I only talked to my brother about the woman in the ground once, years later. I was visiting him to celebrate his first post-college job and apartment. Both were crummy: a software sales associate position and a fifth story walk-up in a bad part of the city, but they were Cal’s and they were firsts, so he invited his big sister in from out of town to toast his good fortune.
We ate vindaloo and drank cheap beer at the Indian place on the corner. Back at his apartment, we shared a joint on his deathtrap fire escape. Sitting on his windowsill, I could look across a littered courtyard and into the windows of the next building over. Couples made dinner in their kitchens. Men watched TV in the dark, limned orange by SportsCenter. The city made me feel small, and I liked that.
I wanted to talk about Mom. It was a bubble in my throat that wouldn’t pop, but my family had always papered over the hard conversations with easier ones, so instead Cal and I drank more and talked about our old high school. We turned on the Spanish-language channel—the only station his TV picked up—and made up the plot of a movie we couldn’t understand. I fell asleep, and when I woke up it was the middle of the night. There was a new movie on—some forgotten Spanish horror flick, uncanny in the way of old, cheap foreign movies. Bad lighting and garish makeup and actors who looked like everyday people.
In a stone room, a caped man stood behind a woman, shadows occluding his face. He gripped her shoulders and she looked back at him, her mouth twisted and eyes white. No, no me hagas daño, no, the woman begged, but the man only laughed. She was paralyzed with fear, or else it was meant to be a tableau.
I looked from the screen to Cal. He was half-asleep, a bottle hanging loose in his hand. The woman in the movie screamed. Those actors were dead now. And the technicians who ran the cameras and the servers who catered lunch for the crew and the chemists who processed the film. All gone. I think that’s why I asked Cal about the woman in the ground. Because one day I would be as dead as those actors, and Cal, too, and if I couldn’t talk about Mom then I had to talk about something.
“Do you remember the frog?” I asked Cal. I couldn’t bring myself to call it what it was.
“What frog?” he said without turning to me.
“In the swamp at the lake house we went to with Dad?”
At first I thought he hadn’t heard me, but then he nodded. My skin prickled. I hadn’t dreamed it after all. It had happened. Cal had seen it, too. I felt the city outside, all those people sleeping or eating, moving back and forth in their rooms. I had pushed through the door of a dining room, the table set years ago, and something was coming very fast from a great distance away to meet me.
“I’ve never stopped trying to figure that out.”
Again, Cal took a long time to respond. Finally, he said, “Me too.” And a minute later he drifted off.
And that was it. I never spoke to anyone about the woman again. Not Dad, not Dylan, not even Cal, who died forty years or so after that night in his first apartment—cancer. I’m an old woman now, and I only talked about her once.
I was electric with Cal’s acknowledgment of it. I couldn’t sleep thinking about that week at the lake house. When Cal finally woke up and stumbled to bed, I lay awake and stiff as a plank under his childhood comforter, listening to the traffic and imagining each car was a crackling leaf in an endless wood.
The rainy December when Mom moved out, Dad drove me, Cal, and Cal’s friend Dylan north of our home to a lake house in the woods.
We arrived just before sunset, headlights crawling across a house so dark it looked abandoned. While Cal and Dylan ran circles around the station wagon and jumped from the porch onto the soft, sodden lawn, Dad pulled his old army compass out of the glove box and gave us the lay of the land. The lake was to the north, and mountains beyond it. To the west were three hundred yards of deep woods and then the neighbor’s house, closed-up for the winter. To the east, a swamp, land too damp to build vacation homes on. “Wear bug spray if you go in there,” Dad said. “But maybe just don’t go in there.”
A lone bullfrog croaked in the swamp, squorking out his basso profundo grrrrrraaaawp. Cal and Dylan snatched the compass and ran around the side of the house to explore. It was just Dad and me.
“Time to get the car unloaded,” he said without looking at me.
