My daughter Dharma is six. She’s rowdy and fearless. Dauntless, even. Since she’s been old enough to walk, she’s been drawn to the water. There’s one particular spot in the lake that she’s always been drawn to. We live in the woods on the edge of Lake Michigan. It’s a tiny, self sufficient commune that hardly anyone cares to know about. My great grandmother started her family here and we’re still here with a handful of others.
Ever since the first time I took her down the bent trunk path with us, she’s been fascinated by that little corner cove of the lake. She would sit on the shore and stare intently at the still water of the early morning while I went through the motions of leaving a food offering, singing an old song and making sure the candles were all burning.
My great grandmother started the tradition of leaving food, flowers and singing a song on the shore of the lake. She passed it down to my grandmother, then my mother, and eventually to me before passing. Every detail was specific and she was particular about execution.
In preparation, we gather fireflies, flowers and raspberries. We fast for three days, so that they do not smell food on us and become jealous. On the night of the offering, everything is carried to a particular cove in old wooden bowls. A cove that has a flat rock laying across two stumps at the edge of the murky water.
We wait for the fireflies to signal their lovers. Then we smear the fluorescence of their bellies on our faces. Squiggles to a child, wards and runes to an adult. They tell the drowned that the bearer is both there to help, but also not to be trifled with.
Then the bowls are laid out. There’s a pestle-like rock on the makeshift table, it’s used to mash and mix the offerings in a third bowl. A splash of bourbon is added to help placate their restlessness. Once those preparations are completed, the candles are lit and the song is sung.
“They need us,” grandma would remind me when my offering was disappointing or my song half hearted, “their mothers drowned them here. Their spirits need comfort.”
I was never into the whole spiritual aspect, though I did find the monthly chore to be cathartic. After we lost my great grandmother, it became my fondest memory and a tribute to her memory. It’s been at least fifteen years since she passed, and I still make an offering at the lake shore right after the full moon.
I asked my mother once why she had the same birthmark as her mother. She gazed down at her navel and her breath left her chest. It seemed like a talk she’d been dreading for longer than she’d known me.
“We’re special, Becca,” she said as she pointed to her left cheek, “All the women in our family end up with this mark eventually.”
“Isn’t it a birthmark?” I questioned.
“No, baby. We aren’t born with this, but I have it. Granny Geneva had it, too.”
“What’s it mean? How do we get it?” My young mind couldn’t wrap itself around the idea.
Mom shrugged and thought for a moment, “Granny Geneva said it marks the sight. It’s in our blood, it just waits until you need it, or it needs you.”
I must have looked puzzled in that long silence. I started to speak, but my mother hushed me. She smiled kindly and spoke softly, “No more, we can talk more after it happens. You’ll understand it then, right now it’s just useless words in your head.”
I waited and waited, but my mark never came. After awhile I figured it was just her version of a Bible story for our hippie dippie pagan traditions. Eventually the task fell to me, tending to the spirits of the lake. After Dharma was born, my mother would look after her while I gave our sympathy to the lake babies. Eventually though she wasn’t in a condition to watch her while I was out in the wilderness.
Naturally, sometimes I had to bring Dharma with me. I would generally leave her up at the trail, within earshot, and be done around the time she lost interest in being there. One day, I was a little slow, she was a done a little early. She wandered down to the water before I even noticed.
I heard the sound of rocks being thrown into water, only, it sounded like I was hearing it from underwater myself. I looked over my shoulder first. No Dharma. I scoured the shoreline from the altar. There she was, hanging off a rock, staring into the dark water. Between the moon and the candles, I could faintly see dozens of little faces in the water peering back up to her.
I scrambled down the steep bank to her, loose rocks skidded with me onto the smooth rock outcrop. I grabbed her shoulder and jerked her back. My eyes hadn’t lied, I could see them plain as day under the water’s glassy surface. Definitely human, but the skin was blue and pulled too tight across the skull. The whites of their eyes were green with algae. They pressed their hands and faces against the water, like something in a horror film trying to climb through a mirror.
The cold, still surface of the water held them back, though. They clawed at it with pruny, sharp fingers, muffled splashing sounds coming up from the lake. Some of them motioned to Dharma, as if to say, “Come on in! The water’s fiiiine!” She struggled against me, trying to join them. I leaned out over the ledge and barked the most powerful “No!” I could muster.
