When the mills closed we made great efforts to forget our wealth but it was like someone had died. Our parents grieved. We loved them. With the benefit of time, I believe they were strangers to us.
The summers were long and dry in the valley. When school ended we witnessed our parents’ failure; complete and abject. They caroused tirelessly and it was in the small hours that we saw them for who they were. I didn’t have a father. I might’ve been wounded by that but I felt lucky; my failure was only with one parent. I gnawed at her to remind me of the memories I had forgotten. I held those fragments closely. After a while I stopped thinking about him.
When I came back I wanted to tell my mother about money and about hope. I thought I knew a great deal about those things. I wanted to show her. I wanted her to believe. But when the cold air came over the water I could only think of the summer nights by the lake and of the stories I made.
I found the lake when I was coming back. I’d left the road and was cutting through the old lumber fields to the south. The grass was thick and I crossed a stream where the trees had once been.
I could see smoke and there was a red light moving beyond the hills. I ran ahead. My chest was thumping. In front of me was the lake as clear as glass. The sun was dying and the trees shimmered brightly in the light. I slumped onto the soil dejected at the sight of it. In the evening I skimmed a stone across the water.
I waited until morning and turned towards the trees. A woman was standing there.
“I thought you’d come back.”
She stepped into the light.
“Don’t you recognize me?”
I walked closer. “Yes.”
“I’m so sorry,” she said.
“Let’s not talk about it.”
She led me back to the lake. “They’ve made it quite a place, haven’t they?”
A yellow path trailed back to a boat house near the trees. People were moving through the light. We stood and watched them. Music began to play; the music of winter and I turned away.
“Don’t you like it?”
“It’s very nice,” I said.
We walked out under the shadows of the fir trees and came to a row of cabins, newly built sparkling in the frost.
“You can stay here. We own them all now. I don’t suppose anyone will come by.”
Once she had left I sat at the end of the jetty. A flock of geese whipped across the far end of the lake. The ripples looked like a mirage, deep silver swells rocking back and forth into the bank. There was laughter coming across the water.
By evening, I had got dressed in a suit, combed my hair and shaved. I walked out to the end of the lake. The town now glowed like a beacon. My eyes adjusted to the dark. I noticed the larger animals first: the deer by the edge of the pass, the doves turning leaves in search of food, the little squirrels darting past their winter stores. The single deer became a family of them. They browsed through the undergrowth. When I turned back they had disappeared into the grass.
I didn’t recognize the town. The streets were wider; they meandered up to an old hotel with thick sandstone walls and bright lights in all the windows. I walked past the streetlamps that ran along the path and came into the lobby. There was a sign pointing towards the bar. Inside, a canoe hung from the ceiling. The walls were covered in paintings showing big skies and dripping gold sunsets. The barman pointed to the glass doors at the back of the room and I carried on.
The garden was a much nicer place. They’d set it out so that the tables were all far apart and there was a patio at the back with a trellis and white roses running up it and a photo of my mother. I saw Sophie. I thought she looked very pretty. I walked towards her. A man cut across and shook my hand. He rested his other hand on my shoulder and wept quietly. We embraced and he left towards the bar.
I stood looking at the pictures of my mother. I was in some of them; so was my father. I saw the town as it once was.
“I’m so sorry,” said a man. He was standing close with other men and women and they were looking at the photographs.
I looked for Sophie and saw her sitting at a table with a small boy and a man. I left the room and walked out through the bar. The man was waiting there and looking at me. We looked at each other for a while. He had tears in his eyes. I left the hotel and took the old path by the river. I recognized the trees.
Snow had covered the fields. The white landscape reflected the changing sky, and as the cold air warmed, small clouds began to sail westward, turning the snow into a sea of colour. I stumbled forwards, pulling my jacket across. The snow brushed away easily and underneath the mud had frozen.
The fields smoked into the silence. At their edges, near the banks, tall overhanging trees leaned heavy with snow. Towards the lake, it had melted and the mud stuck to my shoes.
When I arrived at the cabin, Sophie was waiting by the door.
“What is it?” I said.
“You left early. Your father was hurt.”
“I don’t owe him.”
“Do you speak to your parents?”
“Don’t call me that.”
We walked into the cabin.
“I never planned it.”
“You talk as if it’ll wear off.”
“How was I supposed to know you were coming back?”
“I’m not coming back.”
Sophie walked over to the window. “Robert, do you think we could find where we met?”
I didn’t say anything.
“We could try. We’ll know if the stars show.”
“It won’t be a sign.”
We lay in the grass curled up under a blanket, waiting for the lake to turn dark. The music of old memories came over the water. At the far end of the lake, there were spotlights glittering and I looked up and knew I was home.
“It’s a funny life.”
Sophie looked at me. “Not that funny, darling.”
I held her tightly.
A shooting star tore across the sky.
“Did you see it?” said Sophie . “It’s just the same. And we’re just the same. It’s like we’re back.”
“Do you think they’ll be another star?”
“They’ll be coming all night, darling. Isn’t it wonderful?”
It really was. That night and the last night of that summer carried more shooting stars than all the nights between. They spread across the sky; white rocks tearing past and when I saw them, I remembered my town as it was. I remembered my mother and saw flashes of her love. I remembered my father and I remembered Sophie. I remembered people holding each other tightly and watching the skies above Silver lake. I could feel the wind coming down from the hills and bringing with it the smell of cut pine; the firelight spreading beside the water and people dancing in the shadows.
“It’s just us, darling,” said Sophie. “Isn’t it sad?”
“Who cares if they don’t see; we’ll see.”
“I care, Robbie. It’s like it never happened again if no one sees.”
“But it did happen; it’s happening now.”
“You should never have left Silver lake. You should’ve painted cabins in the winter to get by. It would have been a life.”
“Like your father’s cabins? Don’t talk like that, Sophie.”
“Oh, you feel it too.”
“I don’t feel it.”
“You feel it. I know you do.”
“Let’s not do this now. We were having such a nice time.”
“Darling, we were remembering it. It’s not the same.”
I leaned in close and kissed her and her mouth was loose and open and we kissed fully and pulled each other tight. “I’ll remember that,” I said.
“Is that why you did it? To create something?”
“I did it because I love you.”
“I love you too. Isn’t it sad?”
“It’s not sad.”
“Yes, darling. I’ve seen all the stars I want to see. I’m going home.”
I watched her walk across the grass and down to the lake. She paused by the water and looked back and carried on again until she disappeared under the trees. I gathered up the blanket and walked to the edge of the water. The electric lights weaved back to the boat house and lit the earth. People were moving through the light. I stood and watched them. Music began to play; the music of new winters. I walked back to the cabin. There was a man standing by my door. He had tears in his eyes. I walked up and hugged him.
“Are you coming home?” he said
“I have, Father.”
But I didn’t stay. The fire had gone. The memory of it beats within me; a steadied flame, once fierce. I left town shortly after. Took the long way; traced memories by the lake, now past club houses, pontoons and under guiding lights. Rose up through the last of the old trees; crossed wide through the gleaming streets and passed new families, with new hope.
I’d searched for that hope. Bent my will and reached far for it, but in the end I had to reach back. Much has been mended. Greater futures are here. Yet there are times when a cold breeze comes across the water, and I can feel again those broken streets and am glad of my poor summers by Silver lake.