“The mind is its own place, and in itself Can make a heav’n of hell, a hell of heav’n.” —John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book I
Michael’s father owned a lake-house in a secluded section of the Hudson River. His father would take him and his sister Lucy here each summer to escape the City life: the hordes of arms and legs that shoved and bumped and passed through the crowded streets as wandering apparitions; the battalion ofclamorous vehicles that fought in traffic as contending vultures; the sirens that echoed in the atmosphere of their apartments a screeching blare of legions of hell-bats.
The lake-house, unlike the city, is a world of its own—distinct from the chaos of city life. And although modestly built, the house was made perfectly to accommodate the family within; to fit the world outside, trees and plants grew around, upon, then towards the house—as if embracing it as part of nature. The birds gave melody to the day while the crickets gave rhythm to the night; and through both day and night, the joyfulbreeze whistled a soothing song that brushed through the grass and leaves.
“Son,” Michael’s father would often say during their Sunday fishing trips on the lake, “this here is paradise.” But to Michael, it was more than paradise: it was an eternity of memorable summers—a seemingly gapless and episodic set of memories compiled in his mind as a sacred whole. Michael took Mary on their first date at the lake on his father’s old fishing boat. Mary let out a sign of admiration, while gesturing in the direction southeast from them at the lone swan:
“Aren’t swans the most angelic creatures?”
“Swans?—There’s only one,” Michael lied, he remembers there were two.
The male swan was coated in an array of obsidian-black feathers and had radiant eyes which shone in the darkness like the illuminating rays of a lighthouse that warned boats of perilous cliffs. It also wore a beak colored by a royal shade of red.
The female swan, which fled, was more eccentric.
Its feathers stole both the light of day and night, perpetuallyemanating a beautiful and lusty glow of white which could only be contrasted by its sable eyes. The female swan loved to glide freely throughout the lake, especially on the deeper ends.
Unlike the female swan, the male swan patrolled only the shallow end.
Mary continued to follow the swan on the coast with her eyes:
“It’s just like you,” she said as she smiled at Michael.
“Dark and lonely, is that how you see me?”
He poked back at her facetiously. She giggled, nudging closer to him while steadily tracing the goose’s path with two fingers, middle and index, as the goose glided towards the swan.
“Yup, we better find you a mate! How about that goose?I’m sort of like a goose.”
“Maybe we should ask the swan before we play cupid.”
Michael laughed at the notion; he knew that it couldn’t be. His father had taught him to see into the shallows of the lake. He saw all the water that was moving—gentle—this way and that. In the same way he had seen through the water, he saw through the swan; although it had taken a liking to the goose, maybe to a point of love, it would never find it as one of its own.
The goose now circled the swan, which created a rippling current that compelled the sediment of sand beneath it to risewith each grain embodying a prayer pleading for grace. Moved by this meager attempt, the swan gazed down from above in sympathy but quickly fixed its stare towards the horizon—in the direction its companion left in search of deeper waters.
Michael had never gone to the lake-house during the winter.
Now, they were up on a picnic table by the edge of the lake where they had once admired the swan. Most of the lake was frozen in an unfamiliar blue; uncertain in shade and complexion, the sun made the unfrozen water look dark. The animals havefled from this hellish weather—and so—they have their joyful song.
The plants and trees remained.
Although, they no longer expressed a feeling of warmth and welcome; rather, they exerted a stark, unapologetic force of sublimity. With a forward kind of posture, Mary sat with her shoulders rounded, elbows on her knees, embracing her warm belly. In this expectant position, she slightly rocked and at once put her face into her hands.
She was not crying.
“I’d do anything for you.”
Michael wanted to reach over to console her. He wanted to say, but he knew those words would be emptier than the lake-house and colder than the wind in that very moment.
For Michael, Mary was someone you could trust and carefor even if you weren’t in love. He sunk into the confines of his mind, questioning his elected book of memories of all the summers past, searching for what it is to love. He trusted his father’s guidance, as his father had trusted him to preserve the lake-house, as Mary had trusted him with her faith, and as he had answered her faith with his own. Care he didn’t lack either. However, love he could not find in his memories, save those with Lucy. Michael remembers how he begged her to stay:
“Tell him if he wants me back,” she cried, “let him come himself.”
“Lucy,” he repeated, “please don’t do this—”
“Father says he has a plan for us,” she interrupted, “well, fuck his plan.”
“He says we should all have a choice in life,” she raged on, “but that’s only if he approves of our choice.”
Michael faced Lucy for what seemed like a millennium—there like two great and terrible armies, opposed and facing each other, silent. There would be battle but no victor. Both sides have sustained the loss of their sibling.
Mary raised her head from her hands, turned, and confronted Michael. Another standoff commenced, but there was no battle.
“Where do you think the swan and goose have gone,” she broke the silence. He abandoned his stare and scanned the lake. The swan lay hidden in the shrubs by the house.
“I don’t know where the swan has gone,” he replied diligently, “but the goose probably migrated south for the win—.”
“Fly away with me, we can have everything.”
“What did you say?”
“I said: We can have the whole world, we can go everywhere.”
Michael’s gaze shifted to the shrubs where the swan took shelter and then moved his eyes towards the horizon. Mary relented, allowing him to be distracted. She began to explain that she knew he did not love her, not that way, had known it all the time and it’s all right. Around them, a piercing breeze started to blow, gathering the snow atop the branches of the trees, and swirled the snow in their direction. Mary continued with her resolution, until she noticed Michael was a carrot and two small branches short of being a snowman.
“I will carry this, and have it, and love it and make no claim—”
Mary’s guffaw shattered Michael’s focus on the horizon and possibly some of the ice on the lake. Michael smiled.
“Do you feel better?”
“I feel fine. There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.”
She struggled to contain her laughter; Michael drew hercloser to counter the unyielding breeze, for it was now that he felt her two small strong soft hands on his, turning him.
“No, we can’t—”
“We all have a choice—” he muttered, partly in response to her, partly to himself.
“What do you mean?”
“Did you know that swans are usually aggressive animals?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“Well, they tend to favor brown birds—ducks and geese—over other birds and they are the most amiable while they move short distances or migrate.”
“Maybe the swan migrated in the same direction as the goose.”
“I sure hope so.”
He began to stare—still intent upon the horizon.