I remember the first thing Vienna said to me, after she ran up the driveway to our cabin, was “The water is full of poison.”
When I said “What?” she stepped back, and scraped her eyes over me, instead of answering, a clear appraisal.
“You got a little taller,” she said. She was much taller, the year since we’d seen each other having stretched her out into a cornstalk leanness. Her blonde hair was newly short, gathered up in a stubby paintbrush at the back of her skull. The difference between twelve and thirteen rested on her with a sunlit gravity. Vienna had a sleek runner’s body that I would never have. “What about the water?”
“There’s an algal bloom in the lake,” she said, bending down to pull a burr off her sock, “and my grandpa said it spits out poison. So,” she flicked the burr into the dirt. “We can’t go swimming.”
“I missed you,” I said, and then worried that she would not also have missed me. “Have you seen it? The lake?”
She nodded as she straightened, and I saw, already coiling in her, that restless interest in the forbidden. “Yeah. It’s really beautiful.”
I was a few months from thirteen, and Vienna was my best friend in a very localized way. Our families owned neighboring cabins on the mountain, both of us benefitting from the generosity of grandparents, both of us disappearing from our regular lives a few weeks out of the year. We spent our summers in the Sierras combing up and down thickly wooded hillsides, poking at spiders that lived under the shutters, and burning little curls of our hair at campfires. I lived as wild as one could be with the comfort of a warm living room to return to. I didn’t brush my hair until it tangled in clots on my shoulders, avoided showers until my grandmother said “Julie, you stink,” and pushed me in the direction of the bathroom. I swam in the lake in my dirty clothes and lay on the granite with the undersides of my legs sticky-hot, scratching up the lichen with my fingernails. My body was animal to me. I still thought of it as something made to do what I wanted, belonging to me only.
The rest of the year, I had other people, other concerns, other versions of myself. At school, my best friend was a tyrannical girl with the glorious Viking name of Ingrid. I was occupied with science class and a business I wanted to start building bird houses. I had decided I should become interested in boys. When I returned to these things, my time on the mountain fell away, and with it, Vienna. But she was always there the next summer, and so was the part of me that loved her.
* * *
Later that evening, my grandmother sat us down to talk about the lake. We’d been lounging on the porch steps, watching the sun go down over the treetops and twisting up cobwebs on the ends of sticks. Vienna was trying to teach me a song. One of those joke songs about sex or overblown violence that are inescapably popular among middle schoolers. I can’t remember what it was now, but I remember the bawdiness, and that Vienna looked proud of herself. She told me her aunt had yelled at her for singing that song back at her cabin, because her cousin Abigail had tattled. She lowered her voice when my grandmother called us in for dinner, but kept humming, like she was still saying the filthy things behind her teeth.
At dinner, my grandmother folded her soft hands and informed us we weren’t to go near the lake at all. She wisely included both of us in the prohibition, because the same rules that applied to me had to be extended to Vienna, or else I would disobey and claim that it had not really been a violation, because Vienna was allowed. She wasn’t able to explain to our satisfaction, told us only that it was a warm year, that the algae was overgrowing and that was dangerous. What part of it was dangerous, we wanted to know. Wasn’t there always algae in the lake? We didn’t swallow that water anyway. In retrospect, I doubt my grandmother understood it herself. “Doesn’t usually happen this high up,” my grandfather said, in the process of finishing his bowl of soup, and my grandmother wrung one of her red-dyed ringlets around her finger and said, “Are you listening to me, girls? Are you listening to me? That water could make you very sick.”
How could we not be fascinated? Vienna told me the next afternoon, “I can do whatever I want.” Laughing, with both of us stretched on the hot flank of a granite slab. “For real, I go to bed whenever, I eat whatever. I went down to the Lakeshore store this morning, and I stole a cigarette.” She showed me, flicking it between her thumb and middle finger.
“Are you going to smoke it?” I asked her, fearfully impressed, and she dragged her bottom lip between her teeth.
“I could if I wanted to.”
