The Lord of the Lake
By: N.D. Coley
At length, Smithton led me past the docks, through a cornucopia of the finest designs ever assembled by human hands, around a bend in the shore and to a structure that, though put together by nothing but simple, evenly cut logs, was so vast in its design that it would have made the Gothic architects blush. It was a mansion of carpentry, dotted with windows that looked more like eyes built to guard the lake. It was a face with a hundred stares. As we proceeded towards the structure, the sunset and disappeared beneath the lake and the trees. One by one, as if synchronized, each eye in this castle lit up, one lamp after another, until it looked like a tower of fireflies. It all sat, perfectly still, as a painting against the black and purple night sky.
Soon we came to a set of double doors, some ten or twelve feet tall, and these doors opened slowly. Within them, I saw sights that would have rivaled the greatest renaissance depictions of Carnival. Before me were some two hundred men, all engaged in work that resembled play more production. They spread out over a common area, lined with cobblestones, with a stage in the center, decorated with a red and yellow curtain. To my left, I viewed a scaffolding, where half a dozen men sawed and hammered their way about, piecing together a sailboat. They tossed hammers and nails and buckets as if playing a game of catch in a schoolyard, and they laughed and sang a tune that at once made me wish to sing along as well.
To my right stood a tent, and in that tent was a man, tan and lanky, with a bald head and a maroon-colored suit. He scribbled lines and numbers over a large piece of canvas, spitting his words, yelling instructions with precision and joy. A crowd of spectators raised their hands and cheered, and at moments they seemed to sway, almost in unison, as if enraptured by some brand of religious service.
Straight in front of me, two companies of men emerged from the curtain on the stage, marching with the crispness of the most disciplined of armies. They were dressed in the vain colors and baggy outfits of court jesters, with conical caps on their heads. Each had a trumpet tucked under an arm, and at once, they raised the trumpets and punctured the air with their noises. It was as a triumphant sound as I had ever heard, and as they played, they danced, their shoes clacking on the wood beneath them. A cloud of purple smoke went poof, as if from nowhere, in the center of the stage, and as the cloud rose and dissipated, I saw what must have been the man, this legend, this god, this Lord of the Lake.
He stood, triumphantly, adorned in a purple hat with a white plume in the back. He wore a coat of a matching shade, with longitudinal white stripes that went from breast to ankle. His boots with long and black, with a shine so perfect that I think I saw my own reflection in them, far away as I was. The Lord of the Lake spread his arms and thrust his palms out and flat, and the tradesmen around me were instantly silent. All eyes were on the Lord.
He descended the platform and, in a deliberate step, approached me. He looked to his right and to his left to make sure that he had the attention of all.
"Welcome, welcome!" He said. "Roger, is that correct? Roger welcome. Welcome to this lake. This glorious place of talent, where all come to ostensibly learn from me but find out the nature of their own identities in the process. This place, this haven, is for you. I have arranged for a workshop of your own to be set up in the northeastern part of the quadrant. Smithton will see to it that you have an abundance of supplies, as well as more food and drink than your belly could possibly contain. You will get to your work straight away, with no delay, and report to me as soon as you have something presentable. I am not here to populate your brain with my own glory but to view what you do and respond with kindness. This is the proper way of things."
At once, there went up a cheer all around me, as if every last soul in the commons had been expecting my arrival and not been disappointed in the slightest. I looked into the eyes of this man, this Lord, and I found myself paralyzed, incapable of formatting a meaningful response by mouth or by gesture. Perhaps sensing this, Smithton put his arm around mine and led me in the direction of my workstation, and as he did so, I looked back and over my shoulder. A man, as frail and sickly as I had ever seen among the likes of such tradesmen, had occupied the attention of our host. He unrolled a scroll and made exaggerated gestures to the Lord, and in a second, the briefest of moments, it seemed to me that our host not only frowned but scowled. I turned my attention and then back to the Lord and the man, but the Lord and the man were gone. It was then that I reflected on the source of my earlier dismay. When I had, just moments ago, gazed into the eyes of the legend I had sought so much, I realized that I hardly saw eyes at all, but two black circles, voids that communicated nothingno ideas, no emotion, nothing. Nothing at all.
