We saw him standing where the old abandoned dirt road emerged from the woods into the small meadow adjoining our property.
Frankie, my cousin, and I were shooting some hoops after lunch to kill the hour we had to wait before we could go swimming. Our mothers regaled us with tales of careless children who went swimming before the hour had elapsed and drowned when they were stricken with abdominal cramps.
The summer was winding to a close and the Robert Hall back-to-school clothing ads were already playing on the radio.
It was the summer between fifth and sixth grade and it was a typically wonderful one at the Lake. Frankie and his sister lived in the bungalow next to ours, and he and I spent every waking hour together. He was six months older, which seemed like a big deal at the time.
The Lake was on property owned by the City and was used as a back-up reservoir. There was no electricity, no running water, and no indoor plumbing. Our mothers, who were sisters, didn’t drive, so once the dads went back to work after the weekend, we were stuck.
Oh, but it was heaven to us! We lived for the day when we would pack up our cars and leave the yellow haze of the City for the clear, cool air of the Lake. Frankie and I lived like we thought Indians lived: wild and free. We knew every inch of the surrounding woods and meadows and every cove and inlet of the lake. We could swim like fish and paddle a canoe with the best of them. Every year we won the canoe race and at least one of the swimming prizes at the Lake Association picnic.
Our mothers would sit and gab and smoke in the sun and our sisters would do whatever girls did. Frankie and I were off with our bows and arrows and slingshots and whatever armaments we could muster on adventures of science and discovery. We formed our own club: Frontiers and River Travel Society. We allowed our sisters to join but they reneged when they realized they were joining the FART Society. We thought this was the funniest thing ever and put it on our clubhouse, but were forbidden from putting it on the family canoes.
We knew from the look of him that he was about year younger than us, maybe nine or ten. He was short and thin and wore a blue and white striped polo shirt with clean dungarees and spotless Keds. His hair was blondish brown and unkempt. His milky white skin suggested he wasn’t from here; a kid visiting from the city or attending the camp for handicapped children rumored to be somewhere on the Lake. He stood with his hands in his pockets with the surprised expression a rabbit has just before you peg it with your slingshot.
Frankie and I hung together. We didn't need anyone else. Which was just as well, since here weren’t many other children at the Lake during the week. There was a group of full-timers further up, but we didn’t get along with them. When Frankie and I would paddle past their bungalow, rocks and catcalls would greet us. We returned fire with our slingshots. I don’t remember what the problem was, but Frankie had a thin skin and a hot temper, so I am sure it was all on us.
“Boy, get a load of him. He looks like a real bookworm,” Frankie said. “Hey kid, come here a minute,” he called to the boy. Without saying a word, he turned and ran at full speed up the abandoned dirt road. It didn’t seem odd to us, because sometimes running was the best option when you encountered older boys.
“Let’s get him!” Frankie yelled, and off we went like hounds after a hare. And a hare he was as he flew through the overgrowth leaping effortlessly over fallen trees and branches. He was rapidly pulling away from us. “Go left,” my cousin yelled.
I veered from the trail and zigzagged through the woods. As usual, I knew what Frankie was thinking: the old road ended at the Cove, a weed and lily pad choked inlet of the Lake that cut deeply into the woods. With me going left and Frankie going right, we’d have the kid trapped between us when he came to the water’s edge.
When we got there, I saw Frank, but the boy was gone.
“Damn!” my cousin said. “He heard you thundering through the brush like a buffalo and figured out what was up. He must have doubled back on the road.”
The water was green, silent and motionless and the only sound was the whine of the cicadas.
We were quiet as we walked back. I was steaming over Frankie’s criticism of my woods skills. “I’m gonna get that kid,” he finally said.
That evening we were on the dock getting ready to take the canoe out fishing. Suddenly, Mrs. Hudson’s head popped out of the water.
Mrs. Hudson was an oldish woman who lived alone in a cottage a few up from ours. She lived there all year round, it was said, without a car. The locals thought she was an Indian witch. My dad said that, with her considerable girth and aquatic skills, she reminded him more of a sea lion. She referred to herself as a water sprite.
She swam everywhere. In the early morning, her head could be seen plowing serenely up the mist shrouded Lake propelled by her mysterious and effortless stroke. She could swim underwater long distances and was forever popping up in unexpected places.
“Did you hear about the missing kid?” she asked. “He was visiting his aunt with his mom. He went missing this morning and they’ve been looking for him all afternoon. I told them he drowned. They always drown. They are just starting to drag the Lake now. It hasn’t taken a child in a while. It’s overdue.”
With that she ducked beneath the surface and was gone.
Frankie and I left our fishing gear and paddled straight down the Lake just beyond the cove where the search lights were beginning to probe the darkening shoreline.
There looked to be about three or four volunteer fire companies on the scene, along with other volunteers and curiosity seekers like Frankie and I. There were several red, outboard-propelled department skiffs on the lake already. It was odd to hear the putter of engines, since usually motors were banned.
When it became completely dark, you could only see the areas swept by the searchlights which cast long, eerie shadows of trees, boats and people, and made the calm surface of the water look as hard and black as polished granite.
As the light swept under one of the docks, I could see Mrs. Hudson’s head bobbing quietly. The old lady was tolerated on these searches because it seemed as though she always found the drowned child.
We were about to turn back when we heard Mrs. Hudson cry out: “Here he is under the dock.”
We watched as they dragged the corpse up into the boat. He hung limply like a porcelain doll. In the searchlight glare his skin was bluish white. We saw the polo shirt and brand new Kids. A piercing scream came from somewhere and seemed to echo forever across the still, deep water.
The drowning was the talk of the community right up until Labor Day when the whole place emptied out. How did he get in the water? Why did he have his socks and shoes on? When did he go in?
There was an investigation of sorts, but kids often drowned in the Lake usually because of carelessness or over-confidence.
No one ever asked Frankie or I what we knew, and we didn’t volunteer the information.
Frankie died in a car crash just after his eighteenth birthday while rat racing in the City. I am retired now and a father and grandfather.
The events at the Lake happened a long time ago, more than half a century, but in the darkest hours of the night, I can still see that alabaster arm draped over the red gunwale of the boat. In the dream, I wait for it to rise up and point at me. It never does.