The Lake Lady
Here's another story from my upcoming story collection, Muscadine Wine.
Coot rolled up the legs of his coveralls then pushed the johnboat into the lake. He looked back at Diane with a frown.
Diane bit her lip.
“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 studying 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, gurl!” Coot said.
Diane sighed. She lifted her red sundress at the waist so not to get it wet then climbed into the john boat. It wasn’t that she was scared of the water. She loved it. She went swimming at the rec center at Sand Hills 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 and shellcrackers don’t bite out here.”
“Catfish do,” Coot said. “At least the big ones do.”
“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 john boat 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 dark hand reached out and grabbed it.
Diane sat up straight, her mouth so wide the half chewed muscadine fell out into the boat.
“Told you,” Coot said.
“Give me another one!” Diane said.
Coot gave her a muscadine. Diane dropped it over the side then waited. This time the muscadine was only halfway down before the hand appeared. Long elegant fingers clasped the muscadine , the body of the being holding it obscured by the murky water. Then something happened neither Cook nor Diane expected. The hand began rising toward them.
“Shoot!” Coot exclaimed.
Diane and Coot grabbed their paddled 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 stop. Diane yelped and paddled harder but the boat didn’t move. She jerked her head around. Two hand 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 creased 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 is the whole wide world . . .”
The johnboat flipped over, dumping both of them in the lake.
Diane panicked for a moment, her arms flailing and splashing everywhere. She calmed down after a minute opening her eyes and searching for the shore. Coot treaded water not far away.
“We got to turn to 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 started swimming for the bank.
“You ain’t gonna help me?”
“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 looked down and saw the lake lady looking at her, a smile on her face.
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. The lake lady was naked. She looked like mama down to her waist, but from there down she looked like the dolphins Diane had seen in the old magazines at the colored library. The lake lady’s eyes narrowed and to Diane’s surprise she heard a voice in her head.
“Open your mouth.”
Diane shook her head. If she opened her mouth, she would drown.
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 letting 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?”
Diane jerked. She spoke, but her mouth didn’t move.
The lake lady answered with a smile. She took Diane’s hand.
“Come with me. I have something to show you.”
Diane and the lake lady swam deeper. They entered an opening at the lake bottom, then swam into a pitch-black tunnel. Diane’s fear was abated by the lady’s firm but reassuring grip on her wrist. They swam until light came from before them. At the end of the tunnel was a large underwater cave teaming with people that look 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.”
Diane watched the lake people swim to and fro. It was just like her town, but underwater. They had houses and roads and fields of plants that looked like corn and fish instead of cats, dogs, cows and horses. It was different, yet the same.
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 floated 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 one day. Now go.”
Diane began swimming for the surface 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 shallow water then dove into the lake. Diane’s mama was right behind him. Daddy and some of their neighbors remained on the bank, hugging and thanking the Lord. Mama swam by 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 tight. “Mama, I got to tell you what happened!”
“Not now baby. Let’s get you out of this water.”
Diane and mama swam to 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.”
“Who are the fish people?” Diane asked.
“They’re your kinfolks from long ago,” mama said. “They’re people who wanted to escape so bad they not only ran away to somewhere different; they became something different.”
“I don’t understand,” Diane said.
“Well, it’s time you did,” mama said.
Diane hugged mama’s waist and mama wrapped her up in her arm, and stroked her nappy hair.
“Diane, did the lake lady ask you to give her a name?”
“Yes! I named her Angela. Did she ask you, too?”
Mama smiled. “Yes, she did. I named her Mary, after my grandma. It was a long time later before I discovered her real name.
Diane looked up into mama’s eyes.
“What is it?”