Lake Sis was beautiful during the day. Clear, cool waters situated in a modest valley between peaks of an unassuming mountain range. During the winter the lake and mountaintops became inaccessible, covered in thick quilts of snow; but in spring the snowmelt would swell the lake, forcing the shoreline of the pebbled beach back under the wooden pier. By summertime the water had warmed, and the broadleaf trees had regrown their full foliage, covering the trails and campground in dappled sunshine. When the sun was out it shone off the still waters of the lake, preserving the daylight by reflecting it back like a mirrored lens. But the steady diffusion of light played tricks on our minds. Each night the sun seemed to slip past the western peak without warning and, as if a stopper had been pulled, the pall of nighttime would burble up, filling the basin with dense midnight. Within minutes the sound of rustling animals would cease, replaced by the cicada’s nightly liturgy.
The other counselors and I would often repeat the cautious tautology “You have plenty of time – until you don’t,” to warn the campers that unless they paid attention, they would be caught unawares in the dark. We would tell stories, passed down through generations of camp goers – about reckless campers who were caught in the pitch-black night. The stories varied. Some said campers saw the sun go down and then found themselves transported to another part of the valley, far from where they started and with their legs and palms covered in gashes, the sun rising over the eastern mountainside. Others told of hapless victims who wandered the woods all night, taunted by firelight and the calls of friends always just out of reach. The most chilling ones were accounts of survivors – campers who swore when the sun disappeared, so too did their friends, swept away in an instant by the shadows of trees. It was during this brief twilight, as we raced down Crescent Trail, ignoring the rushes that whipped at our legs and skipping over the high roots, that we heard another scream.
It came from the far edge of the lake, directly across from the main campgrounds, where a wide arc of forest gave way to the pebbled beach. Sadie kept a tenacious pace, bounding with long strides across the trail, flitting easily over the soft loam. She hardly seemed human at that moment, reminding me of one of the birds that hopped from reed to reed on the lake front. They were so light they hardly bent the cattails they perched on and so focused on the water below them, hunting for their next meal, that I wondered how they knew where to put their feet. If she wasn’t in front of me, showing me where it was safe to step and what patches of roots to avoid, I would have tripped a long time ago.
Another scream sounded, twisting across the surface of the lake. It was close now, reaching a furious crescendo just as we ran onto the beach, loose stones skittering under our tennis shoes. I looked around frantically, not sure what I might find. My search yielded nothing in the dying light.
“There!” Sadie pointed.
I turned to see she was gesturing to a figure in the lake, far past the end of the pier. It was clearly one of our campers, but they were too far away, and it was too dim to identify them. Their head bobbed above the water, strangely silent now that we had arrived. The water around them roiled, as if teeming with eels.
“They must be panicking,” I thought, trying to remember the procedure for drowning incidents.
“I’m going in.” I said after a moment. “Go to the shed and get a life buoy and then follow me in – don’t get too close or we may get overwhelmed.”
Sadie looked at me with wide eyes but nodded her assent. I tore down the beach, sprinting to the end of the pier and diving into the water without removing my clothing. The water was still warm from the day’s light and I swam quickly, keeping my head above water and eyes on the camper. Soon I could see who it was, Jason Vargas, a third-year who was set to become a counselor himself next year. I slowed my approach and tried to talk to him.
“Jason are you OK? How long have you been out here?” He stared past me, eyes locked on the beach. Despite his irregular treading, his head bobbed well above the waterline. He didn’t seem to be in danger of drowning at all.
“Jason,” I called again, “look at me. What happened? Why are you out here so late?” The only sign he registered my question was quick glance in my direction. He seemed to acknowledge that I was there to help but was focusing his energy on the shore, keeping watch of something I had not seen.
“We’re going to get you out of here. Just hang tight.” I decided my questions could wait until later and getting him to shore was my priority. I circled around him until I was facing his back. Approaching slowly, I hooked one arm under his and across his chest. I kicked upwards, pulling his weight against me until we were both nearly horizontal. Jason had stopped flailing now, relaxing in my grip and allowing himself to be towed. He kept his eyes fixed on the shore even as I pivoted us so I could kick us to shore. He seemed to relax when he saw Sadie emerge from behind the shed, buoy in hand. It had taken her some time to find it.