Vienna’s grandparents were disinclined to involve themselves in her activities. I wonder now why I never asked about her parents. Parents were far away in the summer, their voices heard on occasional phone calls. I missed my own but didn’t think of them much. My relative lawlessness in the Sierras was an anomaly for me, a vacation from my normally supervised life. Maybe the same was true for Vienna, but I don’t know, because I never thought to ask her.
That was the last summer I would come up without my parents, before entertaining a teenager in the wilderness became too much for my grandparents. Trips in later years were restricted to weekends, and I would lose track of Vienna. When I saw her high school graduation pictures I was shocked, as if she should have remained thirteen while I grew.
In the days after her lecture about the lake, my grandmother did go to good effort to keep us away, but too much of the responsibility was on her. The elevation was hard on my grandfather, and he spent most of his time sleeping—snoring softly on one of the couches, sometimes with a green tank of oxygen at his feet, the plastic mask sealed against his nose and mouth. I would stop to watch the rise and fall of his chest. And then I would suck in a breath very fast, hold it in my lungs, to try to feel a difference between this air and other air, how it was less breathable.
My grandmother, though, was still spry, and surprisingly at home on the docks and the back porches. She shepherded us to campfires and cook- outs, drove us to lakes clear of the algae, showed us how to make pie, and pointed us towards the safest hiking trails.
When I think about that summer, I do feel for her. I find myself trying to bend this moment just enough to see it through my grandmother’s eyes. Tired from the long drive up to the cabin. Watching these girls fold themselves up in the dining room chairs she had just dusted a winter’s worth of insect corpses from, knowing we were in danger, but not how much, exactly, or how to convince us of it. And knowing, anyway, that we wouldn’t listen.
* * *
On Saturday, we all went boating on one of the upper lakes. Vienna and me, our grandparents, and Vienna’s aunt Chelsea and cousin Abigail. Vienna found me in the parking lot by the boat rental place that morning, scrunched her nose up, and said “Abby has nightmares. Abby thinks a rattle- snake is going to come through the window and eat her. I’m going to sleep in your bed tonight.”
“Good,” I said. We rented a pontoon boat, and brought a cooler with sodas and beer and sandwiches the grandmothers made. Vienna claimed part of it for us to sunbathe on. She took off her shirt, lay down in her swimsuit and shorts, the pale landscape of her back glittering under the sun. We weren’t old enough to really care about tanning, but we were old enough to pretend we did. The flooring of the boat prickled against my stomach.
“Did you put on sunscreen?” my grandmother asked, and I nodded, though I hadn’t. Vienna yawned and rolled over onto her back. Her swimsuit, like mine, was old, a magenta one-piece that faded to white in the middle and pulled too tightly at the top and bottom, threatening to slip down. I could see the pale tops of her breasts. I turned my cheek against the canvas so I couldn’t look at her.
“You’re gonna get skin cancer,” Abigail said. Abigail was eleven, but so somber and so small that we both felt she was younger.
“Okay,” Vienna said and stuck out her tongue. Abigail started to respond, but stopped, coughing into her elbow, and the boat paused to watch her. Abigail had coughed like this last year too, a dry sound that scraped out of the center of her body. As far as I’d heard, no one knew what was causing it, or what would make it stop. She wasn’t sick otherwise.
“Oh, you poor thing,” my grandmother said. “Still?”
Abigail smiled, curling towards the attention. “It doesn’t hurt or anything,” she said.
“We’re doing another allergy panel next month,” Chelsea said. She slid her hand over Abigail’s shoulder. “The doctor just doesn’t know.”
Sitting back on her palms, Abigail turned her face towards the sun. Vienna reached into the cooler and pretended to drink an unopened can of beer, laughing when her aunt glared at her. The conversation drifted on.
“They’re saying it’s global warming, you know,” Chelsea said. Chelsea looked young for someone’s aunt. It was her hair, how long and healthy it was. She brushed it back now and bared her cheek to the sun, her pretty shoulders. “Why we’re getting the bloom all the way up here. It’s supposed to be too cold at this elevation.”
