Having been unwell for some time, and, matters having come to a head during the spring, I was being kept, for the summer at least, in a cottage in the hills that belonged, in some capacity, to a dimly remembered aunt. This sequestering was as much for the benefit of my health as it was for the protection of my family’s reputation, for my illness was of the kind that was considered to reflect badly not just on myself but my family as a whole, being seen, as it was, a malady of morals as much as one of health.
A stern, muscular woman, whose name I neither knew nor had any inclination to learn, cycled daily to the house from the nearby village that lay, unseen, on the other side of the surrounding hills. She would bring me a basket of food, return my laundry, and take down instructions for anything urgent that I might require, but other than that brief daily interaction each morning, I was left thankfully alone, and my days were spent in a restful, almost dreamlike, solitude.
The cottage itself was unremarkable, but perfectly adequate for my needs, furnished as it was with a comfortable bed, a well provisioned kitchen, and an armchair by the fire in which I could pass the evening reading the works of Milton and Donne by the glow of smouldering coals. A dusty yard, into which I dragged the small table and a chair from the kitchen, overlooked a meadow thick with wildflowers, the slope of which curved downwards to a small silver lake almost entirely concealed by the overlooking hills.
Indeed, when I mentioned the lake to the stern woman one morning as she brought me a basket of eggs, bread and thin slices of cold meat, she was entirely ignorant of it, despite having lived in the neighbouring village the whole of her life. Upon seeing it, she clapped her hands together loudly and declared it a beautiful impossibility, for she had climbed those hills many times with her lovers, and never seen even a hint of this idyllic pool.
When I eventually made my way to the lake, several days later, on an afternoon of such intense heat I could feel the warmth radiating from the baked earth through the thick soles of my shoes, it became apparent why its appearance was such a mystery to the woman from the village.
A horseshoe of yew trees lined the shore to the south, east and west, and although, as I bathed my feet in its cool waters, I could turn and see, back the way I had come, the cottage silhouetted against the dazzling blue of the sky, looking forward I could glimpse nothing of the surrounding hills above (nor through) the dense foliage of the trees.
I circled the entire lake, enjoying the respite from the sun that the shade of those trees provided, and in counting the minutes it took me to return to where I had begun, I estimated the circumference of the lake to be, perhaps, a mile, or maybe slightly more.
The surface, untouched by even the faintest breeze, was as smooth as glass and it reflected the sky as perfectly as a mirror. I spent the rest of that afternoon and much of the evening reclining against a tree and watching the reflected clouds dissipate and reform upon its surface.
I dreamt that night, and indeed, on many nights subsequently, of the lake rising, its silver surface placid and unbroken, the yew trees circling it drowning in its waters, until eventually it formed an inland sea that stretched from hilltop to hilltop, and lapped, ever so gently, over the doorstep of the cottage and around the legs of my bed.
A few days later, oil for the lamps had run low, and while I waited for the woman to bring me more from the village, I was left that night to rely on the light of the moon, which, as luck would have it, rose full and bright in the star-flecked sky at a little after 9 o’clock.
As the moon rose above the hills, I followed, from my chair by the back door of the cottage, its reflection as it traversed the surface of the lake. Yet when this reflection reached the far edge, I watched in quite some surprise as, instead of, shall we say, ‘setting’ at the western shore, it instead reflected, and began traversing the lake in the opposite direction, back towards the east, and the point from where it had risen.
The moon above, of course, did no such thing, continuing on its journey across the heavens undisturbed, and I realised, with a feeling that can only be described as relief, that what I had been watching had not been the reflection of the moon, but instead a submerged light shining up from the depths of the lake and illuminating its surface from below rather than above.
After returning to near the centre of the lake, the brightness of the strange circle of light began to dim, and by the time it had reached the far shore it had fully faded from view, the waters of the lake becoming once more as black as the sky above them.
I stayed in my seat until the early hours of the morning, but this mysterious emanation made no return, and, while no doubt inventing numerous feverish explanations for the strange occurrence, eventually I must have fallen asleep in my chair, for I was woken by the full glare of the midday sun and the harsh sound of the village woman’s voice as she announced her arrival at my door.
Although the woman had displayed no animosity towards me, (nor indeed any hint of friendliness), I was still somewhat circumspect in my dealings with her, for I did not know the extent to which she knew the circumstances of my health or the reasons for my stay.
She was, at least in some capacity, in the employ of my family, even if it was at several layers of remove, and I was still, even after a month of solitude, filled with a wariness that bordered on paranoia when it came to not only my privacy here, but also in the possibility of my day-to-day actions, no matter the benign nature of my current lifestyle, being relayed to the city with a more salacious spin placed upon them.
