Alana I. Capria is the author of the story collection "Wrapped in Red," the novel "Hooks and Slaughterhouse," and the chapbooks "Organ Meat, Killing Me" and "Lilith." She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Capria resides in Northern New Jersey with her husband and rabbit. Her website is http://alanaicapria.com
MOTHER WALKED INTO THE LAKE by Alana I. Capria
Mother walked into the lake. It was a round lake, with gray water that was always smooth, even during the springtime storms. Mother waited until the sky was charcoal. She waited until there was lightning. She stood at the back of the house, just inside the storm door, and she watched the lake. It reflected in her eyes. Her eyes were as gray as the water. She blinked slowly, her eyelids coming together as if in sleep, and then spreading open again. Mother did everything delicately. She scrambled eggs by barely stirring the spoon. She birthed us with the softest of whispers, the laziest of pushes. She slept without a sound or movement. Mother stood inside the back door and then she pushed it open. The latch came undone in her hand. The door swung. The wind caught the crack and pushed it open quickly, slamming the aluminum against the side of the house. The siding broke in several places, the wood interior exposed to the elements. Over time, those cracks could break more as the water got inside, then froze, then thawed. The wood beneath would soften. Termites would eat what was soggy. Mother went into the storm. She walked barefoot through the grass, following the small dirt path down to the lake, which had no fish or frogs or snakes. We watched her from the window and although we called, Mother! Mother!, she walked without looking back. Mother went to the edge of the lake and touched the gray water with her toe. She stirred it slowly. Mother looked like a ballerina, her left leg extended before her, her right leg planted upon the ground. She tested that water for the cold. She brought her left leg back to the grass, then extended her right leg. She touched the water again, feeling the surface, then dipping her foot in more. We pressed our ears to the window glass to try to hear mother breathe. We thought that the rasp of her lungs would be audible above the storm. The water splashed softly. We heard it between breaks in the thunder. The lightning cracked above, splintering the sky into thousands of pieces.
Mother looked up, then looked down. Mother looked directly at the lake. She stepped with her right foot, bringing it down like she would when walking through grass, but the lake was deep. It was a natural lake, one that the house was built up the lawn from, and the bottom was far away. When it was warm, we were allowed to swim in circles around the lake, and despite our pointed toes and best efforts, we never touched the ground there. There was no ground as far as we knew. We dove down to touch the mud but touched nothing. The grass was a ledge and beneath was nothing. Mother stepped into that nothing. Mother stepped far and plunged. When the right leg disappeared, the left leg came forward. Mother fell into the lake. In the midst of the storm, mother plunged. The lake splashed as mother's head came beneath. We waited for mother's head to break the surface. We waited for her to come splashing back into the air, her arms flailing, legs kicking. We waited for her to spit the gray water from her mouth. But mother did nothing. Mother sank down. We saw the top of her head, then we did not see it at all. There was no mother. There was only a lake. The back door opened and father went running into the rain. The rain only started when mother went into the lake. Before that, there was lightning and thunder but the air was dry. Now, father ran through the wild downpour, his eyes wide, back straight, and he ran through the mud and grass. He fell in the grass, tumbled along, and we heard him yelp in pain as his ankle sprained from a bad landing against the ground. Father ran for mother but his running was more of a limp. He limped to the edge of the lake. He threw himself down upon his belly and plunged his arms into the water. He felt around, reaching for her hair, for her hands. We imagined mother alive in that water, her toes still pointed like a ballerina, her arms extended overhead, fingers stretched, waiting to lace with his, her hair streaming around her face like a halo of brown strands, her eyes wide and blinking. Father flailed in the water. He reached and reached. He could not touch the bottom. He tried but the bottom was far past him. Mother was upon that bottom which could not be touched. If mother reached for him, there was too great a distance between their grasping fingers. Father pulled up from the water and fell back in the grass, panting so loudly we heard him through the glass. We knocked on the window to get his attention but the knocks were too soft. We were afraid of breaking the glass with our fists. We rapped so gently. We barely brought our hands to the panes. Father never looked up. He stared at the lake. He heaved himself over the edge, bobbed in the water for a moment, then slipped down. Father dove for mother. He went down deep, combing the water for her. He struggled to seize a piece of her dress or a lock of her hair.