Vienna’s grandfather pushed air through his teeth. “It’s just a hot year, honey,” he said, “A hot year don’t have to mean anything.”
“But that’s what a hot year does mean,” Chelsea said, “A hot year means it’s hot.”
My grandmother laughed. Chelsea rubbed the back of her head. “It’s gotten hotter in your lifetime,” she said to her father, Vienna’s grandfather. “The weather’s changed so much in your lifetime. You’ve seen it.”
“Colder last winter than it’s ever been,” Vienna’s grandmother said, and her grandfather added, “Thought a ball was going to drop off.”
“Richard,” my grandmother said, “The girls, for God’s sake, do not want to hear about your privates.”
“Let’s not talk politics.” This from my grandfather, who lay back towards the rear of the boat, his thin eyelids closed.
“Alright,” Chelsea said, “Alright then, let’s not.” She was sour and quiet while our grandparents talked about the sun- shine, the pies the lakeside diner had started serving, who was selling their cabins and who might be buying them. When she spoke again, she said, “I heard the Clarks’ dog died from drinking the lake water.”
“Really?” Vienna levered herself up on her elbows next to me. “The little white Jack Russell, Bennie. I was talking to Patti Clark at the gas station. She said their boys took him down to the water and let him go swimming, and the next morning he was right dead.”
“Oh,” my grandmother sighed, “poor thing.” “She said,” Abigail added. She had straightened up, attracted back to the conversation, like we were, by the smell of death. “That he had blisters on his mouth and he was bleeding.”
“I’m sure that’s an exaggeration.” Chelsea’s smile was bland and shallow. My grandfather dawdled the boat into a little cove and stopped us there, while I scrambled down onto deck to help him hoist the anchor over the sides. Vienna and I wriggled out of our pants, and Abigail finally ditched her cover-up.
The water was dark, a vanishing blue-green. Vienna went first, bending and arching her back, examining the water as if creating a door in it and then diving. I watched the smoothness of her body, the arrow quickness, and then hurled myself after her.
We abandoned ourselves to the lake for a while. The two of us competed to see who could bring up the most interesting things from the deep bottom, fistfuls of gravel, little stones and larger stones, bits of sticks and plant matter, like we were God looking for enough material to make the world.
There was a thrill to it every time Vienna went down, the moment when her blonde hair puddled against the surface like the hair of a corpse, and then all of her disappearing into the dark, and then the long moment, where I steadied myself against the metal flank of the boat, inside the implicit potential that she would not surface again. I would have to go under, have to catch her limp body around the waist, drag her gasping up to the light. Or I would go after her and find nothing.
I imagined she felt the same things when I was underwater, the excitement of a chance to play savior, the anxiety of the vanished beloved. I imagined she loved me enough to miss me when she couldn’t see me. I gripped both my arms around a big rock at the bottom. It was heavy, and I held onto it, because it would delay me coming back up, because I wanted to see Vienna’s face when I surfaced, the relief after the momentary panic, the ghost of a fear that I’d been lost.
When we tired ourselves out, we joined Abigail on the big rock that jutted out from the shore, a little reef of granite that could fit all three of us, like lions sunning ourselves. Vienna crawled up to the top, curled herself around the peak. Below us, Abigail picked bits of mud and gravel off her feet, out from between her toes, the flesh of her soles like dead fish. “Do you think there are leeches in the lake?” Vienna asked her, and she paused and looked up with a timidity mostly outweighed by excitement.
“The biggest leech I ever saw was in a tank and bigger than my thumb,” she informed us. “It looked like someone coughed up blood.”
I tilted my head back, tossed my shoulders Vienna’s way, laughing. “You’re so weird, Abby.”
Abigail nodded primly. She pointed at a tree on the shore that was yellowing where it was not supposed to, the pallor of dead pine boughs. “That’s because of a beetle. It’s killing all the trees around here. That’s why the fire alert is higher this year, because most of the trees are dead.”
