Chapter Excerpt

Lake Overturn
A Novel

Chapter One

Step One: Problem

High in the mountains of Cameroon, West Africa, there was a small lake surrounded by green, treeless cliffs—Lake Nyos. No river emptied into Lake Nyos; it was fed by rain from above and springs from below, leaving the surface utterly still—a blue jewel set in a mountaintop, penetrated by slanted bars of light. Water trickled gently from it into a valley that held three small villages of cattle herders.

Summer was usually the rainy season, but the August of 1986 had been dry. Then, on the evening of the twenty-first, a warm, pelting rain began to fall. Children came outside to run through the grass and slide in the mud, while cows lumbered into the shelter of the great, waxy-leafed trees.

The cattle here were of an African variety that Idahoans would never have seen: giants with great wide horns and spines that hung like suspension bridges between humps at the shoulder and hip. As majestic in unblemished white as Idaho cows were humble in brown inkblots, they looked more like wild things—water buffalo or wildebeest—than anything you’d raise and eat. Those Idahoans who saw the news reports in the following days, which showed these animals twisted languidly in death, imagined that, in life, they had moved regally, their muscles rolling and twitching under their sleek coats. The Idahoans fixed their minds on the death of these cows rather than the cows’ owners. A cow lying dead with flies in its eyes was a common enough sight.

The rain died off at sunset. Then, in the middle of the night, a gust of wind blew through the villages and up over the mountains. This wasn’t a howling tempest; it didn’t have force enough to snap limbs off trees, just to flap the leaves and send down a second, lesser shower. Nobody even woke up. But the wind moved the blanket of rain water across the surface of Lake Nyos. Like a tablecloth that one pushes across a tabletop, which gathers momentum and falls of its own weight to the floor, the warm water collected in one corner, then slipped down the side, past the still strata of frigid water, to the depths where something lay sleeping. The villagers, who regarded Lake Nyos alternately as a benevolent mother and a sanctuary for evil spirits, would later say it was the Lake Witch. She awoke, swam up the opposite side of Lake Nyos, and emerged from the water with a groan and a rumble. A few villagers woke and sat up in bed, wondering, Was it a dream? Seconds later their breath was taken from them, and they fell back onto their pillows. Their family members sleeping across the room didn’t even awaken, but made a few gasping snores before they died. Outside, cows fell on their knees, surged to heave themselves back up, then rolled onto their sides. Birds dropped like black fruit from the trees. A bat swooped to catch an insect that had fallen dead, but failed, died, and tumbled through the air. Strangely, though, another bat flying at a higher altitude didn’t die, but flitted away to find a fresher meal elsewhere.

Farther down the valley, the Lake Witch seemed to tire. She allowed the people of the next village to rouse their children and make it outdoors before they fell. She let them feel the struggle of their children gasping for air under them before taking their lives.

Dawn came hot and steaming. A man used a switch both to drive his five cows up the road and to swat the biting flies from his own ankles. He entered the trail of the Lake Witch where there were no more flies, but he did not notice this. The buzzing and chirping, which never stopped, had stopped, but until the man came upon that first dead cow, he couldn’t name the chill.

A similar, though much less ominous, disorientation—a gap between feeling the chill and naming it—was experienced only days later by Connie Anderson in Eula, Idaho. Temperatures had reached one hundred degrees every day for a week. At dusk one Thursday, when husbands were plugging in their Weedwhackers to charge them up for the weekend, and wives were turning on their sewing machines, and everyone was tuning their TVs to Hill Street Blues, which was thought to be set in New York City (where few Eulans had ever been but which seemed gritty and fascinating and made their own lives seem dull, yes, but clean), the electricity, already overtaxed by air conditioners that had been running all day, went out.

Connie happened to be leaving First Church of the Nazarene at that moment. She and some women from her group, the Dorcas Circle, had volunteered to change the decorations in the sanctuary. They had taken down garlands of plastic roses from the stained-glass windows, replaced them with bunches of Indian corn, and propped up sheaves of dried cattails and corn stalks in the corners. The last to leave, Connie stepped out of the church and opened her purse to look for her keys. She found them, looked up, and everything had changed. She reached for the handrail in case she was fainting. A dog’s insistent bark echoed in the distance. A car passed, and its tires on the smooth road made a sound like breath. Above Connie, clouds hung like knotted wool blankets that had been dipped in gold on the edge closest to the horizon, behind which the sun had dropped. The scarlet haze on the horizon and the faint odor of spice were due, Connie knew, to the wildfires that had been burning steadily for several days in the brush lands across the Snake River from Eula. Small clouds suspended above the haze in the west shone like nuggets. Then, before Connie could name the difference, the streetlights flickered on, and the windows of the houses glowed, and something buzzed—the power line that entered the church building above Connie’s head, which she never would have noticed otherwise.

Lake Overturn
A Novel
. Copyright © by Vestal McIntyre. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from Lake Overturn by Vestal Mcintyre
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