Maude Thurman had never prayed in her life and she wasn’t about to start. Walter Lyon could chat with the clouds all he wanted, like a God would care if Walter built another subdivision or not. In fact, if Maude would consider praying for anything it would be that a hole would open up under this lake and it would drain like a bath tub when the stopper is pulled.
That was a good thought. Fish flopping in the mud. All those houses and barns the water had covered up rising again into the air. The old landscape returning and the river flowing again under the cliffs across the way.
She would miss her visitor. Actually she didn’t know if the visitor was singular or plural. It was usually dark so she couldn’t see “him” or “them.” The sound of the water being moved could be a “them.” But he was part of the lake and she’d let him go if she could be shed of the weight of all that water.
But the lake wasn’t going anywhere. One of the things that Maude did best was face facts and that was a fact—the lake was here to stay. Too many people like Walter had way too much invested to let anything happen to the lake.
For a moment she remembered the tug of the river when she and Tanner waded there in the late afternoon. A river is a living thing, she thought. It has moods and changes its look. It can be angry. It can dwindle and seem lovelorn, wistful. They killed her river, drowned it, to make this lake.
Down on one knee, elbow propped on the other knee, his forehead in his hand, Walter Lyon prayed. He prayed that all his actions in the coming day would glorify the Lord. He prayed all his crews would be safe and no one would be injured on the job. He asked for the machines to run smoothly and the work to go well. The Lord had his hand on everything in the world so nothing was out of bounds in terms of prayer.
This was Walter’s favorite time of day—the sun coming up in a pink smear on the horizon, the cardinals and wrens offering their liquid notes, a mourning dove cooing.
Walter rose, a little stiffly. The knee he had been kneeling on made a gravelly complaint. A touch of arthritis, he thought. But the Lord gave us nothing we could not bear. And he was 55, time for a few aches and pains.
From his deck, he surveyed the green expanse of this backyard. His was the point lot which meant he had an unobstructed view of the lake. Its surface was placid this morning, a gray-green sheen that looked solid enough to walk on. The Lord had blessed Walter with this house and with the talents to run his company and be steward of his earnings. He was thankful for that.
He glanced across the cove to the brushy peninsula. He owned most of the land he could see, but Maude Thurman owned the land at the front, the part that connected the property to the mainland. Without her land, he could not develop the second part of Greenwood Commons. He took one more look at the lake, now red with the light of the rising sun. He thanked God and added a plea that Maude would be moved to accept his generous offer for her land.
If you had asked around the town of Franklinton, you would have been told that Maude Thurman was no singer. Her reputation was of no-nonsense practicality. She was one for facing facts. She had never even been heard to hum.
But as is often the case, the town’s folk did not know the all of this citizen. Maude Thurman did sing, just not within earshot of anyone else.
In fact, the only other soul who had ever heard her lilting expressive voice was her late husband Tanner. On their evening walks to the river, she would croon. She would warble. She would unspool a sad ballad to drift over the river and the last notes would linger beneath the damp mossy rocks of the cliffs where the river’s path cut its deepest route.
Tanner’s hand would touch the small of her back as they walked and each word seemed to him not expressed but plucked from the air where it had been waiting for Maude to find it. Back then, her straight dark hair reached almost to where his hand rested. Her back was straight, her shoulders held back. She nearly floated with the song.
This would stun the town’s citizens to know, and it was the secret Maude leaned on. It glowed for her when all else was plain and not worth mentioning. She now kept her gray hair cut short, but when she came to the lake’s dark bank and let go with her singing, she could feel her long black hair sweep again against her back. She could feel Tanner’s hand there and hear his approving sigh. It was this singing that drew her visitor, and though she could not see it, she felt its passing like the shadow of a cloud.
When Walter saw the buzzard perched on the carcass of the deer, his mood darkened. It reminded him of Villa Mollipongo. There were carrion birds always around there, picking through the things the villagers tossed behind their mud-brick huts. Not that there was ever much to find.
