An Art Teacher

A head of a man or woman half-submerged in water.

Lake Forever

It’s a sunny afternoon and I’m standing at the edge of a lake that seems to go on forever.  Around me are thirty young students; they’re waiting for me to teach the first class of a drawing course.  I’m not the least bit prepared.  They’ve strung themselves out along an impossible length of concrete wall bordering the lake, a kilometer or so and are all facing towards it, their legs dangling over the edge into the water.  I can tell they’ve already decided I’m not the instructor they paid for, they’re keeping their backs to me; I sense their hostility.  To actually face them, I’d either have to walk on water or stand in something like a boat or raft, though I know my voice would never reach them all.  Not that I have anything to say: I’m neither an artist nor a teacher.  I get someone to spread the word that they should go away for fifteen minutes and then come back, that I’ve got a headache.  I’m hoping that while they’re gone, I can at least figure out which drawing tools I should tell them to bring for next class.  Then I remember: this, in fact, is the next class, not the first and I should have told them last week what to bring for it.  There are other teachers standing around the periphery and as students drift away, I can see them being siphoned off.  I know I should be relieved but I’m not.  I’m humiliated.  I hate to disappoint and now everyone knows I’m a teacher whose larder is empty.

It’s not that I haven’t tried my hand at drawing, my subjects usually the various pets my wife and I have kept.  There have been dogs, cats, rats, rabbits, hamsters.  The drawings, however, I only keep for sentimental reasons and I’d be the first to admit they’re amateurish, the dogs sometimes looking like rats or the cats like rabbits.  Perhaps I could improve but I’d need a lot more time than life has allotted, given my job as a mail sorter, midnight shift.  I’ve no time or energy for self-betterment: I barely manage to keep the lawn cut.

At the end of the small break, only a few students rejoin me.  One of them, a girl with long red hair, is suddenly stung by a bee and screams that she’ll die, that she’s allergic to their sting.  Another student, a boy, hits her hard on her back, as if to somehow dislodge the stinger but instead the girl shoots forward belly-down along the water, glancing against it then skipping three times like a stone.  Finally sinking, she almost immediately reappears, shooting straight back up until she stops, suspended mid-air.  Then she plummets back into the water and we wait what seems like years but the lake doesn’t return her.  I feel something like knives in my ears and teeth on my heart: everything around us is silent and still.

The boy who’d banged her on the back suddenly starts screaming that it was all my fault then kicks me and I too go flying into the lake but without the girl’s athletics.  Once I hit lakebed, I see her sitting on an ancient wringer washer lying on its side but now she’s wearing a blue loose dress, something like silk, which billows around her, fish swimming in and out of its sleeves and neck.  She looks beautiful, a bit like the daughter I’ve always wished I’d had; like a little figure sitting on the bottom of an aquarium.  Her eyes are open and they follow me as I approach, though I sense that she doesn’t recognize me.  There are certainly no recriminations, nothing like the boy’s.  Happy for company, I join her on the washing machine.  I tell her I’d never wanted the teaching job.  I don’t even know how I got it.  When she smiles, I hope it means she’s forgiven me.  Then she reaches for one of the fish and as it wriggles in her hand, bites off its head, then its tail.  I am given what remains and accept it gratefully.

That fish is the first of ten thousand as we sit there for a very long time, the water always moving, its colours shifting, the sun drifting down and dancing on everything within its reach.  Except for fish, which are noisy, it’s calm and quiet.

No one has ever come looking for us, though every now and then a boat passes overhead.  I wonder if my wife might be in one of them but there’s no telling, I never hear her calling my name.  Perhaps she thinks I’m dead.  Perhaps she wants to remarry or has.  More and more frequently, dumped from boats, are household objects and furnishings.  Scattered around us are shopping carts, a piano, a purple sofa and several chairs, a birdcage with a dead canary, a frayed red ribbon around one of its feet and attached to one of the bars.  There have also been bags of newborn kittens, which claw their way out, hissing and spitting, surprisingly strong for their age.  They feed on the fish as well, they grow and multiply.  Some eventually manage to make it out of the water, then back to solid ground.  I keep a tally: one day there are twenty-seven.

Slowly drying under a sun that’s hotter and hotter, the lake, I know, is evaporating.  Today, it barely clears our shoulders; our heads are exposed.  I’m wondering if we should leave our home on the washing machine and walk towards the concrete wall but the truth is, I like where I am and who I am with though it’s only been once I’ve spoken to her.  The girl who wanted to draw no longer opens her eyes and one of her hands has turned to stone.  I reach over to hold the one that’s still warm and am pleased when her fingers lace through mine.

(The photo was borrowed from Cleaver Magazine, then manipulated for my own purposes).

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