucky juice, but it rolled uphill to her on the cracked heels of her parents’ accidental deaths.  A faulty choke line and too many on-board fireworks took their lives, the same month she’d graduated from Penn State, in astrophysics, of all things, as her mom used to add, to disguise her shameless pride.

One minute, Marnie was applying for a job at the Hayden Planetarium in New York.  The next, she was waking up in her old room, alone, paralyzed with grief, but flush with cash and real estate.  There’d been a year of boozing, weeping and mismanaging her inheritance, before she landed a job as an online editor for an astronomy organization: cosmical dot org.  She works from home now, where the cottage, the lake, the morning crow who comes to check on her, the bees who work goo into the gabled beam-wood, the rise of the moon, and the slope of the sun, all comfort her.  She loves the house and the house loves her.

Hoping to borrow Marnie’s kitchen for a day, her best friend Ava left several messages in a row.  After the fifth ring, Marnie stroked the old land line’s receiver and picked up, humidity crackling along the old mouse-chewed lines. 

Tomatoes,” Ava said, stretching out the long a in the middle.  “Straight from my garden.  The best Roma’s and Black Krim’s you can raise in Michigan.  We’ll put up a dozen quarts each.  Crimson treasure, darlin’.  I wouldn’t ask but I need your stove.”  Her voice was effusive, rushing into Marnie’s ear as if she’d forgotten what week it was for them both—death week.  Or maybe she remembered and this was her way of coping.

“Canning, here?” Marnie took a gulp of coffee.  “I’m barely awake.  Give me a minute.”  She scuffed across the floor in her flip-flops to prop the porch door with a rock and sniff the air.  That’s when the heat quickened inside her, like an egg wanting to hatch or dozens of them ready to burst into a spawn stream.  How odd.  Over canning?  “It’s going to be a scorcher, Ava.  Have you been outside?  Wouldn’t you rather go to the lake?”

“Oh, come on, Ben promised to help.”

Marnie quieted and placed the phone on her chest.  Ben was Ava’s late husband’s only brother—the surviving twin.  He was also the eternal spawn stream in Marnie’s gut.  She parted the branches of her mother’s Fichus tree and looked down to where the lake was a hazy, golden mirror of the Michigan sky.  “Why not?” she heard herself saying.  “Bring your mess and bring that brother-in-law of yours.  Let’s boil and smash some fruit!” the taste of panic already in her mouth.

Pinging gravel drew her running down the steps.  They’d arrived mid-morning.  With lots of babble about the alchemy of Mason jars—how you can make one thing out of something else entirely—Ava offered a quick cheek for a kiss, no eye-contact.  Setting down a box, Ben gave her a shy hug.  “Hi, Marn, how’ve you been?” 

She bit her lip and shrugged, noticing the thin scar under his chin from that time he fell off the dock when they were kids.

Bushels of tomatoes, two canners, jars, strainers, lids and seals, bags of sweet basil and papery garlic swept inside with them.  Ava shook out stiff white aprons and passed them around with a flourish in her wrists.  Ben set the fans in place, carefully moving cords out of tripping reach.  He inspected a bit of corner-round under one of the cupboards. 

“Your work?” Marnie asked him.

“Was it done right?” He cocked his mouth.
 
“I suppose so,” she teased.

“Then, yeah, it’s my work,” grinning now.  It was good to see that wide-open smile coming right at her. 

“Ben?”  Ava called him over to the sink for help with a canner. 

Marnie could have predicted it, the way Ava seeks and gets his attention.  This time it made her want to toss a tomato at a wall, just one for effect.  Would it make the room look like a crime scene?  Splat, blood-spray, a living thing transmogrified?  You’re an awful person, she said to herself.  Really awful, today of all days.  Be nice to her. 

Ava saw her looking at the thermometer on the pantry door, eighty-one degrees, already.  Quickly, she flipped it over.  They labored through the long tide of the day until quarts of scarlet puree rose in columns, popping their seals like good little soldiers.  Through all their talk of pot wars and permaculture, she had not once invoked the dead brother to win a point.  She’d let the praises of clean food and green medicine flow until every word and surface had a seed stuck to it, including the underside of Ben’s jaw.  Both brothers had that jaw, like they stored tobacco in their cheeks or chewed gum till their face muscles were legible. 

She considered licking it off his face.  Ben wiped his chin, missing the seed entirely, making the fish inside Marnie’s belly wriggle a second time.  

Just then Ava slipped and Ben leapt from his chair to catch her in his arms.  Laughing, they looked at the tile for the culprit.  A small tangle of garlic skins, that’s what it was. 

