Cast Off

The peculiar serenity of Lake Superior is one reason I’ve come. To behold its reflective surface that can turn sullen and angry like a monster and swallow boats whole when its mood shifts. We had many storms when I was a child. One time, three boats were sucked into its dark depths, taking 11 sailors, including my friend Emily’s father who was a fisherman. I remember how he could gut and clean a fish in about the same amount of time it took me to brush my teeth. 

I remember it all. The ships out on the horizon, hauling lumber and ore. The chill air that rises off the lake and seems to slip into your skin like a spirit. How, as a child, I played on the shore with my friends when the weather was calm, and ran home when the storms rolled in. 

Jules,” my mother calls. But she is not there. I hear her calling me home, just like in the old days, when she would stand on our porch as I played in the storm debris with the neighbor children. That is the other reason I have come here – back to the place I was born, where I came of age. It is time to see about the house and all the collected things of my mother’s lifetime.   

I look down the old rough road and see people stopping into shops. It’s just past tourist season and our harbor town has gone quiet except for the retirees who have nothing but time. Little has changed.  

There was an old machine shop not far from the edge of the lake that was both industrious and enigmatic. The proprietor, a man of wizened but indeterminate age, used to give us candy.  

Thinking about that place, I realize it had a role in who I became – a silver jeweler – forever trying to shape things. I momentarily hear its harsh sounds of metal, of machines turning and grinding. But it is drowned out by the call of the gulls, talking to me.  

It seems they are shrieking about something on the beach. I look and see a bulky heap on the sand. It is gray and unmoving, about a football field away. 

I stare at the form, not certain what I am seeing. Here on Minnesota’s North Shore, we are scavengers, eager for excitement that rarely comes. So I look around because when anything washes up on shore, it inevitably draws a crowd. But there is no one.  

I set out at a trot, wanting to be the first to see it, to claim it as my own find. When I get to it, I can see that it is human-sized. Human shaped. But unrecognizable.  

A seagull is standing on it, as if this is the only dry land for miles around. I shoo it away and bend down. There is hair. Quite a lot of hair. And a swollen gray surface that must have been skin. The body has been tossed by the waves and rolled across the sand. It is mangled, wadded, like wet, dirty socks. And I can make out nothing more without touching it. 

So I do touch it. Not the face. Not the skin. I’m not braced for that. I pull at its fabric covering. The body appears to be intentionally wrapped, like a spider’s prey. I imagine sailors wrapping and tossing it off a ship to bury it at sea – or, in this case, into the waters of Lake Superior. 

Then I find a pocket in the fabric, and I realize that it is not some kind of burial wrapping, but a weatherproof parka. The pocket is empty. I peel back an edge of the coat, and see another inner pocket with a closed zipper, and tug it. The zipper resists, clotted with sand, then comes open.  

I reach in, hoping to find some kind of identification. Instead, my hand grasps something cold, metallic. I bring it out. It is a key that has started to rust. I close my hand around it to warm it. That is when I hear voices down the beach asking if everything is alright. It is an elderly couple in jogging suits. 

“There’s been an accident,” I tell them. “We need to call the… authorities.” I cannot think what kind of emergency services are appropriate. Ambulances are for the injured. Police officers are for law enforcement. And firefighters are for fires. So…. 

“The woman leans forward. Not too close. As if the body might spring to life. “Oh! Yes. I’m afraid it may be Mr. Hess.” 

“You know him?” 

“Yes,” the woman says. “Everyone knows Duncan Hess.” She looks down, dabs at her nose. “He’s… been missing since last Saturday when he took his trawler out. The wind came up that afternoon and whipped up the lake. We’ve all feared the worst.” 

The man appraises me. “You’re not from around here.” His arms are folded. He glances at the body. 

“Oh, I am,” I say, rising from my crouched position. “Or I was. My mother was Clare Benson, from over on Lake Street. I’m Julie. I grew up here.” 

The man nods, his skepticism easing. “I’m Adam. This is Rose. We moved here when we retired.” 

Rose steps away from the body. “We’re just over there,” she says, pointing to the senior living condos that went up a few years ago. “We’ll call the sheriff.” 

The moment is awkward. Am I to go with them? Or stay here alone with the body? I’ve begun to feel a chill. I can’t look at Mr. Hess any longer and have lost the weird desire to claim him as my find. 

I see Rose absorb all of this. “There’s no point in you waiting here. Where are you staying? In case the sheriff wants to talk with you.” 

I explain that I’m in town to close my mother’s house, then provide the street address. I look again at the swollen lump of cloth and hair and sand that was Mr. Hess. My lips are quivering – from the cold, perhaps. Or shock. “Thank you. I’ll go, then.” 

We part and head along the beach in opposite directions. The gulls call overhead as if I’ve missed something. 

