Balsam Lake

By Robert Starr

Every time…. every time we went on that trip I had the best intentions, promising myself I’d go to bed early the night before, and I did, but I tossed and turned squeezing my eyes shut trying to sleep. I’d suffer the same frantic suspense in the car later.

"We just passed the Rosedale Diner Dad," I’d say flopping my forearms between the seats, "Balsam Lakes right around the next corner, right?", but I knew it was still thirty minutes away and my parents would smile at each other.

Balsam Lake. Just whispering the name in the backseat sent me floating on a lazy raft ride of warm memories: that second when I’d jump in feet first and the lake life would all grumble in some delightful foreign tongue at being disturbed, the daring late nights watching frenzied insects tapping their black- dot bodies off the bare light bulb over our cottage door, and the leaves high up out of sight in the maples, muttering and tittering as the wind off the water combed through them.

The whole summer came down to two weeks at that magical place where we’d rent the same white cottage from Les Englass. He was the first adult I really understood: a grown man with a wizened, carved, apple-brown face whose smile silently shared my enchantment with his kingdom.

"Michael?" he called softly to us the first year we went alone. "Michael," he said on the exhale of emotion when he got close enough to see it was really us. "I’m so glad you’re here," he said grabbing for my father’s suitcase. "You know it’s not good to be alone all the time," he said, taking several characteristic heel-to-toe steps away from us to stand under the tall maples between the cottages.

I knew Les had been alone since his wife, Lucille, died and it saddened me anyone could ever be lonely in a place where every inch held a mysterious new adventure.

"Michael," he murmured conspiratorially, juggling the weight of the case he was holding in front of his knees and leaning toward my father as we walked, " a storm spoke her name last night. Imagine. It called on the wind called:’Lucille, Lucille.’"

He suddenly looked smaller than I’d remembered. His eyes were wide and against the whites I realized I’d never seen him in anything but a short-sleeved white dress shirt. I saw my father from the corner of my eye too, watching me to gauge how much of Les he’d need to explain later.

"There," Les said, turning to the case on the concrete step at the side door of the first whitewashed cottage, " I’ve told you. The storms bring her back to me this time of year. Can’t you hear it?"

I looked up because his quivering voice embarrassed me, but I only heard leaves stirring languidly in the warm summer breeze, and I only saw the sun flickering behind them like a flashlight’s beam through the blades of an electric fan.


I was skimming the tepid water with the arches of my bare feet from the edge of the dock that night, mesmerized by a kite’s tail of moonlight shimmering and winking at me from the middle of the black lake, when the planks I was on shifted, breaking the spell as water sloshed against the beams under my legs.

"David," my father said sitting down beside me and putting his palms on the edge, "is everything all right son?"

I looked away and flinched; it had been six months since he had put his nervous, cold hand on my shoulder and steered me into the hospital room. I had been haunted by visions of a last visit a thousand times, of what I should or would say and do, but when it happened, I only wanted to tell my mother I was there. When I took her hand she squeezed back faintly, her skin dusty blackboard chalk to me, and one of the machines keeping impersonal watch over us blipped like a nervous bird, settling back to its quiet dull rhythm when she let go.

After that day I couldn’t lie to myself anymore and pretend she was only miffed at my father for a late golf game when he and I sat through another silent meal, and I thought more and more about Balsam Lake. I’d stare at the food in front of me, absently arranging the peas and mashed potatoes with my fork, searching my memory for the crisp affirmative snap of the shoulder strap on her one piece red bathing suit and the smell of the rich nutty suntan oil on her skin, always thick and heavier than the light air around it.

" It bothers me too, son," my father said, reaching out to put a comforting or beseeching hand on my knee. But I shifted my weight and the water under the dock gave a tandem slurp.

"All right," he said getting up and sighing, " all right, but don’t stay down here too long." I waited until he’d left before I relaxed again.

That’s when the magic of Balsam Lake showed itself to me for the first time.

* * *

I felt something was about to happen when the air became dank and muggy, almost thick enough to stick to me like cotton candy. The water slapped against the dock and the wind started to rip across the lake like a bowling ball gaining mad momentum and charging the pins. I used both hands to brace me as I got up with the lake driving frothing waves against the breakwater behind the dock that shattered like thin crystal goblets, and a fat raindrop hit with a ‘tick’, cold and shocking on the top of my head. I was soaked by the time I’d run up the hill for the cottage; I burst through the wooden screen door, reeling and gasping for breath.

"Dad, get up," I cried, wanting him to see and hear her sudden fury too, to share in it and validate it for me at the same time, and I turned toward the front window momentarily smug in the safety of the cottage.

