The Fisher Princess

At about half-past nine in the evening, a red-orange square appears over the lake. It ripples against the water like a vast impermeable sheet, or the reflection of a bloodied, disfigured moon. The square itself is invisible from the dirt path, but Maxine, bicycling back to camp, immediately notices its light, which appears as a wash of color that bathes the dark treeline in orange. Her body reacts before her mind does, and she clamps down hard on the hand brakes, skidding to a halt.

Her weight shifts, and one foot comes down to rest against the path. Between the dense boughs of pine, Maxine watches as the bright red-orange light flickers, intensifying and deepening in color. Her eyes track the color as it projects itself, a wave of dark orange, onto first the dusty path, then the front bicycle wheel, and her old sneakers. The effect reminds her of Venetian blinds against a window, blocking the rich sunlight and scattering it into bars against the floor. For a moment, she is convinced she’s lost track of time somehow and passed out on a bed of pine needles. What she’s seeing now must be the reflection of the dawn on the path. But it is almost completely dark out, and the red-orange is too impossible, suggesting an artificial, rather than a natural, origin. Max frowns as she examines the treeline more closely. The light looks almost like neon of a searchlight, or a particularly strong flashlight, and she imagines a lost camper in a canoe whirling one around in terror. In her mind’s eye, the canoe tips over and the anonymous camper sinks wordlessly into the lake, arms akimbo, the tendrils of her hair coloring the surface of the clear water like an ink stain. Panic rising, Max quickly gets off the bicycle; it tumbles into the dirt as she pushes past the foliage.

Maxine’s sneakers, scuffed up after two months of summertime, sink softly into the sand. Catching her breath, she stares at the square. It lays, rippling but unmoved by the tide, a few meters from the shore. She cannot make sense of it rationally, but still her mind tries on different interpretations: A bright orange mainsail, ripped from a pleasure boat during a squall, a waterproof picnic cloth, a strip of shimmering industrial plastic, brought by the west wind. Which could it be?

She’s still lost in thought when the square suddenly erupts, doubling in size in a matter of seconds. Its sides quiver and shatter, blossoming into smaller geometric forms that group and reform into the original square. Despite this frantic activity, the rest of the lake water remains undisturbed. Max watches, perfectly still, her gaze fixed to the image as it decomposes and recomposes, over and over. She blinks a few times. The panic she felt earlier has gone. Her mind is instead dominated by a peculiar wave of calm. With barely any realization of what she’s doing, she rolls up her pant legs and sheds her shoes to wade into the water.

It doesn’t occur to her that something so paranormal, so explicitly removed from nature, could pose a danger to her. Later, when she tries to recall the setting, she remembers only the water, cool to the touch. A clouding of her mind, as though each of her senses were filled with white noise, bars any other possible memory. She is almost knee-deep into the water when the stranger emerges from the dead center of the square.