The last time I rowed Patty to Black Sock Isle, she came back with sunburnt eyes and a vicious case of Giardia.
She and Griff go there because it’s the only place where no eyes are on them. Don’t stare at the sun, I always say, and bring a bottle of tap for when your throat gets sandy. As I remind her of this, she works at the dirt-loaded tip of her index finger with her front teeth until she has a homemade hangnail. “I’m going to find you a man one of these days,” she informs me, easing the wooden oar from my grip with her non-hangnail hand. She saunters around our drowned campfire, swaddled in Griff ‘s confederate flag beach towel.
Patty hangs the threadbare towel between two birches and changes behind it as though neither I (her older sister) nor Griff (her on-and-off boyfriend for the past three years) have ever seen her naked. She crouches and yanks a black bikini bottom over her pine-needly feet, then pulls her arms through a ruffled tank just as Griff lumbers out of the woods. His reddish hair is shaved morbidly close and he’s wearing an eight-dollar t-shirt that reads I’m That Dude.
“We’re ready to embark when you are,” he says to me, trying to act all nautical because that’s how he thinks I bond with people.
More sex-deprived deviants would probably use Black Sock Isle for trysts if they could find it. When I was young, my dads bragged to their poker buddies about what an imagination their older daughter had: she’d not only invented her own island on the lake where they’d raised her, but she’d created unfathomable details for a girl of seven – bears with midnight-black fur; salted grass where the island’s old inhabitants had carved messages; bright red thistle that did not die and regrow, but remained season after season like pulsing drops of lifeblood. By the time I hit double digits, I needed more than watercolors to express what I saw there. Like any good dads, mine plundered my diaries, and when they realized that I’d rowed my few friends out to Black Sock Isle on the same canoe my more woodsy father had drowned in open water with me aboard (in order to teach me a lesson about salvaging a vessel), they insisted upon a family camping trip. But they were in their “screening” phase, and needed to review everything – novellas, films, any swatch of land upon which I might lay a sleeping bag – before they’d deem it okay. So they canoed there.
They never found it, and my imagination was lauded. I still ferried my sister when she was old enough to remember it. When our feet first touched the salt-soil together, everything – the petal-scented breeze, the wind-cut logs, the immortal blood-thistles – grew quiet, still as the dead. We spent secret weekends there when our folks left town for car shows or card tournaments. We challenged ourselves to live on one set of clothes, fresh water from the Circle, and sunfish we knifed ourselves. Black Sock Isle, the place that filled my notebooks, dried out my pens, reduced my colored pencils to a rainbow of graphite debris and wood shavings, introduced me to my own sister when I couldn’t see her for anything but a mewling parasite. It’s where I grew up.
“The island doesn’t belong to you just because you’re the only one who can find it,” Patty says from behind the towel. Griff nods as if his own ideas are being funneled vicariously into my sister’s voice box.
“Wrong,” I say. Patty gives me a look that makes me feel like a misheard song lyric. She crumples the towel and drapes it over Griff, who mumbles something about the proper treatment of a flag.
Patty strides over the pine needles until our noses are inches apart. She knows I don’t have to bring her. Helpless as she is now, my little sister’s confidence is rooted in her like a pair of silvery wings.
“What changed, Tal?”
“Nothing,” I say, flopping my arms against my thighs. “That’s what bothers me about it.”
Patty stands on her toes and kisses my chin. She walks over to Griff, threads her arm through the diamond formed by his elbow and hip, and heaves a prepacked bag of salmon bagels, protein gel, and assorted sweets over her other shoulder. Her metal thermos juts out of the fishnet pocket like an ingrown tooth. She knows I’ve given in.
A shipwreck birthed my relationship with the island. My shipwreck was a bit of a joke, though. While my parents dealt playing cards in the sitting room, I took the old paddleboat onto the lake and combed the shores for blackberries and scattered treasure (the city people’s children were not especially careful with their toys). My rudder caught a snarl of milfoil.
The island called me, I think. I saw it through a V opening in the trees across the lake, an opening like palms about to touch. The leaves rustled like little breath-blown hairs. Sporting a tank-top and striped gym shorts, I abandoned the boat and let the lake swallow me in a dive.
When I surfaced, I wiped the water from my eyes with the backs of my wrists, and there was the island, at first a green, flan-shaped blur, and after I blinked away the film, something else. I stretched my legs and scraped the lakebottom with my big toe.
Patty sits in the hollow bed of the canoe, sipping at a plastic bottle of blue Sno-Cone syrup. Every time I dip the oar over the opposite side of the boat, I arch my arms extra high to avoid hitting my knees, which are crammed between my seat and Griff’s. I am reminded, as I am whenever I step into a boat, settle into a car seat, or catch the zipper of a sleeping bag on the zipper of my sweatshirt, that they do not make things for people with long bodies.
