Post Road Magazine #28

The Sleeping Kingdom

Caitlin Keefe Moran

I measured my life by summers then.

That was the first line of the story I wrote about Laurie and the summers we spent together on Little Moose Lake. Not a good sentence, really-better in my head than on paper-but it was true. Laurie and I are cousins, born five months apart; her mother and my mother are sisters, born ten months apart and more like twins than just siblings. She was my first and last best friend. And any day my parents packed me and Gram, my mother's mother, into the car and followed Laurie and her parents two hours north up Route 28 to Little Moose was the happiest day of the year for me.

We went to the cabin because of Gram, who couldn't stand Syracuse during the heat of the summer. She grew up in Québec, in the little city of Trois-Rivières. The only thing she ever told us about Trois-Rivières was that its residents were called Trifluvians, which tickled me and Laurie; we had a bit of Trifluvian inside of us! Gram took her roots much more seriously. Every summer her father had taken her and her siblings up north, to a lake she would never name ringed with silver-barked pines, so they wouldn't forget that his people, the Atikamekw, belonged to the land. She grew up boating and hiking and fishing in the summer, snowshoeing and skiing in the winter, but when Grandpa had to move to the United States for work, she bundled up her two almost-twins and left Québec forever. Bullying my mother and my aunt into driving up to a cabin in northern New York every summer was her way of reclaiming pieces of her childhood, bringing her almost-twin daughters and almost-twin granddaughters as close as she could to her past.

Our routine was always the same: when we arrived in Old Forge, we loaded up on supplies at the Big M-bread and meat for sandwiches, baby carrots and string cheese, juice boxes, ice-cream bars, pancake mix, sunscreen, bug spray, Band-Aids, water shoes and sunhats. Mom and Aunt Michelle took care of most of this, while Laurie and I trailed behind, trying and failing to sneak extra candy into the cart. Dad and Uncle Stephen went ahead in our car to open up the cabin, to shake the dried husks of dead bugs out of the screens and throw away the occasional mouse corpse before we saw it and squealed for hours. The only thing Gram ever bought was a gallon tub of pistachios. She ate them by the hundreds at the cabin, leaving the shells lying about on the porch, on the dock, on the floor of the pontoon boat, even in the bathtub. I stepped on one at just the right angle the summer I was nine and sliced the back of my heel open.

"Next summer," Dad grumbled at Mom as he drove me to the hospital, my foot swaddled in Laurie's Power Rangers beach towel, "we're getting your mother a wastebasket." I needed nine stitches and couldn't swim for weeks.

But even with the hazards to our feet, Laurie and I always waited for the nights when the pistachio bucket suddenly appeared, because that meant Gram was about to tell a story. Gram had lots of macabre tales up her sleeve. Mom and Aunt Michelle never came out to the dock with us-hunger for Gram's stories of the "old country," as she called Québec, had skipped a generation. She set up her lawn chair on the dock as the sun set and told us tales of witches who ensnared French traders in Manitoba by singing to them and then cursed them so their skin burned off from the inside. My favorite was the story of a lumberjack who bought a flying canoe from the devil in exchange for not speaking any of the holy words for a year, but of course, because he was a Trifluvian, like Gram, he couldn't help throwing a tabarnouche in every other sentence, and so the magical boat crashed into a copse of pine trees and he was never found. But Gram's favorite-also Laurie's-wasn't connected to Canada particularly. That's why it haunted us so much, I guess, because it could have happened anywhere, even in Old Forge. Even by the shores of Little Moose Lake.

"Anywhere there lies a body of water wide enough to exhaust the good swimmer, and deep enough to block out the rays of the sun, there you will find the sleeping kingdom."

That's how Gram always began the story, while Laurie and I sat side-by-side on the dock, shoulders touching. By the middle of the summer, her skin was tanned darker than the planks we sat on, while my pale back had crisped up red and crinkled like onion-skin paper, and my milky blonde hair looked pink from the sunburn on my scalp. That was how people knew we were cousins and not twins. Sun and Moon, Gram called us sometimes. Le soleil et la lune.

