When the Ice Goes Out
The summer she'd drowned, Rosetta woke hungry. She hungered for light and color, for small things that glittered, for warmth and life. Someone, anyone; the need was new to her. She had yet to learn discernment.
Isobel sniffed the air, chill and wet. The lake was just visible through tall pine and birch. Her boots tracked over the root-humped ground, in the silence among the trees. At the lake edge the tall shadow of the woods brushed the water. From this little cove, the other summer places were invisible.
The lake conveyed its great size through the echo of its waves lapping beyond the inlet. The edges of the cove, shaggy and ice-rimmed, had half-swallowed and partly digested the wooden dock their father had built. A few more years of neglect and it would be gone.
Isobel stepped out onto it and sat down, hiding her hands inside the sleeves of her sweater, arms around her knees. A mourning dove called from the woods.
Her sister Rosetta surfaced. She looked at Isobel across the chill expanse, then sank back down; a moment later she resurfaced close to the rotting dock.
"Ross,” Isobel greeted her. She examined her sister's face for changes. When she'd first seen Rosetta, two weeks after her drowning, there'd been changes. Her skin was a clear, pure thing, an essence. Her face, which had been fiercely expressive, now looked remote, beautiful. Expressions came into it like light through a pane of glass, vivid, but not integral to the glass itself.
Rosetta stared back, her eyes darker than Isobel remembered them, the color of the deepest parts of the lake. “Isobel,” she said, having retrieved the name like a pearl: precious, cold, and streaming wet. She looked at Isobel with pleasure in the stillness of her face.
Rosetta had drowned the year before during a storm. She'd gone out in the canoe, despite a sullen sky. The violence of the storm had been like the Maine summer itself: promised unexpected.
The lake had been dredged, but Rosetta's body had not been found.
That summer, first in a new life for Isobel, two dogs disappeared near the lake. Nobody dredged for dogs as they did for people. Syd Grainger’s was a retriever, Beth Williams’ a collie-lab mix.
Several days after the second dog disappeared Isobel had seen Rosetta. Apparently the swift, straightforward energies of two dogs had been enough to resurrect her.
Now Isobel had come to the neglected cabin after dreaming about it five nights in a row. Her father would not come to the cabin again, he said. He had begun to seem to her like a figure in a Chagall painting, floating somewhere above her, connected to his family by a few threads of color, and the suggestion of a shared context. Her mother had stopped coming many years before Rosetta drowned. When Isobel was eight and Rosetta nine, their mother had left the summers in Maine behind, much as she'd left her marriage behind, in search of warmer climes.
In the hardness of the end-of-April light and the barren darkness of the land, Isobel saw her sister’s existence differently than she'd seen it last summer.
She watched Rosetta swim a lazy circle. “What did you do this winter?”
“Sleep,” Rosetta spoke slowly, her inflections and intonations different, though her voice tugged familiarly at Isobel. “For three months, under the ice.”
“I talked to Dad before I left; he’s going to marry Grace.” Isobel rubbed her finger over a rough spot in the worn wood. "Mom told him to sell the cabin." She was getting cold. Rosetta swam in lazy, small circles. Suddenly she dove. She surfaced a moment later with something glinting wetly in her fingers. She brought it to Isobel and set it on the dock before her. Isobel picked it up: a glass eye. It cut one sharp crescent of refracted light across her palm. She rolled it around in her fingers. The eye was blue, and heavier than she would have expected; it dripped icy lake water onto her hand.
Isobel had an old coffee can filled with the things Rosetta had brought her last summer, small things carried from far parts of the lake: three thumbnail-size carved jade beads; an antique pair of bent, gold-wire eyeglass frames with half of one cloudy lens still intact; a set of rusted camping utensils linked on a metal ring; a miniature train, also rusted; assorted marbles; a plastic doll’s head with brilliant gold hair; buttons; matchless earrings; and about two sixty-eight in change, though some of the coins were so old that Isobel thought they might be worth more.
"Bring me the things?" Rosetta said, bobbing slightly. The water beaded on her dark blonde eyelashes and glazed her lips. "The pretty things."
