The road was so dark, that she nearly missed the driveway.  There was no moon and the sky was lightly overcast, giving the woods an eerie shimmer. She drove slowly down the dirt driveway, lowering the windows to listen to the woods.  As the tires crunched a rhythm into the sand and pine needles, Sarah listened to the world outside.  Night creatures rustled the leaves of the trees lining the way.  In the next drive, an owl called out a greeting.  The scent of pine and moist leaves filled her nose and her memory.  This driveway had always led to safety, to love, companionship, to family.  There was always a sense of excitement and adventure when Sarah approached the cottage, but tonight it was different.

She pulled carefully into the sandy drive in front of the back door.  The cottage, dark and too quiet, held back its welcome.  Closing the door lightly behind her, Sarah walked around the side of the house toward the front porch, toward the lake.  The lake finally greeted her, its waves licking the shore in short, repetitive ticks.  She crossed the front yard to the steps of the dock and followed them down to the shore.  She was part of the darkness now, part of the sand and pine and water.

Sarah sat down on the steps and hugged her knees.  Her blonde hair, hastily pulled into a messy ponytail, had no moonlight to reflect it’s golden hues.  She shivered slightly in her light sweater and shorts as she looked out onto the dark of the lake. Eventually, she would have to unpack the car. Eventually, she would have to go into the house and get things started. Eventually…she thought, as she sat in quiet contemplation on a wooden step, on a dark, Northern Michigan night, staring out over the water that had born witness to her entire life. What came before and what would come after were buried in the depths of the cold, clear water.

The cool, off shore breeze carried with it the faces and voices of long ago. Sarah sat for a moment and let those memories fill the quiet around her.

 

 

 

 

 

The dark water slapped at the shore.  Claire tried to find comfort in the rhythm, but still she felt discordant and unsettled.  The moonless night, suffocating and oppressive, added to her anxiety.   She knew that she could no longer find comfort at the lake.  No longer would the water wash away her worries and her sins.  This dock, where she had happily sunned herself like a sea lion for most of her life, now felt dirty and humiliating.  How had she let it come to this?  She was glad for the darkness, as it hid her tears and her shame.

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The cottage had been built in 1958, by Northwest Specialties of Elk Rapids, but they didn’t add running water until the year before Sarah’s first summer there ten years later, when she was six.  Prior to that, everyone bathed, did dishes, and washed clothes in the lake.  Drinking water was collected from the nearby spring, and it was clear and cold and magical.  Running water was a cause for celebration, because that meant a toilet.  No more traipsing into the woods to use the Bear Trap, which was what they had named the outhouse years before.  These details were not part of Sarah’s memories, but part of the collective memory of the lake.

The lake holds these collective memories still today, and it will continue to gather each tale, hold and keep it until someone digs it up from around the fire pit to be scrutinized and shared by the circle.  They are the nuggets of lore that have been contributed to over time by those who have come and gone over the many years.  Each contribution painted in the perspective of the contributor.  Each colored in the circumstance, familial filter, and lens of those who shared their stories around the fire pit. It is this collective memory that muddies the water between truth and myth.   

“I truly believe that some of these stories have been repeated so many times, that we have just come to believe they are true,” Nancy reached for a chip from the assortment of happy hour delights that covered the table on the porch.

“Lake Legends,” Laura quickly and alliteratively coined the phrase that accurately described the phenomenon.  “I think they’re all bullshit.  Like the one where Grampa Mertz pulled out a gun and shot a water snake while we were all swimming.  No way!  I think I would’ve remembered a gun at the lake.  Especially if someone had fired it in front of me.”

“Grampa was Detroit PD before he retired, and slept with a pistol under his pillow up until he died.  It drove my dad nuts.  Dad was worried that us kids would get into it.  We were forbidden to touch it, but we would sneak into his room and look at it every once in a while.  So there absolutely was a gun up here,” Margy confirmed. “Text Tom and Betz, they’ll tell you.”

