Losing her was not a thing we had considered. It was not a possibility we had ever turned over in our sleepless cedar nights, the windows flung open and the loons playing at operas on the water, our wives in pilled cotton snoring gentle girlish snores, reminding us of other gentle girlish noises that had been made on teenaged couches left to rot on back roads like oversized fruit. She had reminded all of us of our young wives and their beautiful white teeth, the way they had looked at the junior prom in the yellow felt crown, their hair the same sweet brown as a doe’s soft coat, and hadn’t we all felt the soft coat of the doe when we had brought her down in the November woods, stroked at her sweet ears and her long neck with her eyes finally closing, a thumbprint of her blood on our right glove.
Miss Sandy Bay Trout Festival 2005, we immortalized her in the photo that hangs in the mayor’s office and the post office and the drug store. Her dress is the same blue as the sky on a June evening before the sun’s come all the way down and the kids have been brought inside. She is young and light but not so young that we can’t see the way her body’s about to go, all rounded with potential like the first time we saw Dolly Parton on Porter Wagoner, her hair high and beautiful but not yet enough to make us feel raw and overworked, only a stirring across our goosepimples like a warm breeze from the water. You can tell by the way she smiles that she hasn’t sucked the blue tip from a cigarette yet. Her lips cradle her mouth with such gentleness and care, like the Virgin handling the infant Christ. She has one slim hand raised to the photographer. Mr. Case from the high school theatre department gave her a pair of long white gloves to wear from last year’s production of My Fair Lady, and though he is a well-known fruit there must have been something about her that even he could not resist, such was the effect of her. She made a heart go cloudy with sweetness and forget all the trespasses that had set it down a mistrusting path.
She had allowed us to love our wives again, to have such a capacity for the emotion that we were also falling in love with till girls and waitresses and the artist from the city who came up and stayed in Hall’s Hayseed Cabins for the summer, sometimes wandering into the tavern with flecks of paint in her white-gold hair and under her red fingernails. We loved the artist because she would spend good money on rip-off beer, because she told us so often that she wanted to be like us and live like us, how our lives must be so clean without the haze of nightclubs and yellow cabs. We loved our wives because of how different they were from the artist, and we loved the artist because of how little she resembled our wives. We began to believe that we could have it all, the insatiable strangeness of the tourists and the familiar warm kitchens of our local women. We believed with the blessing of Miss Sandy Bay Trout Festival 2005 that we could do anything. She was a holy palm raised over the cap-flattened hair of our community, a benevolent creature before which we must remove our hats and swear off our tobacco.
We never thought that she could be taken from us. That was our true folly, to think that such beauty would not be coveted by other towns, and then by other worlds. We dreamed dreams in which she flew from bedroom to bedroom, leaving kisses on our foreheads, running her fingers through our sleeping hair like our dear deceased mothers so many years before. We dreamed that she could walk across the lake and gather the fish to her like eager pups, their heads nuzzling her toes, leaping at her calves for the touch of her lips and cheeks. We dreamed that she came to our doors soaked from rain and we wrapped her in our flannel shirt, and she only smiled kindly at our bodies, pale from the winter and softened from age. She made us feel as if our limp pocketed bellies and swollen womanly joints were as proud as trees. She made us walk taller down the grocery store aisle with our carts full of skim milk and canned pork and beans. We bought new belts and trimmed our beards. We asked our wives whatever happened to our comb, and our wives, they were so full of question and delight at our reawakenings, they flapped like gills at the new joy of us.
For her, we would have run as boys do to the river’s edge. We would have thrown ourselves in, clothing shed, chins above the water, shoulders braced to swing and thrust and propel us across the current. We would have carried her in our arms or swam beneath her, letting her stand on our broad backs. Our wives would pull up in cars full of our children, cheering us on, confident we would beat the great river and its indignant rapids. They would bring sandwiches and thermoses of soup and a blanket for sitting in the shade of the scrub pines. What a show we would put on for these women we loved and the little ones we’d made together, we would never look as good or as strong as we did carrying Miss Sandy Bay Trout Festival 2005 through the anger of the river, our limbs made full of purpose and a great beautiful power.
