Laura watched the girl pushing a housekeeping cart from cabin to cabin all morning. She’d sweep the porches, shutter the windows, and turn the heavy pine porch chairs upside down. When she’d finish a cabin she’d slouch over the porch railing, light a cigarette, and gaze blankly over the lake. She was the first human being Laura had seen since she checked in at the Kenai Trail Lodge office two days ago.
“Can I have one of those?” Laura called. “I’ll give you a dollar for it.”
“Oh,” the girl said. “Sure.” She fished a pack from the pocket of her denim jacket as Laura approached her.
“Here you go. No, no money.”
“Thanks.” Laura cupped her hand around the lighter the girl offered her. The wind blew the little flame out three times.
“There we go,” the girl said. She brushed her heavy black hair from her face. “Gonna be too cold to smoke out here soon. The lake’s already icing up. You’re cabin five, right? Mrs. Cole?”
“Yes. I’m Laura.”
“That’s a pretty name,” Laura said.
“Thanks. It had, like, three more syllables when my grandma gave it to me.” Naulee grinned. The stud on her nostril shone like a star.
They leaned over the pine porch railing. Lake ice cracked and ground against the rocks along the shore.
“Those bigger blocks,” Naulee said. “See them rolling in the chop out there? The fishermen call them ‘growlers.’ They’ll hit your canoe like a tractor trailer.”
“I read something about icebergs once,” Laura said. “They melt on top while the ice grows on the bottom. They capsize when the gain outweighs the loss.” She drew hard on her cigarette. She closed her eyes and let the harsh warmth of the smoke fill her.
“First in a long time, huh?” Naulee said.
“I quit nine months ago.”
Naulee laughed. “Nine long months, right? I’m going back up to the reservation tonight—give me a five, and I’ll buy you a pack?”
“That’s nice of you,” Laura said. “I’ve never seen a nose stud like that. I had one when I was your age. A little diamond. Yours is beautiful.”
“Well, thanks,” Naulee said.
“Is it ivory? Bone?”
“It’s abalone shell. Tradition.”
Naulee laughed. “Really. It’s fashion to you. It’s kun’no’wah here. Insurance. Because if you drown without a hole in your nose? You’re reborn as a fish. And who needs that?”
“Do you believe that?”
“My grandma believes it. And all kinds of other bull, too. Like the hosh’pa. She’s some kind of immortal fish woman. You hear a woman crying at night, out over the water? The grandmothers will shiver and say, that’s the hosh’pa. She cries because she lives on and on. But her babies don’t. They’re mortal. She mourns for them.”
Laura drew again. The ember sizzled between her trembling fingers. The wind blowing from the lake was bitter and her thin cotton blazer couldn’t shut it out.
“There’s a space heater in the closet in your cabin,” Naulee said. “Bet you’ll need it tonight. You’ve got the cabin with a view, but it’s cold.”
“It’s fine. But…is there no one else staying here?”
“No other guests right now,” Naulee said. “Just you. Nina—she owns the place—she has a room over the office. But she doesn’t stay overnight, off season like this. Mostly we get fishermen. You can’t fish when the lake’s like this. In the summer, people come to hike around the lake. The trail’s pretty nice, but it’s iced up by now. You’d be skating, not walking. Are you a hiker?”
“I like walking, but not really, no.”
“I figured. No gear in your room. No boots, even. Are you married?”
“Yes,” Laura said. She imagined her husband, hundreds of miles away. He’d be standing in the nursery, a brush dripping white in his hand. His jaw clenching as he painted over the bright shapes she’d stenciled on the wall. The merry fish, playing in a garden of coral. The Little Mermaid, combing her hair with a broken fork.
“I saw your ring,” Naulee said. “On the dresser. You should keep it in the safe in your cabin. Nina would kill me for telling you this, but sometimes kids come down from the rez. Sometimes they take things from the cabins. They’re just kids, though, you know? Do you have any kids?”
Laura closed her eyes. Julia.
“No. No kids.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Naulee said. “I’m nosy. I ask too many questions.”
“Not many people to talk to around here. Not much to do. I’m wondering why anybody would come up here, except for the fishing.”
“It’s quiet,” Laura said. “It’s pretty.”
“Pretty, yeah. Oh, you should see the artesian spring—it’s across the lake. When the spring freezes it looks like a tree coming up out of the water—like a Christmas tree made of ice. And there’s a bird, something like a flicker. The olel’le. She nests in the frozen branches. She’s the luckiest thing in the world, or anyway, her feathers are. Take one of her feathers, and fork it, it’s the strongest luck charm there is. Wear that feather on a string round your neck and you don’t just get lucky, you’ll live as long as the olel’le does, which is forever. After Nina tells that story we can always pick up a few bucks taking guests feather-hunting.”
“Do they ever find them?”
“No,” Naulee said, tapping the ash off her cigarette. “And we’re honest with them, as far as that goes. When they pick up a raven feather, we’ll tell them no, that’s not the right kind.”
“Would you have shown me the right kind of feather?”
“Well, I’d have helped you look. But it’s too late for that now. We’d never make it across the lake.”
“I wish I’d come here sooner.”
Naulee studied her. “Can I ask you a question? Why did you come here?”
“I wanted to be somewhere that was nowhere. Somewhere there was nothing.”
“You found it,” Naulee said. “We have all the nothing you could ever want. When winter comes, we’ll have more nothing than anyone can bear.”
“You have magical birds,” Laura said. “And drowned people who turn into fish. And you have a monster. Every lake needs a monster.”
“The hosh’pa? She’s not really a monster.”
“No, I guess not. Monsters don’t cry,” Laura said. “Monsters are done with crying.”
“Sometimes she’s just a light in the water,” Naulee said. “Her body’s covered with shiny abalone shells. Mother of pearl. That’s what her name means. When the moon’s up, her shells make her shine so bright, it’s hard to look at her. And don’t look.”
“Because if you look into that light you’ll know what she knows. Human beings can’t live if they know those things.”
Laura crushed her cigarette under her shoe.
“Listen, I’d better get back to work now,” Naulee said. “I’ve got three more cabins to close for the season, and it’ll be dark in an hour.”
“Um, you all right?”
“They’re just stories. Stupid grandmother stories. Here. Take one more. For tonight. And here, I have another lighter.”
“Thank you,” Laura said.
“Oh, hey, what about that five? Still want me to pick up a pack at the rez?”
“No,” Laura said. “I don’t think so. But thank you for this one.”
She watched Naulee push her cart up the rocky trail towards the cabins on the ridge. She looked at the unlit cigarette between her fingers for a moment. She raised it to her lips and lit it with a smooth, practiced motion.
We could try again, he’d said. It’s not your fault.
Her fingers tingled. They weren’t cold. They burned. That was how it was. She’d read once that people tore their clothes off before the cold took them. They’d imagine their clothes were catching fire.
I can’t, she’d told him. I can’t do this ever again.
She looked out across the lake for the light. There was only iron-grey water and groaning ice.
“It doesn’t matter,” she told the ice. “I already know those things.”
—Fred Senese teaches chemistry at a small university in rural Appalachia. He is the author of three books and a science website that has been recognized by Scientific American, the San Francisco Chronicle, and others. His writing has appeared in Triptych Tales, Firewords Quarterly, The Molotov Cocktail, and others. Find him at fredsenese.com and @fsenese on Twitter.
This story will also appear in Spark: A Creative Anthology, Volume X.