In a sleeping kingdom, Gram said, there were two types of creatures: the snatchers and the sleepers. No one knew much about the snatchers. Some said they were scaly and green, some said they shimmered like the sun on a churning river. A small contingent-those with no imagination, Gram said-thought the snatchers were invisible. But everyone knew they were bitter. They were jealous and greedy and angry that when the world was made ("By who?" Laurie always asked, and Gram said that it didn't matter), they were stuck under the water, unable to rise to land.

Laurie and I wondered if there was a sleeping kingdom at the bottom of Little Moose Lake. Neither of us had been down deep enough to see if the water blocked out the sun. A man had come one summer, an Englishman, who had swum across almost all of the lakes in the Adirondacks for some kind of record. He hadn't looked exhausted when he climbed out of the water in East Bay, which was connected to Little Moose Lake, but he might have been too good a swimmer to count. When our families went out on the pontoon boat, I often caught Laurie leaning over the edge with her bright red bikini bottom sticking up in the air, as if hoping, by staring hard enough, to catch a glimpse of the bone-white head of a sleeper.

The snatchers believed that if they brought enough land-dwellers with them to the bottom of the lakes and seas, they could make a deal to be released from their watery prison.

"A deal with who?" Laurie asked.

"Whom," I corrected, "and it doesn't matter. A story is a story."

That was the difference between Laurie and me then. She wanted facts-names, ages, whether the person in question would go to the Nicks Lake Diner for coffee and a plate of eggs and hash, or if he would pick up a greasy egg sandwich from the Dunkin Donuts on South Shore Road to eat alone. I thought those kind of details were a waste of time for everyone, the teller and the listeners. If Gram said snatchers were evil and grasping, I believed her. Laurie wanted to know how they had become so. It didn't surprise me when, years later, Laurie declared herself an atheist in front of our entire religion class because no one would answer her questions.

"The snatchers," said Gram, "dragged as many humans down with them as they could. They weren't picky, anyone would do. Trappers, merchants, infants, ministers' daughters, loggers in the prime of their health." She leered at us. "Little American girls."

This was my favorite part of the entire story, when I forgot about the splinters in my feet and my waterlogged ears and the scrapes on my knees and felt only the disconcerting pleasure of goose bumps over a peeling sunburn.

"But?" Laurie prompted. She never let the moment last long enough.

Gram grinned at Laurie's impatience. "But soon the people of the towns and villages along the Hudson Bay, and the cities that lay along the St. Lawrence, began to realize that their kin hadn't drowned, but were held, immobilized by the dreck and the seaweed, by the snatchers. And they decided to get their kinfolk back."

I imagined what it would be like to lie at the bottom of Little Moose Lake, seaweed coiled around my arms and legs, silt creeping up the back of my neck, staring up into the blackness, knowing that somewhere above me my mother and father were crying about my death. Knowing that they whispered about me at school, the little girl who would haunt the water forever. It might be worse than drowning.

"The snatchers anticipated this, and saw another opportunity to increase their power." Gram paused here, always, to select another pistachio from her bucket. She cracked the shell open neatly and sucked long and hard on the nut before finally crushing it between her molars. As Laurie and I grew older and became wise to her routine, Gram drew out the munching even longer, until the wait became an exercise in agony.

"The snatchers decided they would allow people to sacrifice themselves for their loved ones," Gram continued. "An exchange. Once a year, on Midsummer's Eve, the queen of the snatchers, an old crone rumored to have magic powers, rose to the surface of the water and cried out the names of those trapped below. The people of the towns and villages, especially those who suspected that their loved ones were lost to the snatchers, gathered along the shore to listen. If they heard the name of someone they loved, they could offer themselves up, to sleep in the place of the other."

Even though Laurie and I knew what was coming next, could quote it word-for-word by the time we were seven years old, we sat so entranced that we forgot to swat at the mosquitoes that landed and feasted on our legs.

"So the minister slept for his daughter. The logger's wife, who knew she was dying, slept for her husband. Fathers slept for sons, mothers for daughters, brothers for sisters and sisters for brothers. Once, a man in Montréal was so in love with a woman engaged to be married, he gave himself up to sleep for her captured fiancé."

Laurie loved this part-the noble sacrifice driven by melancholia and love. The first story she ever wrote took place on the final day of this man's life. No one was surprised, when the St. Boniface drama club put on A Tale of Two Cities our freshman year, that she won an award for her portrayal of Lucie Manette.

