The Lord of the Lake
Part One

By: N.D. Coley

September 20, 1964,

Dear Kaitlyn,

You know I have been so sick recently, and I thank you for asking how I am. I am better, but I still have coughing fits that leave me shaken and exhausted. Have you ever coughed so much that force of it squeezes your back and crushes your spine? I tingle all over and find it so hard to breathe, but I manage.

On the advice of my doctor, Dad has taken me to the lake that he used to go to as a child, the one surrounded by pines so thick and dense that you can only get to the water by way of a long and winding dirt road. I do not think he ever spoke to you about the place, did he? I know he is your favorite uncle and considers you as his own. He always wanted a daughter, and as for me, I always wanted a sister.

Dad talked of Lake Pike like it was something out of Thoreau–something so wonderful that it could hardly be described: waters wide and calm and still, like a piece of glass spread over the ground. Pines tall and green and lush. A place with no light pollution, where the night sky, in an evening without clouds, is filled with so many stars that it is almost impossible to take your eyes off of them. If you came to this place, he said, and closed your eyes and paid attention, you'd realize that the silence was so heavy that it was almost like a sound of its own, save for the occasional cry of a bird.

I do not know if his memory is playing tricks on him, but Lake Pike was not at all like this when we arrived. The pines were tall but scraggly, as if some disease had been choking them for the past hundred years. Since we've arrived there has been a cold and harsh wind over the waters, which are not calm at all but choppy, as if the lake were filled with thousands of razor blades, all bobbing up and down in the water at once, and the water is not a soft grey at all, but a deep black. If someone told me Lake Pike had never recovered from some oil spill, I would believe it.

It is a terrible place. I hope that you never come here.

When we arrived, we made our way, with canvas bags of equipment, sacks filled with canned goods and sleeping bags and lanterns and fishing poles, along the shoreline until we found the old dock and cabin that he talked about so much. It was nothing to look at it or write home about.

The cabin here is a shell of a home–the roof leans to one side. Fragments of plywood patch holes in the windows and shingles, and the whole thing looks, well, soaking wet, as if a storm had taken it away a long time ago, swallowed it up, and spit back onto the shore. It is a heaping, soggy mess. When Dad is asleep, and I can't stand the smell of rot and mildew any longer I take my sleeping bag outside and double up on blankets and rest on the porch. The winds that tear across that lake are cold and vicious, but I'd rather feel those winds on my neck than have the smell of that cabin crawl up my nose.

Still, the air outside has done wonders for my coughing. The air is clear and, unlike anything else here, feels fresh and inviting. I'm grateful for that, though we will soon run out of food as we have not caught a single fish, and I tell you this: I don't think there is a single living thing in this lake. If you cast a fishing pole long enough you can tell when the fish are feeding and when they are simply being stubborn, and you can tell when there is nothing at all.

There is nothing in this lake. If something lived in it once, it is gone now.

Two days after we arrived, Dad and I sat, watching the bobbers in the water rise and fall over the waves. He stood and told me he was going to prepare a fire for what would be our first catch. He said this with no irony. He was confident and still is, but I know better.

As I sat, alone, I noticed an object underneath the dock. The waves lapped against the object, which had a faint shine to it. I took a close look and realized that it was a bottle, corked at the top, resting against the planks of the wooden pathway. The bottom of it was jammed into the mud good and hard, and I had to submerge myself up to the knees and push against the side of the dock to get enough power to bring the bottle free.

The cork was not so hard to get off. I popped it and it went over my shoulder and was swallowed up in the waves. I looked into the bottle, and there, inside, were some rolled up fragments of paper. They were chipped at the sides, with blotches faded away by the sun, but the writing was still there. I could still read it.

You have always been so brave, Kaitlyn, and you know that I just put on an act. I am as scared of the dark and the unseen things in it as you and anyone else is but do this for me. Read the following message with the lights on and leave your lights on as you go to sleep. I've written it as best I can, but even a little mistake on my part could not make any of this any less awful.

