Swimming in Lake Poison

June 21, 2009 at 12:40 pm (Writing)

This week I am attending the Colgate Writers’ Conference in Hamilton, NY. I was accepted into the novel-writing workshop along with three other participants, and our workshop instructor will be Brian Hall, author of the novels The Saskiad, Fall of Frost, and I Should Be Extremely Happy In Your Company: A Novel of Lewis and Clark, as well as several works of non-fiction. I attended this same conference two years ago and worked with Jennifer Vanderbes, author of Ester Island.

I will be workshopping a novel I started about five years ago, tentatively titled Swimming in Lake Poison. I partly used the painting below by John August Swanson as inspiration. I have posted Chapter One below, and would be grateful for any feedback.

I will share pictures and more from the conference once it is over. If you would like to join me vicariously, the public lectures – including each morning’s Craft Talk and each evenings Readings – are available at http://groups.colgate.edu/cwc/archive.html. This year’s will not be available until much later, but the previous year’s are also great. Especially, you should become familiar with Frederick Busch’s work if you are not already. I have read his novel Harry and Catherine probably fifteen times.

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Chapter One

One night, during the worst of it, the week we kept the shotgun next to bed, the week we had to send the kids away, the week we slept holding each other for safety, I had this dream:

We were on vacation at our family camp, high in the Berkshires of Connecticut. But in the dream it was a much exaggerated version of Mount Riga, wilder, steeper, more densely forested, and poorer. There was no wealthy and manicured New England town at its foot. It seemed instead to be placed in the rural poverty of the wilder regions of the Northern Adirondacks or northern Vermont, far from where anyone with wealth or sophisticated aesthetics would summer. To arrive at this surreal version of our refuge required skirting a lumber town, a rough and bedraggled collection of old warehouses and greasy auto shops, furred by spruces, with that sinister feel of forests in the primitive Northwest, where the trees are angry ancients leaning over and threatening to swallow you in their growth.

Upon our arrival, my husband Ty’s family had already assembled, and the lake and A-frame and cabins seemed almost true to their wonderful, normal selves. All of my mother-in-law’s Swedish relatives had gathered, from all corners of the country, and although it appeared that the lake was very cold – thin sheets of ice laced its edges – young cousins, previously unknown to me, were swimming along its uneven and rocky shoreline. In the dream, unlike in the real Lake Riga, high, columnar islands of rock topped with shaggy pines rose not far from shore, and pallid Swedish boys, all of them young cousins and second cousins, dove in masks around their murky bases in the narrow area between islands and land, seeking gold or what would pass for it with younger relatives.

Almost immediately upon arrival, after hugs and introductions, Ty and I were dispatched to run an errand: to fetch an air mattress left at the lake’s other end, needed by one of the guests for sleeping on that night. Though I was tired and longed to crawl into a soft nest in our camper, Ty and I prepared to set out in the late afternoon with a flashlight to fetch it.

As we approached our vehicle to go, an extraordinary procession of young, male, white-robed acolytes proceeded along the sandy road under the low-hanging pines, carrying large white candles and singing. They walked slowly, a hundred or so of them, the flames lighting up their joyous faces, and as they passed, they looked at us and smiled as they sang, a slow meditative song full of plain harmonies, like chant or incantation. Everyone at our camp stopped in slow silence and smiled in their glow. The young monks walked toward their rustic monastery farther around the lake. The harmonies of their song drifted through the trees and echoed across the water.

Still, Ty and I had to fetch the mattress, and instead of taking a canoe or the Jeep, we set out on foot, back down the rough road and through the lumber town and further down the mountain and back into the scrubland forest to the lake’s other end. Peering under dense bushes with our flashlight, we found the raft under some brush on the dirt road’s side. The road we were on stopped at the lake’s edge seemed to have no other destination than this distant spot, and we wondered who had been here earlier in the day and for what reason, far from the main enclave and in so isolated a place. With the half-deflated plastic raft under my arm, we set out for the long walk back.

As we returned, ever-darkening twilight turned back to bright day, and our narrow path down through the open land suddenly rose to a high and thin-aired height, while the region to our right dropped, such that the houses and churches below looked like toys. The trees disappeared and we walked along an Alpine path, and the ancient and softened Berkshires turned to snow-topped mountain peaks and the land to our side sank into green-lined river valleys. Now that we were above the tree line, the evergreens of Connecticut shrunk to the short brush of the high peaks, and we walked the narrow ridge of a high mountain trail toward a tiny town perched on one crag. We stumbled over rocks on the narrow path, and I struggled with the burden of the raft.

