The Lake

The Lake now updated to include Part 2.

                                                                   THE LAKE

Part 1

I lose count of the times I have sat here on this bench at the back of the house, the one that overlooks the lake. Hour upon hour I have looked into these waters, my eyes searching it’s surface, listening keenly, casting out the wind and the rustle of the surrounding trees in search of her voice. Now and then I sense her presence; a movement at the corner of my vision, a whisper faintly recognised over the breeze, but I know that these are but imprints, creations of her passing. So, I wait, knowing that when she comes to me it will not be as a faint mist or ripple upon the lake , but as the daughter I raised and loved, whole and full of life; my Helen.

Helen, who I lost to those dark, black waters.

Helen was eleven when she died. It was a cold January day, very much like this one. The snow that had began to fall the previous night lay heavy on the ground, casting a white blanket over the garden and surroundings; the trees, stripped of their leaves, had their skeletal frames dressed in glittering flakes of ice, and the lake had taken on the resemblance of marble; pale, lined with roots and branches that ran like veins beneath it’s surface, erupting here and there, betraying the beauty of it’s ancient face.

She was wearing a bright yellow coat that morning. Edward, her younger brother by four years, wore a woollen fleece. I watched them from the window as they played, throwing balls of snow and running amongst the trees. I would join them later, when I had time. The phone rang and I answered it: a cold caller trying to sell me roof insulation. I was on the line only moments. Moments; on replacing the receiver upon it’s cradle the screaming started.

The ice broke under my weight as I made my way towards them. I caught my son’s arm as it thrashed wildly out of the water but Helen was far from my reach where the water was deeper. They say that I could not have saved them both. It would have been impossible to reach her without forsaking my son’s life and probably my own. They say I did the right thing by lifting Edward out of the water and onto the bank before returning for my daughter.

They say all these things.

I still question my actions, though it’s been over two years now. They tell me it’s natural to feel this way, and that the dreams that wake me in the night will decrease with time. Yet, part of me wishes that this is not the case; it his her I see, after all, and I have no desire to lose whatever link I have with her, however tenuous. Though in sleep, the vision her is a twisted, brutal thing.

My wife, Amanda, couldn’t come to terms with the death. Our relationship, which had been rocky for a number of months previously, crumbled into resentment and she left not three months later; a note left read that although she didn’t blame me, she could no longer look at my face for fear of being reminded of what was taken from her. I thought she would call now and again to speak to Edward, but so far this hasn’t been the case. Helen was always her favourite, and the new life she has sought abroad seems to have no place for the one’s she left behind.

Edward appeared to come to terms with Helen’s death more quickly. He engrossed himself in his schoolwork, making friends and enjoying the sort of activities young boys do. He also developed a more understanding and gentler nature than he had exhibited before. On times when I was feeling particularly sombre; on what would have been Helen’s birthday, or when I sat in her bedroom, staring at her photograph, he would place himself beside me and rest his head on my side. He didn’t speak during these moments, there was no need. His presence said all he needed to convey: I’m here and I share your sadness, it said, but we still have each other, and together we remember her.

Family and friends did their best to persuade me to sell the house and move away, but I felt that doing so would lessen Helen’s memory somewhat – a feeling my son also shared – so we stayed in the house by the lake and in time the voices calling for us to start a life elsewhere hushed. My work, as an illustrator of children’s books gained more notoriety amongst the publishing world, and the commissions paid well, and with this, and the days turning to months, then years, the foundations of something of a normal life began to return. Edward was doing well in school and was popular, and by the time the second winter following Helen’s death came around, I began to think we had turned a corner. The bad days, though still there, were broken now and then by moments of laughter, and the guilt that had weighed so heavily upon me was lessening. I began to think that perhaps yes, life could continue, and with effort, it could be a good one at that.

I was naïve to think such things.

