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Becomes the Color

by E. Catherine Tobler

4918 words

August, 19—

I have this dream, that I’ll leave town and you’ll choose that moment to return. And so I leave these notes, saying hey, I’m at the lake, you remember the one. It’s never a question, I know you remember. We argued over the color of the water.

Indigo, you said, but indigo was never so bright. Midnight, you offered, and I had seen midnight, my hips rocking against yours as a sliver of moonlight moved over the end of the bed and the water was nothing so sweet. Turquoise, that’s what it was. All those upper layers, turquoise.

I’m up at Lindy’s cabin. I’ll be there until the first, working on the end of this book. At long last, the end of this book. And maybe too, the end of you. At long last.

• • •

Seventy years after a war none of us could remember outside the crumbling sepia photographs our parents kept from their parents, the rocky pools at Hanging Lake had filled with a water so turquoise you would expect it to stain your skin. The years had allowed the slow dissolution of fragile shoreline travertine and the carbonate minerals in each pool’s belly, turning the waters blue, but the color did not cling to me no matter how many times I submerged.

By that time, I hadn’t spoken to Jess in two years, but ghosts lingered, surprising me in books, closets, and refrigerators. Still capable of finding some part of Jess in a head of goddamn broccoli, and still recalling our last conversation, I headed to Hanging Lake at Lindy’s behest. It wasn’t a big lake, hers the only cabin there because her family had owned the land since the war—no one else wanted it, claimed it was rotting with ghosts.

Write your fucking last chapter, she said, and so I, delirious with friendly direction, packed my bags and went, having never been to Lindy’s cabin alone. Jess had been with me the last time, a giddy group of nine we’d been, lured into the pools for a dip under the stars. Meteors that night; we counted twenty-six before we climbed prune-skinned and limp from the turquoise.

Rumor was, the war had carved Hanging Lake and its pools; bombs had pockmarked the ground into a violent map of the moon, explosions exposing geothermal hot springs beneath, allowing them to overflow their steamy caverns. Filled to overflowing, the springs exploded into a lake and fifty years later, the lake spilled her banks, birthing more pools beneath the lake’s waterfall edge. A terrace of turquoise hidden in the spruce woods.

Rumor also had it the lake was where war prisoners had been hung from the skeletal trees along the circling shore, bodies allowed to sway until time rotted the ropes and sent them plunging over the falls. Muscle, bone, and marrow dissolved, deepened the turquoise, and created the darker depths, where the blue went black. The shore was hunched with boulders, speckled with moss and lichen, green and pink in the day, black by night.

The chapter wasn’t finished by the time I stepped into the lake, but I couldn’t resist its pull. Lindy’s cabin had always been a place of refuge and this time alone was no different. I had avoided the book’s end for so long—if I held to the book, I also held to Jess—and after a wallow in the turquoise, I resolved to finish. Stepping naked into the water was like stepping into a mineral bath, warm and spiked with salt, calcium, radium. We’d never emerged glowing, though sometimes in the summer nights, the pools themselves looked lit, clusters of bioluminescent creatures luring insects to their doom.

Things that should not live in the lake lived in the lake. Slate pencil urchins, abalone, baby hawksbill turtles. Cuban land snails with broad blue banding through their shells crept along the warm rocks where limpets had bored, their shells as pocked with craters as the land around them. As though they too had been caught in the war, shaken by the blast, adhered and unable to move on. One year, we pried mussels from the stones, shells cracked by the time we drew them out, trailing juice down our fingers and arms.

The water, cascading from my body when I emerged, was almost oily, my toes pricking in the droplets falling from belly, breasts, shaken hands. The night was warm and had warmed my towel, my sandals, and all around me the woods rose still, no wind, no birds, only the dusty arc of the Milky Way high above. The world tipped when I looked that high. Jess used to joke that the lake could intoxicate a person; that its warmth and salt would change a body and make it unsuitable for the land.

The ground was spongy underfoot. I’d left footprints in the muddy ground on the way to the lake, but as I turned for the cabin, could not find them. The path between the trees had never been paved nor had it ever been lit. It was not a lengthy trail—the cabin not more than twenty-five steps from the lake, but I couldn’t find the way. I had dropped my towel at its end but where my towel pooled, there was no path.

Through the tree branches, I could see lights, pinpricks from the lanterns that hung beside the cabin’s back door. When the air moved, the lanterns seemed to twinkle. The spruce branches, blue and soft as if they were new, allowed me to pass where the path should have been. I walked easily, wrapped in my towel, mud squelching underfoot, but then lost the light of the lanterns. The branches did not obscure it—the light was simply gone.

