ISSUE 5 · FALL 2010
The Creature from the Lake
HAYES GREENWOOD MOORE
Tim’s instinct is to kill. He is too civilized to kill. Instead, he saves things. Right now he is on a ladder saving the rain-gutters.
The creature is underwater. She drifts in circles along the pool’s floor, following the side of the pool. I think she is searching for algae. I think she is hungry. Despite her enormity she is surprisingly nimble, as a whale must be. When the side of the pool suddenly gives way to steps at the shallow end, she strokes out a startlingly deft spin, accelerating with grace until she finds her wall again.
I think Tim likes it up there, on top of his house, saving the rain gutters.
After a week of rain and clouds, the sun is finally out. I am at the poolside Formica table, underneath a canvas umbrella. I am supervising. The creature bobs up for air and then sinks back down, bulbous and alien in her tinted goggles, hairpins, and the black one-piece I insisted on. Tim says the suit isn’t natural. But, I say, neither are we.
It has been a humid summer. The begonias are thriving. The slugs are too. They slink around the granulated rim of the pool. A family of robins defends an elm from a blue jay. As the creature slipped into the water I watched a squirrel chase another squirrel across the edge of the faded-pink plank fence, up an elm, and then disappear in a leap on the tiled rooftop of the neighboring house.
The air is redolent of chlorine and leaves mulching in the last rainfall.
I glance at my watch and then get up to wave and shout for the creature to come out; it’s feeding time. She complies. She waddles up the steps on the shallow end like a molluscan monster, like the blob. She has no toes. Water droplets sparkle like crystals over her body. She has a smooth, pallid hide. Patches of cellulite mottle her legs. Her back and arms are scratched from Lake Stonewell’s rocky shore. Offset by her paleness, the scars glimmer scabrous red.
She has healed quickly. She needs to be returned.
When the creature’s bathing suit is off and I’m towel-patting her dry in the shade of the umbrella, Tim climbs down from the roof.
Like her belly, the creature’s breasts are full and heavy. She is a globular thing.
Tim is bare-chested, too. He does not come under the umbrella. Flecks of leaf are caught in his chest hair. Despite the heat, he has stopped trimming his beard. Like his shoulders and back, his beard is a dark, earthen-ware red. The unkempt hair on his head, which is dark brown, is flattened with sweat. His eyes, a darker brown, roam over the creature. “Should we take out the hairpins?” He says.
“No,” I say. “She needs to eat.”
He stretches, like a plant absorbing sunlight.
The creature observes us behind the tinted goggles.
The creature’s eyes are pink and sensitive and swell up under bright light. I believe that she is accustomed to the darkness of lake bottoms. I believe she is nocturnal. For the past week, since we found her, we have kept the house lights dim. We are finally using our candles. I usher the creature into our cadaverous living room through the back sliding-door. It is cool and still and smells like scented candles—like vanilla, key-lime pie, and sweetened lavender.
Inside, I put Tim’s bathrobe around the creature and seat her on the sofa. I go to the kitchen to heap a plate with lettuce. We have kept her fed by scavenging the dumpster behind the local grocery store. Her diet is a turtle’s diet.
Tim comes in soon after the creature has begun to eat. He is still shirtless. She is on the sofa, the plate perched on her lap. Tim goes to the kitchen and comes back with a beer. He stoops down to kiss my cheek. I am sorry for him because I want him to shave his beard and I know that if I ask, he will. I will not ask. I am not his mom.
Tim goes to the creature and, standing before her, he says, “I’m going to take the goggles off now. Okay?” He mimes the removal of goggles, a bottleneck in his hand.
The creature watches him.
When he reaches toward the side of her head for the goggles, the creature squirms and, as he touches her, she yanks herself to one side. Rotting lettuce is flung across the sofa; the plate topples onto the floor. Tim continues to wrestle with her. He has her on her back on the sofa, his hands on either side of her head. His back is broad and knotted with muscles like stones along the lake shore. Her legs kick uselessly in the air. Beer runs down Tim’s knuckles and drips on the carpet, but he manages to keep the bottle from spilling. When he draws back he tosses the goggles onto the lounge chair. Her mouth is open but she is silent. She can only make sounds when her hair is down. When her hair is down she wails.
. . .
She was wailing when we found her. That’s how I found her.
Last Saturday Tim and I went to Stonewell Park. I was against the idea. The sky was bone gray and the air hummed with mist. But Tim was determined. He wanted to fish. He said that the best time to fish is during a storm—I don’t think even he believes that.
I found my parka and decided to go with him. In a relationship it’s important to do things together. While Tim fished, I planned to hike the forested hills that encircle the lake.
We parked just off the dirt road that leads to Lake Stonewell’s visitor’s dock. It was pouring warm rain. I burrowed into my parka. The only protection Tim had against the rain was a wide-brim hat. All summer he has said that he likes the rain. I believe him. He followed me into the woods with his pole and tackle box before forking down to the lake. On the trail, at least, the trees provided a canopy that took the brunt of the rainfall.
I had been hiking for barely ten minutes when I heard wailing. It carried over the water as a high, pig-squeal of a cry, part animal and part banshee. I couldn’t see what it was and was afraid it might be a rabid animal. Before going any further I forked to the river, hoping for an obstructed view.
From a distance, squinting across the lake through the rain, I thought she was a human—someone who had thought to go for a nude swim and had slipped on the stones, cracked open her skull or broken her back. She was nearly fifty-yards down the lake, at a point in the shore where the lake’s edge curves into a small inlet.
I ran back for Tim.
Tim was good—he lives for emergencies, for opportunities to save things. As soon as I broke through the trees and he saw my face he reacted, not even reeling in his line, but merely dropping his pole and running to me. All I told him was that someone needed help.
When we were close the shrieking overwhelmed all other sounds. He stopped running and stood in the middle of the trail. “God,” he said. “It’s gorgeous.”
He was right, it was gorgeous: the two of us caught together in the middle of the forest, breathless with the same adrenal sensitivity, the same objective, while rain coursed over us, splattering off the leaves of the trees around us. I wanted to kiss him, for him to kiss me. Then I heard it, briefly. I glimpsed it then in his eyes but I have not been able to catch it since. The beauty of her voice escapes me like something just outside of my vision, a tonal register beyond the grasp of my auditory reach. I sense that it is there, but it eludes me. At that moment, though, for a brief instant, I heard it too; I was able to hear what Tim hears when she sings. The creature’s crying is normally high and plaintive, like a cat’s screeching against my ears—an unrefined expression of torment. But for a moment, there on the trail, a melody of some kind emerged from the wailing, a pattern that softened the grating shrieks and transformed them to something liquid, clear and cool and fluid. The tone rendered the anguish into a mellifluous beauty. I heard it for a moment and then it was gone, replaced by the same high-pitched squeal.
Tim was transfixed. I shoved him and told him to go and the spell seemed to lift.
He nodded vacantly, water dripping from his nose. His eyes were as wide and mesmerized with wonder as a child’s. “It’s unbelievable,” he said.
When we reached the forest’s edge she was thrashing on the rocks.
Tim shouted as he sprinted to her. She gave no reply, and he went out on the rocks and caught her from behind, pinning her arms down with his own. He lifted her up. His arms sank in her fat. Her feet kicked the air. She wailed.
Tim struggled to carry her away from the rocks and they fell together onto the land. Blood streamed from her and mixed with the clayey earth. I took off my parka and wrapped her in it. She was shrieking as I lifted her hair from her eyes, checking for open gashes on her head. That’s when she stopped. When I lifted her hair over her head there was silence. Tim, on his back, labored to catch his breath and the rain fell against the forest, against the stones, against the lake, against everything.
. . .
I wake up fully alert to the sound of sirens. It’s her. I am alone in bed and it is dark outside and in. Our bedroom door is ajar. There is a dark haze engulfing the hallway, lingering at the bedroom door.
The torrent of sirens that woke me softens. I listen to the song she is singing, searching for the beauty, straining to hear what Tim hears. Her voice is a pane of shattered glass; multifaceted shards of brokenness create a fragile web pattern, sharp and precarious. Perhaps I have been mistaken. Perhaps I do hear what Tim hears.
Tonight we agreed to return her. We were eating dinner by candlelight at the kitchen table. In the hall across from us the creature soaked in the bathtub in the dark.
“I think she has healed,” I said.
Tim nodded in the dark. His jaw chewed.
“She’s frightened here,” I said.
He swallowed loudly and said, “She’s whole.” He hunched over to fork his salad. He shies from conflict with me. He has been trained to protect me. He glanced at the bathroom before his next bite.
Now, in the dark comfort of our bed, her song sends me drifting back into a half-sleep. I float there until, coming up, I realize that the wail has become a gurgle, the faintest flow of water, as if through stone.
Tim has still not returned.
I walk barefoot into the fog of darkness, my bathrobe untied around me. All the lights in the house are off; the bathroom casts a muted halo of flame.
I stand in the doorway to watch Tim breath in the candlelight. He is with her in the bathtub, stretched out beside the creature. His thigh is curled over her thigh, his knee in her belly. His forearm weighs heavily on her breast. I feel her watch me through the shadows of her pink, sensitive eyes.
I am sorry for him because he has fallen in love. I tell myself that I am not his mom. Love is not a choice, I say to myself. He must save himself.
. . .
We leave before sundown, agreeing to release her into the night. She is in Tim’s robe, quiet in the backseat. It rained all morning but the clouds ispersed in the afternoon and the world was reborn by evening. I drive through the incandescent dusk, the world sparkling and vibrant and soft. Tim, beside me in the passenger seat, is silent.
I take the dirt road down to the dock to Lake Stonewell and park just before the dock. The sun is sinking in front of us. The dusk is alive with locusts and, echoing from further down the shore, croaking frogs.
I kill the headlights and the three of us walk out on the dock.
Tim moves in front of her and grips her arms. I remove her robe and take the pins from her hair from behind. She is facing the lake, gazing at Tim. She is vibrating, as if she has already begun to sing inside. When her hair is down, her voice pierces the twilight. I fold the robe and back off the dock, returning to the car.
Tim removes his hands from her arms and she walks past him and, still singing, dives into the lake; there is no hesitation in her actions. She is the proverbial fish returned to water. She disappears for a moment then resurfaces a short distance from the dock, floating effortlessly. Her hair spreads out behind her, caught on the lake surface, rippling the sun’s last rays like flames in the water. Her song echoes off the lake. She is singing for Tim. Tim walks down the dock, closer to the water, closer to the creature, towards the setting sun. He stands there, on the edge of the dock. He is prepared to dive. His dark form is stolid and large, as inert and powerful in its dilemma as the stones jutting the shore. I lean against the car and watch, waiting for him to decide, knowing his nature.
Hayes Greenwood Moore’s fiction can be found or is forthcoming in Foliate Oak, Slush Pile, Crash, White Whale Review, and Withersin. His co-translation of “Clover,” by the late author Guo Songfen, is in the collection Running Mother and Other Stories from Columbia University Press. He recently obtained a PhD from Columbia University and is currently teaching in Queens.