“Come to dinner with us later,” Patty tells me in her I’m obligated to say this voice. I guess this is the closest thing I’ll get to a thank you. The back of her head rocks against Griff’s thigh as we pass over the wake of a speedboat. She grins. Her teeth are sugary blue.
My sister was always addicted to sweets. We have VHS tapes of four year-old Patty shoving her entire hand, covered in maple syrup, into the cavern of her throat. The day the Beak claimed my paddleboat, I left Patty curled on the sofa watching Dino Riders and sucking on heart-shaped candies our dads bought by the sackful at the Dollar Store.
Once I’d beached myself, navigated the rocks around the Circle, and drip-dried on an ash-colored stump, I realized I hadn’t emptied my pockets before diving out of the paddleboat. On the island now, I cradled the squishy mass in my wet pocket and yanked as if pulling a knife from a kill, then left the whole assortment – house key, dirty socks, $20 bill, love note from the neighbor’s third-grade son scribbled on a folded Nine of Spades – to dry on a flat chunk of boulder.
Esben was already on the island when I arrived, but I didn’t meet him until twilight lobbed the moon into the sky and a palm-sized fire crackled between my feet. At first, I only heard his grunting in the shrubs behind me, but in the dark, those inky bushes could have stretched to the other side of the lake, and the bear’s hungry grunts might have been the protests of a Sasquatch, the mating call of a plesiosaur, the groan of the Earth itself.
I’d learned at an even younger age, during homeschooling sessions when my dads went on tirades about shedding dumb misconceptions, that bears neither hibernate nor attack people unprovoked. They just want our food. But I was the hungry one. I hadn’t a crumb to my name out there on the island.
Esben told me about the fish that often beached themselves in the Circle at night.
We dined together after he’d pawed a large bass from the shallow water and gutted it with his teeth. I picked out the icky parts with my fingers. We helped each other again and again that summer, communicating through nothing but body language and the groans of our bellies.
Once, he let me scrape chips of bone from between his teeth with a toothpick.
By the time I rowed Patty out there for the first time, I could clean a catch as adroitly as any fisherman’s son, no problem.
When asked how to reach the island, I kept Esben tucked away.
“Think we’ll see your bear?” Patty asks as we thread the Narrows. She figured it out when we were younger. Brown furballs with faces inhabited all of my amateur paintings. Papa sewed me a bear costume that fit me until my freakish growth spurt, and I’d wear it whenever I was home. Years later, sloshed on half a glass of our dads’ Merlot, I confided in Patty that the bear was real, that he had a name, that he spoke to me, that he had been on this lake longer than any of us.
“Dunno,” I say, double-fisting the oar in front of me as if I’m claiming the canoe for the Colonies.
“Why am I not allowed to row?”
It occurs to me that she hasn’t spoken directly to Griff since we left.
“That’s just how it works.”
Finding the island is routine. Its magic was drained a long time ago. Finding it with Patty feels like a childhood game we’re struggling to remember the rules of together, groping our way through a fog of nostalgia for a real memory.
I stick the canoe and herd everyone ashore. Despite the recent heatwave, the water is icy around our ankles. I tell Patty and Griff to watch their step over the Circle, as if they haven’t bogarted the island a dozen times already this summer. But at the rate the city people are carving out pockets of trees and putty-knifing new developments around the lake, the three of us will not be making this trip for much longer.
The Circle is a ring of water encircling the island, which I always thought of as a shield against danger. My dads, on the other hand, have settled into the assumption that the Circle is a remnant from a clan of industrious beavers who “deliberately (Papa’s words) dammed the hell out of every good thing on the lake.”
Patty hauls her stuff over the Circle and ditches it alongside my little fire pit.
“Come on,” she tells Griff. Her voice is machinelike.
Once they’ve linked hands and begun roaming, I head back to the canoe and pull a bright red Cortland from my travel bag. I plant myself in the belly of the canoe, brace my feet against the bow, and gnaw all the way to the pit while trying to gaze across the ripply, sun-blazed water without squinting. When the flesh is gone, I spit the seeds onto the beach.
A brown shape lumbers over the distant north shore, sweeping two birches into a dance, one weakly dipping the other. Sunblind, I stand in the canoe. Instinct rises in me. I call Esben’s name. My voice carries over the water, crashing through the birches and hopefully into earshot of whatever walks beyond them.
