Chapter 4, “The Lake”
part II, section 1
by Tala Bar
Lying on a flat, grassy earth under a warm blanket of light clouds, the travelers’ night was comfortable and uneventful. Toward dawn it turned chilly, and Dar subconsciously searched for a cover for her half-bare body. ‘Autumn is here, even if the days are still warm,’ she thought, half asleep.
She woke up to the soft glow of morning, the sun breaking out from among more clouds; the moving clouds created a play of light and shade on the slightly rising water of the lake, under a light but changing wind. ‘What shall we do when winter is really here?’ Dar asked herself for the umpteenth time, not bothering yet with an answer.
Breakfast was made again of dried food dipped in cold water, but they lingered over it, as if the change in the weather was bringing a change in their mood. For some reason it felt as if they had reached a goal of some kind. They had to look around them before continuing on their way, as if they had no more definite idea about where they were going, despite Nim’s half-joking idea to circumnavigate the lake.
“Look, Dar,” Nim said softly, “there’s something on the water.”
Dar looked where Nim was pointing, shading her eyes with the palm of her hand against the glare. “It looks like a boat,” she said after a pause. They kept looking for a while in silence.
“There’s somebody in it, I think,” Nim said. Her voice vibrated in echo to the vibration in Dar’s heart. It was the first sign of life they had seen since she had met Nim after leaving the ruined city, and there was no knowing what it was going to be.
“We’d better wait and see what happens,” she said, as calmly as she could without feeling it.
Keeping watch on the progression of the boat in the lake, they sipped cold coffee; the dregs floated in the water, but at least it was sweet. Nim then rose to rinse the cups in the lake. When she returned, Dar said, “I think the boat is getting closer to our shore.”
They could see now it was a small boat with no sail, only a pair of oars used laboriously by the person in it. “What shall we do?” Nim asked.
She sounded worried, and Dar rose to get closer to her as she was repacking their sacks. The girl straightened, and they stood close together, almost leaning against each other as they had learned to do during their long trip. It was not going to be easy to receive a stranger into their by now very close relationship.
“It looks like an old man,” Dar said at last; then she turned to face the girl. “I don’t think you should worry too much. We’ll face him together, and I doubt he could do us any harm. We,” she smiled, “are very strong together, you know, having gone through all that...” She made a wide movement with her arm, to express concretely what she had meant in the abstract. She hugged the girl’s shoulders as she turned to face the lake again. The boat was very near the shore now.
The man stopped rowing, and drew the oars into the boat. He stepped out and waded in the shallow water, pushing the boat to the shore. He looked old and not at all dangerous. His gray hair and beard were grown and unkempt, his eyes had sunk beneath a deeply lined forehead. But when he straightened to face them, Dar noticed that his eyes belied his elderly look; their beautiful dark blue hue shone under dark but not overgrown brows, and when the sun peeped from among the clouds, they reflected its golden light playing over the water.
“Hi there!” He called from a short distance; his clear, strong voice, as well as his tall, erect figure, matched his eyes better than the appearance of his face. “I’ve been told to fetch you. Are you ready?”
Dar, Turning toward Nim who had stepped back a little, saw the girl’s eyes and mouth open wide in astonishment, replacing the expression of fear. The physician turned back to face the man. “Told to fetch us?” she inquired with interest. “Who by?”
She glanced at the boat, which looked old and dilapidated and seemed too small to accommodate three people.
“The Old One told me, didn’t you know?” His voice sounded almost ringing in her ears.
“What Old One?” She asked in surprised bewilderment. The thought of the ancient healer of the forest came fleetingly into her mind.
He gazed at her with a keen, searching look, then said, “Ah, never mind; you’ll know presently. Are you coming?” There was no irritation in his voice, but she felt the urgency just the same.
“Yes,” she replied, “we’ll come with you. It will take us just a minute to finish packing.”
“Are we going in that boat,” Nim whispered in Dar’s ear as they were clearing the camp.
