Umbrellas on Water

In Issue 67 by Lisa Voorhees

Umbrellas on Water
Photo by Saffu on Unsplash

After her dad died, Aveline swore to herself she wouldn’t let his novel go unfinished. It had taken two weeks for the brain fog to wear off and another two after that before she’d recovered from the shock of losing him to do anything, but even now, six months later, she struggled to get any real work done. Her progress through his notes was slow to the point of agony.

Writing her own poetry helped distract her from her grief, most of the time. Her sadness welled up in the form of an image she could manifest through words, briefly purging herself of the weight of his loss. Since coming to his cabin, though, she hadn’t been able to string together even a few lines.

On top of his antique oak desk lay a copy of Nabokov’s The Gift, with some of his most recent notes stashed inside. After removing the notes and opening the worn covers of the book, Ave discovered an inscription in her dad’s handwriting on the title page that she hadn’t seen before. She read it, then stared out the front window at the silvery surface of the lake, the sky smudged with gray clouds. Rain was coming.

Maybe being forced indoors would prompt her to write. Who knew anymore.

Beside the desk, his vintage typewriter sat on the shelf, wedged between copies of Hemingway and Tolstoy. She brushed the keys with her fingers, willing the dust to give rise to her father’s inspiration for his story, to transfer his mind into hers, when he had sat in this same chair, overlooking this same view for more than two decades.

Ave had never undertaken any projects other than her own. She’d arranged to spend the last month of the summer at her dad’s cabin, hoping his writing retreat away from the newspaper’s editorial office would inspire her since it was where he’d stashed the bulk of his notes for his unfinished work. He’d written half the book and left detailed notes for the rest, except the ending.

A few hours ago, she had come across an enigmatic sidebar amidst his previous notes indicating that although the story wasn’t autobiographical, its progression mirrored events in his life too closely, and he was forced to set aside the entire project or lapse into a depression he wasn’t sure he’d recover from. The thought haunted Ave. She wanted to finish the book the way he would have, had he not been plagued by such sadness, mingled so intimately with tendrils of fear.

She glanced at the framed photo of the two of them propped under the green glass bankers’ light on the corner of the desk. Her chubby-cheeked, gap-toothed five-year-old self couldn’t have been happier to be at Disney World with Dad, the same year he and Mom had divorced. She’d been too little to understand why her mom hadn’t come, too.

Snapping herself out of her daydream, Ave reread the inscription on the title page, puzzling over the words.

O.A., As Fyodor dreams of the book he will one day write, so also do I. Yours, L.G.

And written below the inscription:

“You and I are so special; the miracles we know, no one knows, and no one loves the way we love.” Vladimir Nabokov, in a letter to his wife Vera (1924), Letters to Vera

Ave closed the book with a sigh. No one in her memory matched that first set of initials. If her dad had been quietly seeing someone, she had no knowledge of it, though he’d spoken of a great personal loss when he first told her he’d set his novel aside. Someone dear to him had passed away, he’d said. A year later, after a series of mini strokes, he died of a heart attack. She’d always assumed the decline in his health had been the reason he’d set down his writing.

Maybe there was more to it than she’d thought.

Regardless, she was conflicted to the point of becoming desperate. What better way to honor his memory than to complete the book he’d begun, but what monumental failure if she couldn’t live up to his ideal for the work. What secret pain had he lived with that he hadn’t shared with her? And how much of that had gone into his plans for the book? If she didn’t know, she wouldn’t be able to recreate his vision for the piece. To write anything other than what he’d intended would shatter her.

Ave pushed the book aside and glanced out the window. A man stood on the dock across the inlet. Mid-forties like her, she guessed, with a golden tan and windswept sandy blonde hair. She’d seen him on the lake before, sailing, or fishing.

