Jan 07
Ink Scribe's picture

Lakeside

It was a strange new years tradition, really. I'd never quite understood why I'd repeated it year after year especially given the dubious origin of the practice. My father liked to say that some distant family member, singing drunkenly, had been unfortunate enough as to accidentally summon some spirit that needed appeasing once a year. He'd always wink conspiratorially at me afterwards and I'd always felt special, as though I were the shared keeper of some great family legacy. On one occasion my mother had wandered into my bedroom during the story and had suggested, quite dryly, that perhaps the culprit had been a not-so-distant member of the family. She'd given a pointed look at my father, who'd shrugged and smiled. She'd shaken her head, exasperated, but the story of the drunken-spirit-summoning-family-member had remained at the heart of the story until quite some time later.

Strangely enough, it turned out that other families had a similar new years' tradition. I'd met them quite by accident on one of my trips overseas; a cheerful family of five with an agreeable disposition and a strong love for herring. They'd been in the midst of making preparations for the event (which took place about a week earlier than when my family celebrated) and had been all too glad to tell me about their 'origin story'. Their version followed a group of pagan travelers that, upon reaching their new homeland, had sacrificed a goat as thanks and to mark the end of their search. The yearly tradition followed those same grounds; an offering of some kind in thanks for the things they'd gained during the past year. It was at this point, at the conclusion of their story, that the matriarch of the family had started giving me strange looks and I'd decided to bid a hasty farewell. Doubtless she wanted to know the origin of my family tradition but I, unlike her, was less eager to detail a certain glorious singing drunkard wandering about the lakeside conjuring spirits. I headed east.

The second family I encountered no longer practiced the tradition but, after a few drinks, were willing to share the details. The uncle, a red bearded man with a boisterous laugh, spoke of graveside wretches, moss tents and rabid wolves. I had great difficulty following; it seemed that he'd add a new character and a new event without much consideration for such a thing as story telling convetions. There was no clear direction and by the time he'd ended his tale -which was quite a few hours later- I'd been left with only a vague recollection of some graveside burial event gone wrong. On my way out he'd stopped me at the door and had told me, glancing furgitively over his shoulder, that he couldn't made heads or tails of the story either. It also turned out that they'd not given up the practice but the wife -then out visiting friends- had insisted that they keep quiet lest their neighbors think them mad. He'd had a strange, crazed light in his eyes and I'd smiled politely and taken my leave. As soon as I'd turned the corner on the road and was certain no one could see me, I'd broken into a flat sprint towards the train station some miles away. It seemed that normal families practicing this new years tradition -or some close variant thereoff- were in concerningly short supply.

To be fair, I myself had given up the tradition ages ago after I'd moved away from my family. My mother had passed some years later and my father had fallen into a depression. I'd tried visiting him on a few occasions but the door had remained firmly shut to me. I'd been angry and hurt despite myself and the hole that my mothers' death had left in me did little to ease the sharp, bitter edge of my emotions. It was as though I'd been forgotten, replaced, rendered obsolete. I understood his grief, the unbearable ache of the loss, but could not for the life of me forgive him for having kept the door shut to me for so long. I requested some neighbors and close friends to keep an eye on him and departed back home.Over the next few months I'd gotten reports of how he'd slowly been recovering; he was up and about a bit more, shopping, gardening and spending increasing amounts of time with friends. His progress was slow and imperfect but I paid attention to it anyway. I felt guilty for having left him and was relieved at the good news but couldn't bring myself to visit him again. Inside, I was still angry at him.

My own recovery was slow. Months passed. A year. It was spring, then summer, then autumn. Winter. December, which was cold and rainy and largely devoid of snow, drew to a close. The new year was on the way. For a reason I couldn't really explain, I decided to partake in the odd tradition which I'd left behind so many years ago.

The drive to the lakeside was a long one. I kept my eyes firmly on the road, humming tunelessly along to a song on the radio. The heater blasted warm air through the vents and when the noise rose to a whine I lowered the settings. Outside, it was raining, and the windshield wipers snapped rain off the window in long, synchronized strokes. I huffed. If this rain kept up on through the night I'd have to rent someplace to wait it out. Or sleep in the car. I grimaced at this and glanced in the rearview mirror. The backseat was entirely filled with bundles of driftwood that I'd collected at the beach the day before. It wouldn't exactly make for comfortable sleeping.

My eyes flicked back to the road. The rain, which had been moderate up to this point, started coming down heavier and inwardly I groaned. I pulled over on the side of the road and let the engine idle for a moment whilst I checked for nearby lodgings. There appeared to be one about half an hour away. It was one I was well familiar with; prior to my mothers' death my family had been guests there on a frequent basis. The second option, a bed and breakfast, was a full days' trip which would take me too far from where I needed to be. Well. It appeared my decision would be quite straightforward. I set the GPS and continued on the road.

The lodge was exactly as I'd remembered; warm, cozy, well decorated and well looked after. The woman at the desk had a friendly smile and in no time I was booked for a room on the second floor. On my way up, I made eye contact with a tired looking man, who, upon seeing me, hastily dropped his gaze. For some reason he seemed familiar but I dismissed it and moved past him. I had neither the need nor the desire to make introductions or to reminesce over some long-past event I'd probably already forgotten about (if indeed I knew him from somewhere). My most pressing concern, after having spent three long days in the car, was the prospect of a comfortable bed and some hot food.

