From the screened porch, David watched his daughter, perched at the end of the dock, elbows bent and hands on her hips, looking down into the water, frozen in a graceful stance like a bird fishing for its next meal. If not a heron or egret, only an eleven-year-old kid could hold that position so long, especially in the noonday summer sun.
He’d come inside for a drink and a short break from mowing the knee-high grass that covered the steep slope to the water. The weekend’s work, part of the ritual of opening the cabin for the season, combined indoor scrubbing and reclaiming the yard with an unspoken celebration of the return of summer. Yesterday, the last day of school, he had packed the car, planning to leave for the lake as quickly as possible after the final bell. The trunk was crammed with cleaning supplies, a new mop, mousetraps, hornet spray, jugs of water, and enough food for the weekend in a large blue cooler. Lily tossed in her pink backpack and a fleece pillow for the two-hour drive. Kate hesitated, then announced she wasn’t going.
“I’ll drive over tomorrow,” she said as she hugged Lily and handed her a packed picnic basket. “I’ve got some things I need to finish up here.”
“Mom, it’s summer. School’s over,” Lily said.
“I know, sweetheart, but I’m behind. I’ve got a few more papers to grade and enter before the deadline,” Kate said. “I promise I’ll be at the lake by the middle of the afternoon.”
“It’s just you and me, kid,” David said. “We’ll get the work done and be ready to play by the time Mom arrives.” He smiled at Kate and bent down to kiss her. She offered her cheek and a light embrace.
The winter had been particularly long and dreary, and it took a toll on them. It felt as if they – and their fifteen-year marriage – were in an extended period of hibernation. As the days lengthened and light returned, David began to feel normal again. Kate was slow to reawaken, still sluggish as spring arrived and shifted into summer. Together, their world remained tilted toward winter.
Like ants streaming in straight lines, cars and RVs headed south on the interstate out of Louisville, a type of recreational migration, straining to carry many times their weight with boats, ATVs, bicycles, and camping gear. The belt of knobby hills that ringed the city was solid green, a lush, dark backdrop for the giant billboards planted by the road, advertising upcoming fast-food restaurants and adult bookstores. Swaths of weeds with bright yellow flowers sprouted by the roadside.
Lily looked up from her book. “A little. Do we have anything?”
“Look in the picnic basket. I’m sure Mom sent something.”
She turned toward the back, stretching her seatbelt to reach the woven basket. She grabbed its handles and fell back into her seat. He glanced as she dug through the contents.
“Woohoo!” she said. “Cookies!”
“Red, white, and blue. With sprinkles. Want one?”
David was surprised.
“I don’t think she’s made those before,” he said. He’d expected oatmeal. Maybe peanut butter.
“She didn’t make them, silly. They’re from the grocery, the kind I always beg for and she always says no,” Lily said. She smiled at him, her lips stained purplish from the first bite of frosting.
Store-bought cookies were no big deal. They’d all been busy as the school year ended. But Kate, his Kate, would never have sent them. A regular at the food coop and farmers’ market, she was a stickler. Either homemade cookies or no cookies. She had made all of Lily’s baby food in a small food processor. He didn’t care about the cookies, but he cared about Kate.
Some days he hardly recognized her. She had changed. Her expression had a flatness that confused him and left him feeling helpless. He felt incapable of making headway against her slow, continuous drift away from him.
They’d been through rough patches before, and somehow they’d managed to circle back to each other. Sometimes the hard, sad places were predictable and sharp, like when his parents died. The stillbirth. The miscarriages. Times of identifiable grief. But sometimes it crept up on them, quietly, for reasons more difficult to figure out. Like they were sinking from some unknown weight, slowly and gradually, waiting to touch bottom in order to push back up, hoping to have enough breath to last until one or both of them resurfaced. For David, the promises they’d made to each when they married had evolved over time to become a commitment to help each other, an obligation to search and rescue. The first one to surface, to breathe again, would find the other, perhaps still struggling, and together they’d reach shore. They’d make it home. They owed it to each other.
“I need to go to the bathroom,” Lily said. She had chugged several juice boxes in the first ten minutes of the drive. David was surprised she’d lasted this long.
“We’ll stop in Elizabethtown for gas. Can you wait?” David said.
“I don’t know. How far is that?”
“Fifteen miles or so.”
“I guess,” Lily said, looking out the window. He pushed the cruise control a few miles faster.
He wanted Kate to feel better. To return to herself. To return to him. He’d suggested counseling, for both of them. She refused.
“I’ll be okay. I’m just blue,” she’d said.
“I think it’s more than that,” he said. “This has been going on for a while.”
“Sorry. I know I’m a drag.”
“I didn’t say that.”
“You didn’t have to.”
“Give me a chance to understand, Kate. I don’t know what’s going on and I hate it. I hate feeling like this. I don’t know where we’ll end up.”
After a silence, she spoke quietly.
“Not sure why, but I thought there would be more by now,” she said.
“I’m not sure. I love you and Lily. I love teaching. But there’s an emptiness that I didn’t expect,” she said, trailing off. “Like I'm waiting on something to come along, a piece that’s missing.”
“I don’t understand what’s missing.”
“It’s hard to explain. Maybe I don’t understand. Life doesn’t look the way I thought it would.”
David felt a shadowy presence elbowing into their lives, and he wondered if there was someone else. Perhaps she didn’t want or need to be rescued. He had left the room, wondering why he wasn’t enough.
“Are we close?” Lily said.
“Almost. Hang in there,” David said. He took the next exit and pulled into a gas station. Lily almost ran to the bathroom.
David pumped gas, cleaned the bugs off the windshield, and waited for her to return. He checked his email and texts—before they reached the remote lake with limited phone signal, much less Internet—hoping that Kate had sent a message. Saying that she missed him. That she regretted not coming with them. There was nothing. He considered sending one to her, but she might think he was nagging. Maybe she needed space.
Lily slid into the seat next to him. He put down the phone and started the car. An hour later, they drove down a steep gravel lane lined with old ribbon-barked cedar trees and saw the cabin. It was a view that had barely changed since his boyhood. From the driveway David caught a glimpse of the lake in the late day sun. His mood tempered, even about Kate.
He figured they had a couple of hours of daylight to check out the place and turn on the basic necessities – lights, water main, water heater. By opening the windows and flipping a few switches, the house would come back to life after its winter rest.
“Let’s haul everything in and get to it,” he said. He could almost hear his own dad’s voice issuing the same instructions. For forty-one seasons – all of his life – David had returned to the place. His parents had owned it. He knew every square foot of the cabin and the land. He wanted Lily to feel the same connection, one of the few remaining links to his side of the family.
The small cabin had a covered front porch with a few rocking chairs. The plastic hummingbird feeders hung empty and light, blowing in a light breeze. He remembered asking Lily to bring them in as they closed up last fall. No need to mention that now. He noticed several new dirt-dauber nests built above the window frames. The wasps, disturbed by the arrival, hovered around their paper homes. He’d deal with them later. The yard needed mowing, but otherwise the house looked pretty good.
Opening the house usually meant a surprise or two, from creatures that had claimed it for their own during the winter. Once they’d found a snake in the attic. One year birds had come in through the chimney. In their panic to get out, they pecked and pooped all over the house, finally breaking a window to get out. After the cleanup, a trip to the nearest hardware store, and the window repair, David had climbed along the roof to screen the top of the chimney. He remembered the worried look on Kate’s face as he propped the ladder against the stone chimney.
“Can’t we get someone else to fix this?” she had said.
“It won’t take long,” he said. His heart pumped as he clung to the rim of the chimney, trying not to look down, telling himself he couldn’t fall, not in front of Lily. When he climbed down, Lily ran to him, hugging him around the waist.
“Please don’t do that ever again,” she said, sounding more like parent than child. He was surprised that she realized, at her age, the possibilities of what might have happened.