I waited for him to say something else, but he opened the tailgate and started pulling out duffel bags. I grunted, grabbed my Game Boy and my books from the car and went inside to claim a room before the boys could. Dad could unload the car on his own.
When we watched movies together and something scary happened, Dad would clap his hands over my eyes like I was still a little kid. Pay no attention to the awful thing happening in front of you. Being at this lake house was like that: a misdirection. Cover your eyes! Ignore the fact that your mother is no longer your mother, that by the time we return home, she will be gone.
The house was as rustic and dank as a stone pulled out of a mudflat. Ragged hunting trophies and fishing gear from bygone decades decorated the living room. The wood paneling swelled and buckled away from the walls. My room—and I picked the biggest in the house since I was flush with self-pity—overlooked the lake and the little boathouse and the dead grass tufting up through the planks of the back deck. The sheets I pulled from the linen chest smelled like mildew, but the mattress was comfortable and the big bay window had a cushy seat for reading.
Even upstairs I could hear the frog’s lonely night song.
It’s amazing what you can forget. The why and the how. Almost every good afternoon. People and places and the names of your friends’ children. I haven’t forgotten the lake house, although I’ve forgotten much of the incident that led us there in the first place.
What I do remember from that day is coming home from school in the rain. I think Cal was at a friend’s house, maybe Dylan’s—at any rate, he’s not in the memory. I stepped into our house and something crunched under my shoe. Glass. A sparkling solar system of glass lay on the living room floor. Mom and Dad screamed in the other room. I remember being surprised at that, since the prevailing mood in my house for the previous month had been storm cloud silence. Now the storm was here.
I remember the percussive pops of breaking glass, breaking plates. In the kitchen, Mom yelled about something that didn’t make sense, and Dad tried to tell her it didn’t make sense, but whenever he spoke, she just yelled louder. I remember smelling smoke, but I don’t remember fire.
I remember being confused about whose side I should be on. Had Dad done something to upset her? Had she just flown off the handle? I remember Mom running out the door and up the sidewalk in her bra and underwear, and Dad grabbing her by the waist and dragging her back toward the house and asking her to please calm down.
I don’t remember her leaving but I remember her being gone. I stood in the kitchen doorway and watched Dad put chunks of plates and shattered bowls into the trash. “Help me clean this up before your brother gets home,” he said. “I don’t want him to see this.” I remember dumping a load of glass, tinkling, into the trash bin.
Now it seems strange that I remember this incident so poorly. I thought about it a lot at the time, brooding over it in my little bed at the lake house, so I must have remembered it well in the weeks and months after. But time has brought in the tides, and now that day is underwater.
I woke before everyone and sat at my upstairs window, playing Game Boy and watching the mist ghost off the lake. A half hour later, Dad stomped out of the house in his work boots—the lake house belonged to his friend from work, and a condition of our staying in it for free was that he organize the garage and boathouse and generally keep up the property. As an adult, I recognized this as the gesture one makes to a friend in trouble who doesn’t want to accept charity, but as a twelve-year-old, I thought it was strange.
Cal and Dylan wrapped themselves in coats and ponchos and ran, hollering, outside. I watched them find a dinghy tied up on the side of the boathouse and drag it into the lake. It began to drizzle and the water turned cloudy, but they paddled the dinghy away down the shore, past all the shut-up houses tucked behind the tree line, and disappeared for an hour, no doubt to do the mysterious dumb things boys liked to do.
How much did Cal understand about what was happening? The lake house, the silence, Mom’s absence. I had gathered from listening to Dad’s phone calls that she was sick somehow. Our grandparents—tall, well-dressed old people who never spoke to us and sent us unsigned cards with five dollars inside on Christmas—were coming while we were at the lake house. They would pack her things and move her somewhere else. The adults were mad at each other, and I didn’t understand why. I didn’t think Cal knew anything. He was too buoyant, a ray of sunshine in the mists and gray. I saw him and Dylan occasionally, poking around the bend in the shore or coalescing out of the rain, standing upright and wobbling in the boat, seagulls pretending to be sea captains.
