The dreams continued. Not every night, nor even every week, though there were times when they came four times in as many days. He dreamed of the round lake, as he had before, but now Erlon could not remember what it was he was told there. The trees’ words loomed dark and heavy in his memory, but their actual message eluded him.
He wondered why. Maybe because because they had already told him what he needed to know. And, oddly, it was always the first or second tree that spoke—the pine or cypress—never the third one, the oak. But every time he would wander closer till he stepped into the water, forgetting himself in desperation, in a plea to understand. And each time he was ejected from the dream as soon as the water touched his skin.
A couple of times his alarmed cry woke Anette, but he never told her about the dream—only said he was terribly thirsty and rose from the bed. He drank lemon water from the glass pitcher in the fridge, then went to sleep again after an hour or so.
There were other dreams as well. He dreamed that the missing part of his soul was hidden in the first sweetgrass basket ever woven, which had sunk to the bottom of a swamp or the coral shallows of a Bahamian island. Once he dreamed a Bajan local was helping him, but later it turned out he was merely harvesting conch and was quite annoyed at Erlon’s presence.
But these were ordinary dreams. They had none of the immediacy of the dreams of the three trees, none of the feeling of life hiding in every shadow and every glimmer of the round lake’s surface. He was never expelled from them, nor woke from them with a sweat that smelled of salt air lingering over water.
So he bought a city map. Erlon wasn’t sure how he knew it, but he was certain the lake was a real place. And if so, how hard could it be to find? There weren’t many bodies of water—couldn’t be—that were so perfectly shaped, round or even ovaline like that.
Yet he found nothing. He ordered a map of the county next, then of the two adjoining ones. He kept them in his desk drawer at work, poring over them on every break. He couldn’t take them home; Anette would never understand. Tannile he could talk about, even if it was hard. Even if it cost him. This, there was no way to explain.
It wasn’t as if she didn’t notice a change in him, though.
“I’m just tired,” he said when she asked. “From work.”
She didn’t press him on it. Anette seemed to have something on her own mind as well, keeping her from wondering too much about his.
The closest he came to talking about the dreams was to ask her, one evening on the deck as she was lighting citronella candles, what did she think losing someone does to a person.
“Someone you love, you mean?” she asked.
She didn’t say, “Like Tannile?” But Erlon could tell she was thinking it from the way her head tilted when she looked at him. He gave a slight nod.
Anette thought a moment before she answered. “In Spanish, they don’t say ‘I miss you,’ but ‘You are missing from me.’ Like something real and physical is taken out of your heart. I think that’s how it really feels.”
A cold chill spread over Erlon’s neck and arms. “So, it’s like a missing piece?” he asked. “A gap in your soul?”
She frowned. “No,” she said. “I think that’s just a metaphor, to express the depth of our feelings. I don’t think anything is really missing. I don’t think anyone is ever less than a whole person, however they feel, no matter what happens to them.”
He felt he should have been satisfied with the answer, but somehow he wasn’t. He could see in Anette’s eyes that she could tell, but she didn’t press him on it, and he said no more on the subject.
* * *
Despite his use of work as a dodge, it was true that Erlon’s job weighed on him. Every day as the weeks passed, Hamrick’s stress and agitation radiated stronger on Erlon and his coworkers. He felt more and more certain he would be asked to take on extra work.
It happened one Friday, a month or so out from the special election. Hamrick had been holed up in his office most of the day, with Sean Buich, his right hand man, rushing in and out several times. Only three hours remained in his shift, and Erlon had begun counting down the time till he could rest his feet and see Anette. Maureen, a woman one desk from his, was eating boiled peanuts, a smell he tried to ignore. He breathed the damp dusty air and sighed.
“Mr. E!” Hamrick’s voice shrilled behind him. He hadn’t heard his boss approach, so he jumped in his chair. The man clapped him on the back and, as Erlon turned to face him, gave a smarmy grin. “Wondering if you could help me out with something here.”
“Okay,” Erlon only said as he rose, sending the chair rolling backwards.
“We’re having trouble getting volunteers to manage all the polling places, so I need you to cover Whiteside Rural Fire Department for me. What do you say? Think you can do that?”
