At the Lake
after Joe Bucciano's "Wagon"
Copyright ©2017 by Christopher Conlon
Back to The Bucciano/Conlon Project
He'd brought them to the lake, all three of them, in the wagon, in darkness. Hiram and Old Joe had seemed surprised to be hitched up at that time of night, at an hour when they were accustomed to quiet rest and sleep, but they hadn't objected. They were good horses. He'd hitched them up after he put the bodies of his three children in the wagon, one next to another, looking for all the world as if they were sleeping. Their heads lolled loosely and he'd been tempted to go back in the house and get three pillows for them but some part of himself said that that would be ridiculous. He'd considered covering them with a tarp but it was night and knew he wasn't likely to come upon anyone on the dirt road leading to the lake. It was a quiet ride, cool and moonless but with big bright stars to look at.
When they got there he maneuvered the horses so that the back of the wagon was as close to the lake's edge as it could be. Then he got off, tied Hiram and Old Joe to an oak tree, and began carrying his dead children to the lake. Two girls and a boy. He couldn't remember their names. He couldn't remember anything about them except that they were his children and he'd killed each of them in turn—in what order he couldn't recall—with his old hunting knife, stepping into each of their rooms and plunging the blade into their chests through the sheets and blankets. He didn't think it had been difficult, but he couldn't really remember. After finishing with all three he'd carried each one to the wagon and hitched up Hiram and Old Joe.
After he had placed the three of them in the lake, putting each one as far out as he could, he felt suddenly exhausted and sat down at the water's edge. The night was quiet and the stars were cold and pretty and good to look at.
After a while, though, he noticed some movement in the water and first one, then the next, and then the last of his children—girl, boy, girl—stood up and sloshed slowly toward the shoreline.
They were hard to recognize dripping with water, but he knew it was them. He felt no fear. He felt nothing. He watched as they stepped out of the water and approached him. They sat down before him, their backs to the lake, and looked at him. They appeared just as they did every day except that they were dripping wet from head to foot and there were big dark blotches on their shirt fronts.
"Hey Pop," said the boy, his voice low but quite normal, "why did you do that? Why did you kill us?"
"Why?" he answered. "I can't say. I don't really know why."
"It wasn't like you, Poppa," said the smaller girl.
"Not at all," agreed the boy.
He looked shamefacedly at the ground. "I-I'm sorry."
"It hurt," said the smaller girl. "It hurt like anything."
"It was a shock," said the boy.
"Was it because of Mama?" the older girl said quietly.
"I—Maybe. Maybe that was it."
"You killed her too," the older girl said, "didn't you? It wasn't an accident in the barn like you said."
He nodded. He'd buried her last year in the little family graveyard near the back of the property. It was a proper funeral with a preacher and everything. There'd been no suspicion.
They sat there quietly for a time. Finally he noticed the sky beginning to pale and fade. When the sun was fully up it began to grow warm and the blue sky was faultless all the way across the horizon.
At last he stood. His children stood as well, the smaller girl stumbling slightly, her brother steadying her.
"Are you ready, Pop?" the boy asked.
He turned around and felt the boy climb onto his back. He was heavy. Then the older girl climbed on as well. Finally the smaller girl on top of her. He found himself wishing he could remember their names. As he walked toward Hiram and Old Joe he realized that his three children seemed to weigh thousands of tons. Their soaked bodies drenched him. He sweated. His back began to ache. His knees threatened to give out. But somehow he knew they wouldn't give out, not ever.
"You kids get in the wagon," he said.
"No," the boy said. "We ride with you."
It was nearly impossible to untie Hiram and Old Joe. It was even harder to climb into the wagon. He grunted with the effort and sitting offered almost no relief. He was being crushed. The weight.
"Take us home," the older girl said. "And I hope you've got a good shovel. Mama's waiting."