WELL, here it is. Just a bit of the little over 20,000 words I've written. I finally busted through that frontier. Now ... just ... 30 ... thousand ... more. : (
A LONG TIME AGO I swallowed a secret – a secret so big that many a dark night it has threatened to consume me, just as I once consumed it.
All of us have secrets. Some are not as big as mine; some, I imagine, are even bigger.
What's your secret? Did you once tell a fellow you had a baby inside you, even though you didn't, just so he'd marry you? Did you stand someone up and pretend you'd not even made a date? Something small like that, something that even though it was small could have changed destinies?
Did you shake a baby just a little bit too hard when it wouldn't stop crying? Did you lie in any way, shape or form to save yourself a bit of trouble, or conveniently forget things that weigh heavily on the average human heart?
I can remember waiting and dreading the day when someone would know it. Someone might remember something that could lead them back to me and my guilt.
But it didn't bother me as much after Win died. For Win was the only one who knew my secret ... as far as I knew.
The day started much as any other. We were somewhere we shouldn't have been, Lily and I, and we were doing something we were not permitted to do.
We were down by the shore of the lake exploring. That was allowed. We were on our own time; it was our day off, Sunday. It was a day off for most of the loggers, too.
No one worked on Sunday and a lot of the men attended the church service in the local town, mostly at the insistence of Mrs. O'Reilly, the camp boss's wife. She had an evangelistic streak in her ever since she had left the Catholic church and joined the Baptists in town. I wondered what it took to push someone that far from one way to the other. Why did Mrs. O'Reilly change faiths so dramatically?
Lily and I were picking flowers to take back to our room at the logging camp. The cabin we were in was quite plain and we had gathered some magazine pictures and pinned them on the wall. It made the place brighter – a little bit – but what wouldn't we give for real wallpaper. Wallpaper like I had on my walls at home in the bedroom. It had been a long time since I'd thought of Canada and mama and papa, but Sundays always had a way of making me wonder how things were going for them back home.
Lily and I were there for about an hour, walking farther away from the camp toward the north end of the lake. We'd been warned not to go there since there were sphagnum bogs that could suck young women in and leave not a trace behind, Mrs. Avery had said.
That was when we came upon the boat tied up to a large rock at the bottom of Cleetwood Cove Trail. I couldn't believe the boat ramp was deserted. Usually there was someone waiting for a ride out to Wizard Island, but I supposed there were lunch breaks for the men who ran the boat out.
No one was about on this sleepy Sunday late in September. Soon the snows would be coming and we wouldn't see anyone here or at the camp, unless they were the folks who had to stay with us and keep things going until the end of October.
Then Lily and I would be moving into town to work in the hotel where Mrs. Avery had promised to find us jobs.
“Nellie, let's take this boat out on the water,” Lily exclaimed.
“Oh, no, you don't,” I replied. “You are not going to go getting me into trouble. I don't want to go on the boat.”
“Let's just sit in it then and pretend we're out on the water.”
I couldn't see anything wrong with that. We looked around and didn't see anyone.
“You get in first,” Lily said.
I hopped in and as soon as my back was turned, Lily pulled the rope off the rock and jumped in, pushing against the rock with her foot.
“Lily! What are you doing? We can't take this boat out. We just can't.”
“Oh, relax, Nellie. You are such a nervous Nellie, you certainly live up to your name. We won't go far off shore. I just want to sit here and forget about all the work back at the camp. We're going to be working all winter, too, in the hotel. Do this, do that. We won't get a moment's peace. It's so nice here and I just want to forget about everything. Everything.”
She laid back in the boat that was now drifting in the water, farther from the shore than made me comfortable.
I sat down and grabbed hold of each side of the boat.
“You drive me crazy, Lily. Why did you want to go and do this. What if we fall in?”
“No one is going to fall in,” she said lazily. “All we have to do is sit still and we can use the oars to get us back when the time comes. The sun will be up for quite a while longer. Say, did you eat all your lunch?”
“Yes, I did. OK, we'll stay here for just a little while and then you promise we'll go back, right?”
“Yes, yes. I promise."
It was making me real nervous, floating farther and farther away from the shore. I couldn't go to sleep like Lily, who seemed to take everything with a grain of salt. There were noises of something hitting against the sides of the boat, and at first I thought it was the gentle slap of the waves. Then I decided it was the fish in the water that most of the men sought from the shores of Wizard Island. The lake looked so blue from up above on the edges of the crater. Mrs. Avery said it had been formed when God was a child, so I guess it was pretty old.
After a while the sun began to sink in the sky; clouds were coming in. Eventually the cool air woke Lily. She sat up and stretched like a kitten, yawning like one too.
“Oh, that was a good sleep. But it's gotten cold." She rubbed arms hands along her arms. "Where did these clouds come from?”
I looked up and said, “They've been coming in for just the last few minutes. I didn't want to wake you.”
“Well you should have. Storms come up quickly on lakes. There might be lightning this time of year.”
She reached for the oars but the boat was too broad for her to grasp both of them.
“Take one of the oars, Nellie. Let's work together getting this boat in.”
I shifted my weight a little and the boat rocked. I screamed and grabbed for Lily.
“Quit that!” she snapped. “Just stay still. I'll get it. Good grief, how come I have to do everything around here?”
Lily stood up and stepped over me to get to the other side of the boat where the oar was. She was rocking the boat again and I was terrified we would capsize. I grabbed hold of Lily's legs and she tripped and came down hard.
She grunted and I heard a thunk when her head hit the metal lock where the oar fit in. Her body cartwheeled over and, splash, she was in the water.
“Lily!” I screamed. There she was floating alongside the boat and I could see the red blood bubbling from her head but she didn't make any effort at all to swim or fight her way back onto the boat. Her eyes were closed just as they had been when she'd been sleeping. Her body began to slip into the water, deeper and deeper.
I reached out my fingers and touched her skirt that was floating in the water. The material was covered with a pink flower print. I remembered Win's words to her back at the camp. “That dress looks real pretty on you, Lily.”
I saw Win in my mind's eye, the way he looked at the wash basin outside the camp when he'd come in from the woods, stripped to the waist and splashed cool water over his steaming body. I remembered the woodsy smell of him, the pine sap on his shirt a clean perfume. I thought of how I wanted Win for my own.
I looked toward shore and didn't see anyone at all. No one was about.
Then I looked at Lily again. I didn't want Win this way. Not this way!
I took the oar from the lock and pushed at Lily, and heard myself screaming, “Lily, grab the oar. Lily!”
She was floating away from the boat and sinking deeper into the cold, dark water. Then suddenly, she was gone.
Once, long ago, I swallowed a secret so big I thought surely someone would be able to tell by looking closely enough at me. My eyes would reflect the scene – someone would glimpse it.
Like the magician who swallows pingpong balls and then makes them appear under his hat or between his fingers or in someone's pocket, I thought surely that secret would show up again. Someone would discover how the magician performed this particular trick and uncover him – uncover me – by knowing something. Or someone who had seen how I did this thing – this swallowing up of guilt and fear.
Did I ever look happy? Even when I was laughing on the glass bottom boat on the way to Santa Catalina Island, did I really look so carefree and unconcerned?