Legends of Emerald Lake by Maggie Nerz Iribarne

The laughing blonde kid tread in the deeper water. I looked away to scan the lake, distracted first by boats pushing against the wind, then by the dirty dollar bill green of the tree line hugging the shore. When I checked back, the boy’s head had been severed by water, leaving his arms and legs flailing as he resisted sinking. I abandoned Charles mid-story, flapping his gums, grabbed my floatie and jumped from the precarious lifeguard chair to run to the boy, passing through the small clusters of campers dotting the beach. Somehow, Charles passed me, arrived first. In seconds he emerged from the water carrying the sobbing soaking boy. I turned away from the lake. I came here, to Emerald Lake of all places, to lifeguard, to save kids, to save myself. 

“Glad we made it,” Charles said as we walked back to the tall chair. “One minute they’re fine, next minute, under water. Always something happening here.”

You made it,” I corrected.

“Maybe the witch’s pool is doing its thing. Or maybe the Weed Woman? Have I told you that one?” he said.

When he wasn’t life guarding, Charles was a writer, a storyteller recounting tales of the lake. 

“Go ahead.” 

“Okay. Decades ago a woman drowned herself after her boyfriend broke up with her, right here, in this lake. They’ve done the math and most of the drownings since have been men, or boys. She’s still pulling them in, Lindsay, holding them under.”

I allowed some silence, surveyed the water struggling beneath harsh sun, imagining all the boys pulled by their legs, disappearing from view, imagining the Weed Woman pulling Ben under. 

I knew a different story. 

Unlike Charles, I wasn’t eager to share. 

“Do they warn parents about this Weed Woman problem before signing their kids up for camp?” I smirked. 

“Ha,” Charles said, slinking under the umbrella, into the shade .


In the evenings after work I found my house in its usual quiet, neat as a pin state. I tiptoed past the smooth surface of my mother’s door. I knew she slept on the other side in a cocoon of soft light, steadily breathing to the recorded sounds of ocean waves and whale calls. Since Ben, since my father left, she seemed to have wrapped herself in cotton. She wore shawls and puffy coats inside our overly air conditioned house. She tiptoed. She spoke in a low voice on the phone, tapped gently on her keyboard. Even her car eased out of the driveway, slipping from one street to the next.  I could barely feel her fingers running through my too long hair. She stared past me when I spoke, vacantly smiled when I told her my grades were good, that I was interested in studying psychology, that I was taking a summer job at the camp. She never said or did anything to impede, as she had before. Her only question came in her sometimes pleading eyes: Are you okay? Please be okay. 


 “Everyone’s has a story,” Charles said. 

“Not me.” 

I imagined myself saying, “My brother Ben died in a boating accident last summer.” The easy version. 

I imagined Charles turning to me, taking my hand. I wanted him to. Without touching him, I knew his hands were strong but also soft. I knew his chest was broad and welcoming. I knew he smelled of life, of skin and suntan lotion and laundry soap. I knew how his strong thigh felt rubbing against mine all day. I wouldn’t have minded his touch, his kindness, his sympathy, even his love. I yearned for it. 


My brother Ben caused tension in our house, constantly pushing our parents out of their comfort zone. He blew off school. His friends lurked, lounging on the den couch, raiding our fridge. He never showed up for dinner. He was always out somewhere, jumping into one car or another, zooming away. Our parents were too busy dealing with work and their own silent disputes to stop him. I wasn’t much better, just quieter, partying with my own crowd of stoners. I flew under our parents’ radar. They thought I was the good one. Ironically, Ben and I joined together on one fatal night. That was the end of our parents’ marriage, the end of any semblance of normalcy.  


Every day at 6 AM, the lifeguards drilled, a rigmarole of swimming back and forth, pretending to drown, carting our partners to shore, practicing CPR. The early morning lake was colder than a witch’s tit, as Charles said. 

For me the drills were about the people under the water. I saw them every day. There was a woman with long hair streaming behind her. There were several children, their moans resonating through weeds. There were male and female, old and young hands that reached out to touch my legs and arms, gently pulling at me. Their lips moved, making indecipherable expressions as I studied their faces, looking for Ben. They whistled and whisked past me into the murk. 

At the end, I dragged myself out of the water, headed for Charles. All the other guards ignored me, stood beside a picnic table, munching donut holes, towels hanging on their shoulders.

Charles appeared beside me. 

“You okay, Lindsay? You alright?” he asked.

“Yeah, I am. I’m fine,” I said, lying to us both.


Originally, my mother said she planned on donating Ben’s stuff, but she’d kept it, arranging it in his room without fanfare or announcement, without even warning me away. She created a museum installation, a room exactly as when he was alive, except, like the rest of the house, it was kept in a desperate, suffocating order. His guitar leaned permanently against the wall. I often sat on the edge of the bed to hold his picture in my hands, study his face. We shared the light eyes and dirty blonde hair of our mother’s side.