He opened the screen door, unlocked the rough wooden one, and stepped into the familiar space.
“Let’s get the windows open and air out this place,” he said.
Lily headed down the narrow hall to her tiny bedroom. David heard the sounds of shutters opening and sticky windows being coaxed upward. He opened the back door, creating a breeze through the musty interior, and stepped out onto the large screened back porch that overlooked the wide lake. The porch more than doubled the inside living space.
The lake’s panorama almost took his breath. The clear blue of the cloudless sky faded into deep green low hills that touched the glassy lake, creating layers of sky, land and water. Horizontal slivers defined the landscape, parallel lines that ran alongside, one on top of another, occasionally dipping into the adjacent layer. The late afternoon light created reflections and shadows, blurring the layers.
In a short time, the water was on, beds were made, the obvious cobwebs swept away, and the toilet bowl sprayed with bleach. David rolled the cooler from the car, and Lily unloaded the food into the refrigerator.
“Mom packed sandwiches for us,” she said.
“Let’s take them down to the dock,” David said. “We can watch the sun go down.”
They walked through tall grass, past the fishing boat still covered with a tarp, to the dock at water’s edge. Tree branches had wedged between the ramp and the bank, probably during high water from spring rains. A few feet above the water, a thin line of driftwood, still damp and laced with a few plastic soda bottles and pieces of Styrofoam, confirmed that the water had been higher recently. As they stepped onto the dock, frogs leapt from the bank into the water.
They sat on the dock’s rough boards and ate the turkey sandwiches. He watched as Lily rolled up the bread crusts into tiny dough balls, dropping them into the water through the cracks between the boards. She threw some toward a pair of Canada geese swimming close to shore.
The smooth water turned pink and orange with the setting sun. Most boaters were back to their docks and marinas for the night, but one lone boat engine strained in the distance, somewhere on the lake, making its way home.
“Red sky at night, sailor’s delight,” he said.
“Mom always says that,” Lily said.
“It means tomorrow’s going to be a good day. Calm. No storms. The sailors used to use the sky to predict the weather, back when they didn’t have radar and weather reports on their phones.”
“When’s she coming?”
“I miss her.”
He nodded. He missed her, too. He’d never felt so disconnected from her. There had been no fighting or arguing, just distance. No unpleasantness, but silence. He guessed Lily didn’t realize.
A mosquito buzzed around his ear.
“We better head in. Don’t tell your mother we forgot to use the bug spray,” he said. “And check yourself for ticks.”
After she went to bed, he sat on the screened porch for a long time, watching the moon’s reflection ripple across the water and listening to the sounds from the woods around the cabin. Sounds, not noise like in the city. Singing spring peepers reminded him of nights spent here as a child, sleeping in seersucker pajamas and hearing his dad’s snore through the open windows. Here, he remained connected to his parents.
The only part missing was Kate. He needed to talk to her, to check on her. To get a phone signal, he walked to the end of the driveway. The moonlight made a flashlight unnecessary. Even in the darkest section through the cedars the gravel glistened. The phone rang and she answered, her voice sounding drowsy and thick, almost drunk.
“Is everything alright?” she said.
“We’re fine. Lily’s asleep. You okay?”
“I’m okay. I got the grading done. Had dinner with Charlotte.”
“How was that?”
“She let me cry and feel sorry for myself and then she kicked my ass. Like a sister should.”
“Want to talk about it?”
“Tomorrow. I’m tired.”
“It’s not the same here without you. We miss you.”
“I’ll be there.” She started to sound annoyed. “Goodnight.”
Maybe things would be better tomorrow, he thought, as he walked back to the cabin.
Waking to the sound of the lawn mower, Lily got up, changed out of her nightgown, and fixed a bowl of cereal. She went out on the screened porch and sat in the swing, taking slow bites in rhythm with the light kick of her bare feet that sustained the back-and-forth motion. She watched her dad, pushing the mower along the hill. It stalled every few feet.
