Lake Michigan is not the same as the ocean—no crashing waves, no salt wind, no tidal pools, no whales living their sonorous lives somewhere deep below—but I am skilled at imagination and I know how to accept the next best thing. Here is the long sandy beach, the dunes tufted with tough grass, the gulls fighting over discarded sandwich crusts, the wide blue water stretching to the horizon the way the ocean does, somewhere far from here. My mother staggers under the weight of the cooler but swats my father away when he offers to help.
I kick off my shoes as soon as I hit the sand, go running for the water line, wade in up to my knees. Somewhere far out, a shipping tanker is traveling fast, but from this distance it looks suspended on the strip of silvery blue horizon, like time has stopped. From this spot on the Michigan lakeshore we are too far east to see the buildings of Chicago, too far north to see the haze of the Indiana steel mills choking the sky. Here everything looks pristine. The water is cold and biting as it laps around my legs. “Go in!” my mother calls. “You’re the one who wanted to swim!” We have limited time to stop here: a detour at this state park on the way home from Detroit. I take a breath and wade in deeper, brace myself for the cold shock of water against my hips.
Then something slimy and solid bumps against my leg. I jump and peer into the water to see what it was, but it slips away. Then another quick brush against my thigh, cool and slick. My skin recoils. I look up, and the color of the approaching wave is darker: it looks denser, almost heavy. Something is wrong.
My breath catches in my throat as around me the water rises and begins to turn solid and silvery, as the slimy things bump and catch around my knees, thighs, hips, as I lean in closer and they tip their silvery bodies toward the air, eyes open, mouths agape. They are fish, thousands of tiny fish, and they are all dead.
I try to move, but my legs are fixed. I open my mouth to scream, but no sound comes out. I stare at those hundreds of open fish mouths, those dull glinting dead fish eyes. Behind me my mother sighs, exasperated. “Hurry up and go in! You wanted to come here!” I wait for her to see. Certainly she must see? The bloom of dead fish spreads around me like a glittering stain.
I’m frozen the way I feel in dreams, when death seems inevitable, when it has a definite shape. The man looms in the doorway; the train barrels closer; the tornado engulfs the house. It’s just a dream—don’t let it bother you, my mother always says, and in daylight hours I try my best. I can’t make her understand what my body seems to know: that the thinnest membrane divides this world from that one. That I’m always waiting for the moment it breaks through.
I want my mother to come crashing into the water, to scream in the way that I can’t. I want her to scoop me into her arms like I’m still a toddler, to rush me to the sand shower and scrub the memory of these slick scales from my body. But she doesn’t see. And would it even matter, if she could? Here, too, she wouldn’t understand. Oh, it’s just the alewives. It happens every year.
The sun glints off the surface of the water. The lake has no tides, but the sand tugs beneath my feet. All around me, the fish rise. But my mother stands behind me with the sun in her eyes, shouting at me to hurry up and have a good time.