this is the first drafty thing of my newest story. unless i come up with something better, it's one of my two major english projects. it needs a bit of work and some expanding, and a more creative title but otherwise its good. it makes a decent story as it is now, though it seems to me to favor lovecraft a bit.
It has an odd flow because it's meant to be read like it was a story being told verbally, so there's an intentional lack of focus, and it skips around and sometimes tells the same part of the story several different times in different ways with different (but hopefully not contradictory) details.
THE LAKE IN THE MOUNTAINS
“…Fade to black, the stars come out,
But no tiny speck of light
Reflects from off the waters
After the fall of night
If you could see, you could not tell;
It would already be too late-
In a way, the lake is alive
And aware enough to feel hate….”
I remember that night very well. Every sound, every sight, every tiny detail burned into my mind so that I see the lake when I close my eyes. I see the full moon shining, so that you could see like it was day. I remember how the stars reflected on the black water’s surface, but the face of the moon would not; I remember the dead tree at the water’s edge; I remember the pale phosphorescence with which the bones that covered the shore glowed. They were far enough away that they looked like a greenish-white carpet, all the way around the lake, where the shore should have been.
I remember the sunset, when the red light from the swollen sun turned that lifeless, twisted trunk into a black silhouette, and how the single bird sang it’s strange, mournful song as it perched on a gnarled limb of that same dead tree. It flew away after a time, and there was silence as the light turned the carpet of bleached bones into a jumble of orange shapes and red shadows which seemed to bleed into the black water, for even in the daylight the lake was black as tar.
Of everything that I remember, the sounds are what I remember most, the sounds that were burned into my mind the deepest. There was the discordant, whistling, haunting melody of that mysterious fowl that perched upon the black branch as the sun set, and then later was the sucking sound the lake made as it flowed out of it’s basin, over the bones, around the base of that tree which the bird had surrendered with the sun. And then there were the screams, which did not continue for long.
It was two days before I would come down from the overlook I has spent the night on, two days before I would take that narrow, steep, thorny path down to the shore, which was the only way to descend from the height upon which I had hidden. It was another half a day before I could puzzle out enough of the jeep’s electrical system to start the engine. The keys had been with my friends, in the tent, and of neither was there any trace left at the campsite. The rest of the day was driving, as fast as the jeep would go through mud and rocks and on roads where there was scarce room to walk, and I have never been swimming since.
Here is how it happened. My friends and I, it’s strange that I remember their faces, their clothes, the sound of their voice, but cannot guess at their names for anything, we had taken a vacation in a remote part of the country. I won’t tell you where, so you can’t go looking for the place yourself, nor the name of the town for the same reason. But we had heard a local legend, a campfire story if you will told to frighten children, about a mountain lake where, instead of sand and rock, the shoreline was bones. And the shoreline was bone, too. There were all kinds; mostly animals, deer, wolf, even bear, and smaller rodents like squirrels and voles. There were skulls too, human skulls, but we figured they were put there by the locals in case any gullible tourists came a-checkin’ on their story. A good ghost story brings in the tourists, the scarier the better, and this town needed all the tourists it could get. They had done a good job, too, or so we thought at the time, and we had a good laugh about it.
But anyway, the locals swore blind that the lake was there, and in return for an especially large tip at the local house of food, lodging and possible prostitution we were rewarded with the location. “You leave when it starts getting dark” we were told, and we knew that’s how the story goes. Leave when it starts getting dark so your imagination has time to start working but you don’t stay long enough to see that nothing happens after all; no lake monster, no ghosts shuffling by with their chains, no headless lady appearing in the mirror. Leaving before dark was part of the story, and we planned to ignore it. We wanted our money’s worth.
The next morning we followed the directions we were given, and they were straightforward enough until we were away from what passed for civilization in those rural parts. Then the directions weren’t any good at all, but there was always only one way we could fit the jeep along, so we got on alright. It was bright and sunny and those cheery, annoying songbirds were singing and we were looking forward to seeing us a sight.
Well, it was takin’ us longer than we had expected but we were fine as far as distances went, so we didn’t worry. We had to get out and walk ahead, or push the jeep out of a particularly troublesome patch of mud because the way was often so narrow or rocky or twisting that we couldn’t go fast and had no idea what was coming up ahead or if we’d be able to turn around if there were to suddenly be an impassable obstruction, or the way simply closed up ahead of us.