“Damn it,” he shouted. His face was red and sweaty. He took off his dark t-shirt and wiped his eyes before slinging it toward the cabin. He turned the mower on its side and reached around the blade, scraping away handfuls of grass clippings. He repeated a couple of times. The next time it stopped, he kicked the back wheel and headed toward the car. He returned with the weed trimmer, grinding away on high speed, knocking down the tallest grass and anything else in its path.
She thought about her mother and wondered what she could do to make Mom happy. Happy to be here. Lily decided she’d work to make the cabin clean and pretty for her; she’d looked tired and sleepy yesterday. A clean cabin with no bugs or mouse droppings or snakes or wasps. She’d get the work done before her mother arrived. And pick some flowers to surprise her. Mom used to have flowers on the table at home, but not lately. Maybe she had forgotten where to find them.
Lily dusted and swept up piles of Asian lady bugs that had lived—and died—in the cabin over the winter. She took a few groggy survivors outdoors and released them. She found cushions in the closet and distributed them to the porch swing and chairs. She sprayed foam to clean the sink and countertop. When she finished the inside work, she went outside and picked a few wildflowers before Dad reached them with the mower. She placed the yellow and white blossoms in a glass of water and set the bouquet on the table.
“She’ll like this,” Lily said to herself as she looked around.
Lately Mom seemed different. Mad or sad, Lily couldn’t tell. She thought it had something to do with those babies. Even though her parents had never mentioned them, Lily knew about the ones who had died. She’d overheard Aunt Charlotte talking about them. The only thing Dad had said to her was that Mom wasn’t feeling well.
Lily had stayed at her Nana’s house, each time, until Mom got better.
“Your mom needs to rest. That means I’m the lucky one who gets you for a few days,” Nana had said, wrapping her arms around Lily. She like staying a night or two with Nana, but the stays when Mom was sick were much longer. She and Nana made cookies together and had tea parties with the dolls. They played Candy Land and Fish. The house was full of people – her mother had three brothers and two sisters who lived nearby – and there was always a crowd at Nana’s table.
Each time Lily returned home she noticed how quiet their house was. Her mother held her and wouldn’t let go. They said that Mom was doing better, but Lily knew that wasn’t true. She’d seen her crying at the kitchen sink when no one else was looking. Mom spent so much time in bed that Lily wondered if she might die.
With her work done, Lily headed down to the dock. Squatting near the end, she watched for fish and turtles. She didn’t know why her mother wanted a baby so much and why they couldn’t get one. If another baby wouldn’t come, Lily realized she needed to be a good girl, the best girl, so her mother would be happy again.
The rest of the morning floated past her. Her eyes followed a sailboat as it crisscrossed the lake, its jumble of ropes and cloth fluttering in the wind. She had never been on one. She tried to understand the movements of the people on board as they tacked back and forth. She sat down and let her bare feet dangle, getting wet with each wave. Speedboats roared by, towing skis and tubes and kids riding the waves. Sounds of splashing and laughter bubbled to her ears.
Behind her, the roar of the mower and the trimmer had stopped. She looked toward the house and saw her mom’s silver SUV. Dad carried another picnic basket and her mother’s duffle bag toward the house.
“You’re here! I’ve been waiting for you,” Lily yelled as she ran toward her mother. When she reached the top of the hill, her mother’s arms were open wide to catch her. Lily felt her deep hug and smelled her mother’s familiar scent. When they released, Lily looked at her mother’s face, searching for clues.
“I picked flowers for you,” Lily said. “And the house is all clean.”
“Oh, you’re the best. I can’t wait to see it,” Kate said as they walked to the cabin.
“I’m glad you’re here, Mom.”
“Are you hungry? I brought lunch.”
“I’m starving,” Lily said.
“Let’s take a break now that your mother’s here,” Dad said. Lily studied his face, too, hoping to see him look happy, too.
