Going to meet a friend, the woman spies a lake monster one night as she drives by the reservoir. Only its snaky head and then its tail, so green it’s like seeing the color for the first time, vanishing into the water. Neither trees nor grass are that green, or that gleaming. As she drives on, she thinks she should have taken its picture.
When she arrives at the restaurant, the woman tells her friend what she saw.
“A lake monster,” she says. “In the reservoir!”
“That’s man-made, isn’t it?” says her friend over a glass of wine.
“The reservoir? Yes.”
“But you said lake monster?”
“She was so green.”
“It doesn’t make any sense.”
“I didn’t say it makes sense. I said I saw such a green lake monster.”
They are gesturing with their wine glasses now.
“I get it. Green. Lake monster. What am I missing?”
“It’s in the reservoir.”
Her friend gets irritated.
“Why’s a lake monster in a reservoir?”
It turns into a fight. They exchange ugly words, like gifts they’ve put a lot of thought into. Afterwards, in her car, the woman feels like their friendship is over.
She returns to the reservoir. Under the moon, the water shimmers like a sheet of black glass. Once out of her car, the woman can’t think of a reason to get back in and stands on the shoreline staring at everything there is to stare at. The wine, the fight, and the warm night have left her rattled and angry. She decides on a swim. It might feel good to be where the monster is. There’s a thought she’s never had before.
As she undresses, she decides she can’t understand what is so inhospitable about a reservoir. A lake monster could thrive here in the depths. Leaving her dress on a pale rock, the woman jumps into the water. The cool slides over her. When she surfaces, the moon looks closer than she thought, a hunk of pale dough within arm’s reach. Floating on her back, the woman feels like she’s ascending into the sky, brought back by a call from the shore.
It’s her friend, waving and shouting her name.
When the woman comes out of the water, prepared to renew their fight, her friend apologizes.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I don’t know what came over me.”
Then the friend takes out her phone and beams.
“Let’s take pictures of the lake monster!”
It takes a moment for the woman to realize how disgusted she is by the vulgarity of her friend’s suggestion. Horrified, she remembers that she had this documentary impulse, too.
“No, I don’t want to take pictures of the lake monster.”
She considers the thought again, her position becoming clear. “If you try to take pictures, it will never come back.”
The woman doesn’t know if that’s true but saying it makes her feel it’s so.
“We’ll see about that,” her friend says, with sincere venom. “I’m coming back with my tent. I’ll wait all night.”
“I’ll wait all night, too,” says the woman.
Her first instinct was right after all. Their fight has been given a second chance at life.
But they don’t wait all night.
They wait all week, the moon waning in the sky. They pitch tents, one next to the other on the muddy beach. Sometimes the woman goes for a swim, looking for the ascending feeling of that first evening, but her friend stands on the shore with her arms folded over her chest or her hands on her hips. Or else she sits in a chair she brought from home and swipes at her phone, her cameras ready. There’s one on the phone, of course, and two in a bag slung over her shoulder. Another sits on a tripod.
“I didn’t know you had a tripod,” the woman says.
“Whatever,” says her friend. “You can get a good deal on a tripod if you really look.”
The woman shakes her head. “This sucks,” she says.
Her friend ignores the comment and says she’ll get the pictures.
“I’ll document him,” she says.
“How do you know?”
“Just a feeling.”
Now that they are no longer the friends they used to be, the woman can see that her friend doesn’t care about feelings. A feeling is not a good document.
One night the next week—for their vigil continues with no signs of stopping—the woman’s friend begins to photograph the reservoir from every vantage point she can reach: the shore, the trees, the bridge. She patrols the shoreline on the other side of the reservoir taking pictures like a soldier or explorer. All the time her tripod sits in front of her tent, its lens trained on the black water.
“Livestreaming,” she tells the woman.
