Listen, can you hear the whispers? They are lost souls, seeking out those who are brave enough to answer.
The little lake shone in the morning's light, reflective as if a looking glass. A wooden rowboat, once painted red but darkened and faded with age, bobbed atop the surface in the center, occupied by two middle-aged men with fishing rods.
One leaned back in his seat resignedly and tugged his hat further down on his head to shield from the sun. “Damn fish just aren’t biting today,” he grumbled.
The other nodded his head in agreement, but kept a steady hand on the fishing rod. “I don’t think they ever have here, to be honest.”
The first man began thoughtfully, “There was one time…” although the other doubted there was. His sentence fell short. “How’s life back home, Ben? It’s been a while since we last talked,” he tried.
Ben shrugged, feeling over the grooves of the boat’s wood with his free hand, imagining they were pathways. He wanted, desperately, to tell his friend the truth, that no, things were not alright, but even as the words sat bitterly ready on his tongue, Ben could not say them. Instead, he veered away from the topic with the first thing that sprung to his mind, one that had been floating around in his thoughts.
“Have you ever heard that story?” Ben asked, glancing up. “The one about the whispers from the lake?”
“No. Why do you ask?”
“No reason.” Ben looked down, where the boat was slowly creeping along the surface, forming little ripples that spread out from the center steadily. They seemed insignificant, forgotten, but to a small fish they would be the upturning of the world.
“Where did you hear that, Clara?” Ben stared inquisitively at his eight-year-old daughter, who met his gaze with her deep blue eyes in the omniscient way that only a child can. They walked together through the dimly lit halls to her bedroom.
“We’re learning about myths at school,” she replied matter-of-factly, and climbed onto the quilt of her little bed.
“Ah,” Ben said, sitting down on the edge of the blanket, “and these spirits, the ones that live deep in the water, why do they call out to people?”
Clara smoothed out her flowered pajama bottoms, and then glanced back up. She looked so much like her mother, and memories floated back to Ben sadly, like little waves to an empty shore. He would not go back to that place anymore, to that beach where every grain of sand was the color of his wife's hair, where the birds sported her eyes. He promised himself that. “To help them,” Clara answered. “The voices guide certain people, the ones that need a nudge to find what they’re looking for.”
“How do they know if they’re the ones who need help?” Ben brushed the hair out of Clara’s face and kissed her forehead, then stood up and walked slowly back to the door, hovering in the vacant doorway.
Clara laid back on her pillow and peered at him with a flickering smile. “They can feel it,” she said quietly. “In here.” She touched her chest lightly, where her heart was softly beating.
Ben smiled. “I’m sure they can.” He shut the door behind him, and although he had turned it off, the light was not gone from the room.
The reflection of his own face stared back at Ben from the water, clear and familiar. He seemed wearier than normal, more worn. As if time was finally catching up to him. In a way, it always was, silently waiting and observing, the unseen but rarely forgotten shade that hangs over us all. Impossible to escape, though people certainly tried. Was it truly a bad thing then, or just another reminder?
The other man dipped into the water with one of the oars, and the reflection faded away. Ben sat up straighter and adjusted himself in his seat, being careful not to rock the boat. “Hugh,” he asked, “how is it that after all these years, this town still looks the same as it did when we were kids?”
Hugh shrugged and set down the oar. “Things have changed, if you think about it. You moved away, started a family. Stores shut down, people came and went. My son got married - you should meet the guy, by the way.” He paused, looking up at the sky. “It’s almost evening. We should probably get back.”
Ben nodded, and took hold of one of the oars. They began to row together, and the progress was slow but it was progress nonetheless. At some point, Hugh began to whistle, and the sound echoed across the lake. It dwelled above the water, notes dripping from each branch of each surrounding tree to his ears like sweet honey. The tune was melancholy, and one that Ben recognized from some time ago, as if it was the returning ghost of a moment buried deep.
“Why won’t you let me do what I want to do?” The piercing sounds of yelling consumed the house, a shadow that covered the walls and hid their twisted faces from one another. The radio played gently in the background, and Ben moved to turn it down until only a trickle of sound could be heard.
“Because you can’t just decide you’re going to skip college to pursue a singing career,” Ben shot back, waving a hand wildly at her.
Clara’s face turned a bright shade of red. “What do you have against my singing? It’s my passion, what I was meant to do!”
“Stop ignoring the fact that it’s not what’s best for you,” Ben persuaded. He lifted the papers on the counter and thrust them out to her pointedly. “They accepted you. It’s such a great school, Clara, don’t you care about your own success?”
“I will be successful.”
“But your mother wanted-”
“Dad.” Clara’s voice was icy and hardened, and thick with exasperation. “Mom is dead. You can’t keep telling me what she does or does not want for me, because she is not here anymore.” Her words became weaker the longer she spoke, and her last sentence was almost soft. “In your heart, you know that.”
Ben merely stared at her. He could not yell, for he was no longer angry, but he could not relent, for he was not ready to accept everything she was saying. All he did was slowly and meekly shake his head, eyes still locked on Clara’s.
That one sign was all she needed, and Clara grabbed her things and left, slamming the door behind her.
Suddenly, the room felt dark, empty. All Ben could do was stand there, frozen, as his mind wandered away. He thought about going after her, but it was already too late, he knew, and to feel that, to feel those words in his empty skull, ached. And above that, there was the throbbing thought he could not stop asking: If he had asked, would she have stayed?
Maybe not - maybe every person was just meant to drift, alone, in some vast and endless space, searching for the last broken piece of themself, and waiting impatiently for the ever-evading light of day.
Who would help them then?
Ben watched as the sun disappeared behind the trees, leaving the sky as a grayish-purple color. The water grew darker, a blue that reminded him of Clara’s eyes. It had been too long since they had last spoken. He would call her sometime, if he ever found the nerve. Sometime, he promised himself that.
Hugh rowed the final stroke, and the wood bottom scraped upon the pebble shore. Ben followed when he hopped out, and heaving together the two of them pulled the boat out of the water onto the sand. After removing his hat to wipe his brow, Hugh began unpacking the supplies from their outing, and then carried them up to the boathouse.
Ben, however, was occupied with something. He heard, as he stood staring out at the deep of the lake, the faintest whisper. It drew him in though he could not make out the words, a soft and lasting voice, the kind that makes you want to pay attention, to let your time be theirs. “Listen, can you hear the whispers?” Ben mumbled to himself.
Hugh, walking back to the boat, stopped. “What was that you said?” he asked.
Ben shook his head, and motioned for him to forget it, then turned around to return with his friend to the place where he was staying. His shoes crunched on the sand and rocks as he walked, leaving the lake behind.
But he couldn’t help but wonder, as his thoughts fell away, whether someone had been calling his name.