His parents had bought the place not long after the dam was built and the lake level began to rise. It had been primitive, more like camping than living in a house. Back then it had an outdoor toilet and no running water. Eventually his folks added a bathroom and a couple of extra bedrooms. Real estate agents would still call it rustic, if they had a chance to list it, but David had no plans to sell. It would be like selling part of his family, which was already small. Other than some distant relatives he had met as a child, Kate and Lily were it.
He hadn’t thought much about the size of his family until he saw Lily’s drawing of her family tree, an assignment for school. Her tree was lopsided yet accurate. His side was nearly vertical, more like a utility pole than a tree. There were few branches due to several generations of only children. Not many aunts, uncles or cousins. A family not known for longevity. In contrast, his wife’s side of the family tree was lush, covered with many names and branches, vigorous and abundant on every level.
With most of the cleaning done, the afternoon was free. He and Lily swam near the end of the wooden dock. She needed to be a strong swimmer, he thought, able to reach the shore on her own. They made a game of it, swimming out further each time and racing back to the dock. And they horsed around a lot. They played until she was tired and ready to go in. He never quit first. He remembered what it was like, a kid at the cabin with only grown-ups around, expecting him to entertain himself.
He rested on the screen porch for a while. Kate was reading and dozing in the hammock. Lily made lemonade, and served it to her mother as soon as she awoke. They spent the rest of the afternoon brushing and braiding each other’s hair. And laughing.
David went back out to uncover the fishing boat and hose it out. He dragged it to the water by himself and tried out the engine, which started after several tries. The lake grew quieter and calmer as the sun sank toward the hills. Waves were gentle, shadows long, and the water was smooth as polished glass. The crowds had headed home.
“They don’t know they’re missing the best part of the day,” David said as he came onto the porch. “Let’s go out on the water.”
“Are you sure? I don’t want to get stranded again,” Kate said.
“I’m sure,” he said. Her fearful look reminded him of last summer’s near disaster, when the boat engine acted up, leaving them drifting and without working navigation lights as darkness approached. Before a passing boat spotted them and stopped to offer help, Lily had cried and Kate yelled. He was angry at himself for putting his family at risk, embarrassed about looking so helpless. They were towed back to the dock and the engine later repaired at the nearest marina. Ever since, he made a point to get home before dark.
After supper, he asked again. Lily nodded and looked at her mother.
“Please, Mom? Let’s go to the beach.”
Kate shot him a warning look, then turned back to Lily.
“If you want to go, let’s go. I’m sure your dad means it when he says the boat is fine.”
They headed down the hill to the dock. David got in first and steadied the boat as Kate and Kate took their seats. They were already wearing life jackets. He cranked the engine. Its puttering sound turned into a purr as they pulled away from the dock. The engine, which sounded a lot like the lawn mower, sputtered and died.
“That doesn’t sound good,” Kate said.
“It’s a little fussy. It’s been a long winter,” David said. “I took it out earlier today and it did fine.”
He pulled the start cord over and over until it hit again. Black smoke roiled from the motor.
“Dad, are you sure?” Lily said. She fingered the straps on her life jacket.
“We’ll be fine. Promise.”
David pointed the low, green boat toward a small gravel beach on the opposite side of the lake. It was a nature preserve, with no houses and few humans at the end of the day, unless they had a permit to camp. The boat chugged along, hiccupping occasionally, rising and falling as its flat bottom rolled over a few slight waves. As they approached land, David cut the engine to glide ashore, silently. Rocks crunched beneath the boat as they came to a stop on the bank. The quiet was broken by calling cicadas.
“An eagle’s nest,” David whispered, pointing up, toward a tall tree across the bay. Near the top of the tree was something that looked like a giant bundle of sticks. On the edge perched a large dark brown bird with a prominent white head and tail, leaning over the nest. Another bird with the same markings soared overhead.
“They must have chicks,” David said. They heard the begging calls of young birds, barely visible in the great nest, squawking for food and wanting to fly.
“Eaglets,” Lily corrected. “We learned about them in science. And they’re not really bald, just white feathers.”
