Lake Pend Oreille.
It’s a long curved
hook of a lake, with a surface area of 148 square miles. It’s deep, too. The
deepest in Idaho. During the day, little tadpoles and minnows crowd the
shallows, gleaming in the sun. Once the sun starts to dip, you can just barely
catch the roiling shadows of the bigger fish underneath.
Once upon a time,
French voyageurs made their way across the lake, and decided to name it after
the large pendants the Natives wore in their ears. Pend Oreille, or hangs from
. . .
one up in Idaho?”
there for two months.”
if you get lonely?”
“Sarah and Grant
doing some grant research work in Coeur D’Alene, which isn’t too far away. I
think we’ll try and get together a couple times. I actually think it’ll be nice
to be alone, though. Just me and the water.”
“It’s a pretty place.”
gotta be careful, though. One of your dad’s colleagues has
a cabin up there; he said they get snowed in all the time.”
about that, Mom. I’ll be gone before it gets too cold. I won’t stay through
. . .
I think that bodies
of water are some of the most healing pieces of nature out there. They’re
neutral and beautiful, and they always set the mood. For example, something
small like a creek or a pond is perfect to sit next to and have a conversation
with a colleague, or maybe a friend. You wouldn’t go to a rumbling creek and
try to dive in with your arms stretched above your head, that’s for a different
body of water.
If you go a little
bigger, like a river, then you can douse yourself in its briskness, allowing
yourself to float. You can paddle around, swim under the surface; maybe drink a
beer and listen to some music on the shore. You never have to know of the
fishes sleeping at the bottom.
Something like the
ocean reminds you of how small you are. It’s deafening, it yells over anything
that tries to interrupt it. It’s best not to talk on the seashore. Seashores
are for watching sunrises, making love, and ideation.
about that lake, though. Maybe not every lake- I've been to some lakes that are
absolutely perfect to eat a turkey
sandwich next to after trying to swim out to the buoys. That lake, though, has
something in it. All the locals know it, the
Natives know it. When I first moved up here, no one explained it to me, they
just assumed I’d figure it out. As though every Native American person was born
with the same unspoken knowledge of the land’s mythos.
I once listened to an old woman talk about it-
we were sitting in the woods that surround the Kalispel reservation, drinking
coffee and spitting sunflower seeds. She said that when she was little, she
used to dangle her toes in the water and wait for the Pikes to swim up and
stalk them before she yanked her feet up and scared the fish away again. One
time, though, it wasn’t a fish that surged up to stare at her toes.
“It had hair,”
said, “And these long, skinny fingers that brushed the bottoms of my feet.” She
shuddered. “It was awful.”
“What did it look
like?” I asked, intrigued.
She pursed her lips
and thought for a moment, before saying, “A woman. It was a young woman.”
I just stared at
her. I was almost convinced she was joking.
“She had a beautiful
face, I remember.” She continued matter-of-factly. “I saw her as she swam away.
She had dark eyes and a hooked nose. She looked a lot like the tribe chairman’s
daughter at the time. Both were too gorgeous to be true.”
. . .
The tribe chairman’s
daughter had known her too, very well. When she was nineteen she found herself
on the lakeside, deciding once and for all that she would break it off with her
fiancé. She wanted to go to college, not get married and have kids on the
reservation. Not yet, anyway.
She was pondering
whether he’d take it well when she saw another girl her age splashing around
farther down the coastline. She was beautiful, even in the dim moonlight. She
walked down to her.
“Well, do you love
him?” The girl asked the daughter after they had talked and splashed for a
The daughter sighed.
“I don’t think I can ever love a man. Not like that.”
responded. It came out in a whoosh of air, a responding sigh. The dress she was
wearing was soaked through and clinging to her frame. “I don’t think I can
They waded silently for
a second, staring at each other and smiling as if they had just developed an
inside joke no one else would ever understand.
After that, the
daughter would meet the girl at the shoreline every single night. They would
swim and play and talk and touch, all under the watchful eye of the moon. The
fish never swam up to bother them. They would brush each other’s black hair on
the rocks until it was straight again.
“Where do you go
when I leave? When the sun comes up?” The daughter asked once as they laid in
the shallows. The girl smiled in a strange, lopsided way, and pointed out at
“I go back out
followed her gesture, brows furrowed. “You go into the water?”