Marnie wilted.  Look here, aren’t all the tomatoes red, round and luscious, the promise of alchemy in our perfect little bodies?  When a drubbing noise started up out back, thud-ping, thud-ping, she cocked her ear toward the windows.  Giant beetle bugs were banging against the screens and buzzing in fits as they skittered off the metal weave.  It was exactly what she wanted to do, flip onto her back and spin a while.  It wasn’t only them.  She felt wildly overheated, inside her mind and in her extremities, reckless and unopposable. 

When a leaf fell in a slow drift to the window-sill, she glanced over at the tomato-people.  They were shoulder-to-shoulder at the sink now, deseeding, with heads bent like gourds on wilted vines, so she slipped outside and worked herself through some picker bushes to retrieve the leaf.  After tucking it inside her pocket, she rubbed her thumb over its leathery seams.  Why had she done such a screwy thing?  She knew why.  There was too much Ava in the house.  Not enough Zachary.  He was too absent, too dead.  Thinking such thoughts made her a bad person again. 
“What’s up?” Ben asked when she came back inside.   

“There’s a hoot-y owl…” trailing off, pointing toward the lake and glancing up at the clock.  Her face felt scarlet, the leaf, supple between her fingers.                                                

Ava set her strainer with its pulpy undertow onto a spoon rest.  “You’re miserable, Marn.  I’ve taken this too far.  Sorry, kiddo.  I really am,” smiling guiltily.  “What a Saturday, eh?”  As she leaned forward to mop her midriff with the limp hem of her apron, her hair tumbled around her shoulders.  Twisting it into a braid, which fell apart instantly, she sighed with the failure.  This was Ava’s signature gesture, twirling her hair into place without combs or clips or any idea of how needy or sensual she could be. 

“No worries,” Marnie assured her.  “We’re coming to the end of it.”  She dripped the last of the Sangria into their glasses while rolling an ice cube up and down her neck

Eyeballing her, Ben pushed a bowl of cashews away and turned in his chair.  The cowlick in the back of his head whorled opposite to Zac’s.  “Anyone else getting a headache from this stuff?”  For a second, his face darkened and he looked rather ragged.  Maybe the headache was real.

“It’s Sangria,” Marnie explained, “it’s supposed to be sweet-ish.”                                                      “Swedish?  Now, why should a Spanish wine be Swedish?”

Fine.  She and Ava laughed at his joke and repeated the word Swedish like a couple of flirts until Marnie moved the pitcher to the sink-top for good.  She didn’t mean to make a show of it, but her hands were wet.

“Cutting us off, Marn?” Ava asked.  “You know best.  I can always count on you to know best.”  But she wasn’t looking at Marnie, she was looking at Ben. 

“Can you?” Marnie felt her lips tighten.  “Maybe you shouldn’t.” 

Ava frowned.  “What’s going on with you, Marnie?  You’re so, you’re so pensive.”  

At first Marnie waved her hand around the room at the mess in her kitchen, at the glaringly obvious imposition, but what came out of her mouth surprised even her.  Deeper and drier all the sudden, her voice sounded like someone else’s.  “He is gone, you know.  Zac.  He’s gone.  He chose his time and place—that day, that wide open Tennessee sky,” her voice now like scraped bark.  “When are we going to let him get on with it?” 

They stared at her. 

Pulling the leaf out of her pocket, she slapped it hard on the table.  An empty jar wobbled.  “I wonder what he thought about on his way down?  Don’t you ever?  Wonder, that is?  I mean, we never speak of it.  Why shouldn’t we?  Now, tonight.”  She grabbed her own chest with both hands, wrist over wrist and hung on.  “I want to talk about it.  Let’s talk about it—.” 

Ava cried instantly and Ben stood up so fast he sent a jar of juice crashing to the floor.  “Marnie!”  Red and sparkling glass spread over the tiles and seeped into the grout.

She kept talking.  “At least the man died the way he lived, our Zachary—higher than most.”  A bitter laugh shot out of her.  “The damn fool.  Damn fools, the lot of them.  My parents.  Fire-works?  Are you kidding me?” 

There!  At last.  Those few essential words.  She’d been the one to say them and in the saying of them disrespected the dead, though not much, because Zac, for one, would have approved of her stupid joke.  He would have knocked his fist on her shoulder, put his forehead against hers and made her look back at him cross-eyed, because he was also the keeper of their clan’s merriment, the dispeller of their illusions.  She may not have been his wife or his sister, or his twin like Ben, but she loved him too, she loved him like a…, like a what?  Like a friend would love a friend.  How she missed him.   As for her parents.  Well, they forgave her every fault all her life, out of love.

Ava pushed her chair from the table and gracefully walked down the hall to the bathroom, trailing her fingers along the wall, while Ben stood over Marnie, confused.  It was like a horrific noise had resounded in the distance, an explosion too deafening to be heard, an undefinable letting loose.  Someone had spoken of letting Zachary be once and for all in the place where he was.  For two years, they had not spoken of the awful way he died.  Not the three of them like this—boozy, irreverent, unclear about what happened on the day their risky master gardener fell to his cartoonish death. 

