– 1 –
To swim with another person—out in the open water at night, across a distance, without stopping—is like taking a walk with-out the pressure, the weight of having to carry a conversation, to bring what is inside to the outside. Think of being with someone in a silent room, the tension in the air; water is thicker and you can’t talk, can’t stop moving. Instead, you’re together, struggling along, only glimpsing each other’s silhouetted arm or head for a moment, when you turn your face to breathe, a reassurance that you are not completely alone.
I remember the straight black line of Mrs. Abel’s clavicle, her shadow on the road that summer, overlapping mine. Her collar hanging open, another time, her thin hand on the toaster— pushing down the lever, then her palm hovering there, feeling the heat. The low whisper of her voice, her stories of shipwrecks in Death’s Door, the floor of the lake like the forest floor, bones and timbers collapsing, scattered by the currents.
I remember Mrs. Abel’s slender arms—one, then the other—bent above the surface of the water, her face flashing in the moonlight. We swam through the darkness, parallel, rising and falling across the black swells. Ahead, the distant silhouette of the tower. Headlights winked through the trees, cars driving on the road atop the bluff. I breathed to my right, she to her left, checking for each other. Below us, depths.
– 2 –
The night of Mrs. Abel’s party, I walked down out of the cedars, onto the white stones of the beach. A storm was coming in, rows of whitecaps tearing across the lake, the wind gusting cold. I started along the shoreline, almost tripping over the taut ropes that stretched from the trees to the rowboats and canoes that were pulled up beyond the waves’ reach.
It was June of 1994, and I was twenty-six. I’d returned from various wanderings to live again with my parents, and was maintaining vague dreams of becoming a writer, of writing. My parents were alternately patient and impatient with this; they told me that I could stay for the summer, on that thin peninsula in Wisconsin where I’d spent every summer of my boyhood. I was secretly planning to stay through the autumn, as long as I could before the winter drove me away. I had nowhere else to go, nowhere I was supposed to be.
The wind rattled the metal fittings of the flagpole, out on the end of Zimdars’ dock. As I headed down the beach, under the lights of our neighbors’ houses, I felt the temptation with each dock and pier I passed, the desire to shed my clothes and run to the end, to leap off into the dark waves. I loved to swim, and I loved to swim at night.
A few nights before, I’d been out swimming along this shoreline and I’d seen flickering lights, shifting shadows in the windows of the rundown cabin set near where our road dead-ended, a house that had long been dark. All the people along the shore were equally surprised to hear that the cabin was inhabited. Few had known Mr. Abel well, nor had anyone seen him in quite some time; few had even known that he had passed away, and no one was aware that he’d recently been married. The invitations to the party had come from the old man’s widow.
Like everyone else, I was curious, drawn by the mystery. I myself hadn’t exactly been invited to the party—my parents had been, though my father chose not to go. My excuse was that I was going to retrieve my mother, walk her home through the darkness.
Once I reached the Abel cabin, I paused, standing below it, on the beach. I could hear voices from the party, laughter. In the lit windows above I could see the heads, the upper bodies of people I knew—the Hoags, the Glenns—and then some I didn’t know, one of whom was likely Mrs. Abel.
I stepped into the trees, out of the moonlight, past the wooden doors that closed off the storage space beneath the Abel cabin. I climbed the slope around the cabin, toward the back door, which was open. People were leaving and, exuberant with wine, they shouted my name when they saw me.
“You’re all grown up!”
“Getting any writing done?” “Thinking about that day job, yet?”
I joked along, uneasily, making my way through the door, into the dim cabin. I was used to this banter; the uneven, sporadic way I’d see these people—only in the summer, often years apart— was a syncopation that brought wonder at my growth, when I was young, and had now degenerated into a kind of embarrassment at my stasis, my stalled progress.
Inside, the cabin was lit by candles, two kerosene lanterns on a table; shadows flickered along the walls. Bowls full of different colored beach glass—blue, white, and green—caught the candle-light from atop a piano. The cabin was small, shaped like an L. I didn’t see my mother; most of the voices and people seemed to be around the corner, in what must have been the kitchen.
I crossed the shadowy room, past a low, threadbare couch, around a table. One window faced the lake, and beside it a wooden ladder slanted, leading to a sleeping loft above. The ladder had been sawn off, ten feet up, and was splattered with white paint. Reaching out, I touched one of its rungs, the duct tape wrapped around it.