Today was different. Next to him on the dock sat a pile of umbrellas. He opened a bright red one, held it by a single spoke, and lowered it into the water, watching it float away on a light breeze. He repeated the same gesture, this time with a blue umbrella, and again with a yellow one. After about twenty umbrellas, he stopped, gazing out over the water dotted with them, smiled, then turned around and headed back inside.

Ave stepped out on her porch and watched him close the door. He hadn’t seen her, nor did he appear to care he’d set twenty-odd umbrellas afloat in a private lake bordered by houses other than his. The wind picked up, rustling the fabric between the metal ribs. They flapped like trapped birds, spinning around the pointed ferrules at their centers.

The sight of them intrigued her, yet they shouldn’t be left to drift where they’d snag on low-lying tree limbs or get tangled in lake weed. Ave walked outside, pushed her dad’s purple kayak out into the water, and climbed inside.

Collecting the umbrellas took the better part of an hour. By the time she finished, she was half soaked and more than a little irritated. How long had he planned to leave the umbrellas like that without making an effort to pick them up? Why put them in the water in the first place?

It was time she met her neighbor, anyway. She’d been at the cabin for over a week.

Ave paddled over to his dock and tied up her kayak, placing the umbrellas in a pile on the dock. She followed the flagstone path to the door and rang the bell.

When he opened the door, he seemed surprised. “Hello,” he said, a flicker of a question on his face. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”

Wow. He was attractive. A natural warmth radiated from him, though his gaze on her was keen, sizing up every detail.

“I’m Aveline. I’m across the way until the end of the month.”

He stepped outside to shake her hand. “Cecil. Nice to finally meet you. I’ve seen you around. What brings you by?” He glanced past her shoulder to the cabin across the lake.

“Well,” she said, catching herself from staring at him too hard, “I’m here because I saw you putting those umbrellas in the water about an hour ago, and I wasn’t sure if you needed them or not. I picked them up and brought them over. They’re on your dock.”

His momentary silence gave her pause.

“Huh,” he said.

She didn’t want to seem crazy. Then again, he was the one who’d dumped a bunch of umbrellas in the lake, not her.

“I’m amazed you did that,” he said, meeting her eye, thoughtful. The next moment he brightened, his eyes dancing with a spectacular light. “You didn’t have to, though. I meant them to be there.”

Ave didn’t know what to say. His strangeness struck her as off-kilter, yet his spontaneity was incredibly charming. He acted as if his intention for the umbrellas was a perfectly normal one.

“What did you say your name was again?” He pointed a finger gun at her, ruffling his brows together.

“Aveline. Ave for short.”

He snapped his fingers. “You’re Lewis Gardner’s daughter, aren’t you? He was a writer, wasn’t he?”

“And a newspaper editor.”

“I thought so. What brings you here to the lake?”

“I...came here to work on his novel.” She couldn’t take it back now that she’d said it. Why had she said it? Cecil had an easy way about him – a trustworthiness to his stance, a geniality in his gaze – that made it feel natural to open up, though that was not Ave’s preference after first meeting anyone.

The next words slipped out of her, by way of explanation. “He wasn’t able to finish it.”

Cecil frowned. “I’m sorry about your dad,” he said. “He was a good man.” All seriousness again, yet he was genuine, from what she could tell, unless it was an excellent attempt at making her forget about the umbrellas.

She lowered her gaze, unsure how to respond. Statements about her dad tended to get sucked into a vacuum. As if the words clogged her mind, and she could only gingerly reciprocate, if at all. It was too fresh. Everything.

If he picked up on her discomfort, he didn’t let on. “My mom used to live here. Olivia Abernathy.”

Ave glanced up at his use of the past tense. “She doesn’t anymore?”

“Not for the past year and a half,” he said. “After she died, I didn’t have the heart to sell the place. She loved it so much. It’s like a part of her will always be here, you know?”