All he needed was a handful of anything. Father tried but mother was too far away. Mother was in that water. Mother was a part of it now. Father came to the surface with a cry, a wail. He thrashed in the water. He made it choppy. He dove again and once more, came up empty-handed. Mother was gone. She was disappeared. Father came out of the water. He walked to the house. He slammed the door. He sat in the dark for a day, and then another a day. We stayed in our room, too afraid to wander the constricting hallways to comfort him.
The house was lonely without mother. We looked for her everywhere. We thought we might find her buried within the walls but there were no holes through which she could climb inside. We peeked in the attic, then the basement. We looked beneath the sink, the dining room table, the living room couch. We opened the front door and looked out at the lawn. We went to the back door and looked towards the lake. We checked all the windows. We tapped on the walls in the hopes she would tap back. But mother was nowhere. We cried her name at night. We begged mother to return to the house. We asked that she take pity on us. We were children and did not know how to cope with a mother's loss. We stood together—the oldest, the middle one, and the youngest—and we spoke about all the ways mother made us happy. Mother made delicious bread. Mother made the perfect steak. Mother knew when to open the windows, when to close them. We never suffered nightmares when mother was near. Mother could create a garden from a florist's bouquet. Mother baked the most delicious chocolate chip cookies. Mother knew how to carve the jack-o'-lanterns so that the faces were especially grotesque in candlelight. Mother stitched our names onto the tags of our clothing, then cut the tags so we would not itch. Mother made large patchwork quilts she lay across our laps during the winter. Mother stoked the fireplace in the living room, then made pumpkin pie and hot chocolate. Mother made father laugh. Mother took photographs of us in which we looked so happy. Mother told us stories about the moon and the sun and the stars, about the galaxy as a whole and what came before. She told us stories about a house very much like this one, a little house with a little family and a little lake, one in which everyone in the house always enjoyed one another's company. Mother made homemade candy canes for Christmas. Mother stuffed the turkey on Thanksgiving. Mother dyed eggs in pastel colors and intricate patterns for Easter. Mother smelled like spun sugar and caramel. Mother smelled like fresh milk. Mother smelled like lavender and honey. When mother laughed, it sounded like tinkling bells. Mother made us feel religion. When she pressed her wrist against our foreheads, we felt blessed. When mother poured water into our glasses at dinner, it was not just water in the cup then. It was blessings. We tasted them as they went down our throats. Each sipped blessing was cold even at room temperature and made us think of autumnal forests and snow-capped mountains. When we had dinner, mother sat at one end of the table, father sat at the other, and we three sat between. Mother served us all. Mother cut thick slices of pork and laid the meat across our plates. She gave us mashed potatoes. She gave us gravy. Mother watched us eat before she took a bite. Mother never needed to adjust her seasonings. The flavors were always perfect.
When we told mother we could not bear to close our eyes, she gave us milk and cookies, then waited in our rooms until we went to sleep. Sometimes she put pillows and blankets in the living room, then tacked a sheet from wall to wall so that it was as though we were lying in a tent. We liked those days the best and mother sat in the tent with us, then went to sleep with father, leaving us in the living room to laugh and point at the sheet ceiling as if we were jabbing our fingers at the stars. Mother knew the names of all the constellations in the sky. During certain times of the year, when it was very hot or very cold, mother woke us in the middle of the night and brought us outside to the lawn so that we could watch the meteors streaking through the dark, their white tails flashing before they fell amongst the silhouettes of pine trees. When mother drowned in the lake, we longed for those days again. We were desperate for them. We cut our thumbs with butter knives and allowed the blood to drip into the kitchen sink. That blood was our young offering. We gave the blood to what might bring mother back. We went to sleep and then woke, hoping mother would be in the kitchen, flipping pancakes and pouring drawn butter. But the kitchen was empty and the stove was cold. There was only our blood spatter at the bottom of the sink, rust-colored now against the metal. We missed our mother but we refused to cry.
