Rachel Attias hails from the Hudson River Valley of New York but has been slowly creeping west for several years. Her writing has appeared in n+1, Porter House Review, X-R-A-Y and more. A prose reader for The Adroit Journal and recipient of a residency at Hedgebrook, she holds an MFA from Oregon State University and is at work on her first novel and a collection of stories.
Morning on the Lake
Used to be a man could disappear to the forest whenever he felt the need. A woman, not so much. And a Jewish woman? From Long Island? It practically made her mother’s brain explode, so many years ago, when Nora moved upstate. “First you marry a goy, and now you go and live with the dirt and the ticks and the bears?” “There are no bears here, Mom. Only coyotes and fisher cats.” “The fisher cats, then! Nora, the fisher cats!” She complained like that for a long time, and then she died.
Still, she lived plenty long enough to witness Nora’s divorce, which she’d predicted would happen, though not quite as soon as it did. It only took three years from Nora’s nuptials for the whole thing to explode, when Nora caught her ex (before he was her ex) with the general store owner’s wife during pick-your-own season. Even then, she refused to move back to Massapequa. This was her home, she insisted, the one she’d always wanted, whether he was a part of it or not. And it was a good home. Her ex let her keep it all: the house, with its wood stove and root cellar, and all twenty-three acres of orchard (twenty-three-and-a-half if one counted the apple trees that spilled onto the neighbor’s land, about which the ex and the neighbor had some sort of gentlemen’s agreement, whose terms Nora was never privy to). He even left the little jon boat he’d professed to love so much.
For the two decades since then it’s just been her and Kugel, the cat. Shortly after the thing with the general store owner’s wife and before the blur of divorce proceedings, Kugel had her first litter. At the time, Nora couldn’t stand to look at the kittens, their stubby ears and squinty eyes, sensitive to light. She kept only the one born with a little white moon over its left eye, just like Kugel. She gave the rest of them away to ladies with sympathetic faces who tried to gossip with her about her own misfortune, for which she had neither the time nor the inclination. Even if it were any of their business, which it wasn’t, it was still pick-your-freaking-own season! She had enough going on. Sometimes Nora wonders if that was where she’d gone wrong: if she’d shown more emotion, more weakness in front of those women, maybe she’d have them as friends now, in her older, lonely years. But no, she’s never needed anyone besides her Kugel.
The Kugel Nora’s lived with for twenty years isn’t actually the first Kugel, the one she adopted from a shelter in the city before she even met the ex. That Kugel died around when the divorce was finalized. Somebody ran her over. Nora found her on the side of the road one morning when she went to check the mail. She couldn’t process it. She refused. Instead, she took the shovel from the tool shed, picked up the corpse, tossed it in the ferns across the street, and let the second Kugel take its mother’s place. Like nothing ever happened. It was all just too symbolic, too stupid, to acknowledge. The cat had always been the one thing that felt entirely hers, the last holdover of her former city life. The ex never approved of Kugel, having grown up with barn cats but never a creature who slept in his bed and shat indoors, in a box under the bathroom sink. So what did it mean that the very place she’d moved to had taken first her husband away from her and then, perhaps more importantly, her cat? Nothing, that’s what it meant. And she could believe it, too, for twenty years. But now the second Kugel is dead and she’s left feeling unmoored.
On the day of the funeral it takes Nora a hair longer than she’d planned to get the truck packed up. The morning chill sinks in deep and makes her fingers feel brittle. But once she’s past the toolshed and the barn and the farmstand at the edge of the property (which the summer workers should be opening in a couple of hours, to hock pressed cider, apple butter, and the occasional joke bumper sticker to tourists looking to buy a memory), past the big red apple-shaped sign that needs repainting, and then well out of town, the shivers have steadied themselves from her hands and she feels twenty-three again, or thirty-six, hell even forty-five. Which is to say she hasn’t done this sort of thing in ages. She’d even had to find the ice scraper under the front seat, to remove some moss which had grown around the jon boat’s motor.
Since she’s been alone she’s kept herself busy doing the things she’s always liked to do: reading by a warm fire, taking bubble baths, going for long strolls over relaxed terrain with no particular destination in mind. Plus all of the tasks germane to the upkeep of these activities: trips to the closest library, twenty-five minutes away over a winding mountain pass, the annual accrual of several cords of firewood, as well as chopping, stacking, and hefting said wood into the house, and now her PT appointments for the knees she ruined on all that relaxed terrain. Along with running the orchard and overseeing its seasonal employees, who get dumber every year.