The truth was, Zac knew better than anyone what he gambled every time he plied his trade, as he called it, buying and selling huge quantities of medicinal marijuana, dispensing the product personally to chemo and epilepsy patients, escalating risk for himself.  Divvying and free-trading was how he made his living decent, he’d said.  But he hadn’t lived.  According to the pilot he unbuckled his seatbelt while cloud-cruising a grower’s field over an Appalachian bluff.  It was a mistake.  He was reaching for something when the helicopter lurched.  That’s what the pilot said.  For all any of them knew, he might have plummeted on purpose.  Or been pushed.

A bead of sweat trickled down Marnie’s spine and cooled inside her waistband.  Then another and another.  Finally, she kneeled down and began to sop up the mess on the tile, picking glass out of the grout lines and dropping it into the bowl of her stiff apron, the blood of tomatoes on her hands, swearing she could smell cannabis burning out where the beetles gathered.  Oh, Zachary, I hurt them.  That wasn’t the plan. 

Ava returned quietly and reclaimed her chair.  Her face was washed, her nose still red. 

As he slumped into his, Ben patted Ava’s shoulder while wrenching his apron off and tossing it into the sink.  “There are days,” he began, “when I think he knew exactly what he was doing.”  His two hands flicked open and trailed almost delicately down through the hot kitchen air.  “Free-falling—like that … right out of existence … obliterated by a single false move.” 

The fact that Ava didn’t flinch, told Marnie, she’d considered this herself, that her husband on some level volunteered for death.  They’d all considered it.

Ben continued, “I try to tell myself, he dodged something worse.  But what could be worse?  Implosion of the Ozone?  Jail time?”  He softened his voice and looked at his hands.  “He could have been having a bad day.  Been off his game.”  When his eyebrows arched upward, his face flushed, not the way Zac’s would, from the ears forward, but like a rising ventricular tide.  He shook his head, “They say we shared brainwaves.  So, I should have known, right? ... that he was headed in the wrong direction, addicting himself to danger? 

“What’s worse is, I’ll never know.  Did he get out just in time or not in time?   Out of his life, I mean.  Even if I did, if we knew, would it be any easier?  I want a new story.  A lie will do.”  He looked at Ava.  He looked at Marnie.  “Sorry, Marnie.  We shouldn’t have come here, today of all days.”

But before Marnie could respond, Ava uncoiled and arched forward, her voice breaking open, “Whatever!” she snapped in as sarcastic a tone as Marnie had ever heard her use.  “Here’s what I know.  When he fell out of that thing he took me with him.  I am no longer me.  I am someone else.  I hate everything about my life,” her voice broke again.  It was so final, this pronouncement.  Marnie wanted her to do so much more, say more.  She wanted her to take her grief by the throat and deprive it of oxygen.  But Ava merely did something she’d seen her do often, though she hadn’t understood it.  She stared at Benjamin who was now trying to insert two jar rims inside each other.  A startling came over Ava then an intake of breath.   

She’s looking for him!  Marnie realized.  Looking for Zac.  And she’s found him in the still-living man. 

Ben rose to his full height as if every bone in his body was made of something sharp, took the reddened cloth from Marnie’s hands and untied her apron, catching a shard in his knuckle which he removed with his teeth.  He pulled her off her knees and gentled her into a chair, then went out back to shake his brother out of the towel.

Silence, staring, sweating tomatoes, the swiff-swiff of the fans, the insect frenzy on the patio.  Grief and loss gone awry.  Ava reaching aggressively across the table toward Marnie, Marnie not drawing back or moving forward.  Eyes suddenly wild, Ava clutched a strand of Marnie’s hair and twirled it into a tight coil, tugged on it till it pinched, till she drew tears and even then, did not let go.  Ben was too far away to see that after Ava loosened her grip, a painful tuft of Marnie’s brown-black hair was curling in and around Ava’s fingers.  She rose to deposit the strand in the waste basket, looking at it almost hostilely, then absently, as if she didn’t know where it came from. 

When Ben stepped back inside, Ava, in a clear bright voice said, "Let’s go swimming."  It was a few minutes after midnight. 

~

Ben headed for the tall grass in a shoreline thicket where he stripped off his clothes in pieces.  Unclasping her sandals nonchalantly, Marnie watched him.  First, his T-shirt, hung on a branch.  Then his Bermuda’s.  He draped his boxers over a craggy, low-limbed tree crotch and set his shoes one at a time at its feet.  Being raw, being himself inside his body as if his skin clothed him and he wasn't naked at all.  Deep in black wavy grasses with mosquitoes and robber flies, he waited as Marnie laced her arm in Ava’s and lead her to the water’s edge.  She didn’t hold Ava’s violence against her.  She was glad for it.  It was honest.