We went to the lake into which mother drowned. We asked one another if we saw her hovering at the bottom, her toes barely touching the silt, her hair radiating outward. We thought we saw her shadow. We thought the shadow was to the left, then to the right, then just beneath the bank on which we sat. We stirred the water with our fingers. We plunged our hands in deeper, to the wrists, then to the elbows. As we moved our hands around, we became terrorized by the thought that mother was right there, her body just beyond our reach, and if she wanted, she could grab us and pull us in. We took our hands out of the water and panted. We looked around the yard, staring at the trees bordering the far ends, the house at the top of the hill, the stretch of lawn that went past the lake but was never walked upon. We looked into the water again. We reached once more. We wondered if it was worse that mother pull us down than to never see her again. We did not want to drown but a life without mother was too gray. And so we reached more and more, first to our wrists, then to our elbows, then to our shoulders. We leaned so much that we wet our faces. But we did not touch mother. She did not touch us. We sat at the edge of the lake for some time. We waited for mother's head to break the surface. But the lake water was still. There was no tide. The water did not slosh on its own. We put our feet in the water and kicked. We made little waves that went from one end of the lake to the other, then stilled. We splashed. We took rocks from the dirt and heaved them in. After the first throw, we realized how angry we were. It was unfair that mother left us. We wanted her back. We were not done having a mother. And so we threw the rocks again. We threw harder and harder. As we threw, we began wishing that we might strike her across her head. We watched the water for her dark shadow, for the flash of red blood that would come from her head being cracked open by a stone. We listened for the sharp thumping sound of the rock against bone. Despite the rock striking her through the water, we knew there would be a sound. We were throwing the rocks too hard for there not to be. And we could not stop throwing. We threw until our muscles ached, until our elbows locked and our wrists burned. Our fingers were brown from all the dirt. We bathed them in the lake water. We sighed as the cool water rushed over our skin and washed the dirt away. We looked for more rocks but there were none. The first tears came then, thick and salty. They stained our skin. We rubbed at them aggressively but found we were unable to wipe them away. We cried harder and clung to one another. We cried so much that our tears wet the soil and made mud. How could mother not see how unhappy we were without her? How could she not know we were crying? We were right above her. We knew she was in the water. Just as we knew where she was, she had to know that we were standing on the bank, sobbing over losing her. How could a mother not know? How could she slip into the lake and disappear without thinking once about us? How could she think her death would not matter? We looked back at the house and it seemed larger than before. The windows were narrowed at the top, then spread along the bottoms. The walls gaped and puckered and stretched. The ceiling and roofs peaked. The siding was darker, a deep slate gray that ate the light that touched it. We could only cry for so long before we began thinking that we might be better off heaving ourselves into the lake. Unlike mother, we did not want to slip away. We watched the water a little longer, gave mother a final chance to show herself, then we trudged up the hill to the house, our steps weary and painful. We left the lake alone. We swore we would never go back.