A loner, that’s how they think of her around here. A city person, even after all this time. Her reputation doesn’t bother her at all, as much as she disagrees with it. Because here she is now, all packed up with her fishing tackle and hurtling down the highway, almost like she belongs here. She drives from asphalt to gravel to dirt, feeling the bumpy road in her fillings. The potholes are in different places than they were in her married days, but they’re still just as bad.
At the boat launch the air has the metallic tang of early morning. The sunrise finished its riot halfway through the drive and now the pale, cloudless sky rests on the surface of the lake. The pine trees that line the water’s edge reach up toward it, or down into it, depending on how you look. The ones on the bank across from her are blackened, hollow. Big fire around here a couple summers ago. There was probably some choice morel picking the summer after that, but it hadn’t crossed her mind to go looking. She makes a mental note: write down the fires this year for mushrooms next. But presently the air is windless, the water calm. The mist is starting to burn off. She takes a moment to savor it all as she squats next to the truck to piss. She really should do this more often.
“Hot one today,” she predicts.
She zips up her fly, unstraps the jon boat from the trailer, and backs down the launch just enough that the water lifts the boat off the trailer but doesn’t carry it away. She puts the truck in park, hops out, grabs the rope lead from the bow, and walks the whole thing to the dock, where she ties it to a gleaming bracket, before getting back in the truck and parking it at the top of the hill, where it’s still early enough that she’s got the whole lot to herself. Whenever she and the ex went fishing, it was always her job to hold the boat still while he parked and lugged their stuff over. She hated waiting for him. Now she does it all, and when she makes it back to the launch with her rod, tacklebox, and cooler in hand, the jon boat is bobbing happily, ready to carve a trail through the lake.
“Well done,” she says, as much to the boat as to herself, and hoists everything aboard.
She’s been in the habit lately of making little pronouncements to no one. At first she hadn’t noticed she was doing it, but one day she stopped smack in the middle of the kitchen at the sound of a stranger’s voice in her house, clear as day, only it was her voice and she was asking herself, “Some more coffee, then?”
It’s coffee she’s thinking of—a big thermos of it in the cooler—as she pulls on the cord to start up the old outboard motor, puts it in gear, and pushes off the dock with her foot. Coffee, and steering to the left. There’s a stump submerged in the water here by the launch, and everyone knows you’ve got to get yourself out and to the left to clear it. It’s been so long the old thing is probably eroded to a nub by now, but better safe.
Just when she thinks she’s cleared it there’s the grind of metal and the boat comes to a brief, juddering halt. She loses her balance and lands hard on her ass, right on the edge of the stern, but doesn’t fall out. The collision sends the boat forward again, and by the time she rights herself she’s close enough to the dock to reach a hand out and get steady.
She looks up at dry land and realizes immediately what she’s done. The old boat launch—the one the ex navigated dozens of times while she sat at the bow and looked back at him, admiring—is to her left. The bank must have eroded and fallen away, taking the paved launch with it. Rather than a smooth ramp into the lake there is a short, jagged cliff. The launch she’s using now is a new one, built to the right of the one she once knew. She could have gone straight back and never known there even was a stump. Instead, she’d aimed right for it. Some kind of metaphor there, perhaps, about dwelling on the past, and it coming back to bite you.
She doesn’t permit herself to think of how the ex would have noticed the new launch right away, and not made the same error she did. Instead, she tilts the motor upward and checks the propellor. It’s fine, more or less. A little ding over there, but that could easily have happened before. The boat’s sat in the barn for so long it’s bound to have some degradations.
“Minor setback,” she assures the air, and rights the cooler. She handles the stump easily on the second try, and soon enough she’s flying.
Islands are one of the few things that don’t change much over the course of a lifetime, and Nora is glad to see this one is no different. It still juts out of the center of the lake like a whale’s back, surrounded by large boulders on all sides except for the small bit of muddy shore, just large enough for the jon boat or a couple of kayaks. Before making landfall, she lets herself bob a dozen meters away. She drinks her coffee, eats half of the blueberry muffin she packed, checks the cooler for the plastic baggy that contains Kugel’s ashes on ice, and underneath it the beers she brought for after. She sets up her trout rod the way the ex taught her. She ties on a spinning lure, shuts the cooler, and makes her way to shore. As she squelches through the mud and onto the dry hump of the island she can’t help but feel she’s done something improperly, a holdover from the days of the ex who always found something to criticize in the way she did things. Not to mention the steady stream of her mother’s worrying, which despite her best efforts plays in a loop over the static of her mind. The fisher cats! She takes one last look at the boat: it’s securely stuck in the mud, the motor’s off, anything that could blow away in a gust is tied down or stowed in place.