His heart sunk. It was a question, but the kind where you understood it was really a command, requesting his assent as a power play whether he assented or not. Still, by phrasing it as a question, Hamrick had left Erlon open to saying no, claiming prior commitments. If Erlon was firm enough. Yet that would take assurance, confidence he did not feel, and mustering it felt a titan’s task. It was easier to just say yes.
So he did.
“Good man, Mr. E,” said Hamrick, brushing Erlon’s shoulder with the stack of papers he held before strolling back to his office. “You’re a credit to your people.”
Erlon blinked. He fought down bile, hearing echoes of Hamrick’s voice in his ears. He could hear the assumption behind the words as clear as he had heard the words themselves and the friendly tone—if not clearer. He glanced at Maureen, whose eyebrows rose, but she quickly looked away.
He sunk into his chair again. Resentment burned him, but even it was muted before the grey mood settling over him. There was so little he could do. So little to look towards to remedy what was wrong. Though he knew, in the vast scheme of things, he had little to complain about.
That didn’t make what there was feel any less draining.
All of it was falling apart. Every lead he had about the dreams, about Tannile. Now even the peace he felt at the end of his day, when work was done. All stolen by one added burden, one casual phrase. It was a light thing that had been set upon his shoulders, but it felt greater, somehow, than the weight of the moon.
* * *
Just before he left that day Sean dropped a file onto his desk. “For the fire department,” he said, nodding at Erlon.
“Thanks,” Erlon said.
He opened the file. The first page was just a summary: precinct registration count, how many voting machines allotted to the site, its address and phone number. He skimmed this and set it aside, then skimmed the next several pages as well. There was plenty of time before the election day for him to sort through it all.
But he stopped at the final page. Stared at it. He could scarcely believe what he was seeing. It…couldn’t be…could it?
He was looking at a satellite map of the site’s location, printed in color from the web. The otherwise straight road bent slightly in the middle of the map, and near this bend the fire department was marked by a red icon. Just after that a smaller, shorter road veered away at a slight angle from the main road. Where it went Erlon could not guess, and the map gave litle clue. But on the far side he saw two things that made his scalp shiver. Two large, though slight impressions in the deep green indicating forest, so slight he would not have noticed them at all had the shapes not held such deep meaning. Both were parallel to each other, both angled in the same northwest-to-southeast orientation. Two ovals, nearly perfect in shape.
Like the perfect round lake in his dreams.
Sunday afternoon, while Anette was with friends for brunch, Erlon drove out to the fire department. There were few other cars on the road, here near the northern edge of the county. Much of it was farmland and forest. The flicker of sun through pillars of longleaf pine lining the road was like a strobe light in the corner of his eye.
Finally he pulled onto the site, made note of its scarce parking, the places voters could pull off at the side of the road if need be. How small the building was. But these things, while useful for work, were not why he had come. He passed the building and turned onto the road just after, coming to a stop on the cracked, dusty pavement.
His car door creaked open and he rose from his seat, his movements slow. His heart was thumping.. Erlon trudged down the road a bit, then off on a sandy path through the high thicket of weeds. Pine saplings grew scattered on either side of the track. Sudden motion at the ground drew his eye: a tiny black frog had hopped onto a broad leaf and now basked in the sun, looking up at him. He stared, then moved on.
As he’d hoped, Erlon found water. It was shallow, though, maybe a couple inches deep. The further in he went, the more tightly trees grew. It was nothing like the lake in his dream.
He pulled out his phone, checking the satellite map to make sure he was in the right place. Sure enough, he saw the twin ovaline shapes and a blue icon marking his position at the edge of one of them. But he could see no sign of either with his naked eye.
It was the wrong place. That much was clear.
He stood at the edge of the water. He hadn’t really thought…hadn’t expected… Yet he was so full of dull emotional ache he couldn’t finish the thought. Birds warbled and chanted around him, insects hummed, but he was deaf to it. His mind filled instead with a soundless, empty hum.
Behind him the black frog trilled, its voice high and nasal. Erlon listened for a moment, then turned his back, reaching for the keys in his pocket.