by Kurt Newton
Eight-year-old Ellie Fortier exited the back door of her lakeside home into a clear moonlit night. She was careful not to let the screen door slam shut. She didn’t want to wake her grandfather, who was babysitting her for the night but had fallen asleep in his favorite chair. Her mom was at the hospital. Her dad — well, she didn’t want to think about her dad right now. What was more important was what she had to do.
Dressed in a light windbreaker, jeans and sneakers, she tiptoed down the back porch steps and hurried along the gravel path that led to the long wooden dock that pointed like a finger toward the center of the lake. Lake Ochabee. When she reached the end of the dock, she hesitated.
She stared out into the open water. She could feel its coldness and depth. But she trusted it. If there was a God, she hoped he lay at the bottom of all that cold, dark water.
To her left, moored to the dock’s side, her father’s motorboat sat. Alongside it, like a child close to its parent’s side, rested the small skiff Ellie’s father let her paddle around in. As her small hands worked to untie the knotted rope, Ellie’s lips moved silently, repeating a chant she had begun fifteen minutes earlier after the phone call came informing her grandpa that there was still no change in her father’s condition. Daddy will be all right… Daddy will be all right… Oaky will fix it… Oaky will make it better…
Her fingers finally loosened the damp knot and she climbed down into the small boat. Without wasting any more time, she picked up the oars and began to row.
It was a calm night on the lake. Labor Day had come and gone, leaving only those who lived on the lake year-round. Besides being a summer recreational spot, Lake Ochabee was known for its sport fishing. The deep water held many surprises. In State-sponsored tournaments, Lake Ochabee had logged records for both bass and pike. But tonight, Ellie was hoping for something bigger.
She watched the back porch light of her home recede as she rowed further and further from shore. She hoped Grandpa wouldn’t wake up any time soon and notice her missing. In fact, if all went well, she would be back before she created too much of a fuss. As she rowed, she went over Grandpa’s story again in her mind.
“You see, Ellie, a few hundred years ago, a long way back, before there were cars and airplanes and electricity, back when there weren’t so many people, only Native Americans called the Caughnawega, there was Lake Ochabee. It was much bigger then. Cleaner, too. And back then, in those olden times, the Caughnawega believed in a lot of things that might sound strange to us now, but to them, weren’t very strange at all. It was what they believed. And belief, Ellie, if it’s strong enough, is a very powerful thing.
“And one of the things the Caughnawega believed in was the Great Ochabee Serpent…”
And so the story went, Grandpa changing it slightly each time he told it. But basically Ellie remembered that once every hundred years or so the Great Ochabee Serpent could be called to the surface of the lake and asked to grant a special wish. There were certain conditions in the story that were lost to her now. All Ellie knew was that it had been a long time since Oaky had last paid a visit.
Soon, the porch light Ellie had been keeping her eye on was joined by other porch lights, shining from other lake homes containing other fathers either watching television or putting the dinner dishes away or tucking their children in bed. The collection of porch lights began to resemble a string of Christmas bulbs strung along the shoreline. With the creak-splash creak-splash of the oars against the water lending a soothing mantra-like rhythm to the night, Ellie’s thoughts drifted to those of her father and the time he dressed as Santa Claus, just for her…
It was Christmas time, and Ellie’s mother and father had driven to one of the big city malls for some last minute shopping. Santa Claus was there, taking pictures with all the other children and promising special gifts for Christmas. But the line was too long and Ellie went home crying because she didn’t get a chance to speak to him. That night, however, Santa paid a special visit. It was her father, of course. Ellie pretended not to notice, and would have let her father think he was Santa, except for the fact that she said, “Thank you, Daddy,” when it was time for him to leave…
On the heels of that memory came a much more recent one, one not so happy, just several days past, the day after Ellie’s father had his accident…
“What’s a coma, Mommy?”
Elizabeth Fortier, Ellie’s mother, appeared stunned. “What honey? What did you say?”
To Ellie’s ears, her mother’s voice sounded like thin glass about to break. “I heard you and Grandpa talking in the kitchen about Daddy’s accident. Grandpa said Daddy was in a coma. What does that mean?”
“It means Daddy is hurt real bad, honey. He’s sleeping and he can’t wake up.”
“Is he going to die?”
Tears escaped the corners of her mother’s eyes then, running tiny tracks over the slopes of her cheeks. “No, honey, now be a good girl and find something to do. Mommy wants to rest for a little bit.”
And that’s what Ellie felt like doing now. Taking a rest. She had been rowing for half an hour. Her arms felt wooden, like the oars themselves. The skin on her palms had grown lumpy with blisters. The lights on shore were now just faint pinpoints indistinguishable from each other, like distant stars. How did she know which star was hers? How would she ever find her way back home?
She stopped rowing and the darkness seemed to crowd in around her. She felt the silence of the open water, broken only by the drip-drip of her oars and the thin raggedness of her breathing. She felt like she was sitting in an immense bowl of black soup. Only the moon, with its white rippled streak upon the water, kept the dark from totally claiming her.
Maybe she could use the moon to guide her, she thought. Like the Caughnawega used to do. But the shore looked so far away. All she wanted to do now was get back home as fast as she could. But she didn’t have the strength. This was a stupid idea, she thought to herself. She hated Grandpa for telling her such a stupid story. Stupid stupid stupid…”
Ellie leaned against the side of the boat and sobbed, tears falling into the cold dark water. “I want my Daddy… I want my Daddy…”
As Ellie sobbed, a meteor streaked across the sky overhead. The old century had passed.