“No, you’ve done alright,” she says. And why shouldn’t she have? For crying out loud.
Most of the island is covered in scrubby bushes that grow between rocks and roots, but at its apex is a copse of weather-beaten trees on flat ground, good for camping. In the center of this grouping is a fire ring made from gathered stones, black with soot. Inside the ring are some beer cans with holes in them—first you drink ‘em, then you shoot ‘em, and last you burn ‘em, the ex taught her, and it was actually quite fun—and just beyond that a used condom rests on a bed of pine needles.
At the other side of the island Nora stands on a flattish rock and takes Kugel’s baggy out of her pocket. The air’s warmed up quite a bit now, and a crust of little water bugs velvets the lake’s still surface. A dragonfly pauses just in front of her nose, then darts away. She feels the heft of Kugel’s remains through the plastic, under which her palm begins to sweat.
Just a few nights ago she and Kugel had been together, enjoying a bath. Candles, cold white wine, evening drizzle against the skylight. The cat curled up on the little stool Nora kept next to the tub for just that purpose. She was thinking about her body, under the lavender scented bubbles. She was lathering her breasts, which for her age were pretty freaking incredible, still almost perky, even. They’d never been large. They’d never fed a baby. There was a time when her ex couldn’t get enough of them. As she cupped them, thinking, pretty good for an old lady, she wondered what they might be like if they’d grown swollen with milk after all, known the pull of an infant’s gums and teeth. They’d be more like her mother’s, probably: deflated, veiny, the borders of her areolas blurry and undefined, like cancerous moles.
Too late for that now, though. She was already well into what her mother used to call “The Change,” wandering around the house with a bag of frozen shrimp pressed to her neck during hot flashes. One thing she’d heard often and loudly was that after The Change, she’d never want to have sex again. That’s how it had been for her mother, at least, who’d stopped going on dates entirely when she was around Nora’s age. So she hadn’t been prepared for the exact opposite to happen, for her libido to spike in a way it hadn’t since she’d first met her ex. And of course, she found herself living all alone in the middle of nowhere, in a town with exactly two eligible bachelors, both of whom were octogenarian widowers. She was just about to start touching herself when the smoke alarm beeped at the opposite end of the house.
She pretended she didn’t hear it, took another sip of wine, slunk lower in the lukewarm water. It went off again. Beep. Probably low batteries.
“Kugel, go see if the house is on fire,” she said. The geriatric cat didn’t stir.
She dunked her head underwater, tried to block out the muffled beeping, which seemed to grow louder and faster, more insistent. Come! Here! Now! Couldn’t she even enjoy an evening in the bath, in peace? Beep. No. She thought of her mother, saggy breasts escaping her robe as she changed the batteries in their smoke detector, year after year, ad nauseum, until she died alone on her couch. Nora felt, in a way that it felt absurd to suddenly feel after twenty years of knowing this truth, that she was well and truly alone. There would never be anyone in the whole world who would change her batteries besides her. Maybe that was the only thing her ex and her mother had wanted her to know, in the end. She drained the tub, changed the batteries, and went to bed. The next morning she found the cat, stiff and cold, underneath the kitchen table. Beep.
Now she stands at the edge of the lake, ready to dump out Kugel’s ashes and enter the final aloneness of her life. There is not a single thing to say that would be right for the moment. All that talking, and now? She’s speechless.
Only, “Kugel…” and the floodgates open. She crouches and weeps on the flattish rock, for this Kugel and the one she never had a proper funeral for all those years ago. She weeps for all the losses she never acknowledged. Her mother died six years ago, and they hadn’t seen each other in almost twice as long, Nora being too busy to make the trip south, and her mother too infirm to come north. They talked on the phone, though. Often. For years her mother made the same joke whenever Kugel meowed in the background of their calls: “Is that my grandchild crying over there?” And Nora laughed every time, because she hadn’t realized until her mother stopped asking that it was never really a joke, but always and only a plea.
“Good cat,” is all she can say now, as she tips the baggy over and the gray dust parts the water bugs and disappears below. “Good cat.”
She’s embarrassed, backtracking past the condom and the burnt beer cans, at her display of emotion. Back at the jon boat she gathers herself, cracks a beer, and begins casting her little silver lure into the depths around the island. The ex always used to catch them here, lake trout big as her thigh. From the feel of the tug on her line, she’s hooked a nice one now. “The tug is the drug,” the ex used to say. He wasn’t wrong. But no, it’s not a fish. She’s caught up on something, a rock or a stick. She sniffles and yanks on the rod. There’s no movement. She’ll have to pick her way over the rocks where she’s snagged, and hope the lure isn’t stuck too deep for her to reach. She picks gingerly along the algae, until she takes a false step and her ankle twists. There’s a popping, snapping, cracking sound and she falls awkwardly, striking her head on a slick stone. She doesn’t feel the pain until after she’s dragged herself off the rocky bank and onto the mud behind her. Once there, she looks at her ankle through the black spots bursting in her eyes and begins to cry for the second time today.
Is that bone? Is that blood? She won’t be able to walk. Maybe she can crawl to the boat. She could sit down while steering back to the launch. But once she gets there? She’d have to hop on one foot and endure this blinding pain while strapping the boat to the trailer, getting in the truck, and driving to the nearest hospital, about forty minutes from the lake. And the truck’s a manual, too; she needs both ankles to drive it. Not to mention, she’s dizzy. She touches her temple and her fingers come away red.
“Well, fuck me.”
She won’t panic. Her mother wasn’t right. The fisher cats aren’t circling. This is nothing. She’ll get out of this. But first she’ll rest here for a bit. It’s got to be midday already. A weekend. Someone will be by, some young man and his wife, sitting on the bow and watching him steer, admiring, failing to take in the vista all around her. Or a gang of beer-soaked guys with guns. She wouldn’t refuse even their help now. Yes, she’ll rest with her head on the soft muck, like a pillow. Underneath its stench could be the smell of something sweeter, greener, newer. Plant life. The honeysuckle that grew all along the Massapequa sidewalks of her childhood. That’ll be blooming over there right about now. And it always smelled just the same as it tasted: like little sips of perfume coating her tongue for a moment, and then gone. Like her mother before a date, when the house was loud with getting-ready-noises, then suddenly quiet, and only her scent lingered in the hall by the bathroom door.
Nora used to wonder if she’d ever go out in a cloud of perfume and earrings that tinkled, even though she spent all her time with the boys down the street. One of them had a family farm, she remembers, upstate. They brought her there one summer. In the evenings, when the sun was setting, they taught her to ride horses. They clopped at a slow pace along the edge of a large field, patchy with purple vetch, she behind the boy whose name she can’t remember, he behind his father, whose name she never knew. She was so high up, and the horse was warm and alive and unpredictable beneath her, but she felt safe, secure in a way she hadn’t felt before and has hardly been since. They didn’t speak, just traveled in single file, she surveying the grasses and brambles and flowers and clouds for their private messages, the fireflies’ lambent flickering a code she absolutely understood, while an evening breeze stirred the maple leaves.
In fact, she’s not really here. She’s not an old woman with a head wound and a twisted ankle lying flat on her back in the muck and goose shit, shouting for help. No, she’s just pretending to be an old woman with a head wound and a twisted ankle lying flat on her back in the muck and goose shit, shouting for help. She can stop this at any moment because it isn’t real. If she wanted to, she could blink twice and be back on that horse, its forceful steps vibrating in her knees, and that sound she hears now wouldn’t be the metal of the jon boat scraping against rock as it unsticks itself from the shore and floats away because she didn’t secure it well enough after all, but the rustle of tall grass against an old mare’s forelegs as she carries Nora away from the gathering shadows.
When she gets back to Long Island her mother will make fun of her, call her Annie Oakley, and the whole thing will be cheapened, ruined. She’ll learn to idealize the outdoors, the pastoral life, and when the ex, who isn’t yet her ex, takes her to the country it’ll feel like coming home. For a little while at least. But that hasn’t happened yet. Right now she’s riding, and the golden hour is long and the night is unspooling up ahead and she can’t see its end because there isn’t one and she never, ever has to go home.