Yours Truly,
Gerald

September 20, 1872,

Father,

This collection of diaries is for your eyes and yours alone. I am sure that you have heard of my absence from the University, and for this I can only offer a weak apology. You are more than aware that I would rather have a tombstone fastened to my boots and heaved into the sea before I would find myself resigned to a life of bookkeeping, trapped behind a desk, in pursuit of the highest positions among the bankers and the lawyers. Such stations are well enough for you, but I will not spend my mortality so that someone might call me sir or esquire.

You might recall that, as a little boy , you would often presume that I had gone missing or snatched up by some scoundrel on the road, only to find me late in the evening, hidden in away in the shipyards, my eyes glued to the finest carpenters and craftsmen of water bound vessels. I studied every move of the men who worked from dawn and through dusk and into the dark of night. I watched eagerly as men, hard and rough and focused, chewed on the nubs of cigars while they cut and hammered away. I took perfect notes in my mind as to lengths of types of wood and rope and sealant, and I fell positively in love with the idea of making my own way in this enterprise.

Is there anything so glorious as a perfectly constructed ship, born from the mind of a single person, built to defy the laws that make everything else sink and drown? I have no particular aspiration to be God, and yet I cannot help but think that there is nothing with such purpose and grandeur than that of a shipbuilder.

And yet I am not the fool that you must certainly figure me to be. I know that this kind of life is wrought with its own calamity, and that those who aspire to build and sail must assume a path much more likely to end in drowning, malnutrition, or perhaps even murder at the hands of some band of pirates. There is something to be said of the notion that a shipyard and a graveyard vary only in their spellings. I had seen so many men set foot on a vessel and never return, only to be replaced by a batch of builders and sailors with equal parts hope and delusion. I had many a nightmare in which I woke up in a watery grave or in the bowels of some of some ship, my skin blackened with disease and my lungs filled with toxic phlegm.

I was, at one point, almost resolved to give up and resign my fate to the schoolhouses, but I happened to be hidden near a group of men who had retired to a round of late-night merriment. They huddled around a table, lit by a single lantern in the middle, and they pounded their beer steins up and down as they talked of a means of learning from the most proficient and talented craftsman who ever lived. The myths around the man varied wildly. One fellow claimed that the craftsman was centuries old–someone who had seen Atlantis itself. Another insisted, through slurs of intoxicated anger, that the craftsman had been the very designer of the ships that were to rescue Helen from the confines of Troy. Others said that the builder was just a man, but an extraordinary and eccentric one at that.

They all referred to him as simply, "The Lord of the Lake," and it was through him, they said, one could go to learn the trade in a kind of sanctuary, without having to wade through the filth of the shipyards or undertake menial jobs that were more akin to death sentences than work. I watched as one of these men, a fat imp of a man with a round belly and a white beard, reached into a satchel and produced something that looked like a map. They all began to whisper softly, and they darted their eyes about as if someone were listening.

I do not know how long I sat there before, as I sat in the rafters in my own act of espionage, the door to their hideaway exploded in a cloud of black smoke. The furniture shook, and the lantern on their table tumbled to the ground and went dim, and through the smoke and the dying light I could see a succession of shadows, of invaders. I distinctly heard the sounds of shoving and grunting and followed by the wet and cruel sound a knife makes when it sinks into a throat. I heard this last sound repeatedly, and it mixed with overlapping gurgles. One body collapsed, and then another, and then another. Like a frightened spider I had made myself small and would have appeared dead to any passerby. I lay still, and as the smoke and dust cleared and rose to the rafters, tightening my throat and pulling tears from my eyes, moonlight entered the area where the door to the room had once been.

Five men, tall and burly, stampeded away, sacks of gold coins clanging over their shoulders. Their victims lay on the floor, mostly still. One man convulsed for a moment, spit out a glob of blood, and joined his motionless companions. A cat pranced among the bodies, licking the wounds on their necks, and I pressed my hands against my mouth and swallowed a clump of my own vomit.

And it was then I fixed my eyes on the table where the men had conspired only moments ago. For there, in the center, was the map–the instructions to where I might find the Lord of the Lake. The thieves had not taken it.

