That damned asshole caw bird is screaming again as I gingerly step into the shifting sand. Cicadas buzz, uncaring as well. The rocks of the lake bed are slippery, so I test my weight with each step. The water’s warmer than I expected. Because the morning mountain air is cool, I expect the water to be freezing. It isn’t. It feels good.
I proceed slowly, my feet moving off in unexpected ways when I step down. I’m examining the water, which is clear to the bottom, watching for good footing and any critters lurking there. Tiny fish come and nibble at my legs and toes, but they’re harmless. I pause for a moment and stare out into the depths. I can see down deep.
Beautiful. Crystal clear. Larger fish swim in the depth, but not large enough to appear harmful to humans. A lake this size is only going to allow fish to grow so large.
I slosh through until I'm up to my thighs, then submerge myself. Standing back up, I push the water and my hair off of my face. Take a cleansing breath. It feels glorious. Can’t remember the last time I had a bath, let alone in such clean water. Let alone swam. Not sure I’ll even remember how.
Tentatively, I sink down and push off the bottom with my feet. I stretch my arms out in front of me and kick my legs. Slowly. I'm a bit stiff, but I still got it. I swim out a ways, then turn on my back to float. Closing my eyes, I drift along with the current. I let my mind go blank and my senses take in everything. Peaceful. Calm. Water against rocks. That damned caw bird, though.
Once I get my fill, I open my eyes and check my location. The water’s moving slowly, so I haven’t drifted far. I decide to do some laps. That was a thing once, back in the before. I had a membership to a year-round pool. I did laps at least twice a week. Maybe in the next city I’ll hunt for the public city pool. Most had them. It’s just a matter of what kind of condition they’re in now.
Tired, I head back to shore. I dress wet. I have a towel, but I don’t want to hang it to dry. Earlier, I found a nice little hidey-hole in the trees and shrubbery I plan to take a nice long nap in. A towel hanging out to dry would give away my presence to any passer-bys. Plus, it’s gonna be a warm one. I can tell that already.
I haven’t seen any signs of humans for miles, but you never really know with these things. I’m pretty good at hiding my trail. So are others. You got to be, if you want to survive. Although I’ve noticed lately that it’s not as bad as it once was. Pockets of true civilization, albeit small, are scattered here and there. The inhumane animals that roamed are less than they used to be. The gangs are becoming more humane.
Like that chick that let me go in return for her daughter’s locket. Decade or so ago, she would have had to let the opportunity go. Releasing me would have meant weakness, and showing weakness could have got her killed. I could tell most of the posturing had become ritual and routine among the group.
I wonder when the last time any one of them actually hurt someone was? Ain’t ever gonna find that out if I can help it. Marked that town as an “avoid at all costs” on my map. Don’t think that gang had control back when I traveled these parts before. But, that was the first decade in the after when I was exploring this side of the continent.
I wonder. Did that boss lady keep a harem just to put women under protection?
I grab my gear and cover my trail as I crawl into my cubby. I’ve already set up my bedding next to a tree trunk. I climb into it and curl up with my back against the hard bark.
My mind wakes from a pleasant sleep. I have no idea how long I’ve been out, but it’s warm enough to be after noon. Something. I sense something but can’t place what. I’m still, eyes staring around the shrubbery and listening intently. My ears aren’t so great, too much clanging from stamping machines in the before time, but I sense things well. Vibrations, maybe. The caw bird is silent. The cicadas don’t care. No other creatures scurrying, and there should be.
There. A scraping. Another one. Labored. Long. Pauses in between. Dragging. Someone dragging something. Hard to tell where. I peak out through openings in the foliage all around the grotto, but can’t see anything. I can’t decide if the person, or creature, is close enough to see me if I leave.
I take painstaking care to not make a noise as I pack up my bedding. I had already cleared out the area of all twigs prior to taking my swim. They were placed around the perimeter, so that I’d have warning if anyone or anything approached as I slept. A single path of twigless area so I could make a fast escape circles around the tree and leads away from the lakeshore.
