The Stones of Sorrow Lake

I pressed my face to the car window to see Jackson’s hometown, the place we’d spent all our money moving to after graduation, the place we would be stuck in. It was June, the month of green. Willows everywhere wept over houses and cars and one little girl riding her bicycle. Wind from the lake fanned over waving cornfields, and when the road got close to the waterfront, the lake shone brightly over the town. Instead of sand, the shore was made of smooth stones, both large and small. Townspeople were standing at the shore—some with arms outstretched, staring into the waves, and others kneeling around with palms open, as if to catch something falling from the sky. 

“That,” said Jackson, “is our lake of sorrow.”

_____

Jackson often flashed the pockmark scar on his arm, but I didn’t know what sorrow was behind it. He said he was too young to remember. The scars and the stones—they happened to nearly everyone in the town.

When the townspeople encountered their first great grief—not something small like a broken leg or a bickering between friends, but real grief, the kind that brought you to your knees—the first time they felt that, their stone of sorrow would form. Sometimes it happened when they were still children: a father who left, a great divorce, a twin who died. Sometimes it happened when they were teens. A few were lucky enough to escape it until they were older, or had somehow steeled themselves against it. 

But whenever they felt that sorrow, that’s when the rock started forming—in their fists, in their praying palms, in their throats. At first it was as small as a grain of sand they couldn’t wash away, irritating. Then it would roll into a pebble over a matter of minutes or years. Sometimes it only grew as big as a skipping stone, sometimes as big as a boulder. Everyone’s sorrow took its own course and speed, and no amount of forced catharsis or letting go could make the rock go away when you wanted. In its own time the stone would dislodge, but only when it could fall on the shore of the lake. You could see the townspeople at the shore every dawn and sunset, orange light on their faces, hoping their rocks would dislodge, would lie down with their comrades of sorrow, generations of them along the waterline. 

You knew which rock was yours. It called to you if you went too far away, and some of the townspeople carved their names on theirs. The townspeople were tied to that lake—which is why so few of them ever were able to leave town for any long period of time, if at all. Even Jackson could feel it calling to him, which is why he’d wanted to move back to his hometown when we graduated—but only temporarily, just until we saved up, had better luck, could find jobs in the city and move downstate. 

He’d wanted to move here alone. He said he was embarrassed to be moving back with his parents, and we could be long-distance for a while. But something about that story didn’t sit right with me. I thought it must have been his sorrow calling to him—the lake, his stone he said he was too young to remember. So, I told him I was coming with him and kept at it until he gave in.

The way he talked about his home was so different from my own family stories from the Dominican Republic. I kept imagining the snow and ice of upstate winters and peering into these stories Jackson told, as if I were peering into a snow globe. You could shake it and down fell that white glitter with the promise it would keep swirling and swirling around those tragic, trapped figures, and if you stared too long you might find yourself inside it. And here I was, moving there, expecting to hate it. I wanted Jackson to tell stories about me instead, about our first summer in town, about the kids we would have and the tragedies we would hold each other through.

_____

After the twenty-hour drive, we were ready to uncurl, shower, sleep. But when we rolled close to his parents’ house, Jackson said, “Oh no.”

Streamers were strung across trees in the driveway, and a giant sign said WELCOME HOME. The whole town had turned out, milling over Jackson’s parents’ land. There were kids playing with toys, dogs running about, people heaping food on paper plates by the picnic bench. A woman I recognized from the pictures as Jackson’s mother waved her hands at us from the porch and called everyone to attention while we parked.

I took a deep breath and got out of the car.

“Surprise!” they yelled. “Welcome home!”

Jackson’s father shook my hand. “We didn’t think you would come.”

“Ed . . . ,” Jackson’s mother said. “He means we thought you’d never get here.”

“Surprise,” I said.

The town whirled around me, clutching my hand and saying “Finally,” and “Welcome,” and “Nice to meet you.” They clapped me on the back, introducing themselves in a mad rush. A few of them had stones on their shoulders like parakeets. One girl shook my hand and the stone in her palm felt smooth and cool. Many of the rest had visible scars. The children, for the most part, ran around unmarred, unburdened.

It was the kind of small town where everyone’s sorrow was memorized in a litany. Jackson had told me their stories. Their families had lived there a hundred years or more, off the land and the lake, planting in the summer, ice fishing and hiding from the lake-effect snow in the winter. Most of Jackson’s friends were drug addicts or ex-drug addicts—your options when you can’t get away from a place and you can feel the stones on the shore calling. Three guys hugged me with trembling arms or pinpricked-pupil eyes. 

