Ten yards out into Insula Lake the water temperature plummets. It’s that point just past the drop-off, where you can no longer sink down and curl your toes into the muddy lakebed, where the sudden chill forces you to suck in your breath and hold tight. As you stare down into the dark water, a flash of fear shivers through your bones. You’ve been told what’s down there: walleye and bass, mud and rocks and weeds, old fishing lures. Someone’s lost Minolta or Minnesota Twin’s hat. But it’s always hard to believe in anything you can’t see for yourself.
Your toes dangle into the depths. You feel bold and alive, infused with the possibility that something down there could grab your foot and pull you under. Maybe that legendary northern pike, the one the old guys hanging around the outfitters like to brag about: a monster thing, eight feet long and predatory, thrilled beyond human comprehension to discover the sweet flesh attached to those pale wriggling bites of bait. Or maybe a diver from an old black and white movie. Bulge-eyed, in scuba gear. How long has he been down there? A day? Three weeks? A year? Now he devours crawdads and time on the murky bottom.
* * *
I passed into that frigid deep ten minutes ago, and now it’s coming on to dusk. The thrill of my own daring has subsided into a tiny shiver that gleams at the base of my spine.
The lake is glassy, disturbed only by the ripples I send out in all directions. I turn a somersault, then relax into a back float. Arms open, I inhale the colors of the sky: shrimp pink and tangerine, great swathes of smoky blue-gray and hyacinth. My heart expands outward until it is nestled against the tree line on both sides. There’s a freedom here I can’t let go of, but the light is failing, and soon the guys will be back from their fishing trip. With any luck there’ll be walleye for dinner, hot tea and Ritz cracker s’mores for dessert. If I hurry I can have the fire built up by the time they’ve gutted and filleted the fish. But there’s no sign of them, and surely a few more minutes can’t hurt. The water feels more comfortable now, and I’m happier than I’ve been in months.
On the lakeshore Jenn sits cross-legged, reading her book. Even from this distance I can tell she’s holding it too close to her face. It must be getting harder to see in the failing light. I imagine that very soon she’ll rouse, remember where she is, flick on her headlamp, and wonder what’s keeping me.
From the shallow water of the opposite shore rises the granite rock I posed on yesterday, half beached mermaid, half silver mud flap girl, while Jenn snapped a photo. Mud flap because my feet were muddy, and a smear of lake muck swiped the side of one thigh. I’d bent one knee in the classic pose, a visual pun that made me grin at the camera.
That rock has an interesting shape in the dimming light. It’s flat on top, but strangely organic, and I imagine that it might at any time animate and push off through the water toward me, trailing a wide “v” of a wake. It might submerge at ten yards off, disappearing into the lake, never to be seen again. Or it might resurface right beneath me, lifting me out of the water, a shivering human offering to its dark and stony gods.
The moon is out now, and a few stars shimmer down from the darkening northern sky. I can almost hear them calling me. “Halloooooo.” But no, that’s Jenn’s voice, echoing across the lake. A beam of light sweeps the opposite shore; she must have grabbed the larger flashlight, and she’s skimming it back and forth across the water. The light sparkles in community with the mirrored stars. I try to call back, but the sound dies in my throat. All I can do is swim. I’m not moving toward either shore, but crossways, navigating the channel that opens out into the widest part of Insula. My legs push back and forth in an unfamiliar side-winding motion and I’m having trouble separating them, but I can swim faster now. I really should head back.
Ahead of me a canoe glides across the tranquil lake. The voices of men carry—mellow, deep, and satisfied. They must have had some success. I roll onto my back and slip beneath the surface, skimming the bottom of the boat with my belly. Do I mean it to be a greeting? I pass by a stringer with the catch- two walleye and a good-sized bass—and there’s a flash of fishy eyes glinting quicksilver, bodies flipping as they’re pulled along. I can smell them, and it’s nice, even without the crumb coating and pool of butter.
Without looking back, I leave the canoe and its passengers behind. I head into increasingly dark water. The lake feels even warmer now, and I’ve stopped worrying about my toes. My arms are pressed in tight, my whole body moving in smooth undulations. I’m surprised to find that my hair no longer feels wet, but flows over my shoulders and clings like a sleek passenger to my back.
A splash nearby draws my attention, but doesn’t startle me as it should. I turn toward it, instantly overcome with a ravenous desire that shudders through every inch of my soul. I begin to swim, faster and faster, away from the campsite.
Then comes a watery voice in my ear, telling me that if I go much further there will be no turning back. But it’s barely a whisper, and as I dive toward the shadowy lakebed, I’m no longer sure I understand the words.
~Kellelynne H. Riley