At length she found herself in a secluded pool of the meandering, slow-flowing stream that fed the lake; a pool deep-sunk in flood-cut earth, overarched by scrubby trees, its placid water so dark that it brought to mind some prodigious measure of Guinness stout, only much shinier and instead of a thin creamy head (shamrock optional) its surface formed a perfect cyclorama mirror-image of the entire surrounding frieze of soil and leafy vegetation, domed by traceries of branches and bright patches of sky. All the while, gliding slowly along, her solitary and brightly-colored kayak had seemed a brave little vessel of exploration, nosing its way with quiet, cheerful resolution through uncharted territory. To her, indeed, it was all new and unexplored, for she was a stranger to this area, and had only arrived the day before yesterday.
Having glided cautiously in, she now back-paddled a little in order to come to a halt in safety. This pool in the narrow, winding creek was too confined to be consequential or even convenient; was really too small in which to do anything except pause and look around and take stock, taking care in the first instance not to run aground upon its muddy fringe; noticing, and respecting, its steep dirt banks tangled with roots and weeds and brush, and the seeming profundity of its uncertainly shallow depths, dappled here and there by little shafts of sunlight that revealed but little of whatever might lie below.
The way ahead, she saw (not without a degree of relief, for it saved her the effort of exploring any further upstream) was too overhung – portcullised, as it were – by the trunk and profuse branches of a fallen tree to be navigable. It was as if Mother Nature herself, or at least some presiding water-nymph of the district, frowning upon humankind’s arrogant impatience, and upon its slightly disdainful way of just passing through her dominions or admiring them comfortably from afar, had decided to make a point of compelling visitors to stop and look: not to worship, and perhaps not even altogether to admire, but certainly to imbibe something of her prolonged timelessness and of her quietude, and also to acquiesce (a little humbly, perhaps) in her grubby tangibility, up-close, unfiltered by distance and uncleansed by it too. In this there was no pretentiousness, just a firmness of command no less firm for expressing itself in small ways in mere dirt and wood and water.
The visitor, with all the compromise-prone softness of clean flesh, while glad to have come across this quiet, almost claustrophobic yet oddly lovely little spot – so different from the main body of the lake with its considerably greater light and its broader and more conventionally charming vistas – would be gladder still to return to more open and wholesome waters. It felt remote and decidedly wilderness-like here, although the lake on whose shore she was staying lay quite close at hand as the crow flies.
Having now, she felt, not only surveyed the very limited practical possibilities of the pool but shown, too, a decent respect for Nature’s ways, she carefully, somewhat awkwardly, turned her kayak around (for so confined and out-of-the-way a space was not without its evident small perils) and commenced paddling slowly back whence she had come. Yet even as she began to proceed downstream she was reminded, by some trick of light and scenery and memory, of that famous old Pre-Raphaelite painting by Millais, Ophelia: a slightly creepy affair, it had always seemed to her, although, like the dark pool, possessed of its own odd beauty. A former college boyfriend (this had been quite a few years previously, when life had been more normal or at least more expansive and sociable, and they had both been enjoying their junior-year-abroad in London) had ventured to remark to the effect that the young lady in the painting, with her pale and auburn-haired intensity, had something of her in her, or perhaps more logically it must be the other way around.
To the extent that former boyfriends are ever permitted (even in retrospect) to have been right about anything, he had not been altogether wrong in his remark either, although it was not, of course, a very tactful thing to say; for while auburn hair is charming, and fair skin is rather a nice thing too (even if far less fashionable in recent generations than in the 1850s), intensity is a quality that might almost certainly be said to have drawbacks, to be off-putting, in a girlfriend. And surely no woman wants to be associated very closely (or even at all) in her boyfriend’s mind with an unhinged person singing to herself as she drowns in a stream, whether in Shakespearean Denmark or anywhere else for that matter.
Had that younger iteration of herself been less self-conscious or just blessed with a readier wit, she might have passed it all off to rather good effect with the jocular rejoinder that they should go for Hamlet-and-eggs once they had finished doing the rounds of the Tate Gallery. As it was, she had allowed his observation – innocent and guileless – to rile her a bit, to no purpose; and she had even insisted on buying for him, at the gift-shop, a postcard of that painting, somewhat to his embarrassment. Had she really said that it would remind him of her when they were not together? She was pretty sure that she had.
Of course they were young and both had a lot to learn. Well, that was life. Maybe her own life would have been better had they remained together, but who could ever really say? Relationships were obstacle-courses, after all, and if it hadn’t been one little trap or pratfall, it might well have been some other or others that would have done the damage, sooner or later. She was long-term-unattached these days, for better or for worse, which, it seemed to her, afforded her a certain detachment and perspective in such matters. She had, at any rate, grown used to it – managed seldom to think about it, certainly, which was probably for the best. Anyway, it worked, for her. Well, it usually did, anyhow.