We finally reached it shortly after noon, and it was just as it had been advertised to us. The water was thick and black and oily, and made a sticky plopping sound when the girl tossed one of the bones in. Oh, to be young again, but I haven’t been young since that night. And two more nights I spent over that lake, afraid to go near it or it might swallow me up too and leave my bones on its shore. But we were young then, all of us, or we wouldn’t have been there. And there was a girl with us, though I can’t remember her name. Sometimes it seems like there were three of us, sometimes four, sometimes just two. But when she threw that bone in it made that plopping sound and the bone floated on the surface for a few seconds before slowly sinking. It was like looking at a lake of dull oil, the worst oil spill you ever saw, way back in the middle of nowhere.
Well, we had it in mind to spend the night because we were young and the thought of uncertain anger excited us, and we secretly knew that we’d live forever. It was exciting, but we didn’t believe the story enough to take it seriously. It was true, though, and I only am escaped to tell thee.
We set up the tent in the open, between where the bones ended and the trees began. Nothing grew on or in the bones, and where they ended there was only tough, mongrel grass for yards more, and on this we set up the tent and built a fire so we’d have light to see nothing happen. I don’t remember the firelight, though. The fire wouldn‘t light before the lake got them, and after there was nothing left. The grass was gone too. Oh, it was still there, but it was dead and black and broken off just above the ground it grew out of.
After we set up the tent and generally made things ready to stay up all night sleeping, we looked at the bones. I don’t know what we were expecting, they were obviously bones. Perhaps we thought if we looked close, ‘made in China’ would be stamped on them. They were all real, though, and we took a stick and with it made a hole as deep as we could. We hit the sand about six inches down, but we never were able to get deep enough to where there were no more bones. We picked out a few of the skulls for souvenirs, none of them were crushed or broken, every bone was whole and white and clean, and we set them on a small log at the edge of the trees and took pictures of them. Where that camera is now I don’t know, it was in the tent that night. I had my camera with me because I climbed up there to take pictures of the sunset. Had I not I would not be telling you this, I would have gone with my friends and my bones would decorate the shore of that isolated mountain lake. But I climbed up there with my camera, and once the sun set it was too dark to climb back down again without light, and in my rush to get pictures taken while the taking was good I had forgotten to bring a flashlight. I sat down on a rock to think about things, which I often did in odd moments stolen through the day when I was alone, and I stared at the stars, and then the star’s reflection on the surface of the lake, and that was when I saw the water move.
Well, we had dinner, or what dinner can be cooked around a fire by suburban kids who don’t go camping and didn’t have time to read a book on the subject before buying what they thought would be appropriate food, but this was well before it got dark and so there was time to try again. We finished with some nameless concoction that looked and smelled a bit like vomit consisting mostly of beans, but once we got around to actually trying it, well, it wasn’t half bad. Whether it was actually edible or not I’ll never know, but we near convinced ourselves it was a gourmet meal and we ate all of it. After we were done we hung the pan on a tree, one of the living ones, and it must still be there today, still dirty and caked inside with burned beans. We were going to take it back with us the next day and find somewhere with proper water to clean it out decently but the lake got them, all except me, and I was beyond caring what happened to a cheap pan.
After that we threw a frisbee, and I remember someone throwing some of the bones and trying to knock it out of the air, It landed in the lake though and we took I took a long stick and fished it out, and out it came covered with black and brown slime, so we left it on the wiry grass and didn’t throw it anymore.
We walked around the shore of much of our side of the lake, between us all, but it a large lake, far larger than we were used to, and we didn’t want to risk loosing our footing in the failing light when it started to get dark and we couldn’t see where we put our feet in the uneven carpet of bones which would sometimes give or shift alarmingly, causing us to lose our balance. Everywhere, the shoreline was the same, and there was a smell, too, once we got downwind. It wasn’t even an unpleasant smell, not death or decay or anything you’d expect in a place like that; It was a sweet smell, like honey but sweeter, and faint. We never found out for certain, but I have no doubt that it emanated from the lake itself, in fact was the smell of the lake itself.