“What a waste,” I said, thinking of his short sixteen years on earth. I lay on his bed, curled up, shivered but avoided blankets, knowing my mother would freak out about any mess. The stillness of the room quieted my mind, lulled me to sleep. When I awoke I found Ben standing beside the bed. He appeared smaller, bruised, unkempt. 

He smiled at me, pushed back his floppy hair, exposing a deep gash, still bleeding, a trickle down the side of his face. 

I stood stony as he put a hand on my shoulder. 

“I forgive you,” he said. 


Aside from Charles, it was a lonely summer. Unsmiling fellow lifeguards passed me, kids splashed at my feet without responding to my questions or jokes. Only the underwater faces seemed to acknowledge me. Two exceptions: A woman in the bathroom stood beside me at the sink. She was not another guard, not a counselor, obviously not a kid. Her tangled hair hung over thin shoulders. I felt her gaze on me as I washed my hands. 

 “Will you help me?” she said,  “My son fell into the lake. I need you to help me.”

Shamefully, I ran away. 

Charles told me her name was Emerald Lake Lottie. Her baby rolled off the dock in 1907. 

And there was the man who wore a grey suit and carried a gold pocket watch. He paced the beach, sometimes stopped, said, “Isn’t this a wonderful place?” to which I could only agree. 

“How is that guy in the suit not sweating?” I asked Charles.

“What guy?”

I pointed. “Him.”

Charles looked across the beach, then at me. 

“That’s Henry McGuiness. He owned a hotel here. It burned to the ground.”



“1870-“ I began. 

“He’s been wandering the beach for decades, mourning the loss of his hotel. Consider it a privilege. Seeing him. It means you’re close.”

“Close to what?”

Charles had disappeared, headed out to pull another child from the deep. I didn’t even bother trying to outrun him.


The summer passed. Several kids almost died in the lake, but not with Charles around. Charles and his endless stories.

 “The lake was created in the 1850s by flooding out an entire village. The water swallowed homes, businesses, a cemetery.”

“I don’t know if I can take much more,” I said. 

“I promise I’ll stop when you tell me your story.”

“Why should I?”

“Why shouldn’t you?”

“Maybe you already know it?”

“No. And even if I did, it has to come from you. You have to tell your story. It’s freedom. It’s the best therapy you’ll ever get.”

“Freedom from what? Who says I need therapy?”

“Soon I’ll have told you everything I know about this place, which is everything, or almost everything, and then we’ll be done and there’ll be nothing left to tell.”

“What does it matter?” I said. 

“Trust me. It matters. It just does.”


At the end of the summer, Charles told me the last legend he knew of the lake, about a damaged boat that appeared lately from time to time holding a dead body of a young man. No one knew what happened, or who the body was in life. 

After that Charles stopped talking and my world became very quiet. The crowds of campers thinned out, the sun permanently stuck itself behind a cloud, all warmth drained from the water. The faces under the lake’s surface stopped showing themselves. My house’s silence deepened to a black hole of nothingness. My mother stayed in her room. 

“I’ll do it. I’ll tell you,” I finally said.

Charles sat beside me on wet sand. 

A fire blazed behind us. 

 “Our parents were away,” I said, “It was supposed to be a small thing. The news of the party spread. You know how that happens? Soon our house was crammed with kids drinking, smoking, whatever. It was my idea to take the boat out. I was totally trashed. I called to Ben and told him to come on the boat. We laughed so hard, feeling like big shots, like grown-ups. But we were idiots. At least I was. I pulled the boat out of the slip and laid on the throttle. I loved the feeling of wind in my hair and turning to see Ben drinking a beer. I was the big sis in charge, until we crashed and it was all over. Ben was gone.”

The fire grew brighter, warmer. Charles’s chest was as I hoped it would be. 

“And what about you?”


“What happened to you?”

I looked at him. 

“It’s time to rest now, Lindsay. Let me take your story, tell it for you. You don’t have to tell it ever again. You’ll be a peaceful one, I promise.”

“What will you say?”

“I’ll tell the story of the sister who died with her brother on a boat one summer night on Emerald Lake, how she swims the lake with her brother, protecting all the people of the lake.”

“Will you tell them how much she loved her brother? How sorry she was?”

“Yes. Always.”

Freed, I moved away from Charles, the fire, the leaning watching chair. I dove into the water, under the surface, exhilarated by the smell of suplhur. I joined the multitudes of faces and hands, legs and arms. I swam until I found him.


About the Author

Maggie Nerz Iribarne is 54, lives in Syracuse, NY, writes about witches, cleaning ladies, priests/nuns, struggling teachers, neighborhood ghosts, and other things. She keeps a portfolio of her published work at https://www.maggienerziribarne.com.


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