I wade into the mouth of the lake, spin over, and backstroke across to the opposite shore. Is Esben over there, searching for some berries? Does he smell Patty’s salmon bagels? I haven’t seen him in fifteen years, but I’ve kept my eyes trained to find him.
I cut past the treeline and bushwhack through white limbs, leaves the size of ladles. Nettles bite at my shins. I leap a lonely oak stump when my momentum gets the better of me.
Someone is groaning a milky baritone in the clearing. There’s another fire pit here, a bracelet of marble bricks encircling a blackened pile of pine dregs, which gives off the sooty odor of recent use. I suck a few heavy post-biathlon breaths, and the haze of the treeline wheels around me. My senses slingshot back into me one at a time.
Dinner at Kyoto House is quiet. I don’t know what happened on the island, but Patty, alongside me at the black hibachi table, pinches California rolls between her chopsticks and hauls them into the O of her mouth as though her arm is a backhoe. She doesn’t look up. Griff murders his crab rangoon with a water-stained fork. Across from me, struggling with his fried shrimp, sits Dante, a strappy college grad Patty has set me up with. I have no idea how she knows him; he was waiting with a table when we got here.
Patty’s decade-long quest to find me a suitable mate only continues because I keep telling myself I owe her favors. I don’t owe her anything; if this were Medieval times, she’d owe me a lifetime of squiredom by now. But when I say no to her, arrowheads slide beneath the bone at the back of my head, the same as they do when I hide my questions from her. Why does Patty need me to be with someone? Does she want to make sure I don’t get drawn too far into my fantasies? If we’re both in relationships with boneheads, does that put us on equal ground? Dante is attractive, I think – deep Italian features, electric-black hair, an explosive knowledge of animals – but after five minutes of pretending I care about his baseball team’s season of mediocrity, I know I will never call any number he slips my way after the waitress takes our plates.
Afterwards, at the movie theater, I remove my low-tops and perch my heels on the edge of the cushioned seat. Shoes have always felt unnatural to me – that feeling of separating myself from the Earth – and I never wear them at home. Halfway through the double-feature, Dante worms his hand under the plastic cupholder and sets his warm palm on my foot. He doesn’t try anything else. Maybe in his mind, palming my foot equals possessing me. I nod off during the second movie’s opening credits and dream of a lake ringed not with trees, but garish houses with identical roofs and porches, extraneous decks, large-paned windows placed like black eyes on every floor, watching docked speedboats rock in the wake of other speedboats. Always there is the sound of an engine, a riding lawnmower, a chainsaw, a plane, a child screaming, nails being pounded into a home addition; always there is the perfume of flavored tobacco, of gasoline, burnt meat, exhaust, lit fireworks; always the stars are blurred away by boulderesque lamps at the heads of the docks.
A stiff deer hangs from the side of a garage, bleeding into the dirt.
At night, a bear sniffs at the blood.
I awaken in the soft, liquidy light of the theater. Griff’s eyes are waiting for mine to open. No Dante, no Patty. Two candy boxes, probably emptied by my sister, lie on the armrest between us.
“I see you loved the movie.”
I picture Patty in the lobby, waiting with arms folded in a ring of discarded popcorn. But I don’t ask about her.
“Did you know our grandmother was struck by lightning?” I ask Griff. He’s antsy to get out of the theater, to control the ratio of how long Patty has to wait to how passive-aggressive she’ll be on the ride home.
Griff humors me. “I didn’t,” he says. As I yawn, he watches a female employee in tight black jeans sweep a mound of garbage into a dustpan that’s taller than she is.
“It was my fault,” I say. “Hurricane Becky was slamming the next town over, and the air smelled stormy. But I wouldn’t get out of the lake until I was ready. She put her hand on the metal handle of our camp’s door, and the next thing you know, she’s airborne. The lightning must have gone through the ground or something.”
“Was she okay?”
“Yeah, just jarred. Didn’t visit much in the summer after that.” I push myself into normal posture and sleeve a drop of drool from my chin. “How much do you like my sister?”
Griff stands and wipes his palms on his pant-legs as though he’s been working on a greasy car engine. “More than this movie.” He extends a hand, I take it, and he pulls.
The morning I left Esben, I salvaged the paddleboat shipwreck by bracing myself on two submerged rocks and lifting with the strength of my knees. The playing card with the love note was gone when I woke up, and I completely forgot about my mushy socks, which I’d left to drip-dry on the high twigs of a sugar maple. I never found any of those things again, but I like to pretend my socks are still blowing at the apex of that tree like my own flag.