There were abuses of this system, according to Gram. People blackmailed into sleeping for strangers, to pay for debts or to save their families from scandal. There were even accounts of travelers abducted at gunpoint and forced to give themselves up. People learned quickly not to travel on Midsummer's Eve, even to the next town.

"So how were the snatchers defeated?" Laurie asked once, the summer before fifth grade. Gram had never gone any further than a failed attempt by a group of sailors to rescue their lost captain by force. It was a grim way to end a story, but Gram always said the Québecois liked it grim.

"Have they been defeated?" Gram responded. "How can we know for sure?"

Laurie made a face. "People don't go to the lake on Midsummer's Eve to sacrifice themselves anymore."

"Your face will freeze like that, stinker," Gram said. "But all right, since you asked."

People realized they were being had, Gram said, and the tradition fell out of use. The snatchers began to target specific people-the families of the rich and influential, of local magistrates and politicians. They always wanted power, after all. And then some outside factors contributed to the decline of the snatchers, more banal stuff. Factories began pouring chemicals and waste into the lakes. Motors were invented for boats. People wore life vests. The Canadian Coast Guard was founded.

"But they're still out there, girls." Gram leaned forward, and it seemed that even the waves lapping against the shore went still to listen to her.

"Always be vigilant. Take care of each other."

* * *

The summer before ninth grade was the last time we went to the lake. The following year, Gram died suddenly in April, of her heart just calling it quits. Mom said it was a blessing, what with her arthritis being so bad and her diabetes beginning to act up. It rained on the day of the funeral, and earthworms stippled the drive of the cemetery even though the last of the winter's brownish snow had yet to melt from the base of the trees. Later that night, while the rest of our family sat around cheese platters downstairs, swapping memories and drinking the funeral from their minds, Laurie and I spent hours spread out on her bedroom floor, writing down Gram's stories.

Some we knew were lost forever-we could only remember the first line or the main character's name, and we didn't know if we could find them in a book of Canadian folktales in the local library or if Gram had just invented them on the spot. Even if we could look them up, though, they wouldn't have Gram's voice, and Gram's voice was the magic. But we remembered "The Sleeping Kingdom," beginning to end, almost verbatim. We wrote out two copies of the little storybook, one for each of us, and though we both agreed that we should show our mothers, we never did.

The following summer, Laurie's parents divorced and my dad lost his job. We called it the Great Unspooling; when things unraveled in our family, they unraveled in a hurry. The next fall, when Laurie and I should have entered tenth grade together, I switched to the local public school, since we couldn't pay tuition anymore. I didn't mind it so much-I hated wearing a uniform and saying prayers before class every day, and the only person who had wanted me to go to St. Boniface in the first place was Gram. It wasn't that I didn't like religion-there was something about Mass that got to me in a good way, and I always cared more about all of it than Laurie did. I just didn't want it mixing with calculus tests and Spanish and Homecoming-once God got tangled up in every part of my day, God wasn't special anymore. Laurie thought all of it was crap, of course, but she grudgingly stayed behind; Uncle Stephen paid her tuition as part of the divorce settlement.

I made the cross-country team at my new school. The coach told me I was a solid middle-of-the-pack finisher, but had potential. It was a blessed relief to be compelled out of the house to train; I couldn't stand watching Dad sit at the dining-room table leafing through job listings while Mom added up the bills in the kitchen. Laurie joined me on my long runs; if she stayed too long in the same place, Aunt Michelle would corner her and begin complaining about Uncle Stephen. We went out regardless of the weather-in fact, the gloom of a rainy day made staying inside the house even worse-which was why we were out on a cheerless raw Saturday in early November, a day that wasn't fit for man or beast. The drizzle was light enough that we only felt it in dribs and drabs, depending on which way the wind blew, but somehow that just made it worse. My breath smelled like damp socks as I ran. Laurie loped along next to me, her feet barely touching the ground. At St. Boniface, she was a starter on the varsity soccer team; college coaches were already coming around to scout her. She ran with a midfielder's tetchy gait, always alert for a soccer ball rolling past her feet; a tap, and she was gone in a different direction, like a spooked rabbit. I plodded by comparison, the long-distance runner with one goal and one way to get there. It amazed me back then that we didn't shove each other into traffic on these runs.