These were the kind of people I had been taught to look down on, theirs the sorrows I was meant to pity. You could tell they thought the same about me, poor me, without sorrow. But I’d felt pain before. There was nothing about this one town that made them holier than the rest, just because they wore their scars on their skin. Still, I laughed and smiled, because what could you do in the face of all those visible sorrows?

There was Jackson’s high school best friend, called Panda because he looked giant and cuddly, but I knew that Panda had killed someone in a fight the next town over while he was still in school. That had been his sorrow, even though the other boy had started it. And even though the fight was years ago, Panda still hadn’t lost his stone, which grew between his shoulder blades—a boulder that made him hunch and unable to sit in chairs. He worked construction, but that boulder made it almost impossible. He needed the money, though. He had been putting up bricks on the top story of a house while he was on painkillers and lost his balance. The boulder tipped him right over. He fell two stories straight down on his back and survived, but the story he was telling now was about how he was suing the construction company for an unsafe workspace. He was winning the suit, too. I heard him say to someone in the crowd, “Oh, my back, my back.” To someone else he said, “We’re about to be millionaires.” 

As he went to give me a hug, Panda said, winking, “So you’re the new squeeze,” and kissed me on the cheek the way he must have heard my people do it. 

“Have you heard about June?” he said to Jackson.

Jackson put his arm around my shoulder. His lips were pressed thin and he squeezed me tight. “Best month to see upstate for the first time, isn’t it?”

Panda had married a woman named Barbie with one jagged scar down her check where a stone had grown and fallen off within one day, so big when it appeared that they had to carry her to the lake where she lay kneeling, cheek to the shore. With her, it’s that she got married to her first husband at seventeen, and then he had died in a car crash, just slipped off the ice on a road cutting over a cliff. She was supposed to go out with him that night but she had been feeling sick. Panda was her third husband. The second one she’d married at nineteen, and he died by drowning. It didn’t matter how many sorrows you had—only the first one grew a stone, made physical the memory that would keep calling you back to those shores your whole life.

Barbie tried to keep everyone away from Panda because she was convinced he would divorce her before the millions came through. When he handed me a beer, she shuttled him away toward the picnic tables, her scar caving into a grimace.

I touched my cheek. 

“Don’t worry,” Jackson said. “We’re not staying long enough for you to get one of those, just to save up some. We’ll be out of here before you know it. In the city before you can blink.”

He pointed out others from the town: the mayor, his high-school basketball coach, his two sisters, his brother’s new baby who had Down Syndrome. The shy sister, now a fifth-grade teacher at the one elementary school, barely spoke to me as she sat her beautiful two boys at the picnic table with cut-up chicken and melting Popsicles. 

One of the sister’s knees was swollen, and she had the leg sticking out away from the picnic bench so I had to step over. She had a tumor in there that had spread, and they couldn’t operate. At first, when everyone had seen the growing, they thought it was a stone, a second one under the scar of the stone she’d dropped. But they all knew that wasn’t how it worked and eventually they figured out it was cancer—which explained the stones clinging to the foreheads of her two little boys, who must have known by now how serious things were for their mother. The boys played whiffle ball beside us. I said hi to the boys, told them how great I thought their whiffle ball form was, but they grimaced their distaste for me on their Popsicle-smeared faces. 

Jackson whispered, “They do that to everyone but their mother. You’ll get along fine here.” 

But why wasn’t I sure? The night before, we had fallen asleep on a pallet of blankets on the empty apartment floor. We had held hands over our heads, we had run fingertips over the lines of our palms. I loved him—his scar, how his smile always ringed his eyes with lines, how he was the stronger of the two of us, how he was the one who could pull himself away from the sorrow on these shores calling to him. Even though he had had to come back, eventually. I didn’t think I could be that strong. On the long drive we had only fought once, because of me making goofy animal noises to a song and giggling, a laughter that somehow had grated on him. “I’m just being silly,” I said, but then he asked me to drive for a few hours.

In line by the bowls and heaps of food, Jackson introduced me to his friend Samantha. I knew there was a stone inside her mouth, big enough she couldn’t speak around it. It glinted gray between the lines of her teeth when she smiled. With her it was that her brother, the valedictorian, the one they thought was going to get out but couldn’t pry himself away from his first sorrow, killed himself in the back room of the one pizza shop in town where he had worked. The pizza shop closed soon after, bankrupting that family, which turned out to be someone else’s sorrow. Samantha handed me a paper plate, pointed at my Mana T-shirt, and moved her hips around a little as if she wished she could dance merengue. I was relieved that she didn’t ask me questions and I didn’t have to make conversation. I could feel myself relaxing a little, breathing for the first time since we arrived.