I am not a man often given to nightmares and the fancies that come from dreams, and unlike many, I ascribe little to that which my mind does, without my consent, as I sleep. But that night, I had such visions that I cannot simply ascribe them to the random and unfettered musings of my brain. Here is how things came about in this dream. I woke, feeling cold and wet from some night sweat, and I stood and proceeded to walk quickly, out of my quarters, through the quiet and darkened common area, and out to the docks. The ships fettered to them, which had in my waking hours felt impressed me as masterful acts of carpentry, were now the objects of scorn. The ships were no longer symmetrical and upright but off tilt and half-sunken. Their parts were cartoonish and grossly out of proportion, and there appeared to be faces carved into the front of each ship, visages I had not noticed before. Each face was different, but in some strange way, quite the same, with mouths wide open, dotted with crooked, gangly teeth.
At once there was a great wind, and the ships were swaying from side to side as if they were part of some Hellish ritual, and out in the lake, beyond the end of the dock and the cluster of ships, a silhouette rose from the waters, and outline completely filled in with black that was blacker than night, and it was clear this shape was some terrible thing, some creature or beast summoned from the depths. It flailed half a dozen tentacles, sending the waters into a fit of rage. At once, the vessels around me rose up and sank, one by one, and I realized that the dock was disappearing beneath my feet, a plank at a time, and as things move swiftly in dreams, I had no time to react before the planks beneath my feet were gone. I was pulled into the waters, and as I sunk below the surface, I gasped for air (as one always does in a dream) and saw the face of the beast, set in the trunk of its body, dead center in the lake. The face was only this: A single, red-eye, and as I looked into it, I felt the tentacles come around my legs and chest and face, and if I could have screamed, I would have, but there was only the sensation of crushing and drowning.
I woke and tumbled from my cot, tearing for the nonexistent arms around my frame, spitting out water that was not in my lungs. I gathered myself and stifled a scream and hobbled over to the window of my quarters. I lit a candle and rested against the window and peered down into the common area, which should have been empty, but was not.
In the center, there stood a man, and I was sure that it was the scraggly man from before, the one for whom the Lord had delivered a calculated and unrelenting scowl earlier in the day. The man stood, his hands tied behind his back by a heavy-gauge rope. He was surrounded by half a dozen men on either side, each one holding a torch. Each torched flickered and cast shadows of the shapes, making monsters of their frames along the walls of the commons.
One of the cloaked men stepped forward and removed his hood, revealing himself to be none other than that of the Lord. He stood over his captive, arms crossed, and in a moment that was swift and cold, pointed towards the towering wooden doors of the commons. This was all the cloaked figures needed. At once, they scooped up the poor soul and carried him to the gate, much like a procession of pallbearers delivers a casket to its earthly home.
I blew out my candle and slumped against the wall, shivering, my thoughts turning over on other thoughts, and in the moments that followed, I could have sworn that I heard a sound, much like that in my dream, a mix of a roar and a wail, perhaps the tone of some best. It rose and fell and was silent.
For my part, I did not rest that evening. I lit the candle again and sat, my eyes fixed on the door to my chambers as if waiting to be taken away in kind.
The events of the days that followed left me feeling positively weak and hungry, drained of my energies and my aspirations. The merriment that greeted my arrival was met with a mood, a feeling so unlike that of my entrance upon the place that onlookers would have scoffed, and perhaps rightly so, at the jubilance of my first procession.
Oh, the men in the commons worked, from the dawn of the morning until the lake swallowed the sun, but they did so not as the population of a vibrant carnival. Day by day there were fewer smiles among them, and there was no joyful tossing of hammers and nails, and though I looked for signs of enthusiasm and triumph, all I could see were dirty, tired faces, countenances so worn that they made the scoundrels in my home shipyards look positively rapturous. The days went by, long and cold, with clouds hovering about, and they're always seemed to be a gentle rain of sorts.
It was some weeks in that I noticed two developments, two realities so stark that my soul was struck with a terror and brooding that linger to this very moment. The creations of the tradesmen never made it to the docks; there were no new ships, no new triumphs to behold, and as I took note of this, it occurred to me that there was, in the middle of each night, in those moments where the darkness fights like the Devil to avoid the morning, a horrible smell, like that of corpses burning. There was always a fire going near the compound, outside the walls and in a corner, where the garbage of tradesmen constantly burned, and I could not put it out of my mind that it was not just the rubbish that went into the flames, but the labors of love of the craftsmen themselves. I wish I could displace this thought from my mind, but it is was there and still is to this day, and it will not be shown the door.