We reached the top of the hill and pulled up, bending over to adjust our sneakers and jacket sleeves and Under Armor, which was really just a cover for the need to pant like dogs. The city spread below us, or so I assumed-the fog strangled all but the church spires and a handful of apartment complexes. For a strange moment, the only sound between the ghostly gray sky and the ghostly gray fog was our breathing. It felt like we were on the moon.

"What a crap year it's been," Laurie said suddenly. She cupped her hands around her pink, wind-licked ears. Uncle Stephen had a new girlfriend, one of the ladies who worked at the bank. She was, as my mom put it, many moons younger than Aunt Michelle.

"Yeah," I said. "It really has been."

"Your dad found a job yet?" Laurie asked. She leaned on the guardrail and extended her leg behind her to stretch her calf. A gust of wind rolled up the hill, and a surprise spray of rain lashed my face. Laurie didn't seem to notice.

"Nope," I said. I joined her at the guardrail. "But he's in better spirits. Mom got a promotion at work, so that's taken some of the pressure off."

Our breathing had slowed to almost normal; we faced each other, our hands on our hips.

"Ready?" Laurie asked. I grunted in assent. "Hey listen, Tay," Laurie said suddenly. She grinned. "We'll make it, you know? We'll be all right."

"Sure," I said. "Sure we will. We have each other." It seemed like the right thing to say, but it also seemed powerful: a verbal talisman, a binding declaration before the world. A promise.

We turned together and started back down the hill, submerging ourselves in gently rippling waves of fog.

* * *

Chérie arrived the following spring.

Chérie was Laurie's harlot-red '97 Chevy Cavalier, a gift from Uncle Stephen for her sixteenth birthday. In our family, that was an unheard-of extravagance-the very mention of it sent my parents into fits for months-but Uncle Stephen's attempt to one-up Aunt Michelle worked out for Laurie and me. We named the car Chérie, Gram's nickname for both of us when we were babies, and though we knew on some level it was a piece of junk-the bottom was rusting, the muffler kept falling off, the radio worked only when planets aligned just right-to us, it was the most beautiful machine in the world.

Ostensibly, there were limits to where Laurie could drive. She still had a curfew, and she was only allowed to take it out on weeknights to go to work. We both worked at Upstate Adventure Island and Magic Waters Theme Park Resort, which was just as soul-crushing and tacky as it sounds; I took tickets at the entrance, while Laurie manned an ice-cream stand by the waterslide lockers. We were constantly sunburned and grossly underpaid, but we felt strangely free. Sometimes after work we would buy jumbo iced coffees with whipped cream and drive around with the windows down, Chérie clanking loudly in protest any time we neared fifty miles an hour. That summer we began to talk about going back to Little Moose Lake.

"Didn't your parents sell the cabin after Gram died?" Laurie asked as she pulled out of the gas station, her coffee balanced between her legs.

"Yeah, no one wanted to take responsibility for the upkeep," I said. "But we could find a motel or something. There might be good rates the weekend after Labor Day. You know, rent a couple of tubes, float around."

Laurie grinned. "Just me and you and the snatchers."

* * *

Then, at the end of the summer, Laurie didn't show up for work for two weeks.

Since she was my ride, this was a problem for me. She didn't answer my texts or phone calls the first morning, while I stood by the mailbox in my uniform waiting for Chérie to come swerving into view, and by the time I convinced my mom to drive me to the park on her lunch break, I was an hour and a half late. As I left that night, I saw a text from Laurie: "Sorry about this morning. Been sleeping a lot. Mono's a bitch." I texted her back that she should rest and not worry about me.

For the next two weeks, I dropped my mom off at work in the morning and took her car. This was sufficiently annoying to her that she grumbled about it to Aunt Michelle, who said this was the first she had heard about Laurie having mono. I realized Laurie and I had been in a fight without me even realizing it, and I let myself stew in righteous anger for another week before finally cracking and showing up at Laurie's apartment with a box of donut holes from Tim Hortons and a Coke slushie for each of us.

Aunt Michelle was shucking corn in the kitchen when I arrived.

