Authors: Abi Maxwell
THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK
PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF
Copyright © 2013 by Abi Maxwell
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Lake people : a novel / Abi Maxwell. – 1st ed.
“This is a Borzoi book.”
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Jacket photograph © by Lauren Burke/Iconica/Getty Images
Jacket design by Kelly Blair
This book is dedicated to my grandmother
Eleanor Pearson Keller
IN THE COLD
and windy days after I was born, I was deposited into an old canoe on the big lake. I have recently discovered this. I like to think my birth parents believed that this lake would hold me, keep me safe, but I don’t see how that could possibly be true, for it turns out I come from a long line of people swallowed by these waters. My name is Alice, and by the time I was born, unwanted, the belief that there were places in the lake where the floor of the world either dropped out or was never put in had settled itself deep into my blood.
But the canoe wasn’t floating freely. It was tied up in the boathouse where it would be found, just east of the Kettleborough Pier. Even in the days before I knew the story of my birth, I
would stand on that pier in the evening, when the sky and the lake become indecipherable from each other, and look out three miles across the water to Bear Island, that fated place that I now know drew my ancestors in. In that light, it looks as though the island just floats, not within this life and not without it, but unattached, and free.
Eleonora was the first in our line to settle out on that island. She would be my great-great-grandmother. I always knew of her—if you live in our town you know her story—but I never did know I had some special connection to her. She came alone from Sweden as a teenager, and by the time she arrived she had faced some terrible trouble, and by the end of her life her trouble had not stopped. Because of this, people in Kettleborough like to believe she committed some significant amount of wrong.
The lake was frozen when Eleonora and her four children crossed from mainland to the island. Her husband had just died. On cold, gray days I can imagine her family walking across the ice in a single-file line, their suitcases in hand. They would have worn long wool coats, and the youngest child’s would have been a hand-me-down, and still too long for him, so as he walked at the back of the line the fabric would have brushed upon the thin layer of snow, marking a temporary trail of the family’s journey to their end.
In all, there were between twenty and thirty families who settled out on that island. All of them were Swedes, and all of them had taken the four-hour train ride from Boston to our pier and then crossed over. Eleonora’s first winter out on Bear was a truly frozen one, so cold she felt she could grab handfuls of air and put them in her pocket. Despite this she began to build a cabin, which is what the newly arrived always did. However, my great-great-grandmother differed from the others in that she was a single woman and she neither asked for nor accepted help from anyone. While she worked she and her family stayed with
the man who had first settled the island, sleeping in a row on his floor. It took only one week. When she brought her children to see the cabin, they were shocked to find that in their short time on Bear Island their mother not only had built a sturdy home for them, but had hunted and carved deer meat and hung the skins to dry; had cut and stacked enough wood to last through winter; had brought a woodstove from mainland; had built beds for them all; and had stocked the kitchen with flour, sugar, oats, salt, coffee, and everything else they might need. Such skills of survival were all new to Eleonora. They had risen up in her suddenly, as though straight from the island itself, and their arrival filled the children with what I can only see as a cruel sense of security.
But for some reason the lake gave them ten good years. Maybe that time was intended to earn their trust, or to build Eleonora’s strength. Perhaps in the tenth year their family committed some offense against the water. More likely, there is no sense to be made of why, that year, their family’s luck ended as a dark, cold winter streaked across the lake with a wind so sharp it bit at their naked cheeks. Most of the islanders wanted to pack up and head for mainland, for comfort and safety. Not Eleonora.
One morning that winter Eleonora’s elder daughter, Ida, said she had to go to shore. She left her husband and infant daughter—my grandmother Sophie—and she went to be swallowed by the lake. The story told in Kettleborough is that on that morning Ida was drawn out upon the frozen water by the most beautiful of calls. The ice was as thick as an old maple, yet Ida had scarcely walked twenty steps upon it when the lake opened its mouth. First her feet dropped under, and then her hips came forward in one slow, consenting wave. Her arms swept upward and then, without sound, Ida dropped into the winter of the lake.
There is no question about the exact spot where this took place, for immediately after she dropped below, one pointed black rock rose up from the depths, and continued rising until it stood as high as Ida had. After that, other pointed rocks rose in its wake. Today a forest of these black rocks stands out there, marking the place where my ancestors first discovered that our lake is boundless as the sky.
The rocks are shaped as witch hats, so naturally the people of the island named them the Witches, and they knew to stay away. But on that first night after Ida vanished a bear appeared on the shore nearest to those rocks. It had been killed, its heart removed in one clean slice. Eleonora believed it to be a sign—of what, we never knew—and wanted the bear put in the place where her daughter had vanished. The people agreed. They found an old plank of wood and rolled the bear atop it, and then they pushed the vessel toward that tallest rock. It soared forward as though pulled by some invisible cord, yet when it stopped at the base of the rock, where the ice was now so thin that water bubbled upward, it did not sink. That was on the longest, darkest night of the year. A group of men kept watch through the night. They were waiting for the bear to be taken in, but they must have also been waiting for Ida to rise once more. Neither happened until spring, when the bear finally dropped below without witness. By then the people had come to say that though the site of the Witches was a place to be swallowed, it was also a place where a being might float. Still, they knew to take no risks. Their sharp warnings passed down through the generations, and until this year, so far as anyone knows, no one and no thing had ventured into that forest of rocks since the days of those lake people.
Sometimes I try to think of Eleonora’s life before the island, to see her as a woman who presses her clothes and attends church, who bargains sensibly in her broken English with the vegetable man down at the market. Yet the Eleonora who remains in my mind is one whose skin has turned to leather. She dresses in the hides and furs of bear and deer, she eats raw fish, and she howls alone at night. But this can’t possibly be the woman she was, either. At least not before she was left alone on the island.
After Ida vanished, Eleonora was left with one daughter, two sons, a widowed son-in-law, a granddaughter, and a fear of the living lake. When the ice melted, she began to drop offerings into the water—a serving of meat, an apple they had gotten on mainland. She sent prayers into the water, too, and the stories in town say that those prayers begged for forgiveness, though for what it was never said. Anyway, it did no good. The following winter, on a seamless blue day, her two sons and her son-in-law crossed the ice with a sled full of deer meat to trade for a good, sturdy new window for Eleonora’s cabin. By now they had learned that the ice was not to be trusted, so at their side they towed a canoe, which they could jump into if the ice should break. But on the walk back to the island, only Eleonora’s sons held on to the canoe, for their brother-in-law carried the window. They crossed in front of the Witches just as a great wind swept forward. Instinctively the boys jumped into that boat. When they looked back, they saw that rather than turning from the Witches, Ida’s widower was headed straight for them, saying he heard the most beautiful of calls. The boys watched as the mouth of the lake split open at the rocks and traveled toward them. Their brother-in-law held that window high in front of his body and he looked through it, straight at the boys, as he dropped below.
When the boys turned back to face toward home they realized that they, too, had fallen into the open path of water. They unfastened the paddles from the sides of their boat and tried to push their way back onto the ice, but they could not do it. Finally, when they had expended all of their energy, that call came into them, too. They paddled up the path toward its source, straight to the center of the Witches. Here they let go of their paddles. Their boat began to slowly spin. With each turn it sank a little deeper, until finally the boat and its boys were underwater. They reached out to grasp each other, and there today those boys remain, their arms stretched above their heads and their hands braided into each other’s, their bodies spinning slowly, as a net.