fiction by Bethany Holmstrom
“A snake’ll come up and bite your hoo-ha if you look down,” her brother Alex told her earlier at the campsite, while she shifted from one leg to the other in a pee-dance and their parents argued about where to pitch the tents.
Four months back, the local paper printed a regional feature: “Antique Carousel Finds a New Home at Dollywood.” The color picture showed carved horses and a tiger, framed in pale blue arches and gilded with mirrors. The article promised a menagerie: rabbits, rams, hounds, a giraffe. “From Amish Country to the Smokies!” the caption read.
As her parents circled the campfire to make dinner, they reminded Mandy of hyenas gathering around a dying wildebeest from one of the National Geographic videos the family rented: wary of each other, with an air of exhausted competition. Mandy couldn’t see any traces of the couple who danced and smiled and kissed in the etched gold frames hanging on their living room walls. Her mother filled out the strapless white dress perfectly, swathed tightly around her hips and waist. Two clamshells held in her chest, a billow of tulle and fabric at the bottom. Her father wore a black suit and a bowtie, stiff and starched and broadly happy.
“What song were y’all dancing to?” Mandy asked her mother once.
“I Will Always Love You.” Her mother knew all the words to Dolly, and to Emmylou. Her mother didn’t always sing along when she put one of the worn, scratched copies of Jolene or Blue Kentucky Girl on the turntable. Sometimes she just hummed, mouthing a word here and there — doing the dishes, cleaning, setting the table.
The lake was quiet the next morning. A slight cool wind hinted at the clouds above. Algae danced along the edges of the water, disappearing into the brackish depths as the family moved down the dock. Mandy and her mother carried the paddles and tackle box and life-vests and fishing rods and small drink cooler. Her brother and father held the upturned bright blue canoe over their heads. Mandy could smell the chemical tang of the DEET and sunscreen her mother had sprayed and smeared on the children over the dank lake water. Her mother set the cooler in the middle of the dock, leaning the rods against it, the life-vests on top —then, not saying anything, walked back down the dock, taking the path into the woods.
“Where’s your mother?” Her father asked, after they flipped the canoe onto the dock and pushed it to the edge.
“Already headed back to camp,” Mandy said.
Her father glared for a moment at the scraggle of pine trees edging the woods. Alex impatiently toyed with the rope looped through the stern.
“Vests on. Alex, help me get it in the water,” their father said, taking the rope from his son. “Then you’ll get in first. Nearly tipped it over last time you got in, and your mother will murder us if you drown your sister.”
Mandy felt the pull and weight in her arms and shoulders and chest
and sides, outlining the aches she’d have later. Even with the stadium cushion balanced on the carrying yoke under her butt, she could feel
the grooved wood leaving its mark.
Her father directed Alex as they paddled quickly back to the dock.
“Leave the cooler and the paddles, and get out slowly,” he told his son, handing Alex the rope before the father braced his arm against the dock to steady the canoe. Alex listened, barely upsetting things as he hauled himself onto the ladder. “Take the tackle,” their father said, passing the box of lines and lures up.
The ranger’s face was dug with canyons, baked by decades of sun. He chain-smoked Camels, sitting in the office chair he had dragged out on the concrete patio. He waved folks in, hitting the button for the barrier gate when he recognized them or saw the registration papers on the dash. He’d point new guests to one of the parking spots in front of the station and endure the sweltering box of the office to get them registered. New guests were less frequent now in the peak of August humidity, with some schools already open. Soon he’d be just listening to the radio and the birds, reading the latest mystery his wife picked up from him at the library; he’d linger on the patio until the fall chill bothered his arthritis too much, and move in to the boxy warmth of the space heater.
By the time Mandy’s mother arrived with Alex, her daughter was hoisted up onto the station information counter, buttressed by pamphlet displays. An old ranger had some kind of tool to her child’s face.
That night Mandy saw giant wolf spiders sink into the lake and pull algae out from its floor. Strand by slimy strand, the spiders wove. They floated to the surface with the top edges of the net hooked into their leg hairs, smaller rocks beaded onto the bottom to lend the net weight. The spiders trawled up and down the lake, catching bovine Nessies, flashing yellow-green sunnies, slick swirls of eels.
Mandy sat at the picnic table, tasked with packing the food things and utensils. Mandy wasn’t sure if her parents were still hyenas, as they stuffed the tent fabric into bags and folded and bound the poles. They were other, more tired animals, more deeply resigned to survival.
Bethany Holmstrom is a writer and educator. Originally from rural Appalachia, she now lives in Brooklyn. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net, and has appeared in Tiny Molecules, MoonPark Review, Appalachian Review, and other places. Find her on Twitter @bdholms.