The Woman in the Lake – a short story by Elizabeth Enochs

The Woman in the Lake 

Hattie sits at the kitchen table breaking crackers in two before topping them with pimento cheese. Her mother assumes it’s a phase — like the summer Hattie refused to eat anything with a face — but Hattie’s eaten crackers this way since she bit into weevil larvae at a church potluck two springs ago, and she’ll eat crackers this way for the rest of her life. Hattie’s had a stomach ache for days and doesn’t really want to eat anything, but her mother insists because that’s what good mothers do. 

Today is the day Hattie and her mother will walk down to the church where she ate the weevil crackers. They’ll both wear black dresses and black shoes. They’ll arrive right on time and sit in a pew near the back. 

When it’s all over, Hattie and her mother will walk up to the front row, say they’re so sorry and offer hugs and cheek kisses to everyone who’s crying. Hattie will turn and look at the body, lightly touch the woman’s cold hand, and quietly mutter a few words that no one will hear over the piano.

They’ll walk to someone’s house then and eat casseroles and pie. Hattie’s stomach will stop hurting and she’ll drink glass after glass of pink lemonade until sugar and pulp coat her teeth and tongue. Her mother will drink coffee. Later, all the kids will end up playing hide and seek in the woods behind the house and all the parents will end up drinking amber liquor from crystal glasses. Hattie will run until her French braid comes undone, and she’ll snag her brand new dress on a thorn bush in the woods — her mother won’t notice the tear until she’s doing laundry the next day, and even then Hattie won’t get in trouble. Before they leave, Hattie’s mother will wash all the crystal glasses and put away all the casseroles and pies. She’ll offer more hugs and cheek kisses, more I’m so sorrys, and then Hattie and her mother will walk home while the sun is setting. 

But right now, Hattie’s snacking and drinking juice from an old jam jar while her mother drinks coffee and smokes on the front porch. Right now, Hattie’s thinking about the story of Lazarus and holding her aching belly with the hand that’s not holding crackers. She’s remembering a Sunday school class from a few weeks ago about prophets and the power of prayer, and she’s wondering about the best way to pray for the woman the sheriff’s department found when they dragged the lake. 

Maybe I can bring her back without even touching her, Hattie thinks. She’d only touched one dead body before, her grandmother’s, and wasn’t eager to do so again. Maybe I can just say the words in my head and that’ll be enough, she thinks. After all, that’s the way her and her mother usually say grace. Or maybe, I can touch her while I’m saying the words in my head, and that’ll be enough, Hattie considers. I should probably touch her and whisper the words at the same time, just to be safe, Hattie decides. It’s the option she dreads the most, but she settles on it, thinking it’s the one most likely to get God’s attention. 

The screen door smacks shut when Hattie’s mother comes inside to tell her they have to get ready. Hattie sits very still while her mother French braids her hair, and when she’s finished, Hattie asks her for help with the zipper on her new dress. Hattie’s mom puts on a black dress of her own, gargles mouthwash, and applies lipstick the color of bricks before the two leave for the church, walking hand in hand.

That night, after Hattie and her mother have walked home from the wake, taken baths, and sipped hot chocolate in front of the TV, Hattie dreams of the woman the sheriff found in the lake. She dreams the woman is floating on her back, starlit and skinny dipping, smiling and safe. She dreams the woman swims to shore and slips into a white dress that sticks where it should flow, clinging to the lake water that’s failed to drip from the woman’s body. 

In Hattie’s dream, night turns to day while she and the woman are picnicking in the cemetery, and Hattie shows the woman how to look for weevils in her crackers. When Hattie and the woman finish eating they walk around, hand in hand, introducing themselves to all the dead who have risen. 

Hattie spots her grandmother sunbathing on a blanket with Hattie’s first pet — an orange cat with green eyes — and blows both of them a kiss. Hattie sees the girl who kissed her behind the white oak in her backyard and waves. The girl waves back before returning to her Nancy Drew mystery, using her gravestone as a backrest. Hattie sees a group of men wearing white uniforms with black neckerchiefs, laughing and drinking and throwing a frisbee back and forth while their caskets lie open in the sun. 

When Hattie wakes up she’ll look for signs that the woman’s back. She’ll bike to the cemetery to visit her grave; she’ll walk to the part of the lake where the sheriff found her body. She’ll try talking to God again. Years later, she’ll even Google how to do a seance — but the woman will only ever appear in Hattie’s dreams, where they’ll swim under the stars and share picnic lunches with those who have risen.

Liz Enochs is a writer from southeast Missouri. Her nonfiction has been published by Narratively, Leafly, Bustle, and many others. So far, her fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Open: Journal of Arts and Letters, Remington Review, and The Raven Review. Often, you’ll find her in the woods.

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