“Olivia...Abernathy,” she repeated under her breath, marveling over the name. Good God. The initials from the inscription matched the ones in front of her dad’s Nabokov book. By the sound of it, the timing of Olivia’s death also coincided with the loss her dad had spoken of. Her mind raced to rearrange new puzzle pieces in ways they previously hadn’t been oriented.

“She was an artist. A sculptor mostly, although she loved to paint. Are you familiar with her work?”

“No,” Ave said. “I’m not.”

“Come to think of it, she mentioned your dad a lot,” Cecil said. “Although it’s kind of an artist colony up here, isn’t it?” He waved a hand in the air next to his head, then broke out in a grin.

“Are you an artist?” Ave asked, unable to resist returning his smile.

“I should have been,” he answered. “Wasted fifteen years chasing down investors for my old man before I tuned into what I really want to do with my life. He left when I was a kid. Never been close since, though he pretended we were, to get me involved with the business. Not sorry I untangled myself. Corporate power structure, that’s not for me.”

“Me neither.” Ave caught her breath at the personal turn their conversation had taken.

“Well,” Cecil said, rubbing his hands together. “Thanks for returning the umbrellas. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but they’re going to go right back where I put them. You can help me, though. You in for that?”

Ave leveled an inquisitive gaze at him, arching her brow. “I’m not sure what you mean.”

Cecil ducked inside and returned bearing a large plastic bin full of umbrellas.

“Lord, what’d you do, rob a factory? How’d you get so many umbrellas?”

“Mom was a hoarder,” he quipped, then laughed. “No, seriously. This was her collection from an exhibit she created for Springfest a few years ago. These umbrellas were sewn together in a giant archway to shelter the exhibitors. Ah, it was beautiful, a gorgeous sunny day. The light filtering down through them was incredible. Everyone loved it, asked her to do it again the following year. She hung onto the umbrellas, but not her health, unfortunately. By the next Springfest, she was on chemo and couldn’t trust herself to climb a ladder anymore.”

Ave felt a knot tighten in her throat. “God, I’m sorry.”

“You know, the one thing Mom hated was the thought of people crying for her after she was gone. She wanted to be remembered in celebration, for the art she produced and the joy it brought to peoples’ lives.”

Ave followed him to the end of the dock, where he set down the bin with a thunk. He eyed the pile of umbrellas she’d left by the edge and gravitated toward those first. The canopies opened with a swish, color after color. Cecil gave them a test spin, checking the ribs underneath, then lowered the umbrellas into the water, one after the other.

“Um, Cecil?”

He glanced at her, utterly absorbed in the moment as if this was the most important task he could undertake, like fixing a flat tire or reshingling a roof. Oddly enough, she felt like an intruder to his mission. The sensation was strange, considering he was practically littering.

“Do you really think you should be putting those umbrellas in the lake like that?”

He unfurled a delicate lavender one next, with miniature pom-poms dangling off the spokes. “Look at this one!” he said, giving the pom-poms a shake. “Wonder if these beauties will float.”

He released the umbrella and gave a whoop of satisfaction at the way the pom-poms lifted to the surface, arranged around the canopy like lace filigree.

Ave watched him, baffled. His carefree joy was captivating, but she couldn’t let go of the feeling that they weren’t meant to be doing this.

“Did you ever think they’d look so good floating together like that?” Cecil asked, pointing to the growing collection of umbrellas in the water.

Ave cast a quick sideways glance at them, then back at him. “I don’t generally think of using an umbrella for anything other than what it’s designed to do.”

His expression was wistful. “Ah, you could say Mom gave me the inspiration. Come on, you can help me. Let’s keep going.”

He reached for the plastic bin and dragged it closer to the edge of the dock. When she didn’t budge, he glanced up and tossed her a black-and-white polka-dot umbrella. Ave caught it, and at the same time, she felt like Cecil caught her hesitation, the anxiety she held like a tight ball inside her chest.

He straightened. “The inlet is deserted this time of year,” he said. “It’s just us. The umbrellas won’t travel far. The current from the underground springs will trap them in the cove.”

