This was last week’s subjection of discussion over at LibraryThing’s Weird Tradition group.
Review: “The Lake”, Ray Bradbury, 1944.
The first part of the story is the narrator, a twelve-year old boy, at the beach at Lake Bluff, Illinois. (Yes, this is partially another Bradbury tale of childhood which he often depicts as the summer of life.)
There’s an air of passage and conclusion about. The merry-go-round is not turning; the concession stands are closed; the crowds are gone since summer is over, and the beach is nearly empty. There are a few other kids about.
It’s also sort of a last day for the narrator who is at the beach with his mother. The family is moving to California in the morning.
The narrator asks his mother to play further up the beach. Going there, we hear about the boy’s first love, Tally. She drowned in the lake the previous May, her body never found. The narrator thinks of her.
Before he returns to his mother, he performs an old ritual. He builds half a sandcastle. Tally used to finish the other half. He whispers her name in the wind.
The next part of the story is the narrator ten years later, returning to Lake Bluff with his new wife Margaret. They are on their honeymoon and stay in town for two weeks.
He says something peculiar: “I thought I loved Margaret well. At least I thought I did.”
On one of the last days he’s there, he goes to the beach.
It’s late in the season though not as late as in the first scene.
In sort of psychic timeslip, he feels twelve again and sees his mother on the beach. He does not mention this to Margaret.
He sees a lifeguard bring something out of the water. He tells Margaret to stay put and walks toward the lifeguard.
The lifeguard carries a bundled body and tells the narrator it’s a strange thing. This body has been underwater 10 years. There’s no record of any unrecovered drowning victims in the lake – except Tally’s.
The narrator asks to see the body. He talks about how we all change, grow – except the dead. Dead children remain small.
Farther away, he notices a half-finished sandcastle with tracks leading to it from the water. “I’ll help you finish it”, he says and does.
The story ends on a strange, disquieting note which makes this different than the usual ghost story.
“I built the rest of it up very slowly, then I arose and turned away and walked off, so as not to watch it crumble in the waves, as all things crumble.
“I walked back up the beach where a strange woman named Margaret was waiting for me, smiling. . . . “
It’s as if Tally’s return has somehow knocked the narrator back to his younger self, a self that doesn’t know Margaret and that he will eventually become estranged from Margaret perhaps because no one can replace a first love tragically taken away with the possibilities forever longed for. Perhaps the narrator saying he thought he loved Margaret well is a comparison to the deeper love he felt for Tally. Or, perhaps, his love for Margaret will crumble as all things do.
Summer ends, sandcastles crumble, friends die, and love cools. Our youth is only summer because we do not yet know those things.