By Suzanne Halmi
The lake was really a pond, but we were kids, and once you call a thing a thing, it sticks. Naming has a kind of power, too, and it made us feel like it was ours, so all the things we weren’t supposed to do there, like party and swim, we could do. It was okay. It belonged to us.
It was a manmade pond, and the bottom was sticky mud. There was a small island on the far side, near an inaccessible bank that backed into the thick woods, but no one wanted to go the island because of the snakes. They were in the water, too, but sometimes it was just too hot, or we were too stoned, to care about the snakes.
We loved the pond. Nobody else seemed to know it was there, even though there was a wooden gate for everybody to see. We knew every inch. The woods had been pushed back from the lake, so that there were sunny spots to sit on, not too near the weeds where the pokeweed flourished along with poison ivy. You were okay if you didn’t try to pick some Queen Anne’s Lace or some other kind of flowering weed, or if some newbie boy didn’t think it was funny to grab some pokeweed berries to throw at the girls. There weren’t that many girls.
In the summer, after buying a pack of cigarettes at the crummy little bar near the road into the lake, after trying to ignore the old man whose mouth was permanently fused up into a sour, angry pucker, after feeling nervous and also dirty that the boys had sent you in because girls could get away buying cigarettes from the machine when they were underage, we went down the dirt road made for the big lawnmower the owner used, and there were wineberries to eat. We ate a lot of wineberries. They tasted good. They were free. Like the lake. That was even before you got to the little wooden gate.
Who came to the lake? Sometimes it was all of us, but that was rare. Mostly the same few, mostly boys, mostly when there was nothing else to do. It took at least thirty minutes to walk there from the nearest boy’s house and there was no shade on that long walk. The sun beat down on us. We trudged. But then there were the berries and the cool, muddy water. The boys were the first in and they went under and came up with their hair all wet, their pale shoulders naked in the sunshine, and then the girls figured, well, why not. After buying cigarettes and eating wild berries, you might as well swim.
The girls always forgot about the snakes. Or they pretended to forget about the snakes and then remembered them. When they remembered, they’d get scared, spooked, and scream. The girls all hated the snakes, and were annoyed that the snakes were there. This was our place, and the snakes didn’t belong. The boys would tell the girls stories about the big ones, the ones that would slither against you in the lake, the ones that might bite if you weren’t careful. Their faces were gleeful when they told these stories.
One day, we got up there and got in the water and swam around and the old man came up to mow the grass and yelled at us. This was before cell phones, when old men just yelled in person and kept the cops out of it. Even when the cops did show up at parties, you knew it was some old lady who called. The old man yelled, and we got out of the water, and pulled on our clothes over our wet suits and told the worst one of us not to be a jerk, don’t give him the finger, it’s his place. What if the old man starts patrolling? What if he does call the cops?
We didn’t want the old man to think we were all like the worst one of us.
We wanted the lake like we wanted the cigarettes, and the berries, and whatever we could get to party with. We wanted to be there, together. We couldn’t go all the time, it was too far, but when we were there at the lake, the rest of the world receded. We confessed to each other. We laid on the ground to laugh. We bathed in the muddy water. We owned it.
The old man made sure we left his property that day. He said, shame on you girls. We hung our heads as we left. We knew we were going to have blisters from our wet feet in our old sneakers, knowing we’d burn from the hot sun on our heads as we went down the steep county road. One of us said, I think he’s the guy in the bar, who gives us free matches for the smokes.
We all shrugged and shook our heads, because what did it matter. It was so unfair. We loved the lake. The things you love, they belong to you. We loved the cigarettes we weren’t supposed to smoke, the Jack D we bought from the boys who stole it from their parents, and we loved the lake, with all its flaws.
But the old man who did own it, he thought we were like the snakes.
We had to sneak in after that, but it was over, going up to that pond. It shrank from being our lake back into somebody else’s pond. I think we only went once, and a girl slapped one of the boys, and it got a little ugly, and then it was over, and when we closed the gate behind us on the way out that day, it closed for good.
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Suzanne Halmi teaches mythology, fairy tales, and postmodern literature, and writes literary and speculative fiction. Some of her stories have appeared in Subtropics, Southern Humanities Review, and The Carolina Quarterly. Her most recent publication is “Grandpa,” at Andromeda Spaceways.