Stillwater

by Matt Bondurant

01/13/2012

Imaginary Oklahoma is an ongoing project in which some of today’s most important and influential writers combine with artists to provide a fictional take on this place we call home. Through a wide variety of voices, styles and literary devices, these works prove that “Oklahoma” is much more than a place, it’s an idea.


The boy at the bottom of the lake opened his eyes and found his right hand had floated free again despite his efforts. His legs and torso were partially wedged under an enormous tree trunk and he watched the free hand, slightly luminescent, casting a glow like moonlight. The grit and sediment in the water burned his eyes as he squinted in the gloom, discerning the surface far above him as mirror of dark glass. His hip and shoulder ached from the weight of the tree, but the right side of his body still urged him toward the surface. He waited another hour then gave up, allowing his body to slide out and ascend slowly into starlight.

Someone walking the woods along the southern edge of the lake on that November night might have seen him emerging from the water, his forehead breaking the smooth black surface of the quiet lake and the slow plod of his steps as he waded to shore among the cattails and jimson weed. They might have seen him stand on the bank, shivering, watching the waters of the lake reverberate with his departure and then come to complete stillness again. Wind pulled at the tops of the shadowy forest, the supple trunks of the trees wending, and when he listened the air was full of windfall and bird alarm. The boy crept into the woods and curled at the base of a thick pine, pulling a heavy mat of needles over him like a blanket and prepared to weather the long night that seemed like it would never end.

At daybreak the boy was already moving, working his way back through to the hard road that led into town. His clothes were still damp and he chuffed and gasped with the cold as he kept to the treeline, ducking away from cars, until he made the gas station with the outside bathroom. He locked the door and took off his clothes and dried them the best he could with paper towels, wiping away mud and lake debris. He used his fingers to comb his hair, making a rudimentary part to one side. In the dirty mirror his dough-like face warped and vibrated and the boy shut his eyes.

Later he stood in the playground by the fence, warily watching the other children and parents. He was too old for this place, but it was the best he could do. The people of the town became used to the sight of this slightly disheveled boy, lurking on the perimeter, but no one made a move to befriend him and parents called out angrily for their children when they ventured in his direction.

It was a different time. In those days a boy could exist on the edge for a long while before anyone thought to inquire about him or offer assistance. The woods were said to be filled with such boys, scrawny, dirty-necked youths who filtered through backyard floodlights and crouched behind the woodpile. Stories were told of boys floating on the surface of the lake, hundreds of them, face up to the moon, their large eyes unblinking. But there really was only the one boy, the one who has been here in Stillwater forever, the boy we see here now, leaning on the chain link fence, watching our beautiful children playing in the sandbox, building their tiny imaginary universes.


Matt Bondurant’s new novel The Night Swimmer (Scribner) will be published in January 2012. His second novel, The Wettest County in the World (Scribner 2008), was a New York Times Editor’s Pick, and San Francisco Chronicle Best 50 Books of the Year. His first novel, The Third Translation (Hyperion 2005), was an international bestseller, translated into 14 languages worldwide. A former John Gardner Fellow in Fiction at Bread Loaf, Kingsbury Fellow at Florida State, and Walter E. Dakin Fellow at Sewanee, he currently lives in Texas.