Was it really like this? The pine beetles the same year as the algal bloom the same year as Abigail’s hacking cough and my grandfather barely able to breathe on the sofa? Everything around us starting to die but only in a removed way, only in the background. I wonder sometimes if I have made that summer a composite of several, or if I was really able to shrug off all that menace. There was a forest fire in August that took out half the mountain, missed our cabin by two miles. A drowning in the lake we were swimming in before we went home, a drunk tourist who tipped off his motorboat, the extra beats Vienna’s grandmother took before saying names that heralded the beginning of her Alzheimer’s. But I didn’t know that then.
“I’m going to put beetle eggs in your mouth while you sleep,” Vienna said, stretching her legs. Her foot brushed against my side, her thigh right next to my cheek. I could smell the lake water on her, feel the damp heat of her skin almost in my mouth. The heat of a fire started in wet leaves, and I felt suddenly panic-sick at the prospect of the dry trees, all that hollow, still standing firewood.
“You’re not,” Abigail said, and I kicked her, lightly, because I could.
* * *
“Vienna’s sleeping over,” I told my grandmother as we all wandered back to our cars.
“Ask her grandparents.” But Vienna’s grandparents didn’t care where she went, and we all knew it, so she just waved over her shoulder as she climbed into the backseat next to me. Everyone’s attention was occupied by Abigail, who was having another coughing fit, bent at a right angle and hacking onto the ground. Still, Chelsea looked up, over the sound of her daughter coughing, and I watched her exchange a nod with my grandmother when Vienna got in our car.
My grandmother put on a CD of children singing hymns that came on car rides for my dubious benefit. My grandfather sat in the passenger seat with his earbuds in and his head lolling against the window, and the high voices ran through “Kum Ba Yah” and a song called “Oh, You Can’t Get to Heaven.” I was embarrassed to have the hymns playing when Vienna was looking out the window and couldn’t catch my eye roll; she might assume that saccharine religious enthusiasm was my choice. As soon as she looked at me, while the children on the radio proclaimed that Jesus loved them, I stuck my tongue out at her.
We passed our lake on the way back to the cabin, and both Vienna and I turned, as if with one body. She pressed herself to the window and I leaned out of my seat, putting my chin on her shoulder and holding the rest of myself a little apart from her. The water was a vivid green, drifting in paint-like swirls, the trees leaking, oily, off the banks and into the current. It looked like a lake in a rainforest, or a portal to another world.
“Oh my God,” Vienna said, and lowered her voice on the word God, because my grandmother was listening.
“Can we—” “No,” my grandmother said. “It’s poison.” My grandfather looked back over the shoulder of his seat. “I’ll take you girls for a walk there tomorrow, if you want. We just can’t go in.”
When we got back to the cabin, Vienna and I poured out of the back seat before we were even at a complete stop. We went inside to play Uno on the floor, our swimsuits dampening the carpet. My grandmother bustled between the den and the kitchen, putting jam and cream cheese sandwiches in front of us, turning up Fox News on the television. They talked about global warming there too, or didn’t, and bustled loudly around the blanks in the conversation. It was the hottest year on record. The year before had been the hottest year on record too.
“Uno,” Vienna said. I looked at the card she’d put down. It was from a different edition of the game, one with extra trick cards and props that we didn’t have.
“What am I supposed to do?” I asked. Vienna shrugged, so I drew two and kept going. When we finished Uno and our sandwiches, we switched to Guess Who, which we played impressionistically and with questions we thought were very funny. Did your person used to be a porn star? Does your person look like they axemurdered their parents? Does your person own a vibrator? Vienna had just told me what that was, and we both blushed, saying the word and giggling helplessly. When Vienna laughed, her mouth became a new animal, this sleek rabbit-pulsed thing taking up residence on her face.
If I were to diagnose something special about that summer, other than the omnipresence of death, I would say it was the last year before language reached all the parts of me, before words started knocking softly on my head, trying to get in. When I think about it, when I think about Vienna, this is where my mind goes more often than not. To naming. The things that it has made less frightening, and the things it has obscured, and what was different, a little, when I had nothing to call it. Even accurate words you don’t live in, the way you don’t live in a photograph of your house.
