In the time just after the big war, when banks weren’t to be trusted and when snapper turtle stew, a cheap meal for the big families common in those days, bubbled on stovetops in farm kitchens, the three Richter brothers led Lester Sutter to the edge of Spider Lake to watch him drown through the sights of their rifles. They drove him in with the barrels of their guns and stood guard among the cattails as the water filled his boots and soaked his overalls. The rocks they’d stuffed and then stitched into his pockets sank him. Lester Sutter had earned this. Even if he wasn’t quite right in the mind, thought the brothers, he should have known better than to violate their sister.
Only an hour before, Herman Richter, the middle brother, had ordered Liesel, the Richters’ only sister, to stay in the house. He directed his other brothers to hide in the grove and wait for Lester Sutter to come. He always came, Herman knew. Lester would linger at the edge of the grove until Liesel came out with the supper slops. He would slink around the oak trees. Sometimes he sat at the foot of a tree trunk and watched Liesel from afar. Sometimes he trailed back and forth, just a few feet behind her, as she bustled about the yard. When she’d whip around to face him and plant her hands on her hips, he’d turn around too, show her his back, and pretend to be studying some far-off cloud or tree. She usually smiled and returned to her work without scolding him. Liesel had always been far too permissive. Sometimes Lester approached her, and they talked. Of what, Herman had no idea. Lester Sutter was dense as pipe smoke. At times, Liesel put Lester to work hoeing in her garden or carrying heavy water pails from the well to the house. Though Liesel had insisted she didn’t mind Lester’s company, Herman did. He told her to stay away from Lester. But she hadn’t listened. And Lester got too close.
Now here he was, splashing at the water’s edge, taking a few steps forward and then backing toward the shore, croaking like some amphibious animal and making this deed harder than it needed to be.
“Get in the water, Lester,” Herman Richter yelled. His eyes were pale blue and his ears bright red. He spoke in English but with a slight German accent. The Richters’ papa, a German immigrant, spoke German but had learned English well and had insisted his children do the same.
Lester Sutter turned to face the brothers on the shore. He worked out the meaning of the words and mouthed them with his thin and cracked lips. Then he imitated Herman Richter: “Get in ta water.”
Herman fumed. He directed the tip of his gun back and forth between Lester’s chest and the middle of the lake. “Get in,” he said.
“Get in,” repeated Lester. He giggled and glanced from one brother’s face to the next.
“I will shoot you!” screamed Herman. His brothers looked at him. One told him to take it easy. “I have shot better men than this,” Herman yelled. “I will not hesitate to shoot this dog too.” But really, Herman hoped he wouldn’t have to. He hated guns and killing and blood. Why couldn’t Lester see that Herman was giving him a chance to do the dignified thing and die on his own terms?
Sweat ran from Lester’s head into his eyes. As a boy, he had pulled out all of his eyelashes, and now none grew. The rims were perpetually red and irritated, but the whites of his eyes were always clear and not a red vein crossed them, not even when the sweat nipped at his eyeballs like the bites of hay mites. Lester knew what a gun could do. His own pa hunted with one, and Lester didn’t want to risk the blast of smoke and bullet by disobeying the men. He didn’t want to feel that blow of hot metal invade his head or heart or anywhere. The day was cloudy. Heat a man could reach out and hold was trapped between the earth and sky. The sun throbbed against the backs of the clouds, waiting for its chance to press through and ignite the day.
Lester Sutter, standing now knee-deep in Spider Lake and wringing his hands, wasn’t an educated man. He suffered from the sort of weakness that came from years of hard blows from his pa’s fists. He didn’t understand why he was here, why these brothers, his neighbors, whom he’d always thought were friendly, were pointing guns at him. At first, he’d thought maybe they were playing a game. But now he was scared and wanted to see Liesel.
The youngest gun-toter, Otto Richter, no more than a boy really, a boy who had fished and hunted turtles with Lester Sutter many a time, saw that he was confused. So Otto looked up from his rifle, unsquinted his aiming eyes, and yelled over the long steel barrel to his old friend, “He said to get in the water, Lester.”
Lester waved to Otto, then pointed to himself and said, “It’s me. Lester.”
“I know,” said Otto.
The boy was shushed by Herman and told to get his gun back up. Otto rested the thick wood of it against his bony shoulder. His long bangs hung nearly into his eyes.
“Do not talk to him,” said Herman. He took short steps on the shoreline toward Lester, closing the distance between them to fewer than a few steps. He pointed the gun from Lester to the middle of the lake again. “Get in, Lester,” he said. “We don’t have all day.”
Lester understood finally and backed up. Dark fingers of lake water curled around his thighs and bade them come in.