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“The Invocation of Mary Shelley”

I contemplated the lake: tempted to swim, I stood on the shore in pitchy moonlight, a cascade of shadows in shapes of trees that tricked the eye into seeing some gigantic being, a monster from my past. To escape that memory of hell, I dropped my cloak, and retreating like an innocent-accused into her prison cell, I plunged into the calm, cool water. Whispering a poem as though it were prayer, it seemed that a fallen angel was quick to answer me. Bright flashes of lightning suddenly revealed clouds previously invisible in a black sky; the quiet storm illuminated the lake for several minutes until a dark, lacy veil descended like the faint sketches of an artist, crossing out first lines and drawing a new design, a pentimento of seasons. Summer rains had ceased; the cold miserable fall torrents replaced them, and my placid heart became agitated and weary. Wind licked waves and levitated them from their usual occupation. To my horror, a few curled into dorsal fins, a beast of prey in a troubled sea; I swam away, and slunk ashore, breathless with the thrill, and afraid.

Thunder erupted. Exhilarated, I pulled my shawl around my shoulders and watched the storm bestow a sublime, terrific power. Was I the only thing that beheld this beautiful scene? The frogs, I imagined, long had buried themselves with the worms in the earth. A loon wailed like a banshee. Once my eye recovered from the repeated flashes of lightning, I again retraced my path to the cottage where I took refuge in the most perfect solitude. Upon that vindication I sought from the judge, who bore witness to the depraved deeds of that dæmon, I passed whole days on the lake, often alone, or with a friend, listening to the loons, writing letters and allowing nature to restore me. On many an afternoon, I have seen this lake writhe and turn with the heart of a tempest, reflecting in some manner, the true passions of my nature, the fury and fears of a woman, whose airy singular voice, overwhelmed by danger, could not conquer violence, nor any nightmare, amid the crash and hollow cries of the nightly winds through tall pines.

It was a dreary day in November, many years later, when I tore up the papers that beheld his handwriting—that wretch who loomed like a hangman behind my back, transforming every staircase into a scaffold. I’d discovered the papers in a basket, and accordingly destroyed them, and placed them in the woodstove. I assembled some small branches and built a fire in the stove, watching the flames consume the haunted remnants of that evil spirit. Let those be the last words that fixed my fate to ruin. Here, in this bright cottage in a vale, I became my own protectress. This little wood became my hiding-place. In a nearby land preserve, I walked with my dog in meadows full of white flowers, alive with butterflies and wildness, that radiant sister to innocence. I became an advocate for Nature. It may seem a trifling service, lest I accomplish any small thing to prove myself worthy, at least I will be kind to my fellow creatures, and delight in every fortunate chance to row my little boat upon that lovely lake, or to swim in those glistening afternoons. To its powers of restoration, I owe my happiness. In spring, the ice melts, and a cool mist rises from the lake and flits about the forest; the sun sparkles on the lake, flickering through bare trees, allowing a glimpse of the water from my kitchen window. By late May, rains drench a lush green canopy. It bursts into birdsong. The woods become a fairy-land—rich in berries and nuts for the sparrow, wood frog and deer. -LCS

At the lake

In the flash fiction experiment above, I was drawn to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s sublime imagery in her 1818 novel, Frankenstein, and her metaphor of the lake. When her hero/protagonist, Victor Frankenstein, rows across the lake, he sees his beautiful native land of Geneva, and he’s filled with a sense of relief–until he suddenly sees the gigantic creature, climbing a mountain in the distance, and Victor is again consumed by conflicted feelings of guilt, horror, fear, regret, and self-loathing. The lake seems to reflect his best and worst feelings about himself. I borrowed the lines, “I contemplated the lake,” “I took refuge in the most perfect solitude,” and “I passed whole days on the lake,” directly from Shelley’s novel, and kept those particular lines in mind as I wrote this flash fiction piece about a time, a dozen or so years ago, when I took refuge on a lake in Maine. There was in fact a “monster” of sorts, but not the kind that Victor reanimates in his apartment.  The rest of my flash fiction piece is my own writing although I did experiment with a writing style that aspires to invoke the spirit of Mary Shelley, and a bit of her mother, too, Mary Wollstonecraft, especially in the line, “I became my own protectress,” even though neither Wollstonecraft nor Shelley ever penned that line. Both advocated for the idea of women becoming a “protectress” rather than looking to a man to fulfill that role. (See Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792)

Water is a strong element in Mary Shelley’s writing; she seems to use the water element–whether mist, ice, snow, rain, lakes and the river–to convey human emotion. The type of water she uses and the condition of the weather seems to match the emotional condition of her characters.