Electricity came and went in the mountains, but there was no storm to blow the lines down. I stood in the dark and listened and could hear only the low breath of the wind through the spruce. Ahead, the forest was dark. Above, I glimpsed puzzle-ragged pieces of sky between the branches, a sky gone cloudy. I could not smell rain, only the sharp scent of the trees and the minerals of the lake still clinging to my gooseflesh skin.

Pushing through the branches and their gentle needles, I counted my steps, expecting a break in the trees, the fireroad running fat between two sections of forest, but at twenty-five steps, the trees continued. I turned back, thinking I had come out on the wrong shore, so traced my way back to the water. Only I couldn’t find the lake, either.

Twenty-five steps back the way I’d come only brought me more softly growing spruce. I looked for the glowing pools and saw a glimmer to my right; I followed through boughs that lost their soft needles; here, the trees turned hard and brown, but farther, regained their softness once more. At the line of fresh growth, I found the lake, and exhaled a breath that turned into another laugh. I closed my hand around the nearest branch, fingers sticky with sap, arms riddled with scrapes. I thought of the wine I’d left at the cabin, and how I wouldn’t need it before sleep because the lake had already made me stupid drunk.

Reoriented, I made my way around the fragile shore, mindful of where I stepped. I walked behind the upper pools, the lake to my left-hand side all the while. Every shoreline was travertine, thin straws and fingers of the mineral slowly creeping outward from lake and pools, into the woods. Every now and then, my steps crunched as I found an unseen line of travertine, and I edged further from the pools. On the far curve of the lake, I could not see the path to the cabin, but saw the lanterns glowing against the side of the building. I stepped back into the trees, hurrying now, because I’d begun to lose the warmth I’d soaked up in the lake. I wanted nothing more than to wipe the mud from my sandals and get warm again.

The lantern light was inconsistent. Halfway through the trees, the light flickered and was gone. I did not stop, but pressed on in the direction they had lain, even counting my steps did not bring me to the fireroad before the cabin. There was no cabin, nor lanterns, nor fireroad.

The air whispered fresh around me and I looked up, finding more puzzled sky above. Still clouded, I had no hope of figuring out my direction—the moon was never visible amid the trees. Stars would have been a good second, but I didn’t even have those, so turned around and returned to the lake, counting forty steps. Forty. That would have meant I was beyond the cabin and that was impossible.

I moved to one of the boulders and placed my hand on it, comforted by the warm stone under my shaking fingers. I told myself it was only the cold that made me tremble, but it was something else. I’d never been up here alone, but I’d also never been lost in the woods. I reasoned that I could find the lake and so in turn I could find the cabin, even if I ended up waiting until sunrise. And sunrise would come, because the boulder held the warmth of the day that had only just been.

That warmth soaked into my thighs when I leaned against the rock. The warmth was real and calming and I exhaled. A writer’s mind was prone to imagination, and for me this was especially true after working on a long project. I would have thought my mind drained and empty after the creation of a novel, but in the cabin the cursor still blinked, and my mind continued to conjure lights in the trees. Among them, deeper shadows.

I watched the distant lights in the distant trees and did not move, though I wanted very much to chase the illumination. If they were not the lanterns, what were they? The lights moved, sometimes like a wave of water, other times like a galloping horse. They were gentle and then they were sudden, and then they were rushing through the trees toward me. A thousand incorporeal lights advancing on me, a star flung down from the heavens, disintegrating in the sky, falling into my lap. It came so close, I cried out and twisted away, dropping to my knees in the mud.

When I picked myself up, quivering as if an incurable illness had taken up residence inside me, I could not convince myself to believe in the lights because the woods were dark, the sky clouded. In the trees, I saw what should have been the distant shine of the lanterns on the back porch. I stared at the lights as they widened, and I felt myself falling into them, but I was no closer. I had not moved from the boulder on the shore. I wiped the mud from my skin before wading back into the lake, to wash myself in the mineral-saturated waters.

I slept in the water. Cradled against lakeshore, my head pillowed on limestone, I found myself wrapped in a sheath of seaweed. The lake was not the sea, I told myself, but the seaweed was there even so. My fingers wrinkled but my shoulder, where it jutted from the lake, remained dry. The night air against my dry skin was neither warm nor cold, but when I sat up and water sheeted from me, my skin shivered. Ahead in the trees, the lanterns burned. Their light made perfect rectangles down the whitewashed side of the cabin, framing the door that led to the kitchen.