At one point, instead of forest, there was a high rock wall, rock and dark black clay, and in the clay were fossils, bones in great quantity but far older There were turritellas, ammonites, trilobites, all manner of fossil marine life, and there were actual bones, too, scarcely harder than the clay itself: big, ancient bones, fragile but pale white, and there was the single skull of an enormous creature but we couldn’t see enough of it to guess at whether it was reptile or mammal or anything else. There was a small, round recess in the black clay, like a tunnel going back as far as we could see but far too small to crawl into. There were no ferns, but the whole wall dripped with clear water, which ran into the lake in a small stream. Nobody had thought to bring a flashlight. It was cold though, and quiet. The cold went through your clothing even though there was no wind and you couldn’t see your breath, and all of us shivered, and the quiet of the place was the quiet you get in a cathedral, silence that is too silent to be natural even though there isn’t anyone around to deliberately be silent. We took pictures, all of us. Our fingers didn’t want to work, as sometimes happens when it’s cold, but the cameras worked fine and we got all the pictures we could ever want. Of course, the lake has them now, all but mine. But we took them and left, bones grating and crunching underfoot.
When we got back to the jeep there was a fog gathering at the far end of the lake and the sun was starting to set in dramatic fashion, so that for a moment we could bring ourselves to believe the stories. The last memory I have of the girl, the girl whose name I can’t remember, is of her holding one of the many skulls we’d found and reciting Shakespeare in archaic Englishe, the white shape resting in her hand like a crystal ball, her long blonde hair blowing in the light wind that had sprung up as evening deepened, the sky behind her painted like a manic artist’s canvas.
It was then I climbed to my perch above the lake to photograph the sunset, and there I still was when the lake took my friends.
The strange bird called out its mournful song and the stars came out, and the moon was bright, so that I could see the lake and the tent, and even pick out some of the larger bones.
There was a whispering, rustling sound and the waters stirred. I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me at first as I watched the water level rise, and then from the water’s edge, pseudo pods flowed out from the body of the lake and around the tent and my friends, completely encircling them. If I had said something sooner it may have been different, but I was too shocked at what I was seeing. I watched in a kind of horrible and fascinated disbelief, and when I yelled, when I screamed myself hoarse, it was already too late, and they were screaming too. When the black water flowed around them they fell or were pulled down, and the blackness flowed up and over them, and they did not scream anymore. It, the water, made a kind of plopping sound as it flowed, and once the water covered something I couldn’t see it anymore, just a mass of black ripples and turbulence, which smoothed over almost immediately. When it came to the tent it flowed over that, too, all the way over, and it just flattened out. I don’t know what became of the poles or the stakes anymore than my friends, but afterwards I saw there was nothing there, just short, blacked grass In a circle around where the campsite had been.
I heard that whispering and plopping sound around the base of the rock height that I was perched on, and had I not been so high I don’t know what would have become of me. There had been only one way up, and the sides were almost vertical, far too steep to climb even in the daylight. I could not have survived a jump.
So I waited, as the sounds grew louder. I can’t remember ever being so calm or numb. I recited the poem for us all, because I had nowhere to go and I believe that I must very soon follow my friends. Eventually, the poem goes, eventually,…
“There comes a time in the course of things
When the stub of the candle flares and dies,
When the ember goes dark and the thin column ceases to be;
The end of candles and incense
And, cold and dead, the remnants lie
And think: Did the fire die, or was it set free?
Whether this power lies with greater- or lesser- beings
In the progression of time, when the last petal falls,
When scent fades with the frost and the vine withers,
And is forgotten altogether to return to the earth
Does it serve the great cycle, or does it provide an end?
Wiser men than I have been found running with scissors,
Fall, and arise bloody; or lay there and bleed to death
So I don’t know about foolish choices and eventual perils.
Everything has it’s time eventually, it’s own hour
The candle, the fire, the man, the flower,
Days and dreams, and works of hand and heart and nature,
And what’s left in the end? That is the important part;
Every fire goes out; Someday every plant will die or wither,
Memories watch as time ticks away the past from the future
And who is to say if even love lasts forever?-
-But long enough for us.
Long enough for us, before our last”
“Long enough for us, before our last”, I recited, adding the line on the end where none had been before, because it seem to fit, and I had always appreciated the drama of the moment.
