Lady in the Lake
Coot pushed the johnboat into the lake. He looked back at Diane with a frown.
Diane bit her lip as she twisted her braid.
“I don’t know about this,” she said.
“You gotta come now,” he said. “I’m gonna get an ass whupping when daddy finds out I took his boat. I ain’t getting one for nothing.”
Diane looked left to right like somebody was watching.
“You sure they gonna be there?”
“Been there every day so far. Ain’t no reason for them not to be there today.”
“You ain’t just telling me this to get me in the boat with you, are you?”
“Shoot girl! I ain’t studdin’ you like that. We friends.”
Diane knew that. Coot was like a brother. She was just looking for an excuse to say no.
“Come on now!” Coot said.
Diane sighed. She rolled up her jeans to her knees and climbed into the johnboat. It wasn’t that she was scared of the water. She loved it. She went swimming at the Sand Hills rec center almost every day during the summer. Sometimes she would sneak down to the lake with her swimsuit and swim. She loved the lake water better. It was natural and alive, touching her skin as if she belonged there. Sometimes Coot would swim with her, but not long. He was always scared a water moccasin or snapping turtle would bite him. But she wasn’t afraid.
Diane grabbed a paddle and they rowed together to the middle of the lake.
“What you doing way out here?” she asked Coot. “Bass don’t bite out here.”
“Catfish do,” Coot said. “At least the big ones.”
“You don’t like catfish,” Diane said.
“Damn sure don’t,” Coot said. “But grandma do.”
Coot reached into his pocket and pulled out a handful of dark purple round objects.
“Them muscadines?” Diane asked.
“Give me some!”
“Un uh. This is for the lake people.”
Diane’s eyes went wide. “They like muscadines?”
“Sh’oll do,” Coot said. “Watch.”
“Can I have at least one?”
Coot looked at Diane and grinned. He handed her two then popped one in his mouth before dropping another one into the water.
“Come see!” he said.
Diane and Coot watched the muscadine swirl downward. Diane gripped the side of the johnboat while she chewed the pungent, sweet fruit.
“Ain’t nothing happening,” she said.
“Just wait. It’s almost deep enough,” Coot said.
The wild grape was almost invisible when a hand reached out and grabbed it.
Diane sat straight up, her mouth so wide the half chewed muscadine fell out into the boat. Coot smiled triumphantly.
“Told you,” he said.
“Give me another one!” Diane said.
Coot dropped the muscadine into her palm. Diane tossed it over the side then waited. This time the grape was only halfway down before the hand appeared. Long elegant fingers clasped the muscadine between them, the body of the being holding it obscured by the murky water. Then something happened neither Coot nor Diane expected. The hand began rising toward them.
“Shoot!” Coot exclaimed.
Diane and Coot grabbed their paddles and rowed as fast as they could. Diane dared to look back and saw the hand holding the muscadine come to the surface, the thin arm cutting a wake as it rapidly closed on them.
“Paddle faster!” she yelled.
The johnboat jerked to a stop. Diane yelped and kept paddling, but the boat didn’t move. She jerked her head around. Two hands gripped the back of the boat; the muscadine lay inside the boat. A head rose over the back of the boat and Diane gasped. A woman stared at her; her beautiful brown face lit with a smile.
“Move!” Coot shouted.
He shoved Diane aside, shuffling on his knees with his paddle raised over his head.
“Imma bust your head wide . . .”
The woman’s eyes went wide then she disappeared below the water. Coot turned to Diane, his expression a mesh of fear and wonder.
“What in the whole wide world . . .”
The johnboat flipped over, dumping them in the lake.
Diane panicked for a moment, her arms flailing. She calmed down after a minute, opening her eyes and searching for the shore. Coot treaded water not far away.
“We got to turn the boat over,” he said.
“Naw, we got to git,” Diane said.
“Daddy’s gonna whup me if I don’t come back with his boat!”
“And how we gone get it back?” Diane said “We ain’t got no paddles.”
Diane swam for the bank.
“You ain’t gonna help me?” Coot complained.
“I’m getting out this lake as fast as I can,” Diane said. “Come on!”
Coot whined then swam with Diane toward the bank. They were halfway there when something grabbed Diane’s ankle. She shook her leg, thinking it might have hung up on a sunken tree. But then whatever it was jerked her leg so hard she yelped in pain. Coot stopped swimming. He treaded water as he turned around.
“Diane, what’s . . .”
Diane’s ears flooded with water as she was dragged down. She tried hard to kick her leg free, but the grip held tight. Diane held her breath before looking down. The lake lady gazed at her, a smile on her face as she pulled Diane deeper.
She’s killing me and smiling!
The lake lady finally stopped dragging her into the lake’s depth. She grabbed Diane’s arms, pushing them to her sides. With gentle eyes her smile faded.
“Open your mouth.”
The voice rang in Diane’s head. Diane shook her head.