By now (for this reverie had in no way impeded her steady, careful paddling, and perhaps there was even something in the lapping, plashing sounds of water, or some lullabying in her own gentle arm-motions, that bore memory and thought along; even some transcendent spiritual otherness about calm water in general that invited pensiveness and a slightly dreamlike state?) she had regained the main body of water, and was skirting the weedy, lily-padded fringes of the shore on her way back to the borrowed house.
Perhaps, though, it occurred to her, memory, reverie, even youth itself, were like Ophelia’s voluminous clothing: at first they might trap air, bearing her up in the water, actually floating her along, only to succumb before very long to all that soaking wetness, trapping her, and dragging her down to a watery deathbed.
This wet-Ophelia image was not, of course, a cheery one, and as she felt herself taken and held by the willful currents of thought and memory, she made an effort to seize instead upon the cheerful sunlight of reality and the way it managed to penetrate quite far down into the dark brown yet fairly clear water. But this, too, in the circumstances, was not such a happy thing to have noticed. Another image now came uncomfortably to mind: that of the murdered woman in the movie Night of the Hunter, pale and innocent (and already very dead), hair streaming amid the underwater weeds, in one of the numerous beautiful and affecting passages of that Expressionism-tinged masterpiece.
She practically shakes herself now, as a wet dog might shake itself dry. These are silly and unwholesome thoughts, she tells herself firmly, as one who should know. Apt enough images, no doubt, but hardly worth thinking about any further. Yet she knows that thoughts are not always so easily banished; that once a thought of the more treacherous kind gains entry to our brain, it can get in amongst us and wreak a kind of havoc, so far does our irrational nature sometimes make war – or at least conduct a campaign of petty sabotage – against our rational nature. She hopes, as resolutely as she can, that this will not be the case here and now; and she pledges to herself to do her best to avoid it, for why spoil a vacation (even a working vacation) with morbid whimsy?
She makes an effort to focus on the sunny blue late-afternoon sky, on the pleasing wooded amplitude of the hills that contain the lake, and on the friend’s house to which she is heading back – now, it must be said, at a markedly brisker pace than before. But what is that car in the driveway? She is not expecting any visitors. Her friend and her friend’s husband (whose second home it is, and who had also very kindly driven her up from the city to house-sit for them for the week) had left for their own vacation – a hiking trip much further afield – yesterday. Anyway, it isn’t their car: this looks to be a pick-up truck. Someone local, she figures; some neighbor or friend of theirs, not realizing that they are away. Or perhaps they have given the person permission to use their little beach for swimming or other access to the lake? No-one is in view on the shore there, however, and there does not seem to be anyone else out upon the lake either. Her friends’ other kayak is still there at the top of the beach, unmoved from before.
She slows her paddling a bit, not wanting to be out of breath when she gets back and has to speak to whomever it may be. Anyway, it is really quite a charming scene that is before her, looking across the water to the nice old house with its little artificial gravelly beach down in front, a bit of lawn, the wooded hills behind the house, nicely green with the fullness of summer. In this picture, only the pick-up truck strikes a discordant note, not because it looks inherently out of place in this rural environment (such trucks seem to be more common than cars in these parts) but because it represents, to her, an unexpected intrusion. She is still slightly shaken-up by her recent thoughts, and having a further dose of the unexpected imposed upon her so soon afterwards is unwelcome, although hopefully it is someone nice and they won’t impose on her at all really or stay long, for she has work that she wants to get back to, once she has had some food and a glass of wine. Maybe it will prove to be a friendly, uplifting encounter that will serve to dispel her lingering preoccupation with dead women in water (yes, probably it would have been better had she not thought of this again, but so it goes).
The distance closes steadily, and still she sees no-one around in the driveway or on the porch or anywhere else. Perhaps, though, they are sitting inside their vehicle where the glare and reflection off the glass, and the comparative darkness within, would make it difficult to see them, even if one were not busy with paddling and the pending transition from water to land. She puts on a little more speed now as she makes her final approach to the shore, in order to run the kayak firmly up on the beach and make it easier to step out of it. The last thing she wants to do at this moment, perhaps of all moments, is to lose her balance while getting up, and topple over into the water, although she, at least, is more sensibly dressed than Ophelia was for such a contingency.
Whoever’s pick-up it is may well be watching her approach – another good reason not to end-up in the water – and will most likely step politely out and show themselves once she is safely back on dry land, rather than coming right down onto the beach, intruding upon her return and presuming upon her wishing to speak with them when they will of course be strangers to her and she at a disadvantage. Country people are likely courteous in such ways.