She stared at him.

“If that’s what you’re worried about.” The corner of his mouth quirked up.

Without taking her gaze from him, Ave loosened the band around the polka-dot umbrella and pushed up the runner, releasing the canopy.

“There you go!” Cecil said.

She stepped up to the dock’s edge, pinched one spoke of the umbrella in her fingers, and lowered it into the water. Off it floated, like a giant flower.

“Yes! Bon voyage!” His voice echoed through the quiet cove.

Tears sprung to Ave’s eyes. She swiped them away before Cecil noticed and dipped her hand inside the bin, fishing for another umbrella.

Turquoise, gold, and magenta. Cartoon print, tiger-striped, and stadium-sized, they released them all. As they reached for the last two umbrellas in the bottom of the bin, her hand brushed against his and she wavered, her heart thrumming.

He didn’t seem to notice, elated as he was to liberate the final umbrella. “Go on, do yours.”

She released the final red umbrella and watched it drift toward the others. It took a more circuitous route than its peers, but finally joined the others in the colorful arrangement.

Cecil crossed his arms and gave a contented sigh. “I love it,” he whispered. “Mom would have loved it. I’m mostly doing this for her.”

Ave didn’t want to confess that she was confused, not when Cecil appeared to derive such significance from what they’d done with the umbrellas. It had to be an artist thing. Modern and abstract, using ordinary objects from life to fashion something new, create a unique impression. She was missing the deeper meaning, though, and too embarrassed to admit it. But she couldn’t just stand there.

“You’re using the umbrellas...to make art?”

“Yes,” he said, not taking his gaze off the water. “Think of it as a type of sculpture.”

She stood next to him, following his line of sight. If she thought about it a different way, the arrangement did take on a type of beauty.

Ave focused on the intermingling colors, watching the umbrellas spin in different directions, bumping and shifting against each other as the wind twisted them apart, reorganizing them in new configurations.

“It’s changing,” she said. “Constantly. Like a moving palette of color, combined with the wind and the water.”

She felt him watching her as she observed the formation, then sensed him smiling. Warmth rose in her cheeks.

“Exactly,” he said, turning back to the water. “Toward the end of her life, Mom’s art was never static.”

What he meant by that, she could hardly imagine, but a strange curiosity swelled inside her, rounding out the sharp edges of her anxiety. “You must miss her,” she said.

He inhaled sharply. “Yeah.”

The first fat raindrop hit Ave’s head, followed by dozens of others pinging against the wooden dock. Concentric circles dotted the water, and a series of staccatos filled the air as rain showered over the umbrellas.

“Listen to that.” He pointed a finger in the air and cocked his head. “The rain adds to the effect.”

She’d been thinking it was time to head indoors, and here Cecil was considering the interplay of the elements with his art. Ave straightened, not wanting to appear clueless. Hopelessly lost to whatever she was missing that Cecil, in his spontaneity, with his artist’s eye, seemed to have a solid handle on.

“Hey,” she said, anxious to keep a toehold in their conversation, “do you know anything about the Nabokov book my dad gave your mom? It’s sitting on his desk at the cabin, but from what I can tell, the book was a gift to her. Do you know what happened? Did she give it back to him before she died?”

“Oh, I have no idea,” Cecil said, “though I know how highly she thought of your dad. If she returned the gift, it was for a good reason. Mom never did anything without a purpose, especially not there toward the end. Why? What’s on your mind?”

“I think our parents meant more to each other than we realize.” Ave forced herself to stop tapping her foot. This conversation, this moment, was too important not to tune out the electric buzz of her fear.

She darted a glance in his direction, relieved to see that he didn’t seem embarrassed or the slightest bit worried about how she must look.

“I mean, the timing lines up. My dad quit working on his novel when your mom died. Although I didn’t notice the inscription before today, that book was on top of all his notes, as if it was the last thing he touched before setting the whole project aside. If she returned the book to him before she died, I wonder what she meant by it. What was she trying to tell him?”

