While the Owner was Away

While the Owner was Away
 

On the shores of Lake Michigan, in late September of last year, my friend Jenny called to say she would be leaving town for a week, and that a stranger was coming to stay at her lake cottage as caretaker. The stranger was a friend of a friend.

Because she didn't know him, she asked me to stop by each day while he stayed there, to check in on things. Having little else to occupy my time other than daily Ashtanga practice and walking my dog on the beach, I was free as a bird.

 

He arrived on his own

invited there to watch the dog

and do repairs

 

on the roof

and the house

and the stairs

 

a weekend on the lake to stay

 

Alone

while the owner was away

 

On the second day, this man's whole family showed up unexpectedly. Six kids ranging in age from 4 to 19, and their mother, his wife.

 

a stranger to Lake Michigan

from a rust belt life downstate to Lansing

for him

a beach house was a pipe dream

a stolen offering

the likes of which he'd never seen

he finally

could give his family everything

 

for a few days anyway

 

Alone

while the owner was away

 Photography by David S. Allee

Photography by David S. Allee

A thought, loud as a voice, came into my head when I stopped in and came upon the kids running wild through the woods around the house and up in the dunes

they're not supposed to be here

Jenny, on the other side of the country, responded with alarm. She had never agreed to this.

 

they weren't supposed to be there

but he brought them anyway

 

Six skinny kids from Lansing

at the edge of the Big Lake

jaws agape

he delights in their wondrous cries

can we swim in it

can we try

it's so cold

the waves are so high

 

he stands with his wife

at the fall of night

their secret

stay in paradise

stay hidden

out of sight

 Photography by David S. Allee

Photography by David S. Allee

On the third day I was surprised to see that the family still remained at the house. It being a Tuesday, a school day, they should have been long gone. I called but I couldn't reach Jenny to warn her, to let her know her house was still occupied against her wishes.

No one knew they were there now. No one except me.

The family's glee in their secret stay seemed to coincide with the unraveling of both the weather and the parents' supervision of their kids.

The wind picked up. The morning's sapphire skies grew dark purple as the afternoon air whipped the water. Lake Michigan turned sinister.

From half a mile down the beach where I sat alone I saw the faraway kids on the shore and again the thought dropped into my brain like a hot stone

they're not supposed to be here.

 

third day work he leaves the kids

alone

to play onshore

his faith secure

all is well

safe

okay

Papa to work while the kids to play

 

wind whipping

Two parents off away to make repairs

 

on the roof

and the house

and the stairs

 

the currents on the Big Lake

pull harder by the hour

locals who know better

exit the water

stop and head for shore

the water rising now

seven feet or more

 

skinny Hannah from Lansing

who never learned to swim

never heard of such a thing

as

exit the water

or

stop and head for shore

ere you slip away

the wind is blowing harder now

thirty knots or more

I had come upon Hannah the day before. She was alone on the porch, crying softly and petting the dog. When she saw me she hid her tears. Her older siblings, it seemed, had been teasing her.

 

Ten years old his middle child

finally free allowed to run wild

 

Hannah in the water now

breathes, sees

the lake is huge and it's cold and it's rough

I want to swim out in the lake it's so deep but I'm tough

breathes, hears

the wind may be loud but I'll go farther in try to swim

breathes, feels

this place is mine all mine the beauty the freedom the sky

no one

sees me

too far out in the lake where it's deep but I'm tough

no one

hears me

I shout over the wind but I'm too far in

no one

feels me

my hand as I slip

under

just a slip of a girl

breath gone

I slip

under

and go down

 Photography by David S. Allee

Photography by David S. Allee

When the screaming came through the wind from faraway up the shore, I was the only person around. All the summer cottages along the beach were empty, everyone having returned to their September lives.

I ran at full speed for ten long minutes, up, up, toward the panic of the crying children.  

 

Five on the beach screaming

HANNAH

deaf ears to winds whipping

HANNAH

the search takes less than an hour

stay secret out of sight

 

One sister pacing up the beach

sees a small figure

floating away

twenty yards or more

walks into the water

catches her under the arms

pulls little Hannah to shore

We called for help but no one came. It was just the kids, then me. Hannah's sister laid her in the dune. Policemen and parents finally arrived as the dark afternoon turned to darker evening.

 Photography by David S. Allee

Photography by David S. Allee

Hannah's mother wept and prayed. Her father could do nothing but stare. I saw every terrible emotion draw permanent shadows down his face. He seemed to be torturing himself, working to imagine his daughter's painful struggle and demise.

When my friend Jenny learned what happened, it was through a text message her father sent on his way out of town: "My Hannah has drown. She went out in the deep. I don't know why."

 

My Hannah has drown

he writes

he drives the remaining five

and his wife

back to Lansing

to eternal strife


there are no secrets here anymore

 

Hannah remains

on the shore

 

no breath

eyes unblinking

at the beauty the water the sky

all mine

such glory the lake the freedom

a secret paradise

all mine forevermore

Outside of the immediate family, I was the only one there to bear witness to this brief and tragic event.

So I write the story.

But as I write, a pale face looms. And in the furthermost reaches of my mind, a voice brokenly calls out:

what if you could have stopped it somehow

and I am haunted still...

 

they weren't supposed to be there

it wasn't meant to be

anyone but him

there to do repairs

on the roof and the house and the stairs

 

a weekend on the lake to stay

 

Alone

while the owner was away


While the Owner was Away

By

Whitney Allen


Cover Photography by David S. Allee