Blue was the smiling surface, blue caught the sun, blue was the gleaming glittering summer lake the old folks savored from the porches of their cabins as they sipped their whiskey sours and listened to the baseball game faintly on the radio…
by brian doyle
We never admitted that the lake was terrifying, that it was a dark alluring fearful hole in the world, that it was more grim than it was serene. We never said the word drown. We never confessed to each other that yes, of course we had heard all the stories, and believed every one of them, and believed that pale icy lost corpses lurked in the murky nether reaches of the lake, along with vast predatory pike and who knows what other savageries left over from the Eocene? We never admitted that we tiptoed into the lake not so much because it was cold, which it was, but because we were fearful of what was underfoot, what could snatch and tear and puncture and abrade us. But in we went, seemingly careless and reckless, and diving into the deeper reaches, and opening our eyes beneath the surface and gaping at the endless frigid translucent somber deathly green of it. Blue was the smiling surface, blue caught the sun, blue was the gleaming glittering summer lake the old folks savored from the porches of their cabins as they sipped their whiskey sours and listened to the baseball game faintly on the radio and thought about poker and checkers and dinner, but the real lake was forbidding dour flinty green, with the ghostly bones of dead trees reaching up for you, and the frightened skitter of tiny trout and perch, and on the far shore a stern heron like an exiled assassin, and the flyblown scat of what could only be a bear, and the pawprint of something you hoped was a bobcat but could it be a cougar, couldn’t it be a cougar? Couldn’t it?
The little kids could stay on the lip of the lake, and piddle and patter in the shallows, and dig holes and play with sticks, but the older kids had to fling themselves into the deep, for you could not be scared, you could not be frightened, how hawkishly close we watched each other to see who would be so weak as to be honest about his fear! How wrong it was to be honest, how hard we scrabbled and tore at each other not to be last and least, how frantically we posed as who we were not at all, how avidly we performed roles we cared nothing about, and secretly hated with all our might; how terrified we were of being lonely, how very frightened of that above all else, above all danger, so that we would sprint howling into the deeper water, throw ourselves into it like pale white thin shivering goose-pimpled torpedoes, and come up hooting and laughing, and saying the water’s fine! This is awesome!, while beneath our milling arms and joyous shouts our legs churned desperately to keep us afloat, to keep us on the surface, to keep us from going any deeper.
It was only later, for many of us, most of us, maybe all of us, that we dove down and down into our lakes, and abjured the surface, and dove down to confront fear and pain and despair, and dimly discern how they might be endured with something like grace. All these years later, when someone asks me when I learned to swim, I find myself wanting to say not so long ago, not so very long ago. It took me a long time to learn to leave the surface, and I cling to it still, sometimes, more than I would wish; and it says something deep and real about us, and our capacity to understand each other so deeply that words fail to define or explain what I mean, that you know exactly what I mean when I seem to be talking about lakes.
Brian Doyle was the author of many books, including the sea novel The Plover, which has, no kidding, music printed in it, not to mention Mink River, Martin Marten, The Wet Engine, and more than we can recall. He won the 2017 John Burroughs Medal for distinguished nature writing for Martin Marten, which was plenty cool and much deserved. Brian passed away peacefully at his Lake Oswego home on May 27, 2017.
More, much more, from Brian Doyle can be found in the Vault of Smoke.