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In The Memory of Water

March 17th, 2023

M. H. Lagaard is an MFA student at Northwestern University. She grew up in rural Minnesota, where she fell in love with the woods and the water. This is her first creative piece for Water&.  Read In The Memory of Water  below. 

Painting by Aubree Frost 


In the Memory of Water

The storm had blown itself out by morning. Martha stood on the pebbled beach of Lake Superior, feeling the familiar roughness of the wet stones beneath her bare feet. The wind was gentle now, only enough to brush a strand of hair over her shoulder.

            She wished Izzy was here. Today was one of those days she had loved, when the lake touches the sky and forgets itself. A wall of hazy blue. Izzy would always say that the lake was forgetful today, talking to it as if it were a person. Mr. Forgetful LS. She would dip a hand into the water with reverence, holding up her cupped hand for inspection. She would remark on its clarity, its coolness. She would look at the water with wonder.

            Now, looking over the pale cyan of where the water and sky met, Martha couldn’t stop thinking of her sister. They had spent so much time here, by the lake. Their whole lives had seemed to revolve around it. Informally, peripherally, so steadfast it wasn’t even noticeable. Swimming, hiking, picnics on summer days, skiing in the winter. It was the beat that patterned the undercurrent of their lives, the steady sound of the tides, so like an ocean, the crashing waves during a storm, the seagulls and geese, the light and the clouds. All of it together were the threads of their shared tapestry.

            Separated by only nineteen months, they had been best friends in all things. Martha remembered the way Izzy laughed, a rollicking giggle that started high and ended low, so similar to her own laugh that they would often be mistaken for one another. She remembered the day they cross country skied across a northern portion of Lake Superior. They had rounded a bend of the shore and there, in the unbroken snow, was a wolf. They had startled it. It crouched, frozen. Martha heard Izzy say “holy shit” under her breath. Then the wolf blinked at them and sprang away, snow arcing behind it, from the power of its run. For a moment neither Martha or Izzy moved. And then they began to laugh. In unison, without warning, the sudden terror and wonder of the moment transformed into a mirth that had them almost falling over on their slippery skis. Izzy had later called it a gift from the lake, this rare and beautiful encounter.

There was a rock the size of her fist next to Martha’s foot. She picked it up and threw it as hard as she could into the water. The plunk and the ripples were almost instantly absorbed by the movement of the tide. She started hurling rock after rock into the lake, her blood surging. The sweat trickled down her back. She wondered which throw would leave a mark, some message of permanence in the water.

Martha didn’t know why she had come here today. She had never wanted to come back to the water, and tried to avoid getting close to it when she could. But the lake compelled her, and she returned to it. Because when here, Martha compulsively looked for Izzy in every wave, every darkened shape beneath the clear water. She felt for her whenever she plunged her hand into the coldness, when she reached down to grab a stone that seemed to glimmer beneath the surface. Lake Superior was so large it had a temperature memory, she knew; a remnant of a particularly warm winter lingering in the lake’s molecules. Couldn’t there be a memory of Izzy there too, contained somewhere in the water’s atoms?

            When was the last time Izzy had swum in the lake? The Polar Bear Plunge in March—a joke of a plunge with an air temperature of 45 degrees and no lake ice whatsoever—a week before the accident.

             Martha shrugged her shoulders and took a deep breath, letting a rock drop from her hand.

            There was a vibration in her pocket. Bill.

            “Hi Bill,” she held the phone to her ear.

            “Hiya, Martha. Sorry to bother you on your day off but we’ve just received reports of an algal bloom a few miles east of Duluth, along the shore. I know this isn’t usually your department, but you’re the person located the closest to it. Could you go take a look and collect a sample? There’s an unconfirmed report that a dog got sick after swimming in the water.”

            “Of course. I’m on my way.” Martha ended the call. She didn’t often go into the field to conduct tests for her job at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, but when nearby she was sometimes tagged in to collect samples. She didn’t mind; it was a chance to see the sky overhead, to breathe the fresh air.

While driving to Duluth, she thought about the Tiktoks she had seen this summer, the disappointment and disgust of Minnesota lake-goers when confronted with a sudden algae bloom on their favorite watering hole. This state was called the land of ten thousand lakes. Martha wondered what would happen when they were all covered in blue-green scum, which seemed to be the direction in which the world was heading.

            Once outside of Duluth heading east, Martha started tracking the shoreline from her car, trying to guess where the bloom was. There. She caught a glimpse of sickly green water. She pulled over and parked. She grabbed her kit from the backseat.

            There were a few families milling by the beach area, congregating around the yellow warning sign that had been posted. She overheard one conversation by a couple men in swim trunks.

            “How dangerous is it really though? I mean, it’d be a little gross to swim in, but the kids were so looking forward to getting in the water today.” The man was frowning.

            “I don’t know,” the other man said, looking around at the group of children. “I heard people can get sick from swimming in it.”

            “Yes, that’s absolutely right, sir,” Martha said, stepping up to the men. “I’m with the MPCA and there has been a report that a dog was sickened by a swim in this algae.”

            “Oh!” Their expressions mirrored each other: dismay and relief in equal measure.

            “It’s a good thing we didn’t go swimming then!”

            Martha nodded and moved away towards the water, not wanting to engage in further conversation.

            She crouched on the beach and looked over her shoulder: The families were piling into their cars and driving away. She was alone.

            It was a hot day by the standards of the north, already in the 80s before midday. Martha twisted her hair up before turning her attention to the lake.

            It came upon her unexpectedly. One moment she was carefully dipping a jar into the green water, gloved hands steady, thinking of nothing, and the next she was frozen with the jar of water in her hand as she stared into the lake. It was not the lake that she knew, its clearness obscured, the glass warm in her hand from the warmth of the water, the swirling emerald color beneath her gaze. The water was something else entirely, some wildly compounding thing; overt, stifling, so different from the Lake Superior she knew and loved. Her sister could not possibly be here. Izzy was not here. She was not here.

            Martha felt the coolness of tears evaporating against her cheeks before she realized what was happening. She wanted to smash the jar against the rocks; she wanted to scream, to run away, to leave the lake behind, to never see it again. Instead she carefully sealed the jar then placed it in a bag. She removed her gloves and packed everything up before returning to her car. There, in the front seat with the sample of lake water in the back, Martha let the sobs come.

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