“Don’t worry, Nim; I think we should trust this man,” Dar whispered back; she was not sure what to say to the girl, for she herself was not at all confident as to their means of transport. “I’m sure it will be all right.”
They were ready in a few minutes. The man pushed the boat back to float on the water, inviting them in. They had to wade in the shallows, and the man showed them where to sit and how to arrange their small load evenly on the bottom. It looked to Dar as if the boat was growing around them, for now it seemed there was no lack of space. Dar and Nim sat side by side, and the man sat facing them; he then picked up the oars and started rowing.
“Where are you taking us?” Dar asked after a little while.
“To that island, over there,” the man pointed with his head toward the range of mountains.
“I can’t see any island,” Dar said, searching the distance. “It’s there, just the same,” he answered decisively. Silence fell again.
Having looked long at the shore they had come from, seeing nothing of interest, Dar turned her gaze closer home. From under half-closed eyes she looked at the man with the old face and young eyes. His hands holding the oars looked young and firm, tanned and muscular. He seemed used to using the oars, and she wondered what his occupation had been before the catastrophe, and how he had been affected by it. Their strange meeting on the shore was, of course, still unexplained.
Nim, in the meantime, was openly trying to be friendly, recalling to Dar her easy, frank behavior in the jungle. “What’s your name?” She asked the man. “I am Nim, if you don’t know, and this is Dar. Dr. Dar, actually.”
“Nunez,” the old man said gruffly, averting his eyes from the young girl. She reminded him too much of his younger child, Reya, who had vanished forever from his life. As he was rowing from the island, on his mission to get the two women on the shore, Nunez had tried to drive away the memories of his lost family. The memory of his life before the cataclysm had done nothing but trouble his mind, encroaching on his struggle to keep the equanimity, which he had always used to relate to the world.
* * *
The day after Gil’s cremation, the girls were gone and Nunez was left alone in the flat for the first time in many years. It was the end of his life, as he had known it. After a few days he sent his final resignation to the robotic factory, his final payments transferred to his bank without him actually going there.
He stayed home for a time, not having the energy or inclination to go anywhere. For so many years he had been going from work home and vice versa, that he had lost all contact with the world outside. For hours on end he sat going over his wife’s things, examining them, telling himself their history.
Some of his coworkers came over, trying to make him come out of the house with them, have some fun, resume some semblance of normal life. But he rejected their overtures, and in the end they left him on his own as a lost cause.
It took Nunez some more time, going fast through a large part of his savings, to at last quit the flat. Following a new idea that he had been ruminating on, he went to the marina on the lake shore, bought an old, wooden boat, a kind that had not been seen around for ages.
He took the boat out on the lake, first just as a means of getting away. All waters were known to be polluted, and he did not expect to get anything from his outings. Then, one day, he went further than at any time before, losing sight of the town on the shore. He stayed on the water all day, and when evening came he noticed a bit of land which he had not seen before. Getting closer, he saw it was an island, but was unable to tell its size. As darkness was falling, he decided to stay there instead of trying to find his way back to town.
The place seemed barren, and he had nothing with him for the night: neither cover, nor food, nor anything to make a fire. It was summertime, the weather soft and warm, and Nunez slept on the bare ground and had a good night’s sleep. Only in the morning, as he was going for his grounded boat, did he become aware of the difference between the water around the island and the water closer to the shore where the town had been built. The island’s water was certainly much clearer, and he saw in it something he had never seen before in his life: fish swimming around.
People had not been fishing in natural waters for ages. Some artificial ponds, filled with sterilized water and hand-reared fish, had been created for the rich, who liked to spend their money pretending to be fishers in the old sense. Nunez, however, had never been rich, nor had he ever been interested in fishing, nor had he had time for that kind of recreation.
Without much thinking he now took off his undershirt and, using it as a net, caught a few of the creatures swimming in the shallow water. He took his catch with him back to the island’s shore, for the first time looking around him.