When Vienna crawled into bed that night, her shirt riding up and her side pressed next to mine, she said, “What do you think would really happen if we swam in it?”
I considered this, that licking green slipping up our arms, accepting our waists into it. “Do you think we’d get sick?” I offered.
“If we didn’t drink it, we’d probably be fine. It’s probably just if little kids drink it.”
Later, I would learn that harmful algal blooms produce something called cyanobacteria, which can be absorbed through the skin, or inhaled, standing close to the water, just as easily it can pass through the mouth, but at the time this made sense, that there was only the one way to let something into my body, that it couldn’t enter me unless I allowed it. I rolled over so that my face was in Vienna’s short hair. She still smelled like the lake, that light, blue-green smell, like disappearing under water.
* * *
I woke up first the next morning. The room we slept in was on the second floor, a triangular chamber like the top of a church with a small stained-glass window that opened over the living room. It felt like a room for keeping princesses in. I could hear the soft sounds of my grandmother downstairs, the domestic anger of Rush Limbaugh on her radio. Vienna had rolled most of the quilt around herself, the pale ridges of her knuckles curled around the dark green like tree roots. Her face was knotted up. I thought people were supposed to relax in sleep, but Vienna always looked the most worried then, as if she only let serious things find her in her dreams. I padded over to the window and pushed it open with the tips of my fingers.
My grandfather was stretched on the couch again. From that height, I couldn’t see him breathing, and I knew, from the rustle of my grandmother in the kitchen, from her unconcern, that he must be, but I went down to check anyway. He smiled at me like the crinkling of a sheet.
“What do you want for breakfast, Julie?” He offered his hand. My grandfather wasn’t the most tactile man, but he liked to hold my hand, in such a way that I still think of him, sometimes, when someone else does. The prominent blue veins that ridged the back of his knuckles, and the gentle way his wrinkles passed over them. The firmness and faint tremor of his grip. He would hold on for a long time.
I shrugged, because I could smell that my grandmother was already making pancakes.
“Is your friend still sleeping?” “Yeah.” “Lazy,” he said, and smiled. I knew without asking that he wasn’t going to take us to the lake this morning, and so didn’t ask. Maybe I could say that I realized his frailty then, but it wasn’t like that. It was a long process of realizing and forgetting, and realizing again.
When Vienna got up, I asked her if one of her grandparents would take us, and she shook her head, pushing the bristles of her early morning hair away from her face.
“Why not?” I asked.
She huffed. “They’re busy.” “What about your aunt?” “That bitch?” I blanched. I liked Chelsea. How she was pretty and young looking, kind to her annoying daughter, and, so far as I could tell, mysteriously husbandless. She was something like what I thought womanhood could be: the confidence, kindness, long hair, and narrow body. I didn’t know Chelsea well, but I wanted her to like me too.
I wanted Vienna to like me more, though, so I said nothing. Behind our cabin and down the hill, there was a place we called Settler’s Fort, which was actually the long ago burned-out remains of someone’s shed or a small cabin. There was no part of it standing except the cement that had been part of the foundation once, and some chunks of stone that might have been pieces of wall. But you could find bits of colored glass there that had been warped by the sun. Blue and white and pale green twists of it, that we’d bring home and stack on our windowsills, or carry around in our pockets. Vienna and I walked to Settler’s Fort after pancakes, and Abigail caught up to us on our way down, which we supposed was unavoidable. We spread our sweaters on a fallen log, to discourage the beady carpenter ants that lived there away from our legs, and then we picked through the decaying bark with sticks, or knelt in the dirt, combing through it with our fingers. Abigail gathered pieces of white glass and quartz in a little pile on the cement.
Vienna took her stolen cigarette out of her pocket again and put it between her lips. I could tell she’d been chewing on it before, from the faint waterline stain of her spit. We both looked at Abigail, waiting for her to say that Vienna would get cancer, and she sucked on her bottom lip as if trying to restrain her own predictability.
