When the crowd of trees tried to block us from reaching the lake’s edge, we knew they were hiding something. We intended to find out what, even if we had to chop them down one by one. At least, that’s what I had threatened.
“We’re not going to do that!” you said. “Besides, we didn’t bring an ax.”
“They don’t know that.”
“We’ll just have to convince them to let us through.”
We had been chasing rumors about a body of water that enraptured any creature who gazed into it. That’s all we knew, except that it was probably somewhere on the North American continent.
“Well, that narrows it down,” I had said. You nodded at my sarcasm as we pulled out maps to plan our expedition. We prefer rumors that are a bit less vague.
“Let’s start here.” You pointed to Minnesota. “It’s the ‘land of ten thousand lakes’ right? Maybe someone there has heard about the one we’re looking for.”
But we had no luck — being enraptured isn’t really a thing for Minnesotans, so no one knew what we were talking about. Though when I asked about lakes, a lot of the guys immediately brought up ice fishing, which was about as close as they got to a state of bliss, I suppose. I appreciated their soft-spoken enthusiasm, so that was my favorite part of the trip.
We needed a place with a bigger selection and headed north into Ontario where lakes breed like rabbits — there’s a quarter million of them there, containing about a fifth of the world’s fresh water. After weeks of talking to locals, scouring maps, studying the geological history, tracing waterways, learning about wildlife habits, and finally just using our intuition, we hired a plane to drop us off in the upper region of the province — south of some hills that wished they were mountains — and spent a few days hiking into deep wilderness.
On the fourth day, we came to a modest-size body of water surrounded by trees that were crowding in like eager fans around a rock star. They had come from all over to be near the lake and were jostling for position, shuffling forward, and blocking our view. We’d never seen anything like it.
“This is probably it,” I said.
You looked at the map. “It doesn’t even have a name, like it wants to be anonymous.”
We walked around the periphery, standing on our toes to get a glimpse of the water, but couldn’t find a path. The trees were so densely packed, their trunks were touching. We squeezed between a few pines, climbed up a poplar, crawled though the branches of a spruce, got stuck, shimmied to the ground, then got shoved back by some rather rude aspens and ended up where we had started. That’s when I mentioned chopping them down.
After some negotiating — and a bit of pushing — we were able to get through. But the trees had crowded in so close to the water, the shore all around the lake was just a narrow strip of rocky dirt.
“Maybe the water tastes better here,” I suggested. “Like a brewery that makes craft beers. Why else would it draw such a crowd? And it’s not even Saturday.”
“No. The water’s supposed to have a power over creatures that look into it.”
“The rumors said enrapture. I guess that’s a power, like enchantment. But trees? They can’t see into the water.”
“Maybe they feel it in their roots.”
We found a flat rock and knelt on it side by side. “Are you ready to be enraptured?” I asked. You gave me a skeptical look. “Well, I’m ready,” I said. Not really — I had no idea what to expect.
We leaned over the water and were immediately hooked.
In the reflection I saw someone that seemed to be me, but much better-looking — a few inches taller than my five-foot-eleven, well-built, broad shouldered and muscular. My face is okay in real life, but in the water my jaw was square, my light brown hair was styled and sexy, my hazel eyes were a piercing blue. I could have gazed into them forever.
I glanced over at your reflection, but didn’t see any difference. Your hair was still shoulder length, but for some reason you were combing it with your fingers as if it were down to your waist. And you touched your cheekbones like they were a prominent feature on your face.
Anyway, I wanted to look at my reflection some more, that handsome guy. But the water was doing something funny, swelling up just below me and distorting my lovely image. I tried to keep the picture clear, and was about to lean in farther when you tapped me on the arm. I shook off the enchantment and sat back on my heels, aching for one more look. The water calmed back down.
“Did you see me?” I asked, still intoxicated with my lake-induced vision. “I mean, wow.”
Your eyes had a faraway look. “She was perfect.”
“She? You mean you.” Then it hit me — they weren’t us, and we weren’t them. You had already figured that out. “Yes, I suppose she was. So was he.” I sighed. I’d never be that good looking. But maybe no one is, except in stories.