We made our way slowly to the shore. Sadie helped me haul Jason from the water. He was fully dressed as well, I noted, though he was missing a shoe, likely from treading water so erratically. I lay on the beach beside him, panting from exertion.
Jason was the first to speak.
“We need to get back to camp. There’s no more light.”
He was right. The valley was dark now and my eyes hadn’t had a chance to adjust. Sadie’s head seemed to hover in the air above between dark tee and raven hair.
“Don’t worry,” Sadie said, “I’m here now, nothing’s going to hurt us.”
I was a little offended to be left out of her reassurance. Clearly, I had done the lion’s share of the work tonight. But I decided not to push for recognition for my heroics.
We got Jason back to the camp, Sadie leading the way again. He grew steadier and more talkative with each step but couldn’t remember why he was in the lake in the first place. According to him he was at the edge of the woods, making his way to camp when the sun began to set. The next thing he remembers was me, hauling him out of the water. Sadie and I agreed not to press him for answers, we would have time tomorrow to get a full account. We got him changed and into his bunk without incident. He seemed grateful and remarkably unconcerned with the night’s ordeal.
Sadie and I sat alone by the campfire and watched the flames leisurely consume its fuel. I wore only my boxers while Jason and my clothes dried nearby. I luxuriated in the heat against my bare skin and the feeling of warmth penetrating my bones. The anticlimax of Jason’s ordeal, the feeling of adrenaline draining from mt muscles, made me feel exceptionally calm. I looked up and pondered Sadie. We had worked together for four summers in a row, but she was still a mystery to me. No one knew where or if she went to school and she was famously reticent about her family. She was cheerful, hardworking, and had a kind of steady energy I had come to depend on during our summers together.
“You know there’s some truth to those stories.” Sadie said, breaking the silence.
“I believe it,” I responded. “After what happened tonight, I’m sure there must be something in the water.”
She nodded but didn’t look at me. “Before you and I started working here, a camper or a hiker would go missing every year. Some people say there must be an undiscovered cave system in the mountains. If you slipped into a crevasse - that’s it. There’s no way a search party could find you and no way for you to get out, assuming you had survived. That’s the levelheaded explanation anyway.” She flashed a pained smile, “The superstitious one is that wendigos hunt in these woods.”
“Wendigos?” I tried to inject some levity to the conversation, inflecting my tone upward. “You mean those antlered things? I thought they were supposed to be from New Jersey.”
Sadie gave a small, cheerless laugh. “That’s the Jersey devil,” she said. “I don’t know when they started getting those confused. Wendigos never had antlers, or deer skulls for heads for that matter. They were humans, suffering an eternal torment for violating a taboo.” She leaned forward, putting her elbows on her knees and looking with deep concentration into the fire.
“The original myths said after someone committed cannibalism – no matter how desperate and hungry they might have been, mind you – they would never lose their taste for it. Their appetite forced them to wander the woods in search of new victims, for eternity.”
“That’s awfully dark,” I temporized, “I’m surprised you haven’t told that story around the campfire.” I wasn’t sure what to say; I had never seen Sadie so grim. She was staring down at her hands now, black tresses obscuring her face.
“That’s not the sort of thing I like to tell others,” she said. I wondered what she meant by that. I had heard her tell plenty of ghost stories before. Before I could ask what she meant, she cleared her throat and looked up, brushing her hair from her face.
“Do you know what the full name of this lake is?”
I was glad for the change in topic, and that Sadie seemed to have dropped her somber attitude.
“No, though I always thought it was an odd name,” I said.
“Well, it’s odd because it’s incomplete. The full name is Lake Sisyphus, like the Greek myth,” Sadie said, taking on the effect of a university lecturer. “You see when this little slice of paradise was being developed, roads paved and foundations poured, the owner decided he wanted a pebble beach, something to make this place the getaway it is today.” Sadie spoke at a measured cadence, laying out each sentence like a track before her, stepping across it to place the next.