She kept the coffee can in the cabin, on a shelf with the paperback murder mysteries her father had read over the summers. She went to get the can, poured its contents out and watched her sister's face as she ran her fingers over them. Leaning up over the edge of the dock, she picked each one up and held it to the light. Her face had a slightly perplexed look of concentration. When she had gone through all the objects, her dark eyes turned up to Isobel. "It's not here," she said slowly. "What I need...it's not here."
Isobel narrowed her eyes, trying to understand. "What, Ross? Is something missing?"
"No. Yes...what I need." Rosetta stared up into Isobel's face, her eyes moving slowly. She touched Isobel's hand and poured her gaze into Isobel's until a faint droning filled Isobel's head. Isobel swayed.
Abruptly Rosetta removed her hand and drifted from the dock, watching Isobel. A tiny line creased the smooth skin between Rosetta's eyes.
The droning faded slowly and Isobel rubbed her ears, feeling like she'd been depressurized too quickly. She watched Rosetta drift further away, wondering what had just happened.
Toby came to see her, as she did every summer. Isobel was getting split logs from what was left of last year’s cord when the older woman came out of the woods, walking up from the cove. She wore an assortment of layers, among them long johns, two skirts, a wool sweater, and a flannel shirt. In one hand she gripped a pair of heavy leather gloves.
“Heard you were up,” Toby said, kissing Isobel gently on the cheek. She smelled of tobacco, chill wind, and mint. "My nephew's here visiting me, thought you might like to meet him." She glanced behind her into the woods, called back, "Jay, where are you? Come on up."
“Cold for a canoe,” Isobel said as she hefted the wood. She looked curiously towards the woods. She'd never met any of Toby's family.
“Nah,” Toby said. “When the ice goes out, it’s warm enough.”
“How’s the greenhouse?”
“Doing fine.” She touched a pocket while holding the cabin door open for Isobel. “Brought you some mint leaves for tea; I’ll bring you some other things next week. Wanted to make sure you were here." She cast a searching glance back over the trees. "Where is the boy?”
Toby lived on the far shore of the lake; she didn’t own a car. The lake was her community. She kept three black goats and a coon cat and laid in supplies a few times a year, getting a ride into town with a neighbor up the road.
Jay appeared finally, out of the woods. Isobel wouldn't have called him a boy; he was in his mid-twenties, with ashy brown hair and the disheveled appearance of a graduate student. He looked back over his shoulder several times. When he reached them, Isobel saw he had a nice face and Toby's wryly turned mouth. He seemed distracted.
Toby waved a hand between them. "Jay, Isobel."
“I forgot how cold it would still be here,” Isobel said as she knelt to add splits to the wood stove. “The cherry trees were blossoming when I left D.C." The kettle whistled and she made tea. While Toby inspected her father’s paperbacks, Isobel and Jay sat by a window that looked down through the trees and over the lake.
Isobel blew on her tea before breathing in the hot steam. Mint, sweet and vivid, filled her nose and throat. She watched Jay’s long fingers around the chipped mug.
"You’re in grad school, yeah?"
"Yeah.” He nodded, sipped his tea. “Madison; physics." He set his cup down and leaned forward over it. The steam loosened his hair and several strands fell over his eyes. "Aunt Toby told me about your sister. I'm sorry."
Isobel glanced at Toby. She had moved on to the can of Rosetta’s treasures, peering into it, picking through them. The clink of metal, glass, and plastic filled a moment’s silence.
Isobel's gaze drifted, then, out the window, to the surface of the lake, a scattering of burning light through the trees. She gripped the cup tighter. She felt caught between the sweetness of flirting with Jay and the chill dark of the lake where Ross had dreamed under the ice all winter.
Although Jay seemed about to say something more, he lowered his gaze to the table, tracing the wood grain with one finger. "It's a strange lake," he said after a moment, "isn't it?"
"What do you mean?" Isobel looked at him, at the lashes shading his eyes. He shrugged.
"All lakes are strange," Toby said, holding the glass eye up to her own, frowning.
The next morning, Isobel went down to the cove and waited. When the sun was slanted low over the trees and a thin mist skimmed several feet over the surface of the lake, Rosetta surfaced, far out. Her head gleamed sleek as an otter's.