He pulled his pick-up to the side of the road and watched the black bird.
The nurse who had come through earlier in the week hadn’t been able to do much for the boy. He lay on his straw mat and moaned. The flies stayed after him. It was exactly like the movie the missionary had shown to Walter’s prayer group when he signed up for the mission. Sickly little children, dirty, hungry, plagued with flies.
Walter had prayed. For two days he’d barely left the boy’s side. At first he’d tried to keep the chickens shooed from the sweltering house. He figured just from a sanitation point of view that had to be better. But after a while he no longer noticed them perched in the screenless windows or scratching at the dirt floor. He sat on the floor beside the boy. The mother went on about her business, baking the flat bread in the little dome outdoor oven. It was as if she’d already given this child up. But Walter immersed himself in his praying, and the sounds of the other missionaries’ hammers as they worked on the school seemed far off. Time evaporated and he drifted through the days, concentrating on the boy.
He prayed for the boy’s strength. He gave him sips of water, little bites of chocolate, just slivers. The boy’s eyes brimmed, gray-green like the surface of the lake.
On the third day, morning or afternoon, Walter didn’t know, but he felt it. It was like the stirring before a rain. A shift in the air. The boy opened his eyes. He clenched and relaxed his fist and then he sat up. Walter remembered there were dogs barking, moving off out of the village as though trailing something. The boy rallied, grew stronger. Walter had done it. It was his attention.
He watched the buzzard peck at the eye of the swollen deer. My true calling is not building houses, he thought. But it’s what I have to do for now.
Sundays the lake buzzed. It hadn’t at first. It took nearly a year for the water to back up after the dam was sealed. The power company had shaved the ground in what would be the shallower parts, but in the depths they had left everything. Trees. Houses. Barns. Roadbeds. People’s whole lives sank.
Now divers regularly checked the dam, the part under water. At the bottom, where the turbines spewed a chum of mangled fish and algae, they said catfish had grown huge. “Big as Buicks,” the divers said.
Tanner had bought an old flat-bottom boat early on. Sunday afternoons after he got back from church, he and Maude would row around. It was peaceful then. They drifted through the bare canopies of the dead trees as the water was rising. “We are in what used to be the sky,” Tanner would say. Tanner was not a proficient boatman. A farmer, a stranger to large bodies of water, he sent the little boat in many random circles. He worked the oars like awkward crutches. But he and Maude laughed at the clumsy rides. It was only the two of them in this pasture of water. After their week of work, this was play. Maude trailed her hand in the cool water. She sang.
Now the boats had come. The pontoons puttering. The ski boats hammering their hulls against the waves they caused. And worst of all the jet skis, those angry hornets of water craft, their sound a cross between a growl and a whine. It was the most annoying noise Maude had ever heard. She often thought, this is what it must sound like to God’s ear, all the people of the world with their beseeching prayers.
The men in Walter’s construction crews answered to names like Tank, Cathead (a man with an unusually small, triangular head), Sixpack (an extremely large belly testifying to a love of malt beverage), Skillet, Slim (unimaginative but accurate), Some Time (very imaginative and metaphysical), Nuddin (as in “When you pass that drink cooler, get me a nuddin”), Gully Dirt or Dirt for short, Pee Wee, Shank, Peanut, Brownie and a number of others--sometimes obvious, sometimes (as in Some Time) mysterious and elusive.
Becoming more frequent were nicknames like Mexico, Heysue (as the other men pronounced it) and One (again pronunciation). These men were mostly silent hard workers who occasionally had trouble understanding the job they were to do. But once they comprehended they were good hands.
Walter tried to keep an open mind about these workers because they were steady and uncomplaining, but he knew that many were Catholic and that troubled him. He did not like the idea that his wages would be tithed to the Pope. Or at least to a church full of frim-fram and smoke and that seemed to think as much of a woman (Mary) as of the Lord Jesus Christ. He didn’t want to knock anyone who worshipped Jesus, but he worried just the same.