Only then he noticed the island was not completely barren. Some vegetation was growing here and there, some of it dry enough to be used for fire. He did not have any means of making fire, though, so he decided to take the fish back to town with him, where he had made for himself a simple kind of accommodation on the shore. There he cooked the fish, and had a fresh, hearty meal after a long time of skimping.
That had made up his mind for him. The next time he went out in his boat, he took enough provisions with him, some change of clothes, a blanket, a pot and spoon, a spark lighter to make fire, and a simple fishing rod he had found in a small secondhand store. As long as the weather held, he would stay on the island, having established a sort of permanent camp there, enjoying the solitude and living a “Robinson Crusoe” life which had never been his dream.
But it was the only way he was able to come to terms with the death of his wife, return to a kind of world he could tolerate without her. Still, he had nothing left for him to love, and dumbness had taken over the calm cheerfulness that had been a part of his life so long as Gil had been alive.
* * *
Dar noticed Nim blushing at the man’s gruffness. As she stared aside at her, she thought the girl was looking suddenly very beautiful; not as a teenager, but in quite a grown up way. She had caught her long, golden hair in a ponytail behind her head, instead of gathering it on top as she had been doing before; it emphasized her round face, large green eyes and full mouth.
Having washed a couple of tee-shirts the night before, she had put on that morning a clean blouse which she kept carelessly open deep at her neck, barely hiding her young breasts, still not bothering with a bra. Her bare, shorts-clad legs stretched in front of her, looking even longer than they actually were. Her skin was glowing pink as it was touched by the sun, its gentle freckles adding subtly to its attractiveness.
‘Is she aware of what she’s doing?’ Dar asked herself. Nim had never tried to show off her beauty before, not even in her games in the jungle. ‘She’s a real temptation for any man, even an old one,’ she mused, feeling her initial sense of protection toward the girl. Was it a good sign that the man, who might not be as old as he looked, had averted his eyes, or the opposite? Dar had decided to keep an open mind about it.
“So, what are you doing here, Nune, all by yourself?” Nim continued her inquiry, pleasantly, as if paying to attention to the man’s reaction. The familiar way she had shortened his name seemed to Dar as another subtle, probably unconscious, beckoning.
“I fish,” he said shortly, “I am a fisherman.”
Dar thought he was confirming an idea she had heard somewhere, that people who go out alone on the water do not like to talk about themselves.
“We used to go sailing on the lake, but never fishing,” she contributed her own comment, wincing in the middle of her words, as the pain of remembering pierced her heart. As if forcing herself to overcome the inevitable, she added, “Actually, there were no fish at all in the lake by the City; it was far too polluted. I’m surprised you’ve had anything to catch here?” There was a sound of question in her voice, expressing her inside knowledge in the matter. She had actually known one or two rich people of her acquaintances who had practiced pond fishing.
“You’re absolutely right,” the man answered; “but it’s different around the island.”
“How, different?” She was amazed, looking at him doubtfully. But he did not seem to want to continue that line of conversation, paying all his attention to his job of rowing.
Dar let him be, concentrating her attention at the direction they were going. Right in front of them and a long way off, loomed the range of mountains bordering the lake to the south; it seemed to be springing right out of the water, with no land at all separating them.
Gazing around her, Dar saw they were in the middle of the lake, nothing but water in their immediate vicinity. Looking back, the shore they had come from was barely visible. A strange calm hovered over them, and she had a strange sense of eternity, unable to tell where it had sprung from. Had the upheaval never touched this place? Lately, all she had known was rapid changes and alterations; but when she thought about it, that feeling of constant change had existed as long as she could remember in her life. Nothing had ever had a feeling of eternity anywhere on Earth! How was this place different from all others?
Everything was still, even the man’s rowing, once it had taken them away from the shore into the middle of the nothing which was that eternal stretch of water. The monotonous, repetitive movement of the oars, up and down, up and down, cleaving the shining sheet, had joined the stillness of the world, making her feel as if nothing was ever going to change again. Never!
To be continued...
Copyright © 2004 by Tala Bar