The girl at table four stared out of the steam licked window as snow began, tentatively, to fall. The first few flakes were cautious, clumping together in feathery masses that drifted sideways on the wind and flocked beneath the sickly yellow light of the street lamps like dust motes in a beam of sunlight. For now they dissolved into the asphalt, still slick with afternoon sleet, but later they would settle. The girl stared absently at the changing weather or perhaps past it into the dark, jagged treeline, her head full of television snow, that boxed in white on black crackle of static. A movement in the glass roused her, the waiter’s ghost-like reflection making her jump as he arrived to clear the table. She realised that he had said something to her, realised she had no idea what it had been.
“Oh, uh,” she stuttered, “Lahko dobim… urm raĉun, prosim?”
“Yes,” Eva admitted, equal parts apologetic, ashamed and quietly relieved to have been found out.
There was a clatter as he methodically stacked her empty plates with the others on his tray. Service seemed to be coming to a natural close. The few people who were left were donning coats and scarves, layering up for the icy wind outside.
“I took you for a local,” the waiter said, giving her a second look, “We don’t get many tourists this time of year.”
Eva shrugged. Her long hair was an unassuming light brown, at home almost anywhere.
“Dad told me the family came from here, a long time ago.”
“Is that why you visit?”
“You could say that,” she said. It was as good a reason as any, and far more concrete than the vague notion with which she had travelled all this way.
“The weather is turning,” he nodded towards the window, “Be careful on the roads.”
“Are you staying in town?”
“No,” she told him, “I’m just up through the woods, by the lake.”
“The cabins?” his face wrinkled at that, but he quickly backtracked, trying to look neutral about it, “You must be keeping them in business.”
“We stayed there a few summers when I was a kid,” she said, “Swam in the lake. Played games in the woods. Rode our bikes.”
“Many years ago, yes?”
“I suppose so.”
“It looks different now,” the waiter hefted his tray once more, “I’ll fetch your bill.”
The road swung upwards into the hills, winding its way back and forth between towering fir trees. The dark foliage drank in the light from the headlamps, the forest beyond a dark and impenetrable place by night. Eva followed the road until it faltered, became a gravel track, then a dirt track, then little more than two trenches worn into the grass. The wheels crunched over loose stones, rocking the rental car to and fro as she carefully manoeuvred the path. The windscreen wipers squealed as they worked furiously to fend off the worsening snow. The engine grumbled, but soldiered on. Eventually, the headlights panned across the wooden sign welcoming visitors to the lake who’s name had long since faded and peeled away.
The trees to her left receded then, giving way to the rippling expanse of the lake. Moonlight flittered across the edges of the wind raked waves, blinking like the stars that were hidden away behind heavy clouds. On the far side, the mountains stood tall and stark and beautiful with their harsh silver edges and snow tipped peaks. On this bank, a narrow jetty extended out into the lake. Between the two, barely visible now, a dark shape jutted from the lake, an angular structure of immovable iron rising a few feet above the water.
Eva pulled up next to the cabin. For a moment she sat, remembering sunnier times when she would have been scrambling from the back seat and running up to the front door in a fit of excitement before her parents had even had a chance to unload the luggage or dig out the keys. See there? There were the marks on the decking left from the table they would sit around each morning for breakfast. Over there was the spot where muddy, adventure-caked boots would be neatly lined up at the end of rainy days. That was the step she had tripped up and chipped her front tooth on- a baby tooth, fortunately, a defect she had since shed- and there, somewhere around the back of the cabin, would be her initials, carved with clumsy dedication into one of the lower slats. She smiled to herself, switched off the lights and got out of the car.
She sunk her hands deep into her coat pockets and meandered her way along the pier, listening to the gentle lapping of the water. She could still hear the thundering of jelly sandals across the uneven surface as she raced her father to the far end, the shrieks of them splashing around in the shallows. She reached the edge and stared down into the lake. She would not have been surprised to see the reflection of a much younger girl looking back at her, dressed in vivid shorts and stripey cami top instead of duffel coat and bobble hat, but there was only blackness.
The cabin looked a little worse for wear as she made her way back. Weeds had burst through the gaps in the veranda and moss had taken over the slanted roof tiles. The insides of the windows were misted with condensation, the view out across the lake now marred with perpetual rain. It seemed smaller, too, when she swung open the door, though she was grateful for that. The silence within was a solid, almost palpable thing that filled the room from from wall to wall. In the small space it seemed meditative, comfortable almost, but any larger and it would have been a terrible and oppressive thing. She had done her best to get rid of the cobwebs when she had unpacked earlier in the day. The furnishings- a bed half hidden by a false wall, a rickety chest of drawers, a lumpy corner sofa, a circular table and chairs huddled next to the kitchenette- were tired looking, but serviceable. The electric heater was of the ancient type, a box of glowing orange rods behind a wire mesh, but it warmed the place quickly. This she turned on immediately before pacing the room and drawing the curtains closed. She ventured into the bathroom, splashed cold water on her face and changed quickly into her pyjamas. The duvet was heavy and fusty smelling as she slipped beneath it. The bed creaked under her.
Eva closed her eyes and waited for sleep.
Floating. She was floating on the lake, the sky an endless haze of azure blue high above her. The sun shone down hot and bright and glorious and she basked in it, letting the gentle ebb of the water carry her along. The water lapped above her ears and she imagined that she could hear the tiny movements of pebbles shifting on the lake bed, of weeds swaying, of fish darting along in glittering shoals. Behind all of these sounds was a deep, throbbing hum, as though the lake itself had a pulse. Another sound then- an almighty crash followed by the hiss of cascading bubbles. A voice called to her. Familiar.
“Are you coming?” her father asked.
She lifted her head, saw a flash of his smile before he turned and strode out further into the water.
“Wait-” she started, but he was already gone.
She rolled over and realised it was winter despite the warmth. Steam rose from the surface of the lake and she swam through it in long, easy strokes. She glanced left and right, but her father was nowhere in sight.
She swam on.
The mist thickened. Slowly, the mountains faded from view. Eva turned to look behind her and couldn’t see the way she had come from. She looked ahead, unsure now of all sense of direction.
The fog was now a solid, white wall around her that seemed to get no nearer. She called out, straining to hear her father’s voice shouting back. Her heart beat echoed through the water, as loud as thunder in her ears.
She swam, faster now, a chill running up her spine as she felt something brush against her leg. She felt it again- something cold and clammy wrapping itself around her ankle, clamping down, grasping at her.
Her scream erupted into bubbles as the world went dark.
Eva’s eyes snapped open. She held her breath, listening in the darkness.
Nothing, she told herself, There’s nothing.
Church bells- faint and distant.
Eva rolled over, telling herself that this too was part of the dream, and drifted back to sleep.
Eva had found an old row boat round the back of the cabin when she arrived and she had dragged it through the snow down to the jetty where she now knelt besides it, puzzling over how to fix the hole in its hull. The sound of crunching gravel made her pause and look up. She stood and brushed the snow from her knees as a car pulled up next to hers and a young man stepped out.
“Can I help you?” she asked.
“Hey,” he ran his hand through the back of his hair nervously, “Uh, sorry if this is weird. You spoke to my Dad last night, down at the restaurant. He seemed worried about you being up here on your own so I said I’d pop by, check you made it through the storm ok.”
There was something familiar about his features. If she squinted, she might have been looking at a younger version of the waiter from last night.
“Tell him thanks,” she smiled politely, “But I’m fine. Really. All’s good.”
“I told him it would be,” he had wandered over to her now, was glancing questionably across at the upturned boat, “So… what are you up to?”
“Seeing if I can fix this up,” she prodded the hull with her boot, “Maybe get out on the lake.”
“In this weather?”
“I want to see what’s up with that cross.”
She gestured over the water towards the strange structure in the centre of the lake.
“You… know what that is, right?” he asked hesitantly, “What’s under the lake?”
It was a church, she knew. One summer the water level had been low enough for them to see the stone work of the square tower and an empty, arched window on the front side. Now, the spire was hidden below the waterline, only the slate roof and crucifix affixed to its top visible.
“Sure,” Eva nodded, “There are buildings down there. Flooded ruins of the old town.”
“Flooded?” he grimaced, “More like... drowned. People still lived there when the river changed course. Happened overnight, they say. Some accident up in the mountains. No survivors.”
“That was hundreds of years ago, right?”
“Still...” he shrugged, “It’s a graveyard.”
He had his arms crossed tightly in front of him now. He really did not look comfortable being up here.
“Are you scared of it?” she asked, only half teasingly.
“No,” he puffed out his chest then deflated immediately, “Just… it’s not a good place, ok? They should never have built these cabins. Why would anyone in their right mind want to come here? No offence...”
Her reaction had been similar when her father had started making the trip out here every year again. Alone. She had had her own life by then.
“People go to Pompeii,” Eva pointed out, “They visit Auschwitz.”
“Yeah, but not to sunbathe by the barbecue,” he scoffed, “I used to see tourists letting their kids swim in it, for chrissake.”
She tried not to think about how much of that water she must have accidentally swallowed over those handful of summers.
They hadn’t known the full truth for the first few years. There had been an almighty row on that last trip when word slipped to Eva’s mother that their holiday resort was less ‘relaxing hideaway’ and more ‘site of historic tragedy’. She had wanted to pack up their things and leave right then and there. Young Eva, on the other hand, hadn’t really understood why she couldn’t go for one last swim…
The two of them stood staring out over the lake. After a while, the man shuddered.
“At least the internet has killed off business,” he said, “This place won’t last much longer, not after last year...”
“What happened?” Eva asked.
“Hmm?” he snapped out of whatever trance state he had entered, “Oh, um… just not many visitors.”
A lie, she knew. Of course, she hadn’t needed to ask what had happened. She had been at the funeral, after all. They had called her first when the body was found.
“So… why are you here?” he asked at last.
“Bit of a history buff,” she lied, “It seemed interesting. Maybe I’ll write a book.”
“We-ell,” he said, pausing as though he already regretted what he was about to say, “If you want to get out to the church, the best way is to walk. The kids sneak out there when the lake freezes over, tell each other ghost stories.”
“Thanks for the tip.”
“I’ll leave you be,” he said, starting back towards his car, “Dad says you should come back to the restaurant some time.”
“Sure,” she said, waving him off.
The boat rocked gently. She was out in the middle of the lake with no oar, a stones throw from the church. She would have wondered how she had gotten there, but this was a dream. Such things happen.
YOU HAVE RETURNED.
The voice seemed to come from everywhere at once. A hand reached up from the lake, grasping at the side of the boat, its flesh blackened and rotting. Her heart caught in her throat.
YOUR FATHER HAS GONE TO THE MOUNTAIN.
“Why? What is he doing there?”
HE WILL BETRAY US. YOUR KIN ARE ALL THE SAME.
“W-who are you?”
There was no reply. Instead, water began to seep through the hull- thick and black and oozing.
Eva woke. Church bells echoed across the water.
Eva’s boots crunched through the snow. She forged her own path as she made her way around the lake, leaving a new trail in her wake. She carried a long stick she had found near the cabin, a casualty of last night’s strong winds, and with this she punctuated her route, stabbing it a good few inches into the snow as she swung it ahead of her like a staff.
She kept one eye on the church spire as she skirted the edge of the lake. When she was as close to it as possible on dry land, she picked her way down the bank through sodden mud and frost painted weeds. The lake seemed frozen in time, its foggy, mirrored surface reflecting back a cracked and distorted image of the mountains above.
She took the stick and reached it a few feet over the frozen water. She brought it down, knocking on the ice with all her might.
Tap... tap... tap.
Bubbles of air shifted beneath the ice. The surface creaked, but held. She inched closer, reaching out with the toe of her boot.
Bang… bang… b-ang.
She froze, heart pounding.
It’s nothing, she told herself, Just trapped air. Just the ice shifting.
A dark shadow beneath the surface seemed to drift nearer, pressing itself against the ice. She backed away, stumbling. Her rapid breath plumed out from her in thick clouds.
Look again, she told herself. Look.
There was nothing there. She drew a deep breath that stung the insides of her lungs and let it out slowly. Must have been the reflection of some passing cloud... With that, she turned and made her way back, deliberately slowing her pace despite her urge to run.
Soon. Soon, the ice would be thick enough.
But not today.
She walked though cobbled streets, the air sluggish and thick around her. The church stood ahead of her, its spire reaching upwards towards mountains that hung down from the sky. Eyes watched her from the windows of each house, but she fixed her gaze ahead, pushing onwards.
In the way of dreams, she was there. A spiral staircase led her upwards. A familiar figure stood in front of the arched window, his back facing her.
“Why?” she asked him.
Her father did not respond.
“Why did you come here? Why did you leave me?”
He lifted one leg, mounting the window ledge. She pushed to close the distance between them, but the air resisted her. Eva reached out one arm, her shout dissolving into bubbles in her mouth, but he was already falling, the town rising up to reclaim him.
KIN OF KILLERS. RETURN TO US.
The bell began to toll, and Eva remembered that she was drowning.
She woke coughing.
As the last strike of the bell faded in her mind, Eva knew what she was going to do. With a strange sense of calm, she rose from the bed, dressed and left the cabin. The mountains glowed red with the approaching dawn. A fresh layer of snow obscured yesterday’s path, but her feet followed it even so, reopening the wound she had left in the landscape.
She did not pick her way across the bank with caution as before, she did not stumble. Eva placed one foot out onto the ice, pressing down tentatively to see if it would take her weight. It held, as did her nerve. Eva took one step, and then another.
She fixed her eyes on the sunken church and walked towards the centre of things, drawn in like her father before her.
One way or another… she needed an answer.