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Five Lake Stories

A well-traveled park still summons wonders.


It was there, last year, that I heard the first spring cricket rub a hesitant chirp and the first cicadas unleash their insistent, summerlong songs. I've seen armies of robins, deer taking flight and a man running backward. In the heart of the city, its roads pounded by cars and its lakeside paths well-trampled, Byrd Park stays a wilderness. Whenever I walk there, I never know what I will find.

Stale bread summons a storm of birds to the shores of Swan Lake. Gulls with their lean, cruel faces swoop down to snatch thrown crusts. Dullard pigeons peck patiently at the bricks. Five diving ducks, slick magicians in suits of black and white, slip smoothly under to reappear two minutes later, dry and distant.

Canada geese and gray geese bob in the feather-flecked water. A few, when they turn, reveal shattered wings. On one, bare bones protrude from a peony of yellowed feathers, sharp and white as sun-bleached sticks.

Sodden crumbs of Texas Toast aren't quite right for wild birds, I know. But better to throw bread than leave broken geese to drift hungry, like empty ships with toppled sails.

The muscled young man in a bandanna and red jersey beckons to me by the lakeside one late afternoon in July. "Hey, look," he says, and points to a lotus leaf beaded with drops of water. Each liquid oval gleams supernaturally in the slanted sun like molten silver, like the eye of a cat startled in the dark. A mantra comes to mind: Om mani padme hum. The jewel in the heart of the lotus.

It occurs to me that I might have stayed aloof, had this man called out to me on a city street. Instead, he and I stand together watching the great leaves quiver. We say little more, then part ways.

Three figures stand at the edge of the lake on a fog-heavy Sunday. I watch them, pretending to be intent on the sniffing patterns of my roommate's Pekingese.

An Indian family. A woman and man in their 30s, perhaps, and a gray-haired man. I see them kneel on the low stone wall and reach into the winter water. They pull up a few brown lotus roots and stalks, all the while warily looking around. A recipe? A remedy? The beginnings of a water garden?

I want to ask them, but I'm reluctant to break the gray silence. They get back in their car with a slender bundle of stalks. The dog looks up, anxious to go home.

To the edge of Boat Lake I carry a bucket of gnarled, algae-slimed tubers, trailing leaves on long stems — the three yellow water lilies I dug up from the crowded goldfish pond at my parents' house. Here, I hope they'll take root and grow.

One by one I toss them into the shallow water. A man walking by stops to watch. "Releasing your lilies into the wild?" he calls out. "Yup," I say. "It just wasn't right to keep them caged any longer."

The three clusters of leaves, one bearing a limp yellow bud, float slowly away. One ends up tangled in debris near the pump intake-grate and, over the next few weeks, slowly yellows and dies. One disappears after a city worker chugs through the lake in a fan-powered boat to clear away the surface scum. And one stakes a claim in a corner of the lake, drifting a bit but seeming to thrive. It even summons up the energy to open a few spiky flowers before the summer ends.

Come winter, the lily lets go its leaves and retreats underwater. I wonder if it will come back.

On a chill December night, I shiver while the dog inspects every tree in leash's reach. We round the corner of the lake, and I see a half-submerged shape gliding through the inky water. The streetlight shines on a dark smooth curve, like the crown of a crocodile's skull. It moves steadily toward the shore, trailing a V-shaped ripple. Could be a turtle's shell, but don't they sleep through the cold? Could be a duck's back, but no neck rises.

Intrigued, I step slowly to the water's edge. The shape glides toward where I stand on the brick bank. Closer and closer, until it's a boat-length away, and still I cannot tell what it is. The dog catches some strange scent and runs to the edge of the lake, nose quivering. The creature ducks under the surface with a small sudden splash.

I stand there for five minutes waiting for it to reappear. I scan the lake's surface, but all is still, the fountain silenced for the winter. The swimmer has to breathe, I figure. Five more minutes and still no life. Reluctantly I turn toward home, looking over my shoulder at the unrippled lake.

To this day, I do not know what came up from the mucky deep of Boat Lake, where fish flit and old cans shine. Could be nothing but an adventurous catfish, I guess. But I like to think something weird and wild swims below.

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