I went downstairs to make myself a peanut butter sandwich. Dylan came in, tracking mud and grass across the kitchen floor. “Sam, you gotta come out in this dinghy,” he said.
I didn’t look up from my PB&J. “You’re a dinghy.”
“It’ll be fun,” he said, coming up behind the counter to stand close to me. “We don’t have to take Cal. We can ditch him and it can be just the two of us.” Then he jumped up on a kitchen stool and pretended to be a Venetian gondolier, poling his imaginary boat and singing a few measures of romantic Italian gobbledygook. I growled a little in disgust, but he didn’t hear me.
Dad had let each of us invite a friend to the lake house. Cal had invited Dylan, and I had invited Katie, who couldn’t come because she caught the flu. Dylan was a pain in the ass. Before my mom changed, she was friends with Dylan’s mom. I used to go with her to their big property at the bottom of the hill and follow the creek down, looking for deer stepping out of the morning woods, or else I’d zigzag with the fence to the edge of the trees while my mom stood on the back porch and drank coffee. Dylan would follow me, try to flirt with me, tell me his dumb boy jokes. Milk, milk, lemonade, around the corner fudge is made.
I gave him a look and he stuck his finger into my peanut butter jar, scooped out a big finger-full, and licked it. “See ya,” he mumbled around the peanut butter, and he was gone.
For much of my adult life, I was a teacher. Middle school English in a small town at the center of a valley, three traffic lights shining out like a constellation. My students fell asleep at their desks during the harvest, showed up late with carefully penned notes from their mothers. In the winter, they grew pinched, rowdy, and pale. The stars spun over our town, inching westward through the seasons, and my students cycled through year after year, sleeping and fighting and falling in love and leaving, like clockwork. I grew up in the suburbs, and for years I misunderstood the cycles and patterns of farm town life.
When people think of a misunderstanding, they tend to think of a miscommunication. In the original sense, I liked to tell my students, to understand meant literally to stand in the middle of a thing. I stand in the middle of this town. I stand in the middle of my family. Of the mind of the man I love. To misunderstand, then, is to realize that what you thought you were standing in the middle of is actually something else. This isn’t a town I’m standing in, it’s the edge of a cliff. Not a lake house but the wooden corpse of an ancient animal. I’m not standing with my family, I’m standing with strangers.
Early the next morning, in the dizziness between sleep and waking, I dreamed that I was walking down the shag-grassed hill behind Dylan’s house. I wanted to visit the creek, to watch the sun come apart in the riffles. My mom stood alone on the porch, and when I called for her to come walk with me, she smiled, put her coffee cup down on the railing, and dropped to all fours. She loped toward me like a big dog.
I tried to run, but the grass caught at my ankles and my mom’s lupine run licked away the distance. She knocked me down and pinned me against the ground while I screamed Mom Mom Mom Mom in her face, and she whispered things into my ear that didn’t make sense. I couldn’t tell if it was a human language or not.
I woke, breathing hard. The morning felt cursed. I spent a few hours curled up in my bay window seat, reading, hoping that Cal would pop his head into my room to talk about Mom, or how weird it was that Dad had brought us here, or anything at all, but he was out on the lake with Dylan. By noon, a peculiar darkness had invaded my room. The heat and light had leached out of the lake house, and a listless midday sadness had settled in. I bundled myself up in two sweatshirts and fingerless gloves, shook the morning mist off the hammock on the back deck, and settled down to read there.
Dylan returned alone from his sojourn with Cal out in the dinghy. “Hey Sam,” he called, trudging up onto the deck. “Whatcha reading?”
“Wild Magic,” I said shortly, not wanting to start a conversation with him.
“What’s it about?”
“It’s about a very silent boy named Dylan, who never bothered anybody.”
