The Lantern
MATT KOTULA
Dad woke me up because he couldn’t find the lantern. He was standing in the doorway, washed out in the bright flush of the hall light. I couldn’t see his face, but I knew something strange was happening, because we only used the lantern for camping, and because of the strain in his voice when he said the word—lantern. “Jacob wake up. Where’s the lantern? Jacob. Where did you move the lantern?” He didn’t come in. He stood, taut in the doorway, as if the moment I told him that the lantern was where it had been all summer, on the floor of the garage, to the left of the tool bench, behind the blue pail, he would take off racing for it. But I couldn’t remember. My mind was slow with sleep. I told him I’d be out in a minute to help look, after I got dressed. He cursed under his breath and vanished into the light.

It was a cool night, and quiet. The moon was a night away from full. One wouldn’t even need a lantern for the brightness of it, but the sky had become cloudy, and when a cloud settled on the moon the darkness came on rushing like a flood, and washed everything away. To look then at the sky—it was as if the moon was never there.

The barn lights burst suddenly through the windows across the yard, and I found the gravel path to the door. “What do you need it for?” I asked my father, his top half bent over the birdseed bin, looking behind it. “I haven’t used it. Take the Maglight.”

“No good. Need the lantern. Have you seen it?” He held up a dented, rust covered can of kerosene. “Here’s the fuel. We got a phone call from Mrs. Ross down the road, Michael’s mom. She said Big Mike, Michael’s dad, went out fishing on the reservoir four hours ago and hasn’t come back.”

“Fishing at night?”

He cleaned the dust off his glasses, deliberately, with his shirt. “Who knows.” He set the fuel on the floor. It struck me that he knew something more, but that he wouldn’t like the way the words would taste in his mouth, and left it. I think, in his mind, he thought it was saving me, and the idea of that hurt me some. “It’s illegal,” he said. “She called here crying on the phone. Mom talked to her.” I imagined my mother sitting at her desk in her purple nightgown, resting her head on her hand, concentrating hard on the phone and wincing at the desperate voice of Michael’s mother on the other end. Dad knew more than I knew. He’d moved beyond sympathy.

The thought of Mike’s dad floating face down in the water pulled my mind up from the murk. I remembered. I went to the tool bench and pulled the lantern out from behind the pail and set it with a clang onto the concrete beside the kerosene. “That’s where it’s been all summer,” I said. My father, on his knees, carefully filled the lantern with fuel. “So, we’re going to look for him?” I asked. The shadow of a bat flickered across the floor.

He looked up at me. “You stay. It’s dark and I don’t want you falling in. Your mother’s all upset already. One body in the reservoir is bad enough.” My father was very stubborn when he’d made his mind up to do something. He’d get set one way in his mind and that’s the way it was going to be. He didn’t like to argue. I watched him walk hurriedly down the driveway to the reservoir, across the road, until eventually I lost his shrinking form in the dark, and he became a floating beacon, an orb disappearing into the pines.

I walked to the back porch. I wasn’t afraid of finding Big Mike. He could still be alive, I thought. Alone, dad might get to him too late. There was a flashlight in the cupboard in the back entryway. Our yellow lab Joni was asleep with her nose on her paws on a frayed green rug next to the toy box. I stepped over her and climbed onto the toy box to reach the cupboard. The flashlight batteries still worked. It was a headband flashlight, too small for my dad, meant for fishing or hiking or exploring caves. For my thirteenth birthday he gave me a pair of waterproof boots. They’d been sitting in the closet for almost a year, unused. I slid them on and stood rocking on my feet, feeling them out. Joni stood and shook herself. She was nine, with two bad hips that stiffened up on her when she slept. She followed me outside.

My mother must have heard the door or seen the flashlight. She yelled out to me from the bedroom window as I sprinted down the driveway, Joni circling me, excited. “Get back here,” she shouted. Her voice was small, partly swallowed by the gulf of lawn between us. “Jacob. Turn around this instant.” In seconds I was out of earshot, and to her I must have looked the way my father had before, a fitful beam of light flitting away into the trees.

The water was a quarter mile past the tree line. From time to time a man from the town would drive out to mow the path that led to sand bar, but he hadn’t come since the spring, and the path was overgrown. The grass was thick and wet and came up to my chest, and Joni became the rustling of it parting. To the left of the path, where it curved, was an old, caved in shack made of sheet metal and plywood. I used to tell my sister that a murderer had lived in there, that nobody knew what happened to him, that the bones of his victims were buried in the brush behind it. Dad said it was an old ranger station, but I hurried by without looking at it. Part of me liked believing in the myth I’d made.

When I reached the water I could see the lantern glowing on the shore near the outlet, to the left, where the water fell into a concrete channel, down into a narrow winding creek that led eventually to the treatment plant in town. I felt compelled to hide my light, for fear my father would spot me. The moon was out again, and the huge mirror of the water doubled it, so that everything moved in brush strokes, in cool shades of blue and purple. My father must have followed along above the water and crossed the metal bridge that jumped the channel. Where he was now, the shore was mostly rocks, big round ones that showed an inch or two above the surface. I could hear his boots splashing in the shallow water, and the crunch of a piece of deadwood breaking under his foot. 

I moved slowly along the shore to the right, trying to make out anything that might be a boat, listening for anything that might be the sound of a man. The only sound was Joni, obliviously happy, splashing in the water alongside me, stopping now and then to chew a piece of seaweed from her leg. In front of me a large dense bush cascaded out over the shore and into the water, and I had to climb over the bank onto the grass and walk around. My father’s voice rolled out over the surface of the reservoir, “Mike.” His voice was like water. The name was like a whitecap breaking. “Mike. Mike. Mike,” with a rhythm like some secret birdcall in the night. No answer came. It would take at least three hours for the two of us to meet on the opposite side the reservoir. If Big Mike had fallen in, I thought, there was no hope in finding him alive. 

