The House by the Lake
by Lisa Pallin
On the lake by the house where
we lived, my father rowed to his death.
On that eerie morning I remember watching him from my bedroom
window as he set out across the lake; the water still and
voluptuous, caressed with tendrils of mist. It was going
to be hot that day, the dawn moist and steaming, the fog
ready to lift like a shroud from summer's molten pourings.
The boat drifted silently across the water. The lake, with
her dark wet depths, seemed to beckon to him like a mistress.
Everything was very quiet, as if the trees were holding
their breath, and the birds had ceased their singing; they
all seemed to be in some terrible conspiracy together.
Then the fog swallowed my father up, and he was gone. He
Later, in the midday heat, the empty boat drifted desolately
back to shore. The plants and trees wilted as if in sorrow.
I wandered around the edge of the water, while the police
searched endlessly downwards in vain. The lake was very
deep; dark and cavernous, and in my mother's despair seemed
to reach down to hell itself. They never found him.
A week later, we left.
We had moved to the house by
the lake during a golden summer. The three of us - my brothers
and I - were full of the boundless energy that only a child
can know, awe-struck by the vastness of the lake that was
to be our haunting ground. Though we were strictly warned
about the dangers of the water, we secretly dreamed of adventures
to come. I was the middle child, and the only girl, yet
could run faster than the other two, and climb just as high.
The house too was a source of delight, far larger than our
previous home, and surrounded by trees that seemed to watch
over us. Up the cinnamon dusty drive, and round a corner,
lay the orchard full of cherry and apple trees. We spent
many golden times there.
With the passing of time, the lake held less appeal for
me. In my pre-pubescent agony, all too aware of my ripening
body, I would not go semi-clothed around my brothers, though
they teased me for it. However, my relationship with my
father did not change. He was a quiet man, not prone to
outburst or outward show of emotion and he weathered my
turbulent moods patiently. And when my mother's voice rang
through the house in anger, cruel words slicing like knives,
he simply shrugged; a slight stoop to his shoulders, the
only indication of upset. In my stilted adolescent years,
angry looks often passed between my mother and I, but my
father's strength was constant.
On the day we left, I sat forlorn in the back of the car,
gazing out of the window as the house grew smaller behind
us. It seemed sorry to see us go. I wondered if, when our
mourning was past, we would return. The house dwindled in
the distance, and then it was gone, lost among the trees.
A year passed; a grey year, full of shadows and bitter tears.
As a child, whenever I had woken screaming from nightmares,
or fallen from a tree like a soft, ripe fruit, it had been
my father who had soothed my tears and kissed my bruises
away. When the wind roared, and the nettles stung and I
thought I would never stop hurting, my dad had always been
there to wrap me in his big arms and keep the world at bay.
Now there was just a tangible emptiness, an achingly clear
recollection of him, a hollow where he should have been,
and no-one to kiss it better.
But, gradually, the fiery pain subsided to a dull ache and
we began to live again. After twelve months of staying with
grandparents, my mother decided to take us back home. I
was surprised that she felt able ever to go there again.
I was unsure of my own feelings. It was home, yet now there
was someone missing. Could I ever look out of my bedroom
window again, and not see him drift into the fog forever?
It was late summer when we
returned to the house by the lake. The year was in full
bloom and nature was well endowed, her ripeness ready to
burst. As we drove through the orchard, the sun was red
and low in the sky, and the trees blushed as we came by.
Then we rounded a corner and there was the house. It looked
empty and strange, and I wondered if it could forgive us
for having deserted it when it too was grieving. It loomed
closer, then I saw a window wink at me in the sunlight,
and sat back in my seat, holding my breath. We all looked
tentatively at one another, full of emotions and uncertainties.
My mother looked at my brothers and I as if for reassurance.
My eldest brother, sitting in the driver's seat, put a hand
on her shoulder. 'It will be all right.'.
One by one, we climbed out of the car, all coming to stand
beneath the house as it towered over us. The slamming of
car doors was the only sound to break the silence.
Then, we walked through the door together.
Motes of dust were captured and suspended in amber rays
of sunlight that beamed through the windows. The house smelt
alien, and felt unlived in. Silently, we drifted from room
to room, and when the others had renewed their acquaintance
with the place, they slipped away to their own rooms to
unpack. Yet I could not settle and wandered about the house,
trying to catch the shadows that hung on the edge of my
vision. I wondered if the angles of the house really did
look different - or had I simply forgotten them? Memories
paused on the threshold, trickled from the floorboards,
and began to gain momentum as they rushed about me.
Yet as I wandered, I felt the house had changed. On the
day that he drowned, my family had talked of a terrible
mistake, a tragedy. My father had always loved the water
and it seemed natural to them that he would take a boat
out, even so early in the morning. Yet I had watched him
as he floated across the water, and I remembered the look
on his face, as he cast one final glance back at the house.
I knew that it had been no accident.
The house had seen it too. This was no longer the carefree
home of my childhood. He was missing and the house seemed
to feel it. The floorboards creaked angrily beneath my feet,
as if to mirror my own pain. As the dusk crept in, my recollections
were tinged with unease.
That evening as I sat on the stairs and remembered, memories
swirled in the twilight shadows around me. I recalled my
first kiss in the cherry orchard on an evening late in May,
when the air was awash with the scent of blossom; the hollow
where I lost my virginity on a stormy midsummer night while
the lake kept watch. I remembered picnics in the woodland
in summer; and walks with my father through rust coloured
leaves in Autumn, our breath coiling like smoke; and chopping
firewood in winter when the lake was silver in the snow.
And I recalled all the times I helped my father in his vegetable
garden, my dead father, my dear old Dad, who wasn't coming
home. Tears lulled me to sleep that night.