“You don’t have to be a jerk,” he said. He didn’t whine like my brother did, but said it plainly. I felt bad.
“It’s about a wizard. A girl wizard who can talk to animals.”
“Can I read with you?”
“Fine,” I said. “For a little while.”
He hovered over my shoulder and I lifted the book at an angle for him to see. Dad was clearing fallen trees in the woods, and his chainsaw buzzed and grumbled distantly. “Easier to read like this,” he said, and slid into the hammock next to me.
The extra weight pulled us together, crushed his hip against mine, his chest against my shoulder. We made it a page before he was poking me, giggling, ruining my afternoon reading time.
“Quit it,” I said. “I can’t read when you’re pestering me.”
“What’s so great about reading?” he said, and then suddenly his face was next to me, his hue hue hue giggle right in my ear. I flinched. He shifted in the hammock to bring me closer. His rubbery lips brushed mine and I felt his breath smelling up my mouth. I jumped out of the hammock as fast as I could. That upset his balance, and he toppled out, windmilling his arms.
“God! What did you do that for?” he said.
“I’m trying to read. You want someone to bug, go bug Cal.”
“I will,” he said, and stomped off, investigating a scrape on his hand.
I fell back into the hammock, mind buzzing with anger and something else—a quivering thread of guilt. Dylan had tried to kiss me, had put his horrible mouth—the mouth that couldn’t stay closed when he chewed—on my mouth. But I had knocked him down, and that didn’t seem like a nice way to respond. Better than he deserved, I told myself. Why had he done that? I had made it very clear that I didn’t like him and wanted nothing to do with him. So why?
A half hour later, Cal came by the deck on his way back to the house. “You gave Dylan a splinter, Sam,” he said, as if I’d killed someone.
I looked toward the woods to make sure Dad wouldn’t see, then gave my brother the finger. He scowled and walked away.
As far as I know, Dylan grew up normal. We were online friends for a while, until I got sick of seeing daily pictures of his kids. I don’t know if he ever dreamed about the lake house or the woman in the ground like I did, or if he ever drank until the dreams wouldn’t come.
Sometimes in the dreams I’m being carried into the swamp. Sometimes I’m staring down at the frog—call it what it is, the woman. Sometimes I’m the lake house itself, my body cold and clammy, waiting to be emptied or filled. Fixed. But usually in the dreams, I’m the woman. I’m in the swamp, buried in the ground. My body is wired with an anxious stillness. The croaks escape from me—I am here, I am here, come to me, babies, I’m better now—and my presence in the ground is thrilling to me. I want to dance, to run through the swamp, muck between my toes, but I know I cannot. I must remain. There is something I am trying to make people understand.
The next day I felt restless and guilty and sad. I had pushed Dylan, given my brother the finger, cold-shouldered Dad, and now I felt like an ogre the others were avoiding. She was up there, they probably thought to themselves, reading in her den and grumbling over mossy bones. Tiptoe when you cross the upstairs hall or she’ll reach out and snatch you in her anger.
I pulled on old jeans and hiking boots and trudged outside to atone by helping my dad. I found him in the boathouse, pulling moldering cardboard boxes off the shelves. “I came to help,” I said, and he nodded.
The boathouse was the dankest, most unpleasant part of the property, filled with a wet kind of dark that not even a trio of Dad’s clamp-on halogen work lights could chase out. A long motorboat hung strapped above the open water, as tarped and stiff as a corpse in a morgue. Shelves and cabinets filled with decades of accumulated crap ringed the walls—fishing gear and spare parts and water toys and paint and rope.
“Help me sort these?” Dad asked and pointed to a long plastic tray full of hooks and fishing lures. I squatted down to work. The water licked like ice against the boards. The wood sighed. Working next to him reminded me of sweeping up the plates and glass Mom broke, and the ghost of that last cleaning session made the air in the boathouse thick.
