This story is by Jayna Locke and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Jared sits up in the passenger seat and rubs his eyes. “Why are you taking the exit?”
Lark looks at her husband, grumpy and disheveled from sleep. She tells him about the sign for a small town she saw on the highway. If she’d blinked she would have missed it. “It’s called Dark Muse Lake. It seems familiar, somehow.”
Squat buildings, dull and gray, line the road at the outskirts of town.
“It doesn’t look very promising,” Jared says. “I say ‘pass’.”
She smirks. “Well yours truly is at the wheel. Driver’s privilege.”
He reaches for the coffee thermos. “Fine. But we won’t get to Minneapolis before nightfall.”
Lark tries not to sigh audibly.
This little mission was her idea — a road trip from their small town of Cedar Falls, Iowa to Minneapolis. In her daydream, they find an artists’ community to immerse in, a cute apartment, new friends. They throw parties. They laugh again. And she writes feverishly, every day.
From a certain angle, it is all plausible. Jared is an independent literary agent and can work anywhere he pleases. And Lark is on a year’s sabbatical, working on a novel. Perfect time to rejigger life. Or, it would be, if things were going well. But their marriage is as brittle as a stale cracker, lately. She’s also reeling from the recent passing of her mother. These ingredients have combined into the perfect writer’s block cocktail.
Naturally, Jared doesn’t believe in writer’s block. “You’re going about it all wrong,” he tells her. “You just need to sit your ass down at the computer and write, like Stephen King.” This puts her in a mind to quit writing altogether. She’s a failure, pure and simple. If she was a real writer, she would simply write.
She suddenly recalls what she has heard about this town. “I remember now. Dark Muse Lake is legendary. My gosh, I can’t believe it’s real.”
“Never heard of it, hon.”
“They say there’s a spirit of the lake that inspires artists and writers, although it’s quite elusive, according to the lore.”
Jared snorts. “Typical mythical creatures. Like Bigfoot and leprechauns. One is expected to take it on faith that they exist, but no one ever actually sees them.”
Even as he says this, she feels a whisper of hope. If someone can find this muse, why not her?
They enter town, where shops line the streets. Flower baskets and charming signs hang from windows and porticos.
Some of the streets are cordoned off for an art fair. She can see canopies covering artists’ stalls. People stroll amongst them, perusing pottery, paintings, and sculptures. And just beyond the edge of town is the intensely deep green lake, reflecting Autumn trees and a hazy afternoon sky.
There’s something more, too. Movement at the edges of her vision. A shimmer that dissipates when she turns to look. Probably just driving fatigue, or the harbinger of one of her migraines.
They park and walk through the artist’s stalls, then step into a coffee shop in an alcove on the main street, called simply The Muse. A bell jangles on the door. And then the interior comes into focus, like a photograph emerging from the developing solution in a darkroom. A few souls are hunched over coffee mugs and laptops. Behind the counter, a man in an apron watches them with unblinking eyes.
“Welcome,” he says, in a decidedly unwelcoming tone. “What would you like?”
“Black coffee!” Jared barks from behind a stand of paperbacks.
Lark gives an apologetic smile, forever smoothing the waters in the wake of her surly husband. “A cappuccino, please.”
As the barista turns to a coffee machine, she ventures a question. “So, is it true what they say about this town? About the muse in the lake?”
The barista laughs. “No, it’s just an old legend.” He sets their coffee on the counter. “But I hope you enjoy your visit.”
She sighs. Just a legend. Of course. What was she thinking? She pays and settles at a table.
Jared tosses his coat across the back of his chair. “I need a trip to the men’s. Be right back.”
Lark looks around the café, which is decorated with the work of local artists. Watercolors, landscapes, and renditions of the lake — serene in the moonlight or dark and brooding under storm clouds — line the walls. Maybe there is no magical muse here, but a collective unconscious that compels creatives to pursue their craft.
At the table next to her, a very old man sits with a mug of coffee. She has hardly noticed him until he leans toward her and speaks in a tone so low and quiet that she strains to hear.
“The legend is true,” he says.
She studies the old man’s weathered face for signs that he’s joking. “What?”
“It’s completely true,” he says again. “Many in town have experienced it.” He glances toward the barista. “We keep it quiet because you can imagine what would happen to this place if folks flocked here from all over the world to find inspiration.”
Her breath catches. “Well… can you tell me the secret? How to find it?”
The old man smiles and pushes his cup away. Slowly he stands and gathers his coat. “I wish I could. But it’s nothing anyone can tell you. Like everyone else in this town, you just have to find it for yourself.” He collects a walking stick resting against the table. “Good luck,” he says as he hobbles toward the door. “Some of us have been at it for years.”
Something churns inside her. A yearning so deep that she shivers. For what? A finished novel… a writer’s existence. “I want to write stories that come alive and breathe,” she had told her therapist. “To create life beyond life.” Here, now, she is so close to finding what she’s missing. And yet, if the old man has been searching for years, what chance does she have?
“Let’s clear out of this sorry, one-horse town,” Jared says when he sits down.
She sips her coffee and says nothing. She remembers how she once had a bottomless passion for this man. This intellectual with the biting wit. The match of a lifetime, she thought. What could be more perfect than the marriage of a writer and an agent? Though of course for reasons of professional integrity, he will never represent her.
She watches him thumbing through messages on his phone.
“I’d like to stay in Dark Muse Lake tonight, Jared.”
He sits up straight. “You’ve got to be kidding. No, absolutely not. We’re not staying in this backwater town that’s masquerading as an upscale artists’ community.”
They whisper-argue about plans having been made, about already paying for a hotel in Minneapolis that can’t be canceled.
Finally, she sets her cup down with a teeth-rattling thud. “It’s just one night, for God’s sake.”
His eyes narrow, like he’s not sure what to do with this new, defiant version of her. “Fine. But we’re leaving first thing in the morning.”
That night, in her hotel room, she watches moonlight filtering through the curtain. She waits, hoping. She thinks of her mother, who jotted poems in a notebook that she stashed beneath her pillow. Poems for no one. They buried the notebooks with her when she died, as if her words had no ability to endure. Extinguished words. Buried secrets.
As the clock ticks the moments of the night, she wonders if she has come no further than her mother did. A writer whose words forever sleep.
With the moon setting, and the faint glow of dawn tinging the sky, she rises quietly from the bed and gets dressed. “Goodbye,” she whispers to her husband’s sleeping form. She will not be back.
In a few moments, she is at the lake’s edge. She finds a small dory, weather-beaten but solid. She steps in and rows to the center of the lake. It is as still as glass. She looks up as a morning bird calls, and she sees the shimmering at the edges of her vision again. Like fireflies flickering just beyond her eyesight. Then it is all around, sparkling like liquid gold and vanquishing the night. The sun emerges on the horizon and it is gone.
She is stricken by an emotion that has no name. It is the hope and pain and fury from which words are born, inked onto pages, and spawned into stories that live and breathe. Life beyond life.
A voice whispers, like a volcano waking from slumber, alive with the energy that emerges from soul searching and despair. It is her own. And it is urgent. The time is now.
She rows back to shore, steps out, and walks toward the light of a café at the edge of town. “Yes,” she says, when the server offers coffee. “And would you have some paper I could use? There’s something I need to write.”