Every time someone would look at us, Jackson held my hand underneath the picnic table. I looked around the party at the people clumped together in their groups, and Jackson and I stuck with the children now that everyone had said hello. I kept hearing people whispering the word June all around me, and I’d never seen a month so beautiful and new. The air still smelled slightly of chicken shit, but then the wind would pour through the trees surrounding the clearing and I’d catch wafts of jasmine and lavender, or something that smelled like them. The sky was blue and clear like an ocean I could walk into and float on. Spiders and ants ran on the table, and big fuzzy bees landed in the children’s hair. If this was what Jackson was called back to, the June in his memory, I could dream it with him. I saw him as a little boy with the same tight-lipped smile, skipping other people’s sorrows across the lake.

_____

“Let’s talk to Gramps,” Jackson said when we were done eating, and we threw our plates away and stepped over the extension cord juicing the refrigerator on the porch. I knew Jackson’s father had built the porch the summer after he’d been accepted to the FBI. Of course, he’d never left the day he was supposed to go to Quantico; Jackson had told me he was too afraid of straying from the shore of the lake. For Jackson’s father it was that boys from out of town held him down and made him watch them rape his girlfriend, Jackson’s mother. Jackson’s mother already had a stone growing over one of her eyes from a previous sorrow, so she just closed her eyes until they were done. They never found the boys, never knew who they were. So he couldn’t leave for Quantico, of course he couldn’t.

Jackson’s grandpa and the old men stood near the beer fridge comparing stories, the creaky porch shifting with their weight. By the look of it, they’d heard them all before. Most of the men had large scars on their forearms or biceps, and they spent much of their time drinking at the VA in the center of town. His grandpa still hadn’t lost his stone—he kept refusing to go to the lake all these years to let it drop. The stone bulged from his stomach like a beer belly under his shirt. Jackson hugged his grandpa around that belly, challenged him to a game of ping-pong he knew he would lose. 

“I’ll do you one better,” his grandpa said. “Why don’t we take this little lady off your hands?”

“But can I trust you not to get her drunk?” Jackson said.

“Sure,” said one of them, winking.

Cups appeared from the vets’ pockets, the telescoping metal kind that come with flasks, and a small table was unfolded in the center of the porch. One of them patted on a camping chair and pointed at me to sit down. Jackson stepped back a few feet. We made a circle with the cups in front of us, all of them filled, somebody said, with moonshine from someone’s barn.

“What are the rules to the game?” I asked.

The vets harrumphed, and Jackson stepped back close to me.

“It’s not a game,” he whispered, “Just listen.”

“Just leave her with us,” Jackson’s grandfather told him. “We’ll take care of her.”

Panda was waving Jackson over to another corner of the yard. 

“I’ll be fine,” I said.

“I’ll be right back,” Jackson promised, walking down the porch stairs.

His grandpa began talking: “I fell in love when I was sixteen with a girl who could speak to animals. Fifty years of happiness with goats, squirrels, deer living in the house. Then she died. That was worse than war. I was lucky in that my sorrow didn’t come until I was old. I didn’t even stay in this danged town because of sorrow. It was for love. I stayed for her and because she had a sorrow—her best friend, her dog, dying in her arms. Then I get stuck here as soon as she quits this place.”

He patted his stomach, the stone there. 

Another vet said, almost in a chant, “What is love but an eventual sorrow? What is love but a stone waiting to happen?”

Everyone took a drink and I followed cue. Dust caked everything I touched. Our first shot, I swallowed whiskey-floating balls of dust.

The vet to his left, with so many pocked scars across his arms and face, said, “When I went to Nam, I had a baby with a girl from Da Nang. Then a friend stepped on a landmine and I got peppered by shrapnel. They sent me home. The fall of Saigon happened while I was out of it. Been looking for her ever since.”

He touched one particular scar on his forearm that he’d tattooed over with the insignia of his company. Everyone drank. You could hear the kids laughing and yelling just beyond the porch bannisters. Samantha came onto the porch and sat down on the floor next to me. They pulled out another metal cup, and when she drank from it you could hear it clink against the stone in her mouth.

The third vet, his bottom teeth missing and his lips curled round the gums, started. He said his older sister, the one who let him sleep in her bed when he was frightened, had died from pneumonia when he was ten. Another said his best friend died in his arms from a gunshot. He’d had to be given an honorable discharge because his stone had grown into his skin, into his brain; after this vet’s homecoming, townspeople had to carry him to the lake. His skull was still soft in that spot. 