As kids, we skated across
Iridescent, frozen ponds
And pretty Sherman Lake,
All 200 acres, two miles long.
We’d pack a canvas tote bag,
Bring hot thermoses of cocoa,
Join other families, play tag,
Crack-the-whip, or skate solo.

My dad pulled my little brother, Tad,
In a sled, while I attempted figure eights,
Even though I was only seven, I felt agile
And athletic in my ice skates. I’d graduate
To wearing Velcro pond-skates by thirteen.
One year an older boy fell through the ice
(It wasn’t deep) After his family saved him,
Everyone else kept skating, just avoid the hole
And warnings of thin ice near the dam.

I glided over deep, vertical cracks;
Didn’t linger long to peer down and react,
But dared myself to push into the unknown,
My cheeks flamed magenta from frostbite.
I’d picture the Olympic figure skaters glittery gowns
When they jumped into a spin and danced around,
As I made “Ls” to pivot and propel my purple parka
Into loose, wobbly turns, tilting my curly head back
To see the cold, boundless winter sky, ‘til I got dizzy,
Dug my toe-pick in a nick to regain my balance,
But tripped anyway, then got back up again,
Mitten-to-elbow-to-knee, bruised but not broken.

Twenty years later, a rogue tidal surge
Took the dam out by force; then a team
Of civil engineers, and road crews, merged
The river with the marsh, so the lake emptied
Into the ocean for the first time in 71 years.
The sudden shift in the landscape ricocheted,
Shocking locals, whose lake they knew,
Where they’d put in canoes, and fished—
For decades, had been restored
To a saltmarsh, naturally; it just
Reverted to that system eventually.

If you’d been a fly on the wall,
Heard the talk at the town hall,
You’d have believed it was a disaster.
But it’s the destiny of waters to change,
To transform over time from one
Body to the next, from wetland to pond
To lake, then to marsh again,
Shape the wet soils,
Crackle the saltgrass
Along shallow creeks,
Flow through channels
Fifteen feet deep,
Smallmouth bass, splake
And minnow
Play hide and seek, flash
Rays of sunlight
Calling the eagles
Back to the pines
To build their nest
And raise their chicks.

LCS

My Woods In Winter

When I settled at Nixie’s Vale, a nod to Tennyson,
A small cape at the foot of Rattlesnake Mountain,
Rare blue butterflies flit from a black ash seep,
An ecosystem valued by the Wabanaki people
For the basket-grade texture of the trees’ bark;
I studied economic botany in college, but then
Distracted myself with conservation plans,
Policies and “best management practices,”
And the accompanying fact sheets, which
I posted online (to save paper).

In winter, without leaves, most of my trees
Lean in white arches, doors to other worlds,
Witches’ brooms at an imaginary threshold,
Or so I liked to believe, as a child of whimsy.
Since living here beside a freshwater pond,
I’ve learned about the vortex, a crossway
For the spirits of warriors and healers.
A perennial stream carries rainwater down
Off the mountain, through underground
Tributaries intersecting in a fern-filled gully
Spilling into what was once known
As “Little Rattlesnake Lake.”

Like my trees, I am a pioneer, and thrive
Even in disturbed areas, and I somehow
Hold the sunken soils together and live
Protected from storms, my curly crown
Golden-rust-colored and silky, hairy tips
And tapered branchlets like fingers run
Over pale conspicuous scars, ripened cups
Whorled and heart-shaped shields, sun
Dried, revealing the broken-off ends
That once supplied water to downy buds.

I am broad and thornless, a windbreaker
My father raised me to nibble wintergreen
And build lean-tos; I cool the temperature
Dangle catkins, a snowy, pine-needled scene;
Write a ragged understory, which needs cutting:
It’s taking seed—overgrown, too pendulous,
In the pithy soft inner core of me, all foreseen,
Long foretold in pages I once loved to read—this
Sturdy soul’s rooted in Hawthorne’s hometown.

-Leah C. Stetson

Poet’s note: This poem is part of a 30/30 Poetry Challenge in support of the Tupelo Press. Please consider making a donation or subscribing to one of their fine publications. TP Subscribe

Night Boys

Night boys
revving and rumbling
‘round the lakes,
curvy back roads
empties tumbling
last lap, another pass by
that curvy ex-girlfriend’s
he used to pull in, cry
flash his high beams
like he was jacking deer
just to see her; he dreams
the shifty rites of coydogs
tilted heads, truck howls
farther from the city,
the louder the engine
mostly for show, mostly
testosterone, bravado
when each is on his own
safe among the familiar,
bearded, the evening air
cloaks them like flannel
the skin of their kin
—but in these rural
open parts, the alpha male
leads his pack of boyhounds
to lay claim to territory,
mark their mates, the females,
defend their hunting grounds
delineated on a mental map
instinctual, his birthright.
Everybody says it:
but they’re good boys.
Hey, they got a permit.