Barely a minute after hitting my pillow, I find my way back to the dream. Hurricane Becky has just tossed my grandmother across our lawn, but I’m far from there. I stand beneath the hanging deer, which has been stripped to its skeleton by vultures and wind. The skull is missing. On the water, a rainbowed spine of motorboat oil has survived the downpour and stretches across to Black Sock Isle, shrouded beyond the Narrows like a ghost ship.
The leash of the dream pulls me into the lake, and I swim the expanse of stormy chop until I reach the island. The translucent oil stream eventually ends, like paces on a map, and the dream commands me to dive. I take a sharp breath and fold my body downward. My feet pass under with me. Eyes wide, I can see with abnormal clarity in the churned-up dream water. I rest my arms at my side and scissor-kick my way down the slope of island rock. At the base, an empire of milfoil stoically reaches for me. My throat tightens; even here, my lungs won’t survive this kind of swim. I hadn’t noticed before, but a mouthlike notch pierces the side of the island’s rocky stalk. At the highest point of its curve is a moon pool, rusty yellow and magnetizing me to its glow. The mouth passage is devoid of plants, and I sweep through with the strength I have left. My heels tap against the stony roof. My head emerges from the water.
I heave myself into the cave, rise to my full height, and feel a pop as I take my first step. My left foot rests upon the crushed white skull of the deer.
My legs hang over the side of the bed, the black cuffs of my pajama pants halting just below my shins. “Good morning, Lightning Rod,” Patty says as she knocks my bedroom door open with her knee. It’s a name my family gave me during homeschooling, what would have been fifth grade, when Patty and I were subjected to our dads’ storm survival test. I always failed, but mostly because my dads’ knowledge of violent weather patterns made the histrionic soothsaying of our hick neighbors look like the Farmer’s Almanac. After the three of them tackled me and declared that their imitation lightning storm had slain me – Due to your incompetence and height, you’ve become the victim of a direct strike, which heats the air in your body to fifty-thousand degrees Fahrenheit, shreds your clothing, blackens your entire torso and face with third-degree burns, bursts your blood vessels, and disrupts your heart’s electrical rhythm, causing cardiac arrest – I didn’t speak to them for days. Patty only calls me Lightning Rod when she smells a particular brand of bullheadedness on me.
She sucks on an orange popsicle. I can hear Griff rummaging through the kitchenette for toothpicks to shove through the sandwich meat I bought yesterday.
“I don’t think Dante’s going to call me again,” I say, absorbing any blame Patty might place on me before she even bothers.
“Why do you do that?” she asks. The words stick in me as though she’s asked the question a thousand times. When I throw nothing back, she adds, “I’m going to teach Griff to fish today.”
“It’s going to rain.” She knows I don’t care. We’ve spent nights on the island together. We’ve cleaned trout blood from each other’s hands, removed splinters from beneath each other’s nails with our teeth. As kids, we’d spend sick days together on the living room couch, the healthy one mixing throat remedies, singing to sooth a fever, and camping there if the sick one couldn’t make it upstairs to bed. It occurs to me that the couch was our prototype island, but I know Patty doesn’t think about it that way.
Since she invited herself into my room, she hasn’t taken her eyes away from the knapsack I packed before passing out last night. She knows I’m going, that I might get killed searching for Esben again. I try another angle: “Humping in mud isn’t going to be very fun.”
She leans her back against the bedroom door and bites a chunk of popsicle off the stick. “I think we might just talk today.”
No one speaks while I canoe us through the sheet of rain. It’s only sprinkling now, but it will be torrential by the time we reach the island. Griff, on the opposite seat as usual, gazes out at the graying clouds as though willing the storm to arrive before we do. Patty stares into the belly of the canoe. When we get there, she’ll find some excuse not to fish with Griff. Forgot the poles, rain is driving the fish deeper, whatever. I’ll prepare my dive. She’ll place a waterlogged hand on my shoulder when I step across the Circle, baby me in front of Griff, who will take her side just like our family always has. But I’ll dive. I’ll breach the maw of the cave, and there my Esben will be, adorned with the skulls of everything he’s dragged there. Or maybe that happens after the city people mow down our favorite trees and I can’t hear anything but the hum of machinery. My dreams were never quite clear about that.
Before we approach the first of the Three Bends, a white speedboat stutters into a tight turn and kills its engine in front of us. The driver is one of our neighbors, Mr. Dench, who keeps a surveillance camera planted atop his gargoyled front gate, never removes his gator-skin cap, and whose hungry glances have always made me feel like he’s formulating a plan to corner me.