We found mother in the bathtub. The tub was empty. Green weeds were stuck in her hair. Her skin was wrinkled around her throat and mouth. Mother looked straight ahead. We wanted to sit on the edge of the bathtub to be beside her but instead, we sat on the floor, huddled together on the bathmat, which was damp and splotched with dirt. Mother said nothing. Mother fiddled with her fingers. Her wedding ring was loose and she moved it up and down her finger before letting it drop onto the porcelain bottom. Mother seemed cramped in that tub. We wanted to ask mother what the bottom of the lake was like. We wanted to know if the mud was cold. We wanted to know if there were mermaids. We wanted to know if she was afraid while she was submerged. Instead, we remained silent. We watched her, afraid she would lift up from the bathtub and leave. Where mother went after, we would never find out. If she went into the hallway, then she was liable to go anywhere. We might find her beneath a bed or within a closet or residing in the attic space. We kept mother company in the bathroom. We waited for her to reveal secrets of the lake and the storm and herself. We thought we should tell father she was in the bathtub but he was sobbing. He had been sobbing for the last three days and we thought that he might sob forever. His eyes were red and his face inflamed. Grief like that was frightening. If he saw mother, what would happen to him then? And so we kept mother a secret. We sat around the bathtub and watched her sit. Mother laid her head upon the tiled wall and her hair stuck to the grout. The grout was gray like the lake. The gray was a combination of dirt and mildew. Mother was always the one who cleaned the gray from the tiles but this freshly drowned mother seemed unlikely to scrape and scrub and bleach. This mother was more quiet than mother had ever been. This mother looked afraid after being in the lake for so long. Mother touched the wall and her fingers squeaked against the tiles. Mother moved her fingers in a slow circle, tracing patterns on the porcelain, then dropping her hands into her soaked laps. Her fingers were wrinkled at the edges. They had the raisin effect of being submerged for too long. Mother wore a long gray dress that went down to her calves. The dress had long sleeves. When nervous, mother plucked the sleeves and forced the hems over her wrists, then into the palms of her hand, where she held the fabric in her fists, her knuckles barely exposed. Mother was incapable of being warm. She was cold in the lake and afterward. In the bathtub, mother cracked her fingers and the cracking was so loud it exploded.
Our ears hurt. We clapped our hands against them to block the sounds. Mother looked ahead, then to the side. She rolled her gray eyes in our direction. She stared at us. Mother did not smile. Mother did not speak. Mother did not reach for us. Mother's gaze seemed to burn through our faces. We wanted to ask for a goodnight story, for a lullaby but mother had nothing to offer. Her tongue flipped about in her mouth, useless and fuzzy with mold. While looking at us, she took her hair in her hands and wrung the locks out onto the floor. A steady green stream poured from her hair. It collected between the tiles and ran towards us. Only the bathmat prevented the liquid from wetting our skin, from infecting us with whatever algae was infecting mother. We looked at that green and it was like melted crayon wax. We looked at mother and saw the green sheen to her forehead, to her cheeks. This was not the mother who walked into the lake. That mother still stood on the lake bottom, miles beneath the surface. It was a different mother who returned to the house.
The mother who returned from drowning seemed wrong. She stared through us when we spoke. She repeatedly put a finger against her lips and signed for us to fall silent. This mother did not like noise. This mother stood in the kitchen and did not seem to know what to do. This mother touched the forks and knives. She looked in the freezer at the meat. She closed the vegetable door. She sat on the floor and held her head in her hands. This mother cried but there were no tears. This mother made the noises but that was all. She ran her fingers through her hair and removed handfuls of bristled knots she then threw to the floor. The knots collected in the corners of the rooms, adding shadows to the shadows. We told mother we wanted cookies and she looked dumbly at the oven. When mother finally pulled the door open, she peered into the greased metal innards and did not move. We asked her again for cookies. We would be content with any kind. Chocolate chip was our favorite but if mother decided on sugar cookies or oatmeal raisin, we would gladly accept. But this mother just looked into the oven. We prodded her. We said she needed sugar and eggs, milk and flour. Mother pushed her head into the oven. The oven was not on but the aggressiveness with which she thrust her head was alarming. We pulled away from her, suddenly terrified by this woman who seemed unafraid in her wanting of death. Her pallor was off. She seemed waxy, doused in sweat droplets. Mother stared into the oven and did not blink. She did not move. Her back was perfectly bent, the spine flat in its alignment. We asked mother to come away from the oven. We said we did not want the cookies anymore. Instead, we thought it might be nice for her to tell us a story. Mother hummed and the sound was not melodic but grating. It came out of her throat with a vibrating quality, quavering on the same note until she swallowed. Mother stepped back from the oven and sat on the floor again. We asked her to tell us one of her stories from the time before, a story about when the sun was young and human beings crawled free of the flames to set their feet upon the earth. Mother tried to speak. We saw the effort she made. But her jaws creaked. When the words finally came, they were halting and staggered. She said one word, then groaned. She said another word but it did not make sense with the first. When she spoke, the sound was like gargled rocks. She was clearly in pain. She stomped her feet on the floor. She whined and the sound was high-pitched. She scratched her nails against the floor tiles. Mother could tell us nothing. She would never speak to us about the great galaxies again. And so we thought that if her voice did not work