The sexual anthropologist
compares: the urban kind,
who can’t stand itchy fists
confuse boundary lines
blocks, streets, city limits
quell the pseudo-wolfsong
sweaty stench of cowardice
make mischief out of some
dark gut-wrenched wrong
a restless yearning
for hills and fields
streams and ponds
sends them wilding
in sharp back alleys
abandoned buildings
a taste for the tally
tall teetering girls, homeless,
elders, a sally—the night boys
keep score like sports fans,
in athletic pants, too baggy,
they lope through the shadows
a trail behind them that mimics
their every move, the marrow
that gnaws back, a raw sickness,
thick with fur they shave off
to hide their otherness,
even from each other
take turns maiming
after-slaps, fraternal
caresses, a primordial
taming of the running shoe.

The scent of gunsmoke
hangs in the midnight mist
descends on the Mainiacal ones
who know whose buckshot
narrowly missed
deep in the belly
of the forest.

~Leah C. Stetson 

 

This poem is part of a 30-poem series in support of the nonprofit Tupelo Press. Please consider making a charitable donation (tax deductible) to support this wonderful literary press. When you donate, please indicate that the donation is “in honor of” or mention my name in the notes field on the PayPal page for your donation. That way the staff at the Tupelo Press will know that it is from this 30/30 poetry challenge and my fundraising efforts. Thank you!TP Donate

Playing Swamp Maiden by the Sheepscot. Margaret Stewart photo.

My love for the water spawned at the mouth of the Sheepscot River in midcoast Maine. But like the eels and salmon, I swam upstream and came of age in not one, but two watersheds. One, an estuary in Wiscasset Harbor, nourished by the Sheepscot, swallowed incoming tides from the Gulf of Maine. My family owned a half-acre island, White’s Island, at the center of this estuary, where I waded and swam through eel grass, sharp as steak knives turned on their edges. I wore petticoats of rockweed and floated in hot black inner tubes. The current raced beneath the first footbridge to the island threatening to take a swimmer under the trestle bridge of the railroad, where young swimmers weren’t supposed to go. The undertow was strong and there was always a risk of drowning. My paternal grandmother taught me how to save someone from drowning in that fast-moving current. She pretended to drown herself, sinking heavily to the muddy bottom. I dove down deep to rescue her. When I had done this successfully a few times, we crawled to the riverbank and she cackled with delight. Treading against that current took all my energy in frigid saltwater, even in summer. It required a combination of kicking and letting go—as I floated backward in fast-forward motion—then paddled again.

At White’s Island, 1987

Further inland, I learned to swim out deep in Little Sebago Lake. As a young girl, I swam with the eels at night and seduced them with my flashlight. My brother and I perched at the end of the dock, shining our lights down into the water, luring the eels to our beams. Their sinuous profiles cast shadows on the rippled sandy bottom like slithering heads of Medusa. Our maternal grandmother, whom we called Nana, let us swim at night. Sometimes we asked our grandfather to splash around and make the eels go away, but they came back. These American freshwater eels, which live in the ocean at the beginning and end—their silver stage of development—migrate to lakes, where they live for much of their lives. For my Strange Wetlands post about eels, see this post, in which I review James Prosek’s book, Eels–An Exploration from New Zealand to the Sargasso, the World’s Most Amazing & Mysterious Fish. 

Several towns surround this three-basin freshwater lake, including Windham, Gray and Raymond, Maine. The “Lakes Region” here refers to the Sebago Lake watershed, consisting of 360 square miles of lakes, ponds, rivers and wetlands. Streams and tributaries, like the Crooked River, flow into Sebago Lake, an inflow of 450 million gallons per day. Sebago Lake is twelve miles long and over 300 feet deep, holding 995 billion gallons of water, providing the #1 source of clean drinking water for much of southern Maine, including the city of Portland.  Sebago is the deepest lake in New England—and glacially speaking, the bottom of the 14,000-year-old lake basin is 450 feet below the lake’s surface. The Portland Water District chronicled the origins of Sebago Lake in their summer 2012 newsletter. According to geological analysis of sediment samples, Sebago Lake has been a “clean and healthy lake for the past 400 years.” It’s one of the few water bodies in the U.S. that does not require filtration. It’s also home to salmon and trout fisheries.