It was December the 21st. I had been working on a commission which was proving demanding; I was about to set down my paints and brushes with the thought of retiring to bed, when I heard my son’s voice raised in conversation. Opening the door to my study I walked down the hallway to the back of the house, where I found Edward standing by the door, his face pressed against the glass.

”What you doing up, Ed? It’s very late” I said. ”And it’s school tomorrow.”

He chose to ignore my voice, and instead cupped his hands near to his face in an effort to see the garden outside more clearly.

”Edward,” I said more sternly, and this time he acknowledged my presence, turning to face me.

”I was…I thought..” he stammered, ”I was…”

”Was what? Ed, what are you looking at?”

His face looked pale and tired. I knelt down and rested an arm on his shoulder. ”What on earth’s the matter, son?”

”I just thought, thought I heard something.” Then, ”Probably just a dream, is all”

He didn’t say any more and I felt it best not to press him.

Edward had suffered bad dreams for a time following Helen’s death, and they still surfaced from time to time. I tucked him into bed and retuned back downstairs to pack up my things, pausing by the door to the garden. The cold air chilled me immediately as I stepped outside, the scent of the lake’s frozen water reaching my nose, carried on the mist rising from it’s surface. I stood still for a moment, looking out towards the water, then turned my gaze left to right, my eyes straining against the darkness. I didn’t know what I was looking for, or what I hoped to find. There was only the outline of the trees dusted with white and the pale gleam of the lake’s surface before me.

Just a dream.

That’s all it had been.

The morning brought with it grey clouds and thr threat of more snow. I rummaged around for Edward’s scarf as he finished his breakfast, and on enetering the kitchen he looked up at me and said ”Last night, I thought I heard her. I forget sometimes that she’s…” He trailed off, tears forming in his eyes.

”I forget sometimes too.” I knelt down, placing his hands in my own, then looked up into his face. ”It’s okay, and it’s good to remember her. In a way, she’s still with us. I dare say she’s here now wondering why you’re sitting here when you could be out playing.”

He smiled a liitle at this. ”Yeah, she always loved the snow.” He sniffed then added, ”I miss her, Dad.”

And then the crying began again and this time it was joined by me own as I held him in my arms. And the snow once more began to fall outside the window, keeping pace with out tears.

Part two

Whilst Edward was at school I caught up on my work. I was illustrating a book for a new writer the publishing house chosen had as their new darling; a novel aimed at the low teenage market. It required a dozen plates, all to be completed by mid-March. At first I had progressed well, the first eight or so being completed in a matter of weeks, but upon reaching a scene involving Melissa (the heroine of the story who was escaping the villain), I reached something of a creative block. Taking a break, I stepped outside and lit a cigarette, the smoke rising into the cold air. It was then that I saw it.

A pale blue ribbon lay on top of the snow by the porch step. I reached down to pick it up, examining it in my hand. It was the same one Helen had been wearing the day she was playing by the lake. The day that she drowned.

”How could it have been me? I was at school, remember?” Edward slammed the door to his room. I suddenly felt ashamed I had accused him. But if it wasn’t he who placed it there, then who? I started up the stairs after him; but then stopped. Better to leave him for a while then make matters worse. I sat back down in the kitchen and poured myself a drink, and after a time the tightness of my hand that still gripped the ribbon lessened.

After a time.

That night I was awoken once more by the sound of Edward’s voice rising from downstairs. Pulling on my dressing gown, I quietly made my way to the landing and down to the hallway, softly approaching the kitchen so as not to disturb him. He stood once more facing the door, though this time it was ajar, allowing the cold night air to flood the room, and as I watched him I heard his voice rise one again.

”I don’t want to play,” I heard him say, ”Not tonight. It’s too cold.”

I watched him move forward and close the door, then quietly, so as as not to alert him to my presence, I returned to my room. Moments later, as I lay in the darkness, I heard the sound of his bedroom door close, followed by silence.