properly, then perhaps mother might be able to still gesture at those things she wished to say. We went to the window and pointed at the objects beyond the glass. We waved for mother's attention. We told her to look. We said we wanted to know the names of those stars in the sky. The stars were large and pulsing. They cast down their soft light and the lake reflected the light back. The lake looked like the sky and the sky looked like the lake and mother looked longingly at both. And again, mother proved that she was no longer the same woman who birthed and raised us. She touched the glass but it was with a heaviness in her hands. She seemed to want to punch the panes out. Mother grunted and went to strike the window with her head. She stopped before her skin touched the glass. Mother stepped away. She went to the back door and rattled the knob. She made loud sobbing sounds as she pulled. We knew mother wanted to be let out in the dark. She wanted to stumble her way back to the lake. Mother wanted to sink down into the wetness and drown. She wanted to drift to the silt-strewn bottom, to bury herself in mud. But we would not let her go. The youngest of us pushed a chair beneath the door. The middle one stood between mother and the chair. The oldest took hold of mother's wrist and pulled her back. We three kept her from breaking through the wood. It was very late at night and we were tired. We feared that mother might return to the lake if we slept. And so we stayed awake in the kitchen, guarding mother and the door. We would not allow the door to open, nor would we let mother get close. When morning came, there was a pinkish tinge to her cheeks. Mother left the kitchen. She walked laps around the house and wherever she went, we heard a creaking.
In the midst of a storm, mother went down to the lake and drowned herself. We did not know why. We did not hear her slam the kitchen door. We did not see her slip into the water. But when we finally looked outside, we saw her hair sinking and knew what had been done. The water in the house was often contaminated by the lake. Too often, we turned the taps and green water came pouring out into the sink basin. Father purchased many gallons of bleach and took to scrubbing whatever the green touched. There was green algae and green moss. There was green upon our pillows and in the carpeting. Father took a brush and a sponge and he scrubbed until his hands bled but none of that scrubbing made any difference. The green stayed. The water was still dirty. We filled our glasses with the sink water, then held the glasses to the kitchen light so that we could see what little things swam in that seemingly clear water. We saw little worms and branches of bacteria. There were other filaments, microscopic plants, little colonies of pseudo-viruses. When mother returned from her drowning, those watery things grew in her hair. She twisted her hair into knots around her fingers and wrung the liquid out but the little pieces stayed. They needed to be brushed out and mother did not have the patience to take a comb to her hair. She made father do the brushing. They sat in the living room together and he brushed her hair over and over, the comb's teeth catching little knots and burrs. Each time the teeth caught, father yanked the comb too hard, causing mother's hair to rip. Mother collected those broken pieces between her fingers, then rolled them into balls. She threw the hair balls around the living room. There were hair balls in the corners and tucked into the rug. There were little hairs beneath the couch cushions and underneath the couch itself. If we looked anywhere, the hairs were right there. We could not sweep them up or else they would tangle in the broom's bristles. We could not vacuum the hairs or else the air filter would become blocked. We would not pick the hairs up with our fingers because we knew the strands would feel scaly. After the brushing, mother ate her hairs. She crawled around the living room, pulling her hairs out of various tucked-in places, then dropping them onto her stomach. She ate quickly, her lips slapping together noiselessly, and we grimaced as her throat bulged with swallow. Sometimes mother's hair looked more brown than green. Sometimes mother looked more like herself in the time before the drowning. She seemed to glow but that glowing was always short-lived. It went from white to green. It was that greenish tinge that made us uncomfortable. There was a time when everything mother touched was smeared with green and algae, but then that greenery faded. Mother looked at the lake. She wanted to return to the water. But we would not let mother leave the kitchen. We begged mother to be like the mother she was before. We begged her to be a better mother. It did not matter how much we asked, mother would not listen. Mother had no interest in maternity. Mother wanted to drown in and stay beneath that water. We thought to ask mother how she came out of the lake after drowning but she was incapable of explaining. The words grew tangled in her mouth. She tried, then spit. None of the words made sense and we forgot them as quickly as she finished whispering. We told mother she could not go back to the lake. We said no one was allowed to see the water anymore. Father spoke of putting a fence around the lake but he only had so much material he could use. A fence a few feet tall would not stop mother. She could bump against it with her waist, then tip over the top, plopping on the other side where the lake was waiting. All father could do was hope that mother would not go back to the water. She was an adult. If she did not want to drown, then she needed to stay out of the lake. It occurred to us that we did not know if mother knew how to swim. We thought she did but the only way to test that was to let her into the lake. If she went to the lake without us and the end result was that she did not know how to swim, who would save her from drowning then? We would not go to the lake with her for fear mother might decide to drown us. Mother thought it would be like poetry, to have the children and mother drown in the same place. We wondered if it was better that mother drowned and stayed drowned. We did not ask that aloud. In certain light, when mother turned her head, we saw the green strings still stuck to the sides of her head. She scratched at them but they clung as a leathery plaque.