After dinner I spent the evening on the window seat watching the falling rain outside. It had eased off somewhat in the few hours I had spent here and had become more of drizzle than anything. Through the glass pane, speckled with rain drops, I could make out the hulking shapes of mountains and the dark smear of woodlands sloping down towards a great lake. The lake itself reflected the dreary grey of the sky and was just as large as I had remembered it being in my youth. It stretched for a considerable distance outward and I could only faintly make out the distant peaks of mountains on the far shore. I showered, set an alarm for early next morning, and was asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

The car rumbled over the road. It was near 4AM and only the faint line of grey in the east betrayed the coming of the sun. The dirt path on which I rode snaked its way through the woodlands and down towards the lake. The pine trees passed by in a dark smeared blur; the road had been kept in surprisingly good condition and I all too soon I arrived at my destination. I cut the engine and sat motionless for a moment or two to consolidate my thoughts. Briefly I considered turning back -the entire thing was pointless anyway- but, after glancing at the driftwood, decided to hell with it. I'd already come this far. I popped open the door and stepped outside.

Despite my coat, it was colder than I had expected and my breath made ghostly white clouds on the frigid air. The scent of rain was still heavy in the air and the sharp scent of pine drifted in from the woodlands around me. Thankfully, the rain had eased off the night before but the ground was damp and full of puddles that reflected the dark sky. I collected what I needed: the driftwood (stacked and stashed under one arm), a bottle of whiskey (bought two days ago) and a box of matches. Materials gathered, I locked the car and headed off towards the lake.

It took only a few minutes before the lake came into view. It was massive and a great deal grander up close. It rippled in a gust of wind and I shivered; the air here was much colder and I had begun to lose sensation in my fingers. Quickly, I turned right and walked alongside the shore, boots sinking into damp sand. This was getting quite ridiculous. In many aspects I regarded myself as a sensible person but here I was sneaking around with whiskey and driftwood at an ungodly hour in the morning. Hopefully I wouldn't run into anyone; I was in no mood for an awkward conversation.

Eventually I found what I was looking for; a pine tree blasted by ligtning. The force of the incident had split the trunk of the tree in two and the bark had been scorched and burnt. I set down the driftwood and the other materials on a dry bit of sand and walked over to the unfortunate tree. It'd stood here forever; I still had a clear recollection of it from when I'd visited in the early years of my life. The skeletal, ruined branches were speckled with raindrops. In the east the sky lightened somewhat. It was the first of January.

I set to work. With numb fingers I loosened the knots holding the driftwood together and arranged them in the sand to form a miniature bonfire. I'd just gotten started taking the cap off of the whiskey bottle when a twig snapped behind me and I whirled around. Nothing. The pine trees rustled in a gust of frigid air and I heard the faint murmuring of the lake behind me. My numbs hands were frozen on the bottle and my heart hammered in my chest. I was about to call out when I caught sight of movement behind the third row of trees. A half hidden silhouette, almost invisible in the gloom, watched me for a moment and then carefully started advancing with its hands raised. A gesture of surrender. Still, I kept my guard up.

It was the man from the lodging. The one who'd hastily dropped his eyes on the staircase. I frowned as he approached and tightened my grip on the bottle, alert and ready to move at a moments' notice. He stopped on the edge of the treeline, face impassive. His eyes, however, were quite alive and concentrated on me. I was distinctly, uncomfortably aware of the way I must have looked but straightened anyway.

"What are you doing here?" My voice came out harsher than I had intended. I recognized that I was alone and quite far from help should anything go wrong. The man stayed where he was, hands raised. My eyes flicked to the his left hand and my throat went instantly dry.

"I'm sorry. I'll just set this here and be gone. Someone at the lodging requested that you receive this a couple days ago." As he spoke, he slowly and deliberately crouched down and set the object on the ground before backing away. When I regained my senses I took a step forward an called out after the man.

"Wait!" He'd already turned around in the process of departing and half angled his body towards me at the sound of my voice. I swallowed before speaking again.
"What did they look like?"
The man frowned and thought for a moment before replying. His answer confirmed my suspiscions and I was unable to reply. He bid me farewell and left. It took a few moments before I could bring myself to pick up the object.

It turned out to be a small, worn booklet. Upon opening it I found there to be a number of instructions. They detailed the steps for the new years tradition that I been halfway through completing before the man had appeared. This was odd, to be sure, but not there was nothing in the writing that incidated I had made any sort of mistake in the procedure. Was the purpose of the book, then, to be as a reminder? I'd already memorized all the steps; this was useless to me.

I glanced up from the book to where the man had disappeared in the trees but he was long gone. Turning, I shifted my attention to the lake and noted that the light in the east had been growing steadily brighter. The sun had not yet peaked and would not for another hour but I was losing time. I'd already committed to going through with the tradition (for some ridiculous reason). I might as well do it right. My numb hands half closed the book but I stopped at the last moment. Perhaps there was something I had missed? Probably not, I thought, but it wouldn't hurt to check. I turned the page. My fingers stilled.

