He was fascinated by the dark, black pools that bordered the trails they were walking. As his babbling family stretched ahead on the gravel path looping between the lakes, he found himself repeatedly falling behind as he paused on his haunches, staring into the water looking for nymphs and larvae.
The pools were perfectly still and surprisingly deep, fed by the slow seep of bogwater that came down from the mountains and eventually bled into the lakes. The ground everywhere, once you stepped into the grasses, was wet marsh and bog. The boy took a tall reed from the bank and pushed it far down into the waters, wanting to see if the depth was an illusion. The five feet of stem descended without resistance, but he couldn’t see whether he’d failed to touch the bottom or the reed had simply disappeared into loose peat below.
‘What are you doing looking in that water all day?’ asked his father. ‘Look at these views! Look at those lakes!’ pointing into the distance. This seemed unfair to the boy. Why was a lot of water more important than a smaller amount? Wasn’t it all nature? ‘There are no fish in those pools,’ said his father. ‘They’re dead. Stagnant.’ The boy knew this to be not entirely true; the waters looked empty and silent, true, but there were tendrils of pondweed growing from beneath the banks and small aphids dancing across their surface.
Low grasslands were broken by small, hilly copses, where the trees soaked up everything and created rich, green islands littered with mossy rocks that felt nothing like the surrounding marshes.
The boy had resisted the idea of a hike in the afternoon, but once out he found himself enjoying the transition between these worlds—from bright, overpowering sunshine into the cool air of early summer woodland. As soon as the he began to feel the sweat on his back they would enter another fresh forest, through which countless small streams and rivers ran clean and clear and unbelievably cold. He stopped often to wash his face or sip from a cupped hand. The bog holes on the flats did not appeal in this regard.
As they rounded towards what his parents informed him was the last stretch of their long circle, he paused again to look at a particularly large pool of dark water out among the grasses. It was further from the trail than the others he had examined, but also larger, with a few overhanging trees that suggested a greater permanence than the trailside ditches. He would have thought it more a lake, but for that there was no running water entering or leaving the perfectly still pool.
He walked out towards it, placing his feet carefully on the tussocks of grass so as to avoid the wet marsh. As he approached the pool he heard his father holler his name from somewhere up ahead, but he decided he had a minute or two’s grace. In the water ahead he could see only the reflection of the mountains, and it wasn’t until he was within a couple of feet that he began to see into its depths.
There was something white visible there, and as he leaned forward it moved suddenly, turning towards him and making him think of the fish in the lakes. There was a face under the water. A pale girl’s face with a mass of dark hair clouded around it like pondweed. The water around her was black and featureless, like a swimming pool filled with ink. The banks seemed completely sheer.
In one moment the boy decided that he had discovered a dead body, and turned in shock to shout for his parents, but before he could do so the girl’s eyes moved, and she looked directly at him, and her pale lips smiled. Through his shock he heard his father’s voicing roaring his name again, and the girl raised a hand from the depths and put a delicate finger to her smiling lips. White dress material danced around her as she moved. The boy stumbled away.
He caught up with his family three-hundred yards up the path, his socks soaked from running heedlessly through the marsh. Five minutes later he was bundled into the back of car with his siblings, and ten minutes later they were home and spread out through the house, and the girl in the pool seemed both real and unreal at the same time.
He sat quietly through dinner, then watched television with his parents until bedtime. He lay under his duvet and listened to his brother breath heavily into the pillow, and when he heard his parents switch off their light, he counted to five thousand and then climbed out of bed.
The six mile bike ride back through the forest seemed to take less time than the car journey home had taken. He had a dynamo light, but he left it off and opted instead to pull into the ditch on the few occasions that a car passed. To be out after midnight and to be twelve was not allowed, not only by his parents but the wider world in general.
The roads were very quiet, and the half dozen cars he encountered large and anonymous noises the interrupted his state of mind. If you had asked the boy his reasons for cycling out to the lakes on his own, he would have answered that the girl in the pool told him to. Not with words, but somehow in that moment implicit instructions had passed between them.
He left his bike in the ditch at the top of the trail leading down through the forest. There was almost no breeze, and the branches above him were like a cathedral ceiling blocking out the moonlight. Occasionally he heard rustling noises out in the black, which he took to be deer or rabbits, both of which were widespread in the park.
Once he exited the woods and came out onto the marsh the moon was quite bright enough to see by. His impression of his surroundings was in part made up by sounds of insects in the grasses and the great wall of silence that was the lakes off to his right. Once he heard a slap on water in the distance, where some large fish had jumped for a fly.
He reached the pool; a patch of darker black in the darkness to his left. Attempting again, in his dried socks, to walk across the grass mounds, he missed once and then twice, and was soon covered with peaty mud to his knees.
The girl’s face was perfectly clear in the black water. Her eyes were open, as before, but they stared past him into nothingness until he waved a hand in front of her face in greeting. She looked at him, wide eyed, and her face settled into the friendly smile she had worn that afternoon. The boy went to speak, but stopped himself when he remembered the utter silence around him.
The girl sank deeper into the water, alarming him for a moment, but then raised her right hand up towards the boy, so that her fingertips were a hair’s breath beneath the surface. The boy hesitated, and looked around him, but the girl smiled wider and nodded her head in assurance.
He lowered himself onto his haunches and spread his left hand against the dark earth, then reached his right one towards hers. As his fingers broke the water he gasped at the cold—it was like ice. Colder, if that was possible. The girl’s hand, soft and white, closed around his. He leaned back, drawing her up out of the water.
The boy watched her hand change colour as it broke the surface of the pool. It looked like when a stone or piece of seaweed is taken from the sea, its hue altering from a deep green to something more faded. The girl’s hand, however, emerged totally black. He yelped almost inaudibly and reared backwards, but her hand was clasped firmly to his and he drew her half out of the water as though she were weightless. The arm attached to his was a sinewy length of peat-coloured bone and muscle, inky water running out of its coarse surface onto his jacket and trousers. The girl’s face, a moment before pale and smiling, was now a dark husk, with pitted and sagged particles of flesh hanging from a half-visible skull with gaping eye sockets. Her drenched hair lay matted around the ruins of fabric that had once been a long dress.
The boy, screaming silently, attempted to open his fist, but found the bog body’s hand still clamped tightly to his own. He shook his arm wildly, turning the girl over as he did so and revealing a great and deep wound in the back of her head. With another fierce shake he was free, and the body slipped back down the bank and into the waters, which closed over with barely a ripple. He turned to run, then turned back and leaned back over the water. The girl stared back at him, pale and beautiful, but her face was twisted with fury.
He ran heavily up onto the path, and then back up through the silent forest. After retrieving his bike he paused and vomited quietly into the ditch, then cycled back along the narrow roads. He met no cars, and the house was silent and dark when he arrived home. He left his muddied clothes in the landing, without a thought of explanation, and climbed back into bed, listening again to his brother’s heavy breathing into the pillow. He slept almost immediately. It was in the bright morning, when he woke, that he thought of the waiting girl, the bog-preserved body, and the few short miles between them. And the perfectly still surface of the black pool, a gateway for reasons he did not understand, a barrier he would never trust in.