At home, I find the key, still clutched in my hand. Dread and sorrow wash over me. I begin to formulate an explanation for the sheriff. Night is coming on. A team will be busy with extracting the body, dealing with the coroner. Will they contact me today? Should I explain about the key?  

I set it on the counter near my mother’s ancient, stained Mr. Coffee machine. Then I pick it up again and put it under one of her crocheted doilies. I don’t want to see it.  

I spot a phone directory near her telephone. Everyone still has a landline in this town, even in 2019, because cell phone reception is abysmal.  

Duncan Hess is easy to find in the directory. He lives only three blocks away. My mother must have known him. Everywhere her aroma of mildew, dust and hyacinth perfume linger. 

“What are you doing?” her apparition asks.  

I wave her away. “I don’t know.” Dusk has fallen. Shadows linger and sway in the light of area lamps. The dim lighting vaguely illuminates the stacks of boxes I’ve begun filling with donation items. “I’ll figure this out.” 

Ricky speaks to me next. “Hon,” he says, as if we were still together and he still possessed some part of me. “You need to do something with that key.”  

“Yes. I know. And if you weren’t a cheating bastard, you’d be here right now. I wouldn’t be figuring this out alone.” 

In my mother’s cupboard I find baking soda and a bottle of white vinegar. I take out a dish and drop in the key. I cover it with baking soda. I pour in the vinegar and watch while it eats the rust away. At any moment I expect a knock at the door. Instead, the hall clock ticks and ticks.  

I wash and dry the key. At last the phone rings, shattering the ugly silence. 

Hello, Ms. Benson? Sheriff Larson. 

“Good evening, Sheriff.” I think about Mr. Hess. A death in the community. I wonder how old he was. If he was married. “I’m sorry about…” My voice trails off. “I mean, was it Mr. Hess?” 

“That’s pending investigation. He had no local family. No next of kin for identification. So….” He trails off. Does he think I’m too delicate to hear the word autopsy? 

“I see. What can I do for you?” 

“Not much, I’m afraid. But please tell us what you saw. From the beginning.” 

“I took a walk to the lake in the late afternoon, to take a break from housework. And that’s when I saw him. He seemed to have just… washed up there. There’s nothing more to tell.” 

“Thank you for your time, Ms. Benson. If we have any further questions, we’ll be in touch.” 

When he hangs up, I look at the key. It is clean now, and shiny in the kitchen light. 

I put on my coat, grab a flashlight from the utility closet, and leave the house. It is dark and the gulls have gone quiet. I hear the lapping of waves from the lake on the shore as I walk the few blocks to Mr. Hess’s home. 

His house sits on a good-sized lot. A small garden borders the weathered bungalow, and it is decorated with a lake theme – enormous bobbers, floats, an anchor, a mermaid statue, and another of a seagull. I look in the windows all around, seeing nothing but the hulking shapes of furniture, before trying the key at the back door. It turns easily and I enter the dark house, quietly closing the door behind me. 

I turn my flashlight on low beam, and keep it focused on the floor. Just enough to see by, but not to be seen. The shadows beyond its circle-glow are deep. 


No answer. Though I am used to hearing from the living and the dead, it is not my choosing when it will be. 

The house is tidy. Mr. Hess kept things in order. A small desk with a computer sits in one corner of the living room. There is a TV. An easy chair. Magazines about fishing and lake life on an end table. 

I am looking for something and I don’t know what. But I sense it is here. I close my eyes. I open them again. A curtain stirs. A shadow passes. 

Mr. Hess? 

No answer.  

Something is moving in the room. Along the floor. Coming toward me. I drop my flashlight. I bend quickly to retrieve it. I shine it toward the movement.  

A cat.  

Oh!” I say. “It’s just you.” 

At last Mr. Hess speaks. “Her name is Sasha,” he says.  

I nod at this. She is small and gray. Elegant, and perfectly named.  

As she winds around my legs, and lets me pick her up, I think of my mother, and a cat named Maddie that we loved when I was little. She was life and warmth. To this day, I treasure a picture of her sitting in our living room window, looking out at a stormy day. We buried her in a shoebox, with a white stone to mark her grave. We said we could never own another cat.  

“It’s time,” my mother says.  

I understand. It is time to stitch the present to the past. To cast off shadow and doubt. To release our earthly clutter. To shout memories into the lake’s expanse where they can be swallowed up like wayward souls. 

“I will take care of her, Mr. Hess.” 

I feel him smile. And he too moves on, for there is no reason for either of us to remain here in this house.

Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash.

Jayna Locke

Jayna Locke is a Minnesota writer with roots in the Northwest, who has also lived in California and the Northeast, and loves to infuse her stories with a sense of place. She earned her MFA from the University of New Hampshire. Her work has appeared in Portage Magazine, Bright Flash Literary Review, and in two short story anthologies. She is reachable through her website, or on Twitter.