I wanted to ask him about her, to demand he explain what was happening, but the words jammed in my throat. If I tried to mention Mom, my voice would come out like the bullfrog’s croaks. I felt so lonesome in that damn boathouse, the ticking of hooks and the water lapping, my father’s hard breathing as he emptied shelf after shelf. Something had to change, or my pulse would slow and my fingers would still themselves and I would become a statue, as permanent a part of the property as the smell of mildew.
“Dad?” I said.
He straightened up from his paint cans. His eyes looked studiously blank. He could tell I wanted to talk to him, and he was wary. “What’s up, hon?”
“I think Dylan likes me.”
“Like he likes you likes you?” Dad asked. He put his hands on his hips and clicked his tongue in thought. “Do you like him back?”
“No! He’s awful.”
“Well, he’s not my favorite of Cal’s friends, I’ll say that.”
“So what should I do?”
His brow wrinkled and the silence grew. With a prickle from my scalp down my back, I realized that he didn’t know. He couldn’t tell me what to do about Dylan any more than he could tell me why Mom was suddenly a different, scary person. “Maybe,” he started, then stopped to collect his thoughts. “Have you told him how you feel?”
“Then you don’t owe him anything more than that,” Dad said.
That seemed both obvious and woefully incomplete, but it looked like it would be the best I could get. He shrugged and added, with what sounded like shame in his voice, “It’s just a couple more days.”
Cal and Dylan passed in the dinghy, and their gentle wake reached the boathouse. The little splashes were slow, hollow. Dad turned back to his shelves, and I slipped out the door without saying goodbye.
All the next morning, rain swept through in ranks. I had beaten the two video games I brought with me, read two of my three books and found I didn’t like the third, so I sat in my bay window, just watching the lake clouding over and effulging by turns. Cal and Dylan, black ghosts in ponchos, rowed down the shore in their little boat, then returned, journeyed and returned, finally walked off.
In the afternoon, Dad announced he was going to the dump to get rid of the junk from the boathouse. I helped him stuff the heavy bags into the trunk and the footwells of the back seat, and he promised to return with pizza. I waved as he drove off down the muddy driveway.
Late in the afternoon, the rain and wind stopped, and the lake settled down to glassiness. I shook the rainwater off the hammock and sat down to reread Wild Magic and above me the clouds peeled back, revealing a naked blue sky.
I heard Cal and Dylan coming before I saw them. They came from the swamp—behind me—boots squelching in the waterlogged grass, not yelling or giggling for once. I turned in my hammock to watch them as they reached the deck.
“We’ve got to show you this thing,” Dylan said. “You’ve got to see it.”
“I’m not interested,” I said, and flipped a page for dramatic effect.
“It’s the frog, Sam,” Cal said. “But it’s not like you think.”
“You found a frog, so what?”
The boys looked at each other and Dylan nodded. Without a word, they grabbed the hammock and dumped me out. I stumbled onto the deck and before I could catch my balance, they had me by the arms. I yelled, but they were stronger than me. They pulled me down the steps of the deck and past the boathouse, into the swamp.
I had never been east of the house. The ground sloped down and became soft and spongy. The plants changed. The air smelled of mysterious rot.
“Put me down,” I said. I gave Dylan a good kick in the knee when he was stepping over a log, but he didn’t drop me. “I’m going to tell Dad about this. Cal, I’m going to tell Dad!”
But Cal just smiled and shook his head. It was a gesture he had learned from Dylan—condescending and artificial—and it brought an angry growl out of my throat.
When I stopped for breath, I heard the frog—one long and sonorous grrrrrraaaawp from nearby. The sky wasn’t dark yet, but when I tilted my eyes toward the treetops, I saw stars. There were strange constellations burning there, and the sky had the wrong texture, like felt. The sight silenced me. Strange thoughts called to each other in my mind like night animals. We had entered a set made up to look like a swamp. The boys carrying me looked like Cal and Dylan, but they weren’t. Dad was at the end of the driveway, held in place by an invisible hand, still and unblinking in the driver’s seat. I went stiff with fear, which made me harder to drag.