The tiny town seemed to be holding its market day, and each of the handful of tiny kiosks stood in relief high against the Andean air, a small wooden cart or booth with bright scarves or hanging peppers blowing in the wind from its racks. Ty and I stopped at one, where textiles hung in a fury of color against the white sky. In the bright and wind-whipped air, we struggled to choose one and pay its seller, a short, compact man with brown skin and smiling eyes, with a band of brightly-striped wool over one shoulder.

We passed beyond his stand at the peak of the village, toward a one-room Alpine tavern on a steep and narrow ridge, where mountain men of foreign skins and languages sang and clanked heavy wooden mugs of some native grog. Ty stopped in to join them for a drink and I continued toward the small mountain lake ahead, holding by the hand the frailest of the Swedish girl cousins who was suddenly and inexplicably in my charge. Two nuns, in soft yellow habits and comfortably middle-aged faces in high peaked wimples, approached and smiled and nodded as they passed us. We nodded in return and continued on our way. I glanced down, far down into the valley, and saw, like a jewel in the green valley below, a perfect Austrian abbey, soft yellow, like a pound of creamy butter on its green lawns, with tall Baroque windows and topped with dark onion-shaped domes, a shiny copper cross atop each. It was a long building, with the central section most likely the dormitory, clean and airy, and the taller end with the most steeples the sanctuary. From its windows soared the measured tones of Gregorian chant.

We realized that the two nuns we had passed were most likely from there, and sure enough, when we turned to look where the two had gone, we could see them descending a gentle path that led down, down, down toward the picturesque little haven below. I watched, wanted to follow, stopped, until my little cousin tugged my hand and I turned to her and smiled and walked on.

She and I continued toward the lake ahead, and as we neared, we could see it had a sandy beach and shallow water for wading. Knowing we would have to wait for Ty, we stripped down to our bathing suits, leaving our clothes and shoes on towels on the beach, and waded in. It was a small and open lake, no more than five acres, more of a pond, and we could easily see across it to the rocky shore on the other side. My little cousin stayed wading in the shallow waters with sand beneath her feet, but I, hot and a swimmer by nature, dove under and headed toward the deeper and cooler water in the middle.

When I surfaced there and shook the hair and water from my eyes, I saw to one side of the pond a tall earthen dam through which opened an enormous corrugated metal culvert. I looked higher up and noticed the factory from which it came. Only then did I look down, to the water I was treading in, and see the noxious green ooze. I followed its liquid path to the culvert and saw the mix of green and phosphorescent orange that flowed toward me, foaming and scum-topped. The watery trail was dotted with thin metal scraps and shredded labels, plastic bung-hole caps and globs of brownish sludge.

I scrambled to turn in the deep water and head back toward shore, but the mire became viscous and I flailed to direct my body shoreward. I was gasping in panic and exertion and I feared gulping a mouthful of the sickly and putrid slime that circled my face. My skin was starting to smart and sting, and I swam in desperation toward shore, shouting for my little cousin to Get out! Get out! Pushing against the resistance of the thick water, my feet finally hit ground, and I slugged heavily, weighted down, toward my charge who was splashing and falling toward the beach.

Finally close enough, I grabbed her, flung us both onto the land, and dragged her to a water spigot where I quickly and viciously hosed her down. Luckily, only her legs were affected, and the green poison washed off. I was saturated: my skin, my hair, my arms and legs, my swimsuit, and though I sprayed and sprayed and pressurized the water against myself, the toxins burned and stung, and my skin was stained a sickly greenish-orange, and though I washed and scrubbed and directed the water full-force, I could not remove the  poisons from my skin.

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1 Comment

  1. Kevin Williams said,

    Just love the picture. I can’t even comment on your chapter for seeing it (oh yes I can: WOW. More later, perhaps).
    I love how the picture is all about light even in darkness. It’s night, but look how lit the tops of those smooth hills are. The people all carry candles, but that can’t explain all the light. Look at their eyes, look at all the jewelry in the sky. This is no painter’s accident. The light is the message, the light in the darkness is what has brought out all those people,.
    Another picture that have moved me to and beyond tears is the Hubble Deep Field photo. (http://scienceblogs.com/startswithabang/upload/2009/05/HubbleDeepFieldL.jpg) You can look up the whole story on Wikipedia, among other places, but basically: astronomers pointed the Hubble space telecope at a seemingly vacant part of the sky for the equivalent of long, long exposures to see what really might be out there. The longer the exposure, the further out, and the further back, you look. What they found: what seemed like blank space is full — full not just of stars, but of galaxies, whole galaxies. It’s Psalm 8:3-4 in all its implications.

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