“What are you looking at?” Vienna demanded, even though Abigail wasn’t looking at her.
Abigail shook her head, her body gathering towards the pavement. “Nothing.”
“Do you know how to do that thing,” Vienna asked me, “where you light a fire with a magnifying glass?”
“Yeah.” I didn’t, but I thought if the circumstances were right I could figure it out. If Vienna and I were alone in the woods, the sun baking down on our backs. If we were dependent on me, I could impress her. “You need tinfoil, though.”
“Oh. Can you really kill ants like that?” Skeptically, I considered a carpenter ant. It was fat and serious looking, almost as big as my pinky nail. “Smaller ones, I think.”
“Do you wanna hear a ghost story?” Abigail asked us. “No.” “There was a boy who always killed every bug he saw, and one day he woke up to the ghosts of all the bugs, and they’d become one giant bug and they swallowed him.”
“That’s a kid story,” I told Abigail, because it was, I remembered it. “That’s in the little kids’ book in the library.”
“So what?’ said Abigail, and I scoffed.
Vienna stretched her legs, her back arching. She was wearing a T-shirt with part of the neck cut away, showing a pale triangle of her chest, freckles spread lightly across her collarbone. Sometimes I felt as if there was a cork being pressed down my throat when I saw those freckles, the softness, the vulnerable pinkness of her. “A girl at my school died last year,” she said. Vienna liked to bring stories from her school up the mountain to me. She had told me, last year, about a girl she knew who was twelve, who’d just lost her virginity with a high school boy behind the school. “She had a heart problem, and she asked the coach if she could sit down during laps. He said yes.” Vienna took the cigarette from her teeth, holding it between her fingers, like she would blow smoke out to make a point, if she could. “And when he came back to check on her, she was dead.”
I exhaled mournfully. “Did you know her?”
Vienna shook her head. “I heard it was because she was overweight.”
“Oh.” I glanced down at my body, at the press of my stomach against my T-shirt. That year my friend Ingrid had told me all the girls said behind my back that I had a fat ass, that she told them not to say it, but she just wanted me to know. Vienna’s body did not look like my body. Later, as an older girl, I would think how funny it was to simultaneously want someone’s body and want someone’s body, the desire for two different kinds of possession.
“That’s really sad,” Abigail said.
“Are you gonna cry?” I asked her.
Vienna tipped her head towards me. “Well, why wouldn’t she cry? It is sad.”
I blanched, but Abigail started coughing again then, as if her ribcage was trying to push part of her body out, and Vienna’s temporary alliance with her disappeared under this weakness. Vienna became what she was again, older than us and prettier and more powerful. She raised her hands to her mouth and coughed, mimicking Abigail, coughed like she was dying.
“Did you drink the lake water?” I asked, between the rough sounds of their choking, watching for Vienna’s eyes between her fingers. “Maybe you drank the lake water, Abby.”
Abigail finished her coughing. She straightened. She drew in a long breath that I could hear rasping all the way up her throat. “Why are you so mean?” she said, and she sounded so astonished by it.
“Don’t be a little bitch.” Vienna dropped her still whole cigarette in the dirt, scraping her foot over it as if stomping out a light.
Abigail stared, the pale O of her bafflement, her mouth like the wings of a butterfly. “You can’t say that.”
“Bitch,” Vienna said, “Bitch, whore, dyke, slut.”
Horrified, I giggled into the heel of my palm. We were in middle school, and it felt good to be liked by someone who didn’t like many people.
“You’re both so mean,” Abigail repeated. “You’re both so horrible and so mean to me.”
* * *
Vienna woke me up in the middle of the night by putting her hand on my stomach. Being mostly asleep has always felt to me like floating in my own body, a thin film of myself spreading across the room. When she touched me, I coalesced, coming all together under her hand, entirely conscious of her before I even opened my eyes.