Sarah leaned back in her chair at the table and held her Oberon, in its Torch Lake koozy, to her chest.  Ever since the late 1930s when her grandfather and his cousin (Margy’s grandfather) first bought land on Torch Lake, family had gathered on one porch or another to share food, drinks, and mostly stories.  Most of them were, in some way, true.  Some had, like a rumor on the playground, transformed into legend. At this point, many of the participants in the stories were long dead, and only the tales remained.

Laura typed a message into her cell phone to Betz.  She would know.  Sarah reached for hers and typed one out to Tommy.  In the back of her mind Sarah recalled that day, swimming out in the lake with Tommy, Betsy, and Laura.  They had done that every day of every summer for as long as they could remember, so that wasn’t news, but Sarah also vaguely remembered a snake in the water and running away from it.  “I kind of remember this,” Sarah said quietly.

“It’s bullshit.  Never happened,” Laura looked down at her phone to check for a return message.

Betz finally responded to Laura’s text.  “Yes, there was a snake, and yes, Gramps shot it.  We were all there.  How can you not remember this?”

“Ask her if the snake was on the shore or in the water when Mertz shot it,” Sarah suggested.  “I think it was on the shore.”

“She says,  ‘In the water.’”

Sarah’s phone vibrated and she looked at Tom’s response.  “Sigh, are we still debating this story?  Look, it went like this.  We were all out swimming in front of the cottages.  I was on the water bike when a snake slithered off the shore and was heading straight toward me.  People started screaming about a snake in the water.   I abandoned the bike in front of the cottage and swam in, trying to avoid the snake.  The snake, perhaps in response to the screaming, turned back toward our bank.  Gramps had heard the commotion and had gotten his .22, so when the snake reached the bank, Gramps shot its head off.

I remember Grampa Kay yelling at me for ditching the water bike in the lake.  I suspect that he was secretly rooting for the snake. The water bike was right out front, and I was about to be attacked by a snake.  What did he expect?!  I also recall Gramps dragging the snake’s body around to the back of the cottage.”

“I really think I remember this,” Sarah shook her head and absently took another pull on her beer.  Collective memories are weird, she thought.

“It’s all bullshit,” Laura stated.  “Just another Lake Legend.”

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“I truly believe that some of these stories have been repeated so many times, that we have just come to believe they are true,” Nancy pointed out, reaching for another chip.

“Lake Legends,” Laura quickly and alliteratively coined the phrase that accurately described the phenomenon.  “I think they’re all bullshit.  Like the one where Grampa Mertz pulled out a gun and shot a water snake while we were all swimming.  No way!  I think I would’ve remembered a gun at the lake.  Especially if someone fired it in front of me.”

“Grampa was Detroit PD before he retired.  He slept with a pistol under his pillow up until he died.  It drove my dad nuts.  Dad was worried that us kids would get into it.  We were forbidden to touch it, but we would sneak into his room and look at it every once in a while.  So there absolutely was a gun up here,” Margy confirmed. “Text Tom and Betz, they’ll tell you.” 

Sarah leaned back in her chair at the table and let her Oberon settle to her chest.  Ever since the late 1930s when her grandfather and his cousin (Margy’s grandfather) first bought land on Torch Lake, family had gathered on one porch or another to share food, drinks, and mostly stories.  Most of them were, in some way, true.  Some had, like a game of telephone, transformed into legend. At this point, many of the participants in the stories were long dead.  Only the tales remained.

Laura typed a message into her cell phone to Betz.  She would know.  Sarah reached for hers and typed one out to Tommy.  In the back of her mind, Sarah recalled swimming out in the lake with Tommy, Betsy, and Laura.  They had done that every day of every summer for as long as they could remember, so that wasn’t news, but Sarah also vaguely remembered a snake in the water and running away from it.  “I kind of remember this,” Sarah said quietly.

“It’s bullshit.  Never happened,” Laura looked down at her phone to check for a return message.

Betz finally responded to Laura’s text.  “Yes, there was a snake, and yes, Gramps shot it.  We were all there.  How can you not remember this?”

“Ask her if the snake was on the shore or in the water when Mertz shot it,” Sarah suggested.  “I think it was on the shore.”

“She says in the water.”