There is a slight upwards juddering of plastic prow upon shelving gravel, a pleasingly-decisive kinetic mingling of displaced little stones and sloshing water, as she attains the shore. She exits the beached but awkwardly-poised kayak with about as much gracefulness as such things ever allow, using the paddle as an alpenstock to steady herself, and feels relieved to find her feet upon the good honest damp-at-the-edge but invitingly sun-warmed gravel, a surface not without its own intricacy yet so safe and so reliably matter-of-fact after the slightly unsettling complexity of dark waters.
She moves forward a few steps, unsteady at first from having been seated in that odd, leaned-back, semi-recumbent kayaking attitude for quite a while, and then bends down to drag the sleek little vessel – a minor marvel of tough plastic and rugged nylon – higher up the beach, where it won’t be in any danger of floating off into the lake even if there should be heavy rain in the region in the near future. Dragging the kayak makes a loud but pleasantly pragmatic and reassuring crunching noise: a firm line drawn between being out on the dreamier, more dangerous, memory-jogging water, with its currents and reflections of various kinds, and being back in the realm of the ordinary and the practical. If whoever’s vehicle it is in the driveway has not previously been aware of her presence, they presumably will be aware of it now.
She puts the paddle down, a little reluctantly (as it has felt a part of her, and her protector against hazards too), next to the kayak where she had found it left, and begins to walk up the little rising lawn towards the gravel driveway and the pick-up truck, surprised that no-one has yet emerged from anywhere to greet her. There is no-one on the porch either. How odd.
Upon inspection, there proves to be no-one sitting in the pick-up. Its doors, she notes, are locked; its windows all the way up; its flat-bed empty, conveying nothing in either sense of the word. There is no identifying information emblazoned on the vehicle’s sides by way of advertising, suggesting that it may well not (as she had hypothesized that it might) be some tradesman who has come in relation to some forgotten house-related matter. She glances increasingly uneasily towards the house. Everything seems eerily still, strangely silent, foreboding. There are few other dwellings around the lake, and they are widely separated. After her little adventure on the water, what exactly is it that she has come back to? She is becoming fearful now; feels very alone and rather vulnerable.
There is no sound or movement anywhere, other than from her flip-flops on the gravel, making a moderate crunching sound as she moves around on the broad driveway, surely thereby announcing her presence even if the sound of her hauling the kayak out of the water just some thirty or forty feet away had not already done so. Yet even now no voice makes itself heard, other than her own as she calls out (calmly, she hopes, though she does not feel calm) hello? She moves onward towards the porch, uncomfortably self-conscious and apprehensive all the while. HELLO? she calls out again to nowhere in particular, though more insistently this time. Nothing. The porch, its outdoor furniture overlooking the lake, are as she remembered them being when she set out not long ago.
She walks around the side of the house now, thinking that someone might be engaged in some honest but forgotten task around the back, preoccupied with whatever it might be, and perhaps a little hard of hearing, but she sees nobody, and nothing appears to be amiss there either, or notably different from before. The back yard is empty, but the woods behind, which from the lake had had a comfortable park-like aspect, seem wild and a little menacing to her now, affording too many hiding places if someone were out there watching her from concealment; perhaps someone with ill intent of some kind, for why would they not have answered her calls, or otherwise have revealed themselves – observing her (knowing her, perhaps) to be alone, and sensing that she might be anxious, fearful even? She is not lacking in pale intensity just now, she is quite sure of that at least – though, it seems, of little else just now.
She completes her mystified, fearful circling of the house and goes back onto the porch, a space so homely and with so nice a view, and yet so accusingly, disturbingly, empty. She pauses to look again – sharply now – at the enigmatic vehicle in the driveway; again at the still waters of the lake, where no-one can be seen. Weirdly, perhaps, she wishes that she were back on that open lake, even that dark but tranquil pool in the creek. Here on the porch the wooden floorboards creak in places beneath her feet, which is highly unwelcome to her just now, as she is beginning to feel that she is in a horror-movie and that some jump-shot or other (or perhaps far worse) must surely be awaiting her in these increasingly heart-pounding moments, coming up just ahead yet unable precisely to be envisaged even had she been the cool, calm, confident person whom she usually pretended quite convincingly to be.
The little ring of keys to the house is secure in a snug pocket of her shorts. But as she had not locked the secluded house when setting off on her little kayaking jaunt, she does not anticipate having to use them right now, other than possibly – and here she takes them out and carefully arranges them so that their sharp ends protrude between the clenched white fingers of her balled fist – as a weapon of self-defense. She looks warily about, thinking, wishing, that whomever it is whose mutely-menacing vehicle is parked outside may have gone for a walk, and might even now be returning and about to apologize for the intrusion. Yet no-one can be seen anywhere, other than herself, pallid, intense, fearful, dimly reflected in a dark window.