Mother she walked into the lake, then came out again. It was simply her way. She sank to the bottom like a stone and rested there awhile, rolling in the mud. It was cold and clammy and brown. Mother looked up but could not see the sun. It was fogged over. What was yellow became a faint brown. Mother held her breath. Mother felt that she would never have to breathe again. Her lungs were soft and plump. She was glad to be beneath the water. But then mother rose up. She stood on her tiptoes and floated. She moved from the murkiness to the lighter waters. The water warmed as she lifted. Mother went up and up and up. Her head broke the surface. She did not see us standing at the topmost window of the house, watching her head rise above the water. Mother climbed onto the bank. Mother crawled through the wet. She was sopping. In this way, she moved across the lawn, her belly scraping in the dirt. The kitchen door was already open. She crawled through and lay before the oven. Lake water puddles collected on the kitchen floor. Mother was barefoot. Her clothing was soggy. Mother lay on the tiles. Half of the tiles were gone, patched over with thick layers of uneven plaster. The plaster created a thin floor that was best not to walk upon. And so mother lay to the side of that gone hole. If she rolled onto the plaster, the hole would reopen, and mother would drop into the basement. We came down the stairs, the oldest, the middle one, and the youngest. We stood in the hallway outside of the kitchen. We looked upon mother. We watched her pant onto the plaster. We stepped across the threshold and mother lifted slightly. She waved her hands in our direction, gesturing for us to move away. We whispered but mother put a finger to her lips. She shushed us softly. Mother wanted complete silence. Mother wanted to rest awhile. We stood as long as mother lay. When she finally stood, she crossed the kitchen floor and opened the oven. Mother turned the gas on. She waited for the fire to start. When the flame ignited and ran across the oven top, she draped her skirt over the oven door. Mother cooked her dress in the heat. The fabric crinkled and cracked as the water dried up. Mother leaned into the oven and inhaled. She breathed the gas in deep, then pulled back. Mother slammed the oven shut. She turned on all the stovetop burners and let the flames lick air for a time. Her hands hovered above the blue until the smoke left charcoal smears on her palms. She pulled her hand back and showed us the smolder marks. Mother sank to the floor. She bumped her head against the cabinets as she fell. Then she dropped onto her back. Mother said she wanted to return to the lake. She wanted to sink down to the bottom and bury herself in the mud. She said the mud would be her burial crypt. She did not mind the feeling of mud sliding into her nostrils and mouth. The mud would coat her throat. She would grow cold in the drowning. She would sink and once the water filled her, she would float on her back. She said we could poke her with sticks while she floated. She said it would be a wonderful game for us to play. We could poke and poke and poke until we finally poked a hole through her side. The water would flow through. It would fill her cavities. She would be buoyant for a time but eventually, the water's weight would become more than her. Mother would sink. She would become one with the lake. If we swam and touched the bottom, our feet would squish against her. Then we would step on mother.