"She's in her room," she said, without looking up from the corn. "I think she's having some boy trouble."

Laurie's room was inhumanly hot and smelled like half-eaten dinners were percolating under the bed. She had the radio turned up at full volume and made no attempt to turn it down when I came in. She looked like she hadn't showered in days.

"Hey," she said.

I handed her the slushie. "Hey. So are we good? I thought you might be mad at me."

Laurie shook her head. "Not mad at you. I just needed to go away for a little bit. Everything was a little too overwhelming."

"You probably know you got fired."

Laurie shrugs. "No loss there."

I handed her the last paycheck she would get for the summer and sat down on the end of her bed. "Your supervisor gave me this." She nodded. "So remember that guy Tom?" Tom went to my high school and sold neon-colored fisherman hats and "funglasses" at a stand near the park entrance. He was vaguely clammy and smelled like pretzels, but occasionally told a good joke.

Laurie nodded.

"Well, he asked me to get pizza with him. But not in a, you know, date kind of way. It sounded like there might be other people there. But I don't know, it might not be nothing. What do you think?"

Laurie didn't have any insight into what "get pizza" meant. She tried for a few sentences and then fell silent, picking at the strings of her blanket. I stopped trying to make conversation and opened a window, just for something to do. I felt myself beginning to sweat through my shorts.

"Tay," Laurie said after a while, "do you remember 'The Sleeping Kingdom'?" Her voice was wobbly and soft, not her voice at all.

"Course I do," I said. "Why?"

She nibbled on a donut and shook her head. "Nothing. Just thinking about it."

"Is there something going on with a guy?" I asked finally. "Aunt Michelle thought that maybe . . . "

And then Laurie burst into tears.

My first thought, when she told me about the assault, was about where I could get a gun. I seriously considered it-I knew that Uncle Stephen had an antique hunting rifle sitting somewhere in his new house. It didn't matter that I didn't know how to shoot it-I could use it as a club if I had to. It was just some guy, she said, at some soccer party. He went to the private boys' school that was the brother school to St. Boniface. No, I didn't know him. Yes, she had been drinking. No, she hadn't gotten a rape kit. That was the end of the questions I knew how to ask, and the questions Laurie would answer.

We met after school every other day at Laurie's favorite café, Cristo's, on Walton Street downtown. Each time she ordered a bagel drenched in butter, a hot chocolate and a plastic tub of jam. I drank tea and sometimes ate a muffin. Laurie chose a public place because it made her go out and prevented her from crying. I went along with it because I thought those were the two main problems we had to address: going out and not crying. When we first sat down, she always lined up two rows of five straws in front of her, and when she finished stripping off the paper and shredding it to bits and bending all the straws in so many places that they were useless, she gathered them up in a neat pile and threw the mess away. That's how I knew it was time to leave.

This lasted through October and November, and into a dreadful Syracuse winter. I signed up for SAT prep classes, and Laurie waved away my concern when she said she hadn't and didn't care. I listened and nodded as Laurie talked, though she didn't talk much-she preferred sitting in silence to discussing the assault. I didn't push her; I let her wrap herself in muteness. I was there, if she needed me. I thought that was enough.

* * *

The guidance counselor looked at my résumé before winter exams and told me that I didn't have enough extracurriculars. Cross-country wasn't enough, she said. Colleges want well-rounded students. Like I was a misshapen blob that had to be aggressively remolded and sanded smooth. That's how I ended up in an after-school writing workshop, in a room off the gym where the wrestling team stored mats during the off-season. My clothes, my backpack, even my notebook smelled like sweaty underwear when I left. I approached the class with the least amount of enthusiasm possible. Writing had always been Laurie's thing, though not so much anymore. She never said she had stopped writing, but the new journal I bought her for her birthday sat unopened on top of her dresser, still wrapped in cellophane, for months.

The story came pouring out one night, after a disastrous afternoon with Laurie when I began to realize she wasn't getting better but I was getting worse, and if something didn't change we would both sink down to the part of the water that the sun couldn't reach. I wrote about the sleeping kingdom as if it were real, as if Laurie and I knew that Gram was stuck down there, though no one believed it. In the story, Gram talked the queen of the snatchers into bringing her to the surface so she could give Laurie advice. I took Laurie down there, handed her off. Laurie kissed Gram's slimy, puckered forehead, and after that she was healed. It was a fantasy of unburdening. A fairytale solution. But I should have known better. Even in fairytales, quick fixes have a price.