Before we’d gone back to my grandparents’ cabin, Chelsea had found us. She was not angry, I remember. Vienna avoided her eyes with the sleek-bodied elusiveness of a ferret. “Vienna,” Chelsea said, and I felt barely there, barely included even in this scolding. “Can you even tell me why you wanted to say those things?” Vienna had scraped her foot back and forth in the dirt, sucked at the inside of her cheek, kept silent.
Now, in the night, Vienna was catlike. Her dark outline, her dark pupils. “Do you want to go see it?”
We crept down the stairs, pulled our sneakers on over our bare feet. We held very still as I eased the door open. Vienna had to step back in to get a flashlight. We hadn’t expected how dark the night would really be.
Once we were off the porch though, on the road, we barely needed it. Our bodies knew the way. When Vienna’s feet slid in the dirt, she held onto my elbow. This alone would have been worthwhile, her careful balancing against me, the way it almost knocked me over.
I don’t know why we thought we’d be able to see it in the dark. I think I’d imagined it would glow. We picked our way down to the water, and, when we came to the shore through the trees, turned to each other as we realized. Vienna extended her hand, shone the beam of the flashlight onto a circle of green water.
The stars were so bright up there, above the light pollution, the milk and spilled sugar of the sky. The barely illuminated corners of Vienna’s face. She had what I would call a cruel mouth.
“Let’s go swimming,” I said, and she said, “Yes,” and put the flashlight down to take off her clothes. We both looked at the lake while we undressed, out over the dark water and not at each other. I was still wearing thin tank tops under my clothes, no bras yet. Vienna’s bra was pink, with a little bow on it, and she turned her back to me to hang it on the tree branch. I was dizzy, in anticipation of the coldness of the water, of that green so vivid it was like one soft mouth. I left my pajama shorts in the dirt, and I started off because I didn’t want to be the one to hesitate.
The water was predictably slimy around my toes, but it felt good, like wading into a field, and once the water was high enough we could see the green fairly clearly. It was different than it would have been in the daytime, blacker, but it still moved around us like magic. I thought about frogs that breathed through their skin. I thought about what I could take into my body through my body.
“It’s—” Vienna said, and then she kicked her feet off the ground, dropped onto her back, her arms spread at her sides. The algae rippled out from her. Her fingers slipped, accidentally— probably accidentally— against my ribs. And my throat hurt, and the curl of my fingers hurt, and I tried not to look at her naked body, focused on just her chin jutting above the water, her pale nose like the head of a fish, her cold lips.
I reached for her with both hands, touched her shoulders and nothing more, and imagined her diffusing in the water. The slow creep of green up from her fingers, up from her toes. I imagined her body dissolving into millions of cells of algae, millions of little flowers, floating there separate and together, mixing with my body, indistinguishable, until we and the lake were one thing.
* * *
Abigail woke us by pounding on the door the next morning. The beginning of a rash was manifesting under my left breast. “You have to come see,” she shouted, “You have to come see! Everything’s dead.”
She sounded so excited about it.
We followed her down to the lake. All of us. My grandfather helped my grandmother over the puddles. Up ahead of me, Vienna’s shoulder blades showed through her tank top. Was it my imagination that she could not look at me? Was she maybe just thinking of the lake water? Of what we might have taken into ourselves? Abigail’s feet pounded up dust on the path ahead of us. I wonder how she ran so fast without coughing. I wonder what she got out of heralding death.
When we reached the shore, we saw that she was right. In the night, dead fish had floated to the surface of the lake. There must have been hundreds of them, all near the shoreline. Their bodies lying together, intimately, flank to flank, open eye against open eye. The waves brought them in over and over, a scum of their silver corpses, washing endlessly up to us.
Vienna would not look at me. Even when I touched her shoulder, even when I scraped my foot against the back of her ankle. I wanted her to turn to me, to laugh. I wondered if we had been poisoned, and she kept swallowing, this repeated dry hitching of her throat, so that I worried, frantically, that she was having trouble breathing. Her mouth was open a little.
“Look at that,” my grandmother said, and I nodded. It looked like nothing I had words for, like the end of the world.