I held onto these instructions for many years, Father, and occasionally visited them as a means of inspiration, as a reminder that I would not have my own way in life defined by the schoolmarm or the university lecturer. I returned to the shipyards at night when I could, though the truth of it is that I was leery of doing so after the slaughter.

I did, in moments where there were crowds and daylight and felt safe, inquire among the markets of the shipyard to see if so and so knew of this Lord of the Lake, but my inquiry was always met with harsh rebukes or silent and disinterested shakes of the head. I inquired not to learn information about the Lord, but to determine if anyone would also be in search of my prized possession. But there was never a word, and I was never pursued. I was, it seemed, the only soul alive who knew of the map's existence. This lord, this icon, whomever he was, was not much of a legend beyond his own circle. This thought presented me with some relief, and I counted down the days to where I would seek out this master of the trade myself.

I cannot wait for you to read over these entries, Father. When you do read them, I implore that you do not think less of me, your only son, but I am all too aware of how such a petition is unlikely to travel from your head to your heart.

~Roger

October 7, 1872,

Years passed between the time I found the map and pressed on to manhood. I did, indeed, venture off as if the university were the end of my journey, but I departed from the train well before my destination. I shall not say where I got off and in which direction I went from there, but I was never lost for an instant.

The map I spoke of in my previous entry was true down to the very last detail. I descended from the train and, selling the last of my valuable belongings and fine school clothes at a nearby market, purchased a horse and moved ahead with almost no possessions on me-- a blank stack of pages, a pen and some ink, an empty glass bottle, and a canteen. I made my way through dense woodlands in search of the main artery on the map and find it I did. The trail looked as if it had not been disturbed by human footprints for quite some time.

The trail terminated at a lake, one as grand as I have ever seen. It gave off a perfect reflection of the surrounding tree line and sun and clouds. The lake looked as if creation had folded over neatly and covered the waters like a blanket. If I were a man of the visual arts, I would render a painting of this image and send it to you straightaway.

I guided my horse down the remainder of the trail and along the shoreline. I dismounted, removed my shoes, and allowed the waters to come in and over my toes. The coolness of the lake water felt lovely, and I dipped my canteen and took a hearty drink. Water spilled down my chin and onto my neck, and as I exhaled with delight and gazed ahead, I saw that which I had not even seen in my dreams. There was dock, a structure set out at least seventy-five yards over the water, and it was surrounded by ships, vessels of all kinds of sizes, marvelous tributes to carpentry and craftsmanship. They ranged from small boats, fitted with oars, designed for solitary recreation, to vessels high and towering, with layers of sails spun from the finest and sturdiest of fabrics. It was clear to me that some of these outfits were quite oversized for the lake, meaning that they were there as a pure exhibition of talent. I had arrived at the only university for which I would ever have need.

I fixed the lid back on my canteen as a hand clamped on my shoulder. Next to me there stood a man, tall and broad shouldered, with a flat, even chin and perfectly curled mustache. He wore simple brown clothes, worn but not tattered, with a pair of solid black boots. His hair was brown and long and tied off in the back. He looked upon me with sharp eyes, perhaps the truest eyes as I had ever seen in another soul.

"Well!" he said with a smile, "I don't believe we were expecting anyone today, but here you are! With whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?"

"Call me Roger," I said, "and me being here? Well this is more of an accident, really, you see–"

"Bah! Friend there ain't a soul out there who gets this far, to this place, by accident."

"No, I said. "You're right. But forgive me. You are?"

"Ah, Smithton. Call me Smithton. It's not my real name but it may as well be. Call a man by a name for long enough and it matters not what his parents scribbled into the record. I, Roger, am Smithton."

"Good to meet you, now if I might ask–"

"Ah the Lord of the Lake! Yes of course–"

"How did you know I–"

"Bah and enough! It's all anyone comes here for. Oh, all the craftsmen here dismount, doe-eyed like you, their mushy little brains seeping with plans and creativity and a sense of wonder, but they call come for the same thing. To meet the man himself. Meet him you will. Come this way now!"

And so, I followed.

To Be Continued…

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