Bursts of air float upward, struggling to hold themselves together before finally popping when they’ve reached the surface. It is above as below. Grey and dank. Humidity seethes into everything, bending willow trees and their canopies as the waist, moss slips downward, seeking shade and relief where there is none. The promise of rain echoes in a deep rumble above. Caught in between spaces, a body floats, unnoticed by the souls in the plantation house well away from the lake lapping at the shore.
Forever and a day, that’s how she will describe the Ponchartrain’s waters. Ink black seems too juvenile, something someone with a limited imagination would say.
The bursts come slower.
Her lungs ache.
It’s an apt description, she thinks as she floats, a piano sits in a living room. It is silent, waiting for the cover to lift and white keys to show. So many keys, like grinning teeth.
She wants to smile at the image in her head as she stares down deep into the water, her eyes unblinking, but she can’t. A soft pitter patter sounds around, beside, and above her, quivering the water.An inexperienced hand plucking at the black keys, not understanding their music.
Oh, but she is so tired and the music is so pretty. Especially that the birds are chirping and a soft wind is stroking the reeds close to the shore. A giggle wells in her breast. Her own personal orchestra. Her eyes catch something. Her ears hear something. Her heart speeds. Her body remembers.
Her body screams, begs, demands. It wants to be obeyed. She doesn’t have the strength. Again her eyes catch a movement in the water. A small face smiles, a hand waves, beckoning to her within the waters depths. Her ears catch an entreaty. He wants her to come with him.
I want to show you something!
Fear lances her heart.
Her mouth opens. Her body spasms, tucking in on itself, prehistoric instincts taking over, thrusting her head to the surface.
Air! I need air!
She sucks in great gasps, arms flailing against the water, trying to push herself forward. The plantation house sits perched on the top of a soft hill, all lights blazing against the tumultuous skies.
“Help!” She croaks, her voice breaking, mouth filling with cold salt water.
Her head ducks.
She forces it back up, using her legs and arms in a frog motion to keep her head at the surface.
“Help!” Her voice grows stronger. “HELP!” She tries again, shrieking it into the coming night.
The storm growls. Wind whips the Ponchartrain into a frenzy of white capped waves. From nowhere, an undertow pulls her down, down, down.
Piano blackness pushes in all around her.
Panic floods her system.
The metronome controlling her heart swings back and forth furiously. Her heart hammers. Neurons fire, gears work. She looks. First to the right, then the left.
Which way is up?
Again, she looks. Right. Left.
White flashes, illuminating the darkness, showing her a multitude of grinning fishes and deadly sea plants, reaching, reaching, clawing for her. Her head jerks up. White flashes again.
She forces herself through the water, up toward the fickle light, grabbing at the water as if it were a solid object, propelling herself forward with half-thought out kicks and paddles.The Ponchartrain rebels, jealously coveting her. A surge of wind and water engulfs her from below, forcing her head over heels in an awkward cartwheel encumbered by weeds and clinging sea plants.
Hot tears flood her cheeks. She can feel her lungs collapsing, the furious metronome beat slowing down. Her eyes grow heavy, her mouth opens. Little bubbles, her last reserve, fall out of her in a hurried clump.
Piano black, she thinks. Not ink black. Piano.
The plants release her almost sadly, as if begging for forgiveness, caressing her arms and cheeks gently as she floats away. The Ponchartrain cools its temper, hushing the wind and the waves, its waters quivering still as the storm passes overhead and the sun creeps up from somewhere beyond its horizon.
She floats. For how long she doesn’t know. But the boy is here now, with her, sitting at the bottom of the lake. His big blue eyes are watching her patiently, waiting for something.
It was the same for me, too, he says sadly. I shoulda listened to momma when she say “now don’t go playin’ by the river, boy”, but I didn’t and now, here I am. But, that’s okay! You’re here, too! We can go together!
She wants to ask where; but doesn’t know how to form the words, doesn’t remember how to speak, or even if she can.
It’s okay, the boy says again, I’ll wait for you.
She tries to smile. He grins at her, dark cheeks spreading in a white smile.
A piano smile. A dead boy with a piano smile.
The water closes around her, stroking her eyes closed.
Won’t be long now, she hears him say. The sand shifts under him as he stands, sounding very much like a drum roll as each little grain readjusts itself into a new position. I’ve seen this before. But no one ever wanted to come with me. They were scared. You aren’t. Why aren’t you scared?
She stretches out her hand, smiling at him.
“I’ve been dead a long time.”
He takes it, skipping a little.
“You gonna come with me, then?”
“I don’t think I have anywhere else to go.”
He whoops and hollers, pulling her after him.
“Come on! Come on! We’ve got to get down the river so we can see the show before the boat comes!”
She turns her head one last time, looking at herself floating in the water above. Her hair forms a halo around her head, the nightdress splayed around her legs where the fabric is loose. A small smile lights her cheeks.
A voice shouts in the distance.