The lake water began to churn. Ellie looked up from her tears and gazed at the bubbling water just feet from the edge of the boat. Her heart suddenly felt as buoyant as the bubbles rising to the surface of the lake. “I knew you’d come,” she said. But her hopefulness quickly gave way to fear as the water became more violent, rocking the small boat from side to side, forcing Ellie to hang on to keep from losing her balance and falling over the edge.
What if Oaky wasn’t a magical serpent, after all, like Grandpa said? What if Oaky was just some prehistoric monster, a wild hungry creature looking for its next meal? What if–?
But there was no more time for questions; the answer was here. Something big had risen to the surface. The Great Ochabee Serpent.
Ellie crawled to the back of the skiff as the creature’s head rose up out of the water. Its head, which was the size of Ellie’s boat, sat atop a tree-like neck. At last, its body surfaced, resembling an overturned sailing ship, its skin glassy and black. Weeds hung from the corners of its jaws, giving it a wise, bearded look. It opened its mouth and took its first breath in a hundred years. Ellie was never more scared in her life, but she wasn’t afraid.
Ellie climbed back onto her seat. “Hello, Mr. Oaky?” Her voice sounded small and bird-like in the presence of the Great Serpent. “You don’t know me, but I know you. I’ve heard so much about you. I’ve come to ask you a favor. My daddy’s sick and he needs your help. I’ve been praying every night, and I was wondering if you could wake him up?”
The serpent tilted its head. One ivory-colored eye, the size of a dinner plate, watched her. It breathed more smoothly now, the moonlight rising and falling on its slick skin.
“The doctor’s call it a coma, which means he can’t stop sleeping, and…” Ellie realized just how futile all of this was. What could a big old serpent do to help her father? And how was she ever going to get back to shore? “But now my daddy needs me and I… I have to get back home and…” Tears began to well in her eyes and she began to cry, not knowing what else to say.
Ellie’s hands stung as she wiped the tears from her cheeks. When she looked up again, the serpent was lowering itself back into the water. Panic filled her.
“Wait! Don’t go! I’m sorry…” But the serpent disappeared quickly, sinking like a heavy stone in the cold, black water.
After a moment’s silence, Ellie’s panic gave way to fear and the sudden realization that she was lost, a mile from any shore and too weak to do anything about it.
Then the boat received a nudge and Ellie cried out, grabbing the edges of the skiff. Another nudge and the boat began to move. It moved in a direction Ellie could only hope was the way back home.
The hospital room at St. Michael’s was bright and clean and antiseptic smelling, a long way from the murky water and fish smells of the lake.
“Here she is,” Ellie’s mother announced as they entered the hospital room together. Ellie received a nudge from behind.
On the bed before her, with thin tubes trailing from his side, a white bandage wrapped around his forehead, was Greg Fortier, Ellie’s father. He was awake and smiling.
“Hi, sweetheart, how’s my baby girl?”
“Hi, Daddy.” Ellie ran to the bedside and hugged her father tightly. “You’re okay,” she cried into his chest.
“Hey, of course I’m alright. What about you? I heard you were out on the lake last night. You gave your Grandpa quite a scare, you know?”
“I know, Daddy. I’m sorry.”
“What were you doing out there?”
Ellie pictured Oaky in her mind. She remembered his huge white eye staring down at her, looking through her, reading her every thought.
“Nothing, Daddy. Just being stupid.”
“Well, I’m glad you’re alright.”
“Me, too, Daddy. Me, too.”
Winter on Lake Ochabee was cold but beautiful. The wind blew in from the north, clearing the ice for skaters and ice-fishermen alike. If the day was right and the sun was shining brightly, the Fortiers — Greg and Elizabeth, Grandpa Fortier and little Ellie — would sometimes take the opportunity to have an afternoon cookout on the ice: hot dogs and hamburgers, baked beans and hot cocoa. Sometimes when they were out there, the ice snapped like a pistol shot, sending a scare into all standing near. “Stress in the ice,” Ellie’s father would say, providing scientific answers. Other times, the water sang, an eerie bass note that sounded more like a deep-throated swallow. “Air pockets.” Another reasonable explanation.
But every once in a while there was a sound that was neither a snap nor a swallow, but a rumble from deep below, a sound like the movement of a great weight across the lake floor. Ellie wouldn’t ask what that was, and neither would she tell, for she already knew it was simply Oaky rolling over in his sleep.
About the Author
Kurt Newton grew up in a small town in rural Connecticut. He began writing for publication at the age of thirty-three, and since then has had over 400 poems and 250 short stories published in a wide variety of magazines, anthologies, and webzines in the U.S., Canada, England, and Australia. To date, Kurt has received sixteen honorable mentions from the editors of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror for his fiction and poetry. He is also a three-time Rhysling Award nominee for his poetry. He is the author of the novels The Wishnik and Powerlines.
About the Narrator
Dani Daly is a former assistant editor of Cast of Wonders, and narrating stories is just one of the things she loves to do. She’s a retired roller derby player and current small batch soap maker, for instance. Soaps and balms from StoryTime Soap Company are crafted while listening to audio fiction of all sorts. She rants on twitter as @danooli_dani, if that’s your thing. Or you can visit the EA forums, where she moderates the Cast of Wonders boards.