"Ross," Isobel called, softly, her voice carrying over the water. Rosetta came no closer, however. She bobbed there for a while, just outside the cove. Then she sank back down, disappearing. Isobel waited. She grew cold, waiting, straining her eyes to see her sister's head appear again.
A week later the ground began to thaw significantly.
"Mud season,” Toby announced, as Jay set down a box of greenhouse produce: dark, bunched spinach, onions, new potatoes, a small cluster of radishes. Toby wore rubber fishing boots under her skirt and looked smaller: she’d shed a layer. The mineral smell of mud came with her and Jay into the cabin.
He smiled shyly at Isobel and she found herself smiling back.
"Row boat floated in empty night before last,” Toby said. “Boat from the old Bellows place down the south cove. Summer person staying there; he's gone missing." She stretched, cracking her back.
Isobel looked away. "Are they going to dredge?"
"Well; he's alone. Syd's getting in touch with the agent, see if they can't find some of the man's family."
Fresh, rooty smells clung to Isobel’s hands as she put the produce away. She saw Jay peering into the coffee can, tilting it to the light, and the sight gave her a queer little lurch in her stomach.
It seemed like longer than a week ago since Toby and he had stopped by. She couldn't remember very well what she'd been doing the last week; sleeping a lot, sitting on the dock, reading her father's mystery novels...waiting for Rosetta to come.
"Would it be okay if I came back later, after we finish the deliveries?" Jay asked, studying one of the coins from the can.
“I told him you play chess,” Toby said. “He’ll drop me back home and come back in the canoe.”
“Sure. Of course.” She looked at the onion in her hand. Being alone was making her a little vague, she thought.
Toby was watching her shrewdly.
She walked them back down to the cove. The canoe held three other boxes of vegetables and rode low in the water. As they paddled smoothly from the shore, the slim boat broke and rolled the surface of the water away in a widening vee.
The day was so filled with light it crackled against Isobel’s skin. When the canoe was gone around a curve of the land, Rosetta surfaced and swam to Isobel. She set something on the dock and turned to go.
"Ross, wait, please, wait!” But her sister kept going, disappearing under the surface. Isobel looked after her, then crouched down to see what she’d left.
It was a man’s watch, the kind with a black rubber wristband, a large face, many functions. It seemed pretty new, like it hadn't been under too long; it was waterproof and still ticking.
The time and date it gave were current.
That little lurch in her gut came again, the tug of opposing forces.
Toby and Jay and the watch broke the bubble she'd been in for the last week. She thought of her life in D.C., of her father, her job at the museum, her mother; of Toby and all the people who lived on the lake, Ray, Syd, Beth Grainger; of Jay. She remembered the warm sting of attraction and desire, smiling into his eyes, the flicker of connection.
She'd forgotten him, and everything else, as if her life were no more than fragmentary scraps of dream.
The watch scared her awake.
She shivered, feeling cold, so cold she couldn't seem to get warm. She fed the wood stove and set it burning hot, then curled up on the couch, wrapped in a down comforter.
She woke in the late afternoon, sobbing. Her throat was tight. A raw, hollow feeling filled her chest, lodged like a structure of hard edges and empty spaces in her arms, back, groin, and thighs.
Hiccupping over sobs, she got up slowly, wiping her face.She touched the watch, which sat on the coffee table. Seeing the time, she wondered if Jay had come for his chess game and then gone without waking her.
She put on her boots and went down to the lake. The air dried and cooled her face. The sky was the color of early lilacs; the lake, very still beneath, gave back soft reflection. Insects swept and darted through the air and across the water.
Half-beached in the grasses at the cove edge sat Toby's canoe. Rosetta floated in the water a little way out, Jay in her arms. Together they looked like a strange starfish.
Isobel ran, splashing into the water, stopped at the shock of cold. "Ross, what are you doing?"
Rosetta looked up. She lifted one hand from stroking Jay's hair. They floated nine or ten feet away, past where the bottom dropped. Isobel took another step. The mud and sand sucked at her boots.
"This is what I need," her sister said slowly, softly. "In his eyes, in him."
Isobel dove out into the water. The coldness shocked her through her clothes a moment after the water closed over her head. Her boots filled quickly and weighed her down. She surfaced and stroked toward Rosetta, gasping. Even here in the little cove she felt how big the lake was as the bottom dropped away beneath her and she reached her sister and Jay.