I didn’t know him. I knew young Mike, his son, only a little. We’d never made the leap from neighbors to friends. We passed one another on our bikes. Saw one another at school. Rode the bus together. But we never sought each other out. It was casual like that. I never brought up his dad to him, as if there would have been anything to say. I think it probably would ruin the whole thing, and you can’t go around tossing people’s demons in their face anyway.

Big Mike had recently had a bad car accident coming home late one night. He wrapped their Subaru around a telephone pole, and walked away. Just walked away. The boat tipping over could be the world’s way of resolving an excess of luck, if the world worked like that. I had never seen him out fishing. It would be a job, dragging a canoe down to the water from their house. They had paths that led from their property to the water. But the paths were long and winding and steep in places. Big Mike was not a fisherman.

My father was a fisherman. He’d long ago made it his business to learn as much as he could about the reservoir. He claimed it was dug in the mid twenties. Must have been some job back then. It was wild now, and looked more like a lake than anything. Dad knew where it was deepest, where which fish would be and when, and where the eagles had their nest that year. That was why Mrs. Ross called. She knew. I wondered then if she had called the police too. It could be an hour before somebody made it out there.

Joni had gotten wind of something. She froze and lowered her head and stared. A cloud was sliding across the face of the moon. I turned the flashlight back on. Joni barked and took off splashing around the bend ahead. My father’s voice again came rolling, “Jake. Is that you Jake?” 

“Dad,” I shouted back to him through the void. “Joni’s got something.”

I wasn’t scared before. But it would take him a good fifteen minutes of fast hiking to make it over to me. I couldn’t wait. I was clumsy in the darkness, and caught my boot in the crook of a submerged tree and nearly fell into the water. Joni barked again from around the bend. I’d tweaked my ankle and dragged along desperately, crawling some to keep from falling in, over rocks and around bushes and over steep, jutting walls of earth. Where the shoreline turned the beach came back and sloped lazily into the water. Joni was standing in the water panting.

“Mr. Ross?” I managed.

He was there, on the shore, lying on his back with one knee bent in the air. His clothes were heavy with water and he was cold. I knelt down on the wet sand and brought my ear to his chest. He was breathing. I saw he was holding something in his left hand, an unopened beer. Joni was nosing around a few more, empties, floating in the water just off shore. I put the unopened one in my sweatshirt pocket. He shifted his weight and rolled onto his side. I said his name again but he made no answer. My skin tingled. I rounded up the beer cans and stamped them with my boot and stuffed the crushed circles of metal into my pockets. This was what my father didn’t want to tell me, I thought, what he’d meant to shield me from. I had beaten him to the punch, and so I hid them, each can, to save our pride. Then, I sat down on the sand next to Big Mike and lay on my back and looked up into the sky. There were no stars. I heard the trembling call of a loon out on the water, and imagined it, diving down into the deep and snapping up a fish. How could such a thing exist? The boat was nowhere to be seen. It had sunk to the bottom.

I was coming close to sleep when dad found us. The lantern was scorching bright and when he set it down next to Big Mike he began to mutter. “The boat is heavy. Boat over. Fucking over boat, the fish.” My father cupped his hands and dipped them into the water and threw a handful into Mike’s face. He came to life. “Jesus Christ,” he said. “I’m up. I’m up.”

“Mike. Where’s the boat?” my dad asked him.

“Lost it. Lost the boat,” he said. He tried to stand but stumbled and fell to one knee. He couldn’t walk.

“Jacob, help me.” We each took an arm and lifted him, soaking and sleeping, to his feet. “I’ve got him. Take the lantern.”

I picked it up from the sand and led us on a little further along the shore to the dock. From there it was a half-mile walk up-hill to the road, and then another mile down to the Ross place. Joni, wet, her shoulders sagging, peeled off toward our house as we passed it. I held the light as far out as I could, feeling like a Sherpa on expedition. I could not understand—a familiar place, suddenly seemed very strange to me. But I held the light with a remote sort of pride, studying the place where it seemed to end and dissolve into the darkness. 

It took us an hour to walk Mike to his door, where Mrs. Ross received us—face streaked with tears—and helped us set him on the couch. “Those wet clothes all over my couch,” was all she could say, and we left. There was no sign of young Mike, and I was relieved. There would have been, I fear, really nothing for either one of us to say.

On the way home I asked dad what he thought had happened. Why Mr. Ross had been out there and let the boat tip over on him. The moon came out again and lit the road ahead of us. The lantern was flickering, almost empty. He took it from me and turned the knob on the bottom and choked it out. “Well,” he said, scratching his chin, “I figure Mike wasn’t planning to live through that crash. And now that he has, he doesn’t know how to live any more. And maybe won’t for a while.” He spit into the ditch. 

It didn’t come together in my mind. I wanted him to keep talking, as if, somehow, now that the lantern was empty, and our work was done, he could. “I don’t know if it’s right,” he said, flicking a lump of mud from the bottom of the lantern. “But it’s just a theory. And don’t say anything about it. His life’s been harder than our life.”

I wondered about that. “I won’t,” I said. I thought back again to the sight of Mike lying there on the shore. If the world had ended at that moment, he would have missed it. His canoe was at the bottom of the reservoir. That was his conceit. Mine was the beer can in my pocket—my stolen secret—thumping against my stomach as I walked. My father’s was the lantern, extinguished and cooling in his hand.

 









MATT KOTULA is from Attica, New York, and earned his MFA from Rutgers University—Camden. He currently lives in Canandaigua, New York.