I knew the kitchen’s floor was tiled, blue and white checkerboard. A ratty rug that had sopped up years of lake water stretched before the door and I wished myself upon it. Wished myself dripping dry in kitchen warmth.

But wishes didn’t make anything so. I rested in the net of seaweed, observing the unchanged sky. The clouds at last betrayed their movements, churning against one another. I held my breath until my lungs ached, until the gray billows broke and a seam of stars became visible. Every star looked like a seed nestled in the black dirt of the world, and I took comfort in their overdue appearance, summoning the energy to push the seaweed from my body and climb from the warm lake. The seaweed claimed my sandals, carried them away.

Water did not drip from my body so much as it slid, making a puddle beneath me as I gauged the direction of the cabin lights. They were where they should have been, through the trees, and I forgot my towel in my haste to reach them. I was halfway there, twelve and a half steps, when they vanished again.

The breeze was replaced with a breath so foul, it made me double over and retch. It was lake water I vomited, though had no memory of swallowing any. The heaving brought me down. Pressed hands and knees in flooded mud, I heard the movement in the trees beyond me. Jess, my heart whispered, but it was not Jess.

It wasn’t footsteps, but the sound of a large animal padding toward me through the low branches, through the fallen needles and mud. I couldn’t put a name to the animal; my trembling mind could latch only to the sound—the snuffle through wide black nostrils, the question in its breath as it paused and gulped air into its fanged mouth. I could not move. It was big, so big it blocked the lights from the cabin and threw its shadow against the branches that still separated us. I felt lost in its shade, swallowed by the darkness until it shouldered past the final branch between us, and screamed.

When it lowered its head and growled, the sudden cabin lights blinded me. I shrieked and forced myself into motion, fleeing the way I had come, to the shelter and solace of the lake, to the turquoise waters that took me in. I plunged down, bubbles cascading past cheeks and through hair, and swam as if the beast was at my heels. I swam to the far side of the lake before I turned to look. A cougar—yes, that was the word—yowling from the far edge, but not pursuing or entering the water. We stared at each other in confusion and terror both, saliva dripping from its panting mouth. It sank onto its haunches, looking at me as though it didn’t know what to make of me. Its broad nose snuffled at the lake, but the cougar did not drink. It dipped a paw in and regarded me.

With nothing between us except the lake, the animal was pure threat. Its fur was matted with mud and needles, its teeth curving from its mouth, yellowed and hooked in ways they should not be. Those teeth weren’t right, nor were its clouded eyes. The cougar was old, old and as out of sorts as I was.

My breath lodged in my throat and the cougar lumbered back into the trees. Once it had gone, I waited as long as I could before paddling back across the lake, to press my fingers into the marks it had left in the mud. Real then, not some terror from my exhausted mind. My hand fit into its paw print with room to spare.

My eyes never left the trees, not for the longest time. I crouched and shook and eventually realized I was sobbing. When my legs could no longer hold me, I collapsed onto the shore, tears splattering my hands as they sank into the mud. I knew I needed to watch the branches and shadows, listen for the cougar, but I could do neither. I could only lay there, until I saw the sky.

It was brighter now, though not precisely morning; no sunlight slanted across the lake to pierce the cabin’s windows. I remembered Jess fumbling to close the curtains on one such bright morning, a short “fuck” bitten in two at the brightness that poured over our bed. But there was no such light now, even as the lantern lights through the trees became less apparent. The day was brightening, and yet was not bright.

I convinced myself to move, to push back into the trees and see what I could find. I was certain of dawn’s approach, that the clouds obscuring the sky were lighter than only moments before. I roamed but found no cabin and no fireroad; only trees and more trees beyond. The lanterns seemed to follow me, tease me, always where I thought the cabin should be but never was.

My heart was furious, beating its way into my throat. My naked body bore the signs of my countless paths through the spruce branches; my arms and legs bore marks as if I had been whipped with hard-needled boughs, red and scraped. I plucked my towel from the mud, but it was a stained mess, perhaps pawed by the cougar. I held the sloppy bundle against my chest and walked another circuit of the lake and its pools, needles and rocks biting into my feet.

The lake was always there, a great turquoise eye watching. All around it, things that should have been were not. And other things that should not have been, were present for me to see: boulders the color of glaciers, gleaming and blue in the half-light; trees so stair-stepped with bracket fungi like figures in ruffled party gowns; a stack of small wet stones taller than me. The precision of the column created in me the thought to knock it over, to disrupt the order, but when I touched the rounded curve of one, I realized it was a not a stone, it was a shell—a turtle shell. The stack rose so high into the trees it looked like an escape attempt.

