Nathan Alling Long
The Still Lake of the Night
The window was open just enough to let in the cool night air. A windup clock ticked forward the seconds, as though trying, laboriously, to prove the existence of time. Otherwise, the night seemed to move neither backwards or forwards, but felt to Ariel a kind of dark pool in which she sank her whole body. The blankets pulled up to her chin felt like to be the waterline, and she lay there feeling like a creature cocooned, waiting to be born.
Her body was calm but she was not sleepy, and the cool air kept her alert. But there was nothing to take in. She blinked in the darkness to see if any light might appear, but nothing did. Without light, without being able to watch something in the light, even something as small as the second hand of the old metal clock, she had a hard time believing that the night was moving forward, that it would ever cease.
She was in this cabin just for one night, a place offered to her by a neighbor back home in Rochester, who came up here to Maine to vacation in the summers. It was now early autumn, and she was on her way back from Nova Scotia, where she had visited her girlfriend, Holly, who had moved there to be a school teacher for the year.
The visit had not gone well, and though they did not fight, except once, and did not talk of breaking up, she knew by the end of her stay that it would happen, in the months ahead, at the latest, by Christmas.
There was a quality in their voices when they both said goodbye and I love you that suggested fatigue, a waning light. On the car ride down to this cabin, she’d thought about Holly, about their lives, their three years together, and the start of this year with them apart. She’d seen how it seemed simply a long slow moving away from each other from almost the moment they’d met, a bright flash of fire from the match that had dimmed as it burned up the stick, until there was nothing left to hold, no fuel left to burn.
She’d gotten to the cabin an hour before dusk, and after putting away the groceries, she’d sat on the screened in porch and watched the sunset over the trees, a glimpse of light reflected off the pond at the bottom of the hill.
Then she’d got up and went inside, turned on the lights and started to cook, a salmon she’d bought at the local store, potatoes, and a salad of greens and tomato.
She found ingredients for a dressing in the cupboards and a half empty bottle of white wine in the fridge, which she sipped while waiting for the potatoes to roast. Given these tasks, she was kept busy and did not think of Holly, of her trip up there, of their future.
But after eating and washing the dishes, after a quick shower and reading a short while in bed, after the setting down of the book, the clicking off the light and laying the pillow flat, these thoughts returned, there in the still pool of the night.
She was thirty-five, had had several relationships before this one, with years of being single as well. She was not too old to find someone new, not so young as to think Holly was the only one. She had worried about the future enough times in the past to know that it did no good, but here she was again, on the brink of uncertainty, and as she grew older, each time it felt more ominous, more uncertain.
A spot on her forehead itched but she kept her hands still beside her body and let the feeling gnaw at her a while, a pinprick of irritation that seemed to bloom by thinking about it. But to feel something so certain, with such clear parameters, was somehow a comfort. It was a discomfort she could endure, and so she did.
But this other thing, larger, more nebulous, foreboding, it hovered at the edge of the pond, like a giant bear, waiting for her to return to land. She could share these thoughts with Holly, ask to talk about it all, though she knew her new job was challenging, stressful. To talk of the relationship would be more stress. To express her fears–that they were drifting apart–would be in some way, bringing them into the light, making them real in a way they were not if they were never spoken.
Was it that there was no way to save what they had? Was it that they were a stick that had burned out its course? Say what you will to a match, but it will not last longer than it can.
Was it best to just call and end it swiftly, move on, as they say, as swiftly as she would from this cabin, once dawn came, if dawn ever came? To tidy up and leave behind the beauty and comfort and darkness of this place where she had dwelled?
Against all this, the clock ticked on. It must be a battery operated, she thought, as a wind up clock would have wound down by now, a month after her neighbor was last at the cabin. Unless someone else was here and wound it up, she thought and panicked.
What if someone were there now, in the cabin, waiting all this time, hiding in a closet or in the basement—if there was even a basement? Why hadn’t she checked before going to bed?
But no, these are just your fears, she told herself, fears of the dark. The road to the cabin was long and there had been no cars. There would be no reason someone would go down here, and if they had, no reason to hide without a trace just before she appeared.
Yet, there was the half-finished bottle of wine. Why would her neighbor leave such a thing? She recalled her saying something about returning before the frost, to shut down the cabin for good. Or had Ariel just made that up?
Ariel wished now that Holly was with her, that she could have driven with her half way back at least, then taken a bus back to her new home. How nice to get a weekend, or a half weekend away together. She could have driven Holly to a bus station in the morning. If she were here, they would talk, she would be free of the stress of her work, they might find one another again, as they say, there in the pitch dark of that cabin in Maine.
Talking was not the answer so much as just being together, even lying silently in the night, the cool air brushing in from the window. Then time would feel like it were moving forward. Then the morning would come to soon and it would be the goodbye-ing all over again, but this time sweet and tender and I love you would mean something, with both of them regretting their long journey alone.
Even the sound of the clock would be a pleasure, an annoying joke they would share. And perhaps Holly would get up and muffle the thing or take it downstairs to silence it. Or perhaps she would, feeling confident to get out of the safety of her bed and walk through the dark, strange new house. But here alone, she did not dare. The sheets, the still complete dark and silent night was the only thing that seemed to protect her, the only thing that seemed certain. If she rose from the bed, if she disturbed the night with her footsteps and stumblings, who knew what might choose to disturb her in return?
Ariel tried to imagine the sound of the clock as tiny waves lapping slowly against the shore—the shore of what, she did not know. In this way, for a while, she imagined swaying slightly to the rocking of the waves suggested in the sound of the clock. What time was it? It was only a quarter to nine when she went to bed. What if she fell asleep and woke still to darkness? There was nothing worse than not even having sleep to look forward to.
And all this worry, all this fretting and imagining, had exhausted her a bit. Or was it the wine, the warmth of the blankets, the weight of the dark on her eyelids and consciousness?
But then she wondered what it would be like, if she fell asleep in an endless night, if she had an endless sleep. What if these were her last conscious moments in life, if she were to die here in this cabin, alone, or worse, slip into an endless coma?
A spike of fear startled her. Sleep now seemed the worst thing, the enemy which had almost enticed her to be a friend. The clock seemed now to be laughing slowly at her, ha…ha…ha… as though it had known the joke all along.
She thought of last night, of holding Holly as she slept, how it was both a comfort and an uncertainty, a warm body that belonged to someone she both knew and didn’t know. She’d thought of waking Holly and asking her just to kiss her, once, but she was too afraid that Holly would be annoyed, that she wouldn’t understand her need, and so she just lay there with her face close to the back of her neck and kissed Holly lightly along the spine, as though Holly’s vertebrae were her lips, as though she were kissing back.
What she had really wanted was for Holly to say her name, there in the night, in that other new place that was completely Holly’s and not Ariel’s at all. She wanted that now as well, to hear her name spoken in the dark, against the dark. She wanted Holly to say it, but since she was not there, she decided to say it herself. Yet instead, she ended up saying her girlfriend’s name, “Holly,” as though she were there, as though she were awakening her.
The clock ticked on, sounding now as though it were the snoring breath of someone asleep. It was not laughing at her and it was not out to get her, it was simply trudging through the days and nights, doing what it did, moving its hands in a mechanical motion it did not even understand. But wasn’t that what she feared most about the future, not the being alone, but the passing of her life mechanically and unaware?
‘Holly,’ she said again, as though she were trying to wake her from a giant dream, a sleep that she had endured for years. ‘Wake up,’ she pleaded, and began to cry.
It was a comfort to hear a human voice in the still lake of the night, and she cried for a while before returning to the silence.
It was not long after that she fell asleep. AQ