The Lake of Dead Languages

BOOK: The Lake of Dead Languages
2.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
Praise for
The Lake of Dead Languages

“Hopelessly addictive … definitely the season’s guilty pleasure.”

—Time Out New York

“A wonderful new thriller … Comparisons to [Donna] Tartt will understandably abound … but this work stands on its own…. Goodman pinballs from present day to flashback, slowly weaving together the similarities of tragedies in deliciously escalating, well-written tension.”

The Dallas Morning News

“Genuinely haunting … the suspense is so pervasive.”

—New York
Daily News

“Goodman debuts strongly with this intricately plotted and captivating tale of buried secrets…. The dark and shocking secrets of Jane’s adolescence, revealed gradually in flashbacks, progressively absorb the readers into the final disquieting denouement…. Goodman weaves ancient mythology with modern legend into a chilling and evocative story of deception and complicity.”

—Publishers Weekly

The Lake of Dead Languages
holds its secrets to the end. If it weren’t for Goodman’s keen ability to weave a mystery of multiple layers, each revealed with exquisite timing, her picturesque prose would be reasons enough to keep the reader turning the pages.”


“An outstanding novel by a marvelous new talent. Carol Goodman’s use of language and her ability to let a story unfold naturally reflect a writer at the top of her game. Goodman uses the lake and its characters to lure you into a story so compelling you won’t want it to end. This is a must-read for anyone who loves good writing.”


By Carol Goodman


Books published by The Random House Publishing Group are available at quantity discounts on bulk purchases for premium, educational, fund-raising, and special sales use. For details, please call 1-800-733-3000.

To my mother, Margaret Goodman,
and in memory of my father,
Walter Goodman


I would like to thank the early readers of this book whose support and encouragement were invaluable: Laurie Bower, Gary Feinberg, Wendy Gold Rossi, Scott Silverman, Nora Slonimsky, Mindy Siegel Ohringer, and Sondra Browning Witt.

To my teachers whose vision and advice guided me, Sheila Kohler and Richard Aellen.

For a work of fiction, I had a lot of factual questions. Thanks to Ann Guenther, Mohonk naturalist, who told me how lakes freeze, and to Joan LaChance, Marion Swindon, and Jim Clark for talking to me about ice harvesting at Mohonk. To my brother, Robert Goodman, for answering questions about the physics of freezing, and my daughter, Maggie, who invented the corniculum.

Thanks to Loretta Barrett, my agent, and her assistant, Alison Brooks, for taking a chance on me and steering the book toward its present incarnation.

For Linda Marrow—I couldn’t have dreamed up a better editor.

Most of all, thanks to my husband, Lee Slonimsky, whose love and wild, improbable faith made all the difference. I wouldn’t have written this book without you.

. I
lake in summer, its water stained black by the shadows of pine trees, or the lake in fall, its surface stitched into a quilt of red and gold, or the lake on a spring night, beaded with moonlight. The lake in my dreams reflects nothing; it is the dead white of a closed door, sealed by ice that reaches sixty feet down to the lake’s glacial limestone cradle.

I skate over that reassuring depth soundlessly, the scrape of my blades absorbed by a pillowy gray sky. I feel the strength of the deep ice in the soles of my feet and I skate like I’ve never skated in life. No wobbly ankles or sore thighs, I skate with the ease and freedom of flying. I skate the way skating

I lean into long, languid figure eights and arch my back in the tight spins, my long hair shedding sparks of static in the cold dry air. When I leap, I soar high above the silver ice and land straight and true as an arrow boring into its mark. Each glide is long and perfect and crosses over the last, braiding tendrils of ice and air out of the spray which fans out in my wake.

Then comes the moment when I am afraid to look down, afraid of what I’ll see beneath the surface of the ice, but when I do look, the ice is as thick and opaque as good linen
and my heart beats easier. I am weightless with relief. I pirouette as effortlessly as a leaf spinning in the wind, the fine lines my blades inscribe in the ice as delicate as calligraphy. It is only when I reach the shore and look back that I see I have carved a pattern in the ice, a face, familiar and long gone, which I watch, once again, sink into the black water.


vant to the lives of my students. I am finding, though, that my advanced girls at Heart Lake like Latin precisely because it has no relevance to their lives. They like nothing better than a new, difficult declension to memorize. They write the noun endings on their palms in blue ballpoint ink and chant the declensions,
“Puella, puellae, puellae, puellam, puella …”
like novices counting their rosaries.

When it comes time for a test they line up at the washroom to scrub down. I lean against the cool tile wall watching them as the washbasins fill with pale blue foam and the archaic words run down the drains. When they offer to show me the undersides of their wrists for traces of letters I am unsure if I should look. If I look, am I showing that I don’t trust them? If I don’t look, will they think I am naive? When they put their upturned hands in mine—so light-boned and delicate—it is as if a fledgling has alighted in my lap. I am afraid to move.

In class I see only the tops of their hands—the black nail polish and silver skull rings. One girl even has a tattoo on the top of her right hand—an intricate blue pattern that she tells me is a Celtic knot. Now I look at the warm, pink flesh—their fingertips are tender and whorled from immersion in
water, the scent of soap rises like incense. Three of the girls have scratched the inside of their wrists with pins or razors. The lines are fainter than the lifelines that crease their palms. I want to trace their scars with my fingertips and ask them why, but instead I squeeze their hands and tell them to go on into class.
“Bona fortuna,”
I say. “Good luck on the test.”