The girl nodded.
. . .
There was a woman outside. He didn’t see her
at first, he only caught her when the little fire he’d built for himself surged
and the flame moved in such a way to illuminate a little bit of the tree line a
few meters in front of him. She was standing absolutely still.
She didn’t answer.
wind blew through the trees behind her, and they swayed lazily. She didn’t move
an inch. Her dress didn’t even shift, it simply hung motionlessly at her
“Who is that?”
tried to put some authority, some power, into his tone. He couldn’t make out
her face, only her white dress, dark hair, and dark skin. The hair on his arms
and neck was standing on end, like a dog’s hackles.
She wasn't real, he
reasoned. He'd been out here, alone, for ten days now. Everyone knows what
isolation can do to a healthy mind. She was a figment of his imagination, an
allusion to his subconscious desire for company.
He jumped in his
skin when she started moving closer. The way she walked wasn't normal; there
was a disconnect between her legs and her upper body. While her legs carried
her forward at a fast pace, her chest, hips, and arms stayed still. He was up
out of his camping chair by the time she reached the edge of the campfire,
still just barely out of the light. He felt springy, like he might need to break
into a run at any second.
Stunned, he asked,
"What are you doing?" He couldn't think of what else to say.
"What are you doing here?" She shot back so
quickly he flinched. Like he’d accidentally walked into her bedroom without
fire crackled between them. He still couldn't see her face. "This is my
campsite!" He gestured to the humble cabin he had rented right behind
She stared at him,
not saying anything.
"I don't know
how you even found me." He said when she was silent.
camping out here, too?" Still, no answer. Not even a shrug. "Do you
want some coffee?"
. . .
He had rented a
cabin on the edge of the lake for two months, and he was planning to record
tadpole-and-amphibian development in the fall for his Wildlife Biology PhD. The
girl quickly became just as important to him as his research- a distraction
strong enough to balance his academic motivation. He would wake up in the late
morning, slosh around in the water, counting the tadpoles before they could flit
away, and then he would build a fire and wait. She would appear through the
trees as the sun went down, and they would sit together.
They once walked
along the shore as it got dark.
“Why are you
studying here?” She asked him.
He shoved his hands
in his pockets. “I used to come here a lot when I was little. My friend’s
parents had a house a few miles down.”
“Why are you
studying the frogs here? Aren’t there
frogs everywhere else?”
He smiled. “There
was this one summer we found a little island-sandbar thing when we were water
skiing. The middle of the island was basically a big shallow pool, and it was
full of tadpoles. Like, so many you couldn’t see through the water. The pool
was surrounded by big trees, and the roots were coming up out of the water… It
was so much fun. We stayed there all day. It felt like our own little marsh.
After that, I don’t know, I always thought I’d end up back here.”
She nodded. He
figured it was his turn to ask a question. “What about you, why are you here?”
She smiled quietly,
as if at an inside joke he would never understand. “Because there’s nowhere
else I’d rather be.” He liked that answer.
He wondered how it
was possible to get so excited about someone in such a short amount of time.
She made him feel comfortable and warm, sleepy and happy. His favorite time of
the day was when she’d appear by his fire and he’d open a can of beer for her.
He also enjoyed meandering next to the water with her, though he never really
got over the way she walked. Always one foot in front of the other, like any
other person, but she never moved her arms. They just hung at her sides. Her
torso didn’t sway with movement either- her chest faced forward as she walked.
It gave him chills sometimes.
. . .
I think that there
are parts of the North that are haunted. I’ve lived here all my life, and the
feeling has always been with me. I feel that it’s a natural assumption, given
the history of the United States.
There are parts of
Idaho where time and seasons move at different speeds. Sometimes ice snaps
happen in the middle of August, and wildflowers bloom on the winter equinox. If
you go far enough out into the dense forests of Washington, you can hear people
calling your name. You shouldn’t ever answer, though. Even if the voice is
right behind you, don’t turn around. In empty Montana, if you lay on the ground
and look up at the sky on an overcast evening, the grayness will completely
take over your vision and you’ll get sucked up into the clouds. There’s a
reason they call it the ‘Big Sky State;’ the sky can swallow you whole.