It appeared that the years I had spent completing the dubious new years tradition had only ever been done in half. That is to say, there was a second set of instructions -an extension if you will- to the tradition that my family had neglected to show me. A rather important section that involved a great deal more than I had originally planned on going through with. I glanced again at the sky, and then at the lake. My fingers flexed, half frozen. I set to work.

I uncapped the bottle of whiskey (which had grown quite cold by this point) and poured it in careful ring around the arranged stack of driftwood. When this was done I set the bottle in the sand, grabbed the box of matches and spent the next five minutes attempting to set the wood ablaze. It took a few tries but soon pale tongues of lavender and blue flames became visible in the dry branches. The flames were beautiful, to be sure, but the reason behind lugging driftwood from the sea shore to burn it by a lake many miles inland made little sense to me. Now came the embarressing part. Turning to the lake, I let out a series of loud whoops that sent clouds of white air billowing out of my mouth. The rule was two whoops, a pause, and a third whoop to drown out the previous two. When I'd done this I turned away from the lake. It'd been a lot less embarressing than I'd anticipated but I still thought the entire thing rather unneccessary. It did have a strange affect, however. I felt almost lighter.

I stepped away from the lake, my mood sobering as my thoughts turned back the second set of instructions.

I glanced again to the sky. I had only a few minutes to make up my mind. The driftwood had begun to burn quite merrily by this point but I paid little attention to the flames. Thoughts of the second set of instructions entirely consumed my attention. They required something the consequences of which would be a bit more serious than self embarresement if done wrong. I thought. Glanced at the lake. Deliberated. In truth, my mind was already made up. I knew exactly who had given me the instructions. I also knew that this was the last time I would ever participate in this new years tradition. For these fooleries I was getting a bit too old.

With a huff I snatched a burning piece of driftwood from the burning pile (nearly scorching myself in the process) as well as the opened bottle of whiskey. I emptied the whiskey bottle on the branch of the lightning struck pine closest to the lake and set the branch alight.

My plan was to let the branch burn for only a moment. I would then snap the burning segment off from the main tree and douse the flames in the lake water by submerging it. That way, I could complete the ridiculous hidden instruction without accidentally setting the entire tree ablaze. That would have presented problems; particularly for the alcohol based fire. This plan, reasonable as it sounded, was never carried out to completion.

From the instant I set the driftwood flame to the whiskey soaked branch the entire tree was suddenly engulfed in blue and lavender flames. With a surprised yell I fell back onto the ground and could only stare in disbelief as the tree inexplicably began to right itself. The branches, crackling with fire, groaned and creaked with a tremendous noise and segments that had been blasted apart by the lightning strike suddenly started merging and morphing together. The black areas of the scorched bark lost their dark color and lightened. And then, with another thunderous groan that shook the ground the two halves of the tree slowly started to come together. The sinews of the wood, the splinters and the broken segements merged together and the flames burned deeper shades of blue. As I watched the dead tree regained its needles; they drifted up from nowhere and attached themselves to their branches.

My body was frozen, rendered useless and immovable. The icy water of the lake lapped at my elbows and set every nerve alight with the sensation of pain. I was entirely oblivious to this; the whirling fiery torrent of blue and purple fire that engulfed the formerly dead pine left me unable to look anywhere else. I could not speak, could not scream. Thought left me. I was dumb with fear.

I was unsure of how long I lay there. It may have been moments, it may have been hours. In any case, when the tree had entirely mended itself the flames burned a brighter shade of lavender and I suddenly found the strength to shield my eyes and turned away. It appeared as though the spell had been broken. Slowly I regained the sensation of pain and realized that my arms had gone numb form the cold. In turning around on my stomach the front of my coat had become soaked through with lakewater and I could feel it driving piercing needles further up into my shoulder. Lowering my hands from my face I noted my hands, blood drained, fingertips turning a pale shade of blue. I could only stare at them dumbly. It was also at this moment that I realized something else.

The lake. The lake was different.

A staircase, the top of which I could make out in the water a few paces ahead of me, had suddenly appeared. With sore eyes (the heat had damaged them- it hurt to blink) I followed the steps. They led deeper and deeper and eventually I lost sight of them altogether. The lake lapped at my arms, seemed to pull me closer. I was distantly aware of a change somewhere behind me; the sensation of heat had ceased. I barely noticed, could attach no meaning to this change and had not the strength to glance behind me.

My hands were terrifying pale at this point and the sharp agony of the cold had spread everywhere. I shook uncontrollably, was unable to cease. My vision came in and out of focus and again I could spot the stairs heading down deeper into the lake. In the east the first pale rays of the sun had appeared on the horizon, filling the dark underbellies of clouds with a watery light. I fixed my eyes on the strange stone steps under the surface of the great lake.

A finger twitched (mine, I think). Bones creaked as I curled the rigid appendage. I sighed, my breath escaped my lips in a white cloud. The stairs stretched out into the dark. I looked at them. My hands grasped the stones in the water. Pulled.

My fingertips hooked around the edge of the first step.

The second one was easier.