And as for his part, it was Walter’s policy to call every man by his given name. The Hispanics he sometimes had trouble with and would have to have the man repeat the name a number of times, but with the others it was James or John or Dan or Paul, never the nickname. It was a matter of respect and encouraging professionalism, he felt.
The Lake. That’s what everyone called it. Five-hundred-mile shore line. The Lake. The name was James Mountain Lake for the mountain which buttressed one side of the dam. But it was just The Lake.
Before the dam was sealed, the Harkin and Nottley Rivers flowed past tobacco and cattle farms, and people like Maude and Tanner and Tank and Cathead worked on those farms, getting by mostly. There was a textile mill in town and a small furniture mill. Some worked at those places. What there was to speak of was family and work and weather and church, Baptist or Methodist. Tanner was a Methodist. Maude, odd duck, was neither. Church was for people who were afraid of dying, Maude had told Tanner in their final discussion on the subject. They had, silently, agreed to disagree. It had worked for them.
But The Lake changed things. Brought in new people. New ideas. Even changed locals who had lived here all their lives. When it began to fill, a few men, Walter Lyon (a Baptist) and others, started buying land. They had studied the power company’s maps. They knew where the shoreline would be. They realized what a shoreline was worth. A shoreline would turn a farmed-out tobacco field into a subdivision of quarter-acre lots, expensive quarter-acre lots. They said they were paying top dollar. What they really paid was next-to-nothing because most people didn’t realize what was about to happen. The farmers didn’t know that you could harvest a view and leisure and retirement. They knew daily work, six days, and church on Sunday and sitting under a shade tree Sunday afternoon. Walter Lyon knew something else. It was one of his God-given talents and he praised Jesus for it.
Maude pinned her sheets to the clothesline. She wore her uniform—capri jeans, her garden sneakers and one of Tanner’s khaki work shirts, big on her but comfortable. Comfort far outweighed fashion in Maude’s book.
Her sheets billowed and rippled. They were her banners, her battle flags. They could be seen across the cove from the decks of the houses in Greenwood Commons, where clotheslines were prohibited by covenant. Walter Lyon knew better than that, she thought. He had grown up here, before the lake, when every house had a clothesline and the sun dried their clothes in its own good time.
The lake had changed time. In its depths, time went on in the old way. In those deep currents, sheets billowed beside houses whose rooms sang with the dark and the depth.
Walter Lyon had traded time for money. Maude hung her freshly washed underwear modestly behind the sheets as her mother had taught her.
“Times change, Maude.”
“Not much for me.”
“You think you have to tell me that?”
“Aren’t you lonesome out here? You could be in town.”
“If I wanted town, I’d of had it a long time ago.”
“What do you do?”
“But you don’t use the lake.”
“Boating. Fishing. Even looking.”
“Is use your only measure?”
“I’m providing work, wages. The textile mill is closing. One more development and I can do the work the Lord wants me to do.”
“It’s nice to know what the Lord has in mind.”
“You can discern it through prayer.”
“Try it. Pray about what I’m offering you.”
The payments on the loan Walter had taken to purchase the land adjacent to Maude Thurman’s were starting to pinch. He needed to get started on some houses or he was going to get caught short. She was just being contrary.
Walter did what he made it his policy to do in these situations. Down on one knee in his early morning devotions, he thought, “Sometimes I just need to turn things over to you, Lord. Sometimes I just have to put it in Your Hands. Sometimes you just have to let go and let You work your will.”
James Reynolds was called Some Time by everyone except immediate family and, of course, Walter Lyon.
After the morning prayer with his crews, which was the way Walter began every work day (James called it “the sermon” behind Walter’s back), Walter took James aside. In addition to being Walter’s employee (he was one of Walter’s best framers), James was Maude Thurman’s beloved nephew, only child of her only sister and like a son to childless Maude. In all likelihood James would inherit a large sum of money when Maude passed on, if she would ever sell the land to Walter.