Edward had received counselling following his sister’s death. Two times a week for six months he had sat in a doctor’s office, coming to terms with the tragedy. ”There may be repercussions,” the doctor had said, ”They may not manifest themselves for months, even years, but when events such as these happen they take a toll on the mind. Especially on one so young.” The doctor’s words came to me as I lay in the darkness. ”Some block out the memory all together as a way of coming to terms with the pain. Others become introverted and must be allowed time to think. In rare cases schizophrenia may surface; the sufferer may act as though the person who died is still with them. They may talk to them, aloud as I am to you, and go as so far as to leave items and clothing around to enforce the illusion that the person is still living with them. Though as I say, this is rare.

I should have known. I should have realised that Edward had adjusted too quickly; that I had put my grief before his own. Wasn’t it he who had comforted me rather than the other way round? And I realised at that moment that I had failed him. That he couldn’t be blamed for placing the ribbon, for speaking to the night air. I would speak to him in the morning, I decided. Do my best to be there for him. To be the father he deserved.

”Edward, I’ve made you breakfast! Egg soldiers, just the way you like them. Hurry up! They look good and I’m pretty hungry.”

I laid the table and sat down, waiting for the sound of his footsteps on the stairs, sipping my coffee, playing out in my head what I was going to say to him. A moment passed and I called again. ”Edward”

Nothing.

I put down my mug and walked to the stairwell, placing my hand on the bannister before calling once more. When there was still no answer I made my way up to his room and knocked on the door.

”Edward, your breakfast will get cold. You up?”

Silence. I grasped the handle and opened the door. His bedroom was empty, the bed made and his school bag gone. Leaning down, I placed my hand upon the bed sheet in an attempt to judge how long he had been gone.

It felt cool to the touch.

It was unlike him to leave the house without eating and even more so for him not to say goodbye. He must have been angrier with me than I first thought. I picked up his dirty clothes from the floor, then, feeling a draught, looked up to find he had left the window open; he’d been watching the snow no doubt. Holding the clothes with one arm to my chest I reached over to pull it too, only to stop suddenly as my hand grasped the handle.

The hand-prints on the glass had frosted in the cold air, small fragile fingers open like spiders legs upon the pane. Too small to be Edward’s,was my first thought.

The second was that the prints were on the outside of the window.

I couldn’t concentrate for much of the day and my work suffered as a result. In my frustration I replaced my working canvas with a new one and set upon it with a mindless determination; squeezing the tubes of paint thickly over the pale surface, moulding it over and over, not caring what I was creating, just that my mind be free for a moment, to lose myself to instinct and the repetitiveness of the brush strokes.

After a time I tired. My restlessness had produced only a brown mess of black and brown smudges that had no particular shape or meaning; the canvas punctured here and there where I had pushed too hard; the acrylics covered my hands. I looked like a mad man who had played in his own filth. I turned away and made for the bathroom, eager to wash away the dirt and the thoughts that troubled me.

It was a round five when Edward arrived home. He was a little later that usual but I let it go, eager to mend the rift between us. I made dinner and watched him eat in silence, unsure as what to say. As it was, he was he who spoke first.

”She won’t let me sleep.”

His sudden frankness caught my unaware. I looked at him, his head down as he played with his food, not daring to speak for fear that he wouldn’t continue.

”She taps on the window and doesn’t stop until I talk to her. At first I was pleased to see her, but she isn’t nice.”

”Not nice?”

”She tells me she’s tired of waiting. That it’s time for me to join her at the bottom of the lake.” He paused, then added, ”I’m scared, Dad.”

His bottom lip quivered, and I walked over, holding him close to my chest. ”It’s alright, son,” I said. ”No one’s going to hurt you. I’m here. It’s just bad dreams.”

I raised my head and ruffled his hair and saw that flakes of white had started to fall again outside. They began to patter the glass, and it was then that I thought I saw the condensation marks of someone’s breath upon the window. The snow melted there for a moment, then quickly took hold before I could be certain. But, my doubt remained long after the pane was once again painted white.

Part 3 to follow next week.

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