“So, he had a freight load of pebbles trucked up the mountain and dumped along the shoreline; the same one we pulled Jason up tonight.” She stared directly at me, making sure I was paying attention. “But the very next year the pebbles were all but gone, washed away in the fall rains or buried under the snow and carried into the lake by the melt. He had to dump another freight load that year, and the year after that. Even now the stones have to be replenished every few years.” Sadie paused for breath.
“The owner wasn’t daunted though and had a wry sense of humor. So, to memorialize his ongoing war with precipitation, he rechristened the lake – the original Algonquin name was unpronounceable to him anyway. Sisyphus, the man doomed to push a stone up a mountain, only for it to roll back down just before he reaches the peak, over and over for all eternity.”
She stopped and seemed to collect her thoughts. I took the opportunity to interject. “I can’t believe I never heard the story after all these years working here,” I said.
Sadie didn’t acknowledge my comment pressed on, gaining momentum. “Do you know what great sin Sisyphus committed to earn his suffering?” She didn’t wait for an answer, “He cheated death. He locked a god away in his cellar so he wouldn’t be taken to the underworld. He obeyed our shared instinct – our HUMAN instinct – to live on no matter the cost.” Her voice had become shrill with emotion, and words poured out in a frenzied staccato. “Wouldn’t you do the same? If push comes to shove, we prioritize our lives over all else. If you’re drowning you cling to what’s near and pull yourself up; If you’re attacked you fight back; and if you’re starving you eat!” She nearly screamed the last word. The fire cast unnatural shadows across her face. Her pupils seemed to have grown preternaturally large and her skin looked waxy and pale.
“Sadie you’re freaking me out. And I’m not sure I entirely agree with you,” I demurred, turning my body to the side.
“And just how would you know?” She snapped. “You haven’t dealt with anything worse than a scraped knee in your life!” Her voice rattled inside the hollows of my skull. Suddenly, I felt dizzy, and the calm I felt earlier was replaced with a surge of unease.
“You’ve never felt the gnawing of your stomach after a week without food! You never saw friends and family die one by one because they had more pride than food!” Her voice crescendoed and I felt air rush from my lungs as if I had been punched in the gut. I tried to stand but found I couldn’t balance on my feet.
Sadie stood and advanced on me. “It’s been four years, right? Ever since I started working here not a single camper has been harmed. Four years I’ve worked so hard and asked for nothing in return. I’ve been paying penance for so long now, protecting these fat stupid kids from the others, pushing my boulder up the hill without rest.”
In my addled state I wondered who she meant by “others”. She was close now and I could see there was no trick of light. Her skin had shrunk back across her face; it was pulled tight across her high cheekbones and made craters at her cheeks and temples. Her eyes bulged and teeth jutted forward, gnashing at the air when she spoke. She looked like a starving wolf, and I was paralyzed in front of her.
“This is better, isn’t it?” She spoke softly now, crooning. Her body was inches from mine, a gaunt silhouette against the light from the fire. “So much less sacrifice. Sure, it’s not perfect, but I need a break eventually. The boulder has to roll down the hill before I can push it up again. Well, we’ve reached the peak now, nowhere to go but down.”
She stepped forward again, straddling my lap. She sat slowly, pinning me to the seat and bringing her head to rest on my shoulder. I tried to move but couldn’t control my own body. Her arms wrapped around me, keeping me upright and pressing my chest to hers. Her skin felt like cool earth, like laying in the undergrowth of the woods just as the sun begins to rise. I breathed in the heavy scent of peat and plant matter. I couldn’t feel the heat of the fire anymore.
She cradled the back of my head with one hand and whispered into the crook of my neck, “It’s ok to let go,” She hushed, “I’ll stay here. I’ll keep the kids safe. You don’t have to worry anymore. Your work is done.”
I managed one last delirious thought.
“That’s good,” I mused. “I’m so glad you’ll be here to watch over them.” I felt a warm calm spring from my neck and flush through me. It rolled down my chest and arms, warming me to my bones.