Walter made mention of this to James. He also made mention that unless he soon got the land and could start another lakeside subdivision he might have to start laying off workers. He would hate to do that, he truly would. In fact, since things were a little slow that day, why didn’t James take the day off, with pay of course, and go see his aunt.
When Some Time rounded the corner of his aunt’s white clapboard house, he saw that she was standing at the lake’s edge, some hundred yards away. Early morning fog still drifted on the water’s surface which made it seem that his aunt was not still but was floating out over the water’s surface. And much to Some Time’s disbelieving ears, it sounded like she was singing. Just then Some Time heard, the fog prevented his seeing, what sounded like a whole school of striped bass roil the water.
A lake is a stage, a horizontal surface upon which actors—pleasure boaters, skiers, swimmers, fishermen, paddle boaters, pontooners—can go about a variety of scripts. Though the surface of the stage seems unadorned by any props other than the ones the actors might bring, beneath the surface can be any number of hidden, sunken, drowned elements that might, at some point, exert their influence on what happens on the surface.
Maude Thurman would not abide having her family threatened, especially her James.
Walter had always initiated the contact. But now he had been summoned. It peeved him a bit, the one-line sentence on his answering machine—“You need to come by and see me.” She just assumed he would catch her voice and know who it was. He tried to put away that needling bit of anger.
Before he got out of the truck, he saw that she was sitting on the porch in a wicker chair, her hands resting on the arms of the chair. She was rigid as a judge. Did she only have one set of clothes? The calf-length jeans, the old work shirt. She was always clean, even starched-looking, and her gray hair cut sensibly short, but always the same get-up.
“Good morning,” he said, all pleasantness as he walked across the front yard. “It’s a beautiful day the Lord has made.”
She made no reply, just watched him climb the four concrete stairs to the porch. To Walter’s surprise, there was a Bible on the wicker table beside her chair.
“I didn’t take you for a Bible reader,” he said, hitching up his khakis.
“Not,” she said. “A Bible has many uses.”
“Yes, yes, it does,” he said hopefully. This might go better than he’d expected, he thought.
“You’ve told your men that you have the power to heal, James told me.”
He liked that she called him James as he did.
“Well, I’ve told them what happened to me on my mission trip. I believe I made a difference.”
“You believe you healed that little boy?”
“I believe the Lord did, through my intercession.” He tucked his hands in his pockets up to the knuckles. Where was she going with this?
“I believe you better stick to building houses.”
“Well, I’d like to do that too. But I need something from you before I can start the next development.”
She leaned forward in her chair. The wicker creaked and her blue eyes brightened. Even at her age, she could still make them burn.
“I’ll sell,” she said. “But there’s a condition.”
“What would that be?” He took his hands from his pockets and started to fold his arms across his chest but thought better of that body language.
“I’ll sell you the land if you promise you won’t go on any more of those mission trips.”
He ran the back of his left hand across his mouth. He wasn’t sure he’d heard right.
“What does...” he began.
“I won’t have the profit from my land being put to brainwashing poor people in foreign lands. And then coming back here to prattle about saving people. Next thing you’ll be telling us that you can walk across that water down there.”
“I didn’t say it was me. I said it was through me.”
Walter flushed. His anger was rising at this scolding. She didn’t know what was in his heart.
She picked up the Bible from the table and held it out towards Walter.
“Here, put your hand on this.”
It had occurred to Maude as she walked through her backyard that if she took the boat out on the water, to anyone watching from land she would disappear into the lake’s darkness. No one would be watching, but she liked the idea.
Maude lifted one side of the flat bottom boat. When she got it up on its side she gave it a shove and let it plop down on its own. It sounded like a man getting the wind knocked out of him. Which, to her satisfaction, is what Walter Lyon had sounded like when he put his hand on the Bible.