Rosetta looked at her over Jay's head. Her face bore an incandescence, something gentle and pure in her expression that made Isobel think of a religious icon.
Paddling with one arm, She pulled Jay from her sister's grasp. Unresisting, only looking perplexed, Rosetta let him go.
Jay was barely conscious. He murmured, head lolling, limp weight in her arms. Isobel gripped him around the collarbone and chest and kicked, trying to get back to the shallows. The boots weighed her down. She went under a moment, the cold water closing over both their heads, came back up. Jay started coughing, struggling. He cracked his head back into Isobel's jaw and her grip on him loosened at the pain.
She got lake bottom under her finally and dragged him up into the grass. She breathed rawly, exhausted, fingers and toes numb, head pulsing. Jay groaned, choked on a breath, then rolled over to his knees, coughing water.
Isobel scanned the lake surface. "Ross?"
Rosetta resurfaced, closer. "I need him," she said softly.
"No, Ross, you can't."
Rosetta looked at her, into her. As before, Isobel heard a distant droning in her head; she ceased to feel the cold. Languor and warmth stole through her bones.
Then Rosetta shut her eyes and turned her face away. The droning hum died away, the cold snapped back through Isobel like a whip.
Rosetta looked back at Isobel, once. Then she sank below the surface, leaving a ripple.
Isobel watched the ripple for a moment, then felt a great shudder go through her. "No! Rosetta!" She glanced at Jay, torn for half a breath, but then she ran back out into the water, ran until it became too deep and then dove under, swimming out.
She opened her eyes on a foggy, secret land. Streamers of milfoil leaned over variegated pebbles, disappearing into dusk only a body-length away. She could barely see Rosetta in the waving weeds, her long hair floating around her like corn silk. Then Rosetta turned away and disappeared into the dim.
Isobel looked up; the wash of pale color that was the sky rippled. She heard her heart pushing her blood, heard her breath--and then she couldn’t breathe. She choked as ice-cold water rushed inside of her.
Clamoring for the surface, she flailed out, trying to kick out of her boots. There was nothing to grab onto, nothing to get purchase against...time drifted, moments opening wide. She began to fall into this widening, into nothing.
That was okay, she realized. She would be with Ross.
A shadow crossed between her and the surface, a hand plunging in to take hold of her shirt and drag her upwards.
Up in the cabin, Toby stamped about, muttering under her breath as she fed the wood stove and made tea. Jay sat wrapped in the comforter, Isobel in a wool blanket.
Isobel fingered the sore spot on her jaw where Jay had bashed her. She had coughed water until her lungs and gut ached and now shivered continuously.
A small hardness, like a walnut, lodged inside her.
"What will happen to her?" Jay asked suddenly, his voice rough and low. Something in it, forlorn, touched the hard knot in Isobel.
"Hush, you," Toby said. She settled heavily beside Isobel, putting a mug of tea into her hands. "Did you tell her no?"
Isobel thought, nodded. "Yes." Then she understood what Toby had asked her. She looked at the can of things on the bookshelf, and then the watch, ticking on the coffee table. Then at Jay.
Toby rubbed her face. "Well. That may end it. She'll fade, go on."
Isobel stared at her. "Toby...you knew about Rosetta?"
Toby grunted. "This lake has always had a...spirit." She waved her hand, hmmphed, dissatisfied with the word. "One at a time. They might stay for a day, a week, an hour. Or years. Who's to say? But you, Isobel, not wanting to let go, needing Rosetta. That helped to keep her."
"Did...does she have to..." Isobel glanced at Jay, lifted her chin, "you know?"
"They always do."
"And I told her no, so she'll stop...and--fade?"
Toby took out her tobacco. She rolled a cigarette, licked it. "It depends," she said then. "Did you mean it?"
Isobel tucked her chin down, frowning.
She had a sudden memory of Rosetta's hand in hers, warm fingers strong and callused. In her mind she saw Rosetta's face as she'd held Jay, floating in the water.
Isobel looked away from Toby's nephew, away from his wet hair and his shivering, and whispered, "I don't know."
This story originally appeared in Otherworldly Maine.