Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The lake

For a while after I retired from teaching one of my former colleagues invited me back once a year to give a guest lecture at a summer seminar he ran. I had moved to the city by then, but as it was an afternoon class and I was an early riser I usually took back roads because they were quieter and because I liked the drive along the Housatonic. When my talk was over my host would invite me to dinner -- we were both widowers and I at least was past the age where I thought there was much likelihood of my marrying again -- and we would reminisce for a while over a stew and a glass of wine before I headed home.

It was on one of these evenings that I took a wrong turn in the dark somewhere on the way back to the city. The students had seemed a bit unresponsive earlier in the day and I was mulling over the question of whether they were the ones to blame – as any academic can tell you, some crops of incoming students are more promising than others -- or whether I had just been doing this for so long that other people were catching on to the fact that I was maybe getting a bit tired of it by now. My colleague had seemed a bit subdued as well; he hadn’t mentioned retirement but I suspected that the eventuality probably wasn’t far from his mind. There had been rain as I drove up but it had ended by late morning; the sun had steamed the moisture off the lawns but a few puddles still remained in the low places. I don’t know how I mistook my course, a moment’s inattention I suppose, as I knew the roads in that part of the Berkshires well and made a point of never drinking enough to affect my judgment. It was a darker night than usual, with no moonlight and little traffic, and maybe a sign had been knocked down or removed since the last time I drove that way. There aren’t many landmarks on the back roads, just miles of green woods broken by cornfields and the occasional mailbox, and so it was a while before I realized that I had gotten off my regular route. I was a little annoyed at myself but not alarmed; I had a full tank and I figured that eventually I’d come to a town or an intersection I recognized.

I was only doing about forty-five at this point. There were a lot of twists and turns and ups and downs in the road, and there was always the chance of a deer blundering out of the woods. After five miles or a bit more the gloom of the overhanging woods began to thin out on my left side, and I realized that I was driving along the edge of a body of water – not just a pond but a good-sized lake from the look of it. My headlights picked up the brown rippling of waves along the surface. I vaguely remembered there being a lake on the map in the area – it had a long Indian name I couldn’t come up with -- though it was off the main drag and I didn’t think I'd ever actually seen it before. I knew it was long but quite narrow from east to west, and that if I just skirted its shore I would come out into familiar territory in due time. I passed a tiny hamlet – really just a gas station and bait shop, set in a cluster of four or five clapboard houses, all with darkened windows -- and a mile beyond that the road split. There were no signs; the apparently less traveled thoroughfare – I was no Frost fan but the inevitable allusion popped into my head nonetheless – lay off to the right and up an incline, and I quickly dismissed it as a secondary road and bore to the left, keeping to the shore. It was only after driving another three or four miles, as the roadway seemed to narrow and the weeds on the shoulder grew more and more obviously untended, that I suspected I had been mistaken, and that the road I chosen led out to some uninhabited peninsula I didn’t remember from the map.

The barrier appeared suddenly, just around a bend. Luckily I had just slowed, having that moment determined to turn around and backtrack to the fork in the road, or I might have struck it. It was just a couple of wooden crosspieces, painted with black and yellow stripes and set on steel posts sunk in concrete disks; there was a single dangling battery-operated lantern, not that it cast much light. The road surface beyond seemed drivable enough, though creepers had begun to encroach on the edges and a few weeds poked through. I suspected there might be a bridge further on that had been dismantled or condemned as unsafe, never to be rebuilt for lack of funds or just because it was no longer deemed to be worth the trouble. It struck me there was something about the scene I didn’t like. It seemed to resuscitate memories from an impressionable period of my childhood, of watching war movies with roadblocks manned by grim helmeted soldiers who rode motorcycles with sidecars, things like that. I stopped the car and got out – the truth was that at this point I needed to empty my bladder – but left the engine running and the lights on, figuring that since I hadn’t seen another car for at least twenty minutes there was little danger of being rear-ended.

I stepped around the barrier and saw that there was a little path leading down to the shore of the lake, which I had lost sight of in the woods moments before but which now lay just twenty paces off. Above the lake there was a patch of lawn on an artificial embankment, though there was no sign of a house or any other building nearby, and I rested there for a moment. The air was warm and calm; on the far side of the lake there were some distant lights, but not many. A bullfrog bellowed not far away, then another, and I heard what sounded like falling water a little further down the shore. I picked my way in that direction, climbing over dead branches, mossy stones, and brambles, until I could get a better view. A few yards further out the lake's edge was bordered with a crescent of neatly dressed stone. Glowing faintly in the night, it topped a spillway through which the lake overflowed; to my great surprise I saw a lone human figure – it was a man, I could see, in spite of the darkness -- standing at the exact center of the crescent, his back turned toward me. He was about my height and I thought about my age, and wore a fedora and a brown coat that was much too heavy for the time of year, even at this hour. He was staring down into the stream that flowed out of the bottom of the chute some twenty feet or so below him. He hadn’t noticed my approach – or gave no sign of having done so – but just as I saw him begin to lean – too far for safety – over the edge of the spillway I shouted at him and he started and turned in my direction.

Though I couldn’t quite make out the man's features, what I did see filled me with terror. I won’t attempt to describe the lifeless, inhuman horror that peered out from under the brim of that dark felt hat, but I can see it in front of me now as clearly as I did at that moment, and will bear that awful memory to my grave. The figure took first a tentative step then several determined strides towards where I stood. I backed away, shaking with fear, and was about to turn and make a run for it when something called out of the dark waters of the lake.

When I say that it called I don’t mean to say that I heard it; there was no sound, at most there was only the opening of a hollow in the silence where a sound might have been, but the figure bearing down on me heard the summons, as if beckoned by a lover, and instantly froze in his tracks. He cocked his head towards the lake and listened; the call was repeated and he turned sharply and walked down to the water’s edge. To my astonishment, instead of stopping there he kept going, striding forward at the same pace, until the water rose up around him and he leaned into it and began to swim. For a moment or two, as he swam out towards the deepest part of the lake, I could make out the sound of his limbs breaking the surface; then there was utter stillness except for the burping of the frogs.

I don’t know why I didn’t immediately run back to my car, but somehow I knew the danger was past. I stood on the shore for a while, staring out into the blackness above the lake, until I thought I heard something moving at my feet. I knelt down; it was the man’s fedora, being gently nudged ashore by the lapping of the waves. I left it where it lay.

I turned my car around, eventually found the main road, and returned home without further incident. That winter my colleague passed away unexpectedly after a brief illness. His replacement was a younger man I had never met, and I was never invited back to campus to speak to his class.

1 comment:

zoe said...

oh, super, super creepy. awesome!