* * *

I saw Les for only a second, his disembodied white shirt like a bobbing patio lantern against the black sky as he ran down to the dock. Then lightning hit and he was gone, so I ran from the cottage, slipping on the rain greased downward slope, falling once with my arms cart wheeling for balance, terrorized for that suspended second where gravity abandoned me and my legs slipped out from under my body. I got up and ran to the edge of the dock, my frenzied breathing and roaring heart drowning out the retreating crackling storm.

"Les?" I cried at the water, wiping the thinning misty rain from my eyes. "Les?" I wailed again, dropping to my knees and leaning forward to part the foamy lake.

* * *

A gentle hand on my shoulder stirred me on the dock later that night in the cool clarity of the storm’s aftermath, but I couldn’t speak a word about what I thought

I had just seen.

"C’mon son," my father said from behind me. "I know how it feels."

He lifted me and we walked off the slightly listing dock and up the slippery hill. I saw rain drops hanging from the gutters of Les’s cottage like clear sagging cocoons straining to break free and plop down on the patio stones. We were about to pass the silent wet maples when his porch light clicked on and his screen door screeched slowly open.

"Michael?" whispered the familiar voice, "Michael, I’ve something to show you," and Les stood in the doorway silhouetted by the light inside and blocking our view of his kitchen.

"Not right now Les," my father said, putting an arm around the old man when Les walked off the stoop and leading him away so I wouldn’t hear them. Just then, a rain drop broke away and fell, making another watery ‘tick’ on the concrete, and a pot shifted in the sink in Les’ kitchen just before the light went silently out.

* * *

"Does Les have any other family Dad?" I asked trying to sound nonchalant the next morning. "I mean, does anyone check on him once in a while?"

I didn’t wait for his answer as he brought our fishing rods to the screen door; I sat at the living room window looking pensively at Les quiet cottage, feeling the real question I had bubbling to the surface as implacably as submerged air. I turned suddenly in my chair, clear and anxious about what I really wanted to know.

"What happened to Lucille?" I blurted out with such urgency my father turned from leaning over our tackle box and looked at me like he’d expected the question, like he knew our Balsam Lake would change forever with his inevitable answer.

"C’mon," he said, grabbing the clacking rods in one hand and opening the door with the other, and I picked up the tackle box and waddled after him with it in both hands. By his silence, I knew my answer was somewhere out over the edge of the dock where the sunlight splintered into winking shards on the water.

* * *

I’d forgotten about Les and Lucille Englass half an hour later; I was kneeling in the bow of the aluminium boat we’d rented from the marina in Rosedale, staring at the taunt, angled, translucent fishing line defying the undulating water and slow rocking of the boat.

"Do you still want to know about Les’ wife?" my father asked unexpectedly from the bench seat in front of the outboard motor. "Do you still want to know what happened to Lucille?" he said in an uncharacteristic baritone and, when I turned to look at him, he was staring at the dock we’d just come from. I shimmied back to my seat. He reeled his line in and put his rod down in the bottom of the boat, rubbing his hands on the sides of his legs then looking away from the shoreline to me.

"Lucille died too," he said and his voice crumbled on ‘died.’ He clamped his hands on the wooden bench he was sitting on and looked down so a shock of his brown hair fell over his brow. His shoulders started to shake, so I looked away to the direction we’d come from, and Balsam Lake changed for me with my father’s emotions.

Mocking invisible gremlins sneered at me through the leaves from the shore now, watching us and snickering from their perches high above our heads in the trees, waiting to swoop down like devilish sparrows at my father’s head and weakened heart. I froze on the bench I was sitting on, suddenly too terrified to venture back to or even look over the sides of the boat, and when my taunt line snapped hard in the water with a bite, the rod beside me cracked once off the edge of the boat and I made a horrible new connection to the voices I thought I’d heard underwater off the dock.

My father cleared his throat before he continued; the sound shook me back and I looked at him again, but he was still staring past me, wringing his hands and looking to the cluster of maples back at the shore

* * *

"It was two years before you were born," he said as though he’d compared the times often, " back when your mother and I were first married. We’d come here every summer and eaten with Les and Lucille the night before a big storm broke." Lucille had cooked in their small kitchen; she loved to watch storms on the lake at night from the dock, and she’d hurried the meal when they’d heard the first rumblings over the water.

"She had polio as a girl," my father said. "It left one of her legs almost useless and she was embarrassed to go out in the day."
To my newlywed parents, the late night storm had been the perfect excuse to cuddle up in the room I was sleeping in with some candles and a bottle of wine. My mother was awake the night Lucille died, one hand resting gently on my father’s rising and falling chest, listening to and feeling the rhythm of his breathing.