As such I made no mention of the strange light I had observed beneath the surface of the lake, while also trying, as best I could, to hide the fact that I had slept in the chair in the yard rather than in my bed in the cottage.
And yet, from the brief taciturn conversation I endured with her, as she delivered to me fresh bread and an urn of thick black oil for the lamps, I received no flicker of interest in my activities of the night before, and as such was left to ponder, for the rest of the afternoon, on the necessity of my earlier furtive manner.
I attributed this strange reflectiveness on both the sleep deprivation from which I was evidently suffering, and a lingering headache that did not ease until I took myself to bed in the early evening, whereupon I collapsed into a deep dream-filled sleep.
The dreams were of a kind so vivid and involving that they felt as if they were the lived events of a second life, and by the time I rose the next morning it seemed that, rather than a single night, many months had passed.
Faint remembrances of these dreams lingered on the edges of my perception the next day, and although some of these images were disconcerting in their strangeness, the overwhelming feeling that they engendered was one of contentment, and I went about my morning routine in a mood almost reminiscent of joy.
For so long my melancholy had acted as a restraint upon my senses, but as it lifted I began once again to perceive the world in the fullness of its splendour. Colours seemed brighter, and my sight, as I viewed the hills from my window, clearer, as if a haze had been removed from the air and everything was viewed through a pristine lens.
The sound of distant birds, even the cyclic buzz of insects from the meadow, became sharper, yet, simultaneously, more distinct, and I appreciated each one as a separate marvel rather than an accumulated drone.
I was eating mulberries from the tree at the top of the path, exulting in their succulence, when the woman cycled into view, and as I held up my hand to greet her, I noticed that my fingers were stained a deep red from the juices of those fruits, a blemish I expect was mirrored upon my lips.
The strange emotions present in me caused me to speak with a certain ease and familiarity to the woman that I had not found possible in previous days, my lingering paranoia evidently eased by the previous nights dreams, and soon I found that not only had my senses returned to their fullest extent, but so had my desires, and it was not long before I lay naked beside her in my bed, the relative coolness of the room doing little to douse our passion.
Although I had recovered some of my strength in my time at the cottage, my physique was still quite diminished from its previous vigour, and as I looked down at my body as it lay against hers, I was overcome with a dizzying sense of vertigo, as if her sturdy frame was a great precipice over which I peered down at my own withered flesh as it lay discarded, distantly, at the bottom of some unexplored ravine.
Afterwards, as I fed her mulberries in the shade of the tree, I asked her if she would be missed back at the village while she lingered here with me, and when she shook her head, I spoke unguardedly about my vision of two nights previously, and the second moon that traversed not the sky above but the lake below.
“Sometimes,” she murmured in response to one of my more fanciful speculations, “you have to decide whether to believe your eyes or your heart.”
I considered this a strange, not to mention facile, thing to say, but made no attempt to counter it. Instead I nodded a weak assent, for the afternoon was too pleasant to spoil with unnecessary dispute, and so I gently turned the conversation towards a more agreeable discourse.
Alas, later, as the woman readied herself to leave, I provoked a disagreement, although quite by accident, and which was all the worse for it being such an unthinking act on my part. At least a deliberate provocation can serve some purpose or intent, but this was so unnecessary I gained absolutely nothing from the endeavour.
Overcome as I was with these intertwining emotions of contentment and joy, I said, off handedly as she left, that perhaps, in her next letter to my family, she could mention the improvement in my emotional state as well as my physical wellbeing, and recommend, if only by implication, that my exile here need not linger on into the autumn.
Her face regained a measure of its thin-lipped sternness at this, but I continued blithely, saying, with a nervous laugh, that of course she need not mention the exact circumstances and exertions of this afternoon, and here it was that the misunderstanding occurred.
Even though my paranoia had dissipated, I had, I realised, accepted the assertions conjured by that affliction as fact, and assumed much in the way of her conduct and knowledge that was not attributable to anything other than my own mind. For, as the woman explained, patiently yet bitterly, she was not in contact with my family, and knew nothing of my circumstances, having assumed that the note she had received laying out the duties of her summer employ was authored by my own hand, and the money attached from the same source.
Further, the suggestion that she might speak of our earlier tryst was, of course, quite unreasonable, having the implication about it of some measured threat on my part, for the consequences for her, a married woman resident in a small pious community, of the discovery of such a relationship were far greater than they ever could be for me, a man of evidently self-sufficient means, hailing from a far-off city and an even more distant class.
Having resisted the urge to argue earlier, I now found myself responding to every point, as if, just by the application of my words, I could erase the substance of her accusations and absolve myself of any wrongdoing in this affair. This of course did not prove to be the case, and long after she had left I was still ruminating on the particulars of the argument, and found myself quite unable to regain the calm that had settled upon me throughout the day.
