Maureen O’Donnell
and Jim Doran

Jim Doran
Inspiration Piece

The Naiads
By Maureen O’Donnell


A thunderstorm rages high above the glass-gray surface of the lake. Plink, plunk, plink in quick-time. Beneath the surface, the storm is a muted roar.  And They dance.

Long hair ripples behind Them.  Supple, slender arms and legs, graceful as reeds, wave with the motion of the water.  They spin and twirl, ebb and swirl, until the last clap of thunder echoes and the world above is calm.

The lake grows warm and lethargy tugs at them, sucks movement down into the mud.  The storms are not gone, but there are fewer.  They sink to the bottom, nestle into beds beneath sunken logs and tilted rocks, and They sleep.

The warm season comes and there are new sounds.

Shrieks.  Sometimes sharp, piercing.  Sometimes rounded, welling like bubbles do as they wobble toward the top of the lake.  It is in the late afternoon, the calm after a storm, that They see the new noise made flesh.

Instinct should have driven her inside when the lightning came, but Lucy Carver danced.  She galloped across the grass lawn that surrounded the house at the lake until she reached the path.  She stuck out her tongue at him and caught the rain, fresh and cold, tasting like the summer earth smelled.  Thomas hung back, until she turned toward him, made a face and darted down the bluff, out of sight.

He stood up on the railing, craned his neck, but the embankment was so steep he couldn’t see his sister on the shore.  When it became clear that she wasn’t coming back, Thomas forced himself from under the safety of the porch and followed.

Delighted at his appearance, Lucy flung a handful of mud and nearly hit him.  He grew bolder, and chased after her.

Lucy and Thomas played until a fierce thunderclap shook the ground beneath them, and then took refuge beneath an overhang in the embankment. A space large enough for two small children.

“This is our house.” Lucy tossed her head as she made the announcement, hands on her hips.  Typical July morning, the air was already thick, heavy, warm.

“Our house is up there,” Thomas said.

“No, that’s not our house – just for the summer. Then we give it back.  But this one’s ours.”

“Doesn’t look like a house.”

The little girl sighed, waved a plump brown arm at the overhang.  “Look harder,” she said.  “See?”

“Then this… is our front yard?”  Thomas glanced out over the water, broken only by phantom ripples.  Snapping turtles.  Or fish not yet made lazy by the day.

“Yup.  And this is the front door.”  Lucy dragged her toe through the sand, and then stepped across.  “Kitchen.  See there?  That flat rock’s the stove.  We’ll need to cook things.”

“Where do we sleep?” he asked, unconvinced.

“What about there?” She pointed to a spot against the base of the hollow, where they had hidden from the storm.

“That’s in the kitchen,” he said.

“Is not.”

“Is too!”

“Fine.”  Her breath wooshed out.  “It’s not done yet.”

“It’s ok,” Thomas said, patting her shoulder.  “We can build it.  Easy, see?”  He walked over to the wall, scraped his fingers over it.  Dirt crumbled beneath his fingernails.  He looked back at her, and she smiled.

There is laughter every day, small-voice-chatter, and sometimes yelling.  They listen, lazy in the sun-baked water.

Sometimes, They swim close enough to touch toes.  The children never notice.

One of Them, intrepid, wanders nearer to the shore when the light burns out.  Flops out into dry, burning air.  Sees recent scars on the embankment, and a space beneath that has grown deeper.

A space just big enough, like Their rocks and Their logs, to hide, to make a home.  Even the Council dances.  They want the boy and the girl to stay with Them.

The boy likes to swim.

The girl, fearless on land, hangs back, content to run through the water up to her knees.  He challenges her.  She chases for a short while, but the lake grass tickles her toes and she retreats.  He swims on.

They follow, feel the water cool as the lake grows deeper.  The boy works harder, and moves slower.  His feet trail downward, heavy like stones.  They circle beneath him.  Fear stains the murky lake water now, and exhaustion.  They grind Their teeth, unable to resist.  The girl is not watching.

Gasp, gulp.

They reach up, grasp his ankles and knees, waist and arms, with slender fingers strong enough to break anchor chains and mooring lines.  They can keep him safe.  They will dance with him.

Beneath the water, though, his sun-browned limbs grow pallid and limp.  He does not laugh.  Does not dance with them.  There is no sound, beneath the water.

Thomas woke in the shallow water, coughing.  Lucy stood over him, confusion written on her face and a dusty dessert spoon in her hand.  She waved it at him, annoyed at the blank look in his eyes.

“I’ve been digging,” she said.  “If you’re done swimming, are you ready to help?”

He threw up.

The children do not come.  They wait, but the next day is as silent as the first, and the next, the same.

They wonder why the boy and the girl have abandoned them.

They will finish it.  And the boy and the girl will return, and dwell in the hollow beneath the bank forever.

At first it is difficult.  They struggle at the shore, gasp, gulp water until They felt right again.  But They dig, stretch long limbs out and scratch at the embankment.  The work grows easier.  They walk the shore at night.  On warmer nights, They dance over sand and clay.

They fall back into the lake, tumble into the lake grass. There They stay until They remember the movement of the water.

They call for the boy and the girl, but there is no answer.  The autumn wind have not seen the children.  The ice is as ignorant as the rain.

They try to count the warm times, but lose track after one and give up.

They nearly miss her return.

Her toes squelched in mud as she walked along the lake shore, swathed in a gray sweater and blue jeans rolled up to just below the knee.  Lucy had grown, into a long-legged thing with curves, a pointed chin, and long russet hair.  She let the water lap over her feet, but didn’t venture deeper.

It is a pale human, tired and drawn.  Sadness rolls off her, over the lake.  They watch, decide she is not the little girl, and turn away.  Until she speaks.

“I don’t remember it so deep,” Lucy said, peering into the hollow beneath the embankment.  Most of the memories of her youth had shrunk as she aged: towering ponies turned into cute things, car rides that lasted eons became routine.  The space beneath the lake bank had grown into a cave, shadowed and forbidding.

How much time had passed?  Years.  The hollow she and Thomas had tried to dig into a dwelling could have always been that big.  She sighed, backed away and turned toward the lake with far-away eyes.

“I miss you.”  The woman had the same voice, sweet, one that could be attached to a small child.  She reached into her pocket and drew out a metal spoon, threw it away.  It splashed into the lake.  She watched the ripples, caught sight of a fat, sleek fish as it darted back into the depths.

She walked up the dirt path without looking back.

She said that misses Them.  They will be ready next time.

They have help.

Driving winds come as the air chills and wrinkled leaves – gold, red, orange, brown – dot the surface of the lake, drift to the mud bottom.  The wind blasts against the lake bank.

Rain freezes in cracks and fissures, poised like fingers ready to pry weak points apart.  When the thaw comes, and They stir awake beneath the frozen surface, chunks of mud thud to the shore and run away with spring flood.

It starts as a whisper, rises to a plea, pitches in a shriek.  Then the crash.

The lake heaves and They are nearly buried in a wave of dirt.  Once the water calms, They crawl out from beneath the rocks, wriggle through murky depths toward the noise.

They swim over a broken railing, through jagged window panes into a room submerged. They dance beneath open doorways, call for the children.  The house, now beneath the lake, lies empty.

But it is ready.  One day, the children will return and find a place to hide, better than the one before.  A home.

They settle down.  The water cools, and warms, and cools.  Storms begin and patter off into silence.  And in the lake house, They wait.


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One Comment

  1. Posted June 2, 2010 at 8:26 am | #

    Very atmospheric, and the story matches the painting perfectly.