When I first came back to Heart Lake I was surprised at the new girls, but I soon realized that since my own time here the school has become a sort of last resort for a certain kind of girl. I have learned that even though the Heart Lake School for Girls still looks like a prestigious boarding school, it is not. It is really a place for girls who have already been kicked out of two or three of the really good schools. A place for girls whose parents have grown sick of drama, sick of blood on the bathroom floor, sick of the policeman at the door.

Athena (her real name is Ellen Craven, but I have come to think of the girls by the classical names they’ve chosen for class) is the last to finish washing. She has asked for extra credit, for more declensions and verb conjugations to learn, so she is up to her elbows in blue ink. She holds out her forearms for me to see and there is no way to avoid looking at the scar on her right arm that starts at the base of her palm and snakes up to the crook of her elbow. She sees me wince.

Athena shrugs. “It was a stupid thing to do,” she says. “I was all messed up over this boy last year, you know?”

I try to remember caring that much for a boy—I almost see a face—but it’s like trying to remember labor pains, you remember the symptoms of pain—the blurred vision, the way your mind moves in an ever-tightening circle around a nucleus so dense gravity itself seems to bend toward it—but not the pain itself.

“That’s why my aunt sent me to an all girls school,” Athena continues. “So I wouldn’t get so caught up with boys again. Like my mother goes to this place upstate when she needs to dry out—you know, get away from booze and pills? So, I’m here drying out from boys.”

I look up from her hands to her pale face—a paleness accentuated by her hair, which is dyed a blue-black that matches the circles under her eyes. I think I hear tears in her voice, but instead she is laughing. Before I can help myself I laugh, too. Then I turn away from her and yank paper towels from the dispenser so she can dry her arms.

I let the girls out early after the test. They whoop with delight and crowd the doorway. I am not insulted. This is part of the game we play. They like it when I’m strict. Up to a point. They like that the class is hard. They like me, I think. At first I flattered myself that it was because I understood them, but then one day I retrieved a note left on the floor.

“What do you think of her?” one girl had written.

“Let’s go easy on her,” another, later I identified the handwriting as Athena’s, had answered.

I realized then that the girls’ goodwill did not come from anything I had said or done. It came because they knew, with the uncanny instinct of teenagers, that I must have messed up as badly as they had to end up here.

Today they leave shaking the cramp out of their hands and comparing answers from the test. Vesta—the thin, studious one, the one who tries the hardest—holds the textbook open to read out the declension and conjugation endings. There are moans from some, little cries of triumph from others. Octavia and Flavia, the two Vietnamese sisters who are counting on classics scholarships to college, nod at each answer with the calm assurance of hard studiers. If I listened carefully I wouldn’t have to mark the tests at all to know what grades to give, but I let the sounds of sorrow and glee blur together. I can hear them all the way down the hall until Myra Todd opens her door and tells them they’re disturbing her biology lab.

I hear another door open and one of my girls calls out, “Hello, Miss Marshmallow.” Then I hear a high nervous laugh which I recognize as that of Gwendoline Marsh, the English teacher. It won’t be Gwen, though, who complains;
it’s Myra I’ll catch hell from later for letting them out before the bell. I don’t care. It’s worth it for the quiet that settles now over my empty classroom, for the minutes I’ll have before my next class.

I turn my chair around so that I face the window. On the lawn in front of the mansion I see my girls collapsed in a lopsided circle. From here their dark clothing and dyed hair—Athena’s blue-black, Aphrodite’s bleached blond, and Vesta’s lavender red, which is the same shade as the nylon hair on my daughter’s Little Mermaid doll—make them look like hybrid flowers bred into unnatural shades. Black dahlias and tulips. Flowers the bruised color of dead skin.

Past where the girls sit, Heart Lake lies blue-green and still in its glacial cradle of limestone. The water on this side of the lake is so bright it hurts my eyes. I rest them on the dark eastern end of the lake, where the pine tree shadows stain the water black. Then I pick my homework folder up off my desk and add the assignments I’ve collected today, sorting each girl’s new assignment with older work (as usual, I’m about a week behind in my grading). They’re easy to sort because almost all the girls use different kinds of paper that I’ve come to recognize as each girl’s distinctive trademark: lavender stationery for Vesta, the long yellow legal-size sheets for Aphrodite, lined paper with ragged edges which Athena tears from her black-and-white notebooks.

Sometimes the page Athena gives me has something else written on the reverse side. A few lines at the top that look to be the end of a diary entry. I know from the scraps I’ve read that she sometimes writes as if addressing a letter to herself and sometimes as if the journal itself were her correspondent. “Don’t forget,” I read in one of these coda. “You don’t need anyone but yourself.” And another time: “I promise I’ll write to you more often, you’re all I have.” Sometimes there is a drawing on the back of her assignment. Half a woman’s face dissolving into a wave. A rainbow sliced in two by a winged razor blade. A heart with a dagger through its middle.
Cheap teenage symbolism. They could be pictures from the book I kept when I was her age.

BOOK: The Lake of Dead Languages
2.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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