People behind me were talking about the old man. When and how he’d died, who had seen him last. Lakeside property—who had it, who might sell or inherit it, taxes—was a favorite topic up and down the shore. Some at the party had no doubt been maintaining designs on this cabin, this parcel of land, and so they were curious where this mysterious widow had come from, and how she came to possess this property, what were her intentions.
The air in the room smelled like kerosene, sharp and acrid, tight in my throat. The sound of the wind and the waves came through the window next to me, rattled the glass. Next to the window, a piece of paper had been set with one nail into the log wall; one side was torn, its edge like the lip of a wave—it had been torn from a book, and candlelight flickered along the image. It was a painting of a fire in a spare forest, red leaves or sparks leaping above the flames, into the broken branches of the charred trees above. The moon shone down, and in the background, at the bottom of a slope, stood a small cabin, striped white and gray—concrete and timber, just like the one I was standing inside. The yellow window of that cabin could be the one I was standing beside. Suddenly I felt trapped, claustrophobic; I closed my eyes, certain that if I looked out the window I would see a forest fire in the moonlight rather than the storm coming across the lake.
“Are you going to climb into my bedroom?”
I let loose of the ladder and turned to face her, this woman whom I’d never seen before, who had to be Mrs. Abel. She was tall and slender, as tall as I was, almost six feet.
“No,” I said. “I just—”
“You can, if you want,” she said, gesturing at the loft. “Go ahead.”
“I just came for my mother,” I said, glancing past Mrs. Abel, toward the kitchen. “To walk her home.”
“I know who you are,” she said. “You’re the swimmer.”
We were alone in the room, and it was uncomfortable; it felt impolite to look straight at her, but I could see that she wore pale blue moccasins, the kind with beads on top, black and white and red in the shape of a bird. No socks, her ankles exposed, her khakis reaching halfway to her calves. Her shirt was a blue Oxford with the sleeves rolled up, its tail long—perhaps it had belonged to her husband—and its collar threadbare. She lifted her hand, adjusted her braid, and I saw the pale flash of her neck, the nape, for an instant. Smiling, she looked at me, her eyes at the same level as mine. Pale eyes, blue, her bangs cut straight, just above them; her black hair was shot through with strands of gray.
“Isn’t that true?” she said. “What?”
“That you’re the swimmer.”
“I guess,” I said. “I like to swim.” “How far do you go?” she said.
“I don’t know. As far as I can. Went out to Horseshoe the other day.”
That was the closest island, just over two miles from our shore. Turning away, I leaned close to the window so I could see past my reflection, out to the black waves rolling across the lake. I couldn’t see the silhouette of the distant island. “I love storms,” Mrs. Abel said. “Don’t you?”
In that moment, she drew closer. I felt as if she was going to reach out and touch me, but she did not.
“Your mother left half an hour ago,” she said, her voice a whisper. “Before you got here. She must not have known you were coming.”
“I came along the beach,” I said. “I guess she came through the woods, or the road.”
People emerged from the kitchen, then, waving and saying goodnight, saying thank you as they stood in the doorway. The party was coming to an end.
“Nice to talk with you, swimmer,” Mrs. Abel said, and went to say her goodbyes.
I slipped around the group of people, slipped away from the cabin; I hurried down the slope, out of the trees, to the beach, back the way I’d come.
The storm was still rising, the waves higher, crashing to cover the sound of my breathing, of my feet on the stones that glowed white beneath the moon. When I reached our cabin, I saw that the waves had knocked our canoe and rowboat from their wooden ramps, had turned them sideways. I pulled the boats— the rowboat heavier, its square stern filled with water—further up under the trees, beyond the water’s reach.
I climbed one of the cedars, thirty or forty feet up until I was near the top and my weight added to the wild sway brought by the gusting wind. The tree rattled its branches against the other trees close around it. I held on, watching our raft tilt and spin, twenty yards from shore as the waves lifted it, passing beneath. Long rows of whitecaps swept across the lake, lightning on the horizon—it made me feel that something was changing, finally beginning. I held on at the top of the cedar as the storm rose, as it arrived. A mile and a half away, across the waves, the moon shone on the white face of Eagle Bluff. Closer, the waves crashed into and slapped over the thin wooden pier that jutted like a splintery finger from our shore. And then a gust of wind picked up the beach chairs and cartwheeled them along the stones.
From The Night Swimmers. Used with permission of Soho Press. Copyright © 2019 by Peter Rock.