David looked at Kate, who had a slight smile. Her seat in the boat faced west, so the early evening sunlight washed across her face and reddish-blonde hair. She appeared to glow, he thought.
He got off the boat and tied it off to a small sycamore tree that had put down roots in the gravel.
“We’ll stay as long as we can, before the sun goes down.”
“Can I swim?” Lily said.
“Keep your life jacket on. There may be drop-offs,” Kate said. “And stay where we can see you.”
David offered his hand as she stepped from the boat. He didn’t let go. He hoped she was ready to talk.
Lily slipped on sandals before jumping out onto the small, sharp rocks. She scoured the beach, looking for treasures to take home. Fossils, driftwood, maybe a toad.
She looked up from her search, spotting her parents down the beach, sitting on a large log, facing what was left of an old bonfire, built by other visitors, a few charred remnants of wood in a mound of ash. She watched them. They didn’t look mad. Their voices were low and it was hard to hear over the waves, but Lily heard the word baby.
“I imagined a full house, lots of kids around the table. It’s not going to happen,” her mom said. “And, I’m finally okay with it.”
“We could adopt,” he said.
“I’m not ready to think about it yet.”
Her mother’s hands gestured, almost like sign language, but Lily couldn’t understand the meaning. Her dad occasionally shook his head, sometimes nodded. Her mom’s face looked scrunched and red. Lily thought she was starting to cry.
“Come swim with me,” Lily interrupted. Both parents looked toward her, like they’d forgotten she was there.
“Give us a minute,” David said. They started talking again, but Lily couldn’t hear over the sound of waves rolling into the bay. She decided she might as well swim by herself.
“Go on, get in,” she said to herself. “They’re not coming.” Sometimes she, too, wished for more.
She plunged in, feeling for the bottom with her toes. When she found it, she bounced and spun through the water, pretending to be a dancer. She leapt through the water, higher and more gracefully than on land.
“Nice one,” she said, congratulating herself.
She stopped to check on her parents. They were sitting very close, her dad’s arms encircling her mother. She was leaning against him. She wasn’t crying.
Lily turned back to the water. Below the surface, she saw schools of minnows swirl around her. She squealed when they bumped her legs. She watched water striders skate across the lake’s surface. A streak of silver jumped from water to sky, in search of food, ignoring the boundary between water and air. For the briefest moment, the large fish seemed suspended in motion as it found the target mayfly then flopped into the water.
“Lily, let’s go,” Dad said. “Gotta get home before dark.”
She looked up to see her parents walking toward the boat, arms around each other. She got out of the water and climbed into her seat, ready to go. Dad was last to hop on, after pushing the boat from the rocky beach.
The sun was very low. The sky - red and orange and pink – tinted the hills and was mirrored on the water. The layers of sky, land and lake glimmered in the day’s last light. To David, it seemed like there was no one else in the world, like they were the last three people alive. Kate and Lily shared the front bench, his wife holding their daughter close, into the wind.
“Red sky at night,” Kate started.
“Sailor’s delight,” Lily finished. “You always say that, Mom.”
“I guess I do.”
“Dad said it’s a good sign for tomorrow.”
“I think it is,” Kate said.
Hundreds of white cattle egrets flew close to the water and headed directly to a tiny island nearby. They’d taken up residence on the lake in the past few years, blown far off course from their original African homeland, first to South America and then slowly further north. Once an oddity, now acclimated. Over the hum of the engine, they heard the birds calling to each other.
“Where are they going?” Lily said.
“They want to get home before dark, too,” David said. “They roost on the island.”
He cut the engine and they moved along with the current, watching as the birds landed in willow trees at the island’s edge. The branches were dotted with egrets, taking their places for the night. Black cormorants positioned themselves in a tall, dead tree that marked the end of the island. Perched at the tip, a lone bird kept watch.
“We should keep moving,” Kate said.
David looked at the deepening sky and restarted the engine – it hit on the third pull – then backed away from the island. He took in long, deep breaths. He turned the boat and headed for the shore.