Two sisters lay on a wood raft in moonlight, their limbs entwined. Lake water all around, from the sky, the moon shines down, a white hole of light larger than that of surrounding stars finding its mirror on the water, the place through which they imagine the heavens have carried themselves, with effort, through the dark.
The elder turns to the other, asks, “Is this what you wanted, Preena? The air is so fresh. It smells like forests and mist. I love this! I remember!”
She is twelve with long brown hair that tangles as she turns back and forth on the raft, looking at the sky and rolling on her locks, sensuously deployed in enjoying the silky texture sliding on her back with the sight above. This hair reaches her waist. Both wear short white shorts and small blue tank tops. The raft is made of pine, tied with ropes.
“Yes,” the other says, age nine. “It’s what I wanted. I wish we could stay all night.”
“We can’t,” says the twelve year old named Joy. “They won’t let us.”
If there is a breeze, its temperature does not chill. “Then I wish Momma could be with us,” Preena replies.
“Me, too,” Joy agrees. “But touch the water now, while we’re here. It’s warm. Just like I remember.”
“I do know this was their first house,” Preena tells Joy, like this is a feat of memory. “I remember coming here when very young. How many times did you come here before I was born?” They put their arms in the water like oars on either side of the raft, swinging their limbs back and forth, back and forth. There is no turbulence.
“Many times,” Joy says. “They loved this place.” Tears burn and spill, but she smiles. It may be too dark for Preena to see them.
“Oh,” Preena says. “I can feel the lake move through the hair on my arms. Water is so soft here.” The raft shifts and turns imperceptibly with their movement. “So much water feels decadent. Like we have done something wrong. There’s never so much water at home.”
“It’s like being a baby, I’d guess,” Joy says. “Enjoy it. I came here countless times. Daddy used to teach me how to find wild mushrooms, truffles. We summered at this lake.” She lifts one dripping hand upward toward the shore to point. “See there. The brown house, all lit up. Should we try to paddle there? Beside the house, there was a huckleberry bush. I used to sit there and eat berries for hours, fling stones into the lake to watch them skip.”
“I never threw a stone,” Preena says. “Will our parents be at the house?”
“No, Preena. Still gone.”
Preena touches her own head, yanking the blond hair that spills in waves of protein below her and placing it into the water beside the raft, a length submerged. “I can feel every hair to the root,” she says. “Let’s not go to shore. Let’s rest here a while. Or take the raft to the place where the water meets the trees.” After a moment of thought, she adds, “I wish we could swim. Momma liked to swim.”
“You remember how to swim?”
“Of course, I do,” Preena says. “I wasn’t always an orphan of the state.” But she partially lies.
Joy sits up abruptly, ties her dark hair back with a band found in the pocket of her white denim. As if suddenly a dolphin, she dives into the lake and comes up laughing. “Preena,” she says. “Look at the light scattering on the surface! I can move the moon and the stars with the smallest of motions! You remember swimming? So come in!”
Preena watches the water. Indeed, where her sister has been, the stars and the moon are bouncing on its surface with ripples and hops. “Is this why you gave us long hair here?” she asks. “So we could feel it moving on our skin? You remember having hair, don’t you? Long hair. Before they needed the proteins. Like how you remember how to swim.” She bursts into sobs.
“No, Preena, don’t cry,” Joy says. “I paid too much for this. You wanted to come! Enjoy it.” Joy looks at her sister, who shamefully tries to wipe her face with the backs of her arms. “You lied, Preena, didn’t you?” she then accuses, her body bobbing in the warm wavering wet. “You don’t remember how to swim.”
“Of course I lied,” Preena says. “I was too young to remember swimming.” Preena’s face, half shadowed, turns toward the distant house.
Joy takes the rope at the front of the raft and begins to stroke, taking them to the trees. “No matter,” she says reassuringly, one hundred strokes later. “Want to touch the bark? It’s coarse. Scratches if you rub it too hard.”
When they get close, Preena sits up on the raft. “How much would it cost to bring Momma and Daddy back here?”
Joy, in the water, clings to a submerged tree. “Too much.” She puts her face against the bark, scratches her face on it, because she can, and touches her own blood. “The arcade can’t do it,” she says. “And even if I had the Jeeneras, I couldn’t do it like we’d want it done. But not everyone these days even remembers the lakes. Especially people your age. Isn’t it splendid I could remember this for us, that they could make this place? Can you just be happy for a while? Please, Preena. For me.”
“I am happy,” Preena says.
“Good. Be happy, happy with your every molecule. Touch the trees. They were so pretty around this lake.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Reach your fingers out right now,” Joy says. “Touch them!”
“You’re right. I don’t remember much of anything,” Preena says, shrinking back toward the middle of the raft where she sits alone, placing her arms around her knees. “I was too young.”
“That’s why we’re here,” Joy says. “So you can have what I remember. And if you give this to your children without really experiencing it, it will all be muted, false. Unless you feel it now. Be here now.”
Preena closes her eyes to withdraw and Joy approaches, pulls Preena off the raft, dumping her into the lake. Her sister submerges in the water, flailing her arms wildly, with her blond hair bubbling and thrashing on the surface. Joy finally drags her hysterical sister up, connects Preena’s palms to a tree. Grappling, Preena pulls herself up, coughing and spitting up water.
“Momma would have done that to you,” Joy says when Preena has calmed. “To make you feel this place. Because you’re so scared of everything.”
“Momma would not have done that to me,” Preena replies.
“Momma loved to swim,” Joy says. “You said so yourself. She couldn’t have known what would happen… She—” except, Joy changes her mind about what she’ll say. The nighttime sky then flashes four times. “Never mind is all,” she continues. “We can talk about Momma at home. Make the stars move, Preena,” she urges. “Hold the tree and move your legs. Stroke everything. Quickly. Quickly.”
In a moment, they will wake up on the tables, electrodes attached all over their bodies. In a moment, the multi-colored lights of the arcade will flash on their shorn heads and they will be wearing their gray utility suits. They will return home to their module. They will work the next day, part of the six day shifts. Everything, again, will be cratered and chill.
“Preena,” Joy says, staring at her sister with some urgency, with an excess of tenderness for all that Preena does not remember because she was too young, for the fact that Preena does not remember. “Feel the air, sister. Feel the water; feel the trees. Touch your long silky hair! This is quite an expensive trip. Help me to help you. Take advantage of it now.”
Heather Fowler is the author of the story collections Suspended Heart (Aqueous Books, 2010), People With Holes (Pink Narcissus Press, forthcoming Fall 2012) and This Time, While We’re Awake (Aqueous Books, forthcoming Spring 2013). She received her M.A. in English and Creative Writing from Hollins University. Her work has been published online and in print in the US, England, Australia, and India, and appeared in such venues as PANK, Night Train, storyglossia, Surreal South, JMWW, Prick of the Spindle, Short Story America, and others, as well as having been nominated for both the storySouth Million Writers Award and Sundress Publications Best of the Net. Her poetry and fiction have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She is Poetry Editor at Corium Magazine and a Fiction Editor for the international refereed journal, Journal of Post-Colonial Cultures & Societies. Please visit her website at www.heatherfowlerwrites.com