Out Here by the Lake

Pamela Hill NettletonEssaysLeave a Comment

OUT HERE BY THE LAKE it is black, blackest in the places where the sky and water meet and blend and blur into a single, smudged, and near unending charcoal line, drawn inexpertly and redrawn over and over itself.

Out here by the lake the stones grind to rock and then to sand and on to grit that turns back to grinding stone again. Pounded by mere water, made silt by sheer persistence, the rocks of gray and brown crack, then halve, then shed and shed and shed until they have wasted away, anorexic in the face of ages. Such patience the water has, such resistance to the presence of the shore.

Out here by the lake only the shore seems cleanly arced, protracted at a distance, remote as pure perfection. Where water and world meet underfoot and up ahead, the joints and edges are not easy to predict or understand—they curve here, retreat there, head out to deeper waters, cut back into the land—and they reinvent themselves tomorrow.

Out here at sunrise, the shadows move from black to gray to that flat, uncolored tone that is the lake before the dawn. It is sometimes long fingers creeping over the horizon, the dawn, but it is sometimes melting butter, too, weakly yellow and spread thicker here than there, an uneven blanket on a lumpy bed. Sometimes the light is frigid and she rejects the water, shrugs it away, refuses to touch it, and the sky keeps all the light to itself while the water stays gray, stays gray, stays gray.

Out here in the morning, the lake talks and sings and all the noisemakers are visible and can be explained: the loons, the boats, the dock, the buoys.

It holds its peace, the lake by day, and lets the things living all around it lead the conversation. It is keeping its own counsel, the lake is, waiting for its chance.

Out here in the evening, the lake and light are coy no longer. They have stopped their dancing, the back and forth of flirting, and they open to each other until there is no difference between them. The sky comes down, comes down, comes down into the water and the water never moves and never hurries but still it finds a way to show the sky itself and even more.

Out here in the darkness, the lake talks and sings and groans and sighs in language too intimate for mere mortals to interpret. It must be for whales or giant, mutant fish or far-off space stations, this watery sound, these grieving, rocking noises of sea and wind. It is like listening at the keyhole, to walk out here some nights. The sound is brave but it makes the listener a coward, an eavesdropper, a trespasser who has wandered off the path.

Out here in the winter, the lake is a magician. It transforms itself into new elements, becomes water to be walked on, pushes its hardened self up onto the shore in cracked sheets and towers sharp as knives, loud as whips.

It makes itself into mist and fog, lifts itself like spirits into the air and swirls in a cloak of its own making, delighted to have feet. It is a chameleon, this lake that spends its summers gray and green. It frosts itself in thick slices of blue sheet cake, ices it in silver, and hides beneath, gravid and uneasy. It lays its traps, this lake, turning solid only as far as can be seen from shore, furtive and guarded over open water, lying still as tombs, flat as abandoned hope. It is miserly, this lake, pinching the pennies of its warmth and waiting, waiting, waiting, remembering the summer.

Out here in the winter, the lake is a companion, unafraid of wind and unthreatened in the darkness.

Out here by the lake, it is black along the beach shore, the edges dried and solid, the depths untried and true.

Out here by the lake, the stars send out their signals, the lake stretches up to listen, its ears swimming in the deep. Out here by the lake, the moon is dressed in hand-me-downs, lace tearing and unfurled.

Out here in the winter, the lake makes its resolutions. And keeps them to itself.

This first appeared in Minnesota Monthly, January, 2003. Read it here.

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