A girl and her mother sat in a red canoe. Both were holding their breath and neither of them looked at one another. The girl was wearing a dress that was only a few shades darker than the little boat, and her mother wore all black. Neither of them wished to talk first. It had been hot all day; even the morning air had been swelteringly heavy and the sides of the boat were too hot to lean on. The girl and her mother sat up straight. The lake was still; only the occasional duck or diving fish upset the green water. The oars were crossed, resting on the boats’ rim, and dripping every so often. Fragile circles ballooned out around the two silent figures.
The mother turned to face her daughter. The back of her neck was badly burned. Her wing tipped sunglasses were beginning to soften in the heat, so she took them off and folded them under her skirt. The woman uncrossed her legs and then re-crossed them. The sun was directly behind her, and the daughter, stealing a glance at her mother, could only distinguish a black, sweating smear.
The woman looked out around the boat, and squinted at the far off shore. They were a distance away from the dock they had pushed off from; they must have drifted quite a ways in the last few hours. She looked at her daughter again. “It’s about time you said something.” The girl didn’t even glance over this time. The oar dripped, and they both watched the water, the ripples disturbed their reflections. The girl was fifteen, but could pass for seventeen or even eighteen, especially when her long brown hair was pulled back in a braid as it was now.
“You cannot steal,” the mother said.
“You cannot steal,” she repeated. “And you cannot lie.”
“I’ve seen you do both.”
“Fine.” The faint echoes of laughing came drifting faintly from somewhere beyond where the two could see, and then the sound of distant splashing.
“Fine what?” The girl didn’t answer. “Fine what?” The mother repeated.
“Fine,” the daughter said again, “I steal and I lie.”
She shrugged. “Why shouldn’t I? It’s all the same isn’t it? Once you’re bad, you’re bad.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I know you don’t—can I see your sunglasses?” The mother fumbled around for them in her skirt and they fell on the metal boat floor. The girl picked them up, folded and unfolded them a few times and flung them into the lake. The mother jumped up and the boat wobbled horribly. “Why—?” She was flustered, but composed herself quickly and sat down again.
“That was bad,” she told her daughter. “You are not bad, but that was bad.”
“Can I see your hat?”
The mother was taken aback. She reached up and placed her hand on top of her lavender sun hat and stared at her daughter’s blank face. They had not done this in a while, just stare at each other, and they both found it difficult. The daughter didn’t look away, but she fidgeted with her hands and her toes were curled so tightly that her whole foot was cramping. The mother slowly took her hat off, adjusted the fake pansies, straightened the ribbon, and handed it over. A second later it was overboard as well, floating upside down on top of the water ten feet away. Slowly it filled with water and sunk until even the pansies had been swallowed by green.
“You are not bad,” the mother whimpered. “I have not raised you to be bad.”
“Some people are just bad, sometimes it just works out that way.”
“Would you save me if I were drowning?”
The girl didn’t answer. She was drumming her fingers against the hot metal, moving them fast enough that they didn’t burn and making a hollow sound like stones being thrown in a pail. The boat had almost drifted to the middle of the lake. Sweat was building on the mother’s upper lip and her black dress was making her itch and all she wanted to do was paddle home, but the girl was still staring at her and she was still holding her breath.
The mother spoke again, this time dropping her voice so that there was not even the trace of an echo. “Where did you hide them?”
“I put them in the bathroom cabinet, right above your medicine.”
“Why did you put them there?”
“Because they were hidden behind a mirror and people get distracted when they see themselves.”
“Where was I when you stole them?”
“Asleep. How did you know?”
“I knew you had taken them because of the way you clawed at your palm when I told you they were missing, and because of the way you sat that night at dinner and shook. I knew because I saw you feel regret.”
“That wasn’t regret.” “What made you take them?”
“I wanted them for myself.”
“No you didn’t. They’re worth nothing.”
“Because I wanted you to suffer.”
“I never liked them.”
“Because I wanted you to know I stole them.”
“You are punishing me because you think I made you who you are and you hate yourself.”
“I am punishing you for many things.”
The mother was agitated. The girl was satisfied and scratched at a scab on her knee. The woman was moving around and looking for the dock in the distance and tearing at the lace fringe her dress “I need to be on shore now. I need to be off this boat. We can talk about it when we’re home, it’s too hot here and we’re too alone.” The girl didn’t speak but leaned forward and tipped the oars overboard. The mother scrambled, unable to decide which oar she had a better chance of reaching, paralyzed by the choice for a second too long, and the oars drifted out of reach on either side of her. The mother looked at her daughter. Now there was nothing but empty space between them.
The boat had changed direction and now the girl could see the mother’s face, every inch of it, and all the wrinkles around the woman’s sullen eyes that looked like the cracks in the red paint chipping off the side of the canoe. “I am bad,” the girl said calmly and stamped her foot down on the boat’s bottom. The ducks flew up, their wings beating wildly, their legs trailing on the water, breaking for the shore. The mother’s eyes filled and the girl stood up, wildly rocking the boat so that some water seeped over the sides and filled the girls’ sandals. “Wipe your eyes and look at me. I hate your black dress, I hate the sweat on your upper lip, and I hate the cracks in your face. I have no answer. I have no reason.” She put her weight on one foot and the boat tipped far to one side. Then she switched to the other and the boat rocked the other way. The mother grasped the edge of her wooden seat for balance. The daughter kept rocking, faster and faster and the mother was yelling for her to stop and the daughter was laughing and there was no one in the entire valley but them and their boat floating on the green water.
Everything was humming, even the mountains and the diving fish. And then a cry cut through it all and now the mother was standing too and she was taller than her daughter by a significant amount. The girl was cowering and the woman cried, “You are wicked! You belong in the lake with my hat and my glasses. You are beyond my help. Take what you will of mine, shred it, burn it, you cannot be saved. What you say is bad, what you do is bad so you are bad.” Everything stopped; the girl exhaled and dropped down onto her hard seat, and then the mother did the same, moving deliberately. The girl kicked off her sandals and stretched out her toes. The mother leaned over and stuck her face into the lake so that all the daughter could see of her head was her hair floating on the surface of the water. She resurfaced and blinked her eyes a few times to get the water out. A boat moved slowly across the lake in the direction of the slipping sun, and the mother and her daughter let them pass. Laughing could be heard again. The girl and the woman sat now in their canoe, both listening to the happy, disappearing people—each, thinking that they had won.
Elodie Freymann, Age 16, Grade 11, Trinity School, Gold Key