By Kathryn Holzman
They were married in the summer. The Justice of the Peace sat at the helm of the rowboat. From the shore, stereo speakers played the Wedding March. Renee wore a bathing suit and a veil and promised, for the second time in her life, to love another until death parted them.
Her regret wasn’t that Stan had asked her to marry him. She just wished he had not done so while telling her the story of the Harvard student who drowned in the pond after taking LSD. The bad timing was typical of Stan, a psychology professor who was incapable of distinguishing between joy and the macabre. Ultimately, her acceptance of his proposal reflected more on Renee who, having been raised by artists, was incapable of expecting a more conventional proposal. Spring had arrived and emerging flowers were about to open and she had waited long enough.
From the living room of the house they had shared for two years, there was a clear view of the pond. Renee’s mood was often subject to the seasonal changes of the water. In the fall, the pond reflected the changing leaves, the reds, yellows and oranges blazing in undulations reflected on the living room ceiling. Stan and Renee met in the fall; neither was young or inexperienced, but they were comfortable in a way that they hadn’t experienced in young love. They met at the home of a colleague from the University, two singles among the couples, relieved at the ease with which they were able to talk. Stan taught Evolutionary Psychology and discussed the modular view of the mind. Renee easily grasped the concept – different sub-routines that compete to control one’s decisions, the lack of a unified essence, the need to invent a story to explain away the inconsistencies.
Renee moved in with Stan in winter when the pond had grown grey and icy with the reflections of leaf-less trees and clouds. Each year the cycles of ice and thaw were slightly different. That first winter, Renee watched the neighborhood dogs run out onto the ice, oblivious, even before the water was securely frozen. Renee was glued to the window, always fearful of an ominous crack, a frantic yelp. She imagined herself running out to rescue, but doubted she had the nerve. In reality, she would be more likely to watch the rescue, or the drowning, from the privacy of her home.
It was her home now, this project of the heart that Stan built during his bachelor years, each floor board laid by hand. The night they met, Stan gave her a tour–hardly more than a twirl–around the boxy energy-efficient cottage with much pride, switching between the theories of psychology and the satisfactions of carpentry. While Renee admired the view of the pond, Stan detailed the benefits of passive solar heating and listed the construction’s low-impact building materials. Renee brought almost nothing from her disastrous marriage; when she moved into the house it remained uncluttered, noticeably new. She stored her parents’ paintings, her only inheritance, in the hall closet, content to leave the white walls unsullied.
When spring arrived, light filled their bedroom. They gloried in spring sex, that annual re-awakening of urges they feared they might lose. On one of these reassuring April afternoons, Stan told her the story of the student who drowned.
“Four Harvard students were been camping on the far side of the pond. Can you see that tall pine in the cove on the right? The pond was packed with families and vacationers from New Jersey.
“According to the town Constable, who guarded the site for weeks after the incident and recounted his version of the events to any of us who asked, the four students had set up an illicit campsite ignoring the ‘No Overnight Camping’ sign.
“The young men decided to take a moonlight swim on LSD. The moon was full and the boy who died was an athlete and able swimmer. Crossing the pond should not have been difficult. When the campers regrouped later around the fire and he had not yet returned, they were not initially concerned. They didn’t notify the authorities for several hours. When they did, the police did a midnight patrol of the pond but found no sign of him. They figured it was a misunderstanding. He was probably drinking a beer in the local pub. What could be done in the dark?”
The small pond warmed up by June and offered a welcome respite from the July heat.
“The next morning, the search resumed and the lake was searched again, this time with the assistance of the Police Rescue boat. Again, no trace of the swimmer. It was the talk of the town. By now we all knew, thanks to the Constable’s updates, that the swimmer had been ‘on drugs’ and camping in an illegal site.
“The town, with reservations, closed down the beach fearful that a child might find the lifeless body. At noon, a hiker spotted a sneaker near the beaver lodge. There was nothing to do but wait.
“From our window, I saw the boy’s parents when they arrived later that afternoon, a weeping girlfriend in tow.”
Renee looked over to the pond, imagining the frantic parents speaking with the self-important constable. She imagined the yellow police tape and the many eyes observing their incomprehension.
“The constable told them what he had told us. If their son had drowned, the body would inevitably rise when the gases of decomposition built up. The body would inflate and rise to the surface. They would have to wait. By week’s end they would know if he had survived.
The locals discussed the incident at the post office where they picked up their mail. The missing boy, the drugs, the moonlight swim, the prestige of the student’s college and his athleticism were topics of the week’s gossip. Local kids were pissed to lose a week’s swimming during an uncomfortable, warm week in July. He should have known better, they all agreed.
