Listen. I need to tell you this.
They say there’s something in the water, there in Three Lakes, sleeping beneath the surface. It’s on cheery-sloganned postcards and souvenir tee-shirts, and in the pages of chapbooks about local legends and haunted Wisconsin.
They’re wrong — not about the presence itself, but where it lives.
It’s not in the water; it’s in the woods.
We thought Marty was kidding. We thought “summoning the the Yaqi Gods of Wisdom” was just an in-joke, a family catch-phrase, a Gleason tradition he was opening up to us the way he’d opened up his family’s home.
Hell, I think Marty thought that, too.
A year ago, we downed our shots and said our prayers, and a few of us wandered out into the night to observe another Three Lakes ritual — a stroll down a dark road in the moonlight. I spent most of my time looking up. It’s not like I could see much of what was in front of me anyway. I let the guys’ voices keep me on the road while I craned my neck to see the sky. So many stars, wheeling above our heads. You never see that many back home, even on our darkest nights.
Noises filled the woods, beyond our casual chatter and cautious footsteps: loons out over the lake, night-birds calling, something snuffling in the brush.
(“Marty, if we get eaten by bears, I’m going to be pissed.”
“We won’t. The Yaqi Gods are watching over us.”)
As we neared the place where pavement gave way to dirt path, the flash came. It destroyed my night vision and killed my view of the sky. It had to be lightning, you know? The storm had been threatening all day. Now, surely, it was here, tired of the Yaqi Gods waving it off, ready to open up the skies.
The wind picked up, shaking the branches.
Thinking about it, maybe that’s the first time I heard the voices. I thought Marty’d said something, or Greg, under his breath, too low to catch, but they were as dazed as I was, and insisted they hadn’t said a word. I didn’t bother pressing it. The woods — close and comforting and filled with delicious mystery a moment ago — were suddenly spooky, my skin crawling with what I told myself was the simple desire to get inside before the storm broke.
When we got back, everyone wanted to know where we’d been.
I’ve lost time before because of tequila. Have I told you? The first time I ever did a shot of of the devil juice, I lost an hour. I remember bits of it — leaning against a post at a corporate function, trying not to look nearly as drunk as I felt. Telling someone to “Shoo-fly, bunny!” and learning how to get into Anne Rice’s Halloween party without an invitation, should I ever find myself in New Orleans in October. The rest of it’s a blur of Oh God I Hope I Didn’t Embarrass Myself.
So fifteen minutes? That was nothing. Marty said we’d been appreciating the woods. I backed him up. They bought it. We settled in to play a game of Zombies!!! and drink more tequila, thanking the Yaqi gods with every shot.
The rain came as we slept, and somewhere in the wee hours, the voices came with it.
No, that’s not right. They came with the wind.
Ever had this happen? You’re in a dead sleep, and someone says your name. Right in your ear, clear as anything. You know you heard it. But then you’re awake all the way, eyes wide open in the dark, and there’s no one there. The person beside you’s out cold, and it wasn’t his voice, anyway.
Seven other people slept under that roof, and whoever was calling me, it wasn’t any of them. I lay there, listening to the rain’s patter on the pine needles outside our window, trying to get back to sleep.
The wind rose, and that’s when I started hearing the secrets. Small ones — girls giggling the names of boys they liked, someone sharing the best spot for hide ‘n’ seek — the things you whisper in your best friend’s ear on a hot summer day. A boy had hidden a matchbox car in the pantry, to tease one of the other kids.
The whispers went on for hours, and I lay awake, listening to the ghosts of summers past, convincing myself it was the Patrón talking.
The next morning, Shannon sent me in search of syrup while she mixed her pancake batter. Looking around the pantry, remembering that voice in the dark, I stood on my toes and slipped my hand along the topmost shelf. My fingers hit cold metal, and there it was, dusty with long years, never retrieved from its hiding place: a red matchbox car.
I put it back, terrified.
(Marty, if you or Tony or any of your cousins have been looking for it all this time, it’s all the way in the back of top right-hand shelf.)
The rest of the weekend, the air was still, thank god.
No, thank the Yaqi Gods.
We came home, and I thought, maybe, I’d left the voices back there in Wisconsin. Maybe it was just the place. Maybe I’d been dreaming drunken dreams, and remembered some story Marty had told us from when he was little.
But it was raining on the east coast, storms that had maybe followed us from Three Lakes, maybe sent by the Yaqi Gods themselves. The wind howled that first night, and I tossed and turned, burying my head under the pillow to drown out all the chattering, whispering voices. My house is pretty old, you know? Generations of secrets, all held within these walls.
They’re everywhere, now, any time the breeze blows. I can shut them out, some of them. And anyway, I can’t even understand them all — the wind travels, you know? Air currents blowing across not just towns, but oceans, carrying confidences across continents, and straight to my ears. I’ve even sussed out a few with my rusty, high-school French.
I don’t know what to do with them. I just don’t. Some of them are so old, blown around the world a hundred times over. Most of them don’t matter anymore, anyway.
You know that thing you told your best friend that time? The thing you were so certain would ruin you forever if anyone else knew? (“Oh god, I’d just die if he/she/they found out…”) Yeah, ten other people — a hundred! a thousand! — were saying the same thing, at the same time. You’re not alone. You’re not the only one, not by a long shot. You haven’t been for centuries. Kind of comforting, isn’t it?
But some of the secrets, they’re big, and they’re now, and I wonder if the thing in the woods that night wanted me to do something about them, to bring about change, to reuinite estranged lovers or stop grand government conspiracies, to find things long lost and return them to where they belong.
I’ve done that, a few times, made it seem like a happy coincidence. Hey, look what I found when I was cleaning out that cabinet. Auntie Joan must’ve put it here for safe-keeping and forgot about it. Or Remember that guy you dated a couple years ago? I found him on facebook. You should friend him, see what he’s up to.
I’ve written a few letters, too, for the bigger ones, the ones spoken in low tones by men in boardrooms and corner offices (the air conditioning carries their secrets through the ducts and down to the street, or up to the roof where the wingbeats of pigeons stir them along and along).
Sometimes, you just need to drop the right hint in the right ear. It feels pretty good.
I mean, I don’t want to be overt about it, you know? I still think the People In Charge could come and disappear me, if I pissed off the wrong person. So I keep it quiet, don’t take credit. I use proxies and anonymizers and all that fun stuff. Hooray for the internet.
(Though, that story that broke last week? I don’t want to go into detail here, but you know the one I’m talking about. The big scandal that was all over the news? Yeah, that was me. I’m pretty damned proud of that one.)
But even as I do those things, even as I think I’m helping — in my behind-the-scences, you-can’t-see-me kind of way — I’m afraid it’s not what I’m supposed to do. What if whatever’s out there just got tired of being the Keeper of Secrets itself, and set the burden on the shoulders of whoever happened to pass it by. Maybe I’m not supposed to say a goddamned word. Maybe I’m supposed to guard the secrets, rather than expose them, hold onto them, keep them precious and safe and, well… secret.
It’s funny, almost — they gifted me with hearing secrets on the wind.
But what I’m supposed to do with them?
That’s a secret they’ve left unspoken.
(Part of the My Super First Day project. Go see!)