We did not think there would come a day when she would not be there, grinning at us from the passenger seat of her teenage friend’s car, twisting a lock of hair around her finger before the JollyMart freezer. We’d ask her if she was getting an ice cream bar, and she’d laugh at us like we were young and handsome men, look us in the eye as if she were ready to throw her arms around our necks and kiss us on our stubbled jaw, telling us how much our skin tickles her lips. Even when she was not wearing the blue dress, we loved her. Even when she did not have her long white gloves, we loved her. Even when she did not wear the tall crystalline crown of Miss Sandy Bay Trout Festival 2005, we loved her. We thought to ourselves that we would always love her, and she would always be there among us, open to our love.
Until one Thursday in August, when the lines at Frozen Dreams are longest and the sun warms the coves to bathwater, we woke up and she was gone.
To where the town did not know. The mother of Miss Sandy Bay Trout Festival 2005 was considered a lush and a man-eater, wearing her daughter’s cut-offs at the tavern, bending low over the bar to ask for a light and company. We barely thought of her as part of her daughter as her daughter had once been a part of her body. We chose not to remember how we had sometimes warmed a truck bed with her sinewy legs. We were too focused on the saving power of her lily-white daughter, the hope that was carried in her wide pupils and on her sugar tongue. Angels were not born, we felt. There was no sin in their making, we thought, and chose to never consider that any one of us could have been the father.
Now the mother came to the sheriff in a sweatshirt and loose jeans. She cried at his office door and wailed into a payphone until the deputies pulled her down into a chair like so many anchors and ropes. They called for women to deal with her, gathered two secretaries to her side to cushion them from her noises and her smoky hair. The sound of her grief embarrassed them. They felt as if they would catch her fear like a runny nose if they touched her, if they ran their hands over her now as they once had in the bathroom of the bar and the back of their patrol car. They ran through rational explanations and did not flinch when the mother screamed at their suggestions, slamming her elbow onto their desks and snatching at their numbered collars.
“She could have gone to see a boy,” they said. “A friend with a car, a trip to Canada. She’s young and pretty. She’s the kind of girl that would want to get out of this town. You know what they’re like at that age, coming up with this stuff. She could have been fixing to do it a long time ago.”
The mother was insistent that her daughter had not left of her own accord. Miss Sandy Bay Trout Festival 2005 had been taken from her driveway by a blinding white light that had lifted her into the air like a great invisible fist, rendering her a limp doll as her body was carried higher and higher, her still and hanging limbs growing smaller until the light went out, and with it, Miss Sandy Bar Trout Festival 2005.
The deputies could not think of what to say to this, so they shook their heads a little, and covered what they wrote in their report with a cupped hand.
“I know what I saw,” she said, and she pointed one finger towards the ceiling as if God was crouched there, waiting to be acknowledged. “I know what happened to my baby and I know that something needs to be done about it.”
But what could any of the sheriff’s men do about it?
We were no longer so handsome or good in the eye of our families. There was no longer a sweet tolerance for our leaving on of lights or our flooding of sinks, our forgetfulness in the face of the recycling or the hungry dog. Our wives confided in the priest that we had become melancholic and lazy. They began to read romance novels that inspired them to lust after the priest and the foreigner who drove through the town on a weekday, his hair in a ponytail. They all came to stand beside his car at the JollyMart, their hair done up at the parlor, their nails fresh and bright as little pink bullets. We couldn’t blame them for looking in the direction of another. It was our own fault that we had loved something enough to be betrayed by its absence.
And hadn’t the LaPointe twins seen the lights dancing over Lake Nabaneewack? Hadn’t Father Nolan heard the strange songs coming from the woods as if played, he said, on God’s great space organ? No, there was no question in our minds where our sweet princess of the smoked trout platter went.