“Did the body ever float to the surface?” Renee, still picturing the parents’ vigil, studied the pond; she strained to see what lay below the surface. Because it was spring, decomposing leaves still floated on the top of the water, hiding the depth below. On a walk the previous evening, she and Stan had searched for frog eggs clustered near the shores in gelatinous masses, primed to burst with life as the lengthening days of sunlight warmed the water. On this, the spring equinox, the pond teemed with new life, not death. Easier to imagine the student’s psychedelic swim than his lifeless body swelling on the water’s floor.
The summer pond water must have been warm and enveloping the night the student dived in. The full moon would have served as a beacon. An athlete, the swimmer would have been confident, unafraid of exploring his hallucinations, surrounded by friends, with nature at its mildest. She thought of him looking up through the water’s prism at the moon. The distortions of the water would have mimicked the drug’s effects. She could almost see him floating there, embraced by the warm waves, lulled into a sense of safety as strangeness overtook him.
The same full moon had illuminated the night sky when Stan and Renee had taken a walk the previous evening. Holding hands, they discussed the many myths that marked the Vernal Equinox. The Roman Attis, a god of ever-reviving vegetation, reborn each year and celebrated on Black Friday. The Pagan Ishtar commemorating the resurrection of the Akkadian vegetation god Tammuz, believed to be the only begotten son of the moon-goddess and the sun-god. Even Easter, celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox, evolved from thousands of years of spring rites and celebrations.
Walking the path from the lake shore, they saw signs of rebirth all around them. Renee named the light green leaves breaking through the leaf cover, winter green and rattlesnake plantain, a delicate orchid. She shared her knowledge of botany, a welcome relief after years of lonely study, reading books in the basement library among fresh faced students, a divorcee trying to rebuild a life. Relishing their exchange, they walked slowly despite the evening’s chill.
Had the student responded to the pull of the moon? Did the hallucinations of his trip draw him under?
As Stan spoke, Rene imagined the pond through his eyes: The air murky with rainbow-hued grasses waving him on, leading him into the Underworld. In the murky depths, he spies Persephone who waits for him naked on the floor of the dark pond. He swims to her away from the summer heat, away from chattering friends, following a Beaver who beckons, speaking in a language that suddenly becomes clear, ancient and melodic. Each stroke of his arms in the water leaves a trail of evanescence. Moon rays disappear from his sight. He descends to his destiny. He swims with tears flowing, filling the pond with longing, a man among the demons, feet bleeding into the decomposing, rich mud of the pond floor.
Did the weight of the water suck him the boy in? Did he breathe in the pond water thinking it air and liberation? Did he know what was happening that summer night?
Does anyone ever know what is about to happen?
Stan was asleep when the student died. In this same bed where they had just made love.
With dread, Renee waited for Stan to complete his story. They lay on the bed, lit by the rays of the still weak, but strengthening, spring sun. She pulled the winter blankets up, feeling a chill from the prematurely opened bedroom window. Perhaps they were moving too fast.
“Renee, wait, I want to ask you something.”
“No. First, tell me, did they ever find the body?” she asked, haunted by the picture of the parents waiting for the Constable’s call.
“Eventually, yes. It took longer than expected. When the body surfaced, the coroner concluded that his sneaker had gotten stuck in a beavers’ lodge, holding him under.” Stan was matter of fact. It was an old story, an oddity that was part of the pond’s lore. He had something else on his mind.
The student struggled to break free. Rene had often idled near the lodge in her kayak, hoping to spot the beaver at his labors. Once she saw the flap of tail and the resulting ripples, spreading out toward her. She paddled closer, but the beaver disappeared into deeper water.
“Oh.” Renee wrapped the wool blanket tighter. She had hoped for a last minute twist, a happy ending. A re-emergence of the student somewhere else, drinking with Coeds in a bar. Laughing at the misguided search. A resurrection, of sorts. An apology to his friends and parents, those who loved him and who had suffered.
Had the girlfriend mourned?
“Renee, look at me.” She turned her head, not ready to change the subject. Stan ran his fingers through her hair, slowly bringing her chilled body back to life. His fingers traced her mouth and stroked her neck. She watched him as he kissed her. His gaze was steady and his body solid. He looked into her eyes without apology. She took a deep breath.
“Let’s get married on the pond.”
Saying “yes” was as close to resurrection as Rene could muster.
Kathryn Holzman lives and works in New England with her husband, a digital artist. She has had short stories published in The Adirondack Review and the Atticus Review and has published a chapbook, “Migrations.” She is currently at work on a novel set in Silicon Valley.