When Mrs. Carson handed back the story, marked up with edits, she pulled me aside. She said it was quite good. It showed vision, emotion. The university was sponsoring a short-story contest for high-school students. She encouraged me to submit. A writing award, she said, could add some diversity to my college application.

I changed all the characters' names, moved the setting to Colorado, and signed the submission sheet without reading it. Two months letter, I received a letter telling me I had won first place.

The Problem came a week later, when the university committee printed my story, with my name attached, in the Syracuse Post-Standard. When I asked Mrs. Carson about the Problem the next day, she seemed surprised. Hadn't I read the rules of the contest? I looked up the submission guidelines online and read over and over again the sentence that said the winning story would be published in the Post-Standard.

Aunt Michelle saw it first and called my mother, who hadn't even read it. Michelle had suspected I knew something about Laurie, and she connected the dots. Mom picked me up from track practice and marched me straight into the dining room to interrogate me like a spy apprehended behind enemy lines.

"Did you know about-about Laurie?" Mom asked. I nodded. "And you didn't tell anyone?"

"Laurie didn't want me to."

"Not even a teacher, or a police officer?"

"She didn't tell me until weeks after it happened. And I didn't want to go behind her back." In the end, of course, this was exactly what I had done. That's why it was a Problem.

Mom sighed. "It was a mistake, of course it was, but it's not unforgivable. It's good for Laurie in the long run, she'll get into counseling now at least. You know how histrionic Michelle is. We'll give her some time to cool off."

Laurie showed up a couple of hours later. I was sitting on the back porch, the uneven wooden boards digging into the backs of my thighs. I heard Chérie's distinctive wheeze in the driveway, a slammed door, and then Laurie materialized in the dimness of the porch light. She had been crying in the car.

"Hey," I said. I couldn't say anything more.

Laurie said nothing for a moment. I looked at the ground, at the toad hiding by the edge of the bushes.

"My mom's saying it's my dad's fault, for giving me the car," Laurie said quietly. "My dad's saying it's my mom's fault, for not watching me closer."

"I'm really sorry-" I began.

"The only thing I had," Laurie said over me, "was that I got to choose when to tell my story. I got to pick the people I told."

"I didn't know they were going to print it," I said. The house was silent except for the thud of moth bodies against the light. Laurie wouldn't sit down with me. "If I had known that, I would have never sent it in."

"Doesn't matter." Laurie's voice was toneless. I had expected her to rage and swear, but she was so calm we could have been talking about the price of gas. "It wasn't your story to tell."

The obviousness of what she said stopped all my excuses in my throat.

"It was a good story, though." Laurie was crying again. "You really found your writing voice."

"Laurie, please-"

"Take this." She tossed a package on the porch. It was the journal I had given her for her birthday, before she stopped writing. "You've got a lot of good material now."

Mom had been listening at the kitchen window. "She's just like Michelle," she said when I came back inside. She nodded at the unopened journal. "That flair for the dramatic."

And then our mothers stopped talking, too.

* * *

Stories are tricky. If you don't watch your words carefully, they'll wiggle away from you and say all sorts of things you weren't even thinking. Gram knew how to tell stories, and tell them responsibly. I didn't have the same gift; my gift was in the appraising and weighing, the measuring of moments, but in trying to preserve and sanctify them, I crushed them. Laurie had the words. I had no business trying to make them do my bidding.

I wanted to tell Laurie that I would drive up to Little Moose-make a deal with the devil for a flying canoe, if I had to-on Midsummer's Eve. I would stand on the dock, littered with Gram's pistachio shells. I would feel the splinters in my feet and the sunburn on my shoulders, under a shining white moon. I would listen for the queen of the snatchers to rise to the surface and cry out the names of those sleeping at the bottom of the lake, and I would call out my name, loudly and clearly, as a sacrifice. I would wait for the queen to lift her into the still night air, limp and pale but still breathing. And a hundred times-a thousand times, if I had to-I would sleep for her.


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