Things that seem
strange always happen up here, as evanescent and esoteric as the forest itself.
That lake is not excluded from that.
. . .
As a PhD candidate,
there wasn’t much he didn’t know, and very little he couldn’t weasel his way
through using critical analysis. It was his superpower. If he didn’t know
something, he had faith that he could always figure it out.
But he didn’t know
now. Things were happening in ways he didn’t understand. Time would slow down,
and he would live in an hour for three days, but then it would speed up and he
would think, Wow, I just lost an entire
week. He was lethargic during the day but restless and wired at night. He’d
crave a bath, which never happened before, but then fall asleep and wake with a
start as his head slipped under the water. He would wake up in the morning
nauseous, puke up clear water. He’d find the sharp teeth of a Northern Pike
under his pillow before he went to bed. He once took a swig of coffee and spat
out a wad of seaweed that had somehow gotten into his closed thermos.
He didn’t know when
it started. He figured he would be able to pinpoint the inciting incident. Retracing
his steps during the first ten days
of his stay on the lakeside, everything seemed in the ordinary. It all pointed
back to when he saw her standing by the trees.
What had she done to
him? This was all her fault.
doing this!” He accused her.
things!” He didn’t know how else to describe it, and he knew he sounded crazy.
Time was wrong. The stars were too bright at night, so bright he couldn’t sleep
properly. The water in the river felt strange- too warm and inviting like a
bath. Sometimes he would feel the overwhelming need to jump in, sometimes he
wouldn’t even take off his clothes to take a dip. He would spend hours in the
water, his skin pruning up and his feet becoming twisted in the weeds. That
never happened before. “I know it’s you- I know you’re doing this.”
“I don’t know
you’re talking about.”
“I don’t either!”
His chest burst and he started to cry. He hadn’t cried since he was a teenager.
“I know you’re
scared,” she said so quietly he could barely hear it over his own sobs. She
rested a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “But it’s okay. You love it here.”
She shoved something cold into his hand- a beer. “You just feel strange because
you’re all alone up here.”
“I’m not alone,”
croaked. “You’re here, too.”
He met her eyes, and
her gaze was soft. Such dark, pretty eyes. “You’re right.”
. . .
One afternoon, the
tribe chairman’s daughter had brought up the girl on the shore to one of her
cousins. He scoffed at her.
“You meet up with
girl out there? Who?”
She shrugged. “I
don’t know, I don’t think we’ve ever told each other our names.”
“Well, what does
look like?” Her cousin pressed.
has long hair, and full cheeks. She has dark eyes, really dark. Black,
“Could she be
someone’s relative who’s just visiting?”
“She says she’s
lived close to the lake her whole life.”
They were sorting
through long strands of straw so they could make bracelets, but her cousin had
started to go still.
“What does she look
like again? I mean, what do her eyes look like?”
“Her eyes are close
together, and slanted downward.” She recalled. “And I don’t think I’ve ever
seen their whites. I’ve only ever seen her in the dark, though.”
She glanced over to
her statuesque cousin, who stared back at her in horror.
. . .
The PhD candidate
called his mother on October fourteenth and told her that his project was
taking longer than he thought, but he would be home in time for Thanksgiving. November
passed, and she never heard from him. It snowed a lot that year- I remember
because it was the year that the plows couldn’t get the roads clear for about
five days in early January, so everyone was stuck in their cabins.
We found him in
March, when the ice had begun to thaw. Or we found his boots. They were tangled
in the weeds in the marshiest part of the lakeside, as if they had been tucked
in with care. Who knows where the rest of him went.
When I asked the old
Kalispel woman about the tribe head’s daughter all those years ago, she heaved
a huge sigh and sipped her coffee before answering.
a month after
she broke off her engagement, she went missing. Just disappeared into thin air,
not even her mother knew where she went. I always hoped that she left and went
to college in some big city, like she wanted. But who knows? The woods make
people sleepy in these parts, especially the lake. Where all the big fish
Hargis is currently an undergraduate student at the University of Utah.
Although she lives in Salt Lake City, her mind and soul travel back to her home
state of Washington as often as they can. You can find her on Instagram: