The Lady Under the Lake
by Hannah Spencer
Thirty years now. Thirty years, and still the nightmare wouldn’t leave him alone.
Arthur knelt in the rain-sodden grass and placed the last autumn rose against his brother’s headstone. It lay out of place amidst the other withered and frail flower heads. But it would look the same, soon enough.
He read the inscription, long etched into his soul. In Memory of Jake Pemberton. Died 15th July 1862, aged fourteen years.
Beneath it: Thy will be done.
Thy will be done. An accident, they’d said. He’d fallen and drowned, they’d said.
Arthur had never told anyone the truth. They wouldn’t have believed him anyway. It was only the children and the oldest people — those whose lives had begun before the age of science and schooling — who believed in what lurked in the azure depths of the Blue Pool. Today, nobody believed in it. Only he did.
‘Pa! Mam says dinner’s ready!’
Arthur jerked free of his memories. Joe was sauntering towards him, new hobnails knocking a dark trail through the damp grass. His grin faltered as he saw his father’s face.
‘Sorry, Pa. Um...’
Arthur stood up and forced a cheery smile. ‘It’s all right, Joe. I was just thinking about your uncle Jake.’
Uncle Jake. The name seemed so wrong for that wayward, dominating scamp, only a bit older than Joe now.
Joe glanced at the stone. ‘What actually happened to him?’
The word was a betrayal. Arthur heard Jake’s screams again, barely masked by his own sobbing breath as he tore a path through briars and brambles.
‘Pa? What’s the matter?’
Arthur realised he was breathing hard. ‘What did you say, son?’
‘Let’s go back to dinner, eh? It’ll take your mind off things.’
Joe’s authoritative calm, so typical of his mam, made Arthur smile. Then Arthur shuddered as the sun vanished behind a cloud. He had everything a man could hope for. A beautiful, attentive wife. Four fine, healthy children. Despite what he’d done.
Retribution, the vicar called it. It would come. He knew it. He gripped Joe’s shoulder as they walked along the lane towards home. His first-born. He was so proud of Joe.
Just like his father had been proud of Jake.
He should let the past lie, Annie kept telling him. She didn’t understand the past wouldn’t let him go.
‘Is that why you don’t like us going swimming or fishing?’ Joe asked.
‘You haven’t been fishing, have you?’ Arthur gripped Joe’s arm, felt him flinch.
‘Of course not!’ Joe tried to pull away. ‘I was just saying!’
Arthur took a breath, ashamed of his outburst. The old shrew Mrs Tatton and her sister were watching him with gleeful interest. They whispered something with a knowing smile. Everyone was starting to talk about him. Too strict, they said. Obsessive, they said. Riding for a fall, they said.
‘I’ve been scared of water ever since.’
Scared of looking into its depths. Of seeing that woman, that monster. That thing that wore his face.
Clara was playing on their doorstep with the twins. A surge of relief. He’d barely been gone an hour, but still. The dread that something would have happened seized him every time he returned home. One day...
Then he saw the ragdoll sitting on the wall of the well. How many times?! He wanted to hurl it into its depths. They could never learn they weren’t to go near the well!
‘Don’t start, Arthur.’ Annie gave him a look which allowed no argument. ‘Get those filthy boots off and get inside.’
She gave him an understanding smile as she doled out the stew. ‘Get this down you. It’ll take your mind off things.’
It did. The children’s giggles and Annie’s quiet chastisements punctuated the meal. Arthur settled in his chair afterwards. His eyes drifted shut.
He was by the Blue Pool. Ten years old again. He twisted, trying to escape, but sleep had him firmly in its grip.
* * *
‘Jake, I don’t like this!’
Arthur shrank closer to his brother, wishing Jake wouldn’t make so much noise as he slashed through the undergrowth. Why had he let himself be talked into playing truant? Why?
The boys always scared each other with the stories. Silky was the jilted lover of the lord of the manor, who’d flung herself into the pool with a broken heart. A nymph who craved the company of mortal men. A spectre straight from hell. Nobody went near the Blue Pool.
The silence was the first thing they noticed. Not a breath of wind. Not a bird. Not a rustling leaf. The water was a deep azure blue, enchantingly beautiful and surrounded by verdant willow trees. A few rushes swayed lazily.
Arthur hung back, out of reach of the shore. ‘Jake, I want to go home.’
Jake looked at Arthur with scorn, then picked up a stone.
Jake threw it into the middle of the pool. The splash was deafening. Waves tore out and lashed against the edges of the pool as droplets flew up and rained down like bullets.
‘That should wake it up!’ he shouted. ‘Come here and look, Art! There’s nothing here! Just a stupid story!’
Arthur crept obediently to the shore and looked into the pool. The water was crystal clear but the bank still dropped away into nothing. How deep was it? He shivered.
He made to turn away, desperate to get away. But then something caught his eye. Far, far down in the water, something was moving. Rhythmically swaying.
Reeds maybe? He strained his eyes to make it out. It grew nearer. He could see long tendrils moving, drifting in the current.
The rushes were still. No fallen leaf stirred on the surface. The effects of Jake’s stone had long since died away. There was no current.
The tendrils grew clearer, they swayed about like... like hair. They languorously swum upwards.
‘S...’ The word froze in his throat.
Longer, longer, trailing in the water, converging together. Soon she would appear.
‘What did you say, Art?’
Arthur took a step back, eyes still riveted to the pool. The tendrils took on a shape. She was nearly here.
Bubbles were bursting on the surface. The water began to ripple.
‘You’ve looked long enough now. She’s not coming.’ Jake pushed him, and he stumbled. The spell was broken.
‘What’s that down there?’
Jake’s face filled with puzzlement, then confusion. Then, finally, terror.
Arthur ran and ran. Hating himself for leaving Jake, urging himself faster. He’d known, long before they carried Jake’s body home, how the search would end.
And he’d known, oh he’d known, that one day the thing would return for him.
Those sightless, staring eyes had bored into his. Its hair rippled gently in the current. Its fingers, swollen, bloated and white, stretched towards him imploringly. Its mouth was open in a silent scream. Its face was his own.
* * *
‘Art? You’re dreaming again.’
His eyes jerked open as the familiar scream formed.
‘Have a cup of tea.’ Annie pushed a mug into his hand.
He stared through the steam, writhing into unworldly shapes. A pair of eyes met his for a heartbeat and he shuddered.
‘Why’s the house so quiet?’
‘Joe’s gone off with that boy Harry and Michael Jones. The others are picking blackberries.’
He levered himself up. ‘I’d better get to the allotment. The spuds need getting up.’
Annie submitted to his kiss as he left. He always did that. Just in case...
He’d got half the spuds bagged when he heard running footsteps. ‘Mr Pemberton!’ The boy Michael panted up to him. ‘Mr Pemberton, can you come? Harry’s fallen out of a tree. He’s cut his head and thinks his ankle’s broken!’
‘Where is he? Where’s Joe?’
‘We were going to build a treehouse in the wood by the Blue Pool. Joe said to come and get you, and he’s stayed with Harry coz I’m sick when I see blood.’
‘The Blue Pool? How dare you! You’ve been told to stay away from there!’
Michael stepped back. ‘There’s not really any monsters, though, are there, Mr Pemberton? Mr Hornsley at school said Silky’s just a story made up to scare us!’
Arthur gripped his head, trying to force the nightmare away. It pressed around him tighter. Needles were sinking into his skin. It was here. It was time.
‘Come on then, boy. Let’s go,’ he said with an effort.
They ran across the fields, and Michael led the way through the undergrowth.
Brambles slashed his face. ‘Jake, I don’t like this.’
Arthur heard something startle. A pause, then it bolted for safety.
He gasped and shrank closer to his brother, relaxing slightly when he saw just a startled rabbit.
‘It’s not far now.’ Michael glanced back at him and hurried on.
A moment later they saw Harry standing awkwardly under a beech tree. A trickle of dried blood snaked down his cheek.
‘Harry, are you all right? Where’s Joe?’
‘He went to that farm the other side of the wood for help. Thought it’d be quicker. But he should be back by now.’
A physical pain flared in Arthur’s chest. He was ten years old, longing to run.
But his own son. He couldn’t do it. He looked at the boys.
‘How’s your ankle?’
‘Better. I don’t think it’s broken,’ Harry said apologetically. ‘I’ll be able to walk back, I think.’
‘Shall we wait for Joe?’ Michael asked.
‘Go home!’ Arthur snapped. ‘You’ve caused enough trouble. I’ll go and look for him.’
The boys exchanged glances and turned away, Harry walking with an exaggerated limp. Arthur picked his way through the trees. The sounds of the boys faded into silence. He tried to walk as quietly as possible, but still the uncomfortable feeling that he was being watched prickled at his neck.
He reached the farmhouse. The doors were locked. No smoke rising from the chimneys. Where was Joe? A cold feeling clung in Arthur’s stomach.
He turned back slowly, then noticed another path leading to the left. It led downhill. Towards the Blue Pool, lurking behind the trees. Waiting for him.
He crept along the path. Listened.
Silence. Not a squirrel, a rabbit, a falling leaf.
He tried to shout, as quietly as he could, but still a thousand eyes turned towards him.
‘JOE!’ With resigned despair he bellowed as loud as he could.
He turned towards the voice. Closer. Closer. The ground grew swampy, sucked at his boots. The air was chill and damp. Rivulets of muddy water slurped between the tussocks and his feet sank deeper.
Joe was clinging to a sapling fifty yards ahead, sunk in the mud up to his shins. His face was a mask of relief and fear. Mud was splashed up to his thighs.
‘This is horrible! It’s all turned to marsh. I can’t move!’
The azure water lingered at the edge of the swamp. Watching, waiting.
‘Can you get back here?’
‘I tried, but it’s got too deep. It’s getting worse all the time!’
It had rained heavy yesterday. Probably the water was still flowing down from the hills, turning the marsh into a death trap.
Arthur looked round, picked up a sturdy stick. He probed the mud and stepped forward, picking a treacherous path towards his son.
With ten yards to go, he was forced to stop. The stick sunk without purchase, over three feet deep. No way forward. Joe watched desperately.
Arthur bit his lip. A slight ripple on the pool’s surface, almost as if beckoning him on. On the shore itself, solid rocky ground. He knew it would lead around the pool. Towards home. Towards where it had happened.
Arthur stepped back, then launched himself forward. He landed short and sank deep into the quagmire. He thrashed about, trying to find solid ground. Mud flooded into his mouth. He coughed and spat. His foot found a tree root and he levered himself against it. Caught hold of a stem and heaved. He dragged himself free. The mud settled back and he lay on the firmer marshy ground, panting and coughing and already starting to sink slightly.
He sat up and spat. ‘We can’t go back that way.’
He got to his feet. The sight of the water, now terrifyingly close, overwhelmed him. Panic, dread, terror, flared then condensed into a lump in his chest.
‘Let’s go,’ Arthur said. ‘That way.’
They picked their way along the narrow ridge of the rocky shore. Arthur gripped Joe’s arm, he wasn’t sure for whose benefit.
Reeds in front of them. They were nearly there. Arthur squeezed tighter.
A flicker of movement. He looked away, towards the trees, then found his eyes torn back towards the shimmering water. He gazed into its depths, expectant and dreading. Nothing.
His boot caught a tree root. He was falling. Still clutching Joe’s arm. The boy toppled with him. The splash drowned out Arthur’s scream.
Arthur tried to claw his way to the surface. Water poured into his mouth. He tried to see where Joe was.
‘It’s all right, Pa! Michael’s been teaching me to swim. Get my hand.’
Water filled his ears as he sank again. He didn’t try to fight. There was no point. Something tugged at his boot. Something else grabbed his arm and pulled. It wasn’t enough. He was sinking. Everything grew dark. A strange peace that it was finally over.
Cold air on his face. Something solid under his back. He opened his eyes. Shook his head and spat. Pulled tangled ropes of pond weed from his legs and dragged himself upright in knee-deep water. Why wasn’t he dead? He felt suddenly sick.
‘Joe? Where are you?’
He scanned the bank. Looked back at the pool. Perfectly still, the surface unbroken. The tightness in his chest closed like an iron band.
He got up and ran along the bank, scanning the surface. Nothing. He waded into the water as far as he could. His gaze was drawn inexorably into the deep blue waters. There was something there. He felt a scream rising in his throat and he shut his eyes. He couldn’t bear to look.
But he had to.
Just below the surface, shrouded in green as he’d seen so long ago, hands outstretched in silent entreaty, hair rippling gently in the water, eyes sightless and staring. That face which was so like his own. Joe.
Copyright © 2018 by Hannah Spencer