Song of the Lake

Her father set the candle on the table and pulled the blanket to her shoulders. Cool air rolled through the cabin window. It was the end of August. They waited together in silence until they heard the first call from the lake.

“There it is,” her father said.

“Song of the Lake,” Rose whispered.

Every day she saw the birds and fowl of the water: the wood ducks, mallards, goldeneyes, and wigeons; the buffleheads, gadwalls, teals, and coots; the osprey,  geese, egret, and loons. She threw them feed from the shore, and they came to her when she called. But she had never seen the one they called the Song of the Lake. She had only heard the singing. And every night, once she’d heard it, she could sleep.

She and her father turned together and blew out the candle. Her father wished her good night, touched her cheek, and left the room. Rose heard the faint, comforting sounds from beyond the door as he and her mother settled the house for night. She liked her room. It was her nest. She listened to the chorus of frogs in the fen by the lake shore. She heard a dog bark from a farm in the distance. The Song called again from the water.

It sounded as if the tune rolled across the surface of water as it searched for her. The singer seemed to sing, “I am here, all is well.” Rose listened and looked at the shape of the window painted on the wall by the moonlight. She felt that if she rose from bed she could walk through it and into a new place. She felt the cool air against her face, and she smelled the lake water in it. Here I am, she thought, here I am, and she imagined the Song of the Lake hearing her as she heard it. She pulled the blanket around her shoulders, and soon she was asleep.

Rose woke in the middle of the night. She often did. She would lie on her back with her eyes open, listening to the sounds of the forest and fields and watching the stars or clouds through the window. Usually she slept again soon, but this night she was full awake. In the dim light she rose from the bed and pulled on her clothes over her night gown. Then she opened the door and walked down the hallway to the living room, where a faint nightlight glowed in a socket. The cabin was silent. She let herself out the front screen door, stepped off the porch, and stood in the grass. She lifted her nose to breathe the cool air as if she could smell its currents like an animal.

She walked to the forest, silent as a deer. The tree canopy barred the moonlight from lighting the path, but Rose knew the way and walked it from memory. Here was the oak root tangled on the ground. Here was the gathering of small birches, dancing white in the dim light. Here was the large stone to scramble across, where she’d once seen a fox.

When the trees opened at the shore, she looked up to see that the moon had gone behind the trees on the far side of the lake. Only stars remained. The water lay still and made no sound, but she heard a rustling near the boulders at the end of the beach. She walked across the pebbles and stepped onto the flat rock where she sometimes lay in the sun. Beside it, dark shapes moved on the surface of the water. They came to the edge of the rock and stopped, one beside the other. They waited for her. She lay across their backs, feeling their feathers against her face. They nuzzled her with their feather heads and swam calmly away from shore.

The air was cool, but the bed of feathers warmed her. In the middle of the lake, she heard the Song from the far side, where she’d never been. Her carriers paddled smoothly, making no sound. She felt a wonderful sense that something good was bound to happen.

By a large boulder at the edge of the far shore, her carriers stopped and floated calmly. Rose could see little in the starlight, but she sensed that other ducks and geese floated nearby. She heard the soft sounds of water and ruffled feathers as they washed themselves with their beaks. And by the boulder she saw the faint light of a grand old bird. It floated still, as if sleeping. Rose and her carriers waited patiently, and after long soft minutes beneath the open sky, she saw the Song lift its head slowly and look at her, as if her presence had woken it. The Song swam slowly toward her, and when it was near it stopped, and they gazed at each other. Although no words were spoken, Rose knew that it was giving her a gift, letting her see it, as few do, although it had lived on the far side of the lake forever. They floated beside each other quietly, until the Song lowered its head and seemed to sleep again, and Rose, calm and tired, curled into the feathers of her carriers for warmth and closed her eyes.

They carried her back across the water in the starlight. She woke when they brought her to the flat boulder beside the pebble beach, and she rose from their backs and stepped onto land. They dipped their heads and swam away. Rose sat and watched the sky and water, and she heard the Song call again from the far side.

Soon the first morning light came, and the highest clouds began to turn pink and gold. Rose stood and stretched. The first forest birds appeared, skimming the water for food. And the fish awakened, swirling the surface with their fins as they searched for food from below. Rose walked across the pebbles and into the trees. She passed the fox stone and the dancing birches and the tangled oak roots on the path. Night was gone and day had arrived by the time she reached the cabin.

Her father and mother sat on the steps at the front door with warm mugs cupped in their hands. They watched their girl come across the grass. And she looked at them and knew that they had once made the same journey she’d made, and they remembered. Here I am, she thought, here I am. And now she longed for sweet sleep, for she’d been awake almost all of the night. She went to them, and they carried her to her room and pulled the blanket to her shoulders. They sat beside her on the edge of the bed, and soon she drifted softly into deep rest, feeling the warmth of feathers against her cheek.

“Song of the Lake” was published collaboratively in print as a private, hardback edition on heavyweight paper in late 2020. It is not for sale. The story is by SD Williams. Ten beautiful photographs of fowl and their water were taken by the extraordinary artist Williams McIntire (