Their murky green eyes collectively widened. They turned and quickly returned to the muddy bottom. I caught a glance of curved slits like gills on the sides of their necks when they turned to retreat. I think my wards drove the point home, I could see the glow from the fireflies bellies in the water. I finished the ritual quickly and carried her home. She was absolutely entranced, determined to join those things. I fought into the night to keep her away from the lake.
“What’d you see in the water, sunshine bear?”
“When?” she asked, puzzled.
“Last night,” I pressed, “You kept trying to go to the lake.”
She looked at even more confused and shrugged, “I don’t remember being there.”
The next full moon rolled around faster than I’d have liked. I waited for Dharma to go to sleep before departing for my work. I floated through the ritual with muscle memory. The same one I’d performed hundreds of times. At the end, my stomach knotted and unease punched me in the gut. My eyes darted back and forth along the shore and further out into the dark. I couldn’t see them, but I felt like they were watching.
The sound of a knife across glass screeched through the woods. Small blue hands, scraping their razor like nails against the water’s still surface from below. The faces started coming close enough to the surface to see. They snarled green and black teeth at me, inching towards the shore. They jammed against the junction of the water and the gravelly shore, their heads deforming and squeezing into the tight space, those green eyes never leaving me. Their scraping and digging deformed the shore, making a pit at the water’s edge that let more of them pile in closer to me. I noticed the fading light of the firefly belly on my nose and ran.
I returned in the light the next day. The pit was still dug out right at the water’s edge. Claw marks were dug into the shore leading up to the altar. The bowl on the stone slab was licked so clean it was sparkling. I needed help.
“They aren’t human.” I blurted out to my mother.
“What?” she asked with a wavering voice.
“The things in the water, those aren’t human kids!”
She groaned to herself before answering, “They used to be, Bec. Over the years the spirits twisted, changed. They turned more… fishlike. Mom- your grandmother- thought it was the oppressive loneliness in the depths that made them that way.”
“Can I keep them in the water?”
“They’re just restless, they’ll be fine” she sighed.
“They wanted Dharma to come in with them!” I cried.
“It will be okay, just keep her from the water.”
The sound of knives being drug across the sheet metal roof of our little hippie hut. Knives tapping on the solar panels that gave us some modern amenities. On the windows. Scraping the outside of the mud and rock walls of our home. I ducked out and slowly peeked out of the corner of the window.
They shambled on feet that weren’t quite feet, but weren’t quite flippers. Long toes, webbed deeper than a human’s, yet still recognizable as vaguely human. My heart nearly flew from my chest as one of them flung itself into the window by my face. It laughed hysterically, like a child watching cartoons for the first time. We covered the windows with curtains, blocked the entrances the best we could and hid until morning.
Guests arrived that morning. Not a lot, just a single couple looking to unplug for the weekend. We ran them through the usual routine. Organic gardening, tending the bees, and checking our limb lines for catfish. I was vigilant while we checked for catfish. One of the lines didn’t want to come up to the surface. I put on work gloves and pulled with all of my might. Eventually with some help from our guests, it started coming up. I started to worry that we may have fished up one of those things. In the end all that we had was a boot that was probably stuck on a submerged log. They didn’t notice the cuts in the glass, doors or walls of the commune’s structures. But I did.
Their stay had been uneventful. A few days in I’d decided to go check on the cove, to see if there’d been anymore activity. It was like watching a cheap slasher flick. There they went, galloping completely naked in the dark into the lake. I wanted to yell for them, but I figured everything had been calm so they must have gone back to sleep. I started back down the trail when I heard a scream.
“Stop grabbing my foot and trim your nails!” the girl shrieked.
The man’s voice carried across the water, “I didn’t grab your feet.”
He started to scream, but it was interrupted by his head being submerged. She started screaming again and flailed her arms in a flurry of water droplets trying to get to the shore as fast as she could. The man burst through the water’s surface and similarly battled his way sloppily to the beach. I ran down to check on them. He was oddly calm; she was hysterical, for lack of a better word. His left leg was gone from the knee down. The flesh was tattered, tendons trailed across the beach from it like streamers.