“I’ll drown if I do.”
The woman’s face became stern.
“You’ll die if you don’t.”
Diane had no choice. She couldn’t hold her breath any longer, and the lake lady wasn’t going to let her go. She opened her mouth and the water rushed in, choking her. Diane fought to swim but the woman held her still. She choked, then coughed, but she did not drown. After a time, her breathing became normal.
“How am I’m doing this?”
The lake lady answered with a grin. She took Diane’s hand.
“Come with me. I have something to show you.”
Diane and the lake lady swam deeper. Bluegills and bass scattered as they neared until they reached a gaping hole at the lake bottom. Warm water escaped from the opening. The lake lady tugged at her hand then pointed at the hole.
“We going in there?”
The lake lady nodded. “Don’t be afraid. This is the best part.”
They entered. What appeared as a hole was a pitch-black tunnel. Diane’s fear was abated by the lady’s firm but reassuring grip on her wrist. They swam until a faint light appeared before them, growing larger with each stroke. The tunnel expanded into a large cave that teemed with people that looked just like the lake lady.
“Where did y’all come from?”
“Africa, just like you,” the lake lady replied. “When our folks escaped from the plantations, some went south, some went north, and some came here.”
The lake lady smiled. “That’s a question for another time.”
Diane watched the lake people swim to and fro. It was just like her town, but underwater.
The lake lady tugged her wrist.
“Time for you to go back,” she said. “Your people are probably looking for you.”
The lake lady led Diane back to the lake. They float-ed together, Diane moving her legs, the lake lady waving her tail.
“Why did you show me this?” Diane asked.
“Because someone above needs to know,” the lady replied.
The lady smiled. “You’ll find out. Now go.”
Diane began swimming, then stopped.
“My name is Diane,” she said. “What’s yours?”
“What do you want it to be?” the lake lady asked.
“Angela,” Diane said.
“Then I am Angela to you.”
Diane smiled then waved.
Diane swam for the surface. When her head breached the water, she coughed hard until the water was gone from her lungs.
“There she is!”
Diane turned to her left. Coot high-stepped through the shallows then dove into the water. Diane’s mama was right behind him. Daddy and some of their neigh-bors remained on the bank, hugging and thanking the Lord. Mama out swam Coot, reaching her first. She hugged her tight.
“Baby!” she said. “Coot said you drowned! I knew he was lying. My baby swims like a bream!”
Diane squeezed mama back. “Mama, I got to tell you what happened!”
“Not now baby. Let’s get you out of this water.”
Diane and mama swam toward the shore, Diane looking back now and then hoping to see Angela.
“What you looking at, baby?” Mama asked. “Did you lose something?”
“No,” Diane said.
They reached Coot. He swam to Diane, his cheeks streaked with tears.
“I’m sorry I left you!” he said. “I couldn’t find you.”
“It’s okay,” Diane managed to say. “I’m fine.”
Daddy stood up to his waist in the lake as they neared the shore. He scooped Diane up into his arms like a baby.
“Everybody can go home now,” he shouted to the spectators. “Everything is fine.”
“You should take her to the hospital,” Oscar Silas said. He leaned on his cane, sharing his ever-present scowl.
“Ain’t nobody got money for that,” Daddy replied. “My girl is fine. Y’all go on home.”
They walked to the pickup truck.
“Coot, you ride in the cab with Joe,” mama said. “Me and Diane riding in the bed.”
“You sure about that, Beatrice?” Daddy asked.
“I’m sure,” mama said. “We can dry off a little bit.”
“Alright,” Daddy said. “Come on, boy.”
Daddy and Coot climbed into the cabin. The truck rumbled to life, and they bounced down the dirt road toward the street. Mama hugged Diane.
“Now what is it you had to tell me?”
“There’s a lady in the lake!” Diane blurted. “She pulled me down into the water and I found out I can breathe it! Then she took me to a cave where there was a whole lot of people just like her!”
“So, she finally decided to introduce herself,” mama said.
Diane jumped then pulled away from mama.
“You know her?”
“Yes, I do,” mama said. “Every girl in our family comes to meet her sooner or later.”
“So, you can breathe water, too?”
Mama chuckled. “I used to be able to. Then I got married and had you and forgot about the water. But I knew you were next. First time we brought you to the lake you tried to jump in. Your daddy like to had a fit. We had to fight you to get you back to the car.”
“I don’t understand,” Diane said.
“Well, it’s time you did,” mama said. “Did she ask you to give her a name?”
“Yes! I named her Angela.”
“I named her Mary.”
“What’s her real name?” Diane asked.
Mama hugged Diane and she hugged mama back.
“I’ll tell you that and a lot more once we get home. Okay?”
Diane smiled. “Okay!”
Diane glanced over her shoulder at the lake as it di-minished in the distance. She knew she would return, and she knew she would see the lady in the lake again.
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