How to Find Your Way to Black Bread Lake
And here I will seek you and find you
With three voices I’ll call you to me.
And here I will keep you and bind you
Till the water has boiled from the sea.
— from Ballads and By-Ways of the Chepinoxet River Valley (1898)
First, get off the highway. Highways will never take you where you want to go. Try a map, if you must, but newer maps don’t know it. It’s that empty space in the northwest corner, next to a blotch marked reservoir. Even the surveyor’s map from 1918 seems oddly sparse and truncated: interrupted by the war, maybe, or by the influenza that took more lives than the war.
The postmistress claims no knowledge of Cucumber Hill and frowns at you over her glasses when you ask for Tamarack Lane. That would be in the Grove, she says.
The old woman behind you in line giggles and follows you to your car. Don’t mind Emmy, she says. She thinks the whole world’s a sin. But I can’t help it if my eyes cough.
She hands you a small, creased envelope, Parthy written on it in red pencil. No stamp. Take it to her, she says. And don’t you mind Emmy. There’s no shame in a lake-born child.
Right on Juniper, left on Chokecherry. Follow the line of the shore. Arcadia to Hygeia to Laurel. Left on Elder, right on Tamarack. Go until you can’t go anymore, and there you’ll be. Spring-peepers and mourning doves to greet you. The picture of a house in the mirror of a lake. The lake ripples. The house ripples too.
The lake feeds the river. The river runs to the sea. Where does the sea run to?
In the window of the house in the lake there is a face. The door of the house in the lake swings open. The door of the house on the shore stays shut.
The lady of the house walks through the door to greet you, holding up her skirts. Alice blue, a dress your grandmother might have worn, but this girl is young. She hops from rock to rock along the shore. Bare toes grip damp stone.
Are you Parthy, you ask.
Parthenia, she says.
Something scratches at the edge of your memory: a Utopian community that lived here once, theosophists, who aspired to create a mirror of ancient Greece — or was it that they’d worshiped Greek gods? Arcadian Grove. White robes and healing gardens — though something scandalous, too. Rumors about what the lake could give to those who asked, about promises made to lonely women under the full moon.
No shame in a lake-born child.
The girl holds out her hand, and you deliver the letter. She turns it upside down. Dried buttercups flutter from within.
She must be very old now, she says. I wish she’d come back before it stuck.
Before what stuck?
She smiles and points at the map you hold. I remember the man who made that map, she says. He wanted to dam the river. But I said, what if the river doesn’t want to be damned?
All around you, you sense lives lived out far from the human eye: heron and porcupine, otter and newt. Lives unseen and unrecorded, yet as real as the lives whose names linger in stone in the old family graveyard you passed. I don’t know if a river can want, you say.
The air feels thicker, heavier. A thrush sings in a blackberry bramble. Perhaps it’s singing to you. You smell honeysuckle and damp earth. Your city clothes scratch. Your city shoes pinch. It seems unbearable, suddenly, not to be barefoot and free.
I know what the river wants, Parthenia says. The river wants to play.
You see her shrug off her Victorian dress. The water calls, cool and laughing, and you feel an unbearable longing to dive into that water, to do more: to merge into the river, to slide over rocks, to twist and flip, to play.
You hear a door slam shut as you submerge, leaving behind your chafing human skin.
Kathryn Kulpa is believed to be indigenous to Rhode Island, although her true origins and purpose are shrouded in mystery. She was a winner of the Vella Chapbook Contest for her flash collection Girls on Film, published by Paper Nautilus, and recently won the 101 Words monthly flash fiction contest for her microfiction “Potato Eyes”. Other stories may be found in Monkeybicycle, SmokeLong Quarterly, and Thrice Fiction.
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Image: JL Field