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Short Story - People In the Lake [Jan. 14th, 2008|08:41 am]


[Current Mood |relaxedrelaxed]

I was talking this weekend with alannahjoy about flash fiction. The thought doesn't really inspire me; most of my ideas are for longer pieces. Still, this popped out.

TITLE: People In the Lake
AUTHOR: HeartofDavid
COMMENTS: Semi-autobiographical. I'd love to hear your opinion if you would care to comment.

People lived in the lake, guests of King and Queen Catfish.

It was her favorite daydream while waiting for the parental clock of illogic to announce the magic hour. Morning minutes dribbled by as she sat on the pier dabbing her feet in the water. The jelly-like lips of bluegills nibbled her toes.


On the lawn surrounding the large frame house where each summer her family, a couple of relatives and an ever changing shuffle of strangers vacationed for two weeks, her mother and aunt sat on loungers under the shade of a tree. Doughy skin contrasted sharply against swimsuits of black and blue. A few of her cousins played on the grass, and squabbled and swore in two languages. The profanity escaped the ears of the adults, the words disguised by the children’s high-pitched voices.


She hated the delay. The suntan lotion her mother had smeared on her stung her nose with its sickly sweet smell. It made her feel like a ham, glazed and baking in the oven. The second she was granted permission to go swimming, she would dive in and wash it off. She liked how the lotion made rainbow-hued streamers on the surface of the water as it left her skin.

Soon, she was going to try and find the people in the lake. They had to be there.

She’d heard hushed adult talk about people who had drowned; one or two each year since they’d been coming to the lake. Most times the body was found. She thought of these as the guests who’d been turned away from the door of the underwater palace because they lacked invitations.

But strange and most exciting to her were the times there was no body. People simply went missing. Food for the fishes, her cousins whispered. She wondered if any of the remains were inside the fish they caught and ate. She’d never found any finger or toe bits among the fried filets.

She’d heard an old man at the little store down the road talking about a girl who’d lost her grip while skiing. He said all they found were the skies and a lifejacket. The story gave her shivers.

Only yesterday an abandoned rowboat was found drifting on the waves; fishing poles baited, six-pack of beer still cold and sweating.

Robbie Mitchell disappeared last summer. His parents owned the small, white house next door. He’d been swimming to the raft anchored a few yards from the pier. She’d watched him climb out on it. Then her mother had called her to come for dinner. She’d heard the splash as he’d jumped into the water. Turning, she saw him again making his way up the ladder on the corner of the raft.

An hour later, he was gone. No one could explain what happened to him. His mother’s desolate weeping made her feel guilty.

She pretended these people had gone to live beneath the waves. Her imagination built the castle and inhabited it with fishy royalty and their human visitors, and designated a location. She was going to explore it today.

It was harmless, if morbid, play.

Swimming flippers, and a mask and snorkel waited on the planks beside her; presents for her 9th birthday last month. Her short, chubby fingers fidgeted with the straps.

“Mom? Can I go in now?” she hollered. A distant and distracted “okay” was the reply.

She pushed off the pier. The water closed over her head. She opened her mouth and shouted for joy, creating a curtain of bubbles that floated up through her hair.

She slipped her feet into the flippers. They made walking in the water awkward but increased her swimming speed dramatically. She loved them, even though she thought they made her look like a blue-footed duck.

Concentrating, she spit into the mask and worked it over the glass to prevent fogging as she’d been taught. She ran water through the snorkel then blew it free.

She was ready.

Her goal was the buoy thirty yards straight in front. Swimmers weren’t supposed to go past the buoys, they marked the boundary beyond which motorboats roared and sped with fishermen and skiers.

Something held those buoys in place; she’d felt the chain, slimy with algae. Her younger cousin said they were attached to the skeletons of dinosaurs that used to live here thousands of years ago. She didn’t believe him. She thought it might be the wrecks of old boats, or something logical like that.

But today, in her mind, they were attached to the palace walls.

The flippers made a vast difference as she stroked through the water. Several times she’d swum the distance without them, but the effort was nearly the limit of her ability, leaving her breathless and exhausted.

Not so today. It felt like flying. She looked through the mask most of the time, but the only things she saw were a skimpy forest of weeds and the silvery glimmer of a school of fish.

Arriving at the buoy, she gave it a ritual slap and felt for the chain. It was cold, much colder than the water. She’d never been able to follow it all the way down, running out of air long before she could reach its end.

That wouldn’t happen today.

She took three deep breaths and held the last. Grabbing the chain, she descended, pulling herself downwards while kicking vigorously. The water was murkier than expected. Sunlight filtered through in shades of green.

She heard a droning noise and glanced up. Far above, a boat cut through the water. The wake churned like foamy clouds from either side.

She was nearly there. Something white loomed at the end of the chain. Excitement and a touch of fear caused her to exhale more than she wanted, leaving her lungs almost empty.

It was nothing more than an old radiator covered in chipped, dirty white paint, stuck in an angle on the sandy bottom.

Disappointment made her dizzy. She needed air and fought the urge to breathe. She couldn’t see or feel the chain.

Shadowy shapes with large, flat heads and gaping, whiskered mouths stared at her. The catfish court, she thought. They’d come to take her to the ball. The King and Queen were waiting.

The End

[User Picture]From: alannahjoy
2008-01-15 03:50 am (UTC)
You and I have talked a lot regarding just about every aspect of writing. One thing I have harped on a lot is that I love to be "grabbed" by the story within the first couple of paragraphs, or my interest starts to slide.

Let me tell you, I was grabbed and held from the very first line. In fact, this is hands-down the most perfect opening line I've seen in a fiction story in a long time. I had to keep reading.

The "parental clock of illogic" - another favorite line, and something that connects with just about anyone who remembers their childhood. Even better, I felt this child's logic and understood it. It would have been too easy to be condescending, cliched, or even camp in portraying the young imagination that led her to seek out the King and Queen Catfish. But this child is so straightforward and confident in her own logic, I found myself believing that she just might find that underwater palace. I even pictured catfish sitting in thrones with little crowns on their heads. *g*

Being a mystery aficionado, I've got to admit that a small part of me was waiting for the girl to reveal that she had made the people disappear, especially when she said she felt guilty when she heard Robbie Mitchell's mother weep. I'm glad it didn't end up that way, though. That would have been jarring. The way you wrote it was seamless and realistic throughout.

You have a gift of making your characters' worlds come alive. From the jelly-like lips of the bluegills to the gaping, whiskered mouths of the catfish court, I saw, heard and felt everything. (Of course, I was such a prim girly-girl as a child that I would have run away screaming at the first nibble of a bluegill. *g*)

The ending was haunting and could have made me feel bleak, except that I was in such bliss from being held captive by such a well-told story. Bliss or not, though, those catfish faces are something I'm going to see in my mind for a long, long time.

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[User Picture]From: maldeluxx
2008-01-16 10:49 pm (UTC)
That read like a classic short story from a collection I might pick up at the library, one of those "...American Writers..." type of things. Reminded me a bit of something like what I read in "Lolita" when they go to visit a lake around the first half of the book.
Sort of sunny yet disturbing a little, but not that much as this child's worldview is different from an adult's, which softens some things and brings other things into focus much sharper. I could feel the hot and cold right there. I really liked this. :)
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[User Picture]From: heartofdavid
2008-01-23 12:08 am (UTC)
Thank you. It's from my "Memory Garden" collection. ;) I'm glad you noticed that the way a child observes (worldview, good word) things is much different from an adult's - I was trying to show that. :)
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