It occurred to me then, to follow them. To climb the tree beside them until I reached the top and look out over the forest and find the path to freedom. Lindy’s cabin roof would be visible; there was a door to the roof, and we had often spread a blanket on the cedar shingles to watch the stars. When I put my foot to the lowest branch and reached for the next, a shriek filled the trees. I told myself it was only the old cougar, but it sounded much worse. Much larger. I gripped the branch and pulled myself up, only to have the world around me shake.

The ground shook violently beneath my feet, soil and needles blurring, until it cracked and made visible angry red fires below. The vibrations hurt my hand and foot, and I had to step off and back away from tree and turtles, expecting the tall stack of reptiles to topple. Everything moved but for that column of shells into the sky.

The rumbling ground became as a stampede, the breath of a thousand angry fleeing animals filled the air. My heart kicked back into my throat and I fled, as panicked as any of the unseen herd. Blind with tears I staggered through branches and mud until again I found the lake and floundered into its shallows. The ground did not cease moving nor the trees stop shaking, not until I swam from the edge into the water that grew violet-black in its depths. Not until I could lost touch with the bottom. Then, the world calmed, the animals quieted, and the clouds thinned.

I slept in the water, floating. I lifted my head and contemplated the distant lakeshore, where no cougar or other beast lurked. The stretch of land was empty, but for the spruce and the beckoning lights beyond. I stretched a hand through the water, reaching for the cabin, though I knew by now it was futile. I could find no way of getting back to where I’d been. The water gleamed around my hand, sunlight piercing the cloud cover for the first time to reveal the water’s iridescent sheen in my palm. I thought nothing of it, even when I climbed from the lake as clumsy as a newborn. The water sheeted from me, but my skin remained iridescent, turquoise in the hollow of my elbows. I told myself it always had been, that in summer I always looked powdered with gold dust, especially after Jess smoothed on my after-sun lotion. Down my back, knuckling into the base of my spine, painting me gold and dust. That in the winter I was silver, and in the spring I was green. That I turned with the seasons as I was turning now, moving in circles when I could not find the cabin.

Every direction I sought contained miseries. The ground heaved, the trees obscured paths, the cougar herded me back to the lake, over and over. Time and again it was the lake that became my sanctuary, the world only turned calm when I sank myself into its turquoise water. North, south, east, and west had failed me, but the ragged circle of Hanging Lake took me in. There, I floated, without weight or bones, as the world beyond grew distant, as the sunlight put itself away again, and night—or what passed for night—filled the woods. My feet were cut and walking became clumsy, so clumsy. I told myself to rest, but everywhere I sat upon the land, my body ached.

The lake pulled me down. In my exhaustion, I stopped paddling in lazy circles and the lake closed over my head. It was like being swallowed, a warm tongue around me. At first I did not thrash, so pleasing was the notion of being consumed, of being taken away. I could not reach the cabin, but in that instant it did not matter. I floated down, and down again, until my outstretched arms were entirely engulfed, until my hands vanished beneath the surface. Only then did the self-preserving part of my mind rebel. My lungs began to burn with emptiness; in the dark water I could not see or breathe or even move. Warmth enclosed my feet and at its grip, I thrashed. I kicked up, and up again, until I could see vague shapes beyond the lake’s surface, until I burst through spluttering and paddled to the fragile shore.

The world didn’t want me. The old cougar stared at me from bloodshot eyes. Its fanged maw opened, huffing with discontent as I screamed in return. I tried to run, but that hot mouth closed around my arm. The tongue was a serpent, the teeth a vise I would never escape whole. Did their sharp points reach my bones? With my free hand, I punched the cougar’s nose until the air was flecked with our blood. It released my arm with an anguished howl, but pursued me into the shallows, swiping with its massive paws. Blood turned the water purple.

The cougar churned after me. It was old, but a good swimmer yet, and it tackled me into the turquoise. The world went indigo then black and I could not see or swim with the huge cat’s weight upon me. Its paws were bigger than anything I had known, folding me against its hot heaving belly, the way it might a wriggling salmon.

We sank into the dark that turned cold and warm again, out of the turquoise and into the black where I’d never found the bottom. There was no light this deep, there was nothing. Only down and further down. Only the cougar, its warmth and weight eclipsing every thing in the world…

…until we broke through a crackling lattice of coral. Then the cougar released me.

