By the Lake: the Trees, Singing
by Shae Davidson
Laszlo pulled the oars up hard. The boat lurched and hopped to a stop, rising for a second before falling still in the water. Waves rapped the sides, making dull aluminum grunts as he dug through the pockets of his jacket. They settled by the time he found what he wanted.
Tagua nut, Libby had told him, some kind of sustainable craft. It looked like ivory, with a little yellowish overcast. Not as harsh, though, as the thin cracked slats that covered the keys of the piano in his grandmother’s parlor. Someone had carved it into a tiny owl: soft off-white, black eyes under hoods.
Libby had told him about owls, too: they saw through illusions. She had loved owls ever since her grandmother gave her that odd little pewter desk clock on her eighth birthday, an owl’s head that jawed open to show the time. Libby had given him the carving more than two months ago, when they were under the trees lining the small lake at the park. She put it in his hand, kissed him, and then watched as he rowed out.
He had let go of one of the oars to wave to the eight-year old in the denim jumper. It took him a moment of fumbling to get the oar back in position. When he looked at the shore again he didn’t see Libby, only trees shading a crusty barbecue and some picnic benches.
* * *
The secret came out when Laszlo Finch’s girlfriend asked if he wanted to drop by her ten-year-old cousin’s birthday party. She mentioned it casually one afternoon as she was making tea, and he was leaning at the doorway between the kitchen and living room, watching the subtle shifts in her face as she paced between the stove and table.
“I should probably give it a try before I die, but I’ve always avoided those pointy paper hats.”
“Come on. You never had a birthday party as a kid? You never went to a birthday party?”
Laszlo accepted his cup of green tea and shook his head. “Born the day after Christmas. My family had a cake and I got another round of presents, but nothing big. School was out, the weather was iffy, and everyone was gifted out.”
“You missed out. When I turned eight,” Libby explained, “my parents had a big party down at the park. At least half of the second grade showed up. That one was the best. Other birthdays we could go see movies, go to the pool. You never went to a friend’s party?”
He shook his head, and she took it for a joke at first, an odd way of getting out of a cameo at a children’s party. Libby teased him until she realized there was something deeper, something about aging that he had tried to shrug off.
Neither slept well. When she rolled into the beam of streetlight cast from outside, her eyes wide open, he decided to tell her everything.
“You’re twenty-two years old, starting grad school. Walk down the street outside and I’ll see you in high school, then going backward through middle school, on down to how you looked on your eighth birthday. The farther away you are, the earlier in your life I see you.
“My granddad was a bus driver. When I was five or six I spent an afternoon riding on his route, just for fun. I remember it was raining hard enough that it was hard for me to see out the window sometimes, hard enough to make it dark inside the bus. I watched people getting on and off. As they moved around the bus they looked odd. I didn’t really know how at first. But watching people on the street — the people we passed by — I saw kids in the distance, standing in the rain, watched them age as we got closer, then turn into kids again as we pulled away. Everything changing as we moved: age, demeanor, clothing, posture.”
* * *
A little over ten weeks ago. Sitting alone in the boat, Laszlo thought about the last visit to the park with Libby. He rubbed his thumb over the belly of the little owl, absently, daydreaming as the August sunlight glared off the water. Libby and Laszlo had visited the park then, after she had spent some time thinking about what he had said that night, asking tentative questions. It had seemed like a simple favor, a playful sign that she accepted whatever this was.
“Quid pro quo,” she’d said on the shore. “You’re doing something for me, so I’ve got something for you.” She slipped the little statue into his hand, closing his fingers over the bird and kissing him gently on the lips before he realized what she had given him.
* * *
Glistening in the streetlight, her eyes flickered, watching his face for any hint of a joke. Laszlo had never told anyone outside of his family, and even they had had a hard time grasping it. The first time he remembered it clearly was the summer before he started kindergarten, but he had faint early memories of his parents and grandparents, fluid in the early years of his life. She said nothing immediately, but he knew that she had believed him and was letting the thing sink in. She spent the time until dawn looking at the ceiling, thinking, and started tentatively asking questions as the first natural light appeared outside.
Libby covered the basics (it only happened when he looked at animals, they fade from view when they go beyond the point of birth) but also raised some things Laszlo had never thought about. Beyond chance glances, he had never really tried watching his own reflection recede in a mirror. Until she made the comparison, Laszlo had never thought to compare it to how astronomers view stars, fading into youth on account of the time it takes their light to reach Earth.
Libby thought for a few more moments before taking another track. “Could you be imagining it? When I was really little I saw a magazine cover somewhere — a picture of a model holding the same magazine, which had a little picture of the same woman holding the same magazine and on and on.
“I must have been about four years old, but I still remember the magazine. My mom says I woke up screaming that night about “the lady who went all the way down.” I was four years old and afraid of the idea of infinity. Could it be something like that: something that stuck in your mind from when you were a kid? Maybe the rain on the window made people look odd, and you just imagined them getting younger and older as you moved.”
She offered the ideas as a line of reasoning, but part of what Laszlo had said appealed to her. Libby realized that her explanation served as another way of probing the idea, expanding its boundaries, rather than an outright challenge.
* * *
The boat rocked as he inched his way onto the seat. Libby stood at the edge of the water watching him, her arms folded across an old Bad Religion t-shirt she had found at a thrift store. Laszlo found his sea legs and started rowing into deeper water, jerking at first. When he picked up the rhythm of the oars he glanced up and saw that Libby had moved back to the tree line.
She watched him and smiled, slightly younger, looking the way she had when they had driven to Pittsburgh for a jazz concert during their first summer. Other years fell away as he pulled the oars. By the time he reached the middle of the lake she matched the picture she had shown him: a smiling eight-year old with a ponytail and a denim jumper standing under the trees, laughing.
He swept his arm back and forth in the air, then gave a thumbs up sign, uncertain if she could see it at that distance. He saw the girl wave back once before the oar thumped against the hull, drawing his eyes away. A few seconds later he looked back. Mottled shadows, perhaps a quick glance of a young girl through the trees, but no clear view of Libby.
* * *
Laszlo slipped the owl back into his pocket before rowing back to shore and securing the boat. No sign of Libby, just as there had been no word from her at school.
He had found the last message when he returned from the park the day of her disappearance: a folded note saying “Thanks and love” tucked under a teacup.
A stray cat popped its head out from behind a trashcan as Laszlo walked back to the parking lot: orange fur, matted, with scars across its nose and ears torn from fights. As Laszlo walked past it darted in the direction of the park, the scars falling away as it ran. The sun flared in downy fur just before the kitten disappeared in the underbrush.
Copyright © 2009 by Shae Davidson