I live in the land of “landlocked salmon,” or so says the welcome sign on Route 302, the main road through the Lakes Region. This land is a water world. Before you start picturing a post-apocalyptic movie with pirate ships, hold your breath: this is a freshwater-focused community. The economy, culture, traditions and values lay anchor in this watershed. Recently I started coordinating a new coalition of town conservation planners and those interested in the common goal of protecting the waters of the Lakes Region with special interest on the Sebago Lake watershed. I named it the Healthy Waters Coalition well aware of the dozens of other collaborative groups throughout the country engaged in water resources protection and outreach education by the same name. With so many land trusts, conservation groups and town conservation commissions and local nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations active in southern and western Maine, and throughout the Lakes Region, I wanted a name that was authentic to the common interest and shared goals, without alienating any one type of group. It’s a grassroots effort to inform and educate citizens in the region on issues pertinent to water resources protection and management in the Sebago Lake watershed. So far there are 30 members and a general consensus of our goals and mission going ahead. I’m happy to be involved in the spirit of collaboration ~ and will be sure to bring the role of wetlands into the conversation quite often.

Most people throughout New England, New York and New Jersey will forever associate the full moon of October 29th, 2012 with Hurricane Sandy, a powerful hybrid storm.  I will also remember it as the date my family lost my grandmother. My Nana, as my brothers and I called her, and I had a special relationship. As the eldest grandchild, I enjoyed the most time with her out of her seven grandchildren, and we were most alike. Nana and I celebrated our birthdays together, since they were just a day apart. I remember spending lots of February school vacations with my grandparents and that usually fell on the week of our birthdays. Nana and I both shared a love of greasy hot pink lip gloss, hot pink roses and the color turquoise. She loved Liza Minnelli and the soundtrack to New York, New York. “There goes the ball game….” 

My Nana was born Mary Martha Knights in Maine, February 1924, the daughter of a firefighter, though she was much closer to her mother, Martha. She grew up near Lake Auburn in western Maine, where she met my grandfather on a double-date. Their mutual friend, Olive, who was to become her sister-in-law, was dating Robert Chaplin’s brother, and the four of them had a  group date. I loved hearing the story of my grandparents’ early courtship.  About ten years ago, I met Olive, and she gave me a pretty turquoise ring that I wear with a heart-shaped powa shell pendant around my neck. Olive’s ring symbolizes fateful love to me, since my grandparents were so obviously soulmates.

Grampa, a tall good-looking Scorpio, was a machinist in the U.S. Navy and a musician. He led his band, the Bob Chaplin Orchestra, which played all of the colleges throughout Massachusetts in the 1940s, on lead clarinet. He played other instruments as well, and taught music for many years in Portland, Maine. My Nana, a rebellious Pisces, lacked that musical talent and like me, once faked it during a school band concert. Even though they attended the same high school, Grampa was four years older, so they didn’t meet until she was in her late 20s and he in is early 30s. By that point, she was working as a secretary for an insurance company, and as an only child, was very independent. My Grampa had 6 brothers–no sisters–including a brother named Charlie. Yes, we are distantly related to that Charlie Chaplin, too. 

When my grandparents first met, neither of them wanted to get married. Despite their differences, that was one thing they had in common. As it turned out, they shared a love for the natural world, a love for gardening (they grew several large vegetable gardens for decades), a love for the water and wildlife, for animals (they always had dogs and cats) and for their three children and 7 grandchildren. They left the city of Portland for a beautiful farmhouse in rural New Gloucester, Maine, and had one of the first houses on their road. Nana and Grampa preferred the pastoral lands strung together with streams, a few ponds and wetlands. They enjoyed sports together, too, and belonged to a bowling club not far from Little Sebago Lake, where they bought and fixed up a 1920s camp in Sunset Cove near Fish Rock. Grampa set up his office at camp one summer while he was writing his book on metal removal technology, which was later adopted as a text in the engineering program at University of Maine-Orono.  Nana and I floated around on rubber rafts summer-after-summer, peering down at the sun-sparkled lake bottom for a silver ring she’d lost 25 years before, which we never found, but never lost interest in searching, swimming and floating.

Nana spoke of a summer she spent with her cousin, Ruth, and their friends at Old Orchard Beach when they were teen-agers. Stories sounded very much like the Betty & Veronica comics I read at camp. Boys, bathing suits and bonfires on the beach!

Leah

Poet. Artist. Ecoheroine. Human ecologist. Spiritual mermaid and Mystic. I write about literary ecology, wetlands, water, Romantic ecology, and quirky adventures with my dog.

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