I kicked franticly, in the direction I hoped was up, still through the black, toward the distant surface that I had to believe still existed. When I burst through, my lungs aching in my chest, sucking a desperate breath through my mouth, my sinuses roared with water. Blood streamed into the ripples around me. My hands were full of fur and I could not unfist my fingers.

I paddled backwards as the cougar broke the surface. I think it was the cougar, though it looked like a thing turned inside out. All that should have been tucked away was revealed to the wide clouded sky. Ivory bone snapped through exposed raw meat. Arcs of blood colored the sky and spread in the water, and it was scarlet eating the turquoise when the cougar was hauled beneath the bloody froth and down into an unseen throat.

Then the surface of the lake grew calm and still, until nothing moved, least of all me, hanging in the ruin of the moment.

I forced my body into motion, toward the shore. The shore, away from the deepest point of the lake, where the cougar had been swallowed. I clawed the water, and finally pulled myself into the travertine, not caring that I dragged myself over its coarseness, into the mud and the spruce. I never got far.

No matter how far I wandered, the woods contracted and I was never more than five steps from the muddy shore. I saw the lake no matter how far I ventured into the trees. Branches that had once known only sunlight now skimmed the lake’s surface, closing tight and tighter still, their needled arms herded me.

In the end, the lake was all there was. My body was battered, scratched, and bruised as I crouched in the mud, dripping blood and watching the gentle turquoise water. I did not know how long I had been here. I tried to remember when I had last lain in a bed and could not. When had I last eaten? Time had neglected this place, the spruce branches creaking in the wind, as if they still held the weight of nooses and their prisoners. I wrapped my arms around my knees and shook, feeling the world close in. My breath hitched, the air felt like poison.

The shore faded and the world dwindled to a warm pool of water with beckoning depths. If I could not go out into the trees, there was only one place left. The water had taken the cougar. But it had also offered me rest, ill-fitting seaweed, and warm ripples. And so I crept into the shallows and paddled to the deepest part, trying to summon the strength to dive, to swim down to where the turquoise ceased and the black began. I imagined I could breathe the liquid, that I was not suffocating, that I could never drown. That beyond the violet-black of the lake’s depths, the turquoise returned. That within the heart of the lake there existed another world, one that was eager to take me in.

It did not. I dived and my lungs shrieked their panic. I pushed deeper and my body refused, jerking away as a spider crab tiptoed across a strand of coral, vanishing into the black. Small glowing blobs danced across my vision, fireflies I thought, or jellies, but my body took this to be an imminent loss of consciousness. I kicked up and up, breaking through the surface with a cry.

The world had constricted again, spruce branches scraping my head. There was no longer any shore, no longer any lanterns, no longer any sky, nothing that would allow me rest, and so I paddled, knowing in my heart the only way. Freedom was down. Only down, but I could not make myself go there. I paddled in circles, sobbing until the world blurred, until my arms and legs ceased their motions. My body refused the lake, even as the water said it alone would enfold me.

Clinging to a spruce branch overhead, I stared into the depths, watching the turquoise spiral down into the black. It was so gradual, so natural, I told myself I could do the very same thing. I let go the branch and failed twice more, before I went a third time, exhaling the air until my protesting body could only quiet and descend like a stone. Until I breathed the water as easily as I had air. The lake grew dark and cool by gentle degrees, and once all was black, I could feel myriad creatures swimming past me, then swimming with me.

Things that should not live in the lake lived in the lake. There were jellies against my arms like the sleeves of a billowing gown; there were viperfish and frilled sharks, catfish and salamanders. There were soldiers, relics of a forgotten war with ragged ropes around their bone necks. Farther down, the turquoise I loved so well brightened the lake floor the way the cabin lanterns brightened the woods. I swam for the swelling light, iridescent arms cutting through the water’s salted warmth as I let go the surface.

• • •

I have this dream, that I’ll leave and you’ll choose that moment to return. And so I leave these notes, saying hey, I’m at the lake, you remember the one. It’s never a question, I know you remember. We argued over the color of the water.

Indigo, midnight, but always ever turquoise even when the sky beyond the spruce clouded. Anyhow.

I’m at the lake. Come find me.

E. Catherine Tobler has written many things. Among others, her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Apex Magazine. Follow her on Twitter @ECthetwit, or her website, www.ecatherine.com

Issue 35

March 2022

3LBE 35

Front & Back cover art by Rew X

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