“Lets get him back to the commune, we can help him better there and get CareFlight out to get him.”
I looked to the water to make sure we were clear. There they were, those green eyes staring at me as a handful of them tore into the limb like a turkey leg. They were at first taken aback by the sight of me up close. Then I realized I wasn’t warded.
“Lets go!” I barked as I grabbed his shoulders.
She stumbled and helped support his hips. Those things were crawling and scratching at the shore again, like they were trying to dig out of the water. When we were back within shouting distance of the commune, she collapsed. I nearly dropped him onto her and yelled for help. She had a nasty gash on her leg that’d been bleeding pretty bad, too.
He survived. Neither of them saw the children. Shortly after they arrived at the hospital animal control showed up and searched for the presumed alligator that attacked the two of them. They searched into the afternoon the following day by boat. When they pulled their boat out, they didn’t notice the gashes in the wooden hull.
After animal control was gone, we started hearing a noise around dusk. It was something halfway between a frog’s croak and man yawning. It quickly formed into a melody, with more voices joining in the longer it went. The melody itself was haunting; it seemed to suck us into its rises and falls. The only thing I can relate the tone to is children singing the words to a song they don’t actually know.
Something burned inside of me and I shook free of the stupor. I ran out, shaking everyone out of it. They were shambling absentmindedly to the lake. Dharma. I couldn’t find Dharma. I already knew. I knew who the song was for, maybe she was why they had been so active. I ran for the trail; she’d go to the cove with the altar.
She waddled down the trail. I shook her. I yelled her name. I even tried scooping her up, but she just wiggled and slid out of my arms without a minute acknowledgment of my presence. I ran in front of her. There they were on the shore, in the water, everywhere. They grinned with their black and green teeth as they sang louder.
“Cut the shit!” I yelled.
They ignored me, then I realized why. I was unprotected. Dharma was getting close to the shore. I ran up and punched one of them. Wet, squishy. It didn’t even flinch. I ran back again, this time trying to push Dharma back up the gravelly shore. She pushed me towards the water, unphased as the cacophony urged her on.
I looked over my shoulder, and there was a shadow just under the surface. It was something much bigger than a child. Awestruck, I turned around and tried to make out what it was, but it was too far out for me to make out any detail. It inched towards the shore. As it got closer I could see it pushing up against the surface of the water. The sound of glass splintering echoed across the flat surface of the lake.
My body started to panic, my brain couldn’t process what was happening. The thing that surfaced reminded me of a manatee at first. Scarred, with barnacles dug into its flesh. But it had hair on its head, matted and long, tangled with plant matter. Its face was vaguely human, its voice gruff and distorted as it called out from the middle of the cove.
“Come join us, my new child…”
I learned, in that moment, what it meant to have a fire inside of you. I screamed with pure, unadulterated rage. A bright green light washed over the cove, lighting up the water, the shore, and the things that were trying to take my Dharma. They recoiled back, but the big thing in the water stood its ground. I roared again; this time the green light crumbled some of the childish things that were too near me. My reflection in the water told me all I needed to know. The firefly wards burned bright green on my face. A burning V had overtaken my left cheek and ran over my left eye.
“I said fuck off!” I wailed, sending a green shockwave that disintegrated more of the singing things. A tree’s trunk cracked behind me from the force.
Then they all went silent and slipped into the water without so much as a splash. I checked my other side. There was Dharma, right at the edge of the water.
Her toes touched the glass like surface. The cold, dark water shocked her into awareness.
I tried to reach for her. I grabbed a handful of her curly locks. I saw those scaley, half-fin, half-human little hands shoot up and grab her ankle. They ripped her from this world.
Not a sound, not a splash. Just gone. Gone into the abyss.
I collapsed, a thick wad of her curls in my hand. The manatee creature still where it was. It gave me a nod of acknowledgment. Then it grinned and gave me a wink before swishing back to the depths of the lake.
I still perform the ritual. I don’t hurry anymore; the runes are there when they need to be. I stay and I watch. I watch little Dharma come up and partake the offering. She isn’t changing into one of them yet. I think it’s because I’m keeping her from being lonely. This V on my cheek hasn’t faded, so I guess it was finally my time.