They pulled me to a little hollow in front of a pair of trees with dark and knotted roots. “I’ll hold her,” Dylan told Cal and grabbed my other arm. I couldn’t have run if I wanted to. Cal knelt in front of the trees and brushed away leaves and loam. There was something pale underneath the dirt. What was it?
Dylan pushed me forward and leaned on me until I had to kneel under his weight. Cal grabbed my arm and they pulled me forward, pushing my face toward the pale thing in the ground.
It was a face, a woman, staring straight up at the sky, the mulched leaves and tiny twigs banked up around her cheekbones. I couldn’t tell how old she was, the color of her eyes. I couldn’t tell if she was alive or dead. I knelt under Dylan’s weight, tense and frightened, staring at her forehead, her throat, the curve of her collarbone.
And then she parted her lips, sipped in some air, and croaked out that doleful grrrrrraaaawp. I watched her throat move. She never blinked.
“What—” I started, but I had nothing to say.
I don’t know how long they held me there, watching the woman stare and breathe and croak, breathe and croak. I could feel the stars burning, the mud turning to crystal beneath my knees. At one point, I reached out to help her—dig her out, free her from the earth—but her eyes widened and she looked at my hands with such fear that I pulled back. I could only watch, full of feelings I could not name.
Cal and Dylan let me go and we all walked back to the lake house, not talking. It was already as unrecoverable as a dream. I had set foot on the surface of another planet and returned to the grungy lake house, and nobody would believe me if I told them. It was as if it had never happened at all. I wasn’t even angry at the boys for dragging me into the swamp. All sense had washed away.
Sometimes I wonder if I’m kneeling there still.
My town is the kind where everybody knows everybody. I know the sweet-faced boys behind the counter at the hardware store, the names of their girlfriends and daughters. I know about the postman’s yoga therapy, the whole sad story of the woman who runs the clothing boutique. I wonder what they say about me—there goes Sam, that lonely old drunk. Now that she’s retired, what does she do with her days?
People are one-way mirrors. They look out at you from a dark room. When you look back at them you mostly see yourself, but if the light is just right, you might catch a glimpse of a figure within.
My brother drank like me, but it caught up with him sooner. He worked a long series of sales jobs—software, heirloom quality furniture, insurance. A commercial real estate deal funded his early retirement, and just a month later, showering after a golf game, he found a tender, firm swelling on his stomach. From there, metastasis, tumors in the gallbladder, tumors in the pancreas.
I sat with him on his last day, read to him in his hospital bed and nodded while he rambled through his meds, and when he grabbed my hand and told me to listen, I did. My brother didn’t normally speak with that kind of urgency. He spilled out a secret history in half-sentences and fragments. As soon as an image started to coalesce in my mind—a stranger’s face hitched up in pain or a shirtless man standing on the utility catwalk between two subway stops, smiling at Cal as his train clattered past—the meds would roll their fog across his nervous system and it would vanish. He didn’t talk about the woman in the ground, or why he and Dylan had forced me to look at her. He didn’t talk about Mom, who we saw again only a handful of times after that December.
I was surprised. Our mother’s illness had educated us both in how life could suddenly flip a switch and become something alien, but we had never talked about it. I thought I alone had borne that dread into adulthood. The rain outside the hospital window was a fine, living mist, and it felt like Cal and I were in a cabin, passengers on a ship bound for who knew where. I held his hand.
The last thing he told me before the painkillers clouded him in for the final time was about a night he caught a frog in his garage. Drunk, he grabbed a hammer from his toolbox and chased the thing around the concrete floor, and when he caught it, he brought the hammer down and killed the frog. Then, for no reason, he kept hammering. He hammered it to pulp and bone and juice. Now he gripped my hand weakly and wept with the irrationality of it, and I wept with recognition. Here, at the end, we were seeing each other for the first time.