And I also noticed this: There were fewer men each day, perhaps one or two missing one moment, and half a dozen the next, and though I never had the courage to look out from my window after the first night, know that I could not mistake the wails that entered my chambers, each evening, as anything other than this: some monster in the lake, something towering and black and hungry, and I do believe that it always had something to eat.
For my part, I had built nothing just yet but had spent my time drafting plans upon plans, waiting patiently as a good apprentice does, for the right time to strike at the opportunity and impress the Lord (whose presence, I should note, I had not seen since the first day).
And so it came to be that one night, only some hour before the lake would see the sun, that I ventured out to the dock for some fresh air and sat, reading over my plans, brooding on my next move. The days had become weeks and the weeks turned into months, and before long time had turned into a blur for me, a meaningless collage of sunrises and sunsets and wails, where men disappeared, and people did not speak, all with no appearance from the Lord of the Lake. Also: I had not had the pleasure of talking to Smithton since we first met, and I fear that he has departed this place without ceremony.
I sat on the dock, my feet dangling over the water, certain that nobody was left, that I was as Ishmael from Melville's grand tale, a lone survivor. I had taken a lantern with me then, and I arose and walked up and down the dock, inspecting each vessel carefully, and that is when I noticed the most terrible thing of all; each boat, from the smallest oared ship to those with the grandest of sails, each and everyone was inscribed with the initials of the Lord. They were all his creations. Not a single one floated that was not, from top to bottom, his own conception.
My breathing quickened, and as I backed up and made to leave, my own plans tucked under my arm, my shoulders were halted. I felt the plans slide out from under me, and I turned to see the Lord, towering there, his eyes black and unforgiving, the plume from his hat swaying in the wind. His face studied the scroll, up and down, and as his eyes moved, they narrowed, and his mouth morphed into a scowl. He shook one finger, slowly, in condemnation, and uttered but one thing to me:
"No. This is not the way of things. You may excuse your presence now."
But excuse it, I would not and could not. I summoned up whatever strength this place had not sucked out of me and snatched the plans, breaking into a run, and it was a moment later that I realized that I had not been running in the direction of land, but the cold and unforgiving waters of the lake. I halted myself just as I reached the precipice, and that’s when I heard the boots of the Lord pounding behind me. They quickened and grew louder, and I turned to see this Lord, this man, this lunatic and Devil, heading straight for me. In a moment built on instinct, in a move that was certainly not calculation, I held the plans to one side and dangled them.
The Lord rushed at them as a bull goes for the taunt of a red cape, and as he approached, I drew them up and to the side. The Lord flung his arms and missed and plunged into the drink.
There was silence, and from the depths, I heard those very wails and moans and roars, deep and even in tone, erupt from the waters. They lasted for several moments and went still, and I looked into the surface at the center of a lake and saw this: A large, ornate hat, torn and crumpled and soaked, with a white plume decorating the top.
I have no shame for what proceeded this; none at all. I knew that I was the last living soul in this place. I sat on the dock and finished my account, this very one, which will be secured in a bottle so that it is safe for your reading, and I scoured the grounds for an unlit torch and found not one, but two and three and four, and I lit them in the garbage consuming fires outside the compound walls, and oh I had no shame as I flung torches into the boats along the dock, and along the walls and about the commons and the workstations. Soon the night was brighter than the day, and the remnants of this empire were hotter than the fires of Hell itself. I trust Heaven that I shall make it out of here alive, unharmed, and ready to build again.
September 26, 1964
That is the story. I am sure that I got some things wrong. The letter was not in good shape and difficult to read, but I tried. Nobody ever gets anything right, do they? Our lives are a collection of errors. We do the best we can, and we build the best we can, and we love the best we can. I am not sure that more can be asked of us, can it? If we can only do our best, I think patience should be the only true thing in the world. I thank you for being patient with me.
Dad and I are leaving today, and I glad to go. I am not a superstitious person. I have little patience for the idea of monsters or ghouls and ghosts, but I will say this: Since reading that letter, I have awoken, many times at night, to the cries of something awful in that lake; something dreadful and hungry, oh so very hungry. I am sure that nothing lives there, but I can’t be too sure, I guess. I only know that if the Lord of the Lake is there, or something even worse, that these waters are where I want it to stay.
I will see you soon, cousin.