Quiet. The dragging has stopped. Probably resting. Should I make a break for it? I could head out along my premade path. I’d have a good shot at making it halfway down the mountain before making a sound. Whoever or whatever is dragging that thing must be strong, though. It sounded heavy. They might be fast too. Too great a risk. Probably better to hide it out.
It’s moving again. Dragging closer. I hunker down, pack on, ready to run, with my back against the tree. I should arm myself. Naw, if that thing gets close enough for me to use a weapon, I’d better be already headed for the valley.
I can tell by the sound that it’s come to a stop at the lakefront. The very place I was not too long ago. A few hours maybe?
I don’t hear anything except my breathing. I inch up to the brush. Not hearing anything, I ever so gently pull a branch to the side. I have a clear view from my angle.
A man kneels over a faded yellow canoe. The vessel has markings painted all over it and is full of flowers. And sticks? Stacks of sticks, I think. Why on Earth…
The man plops backward onto his bottom. He’s wearing a dress shirt and nice trousers, so I don't know why he…
He’s crying. Hard. silent. And I see why now. It’s not stacks of sticks; It’s a pyer. A woman lays across it, arms crossed across her chest. Her long, salt and pepper hair is adorned with wild flowers. She wears a pretty yellow sundress. Faded a bit, but I can see from here that it was well cared for. Probably her favorite dress. I can’t see her bottom half, It’s covered completely with petals.
The man sobs and clings to the side of the canoe as if he’s about to drown if he lets go. He calls her name through snotty, blubbery sniffs.
I let the branch back down and carefully re-find my place against the tree. He deserves his privacy. My heart aches as memories of Bob flood my mind. My own sobs when we laid what was left of him to rest. He had one son at his funeral. I couldn’t find the rest. It was hard keeping tabs on his kids as it was back in the before. They were grown and scattered already when Bob and I met. I never saw them much. They had their own lives.
I lean my head back and close my eyes. Might as well rest, I’ll be here a while. No way I’m interrupting by trying to sneak out of here now.
When I open my eyes again, I can tell it’s late. Just by the look of things. The way the light is. It’s nearing dark. I hear the man speaking, and wonder if others have joined him for the funeral.
Creeping up to my lookout, I realize he’s reading a story. Some sort of prose I’m not familiar with. I wonder if it was her favorite? Did she know she was going to die? Did she request it? Did they have time to say goodbye?
The man had lit a torch at some point while I slept, and it burned brightly, shoved in a crevice between two rocks. I bowed my head in respect and longing for my own loss as he struggled through more sobs to push the boat out into the lake.
He held it there for so long on the lake edge. Unable to let go. I remember that feeling. I remember thinking I couldn’t possibly have any more tears in me, and then still sobbing more.
Reaching for the torch, he takes a deep calming breath, grabs it firmly, and touches it to the kindling in the canoe. With one last reserve of effort, he shoves it out into the water. The poor creature collapses to the ground like a rag doll.
Every once in a while, he takes a gasping breath. But, mostly he just sits where he landed watching it burn into the coming darkness. I watch too. Tears streaming down my own face.
As the canoe begins to sink, dousing the flames little by little, he whispers softly, “I did it Maddy. Your viking funeral at your favorite spot in the lake. Just like you wanted sweety. Just like you wanted.”
I go back to my tree. It’s hours before I hear rustling that tells me the poor guy has gotten up to leave. He drags himself back the way he had come. I wonder how far exactly he dragged that boat. I scoped out the area for miles before I set up for my swim. No houses. No signs of human life. He had to have come far. With her. To give her what she wanted.
Bob was like that. He would have dragged me completely across the continent if that’s what I’d said I wanted. I cry some more. Long after the last sound of his footfalls can be heard, I climb out of my bush cave. I head the opposite way. To the valley, and what was a town called Lakeshire last time I ventured through these parts. I don’t look back.
They had an Inn back then. I wonder if they still do. A proper bed and some semi-proper ale would suit me just fine right about now.