They had taken her, jealous of the perfection that wandered our town. To right what had been wronged, we knew who we would have to take it up with, and we were prepared. They were the responsible bastards. They were the terror that had put out our sweet light. We would do battle, like our fathers who had seen war, like our older brothers and cousins who had seen Vietnam. This was our righteous crusade.
We gathered like we once had in gymnasiums and on the dust brown baseball field, we were boys again around a bat or a crouching coach and his bald head beneath a worn cap. We’d loved the purpose of ourselves gathered around that middle-aged man and his straining middle and his smooth-edged clipboard, we had been more than ourselves and we’d chased that feeling into our adulthood like so many other boys before us. Now we remembered what it felt like to take the knee in the shade of the dugout. As if we were still teenagers with our first girlfriends in the stands, we were deliberate and sure. We went to the clearing beside the river, we waited with our shovels and our shotguns and our son’s junior hockey sticks as the sun disappeared and the cool settled on the land and our wives came to drop off jackets and orange hunting coveralls. Hurry home, we told them as we pulled on our vests and gloves. Soon they will be here, and we cannot save her and protect you at the same time. Our wives were kind and understanding, we thought in those moments as they nodded and smiled and pulled away, because at the time we could not see the straining of their face in the twilight. Without the moon, we could not see their disappointed cheeks and their separating skin and how they gripped the steering wheel with such determination as they drove in the opposite direction, driving back to houses they wanted to share with someone else. Soon, some of them would find ways to make this right, but we did not know this yet. We were blind in our sudden courage. We could not see so many things unless they danced and waved in front of us like the lights now descending onto the clearing, great round ships the color and shape of a tin pan lowering themselves to Earth with a deafening roar like a hundred thousand semis shifting gears on the Northway.
Give her back, we screamed when the spaceships came. Give her back to us, we wailed, and tore open our shirts and beat our chests like our ancestors would have once done on the fields of Brittany and the Hill of Tara, their bodies painted blue and their hair knotted into terrifying shapes. We raised our voices and we shook our fists and we showed them our passion, our commitment. We would not move from the foot of this mountain. We would be as strong as the trees and their deep-plunging roots. We would run like the rivers and the streams and even the final trickle of the creek, we would rise up out of the ground no matter the season and we would always be there, crying for her return.
The shapes did not respond to our threats, not at first. They regarded us with all the disinterest of our wives and our dogs and our children when we were disappointments, when we could not get the extra shift and we could not buy the red and blue bicycle instead of the hand-me-down from our neighbors. But we knew what to do in the face of their ignorance. We knew we could not stop, we could only get louder. And when we had raised our voices as high as they could go, a single beam of light struck the ground, and slowly, so slowly that it hurt us to hold our breath, they lowered Miss Sandy Bay Trout Festival 2005 to the ground.
When we came to her side, we could see that she was changed. Her face was pinched and furrowed, not at all like it had been when she had walked among us, between us, with that scent about her like sweet grass and so many afternoons warm as a mother’s cheek. Now she opened her eyes, and her face soured at the sight of us and her mouth squeezed tight like a disease. When we saw this, we could not remember what it was she had looked like before she had been laid out like a dinner in the middle of the field, what it was that had fueled our pilgrimages to her smiles, the wave of her hand. Was there a time when we would have followed the path of her waving hand over deserts and through storms, into fires like the fires that surely awaited us in Hell for the mistakes we had made? We could not remember. We looked at her and wondered why we stood now over this pile of angry bones and rigid dislike. Had we been ready to wreck ourselves on such a jagged line of rock and skin? What had we been thinking?
She stuck out her chin at us, got to her feet. We stepped away from her, as we could see the smoke rising from her skin and we could feel a heat coming off her and a smell like melting steel. She opened her mouth and from it came a sound like the grating of wire and the pangs of other universes, vaster than ours, metallic and hard and dangerous.
“You’re pathetic,” she said, and where once were her limbs was a white fire, that would burn and burn until we could not stand to look at it anymore.
Kate F. Severance lives in Northern New York. She will be an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Virginia in Fall 2019.
photo: Parth Jagani