Cecil scratched the back of his neck, squinting at the sky. “I wonder the same thing.”

“You said her art was never static before she died.”

“It wasn’t. By that point in her illness, all she talked about was revelation. Physical art would always be impermanent, she insisted. Process could be bypassed in favor of succumbing to revelation. It was the revelatory impression, quickly rendered, that would last. I think it was her way of saying that even a talented artist can stand in the way of his or her own most inspired work, as best I can tell.”

A strong gust blew through the inlet, riffling through the formation of umbrellas and breaking them apart. They spun in a myriad of directions, the farthest ones drifting towards the shore, angled for the rocks.

Ave hurried to the front of the dock, shielding her eyes from the rain. “Oh, no. We’re losing them,” she said.

“It’s only rain,” Cecil said, “and a little wind. It’ll be okay, Ave.”

“We can’t let this happen. The rocks over there might tear some of them or break the stems.”

She pushed past him to where she’d moored her kayak and hopped inside. Cecil stared at her, a quizzical expression on his face.

Ave untied the kayak and dipped her paddle in the water, pushing forward to hem in the umbrellas and rescue the stragglers. The harder she worked, the stronger the wind blew, negating her best efforts. From the dock, Cecil watched her in bemused silence, arms folded across his chest.

The umbrellas had a mind of their own. For everyone she replaced with the group, another five dislodged and wandered away. She stuck out her paddle and poked at them, trying to manage multiple drifters at once.

Cecil’s laugh rippled across the water. “Ave, what are you doing? This is ridiculous.”

Ridiculous? Hardly the impression she was going for. She held her hand up to her eyes, peering at him through the rain, her shoulders soaked. “At least I’m working here,” she shot back.

Cecil glanced off to the side, still smiling, then turned back to her, a twinkle in his eye. “Ever go swimming in the rain?”

What?

“Yes,” she lied. “Well, no...”

Without hesitation, he cannonballed off the side of the dock into the water, creating an enormous splash. The kayak bobbed in his wake as she sat with the paddle across her lap, stunned, the oars dripping.

She lost sight of the faint glimmer of his clothes for a few seconds as he swam deeper than she could detect. He popped his head up in the middle of the largest grouping of umbrellas. Hair plastered to his forehead, he stuck his fists in the air and let out a tremendous whoop.

“This is amazing!” he hollered, waving her over. “Come on, Ave, get in. The water’s not that cold.”

He wove in and out among the umbrellas, lifting them partway out of the water by their ferrules and spinning them, sending a fine spray of water droplets flying. Some he held by their handles, allowing them to catch a passing gust of wind and watching them hang, suspended like a stringless kite, until they drifted to a landing with a gentle, watery plop.

It was ridiculous, and it was beautiful. If she hadn’t spent the last few minutes talking to him, she would have assumed he was crazy. But Cecil wasn’t crazy. Life had dealt him a hardship that had kicked him in the gut, the same as her. He had the umbrellas and the rain. He wasn’t going to let any of it stop him from enjoying life to the fullest.

The beauty, right alongside the razor-sharp ache.

“I don’t even care about how this looks anymore. Time to get wet,” Ave muttered, wedging the paddle in the kayak and shimmying over the side. She submerged herself in the water, then resurfaced, slinging her hair out of her eyes.

“Yaaaaas!” Cecil frolicked among the umbrellas, waving her over.

She smiled.

He was right. The water felt amazing. She dove under the surface again, headed straight for the center of the umbrellas. When she emerged, the spread of color was spectacular. A floating sea of every shade imaginable, the body of umbrellas gently swaying, and she, the hub at its center.

She searched to either side for Cecil, rain drumming against the tops of the umbrellas. “Hey,” she called. “Where’d you go?”

Ave lifted the edge of the umbrella closest to her and peeked under it. Nothing. She rubbed the water out of her eyes and moved over to the next umbrella.