That night, not long after dark, I saw, once again, the second moon. As before, its initial path mirrored that of the true moon, before being reflected from its path by the far shore of the lake, and beginning its return journey across the black, unseen, surface of the lake.
I rose from my chair and hurried down the hillside, but I had gone little more than a third of the way to the lake before the second moon began to fade, and by the time I reached the water’s edge there was no lingering trace of its light at all. I slept fitfully that night, and rose early the next morning in a state of excited agitation.
My hands and lips were still stained red with the consequences of yesterday’s mulberries, and try as I might as I made my morning ablutions, I could not scrub myself clean no matter the vigour with which I scoured my hands with the brush.
In a frenzy of activity, I made plans for an expedition that very day, and spent the morning gathering the necessary tools from the house – a lamp, rope, matches, knives – and loading them up on the table in the yard.
I hoped to tell the woman from the village of my plans, and ask her, as a way of apologising for yesterday’s impoliteness, to join me on the walk, but by noon, she had still not arrived, and I was too impatient to wait any longer. I left her a note containing an effusive apology for my conduct the day before, and then proceeded with my plan.
In the dilapidated barn that stood, obscurely doorless, behind the rusted threshing machine and the ruins of a petrol pump in the far corner of the yard, I had seen, on the one occasion I had explored it, a small rowing boat, and it was to this I made my way.
I dragged it, with great difficulty, from the barn and then, after tying a rope to its bow and loading my equipment inside, somewhat more easily pulled it down the hill towards the lake, leaving behind me a wake of flattened grass and crushed wildflowers.
Although it was not exactly a herculean task, it still took me far longer than I had supposed to reach the lake, and by the time I did my body was so tired from its exertions that I sat down by the side of the boat and dozed.
By the time I woke it was almost dusk, and my arms were still so weak from their earlier effort I was not sure I would be able to row, even on waters as serene as those of that enigmatic pond. My fears were unfounded, however, and as I pushed away from the shore and drifted slowly out towards the centre of the lake, I caught the first glimpse of the moon in the sky above, and not long after, a glimmer of the one below.
As the submerged moon began its secondary journey back across the surface of the lake, untethered now from its gibbous sister above me, I manoeuvred the boat towards its path. Soon our courses met, and that ghostly apparition passed not over the surface of the boat but beneath, proving then that this truly was not an aberrant reflection of the known moon, but a projection of something more startling from the depths of the pool.
I leaned inquisitively over the side of the boat, trying to glimpse the source of this emanation as it passed through the waters below. In my eagerness to see I leant too far, and fell with a sudden splash over the side of the boat and into the cold waters of the lake.
As I fell beneath the surface, I caught a glimpse of some strange white orb, as smooth as a pearl, glowing with its own enticing light, drifting through the swaying vegetation at the bottom of the pond.
I rose to the surface to catch my breath, and then dove down once more and tried to follow the light’s path, but the task was more difficult than I expected, and I quickly lost track of its movements through the dense foliage beneath me.
Returning to the surface again, I tried to calm myself by taking a series of long deep breaths, in the style of a diver, and then, having swam a small way on the surface of the lake so that I was directly above where the light shone brightest, dove down again.
As I swam this third time towards the pale illumination of that second moon, its light seemed to grow brighter yet ever more diffuse as I approached it, and soon the whole lake bed was aglow around me. I saw then that what I had perceived previously to be the leaves and fronds of submerged weeds and vines swaying in the depths, were in fact the up-stretched hands of the drowned.
The corpses lined the lake bed in their dozens, their torsos half buried in the silt, their shirts billowing around them in the currents, their arms reaching up hopelessly towards the sky, their fingers slowly undulating in disconcerting patterns that reminded me, somehow, of the hypnotic movements of cuttlefish.
On seeing that terrible vision, I tried to swim back up towards the boat, but several outstretched hands grabbed at my arms and legs. Fingers hooked themselves through the belt of my trousers and held fast to the cuffs of my shirt, and they held me there and would not let go.
As I struggled, I looked at the faces below as they turned upwards, one by one, and stared impassively at me. Each was a perfect replica of my own face, their waxy visages blank enough I could read any number of contradictory emotions and accusations upon them. Contempt, admiration, resignation, resistance.
In these faces I saw the reflections of my past misdeeds, rebukes for any number of personal failures. I wondered dimly in the hallucinatory light how many times before had this illusory moon drawn me here. How many of these deaths had I deserved.
I struggled, I struggled, and then, as the light I could not reach flickered and faded, in the dark I struggled no more. Above me the moon became obscured by clouds, and was gone.
1. Written in August and September 2019
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