The oars made an X where they lay. They had been under the overturned boat. With the toe of one shoe Maude pushed at the heel of the other. Then her bare toes slid the remaining shoe off. The cool earth of the bank felt good. She remembered as a girl she was barefoot all summer. And she remembered floating with Tanner. This might be the last time.
By nudges and grunts she got the boat to the water. The oars bonged on the boat’s bottom when she dropped them in.
She worked the boat out until it floated free. Then she swung a leg over the gunwale and sank heavily onto the bench seat. The landing was a little rougher than she had intended, but overall getting the boat in the water had been easier than she anticipated. She pulled the oars, one at a time, into the oarlocks, but rowing was awkward. Tanner had always done the rowing. At first, she only managed to send the boat spinning. After a bit, she figured out how to pull so that the little boat would move in the direction she wanted, which was out on the dark lake.
At night, the lake became a changed place. All the buzz of the day was gone. Occasionally, a fishing boat would putter by, trolling. In a motorboat, you had to take it easy on the lake at night. You couldn’t tell distances. The shoreline melded with the waterline. You could be slammed into a steep bank before you knew it.
Her strokes became smoother. The hull glopped and blucked against the water as she pushed the boat on. A cloudy night, no moon or stars. She could barely separate the treeline from the sky. She was suspended in the old sky, what had been the sky before the lake was here.
She tucked the oars inside the boat. She listened. There was only the soft kissing sound of a few ripples reaching the boat.
She hadn’t known she was going to do this, but she stood up. The boat rocked and she quickly put out her hands to help her balance. The boat steadied, but she could feel it give. It was tippy, thrilling.
This part she had planned: out in the dark, held up, invisible, she began to sing. It was an old ballad, one of Tanner’s favorites, about a young woman so bereft at the tragic loss of her young lover, killed in a hunting accident, that she runs into the winter woods and plunges to her own doom in an icy pool beneath a waterfall. She sang to Tanner.
Water carries sound, it holds it up and like a current moves it along without diminishment. It passes it along and gives it timbre. The surface of the water is like a drum skin and on it Maude’s song rained a sweet vibration and called to what her song always called to in the lake.
Blameless are the creatures of the water. They eat. They rest. They bump and sniff and feel. In the bones of their head they can feel the angel music of the spheres. If they are large, very large, and bump a small boat, it is likely to spill.
Like Tanner, Maude was no swimmer. Never had occasion to learn. Splashing in a creek or knee deep in the river was enough to cool off and give the skin the joy of summer water.
For a moment, Maude was still. She opened her eyes which she had automatically shut when she began to fall. She could see nothing in the black of the nighttime lake. Then she heard a voice inside her head—she heard it say the word “breathe.” She thrashed her arms and legs. Her work shirt felt like a blanket weighing her down. She reached the surface and grabbed. There was nothing there. She flailed. Everything, her shirt, her jeans, even her hair seemed heavy. The water wanted her. When her kicks and splashes brought her to the surface, her gasps sounded like they were coming from someone else and when her right hand found the side of the boat it was as if the gunwale edge had been handed to her. She latched on with both hands. She couldn’t pull herself back into the boat which had remained upright after dumping her. She calmed a bit. She breathed in and then let the breath go. She could hold on. She could do that. She hung on the side of the boat, again suspended. As she drifted in the quiet of the lake, she heard what she had been saying in the water. She had not said it out loud, but she had said it none the less. Over and over. “Please, God, Please.”
Walter was about to go down on one knee for his morning prayers. He intended to go to the Lord with a question. A question about Maude Thurman and her mean bargain. But before he knelt on his back deck, he glanced at the lake and saw the little boat. It was Maude and Tanner’s boat, drifting out in the middle of the lake, half-way to the cliffs. He looked to Maude’s peninsula, the twin of his Greenwood Commons. Her old-style farm house waited for demolition. He felt a twinge of delight thinking of that and then immediately felt sorry. He had just been about to pray. Maybe he would renovate it. Make it the clubhouse of the subdivision. Call the place Tobacco Landing.