The girl had recited Shakespeare, and I recited a poem. And then there was silence, except for the plopping noise from below. The air smelled sickeningly of that too-sweet honey smell. The sound of the water, if it really was water, had a peculiar hypnotic quality to it, something that went past the ears and straight into the skull and sloshed around in there. It did something to me, messed with my head, made me feel cold.
Somehow, when dawn came I was still there, and no black water had flown up and over the height on which I was perched. But still I waited, expecting every moment to see the first tendril of liquid flow up and over the edge, but it never happened. The noises of the lake had gone away some time ago, how long I cannot say, but I sat there anyway, still expecting any moment to be my last. It was chilly and misty that morning, and I lay on my back and stared at the sky, hardly blinking, hardly breathing, never moving. I lay there all day and all the next night, and I heard the black waters flowing around the base of the rock, all night though I do not know whether the noise was real that night or in my head. I was in and out of sleep and I could not tell what was real from one moment to the next. I was not injured, but I tell you that as I lay there I was dying, and I would have died.
But the next morning that little bird came, the bird with the mournful song that had perched on the dead tree and sang at sunset. It sang at sunrise, and it flew down and pecked me on my face until I moved. It was a strange bird with an oddly-shaped green bill and it was black with sky-blue patches, though sometimes it seems like it was red, and other times blue and red. When I moved, it flew off and I have never since seen or heard of such a bird. But I got to my knees and when I did I saw the lake, and the bones and where the tent was, where my friends had been. And I saw, too, that the jeep was still there. The water didn’t move as I climbed down, slowly, carefully, trying to make as little noise as possible.
The sun was shining and it was a perfect day, and by the time I was able to get the jeep started I had been ready to take what money had been left in it and run for civilization. I looked in the manual, I’m ashamed to say, but it didn’t help me much and the damage I did trying to start it caused the entire steering column to have to be replaces, but I felt much better turning my back to the place with four walls around me, and it was better because the whole thing was moving away from it.
I remember the trip back as if it were a dream, which is to say that I remember it differently every time. I kept thinking I heard that plopping sound, or the whispering behind me, but I’m sure it was all in my head. Somehow I ended up back in the town in a daze and I didn’t eat or talk for days, until I woke up in a hospital. Awful place, hospitals, but I had been somewhere worse. Do you know they tried to give me coffee? But I saw what color it was and I threw the cup across the room. They cleaned it up, but until they did it looked like the dark liquid was flowing towards me and I screamed and cried and tried to climb the walls. And the doctors, none of them would believe me. They’d ask me “Why do you think that?” or ask if I could repeat my story, but one doctor, he was an elderly fellow and had come from that town, he knew the story but shook his head with the rest of them. But when we were alone he told me how lucky I was, how every now and then someone gets it into their head to go up there, and the only ones anyone ever sees again are the ones who come back before dark. The local police didn’t even investigate disappearances in that area anymore.
He helped me avoid an asylum, of that I have no doubt. A quite word here, advice there, a favor asked or owed, I don’t know what he had to do, but they had wanted to lock me up and throw away the key. I couldn’t blame them, really. But I was released, and I made it back home in one piece.
I say that I’m an old man. How old do I look? Twenty? Thirty? It can’t be much older, but inside, where it matters, I’m as old as those fossils. I have been since that night. I look in a mirror, sometimes, and I don’t recognize the face, because the face belongs to a kid. And my memory isn’t want it used to be, and sometimes I hear things. You don’t’ believe me, I can see it in your face. But I have pictures, if only I can remember what I did with my camera. I have pictures. I never developed them.
I have this, too. I was too frantic to stop for souvenirs, but this is the skull that girl held in her hand as she recited Shakespeare. I recognize it because one of the eye sockets was slightly smaller and more oval than the other. She must have put it in the jeep while I climbed up to get my pictures. I’ve kept it because as much as I want to be rid of the loathsome thing, I need something to prove to me every day that I’m really not insane. She held it like this, and that was the last I saw of her. That was the last I saw of any of them.
Don’t go prying, because I’ve told you too much already. And don’t go looking for that lake. It’s not worth your life or your sanity to try and prove me wrong.
Eric Atkinson, 29 October 2007