She summons what remains of her resoluteness. Awkwardly, with her left hand, she flings wide-open the screen-door, catching it and holding it open with the seat of her shorts. She then likewise grasps and turns the knob of the main door, which (unlocked still) opens without demur. She steps warily inside, wishing that it was not so sunny outside, for she knows that her eyes will require some adjustment to the relative dimness of the interior.
She calls out anyone home? with an assumed casualness that is spoiled by a certain quavering of her voice. There is no response – no sounds at all, other than her own cardio-pulmonary ones, which, it seems to her, must surely be audible at a considerable distance. She leaves the door open, having pushed it firmly up against the blank wall, fearful that it might somehow slam closed upon her, in case she needs to make a quick escape. The living room seems dim, its furniture not yet fully familiar to her. It is silent: a silence that teases her with its slight suggestion of secure personal space even as it populates every unseen area of floor, every shadow, every corner, with lurking menace.
The house is not especially large, but it is old-fashioned, with numerous rooms spread over two floors; and when every potential hiding-place within its walls assumes the character of a potential hiding-place – specifically, for some malevolent intruder who may be present – it feels, to put it mildly, unduly large; fraught at every turn with the direst possibilities. It takes her a very long and nerve-wracking while to satisfy herself that she is in fact alone inside the house, and even then she is not wholly certain of it.
Eventually, albeit with mixed and agitated feelings, she is sufficiently confident that she is safe enough inside to be able to lock the external doors. She then secures all the ground-floor windows against entry too. By this time the light is fading outside, accentuated for her by her having switched so many interior lights on.
The mysterious vehicle remains in the driveway all this time. She has seen no-one, and heard no-one. By now she is soaked in sweat from the strain of it all, yet she dares not take a shower. Damning Alfred Hitchcock to hell for his part in this, she turns off the kitchen lights and also most of the other lights on the ground floor. In the kitchen in the approaching dusk she eats ravenously, furtively, and then pours herself a much-needed glass of wine. She drinks most of it off at once, refills it, then spends some time wandering around the darkening downstairs rooms, peering out the windows in various directions, ears cocked for any sounds of approach. When it grows awkwardly gloomy inside, and is twilight without, she closes all the window-shades and then switches lights on. The few exterior lights – certainly far fewer and dimmer than she would like – are already on, and have been creating deep shadows here and there but revealing nothing to her. She is not sure that they really help at all now, but she leaves them on regardless.
She regrets not having taken a note or snapped a picture of the license-plate of the vehicle, or of the vehicle’s other details, but she certainly isn’t going out there to do it now. Instead, feeling worn-out, she gradually extinguishes the interior lights and goes upstairs to read in bed. Even if the vehicle’s owner should now appear outside, she would much rather not have to be interacting with the person in any way at all, even through a window from a position of relative safety. Her nerves feel very strained, though the wine has helped a little, and all she wants is safety and a cozy kind of quiet.
In her bedroom she switches on the air-conditioner in the window, a little reluctantly in view of the noise that it will make and the knowledge that it will also signal her location during the night, but she takes the view that without it she will probably be unable to get to sleep at all. If someone is watching the house, they will have seen the light on in this room anyway. Perhaps in retrospect she should have put on a decoy light in the other bedroom, but she does not wish to bother to do so now. She does not relish the prospect of entering a dark room anytime soon. Certainly she would rather not have to leave her own room until it is light again, or at least until she is rested and more normal.
Removing her grubby-feeling clothing feels good, but being naked makes her feel suddenly vulnerable again, so she is doubly glad to hop into bed and pull the sheets up snugly around her. She picks up her book and tries to read, but cannot quite seem to focus on the words. After a while she puts it down, hitches the blanket higher up her body for warmth and protection, and turns out the light. She pulls the top of the sheet entirely over her head for that added sense of snugness and child-like security that it gives, and trusts to the wine and the fetal position to do the rest. For a while she cannot help but listen intently in the dark, but the reassuring droning of the air-conditioner probably makes this a pointless endeavor, and eventually it lulls her to sleep anyway.
The next morning feels strange at first, and she is cautious still, but normalcy appears to have been restored to her. Of the vehicle in the driveway, there is now no sign. This comes as a relief to her, at first. But then it occurs to her that she could not now prove that it had ever been there in the first place. It had, of course, been there, hadn’t it? She does not, in any event, attempt to contact her friend about it (why do so now, when it has gone?), nor does she mention it a few days later on their return, when the opportunity arises for her to do so in a casual way. In all likelihood it was an innocent mistake on somebody’s part. She prefers to let the episode drop altogether. It seems for the best.