Another said he’d tried to start a feed store before he went to Nam. It had taken all his savings, bankrupted him when the store from the next town over got all the business. He didn’t even get drafted; he’d enlisted out of shame. Another’s best friend had embezzled everything they had. He was the same vet who chanted earlier. He added, “What’s a friend but the one that will eventually betray you?” 

Panda lumbered up the porch, his arm around Barbie, who shouldered some of the burden of his weight. “Can I join?” he asked. He sat on the floor where the stone on his back wouldn’t get in the way.

Samantha was next, and then me. I thought surely they’d know I didn’t have a stone. Samantha couldn’t say anything. She just tilted her head back, opened her mouth wide. She hummed with her mouth open like that, a gray song. We drank.

“What about you?” Jackson’s grandfather asked me.

I was already pretty tipsy. I was sure, so sure, that I had my own pain, too. But after hearing all they’d suffered, how could I, without wearing a rock or a scar to prove it? No great loves before Jackson. My parents and friends were all still alive. The relatives who had died were across the ocean, and I had barely known them. In that moment, drunk as I was, the only thing I could remember that hit me the hardest was how my face fell when Jackson turned away from me if I horsed around, like somehow my lightness was an insult. But that wasn’t a sorrow. That was such a small thing.

“Don’t think I have one,” I said. “Not yet.”

They exchanged looks, and I was sure they were thinking, One of those.

Barbie sniffed, crossing her arms.

The circle kept going, and now and then Jackson beamed his smile from across the yard. Once, I saw what I thought was a young girl throwing a ball at his face, but then I realized the ball in her palm was actually a stone and would not dislodge. Eventually Jackson walked toward the porch to check on me.

Barbie saw him coming. “Hey Jackson!” she said. “Come join in. Give us yours.”

He shrugged. “That’s okay,” he said, glancing at me.

“He doesn’t remember it,” I said, pretty drunk and glad there was something I could talk about as if I knew the answer.

Everyone looked at me, brows furrowed. Samantha started humming again. Jackson put his hands in his pockets and started back down the stairs.

“Come on,” Panda called to him, “June’s getting married.”

“Forget it,” Jackson yelled back.

June, the month of bees and welcome. June, a girl I imagined clad with weeping willow branches, her eyes like honey, who always took everything seriously. I was too drunk to stand up and pick my way around Jackson’s grandfather where he was blocking the stairs to the porch. “Gramps,” I said, “I need to go.”

“Go ahead,” he said, “hit me in the stomach. I promise it won’t hurt.”

Panda punched him, and Jackson’s grandfather fell down from his chair. I think I gasped, and then he stood back up, laughing at his prank. “Told ya it wouldn’t hurt,” he said.

Everyone was grinning, but I could see they were sad for me, suddenly. They were the kind of people who could laugh as they cried.

_____

I stumbled across the lawn to where Jackson was tossing a Frisbee for one of the dogs.

“Who’s June?” I said. “Why is everyone mentioning her?”

Jackson looked down at the dog while he yanked the Frisbee out of its mouth.

“Who is she?” I asked again.

Finally he said, “It was so long ago . . .”

“Okay. I’m listening.”

“June,” he said, squinting into the sun, “was my first sorrow.”

“I thought you didn’t remember it.” I let out my breath, fell backwards into the grass, and lay there.

“It doesn’t mean anything,” he said. He stood over me, blocking the sun. He held his hands out to pull me up.

“My first sorrow, I want it to be something huge,” I said. “My biggest and my last.” 

My palm itched where ants had gotten on me. Even at that moment, I wanted to joke with him. I was drunk and I wanted to blow a raspberry on his arm to make him laugh.

“I have something to show you,” he said as he pulled me up, the sky rushing down to meet me.

_____

The barn door creaked with an ancient weight as we opened it. Inside was an old sailboat, the mast taken down so the boat would fit into the barn. The whole room whirled around, and I heard people outside saying goodbye to head home. Jackson pulled the cord to one bare bulb, while I drunkenly flopped up onto the chair of an old tractor. 

He said, “It’s my brother’s old boat. He hasn’t looked at it in years and he said if I could fix it, we could keep it.” 

“It’s beautiful,” I said. Already I could hear the ropes creaking in the lake wind, feel us sailing far past the shore, ignoring the siren song calling Jackson back. We could sail on the Great Lakes, large enough for shipwrecks and millennia of sorrow. In this dream, he’s not swimming for shore.