“Where’re you all going?” he says. The rain begins to roar over the metal surface of the canoe. My dads have always kept a chummy rapport with the neighbors. They dragged Patty and I to lake parties for two decades. But after each visit, every awkward barbecue and Independence Day explosion, they’d both rub my shoulders, squeeze me like a stress ball, and set me between them on the love seat until we all passed out. The transfer of energy was electric. These are my favorite memories of my parents, but it wasn’t until I grew up that I learned the lesson they may or may not have known they were teaching me through their touch. Right now, I want to run. Paddle, Tal. Grab Patty and dive. Call a school of walleye and let them push you. Why did you waste all that time talking to bears when you could have been learning the language of fish?
“Nowhere, necessarily,” I reply.
“I’ll follow you,” he says. “If it starts to storm, you can get in the boat.”
Patty and Griff are waiting for me to get us there without a fuss. They’re getting wet, and they hate it.
“No, thank you,” I say. “Your boat’s not going to fit through the Narrows.”
“But you’re not necessarily going through there, are you?”
I heave my oar back over the side of the canoe. The resistance of the water feels like home, like a gift of protection. “Goodbye, Mr. Dench. I’ll tell my dads you said hi.”
Looking casual while powering around the speedboat is impossible. My hands quake. Patty and Griff both wave to Mr. Dench as we pass. He restarts the ignition and begins to trail us. His boat bobs over its own wake. I pinch my lips together and muscle onward, begging the noise of the engine to taper off.
I speak Patty’s name. She’s unwrapping maple sugar candies under a canopy of palm and poncho. I tell her she needs to take the other oar.
“I thought there was no way to reach the island if anyone but you moves the boat.”
“Pick it up, Patty.”
Griff scoops the wooden oar, but I need Patty to do this, not him. I give him a look, and he drops it. The clud sound of the wood against the hull sends a horrific current through my bones.
“Patty. Pick. Up. The. Oar. And. Put. It. In. The. Water.”
Without taking her eyes off me, she slowly lifts the oar and lays it across her lap. The black hood of her poncho makes her look like someone who is not her.
“Admit that you’ve been making it all up,” she says. “The island is just an island. Daddy and Papa couldn’t find it because they suck at canoeing and still don’t realize it.”
“Do you understand what’s happening right now?”
“Yeah. I’m fixing you.”
“Pick up the oar, Patty.”
“Admit that you’ve never seen a bear out here.”
“You’re lucky – ”
I want to add that I’m your sister; that I didn’t answer that question you asked me earlier; that abandoning you would feel like hanging myself; that I’m the toothpick that holds this sandwich together, motherfucker, but those parts get stuck in my throat, so I just say it again: “You’re lucky.”
When we reach the Beak, Patty rows. I don’t know if she’s caught a whiff of danger or whether she feels wrong about what she said to me, but her arms work.
Griff leaps over the bow once the Narrows are behind us. I hop out after him with Patty at my heels, and the three of us wedge the canoe onto the shale.
Mr. Dench’s speedboat is silent beyond the Narrows.
I step over the Circle without acknowledging Patty. Words are still lumped behind my tongue. Pink bolts dance from the clouds we passed under a few minutes ago. There is a crush of thunder.
Griff and Patty hug their ponchos to their faces and turn their backs to me. They begin raising their voices at each other. The noise of the speedboat does not return.
I bisect Patty and Griff, stopping my sister midsentence. She is wondering how we got here. I should be wondering the same thing, since the grease of Patty’s arms helped as much as my seamanship did, but all I feel is gratitude. Thank you, Patty. You believed me. That dumb look on your face means you always have.
This warming gel fills my chest as I move into the Circle, content to let Patty tell Griff she’s breaking it off. But she doesn’t look back at him. They’re both fixated on me – something has happened that I’ve missed. And then I feel it: the hairs on my arms and head stand slowly on end, one at a time, as if drawn to something in the clouds.
I am about to be struck by lightning.
The warmth becomes a heat. I picture Daddy, Papa, and Patty tackling me onto the living room floor. I can smell the must of the unvacuumed shag carpet, feel the bulge of crumpled Sweet Tarts wrappers in Patty’s jean pocket as she drives her hip into my spine, hear the reverberating stutter of Papa’s laugh. It all becomes a flamelike music that lifts me away from my dreams of the cave, from my sister’s open mouth, the white-hot streams of my own veins, a child who once thought a circle of water would save her.
I awaken on the living room couch. Patty, still soaked from the rain, is asleep next to me, hugging a pillow. There is complete silence. Someone has slipped me into bear-print pajama pants.
Richard Hartshorn lives on the Rensselaer Plateau and earned an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Richard’s fiction has appeared in Drunken Boat, Hypertext, Gambling the Aisle, and other publications.
© 2017, Richard Hartshorn