The woman doesn’t know what to do. Chucking the cameras in the reservoir has a certain appeal but would never work. Her friend could get more cameras, or worse, she could get more photographers. Plus, the two of them are closer than ever. Living side by side on a muddy beach for two weeks has cultivated a sense of mutual recrimination, which is friendship’s evil twin. It casts an intimate spell neither of them wishes to break. The question of who has the advantage would be re-opened. The woman’s only edge at the moment is her insulated bathing suit. Also the prescription goggles. When she swims, she thinks of it as climbing inside a photograph.
One night a few weeks later, the woman pulls herself slowly through the water. Under a dim moon, it’s easier to see into the depths, easier to acknowledge how silly it is to expect to find anything. Still, every twenty feet or so she dunks her goggled head and peers down for signs of life. No such signs appear.
Swimming on the other side of the reservoir, she sees a deep shadow along a concrete wall that forms the shoreline—a pipe or a cave. She somehow forgot that the reservoir was man-made. She looks out of the water for a moment, gazing at the beach with its tents, cameras, and atmosphere of neighborly disdain. Her friend would come if she called, but she doesn’t do it. Instead she takes a deep breath and plunges below.
Near the pipe the water is warmer, so she swims inside.
She recognizes at once that she has swum into the monster’s open mouth. She wouldn’t call it a surprise. Below and above her gleam the monster’s teeth, like the totems of a violent feast. In the middle lies the massive tongue, which twitches like the tail of a sleeping cat. Towards the back of the mouth lay the shattered remains of a canoe.
Since the throat is open, and she doesn’t feel afraid, the woman swims down. She follows the twisting tunnel of the lake monster’s throat. When she gets to the stomach, the churned-up remains of the giant serpent’s meals surround her—deer legs, bear arms, owl heads, and a variety of intact songbirds, apparently swallowed whole. They astonish the woman with their assorted shades and colors. A massacred rainbow. She realizes that the monster must come ashore to snack on all creatures great and small.
If it can crawl ashore, surely the lake monster can depart the reservoir and leave the woman behind. The thought makes her lonely, there in the beast’s stomach.
The body shudders.
She can feel the lake monster moving, and the motion throws her against a spongy wall of tissue. Surfacing and diving, cresting and falling, the monster swims with tremendous speed. It makes the woman think of a predator pursuing its prey. She pictures herself as she is: an undigested morsel in a belly where she doesn’t belong.
There’s a time and a place to be eaten, she thinks, and this isn’t it.
As she swims up the throat, fighting a backwards-flowing current and digging her hands into soft tissue for purchase, something tumbles towards her. A jacket, she thinks, but then she sees it’s her friend, who appears unhurt but wears a bewildered expression. Her clothing is rumpled, one sleeve torn. Behind her, attached by a rope that is wrapped around her ankle, flies a crumpled blue tent.
As she passes, the friend raises a small camera and takes the woman’s picture. The woman reaches out her hand, stretches stretches stretches, her friend dropping the camera to stretch too. In the end it’s more like they’re waving than reaching for one another, momentum and current sucking the friend down into the belly. The tent follows after as the woman, with one hand still grasping the lining of the throat, watches with wide eyes.
She surges forward and upward, pulling hard with her arms. A scream rings in her head. She has to grab another handful of spongy tissue to pull herself back into the mouth, where she confronts those teeth again. As the monster’s tongue lunges at her, she puts out her hands and pushes against it, allowing herself to be thrown sideways at a gap between two teeth through which she can see stars.
The lake monster spits her out.
She lands with a splash, and bubbles encase her. When she recovers herself and surfaces, the lake monster is gone. Everything is still. The moon is in the sky, at its appropriate distance. There are no friends here, no one at all onshore. Maybe no one anywhere to run to. No running to do at all. A lonely feeling settles over the reservoir, and the woman realizes that was the longest she’s ever held her breath. She wonders if she’ll ever hold it again.
MH Rowe's stories have appeared in The Rumpus, Black Warrior Review, and DIAGRAM, among other places. He has also written for Lit Hub, The Millions, and Public Art Review, all from a small room in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Find him on Twitter @mhrowe.
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The Other Side of the Reservoir