I put my hand on his shirt, and pushed it up to put my palm on the skin of his back. I pulled him to the tractor. I said, “Sit down.”

“Oh, really,” he said.

“Please sit down,” I begged.

I pulled his shirt over his head as he sat in the tractor’s seat. I straddled his lap, kissed him, and buried my face in his neck. The room was spinning. He kept his body taut, holding me so I wouldn’t fall back, and his eyes were distant. I wanted to snap him out of it. I wanted to be the stone his fingers travelled over like a prayer bead. My hand itched where the ants had gotten it. I wanted to rub my palm on his skin. I wanted to give him any gift he
named.

“Pretend I’m June,” I said.

He pulled my hands down from around his neck. “Stop,” he said. He put his hand to the scar in his hairline, his fingertips brushing past it.

“It’s just a game. Call me June.”

“Why is everything a game with you? This is not a game. This is real.”

His hard-on grew underneath me. He said, “I don’t even think of her anymore.”

“June,” I said. “June. I already know.”

He clung to me so hard he was smothering me. “Please stop,” he said.

Already I could see I wouldn’t stop pushing until he said it out loud, until he drove himself to that stranger’s feet, calling out her name at her window. I wouldn’t stop following him down the sidewalk while he went looking for her, while he pleaded with her. Why couldn’t it have been me?

My hand felt gritty, like I’d fallen on the pavement and sand had gotten embedded in my palm, and suddenly I knew what was happening. The grit was growing into a pebble right before my eyes—the kind of sorrow that comes on quick.

Jackson lifted me off him. Outside, drunken voices were whooping and hollering. He tried to hold my hand, to cover the stone so that neither of us could see it. But it pushed against him and our fingers were pulled apart. We heard our names being called. Crickets started their pulsing countdown.

Then Panda and the rest of Jackson’s friends swept into the barn. I was still staring at my hand. They could all see it, what had grown there. 

Samantha cupped my hand, rested her cheek to the cool stone. I could tell she had taken pills, the world numb and wondrous. Everyone trembled around me.

Lake, lake, lake, they started chanting.

I could barely stand to resist, and they set me on top of the sailboat. Jackson helped, taking hold under my armpit. He didn’t want to let go, but whatever I was, I was not a stone, not an anchor. I was not enough. He did not climb up with me. 

“I have to take a walk,” he said. 

Panda grabbed the chain hooked to the hitch the sailboat rested on and started pulling. “Oh,” he said, “my back!” But he kept pulling. The rest of them joined up with much cheering, a procession pulling that hitch, rolling the sailboat down the shadowed road to the lake. I lay down on the deck, the sun already set, the green light of dusk spinning above me. 

At the lakeshore, they lifted me down to place my feet on others’ sorrows, the stones worn so smooth they felt like glass. The lake lapped at us in the gaps, the world veined with water. I could see Jackson’s sister farther down the shore, holding her two little boys’ hands, performing the daily ritual of waiting. 

They lifted me off, and Barbie and others kneeled at my feet, hands cupped underneath me to catch the stone if it fell. I knew the lore: if you could catch a sorrow mid-air, just as it was breaking loose and before it touched the shore, you might be able to escape the lake’s pull. Jackson did not join them. He started walking down the shore, and my heart reached for him. He bent to pick up a stone.

“He’s found his,” I said.

Panda said, “That’s June’s stone.”

The rock was forming out of pieces of me, and it felt like they were being dragged out. I held out my palm, my offering to everything we’d lost. All those people, those sorrows, shoring up that great lake. The waves kept beating, not the biggest, not the last, all that water polishing those stones to glass.

I could already see my sorrow clearly, how I would be tied to this place even when Jackson had left. His parents would let me sleep on their couch after he had gone. I would learn a heavy laugh, like gravel. When Jackson came back into town, called back by his stone, he wouldn’t come to see me. I’d have to show up at the one bar in town when Samantha silently dragged me there, and Jackson would turn away from me with that tight-lipped smile I had learned to love. Of course I would laugh. I would close my eyes and laugh.

 

Brenda Peynado’s stories have been selected for the O. Henry Prize Stories 2015, as a Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren Award recipient, and for other honors. Peynado has received a Fulbright fellowship to the Dominican Republic, a Writers @ Work fellowship, and a Tennessee Williams Scholarship to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and her work appears in such journals as EPOCH, the Threepenny Review, Mid-American Review, and Black Warrior Review. She received her MFA from Florida State University and is currently a PhD student at the University of Cincinnati.