"Michael?" she said, shaking him when the wind picked up and sent the sides of the cottage creaking. "Wake up," she said. It wasn’t a request but a demand as the first heavy boom of thunder shook the floorboards.

"What is it?" he’d said sitting up and rolling toward her as the first bolt of lightening struck, making his face look, for a second, like a Japanese Kabuki mask.

"I think I heard someone outside. There’s someone outside in this."

"I knew they’d be down at the dock, so I got up and pulled my track pants on," my father said in our slowly rocking boat," and I was just at the screen door when a bolt of lightening lit up the whole yard."

"Did you see Les?" I asked too quickly, barely having time to stop myself before I added: "Did you see him too?"

"No," he said. "I saw Lucille."

* * *

Lucille was standing on the dock in the pouring rain with her back to him when another bolt of lightening hit, and Les was outside on the porch calling to her. He was hurrying toward the dock when the next strike came, blinding my father at the window for a second.

"Then she was gone," my father said simply as though he could see and feel it all again. "Les ran down to the dock, and I ran down, but Lucile was gone," he said, " She just slipped in and was gone."

My father turned and started the motor and I reeled my line in; I remember being anxious before the motor caught, feeling I should say something about what I’d seen the night before. But the old engine sputtered to life spitting out a cloud of blue/white smoke, and I was grateful for the roar as the bow raised and we started for shore.

* * *

I waited for my father to fall asleep that night and when I heard the click of his bedroom light shutting off and saw the slat of yellow light disappear from under his door, I crept out into the dark.

It was a windless night and the air was cool; my sneakers squeaked over the still moist grass like I was walking in a gymnasium on rubber soles, and the noise made me skittish as I crept toward the porch light of Les’ cottage. I crouched at the corner before the screen door almost panicking when my palms touched the wood siding making my treachery real to me. The thought of getting caught quickened my breathing and I was about to take my shoes off and run back when the rattle of a dish in the sink inside stopped me cold.

"What are you doing in there?" I heard Les say. "It’s not good to be too close to the window where people might see you."

I heard one set of clean, crisp, heel to toe, footsteps on the kitchen floorboards.

"Oh Lucille," Les said feigning exasperation, "leave that alone until morning, let’s just go to bed now. Here.. give me your hand."

Another set of feet shuffled across the floor next- one foot sliding forward, the other dragging to meet it. I broke free from the wall and ran back to our cottage.

"It’s her Dad, I’ve found Lucille," I said shaking him awake.

"Oh son," he said, his hair tousled and his breath bad, " go back to bed now. I’m sorry I told you about her. Forget it was just a horrible accident."

But I knew she wasn’t dead. She may have fallen from the dock, but I knew the wind and the lake that spoke through the regal maples wouldn’t let her die, that whatever unseen force breathed under, over, and through this magical place couldn’t let itself be responsible for our human misery.

I walked quietly into the living room and stood looking out at the dark water, not afraid or superstitious anymore, knowing there were no ghouls or dark spirits in the trees or under the waters of Balsam Lake, but thinking everything could live forever and ever out there, that anything could live in that shadowy world for as long as we wouldn’t let it go.

And suddenly, I knew why my father and I should be here.

* * *

He found me sitting in front of the window the next morning when he got up.

"David," he said, " lets go to the Rosedale Diner for some breakfast." I heard his muffled voice speaking into the refrigerator; when the door closed he came and stood silently beside me until I felt compelled to turn around.

"I know its tough son," he said looking out onto the water and I realized he’d been talking to himself all along, that he could hear the crisp snap of her bathing suit in the breeze coming in off the lake in his haunted memories, that he’d been longing all along for the nutty smell of her oiled browning skin to float in and suspend him on some comforting downy memory late at night.

"It’s alright Dad," I said, going to the door and putting my shoes on, "I think if we come back here long enough, Mom might just show up."
And I took a look over my shoulder at Balsam Lake as we left, glancing up at the sky to see if there might be a storm coming. There seemed to be a good chance with the wind dancing mischievously in off the water and through the leaves of the big maples.

The End

Copyright © 2003 by Robert Starr

Robert Starr obtained a degree in journalism in Toronto in the 1980's.After a brief stint in the field, he left to work in non related fields but continues his writing at night. He currently has a novel nearing completion and is searching for a publisher for a collection of his short stories.

His previous contributions to Aphelion include Little Ed, Indian Rubber Balls , and The Middle Of Winter.



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