My family tried to get back to normal and settle back into
the house and their lives. But I could not, and spent hours
furtively watching the house from among the trees. I was
sure it was biding its time. It seemed too quiet and stared
at me too long sometimes. The lake too had changed; it was
an enemy to us now, and we all kept away from it. It had
killed my father and refused to give him back to us. I was
afraid to go too near it; it lay like some benign creature,
yet what else lay in its depths?
The summer dragged on endlessly. I hated this season for
it had taken my father from me. The heat felt like warm,
fetid breath on my face, and the abundance of nature only
served to mock my sorrow.
One day, I was walking through the trees by the lake, remembering,
as usual. I felt that fate had dealt me the cruellest blow
of all. I had been the closest to my father and did not
have the bond with my mother that the boys had. My brothers
too were strangers to me nowadays, sullen and moody. Since
our return, we all seemed to have scuttled to our own corners
to brood. My father's absence was oppressive.
I came to a clearing and noticed a hush. A bird watched
me quizzically and the trees had stopped swaying. Suddenly,
I realised that I stood face to face with the trees who
had watched my father row to his death. They had not warned
him. My brother and I had grown up playing in these trees;
they had heard all our whisperings. I had always felt that
the surroundings of the house were benevolent, yet now,
it was as if they had conspired against us. You knew, I
thought, you knew but did nothing. I hit the trees, again
and again, till my hands were bleeding. Then, I ran back
to the house.
That night the bad dreams began. I had nightmares, where
the trees spoke to me, eager to assuage my doubts about
them. They murmured ominously and the lake laughed. I also
began to dream about the morning when I saw my father drifting
across the water. In my dreams the trees were trying to
warn him, but they could only whisper and he could not hear.
One night I dreamed that I lay on the banks of the lake,
staring deep into its depths. My father was talking to me
through the water and trying to grab me and pull me down
with him. I could not move. As in the other dreams, I could
not hear what he was saying as he mouthed words at me. I
wanted to talk to him, yet I was afraid to join him down
there. As I tried to crawl away from the edge, his hand
shot out of the water and grabbed my wrist. His touch was
icy cold. After that, I would not go near the lake. I was
afraid that my father's hand would plunge up through the
surface and drag me down.
The days sweated by. My mother stayed in her room all day,
with the curtains drawn against the daylight, gazing at
old photographs. My brothers always seemed to be just around
a corner. I could hear them whispering throughout the house.
I had no-one to talk to. Sometimes, I would hear soft laughter
behind me, and think my father had come into the room. But
when I turned around, he was never there. I knew that he
was still down there in the lake somewhere and felt unable
to let go. There were so many things left unsaid. I desperately
needed to talk to him again. But he was dead.
One night I had the worst dream of all.
I dreamed that I came downstairs for breakfast, but standing
on the stairs could not hear the usual clatter of dishes.
Something seemed wrong; the house was deathly silent and
my heart began to beat faster.
I opened the kitchen door. My brothers were sitting at the
table, grinning. My mother came across the room and put
down a bowl of food. She was glowing. She looked happier
than I had seen her in a long time. Then I saw why she was
smiling. My father sat at the table.
He must have dragged himself out of the lake and across
the lawn to home. Weeds clung to his legs. His clothes were
tatters, as was the flesh of his hands that even now were
lifting the bowl. But his face was the worst thing. It was
so decomposed I would not have recognised him but for his
eyes, his grey eyes, that turned and looked at me.
My mother smiled. 'Look dear, your father is home.'
I stared at her horrified. But look at him, I wanted to
say, what is wrong with you all? Look at the state of him.
Instead all I could do was open my mouth in a silent scream.
I woke early that morning. My bedroom window seemed to beckon
me and I dragged myself towards it. Gazing down, I saw the
lake was covered in fog, just like that morning a year ago.
I half expected to see the boat drifting across the water,
taking my father to his death. But the lake was empty, patterned
with the phosphorescent mist that floated and swirled above
it like a ravenous, ethereal creature.
As I made my way down the gloomy stairs, the house was deathly
silent. In the mirror, my reflection watched me as I passed.
The kitchen was empty, for everyone was asleep and still
'Tick tock,' said the clock and then stopped.
I wandered outside into the oppressive heat. Clouds of midges
droned about the lake. They seemed to watch me, and the
trees bowed low before me. I walked to the water's edge
and tried to see down into the darkness, wondering if my
father was down there waiting for me to rescue him. But
the lake sighed; she was not willing to give up her lover
so easily. I stepped closer. The trees whispered and the
fog curled around me like fingers. I looked back at the
house; it appeared to be grinning.
Then, almost eagerly, the mist parted and the boat came
drifting towards me; empty, save for the oars. It bumped
gently against the shore. I paused. The midges had stopped
dancing and watched me uncertainly. The trees wrung their
branches together in great agitation. Their leaves scraped
me as I walked forward, as if trying to stop me. I stepped
into the boat and let it take me to my destiny. Looking
back over my shoulder, I saw my bedroom window, watching
again, as I disappeared from its view.
Gazing into the voluminous depths, I imagined that I saw
my father waving to me from far below. I felt no longer
afraid of the lake. It seemed that I was keeping an appointment
made some time ago, as if I had been claimed the morning
I had watched my father being taken. Silently, the water
opened up and, smiling my last smile, I slipped into it.
As I fell, the lake swallowed me and the darkness pulled
Later that morning, the sun rose and the trees basked in
its glow, glancing warily about. The house awoke and went
about its business. A solitary boat floated on the edge
of the water. In its azure, darkened depths, the lake breathed.
And we waited.
© 1997 Lisa Pallin