In one clean motion, Ben leapt from the shadows and swam hard until his head emerged as a dark sphere in the small lake, his silhouette moving in and out of the moonlight.  When he reared and let out a whoop, a spray haloed his mane.  He was as alive as any man could be.  Ava dove in and caught up to him, a willing fish on his line.  Together they headed for the far shore, four arms rising and dipping in even rotation. 

But when Marnie thrust out her arms to push off, an owl screamed.  It was low-flying and close.  She lost her footing and skidded on her heels, stumbling rather than diving into the black water below.  Kicking hard, she swam for the top, coughing and spanking the surface to upright herself.  Did they see?  She spun around.  No, they were off in the shadows.  She began paddling more smoothly until the water glided past her like a thin mead.  Her breathing evened—this was her swimming hole, her India Lake.  She belonged there, if anyone did.

Out of nowhere Ava surfaced.  With an innocent giggle, she splashed Marnie then sank into the warm steam above the lake.  But no matter how Marnie moved, back-stroking with her gaze on the stars or paddling in circles so the tiny lights shining from cottages danced like a ring of flickering candles, Ben was no farther than a body’s-length away.  The lake became a whale and she lounged on its wet skin as she pleased. 

Ava returned to cup Marnie’s fingers into a handle.  They were going to play Zachary’s game.  The forget-everything-else game they’d been playing since teenagers.  She hooked her free hand around Ben’s as Ava towed them in a circle.  On their backs, they floated arms out straight, eyes on the constellations, their arc a wide, slow moving swirl through wet silk.  Then Ben took a turn.  Around and around he drew his eager swans in an eddy of moonlight, all soft wind and long throats being swallowed by the night.  A sweet calm slid into her. 

“I see him now,” Ava gestured toward a star inside a faint curl of the Milky Way.  “He’s up there!  Is that Perseus, Marnie?”

Ben stared and stared at the trajectory of Ava’s finger then grasped Ava’s hand and tugged his women into another rotation. 

At last, Marnie broke away.  Immersed in the night and brandied in a wet place as warm as her own blood, she tried to accept a new possibility—that Ben was truly, not reactively or out of displaced grief, brotherly duty, but actually, in love with Ava.  Such love is opium.  She scanned the water.  There they were, floating like children far from shore in the hollow of a deep lake, adrift but together.  Had it always been so?  Did the gods pluck Zac from the sky only to give Ava the other brother?

When Ben dove under Ava, she sprang from his hands in a stunning dive, her hair plastered down her back and her torso arced in a flawless arabesque, a calligrapher’s stroke of ebony against the sky and Marnie loved her completely, would grant her anything, except what she wanted most, Zac’s replica.  

Ben came for Marnie next, groping for her knees then her ankles.  He clasped them tightly and vaulted her out of the water in the same fashion.  She rose like Minerva and descended through the vortex without losing her shape, sleek, amphibious, laughing. 

“Please,” she begged.

He looked baffled, then grinned.  “It’s your night.” 

He dropped like an anchor, feet first, eyes wide open, deeper and deeper till she could no longer see the flash of his teeth.  His hands found her ankles as before and he thrust her skyward.  This time she held her body tauter, kept her arms at her sides, fingers pointed like flippers.  Water ran rivulets down her eyelashes and the curves of her lips, over her chin, her shoulders, her breasts, slicking her gym shorts to her hips, rushing up the middle of her like hot honey. 

As she dropped through the swirl between his palms, he read her body like wet brail, then surfaced quietly and swam languorous circles around her.  She twirled within his orbit and felt a rush of immaculate courage.  A small cry came out of her which she disguised by coughing.

He swam closer.  “All right, Marnie?” 

They were so near each other she could smell the cologne of the lake warming in the air between their faces.  “I’d like you to come over for dinner on Thursday.  Just you.  No tomatoes.”

His lips parted in surprise.  He did not look across the seas of sorrow for Ava.  He grew serious.  “I’m for it,” he said.  “I have been for a long time, Marn.” 

Below them lingered a lone slippery fish.  I­t bore Zachary’s face including his cornflower blue eyes.  She smiled at it and it snaked away leaving an electric tracer in the dark green. 

 

 

 

About the Author:

Pat

Patricia Trentacoste, a Detroit-born, retired, philosophy instructor, (Wayne State University and Oakland University), she is returning to fiction-writing and now live in the Sleeping Bear Dunes area of northern Michigan.  Patricia is a member of Michigan Writers.  Otherwise, she makes mobiles in her art shed and volunteers in the Benzie County Juvenile Court System. 

Previous publications include monographs on aesthetics and moral psychology; a "true-life" piece for Women's Day Magazine; a by-weekly feature column for The Voice, (Macomb and St. Clair counties); and a bit of ghost-writing for an international essayist.  A recent short story is coming out this month, "Pug and Woolie," in the Dunes Review, October, 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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