Spirit Lake was quiet at night, vacation homes edging the shore like distant ships. Ambra Zanetti hung her legs from the dock that sat higher above the water than it had the day before. The lake was dropping, the engineers said, because of holes punched in its clay bottom by pilings pounded in 100 years before by the lumber barons. The piers had rotted, and now the lake was leaking a million gallons a day. Unless something was done, her husband said, their dock would go dry, the boats that came to his pump unable to take on fuel, keep their motors running. Moorage was already impossible.
This lake and snowcapped Mount Spokane seemed a miniature of the Italian homeland Ambra had known as a girl. She was a late-in-life child who had lived with her parents and her grandfather in an expansive villa cut into a high hill above Como, the Alps rising behind them. Her grandfather, who made his fortune in silk stockings and had once touched the ankle of Brigitte Bardot, sometimes took her down to swim in a private cove and to fish for perch. He told her that great masted ships had once sailed Lago di Como, and that, before the war, men in small boats went out fishing and returned with their baskets full, but what Ambra knew of the lake was the carnival of lights that haloed the water, the hydrofoils, motorships, and ferries that sped from one village to the next, releasing Germans, Americans, and Japanese onto the docks each morning, shipping them out each night.
She had loved her grandfather, his smell of tobacco and grappa and his stories, especially his memory of the capture of Mussolini. He had followed the crowd that had rallied from Dongo through Como and on to Giulino di Mezzegra, where the dictator and his mistress were shot. A rampage of men had pulled her grandfather into the back of a truck and carted him to Milan and the Piazzale Loreto, where the bodies of the Fascists were hung upside down so that the people could stone them and have their revenge. Ambra had seen the photographs taken in the square, but more than the executions, what mesmerized her were the meat hooks from which the dead were roped and hung. Hooks of any kind sparked a macabre fascination in Ambra, especially those imbedded in the ancient fortress ruins that studded the hills around Como. They weren’t hooks, exactly, but pirate guards meant to deter the invaders who sailed in to plunder the palaces. Elaborately forged, they protruded horizontally from the stone walls like a series of curlicued spears, their sharp points rounded upward and downward. If a pirate attempted to throw a grapple and ascend, any slip might impale him. When she asked her grandfather if he had ever seen a pirate, his teeth clicked. “Many,” he said. “Too many to count.”
After the elder man died, Ambra’s mother left her father, who had taken to spending his business weeks in Milan. When Ambra was 20, she eloped with a 6-foot-10 American basketball player named Bret, whom she had met at an exhibition game in Naples, where she was studying for her degree in finance so that she might take over the family’s interests. “You are dead to me,” her father said. “Finito!”
When Bret’s playing contract ended, they had moved back to his hometown of Spirit Lake, Idaho, and settled into a one-bedroom apartment above the only lakeside convenience store, where Bret took over his own father’s business, gassing up boats and selling beer. With its dripping faucet and buckled bed, the apartment felt like a prison cell, and Ambra was glad to get out, take what jobs she could – barista, grocery clerk, selling used cars for Dave Smith Motors – while Bret grew soft around the jowls, his shoulders rounding with all the hours he spent bent over the boats. Through their upstairs window, she had sometimes spied him teasing the girls in their bathing suits, which she chose to ignore, but that afternoon, she had seen him cup the buttocks of a woman, who took him by his belt and pulled him into the public bathroom. When, over the roar of the TV, Ambra confronted him, he had blinked his sun-bleached lashes and gone back to watching the Cavaliers beat up the Bulls. She had made her small escape down the stairs to the dock, where she sat at war with herself, the smell of diesel still fresh on the air.
The reason for her parents’ divorce was never clear, but now she wondered: How many affairs were enough to swamp your marriage, capsize your life? Or what if there were no affairs at all but just a slow leak of love? She tucked her legs against the spring breeze and remembered the thick walls of their villa holding the sun, the windows open to let the sweet smell of orange trees flow in. She lifted her head and heard a boat guttering toward the dock. The bow light swept her face as the craft hit the rubber bumpers.
“You open?” The boy at the helm knotted the rope. He was 16, maybe 17, shirtless, and smoking a cigarette. Two others sat in the aft, drinking beer.
“No,” Ambra said. “Tomorrow morning at 6.” She spoke fluent English but was aware of her accent and kept her voice low.
The boy growled deep in his throat and slapped his thigh. “Can’t you give us a gallon?” he said. “Just enough to get us back across the lake.”
“I don’t have the key,” Ambra lied. She knew it was hanging behind the Oly sign.
“Damn.” The boy turned to his friends. “What are we going to do?”
“Sleep on the boat, I guess.” The one with burred red hair pulled on a T-shirt printed with a white tiger.
“What are you doing out so late?” Ambra asked.
“Night fishing.” It was the third boy, the one with dark hair that curled around his ears. “Already got some nice bass.” He tapped on the cooler at his feet, and Ambra saw the flash of his hand – not a hand, but a hook. She stood, brushed the seat of her pants.
“I’ll get your gas,” she said, “if you’ll take me with you.”
The boys looked at each other as though they were being tricked.
“Sure,” the lead boy said. “I’m Shawn. That’s Eric and that’s Beau. What’s your name?”
Ambra didn’t answer but started the pump. “Go ahead and fill it up,” she said. “No cost.”
She stepped down into the boat and sat next to Beau.
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“Italy,” she said. “How did you lose it?”
“Farming accident,” he said.
The boat headed west to a shallow bay, where they anchored in a bed of reeds. Beau offered her a worm, which she threaded onto her hook with intimate care before dropping it into the black water. When she felt a tug, she jerked the rod, brought up a smallmouth. She remembered how to smooth the dorsal spines to keep from being finned. She dropped the bass into the cooler, took the beer Beau offered. Over the next few hours, they caught a dozen more, finally reeling in only when the horizon began to lighten. As they motored back toward the center of the lake, Ambra took Beau’s hook in her hand. It felt cold and heavy.
“Can you feel that?” she asked.
“I can tell I’ve got something on,” he said.
“Does it hurt?”
“Ghost pain,” he said.
She leaned into his shoulder, raised her face, and he kissed her.
“Again,” she said. She didn’t care that the other boys were watching.
“Lady,” Shawn said. “We better get you home.”
“I don’t have a home,” she said. “Take me with you.”
“Sure,” Beau said. “We’ll take you anywhere you want to go.”
“How about right here?” Shawn said, and killed the motor.
Ambra felt the boat dip and sway. Eric stood over her, his feet apart, the white tiger on his T-shirt flashing with the first rays of sun.
She took her time, unbuttoning her blouse, shedding her bra. She kicked off her shoes, pulled off her pants, and shimmied out of her underwear. She threw all her clothes overboard then stepped onto the gunnel and dived in. When she came up 10 yards away, they were peering after her.
“It’s a mile to shore,” Beau called. “You’ll never make it.”
“Ciao!” Ambra called back. She took her bearings and began swimming toward a strip of land that held several expensive vacation homes. She was sure she would find one of them empty, unguarded, find clothes in the closet, pasta in the pantry, wine in the cellar. She would shower, feed herself, sleep in a big bed. Tomorrow, she would be rested, ready to set sail.
Kim Barnes is the author of the novel “In the Kingdom of Men” and the memoir “In the Wilderness.” She’s been to Lake Como in Italy but still believes nothing compares to an afternoon on Lake Pend Oreille.
Lead photo credit: