The Lake by Marie Baleo

photo of a lake

“Tristachersee” (image via Flickr user Giorgio)

No later than last night

On the quiet surface of our lake

Something appeared, as though pushed gently from the depths by a pale, plump hand of soft skin, fingers nimble, wading through algae and schools of fish

And the people in their neat little beds in the neat little houses peppered around the water suspected nothing

Their minds prime shells for the taking, wandering in sleep beneath full heads of hair

It took twelve more hours, four curious children on their way home from school, and one long wooden stick to bring the thing to shore

A bottle, raw but polished, unlabeled, uncolored

Containing a letter addressed to one Mr. A. from one Mrs. A.

By then both Mr. and Mrs. A. had lived in the oak-lined two-story house at the far end of the lake for twenty years, and never, Mrs. A. swore, had she ever written a letter to her husband that she hadn’t made sure to deliver

Cross her heart and hope to die

(And if she had, she would never have picked red ink anyway)

When she opened it, the lights by either side of her front door casting her a giant shadow, the children aglow around her, their necks twisting to see the sheet, she found that it was dated 4.1.1993

And in between the sound of cicadas that no one ever had ever seen, at precisely dusk, Mrs. A., brow furrowed, poured over the words poured onto paper long ago by what she could not deny was her own hand

The letter had many things to say

After it was finished speaking, everyone stood still, their breaths politely shelved for a later date, the hairs on the outer side of their wrists rising invisibly, magnetic

The following morning the bubbles returned like drum roll, and then they appeared, close to the banks, one after the other: letter upon letter in their glass vessels

All the houses let out their occupants like a flood, and all gathered to read and listen

And one long shiver went through the crowd whenever a name was read out

The named ones came forward with angst and want, to hear words they’d never written but long carried around, some for decades, some for mere days

And the clarity of their newfound voices made them dizzy

Some truths were sad, some truths were hard, some truths were just what they needed to be – truths

By the third day people came out of their houses in slippers at six in the morning, disheveled, praying for their bottle to appear

“I just don’t know when I became so uninteresting” “It’s just very quiet here now that Ellen is dead, and I think my friends are growing dull with age, but then so is my mind” “I hope we don’t end up like your parents” “You’re away all the time and whenever you’re home you’re not even truly here anymore” “I try to care, but it gets harder every day” “I would drink less if I wanted to” “I never remember to tell you how much you mean to me” “I disgust myself for not trying, and someday soon I’ll disgust you too”

“Don’t you wish we were sixteen again”

“We were pretty happy there for a while”

“I miss you”

On the fourth day the stronger swimmers among us were enrolled to dive to the bottom of the lake

But we came up empty, beneath violent skies, and shed our silver droplets on the shore where others had brought towels and baskets full of fruit and water for us to drink as though we hadn’t already had our fill

It was dark down there, one of us who had dived said, and there were bubbles and clouds of sand, but no bottles, and – another said after a pause – no one

The last letter came on a Sunday full of rain and thunder

For you

From me

I watched you read it from afar, from the kind of distance where you so resemble me that I could no longer be sure who I was looking at

One lonely lock of hair fell down from behind your ear and hid you from sight

I imagined your steady blue eyes running over the smooth paper

I felt your heart-shaped lips mouth the words silently

Marie Baleo is a French writer born in 1990. Her work has appeared in Tahoma Literary Review, Litro Magazine, Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel, Five on the Fifth, Spilled Milk, The Nottingham Review, Hypertext Magazine, Jersey Devil Press, FIVE:2:ONE Magazine, and elsewhere.