Sarah’s phone vibrated and she looked at Tom’s response.  “Sigh, are we still debating this story?  Look, it went like this.  We were all out swimming in front of the cottages.  I was on the water bike when a snake slithered off the shore and was heading straight toward me.  People started screaming about a snake in the water.   I abandoned the bike in front of the cottage and swam in.  The snake, perhaps in response to the screaming, turned back toward our bank.  Gramps had heard the commotion and had gotten his .22, so when the snake reached the bank, Gramps shot its head off. 

I remember Grampa Kay yelling at me for ditching the water bike.  I suspect that Grampa Kay was rooting for the snake. The water bike was right out front, and I was about to be attacked by a snake.  What did he expect?!  I also recall Gramps dragging the body out back.”

“I really think I remember this,” Sarah shook her head and absently took another pull on her beer.  Collective memories are weird, she thought.

“It’s all bullshit,” Laura stated.  “Just another Lake Legend.”

Claire stood before me shaking, tears streaming down her face as she screamed, “He touched me, and I didn’t want him to!  I was 13 years old! He told me he loved me, that he would never hurt me, but he touched me when I didn’t want him to.  ‘It’s not sex,’ he said.  ‘Relax,’ he said.  I just lay there and cried.  It was awful, Mom!  On the dock, late at night.  I didn’t know what to do.”

I sat there, still.  Tears filling my eyes, while question crashed through every corner of my mind.  Where was I?  When was this?  How could this have happened?  Why wasn’t I paying closer attention?  What should I say?  What could I say that would make this hurt go away?

Claire continued between sobs, snot running from her already red nose, blotches gathering on her smooth, clear skin.  I was dumbstruck.  “Finally, he finished and I went home.  I saw you that night.  You asked me about being out so late.  I said I was fine and you believed me!”

Why wouldn’t I believe her?  She and Tim had been inseparable since she was nine years old.  He worshipped her and she seemed to worship him right back.  I truly believed that he would lay down his life for Claire.  Why on earth would I think that he could hurt her?  I tried, in vain, to muster a response, but I had nothing.  Nothing but shock, denial, and guilt.  How could I have let this happen?

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Gentle sway

Sun warming

Wind whispering

Breeze tickling

Sunlight dappling leaves

Waves licking

Sails rippling

Coffee brewing

Bacon sizzling

“Come on in, breakfast is ready!”

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“And we are nearly ready to go.  The sisters have assumed their positions around the pot, each with cup in hand.  We have Oreo Cookie cup, New Orleans Jazz Fest cup, and rounding it out, there is 70s Flower Child mug.  It looks like a great day for coffee, don’t you think, Skip?”

“I do think so, Bob.  The participants are gathered around the Mr. Coffee, and all eyes are on the pot.  And these eyes are not pretty, Bob.  We have Oreo Cookie cup with the blood shot, red, swollen eyes of way too much fun last night.  Next to her, we have Jazz Fest, and these eyes are flying at half mast this morning.  Not sure how competitive this one is going to be able to be at this hour.  Flower Child looks like the perkiest of the bunch.  She seems rested and relaxed.  Those two other cups are going to have a run for their money with Flower Child in the mix.”

“Well, Skip, looks can be deceiving.  I never underestimate a tired, hungover woman when coffee is involved.  I remember once… Wait!  It looks like… Yes, the drip has stopped.  The drip has stopped, and we are off to the races!”

“Flower Child reaches out toward the pot as the last sputter of drip empties into its 12 cup receptacle.  It’s Flower Child at the start, but wait!  Here comes Oreo Cookie with a shockingly quick box out!  Flower Child crashes loudly against the cabinets.  Jazz Fest seems dazed by all of the ruckus and leans against the counter to gather herself. Flower Child attempts to recapture her position, but it is too late.  Oreo Cookie has swept in and grabbed that first cup of liquid sanity. It looks like Oreo Cookie is our winner, Bob.”

“Hold on, Skip.  There seems to be a commotion coming from the kitchen.  Oreo Cookie has taken that first, delicious sip.  Her face is screwed up in horror. What could possibly be happening down there?  It appears that Oreo Cookie is yelling something.  Let’s see if we can make it out.”

“All right.  Which one of you A**holes made decaf?!”