The little boat seemed forlorn. Could he win points with Maude by retrieving it? Worth a try and easy enough. He got the key to his Chris-Craft. He watched bass fingerlings dart in the shallows as the lift lowered his boat into the water. The lift straps relaxed in the water and the boat floated free. The engine caught and rumbled, and he eased it out from the dock. He kept it slow, no wake as the subdivision covenant demanded. People were always looking to catch him breaking one of the rules.
He got past the no-wake boundary and goosed the engine. The boat’s nose rose and then leveled off. It wasn’t far and he backed off the throttle to let the momentum take him in close. Was that singing he heard?
The sight of a bedraggled woman clinging to the side of a boat is startling, startling to the point of disbelief. In reflex, Walter checked his watch, as if that would assure him he wasn’t seeing things. If the person clinging to the boat is someone you were just getting ready to talk to God about, the feeling of free-fall is dizzying.
“Maude, Maude,” was all Walter could say as he brought his big boat along side the small flat-bottom. Maude made no reply. He cut the engine and lunged over the side of the boat, hooking his feet under the driver’s seat. He got hold of Maude’s scrawny forearm, but she was locked onto the flat-bottom. “Maude, let go. I’ve got you,” he said almost in a whisper. Was this really happening?
In a scratchy voice she said, “I went for a swim.”
“You don’t’ seem to be doing much swimming now,” Walter replied. He was reassured with that comeback. It gave him a little footing in this bizarre scene.
“I reckon not,” Maude said.
Finally, she released her grip and grabbed on to Walter’s arms. He pulled her to him and got the lower half of his body back in his boat. Then he worked her along the side until he could get her to the back where the ladder was. All the while he muttered little comforting phrases. “It’s Ok. You’re going to be alright.” He helped her up the ladder. Her khaki shirt clung to her skinny frame and her arms trembled as she pulled herself up with Walter’s help. She was drained of color, almost gray. She looked frail and thin as a wet cat. He eased her down on the back bench seat and then began checking the compartments beneath the other seats for a towel. He found a thick beach towel and draped it around Maude’s shoulders.
“What...” he began but Maude cut him off.
“I fell out.”
“When, this moring?”
“No, last night. Been there all night.”
“You kidding? Are you hurt? Is everything...”
Again she broke in.
“Yes, everything is.” She was getting a little color back in her cheeks and taking on confidence.
Walter sat down on the side bench seat. He studied Maude. She had doubled the towel across her chest, hugging herself.
“You’re lucky to be alive.”
“You’re right about that.”
“What did you do all night?”
“I held on.”
“I mean, how did you...it was hours?”
“I know. A couple times I tried to pull up and get back in the boat, but I decided it was better just to hold on.”
Walter could think of nothing else to say. He rose and went to the side where he could reach Maude’s boat. He pulled it to the back cleat and tied it with his docking rope. Maude didn’t have a dock so he’d have to take her back to his house and drive her around to hers.
Back at his place, he got her another drier towel and settled her in his car. He didn’t want to make her have to climb up in his pick-up.
“Listen,” she said as they backed out of his driveway. Walter turned to look at her. Her frazzled gray hair stood out all around her head like a halo. Her clothes were still damp but her hair, she must have held it out of the water all night, was wild but dry.
“I want to change our deal,” she said.
“Our deal?” For a moment, he thought she meant about him taking her home.
“Yes, about the land and the mission trips.”
Walter nodded, looked back to the street.
“So go on the trips,” Maude said. “Just don’t tell anybody what happens there.”
“But witnessing is....”
“If it’s in you, people will see,” she said.
Walter grunted involuntarily. He looked at her again. It was like she had poked him in the ribs with a stick. She drew the towel tighter around herself and looked straight ahead.
“Just do it and leave it at that,” she said to the windshield.
They drove for a moment in silence and then, to Walter’s amazement, Maude began to hum.