According to myth, Narcissus saw his own reflection in a pool and fell in love with it, because he was already quite attractive. But the water of this lake made anyone believe they were good looking, presenting an ideal image worthy of being gazed at. And we found that merely putting a hand in the water made us feel special, like we had achieved greatness, which is why the trees wanted to be so close. They weren’t immune to vanity.
“What if we drank the water?” I asked.
“We can try that experiment later, once we know more.”
We settled in to conduct our study. You pulled out your notebook, I took out my journal. We each jotted down our thoughts and observations — yours probably included a few drawings and equations, mine favored the literary approach. Such as:
Clouds floating by paused to admire their reflections below, seeing in the water perfectly puffy white forms, when they might actually be wispy and gray. They’d stop in mid-air, clustering in self-admiration above the lake until urged on by the wind, which might briefly look over its shoulder at the water, seeing itself as a sleek zephyr of crystal clear air even though it was hazy, humid, and a bit overweight.
Conjecture, sure. But we didn’t exactly conduct interviews or take measurements.
We soon discovered the lake’s sinister motive. That evening we sat with our backs against a couple of trees watching the shore for wildlife activity. Sunset colors still lingered in the western sky and the afternoon breeze had long since quieted down, leaving the water calm and glasslike. I’m quoting again from my journal.
A raccoon wound its way through the trees, trotted along the beach, and jumped up onto a rock at the lake’s edge. It made no pretense of hunting for fish or washing its hands. It just stretched itself out as far as it could over the water and stared down at its reflection without moving.
“He’s not even blinking,” you said.
“And I’ve seen better-looking raccoons.” It was an ugly creature with matted hair and an old wound on its cheek. But it must have been seeing another version of itself.
You pointed. “Something’s happening.”
The water had swelled into a bulge just below the raccoon, which cocked its head in confusion at the change in its reflection. It leaned farther down, its nose almost touching the surface. Without warning the water lunged upward, engulfed the critter in a bulbous trap, and dragged it under with barely a splash. A few bubbles broke the surface, then silence. The raccoon was gone.
“Well that explains a lot,” I said.
In a land where lakes are as plentiful as mosquitoes, there’s bound to be some variation in the species. Evolution demands it. Some lakes are big and deep, others narrow and shallow. Some are muddy, others reflect like mirrors. Some have nice personalities, others are born mean and stay that way no matter how you raise them.
And this particular lake had evolved a unique way of attracting victims — getting them to gaze at the water long enough for it to swallow them whole. Who knows what nature will come up with next?
You pursed your lips. “So it’s not vegetarian then.” Another observation for your notebook.
We decided not to drink the water after that. But we kept watching, and saw dragonflies hovering over the lake and getting grabbed by what we had first thought were leaping fish, but which were actually bulbs of water snatching the insects out of the air. Birds seemed adept at avoiding the danger — they’d learned to stay out of reach. I was happy for them.
The trees were saved by roots that gave them a firm grip on the shore. Otherwise, the lake would be stuffed with elms, pines, cedars and poplars. Or maybe it was carnivorous like you said and didn’t care for vegetation, even though pine nuts are pretty tasty.
We both wanted to take another look at ourselves in the water, but realized how close we had come to being pulled under during our bout of enrapturement.
“What if you tied me to a tree?” I suggested. “Like how Ulysses got tied to the mast, so when he heard the Sirens’ song he couldn’t jump into the sea and go after them.”
“The lake might know how to loosen ropes. I think we’ve seen enough.”
We prepared to leave. The trees were only too happy to let us back through so they could crowd forward into the space we had occupied. We never found out what a tree’s idea of its perfect self is. Probably something with no bark beetles, hardier roots, a taller trunk, brighter green leaves, maybe sturdier branches. I mean, who wouldn’t want stronger limbs?
We hoisted our packs, ready to start back. You were thoughtful. “Should I wear a sari and let my hair grow long? Maybe use makeup, like my cousins?”
That’s what you had seen in the water? The lake had gotten to you after all. I needed to break the spell, but how could I convince you I love you just as you are, without sounding trite or sentimental, or gushing about how perfect you are to me? That’s not my style, or yours. I had to appeal to your sensible nature.
“In the first place, it’s not practical.” I made a sweeping gesture that encompassed all the outdoors and all our adventures. Then I gripped you by the shoulders and looked straight into your eyes. “In the second place, no. Just… no.”
You nodded. I think you understood.