Still nothing. This could take a while.

“Cecil?”

With a mighty whoosh, he rose out of the water a few feet away, gripping two umbrellas in each hand, water pouring off the tops of them like mini waterfalls. He spun in a circle, comically raising and lowering his arms.

“Oh, my God.” She curled up, laughing.

Their revelry went on for another twenty minutes, maybe thirty. Ave lost track. When her voice had grown hoarse from laughter and her fingertips had shriveled to pale raisins, she recovered her kayak and used it to clamber up onto Cecil’s dock. He followed right behind her, and the two of them fell on their backs, still laughing.

“Hey, look, there’s the sun,” Cecil said. “How ‘bout that?”

The darkest clouds had broken up, and a shaft of sunlight shone through.

“That was insane,” Ave said, moments later. “Thank you for...whatever that was. Strangest thing I’ve ever done.” Her snicker turned into a longer, irrepressible laugh, capped off by a small snort.

Cecil looked at her, brows furrowed, with the faintest trace of a grin. “You okay?” he asked with mock seriousness.

“Oh, definitely,” she said. “I feel like art now, like I am art. Along with your umbrellas.”

Cecil’s finger brushed the side of her hand, whether intentionally or not, she didn’t stop to consider. He was just there. Solidly there.

“You are. We all are.”

Ave propped herself up on her elbows, eyeing the status of the umbrella formation. Scattered haphazardly around the inlet, most of the umbrellas clung somewhere close to shore, or gathered around the pilings of Cecil’s dock.

“The effect is gone,” she said. “That part makes me sad.”

“It’s not gone.” He sat up, kicked off his waterlogged shoes, peeled off his socks, and wiggled his toes.

He sounded so definitive. She waited for him to explain.

“The impression lasts. That’s what Mom always used to say, although I don’t think I ever really understood what she meant until after she was gone. In fact, I think this,” he said, giving her leg a friendly poke, “is exactly why my mom returned your dad’s book.”

“Excuse me, what? I’m not following.”

“You’re a writer and a reader, so you know. After you put down a book, it’s not over, is it? It doesn’t matter whether you see the book again or touch its pages, it’s always with you. The impression of the story lasts, even if the physical book doesn’t.”

“Cecil–” she interjected.

“Knowing my mom, she returned your dad’s book with the expectation that he would keep a promise. Artist to artist.”

Ave sat up. “What promise would that be?”

“That he wouldn’t allow her passing to get in the way of finishing his work.” Cecil wrung the water out of his socks and spread them out to dry in the sun.

When she summoned all her courage, she had to admit he was right. If there was one impression her dad had made on her, it was to never abandon a story in its early stages before it had a chance to develop. Living inside Cecil were the answers his mother had held for her dad, and Ave had all the time in the world to discover what those were.

Cecil paused to glance at the cabin across the lake, then back at her as she removed her drenched shoes and socks.

“You’re awfully quiet. Tell me what you’re thinking.”

She would start simply, with the most basic truths that came to her mind first. “My dad talked about how proud he was of me, all the time. To the point it became embarrassing sometimes.”

“You followed in his footsteps. Of course he was proud of you.”

“He always said he was convinced that no matter what I wrote, it would touch peoples’ hearts. I never believed him, though I loved when he said it.”

“I also happen to believe he was right.”

It struck Ave, as the sun dried their clothes and warmed their skin, that with Olivia and Cecil, intuitive compassion was an Abernathy trademark. One artist in the family had inspired her dad to start writing his novel in the first place, and a different one was fully capable of carrying her through to its completion.

A solid impression, indeed.

About the Author

Lisa Voorhees

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A Jersey girl at heart, when Lisa’s not writing, she’s usually listening to hard rock, bouldering, or sipping amaretto sours. Before she started writing novels, she earned her doctorate in veterinary medicine from Tufts University.