Published on February 7th, 2013 | by Melanie Bell0
Fiction: Cygnet Lake by Melanie Bell
“The old man spoke of her.” Lily’s fingers tugged at my sleeve.
“Huh?” I blinked, clutching my World History textbook. How dare my odd roommate come storming in when the Mayans had just begun their first temple! “Spoke of who?”
“The ghost, of course,” Lily said. “I found him in the library after French class, checking his e-mail. Lucky thing, really. He’s hardly around.”
Lily’s hands twitched, fingers sweeping out and curling in. Like her words, they couldn’t keep still.
“So, what did he say about the ghost?” I prompted. “Does he see her from time to time, walking across the lake, dressed in white?”
“Oh, Jay,” she scoffed. “This is not some old wives’ tale. The woman existed — it’s on record. Her name was Elizabeth James, and she never wore white. The old man knew her. He said she always dressed in some fiery color –crimson or orange or gold. She was like a butterfly, he said, fluttering from flower to flower, drinking a little from each, never sure of where to land. I wonder, did she want to?”
Her eyes darkened in her slight pale face, two black whirlpools drawing further and further in. Quiet Lily, who I had known since kindergarten, third in our class, always on time, dishes always washed and neatly put away. Her eyes would drown me.
“Tell me, Jay, what would it feel like to die in that lake?”
Oh, God. “Cold, I suppose.”
She ignored me, her hands feverish again. A hand seized my shoulder. “We should go out there. Visit the lake tonight.”
Rain was falling, heavy as hailstones, wind rattling against the window.
“Tonight? What would we do a stupid thing like that for?”
“To know, of course. To feel what it might be like for her when she walks.”
“Lily, I have to finish this chapter on the history of South America.”
A week from now, of course. She knew me too well.
And I had come to know her — not the kitten she first appeared to be, but a landslide. There was no reasoning with a girl who would sit in her room for days, not studying sensibly as I did but writing and dreaming with broken-hearted eyes, then emerging suddenly to carpet the tabletop with candles and rearrange the furniture.
Landslides make their own way.
We ran through puddles, tore across weeds. On the sidewalk, our feet beat a frenzied counter-rhythm to the rain.
Lily’s dark curls were plastered in ropes to her face by the time we reached Cygnet Lake. It was a sad-looking place, with a few tufty bushes huddling at its edges — to mimic a fairytale forest, I suppose. Legend is, the swans fly in every spring from the south, carrying their young on their backs.
The truth is that the swans’ eggs are mail-ordered from a nearby zoo. The cygnets are hatched in an incubator deep in the bowels of the biology department, hand-raised and subsequently transplanted.
“Look at how the raindrops make ripples on the lake,” sighed Lily. “They’re like pebbles, but they join the water instead of sinking.”
“Does the ghost join the water, too, or does she sink?”
“Shut up, Jay, you’re ruining the mood!”
For a girl, Lily sure slaps hard.
“They called her Liza,” her voice slipped into a storyteller’s rhythm. “Elizabeth was too stiff a name for someone like her. She danced like a wild thing, tearing and whirling across the ballroom floor, greeting each man with laughter, then turning away with a haughty toss of her mane. She lived to live. Not once did you see her still.”
I recalled a worn volume on her bedside table: Ghosts of the 20th Century. She had been practicing.
The rain was slowing to a trickle. Two clouds had parted, allowing more light to emerge. The moon was a funny color — copper? Pink? Suddenly, her hand clutched my shoulder.
“Oh my God! Red moon . . . that’s when . . . that’s when she comes! Jay, do you know what this means? This is the night!”
I suppressed a shiver. “Uh-huh.”
“You’ve never seen a ghost before, have you?”
What kind of question was that? “Can’t say I have.”
The moonlight struck Lily’s face. So many nights, I’d heard her call out to a man who wasn’t there. I wondered if my words were true.
“What does she look like, this ghost?” I asked.
“Not like the others, not like a human form. They say she comes as a fire, blazing up the pathway from the red moon.”
The moon did cut a swath across the water. As I watched, its glow seemed to intensify. Whitish red, so bright it stung my eyes, even through the rain’s haze.
A cloud scudded across the moon. The wind rose up, whipping my wet bangs across my eyes. Blinking fiercely, I batted them away.
On the water, the glow remained. The wind tugged it upwards, coaxing it into shape. Whitish-red luminescence rose and danced on the lake.
Lily said nothing. What was there to say? Her fingers clung tightly.
Was it will-o’-the-wisp, with its clear red blaze? Bioluminescence scattered in the air? Whatever the substance, I was transfixed. Strands of it tugged looser, but somehow clung together in resistance to the wind. It shifted and whirled in a mad tango, its unearthly radiance mirrored on the water and marred by ripples of rain. There was something celebratory about the whole scene; something that spoke of life.
Would Liza James, party girl that she was, have loved the foxfire? Most likely. What had Lily said? She always dressed in some fiery colour. She lived to live.
I glanced over at Lily. Her face glowed faintly red through curls tossing wildly. Her lips parted in a whisper.
“See her? See how restless she is? Searching for something she can never find. So close to a world she can never touch again.”
The Mayans worshiped Venus, built an empire around a god who was nothing more than an object in the sky. Others worshiped Mars with its reddish light.
Reddish light mirrored in eyes that saw, as the ancient Mayans did, the divine in the mundane. Wet eyelashes batting hard. A strand of red tears.
“It can’t be right,” I said, “to spend all those nights mooning over something you can’t have.”
“It can’t be right to spend all your nights buried in a world of words,” she hissed, “refusing to take a chance. Refusing to live.” I felt her head fall on my shoulder, her curls like wet silk against my face.
The thing about landslides is they’re dangerous. They come without warning and rivet you in place. Somehow when you’re caught in their spell, with pieces of the world raining down around you, you find yourself transfixed in the heart of the chaos.
Maybe all we needed was to hold each other harder, curled like vines in the Mayan jungle, as the fire stilled and melted in the lake.
Featured image courtesy of The Knowles Gallery.