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#32 A Visit At The Pond
Happy new year friends! I hope you celebrated copiously.
I’m very pleased to start the year with a new short story about a man in nineteenth century France who recalls an event from his younger years that changed his life, before he went on to fight in the Franco-Prussian war. Enjoy!
#32 A Visit At The Pond
Many years ago, long before I would lead my small battalion at Rozérieulles, when I was a young fisherman trading my catch at the town markets, there was an event that led me to believe in superstition. Or perhaps not so much superstition as merely being aware of things going on beyond the world I saw in front of me.
Now, in my old age, I know there are forces at play that I will never understand. I only sit and hope that after I die, my sons and their sons might start to chip away at the stone, uncovering something greater.
It happened on a morning in late spring, when the sun wavered behind the trees and lit my path, when the birds orbited at the periphery of my vision, when the smells of the living earth pulled me drunkenly forward.
I stepped through the long grass on the banks of the River Ain, circled the trunk of a tall tree, and climbed over a muddled collection of large rocks, some two or three times as tall as me. I found a pond off the side of the river, where there were many fish circling lazily.
At the time I was thinking of my mother, who was sick. She had the cholera that would eventually kill her. She smelled like a heap of rotten fruit, and sweated like a desert-woman. I remember, as I wandered down to my little fishing pond, asking how many days she might have left. How many moments I might have with her. Whether, against all expectations, there might be any straw of hope to clutch at.
I settled down in a cushioned patch of grass and cast my line out into the water. The sun warmed my face and as I rested back, I began to think deeply about my mother in a sombre but not anguished sort of way. It was becoming increasingly difficult for my father and I to keep the house together without my mother around. More than anything, it was the cost. No sooner would we bring in a few Francs would it go out the door again. And we’d have to hold out on every last thing we had, unsure when we would next be able to replace it.
I caught three or four fish with ease and then there was a time when a quiet stretched out around me and I became aware of how alone I was. There was nothingness. No bird made a sound. The wind slowed until the leaves no longer rustled. The fish no longer wriggled at the surface of the water.
I looked around, wondering what had caused such a quietude. I became filled with fear at my distance from everyone in the world. The hairs on my arms stood up and, despite the sun blanketing me, I was overcome by a chill. A feeling came over me of utter sickness. Pure sickness, rising up from my belly into my throat. A burning fire took hold of my throat and I leaned forward and spewed the most vile, orange liquid into the pond.
As I was sick, I felt, deep within my bones, that something was happening here that was not explained by the rules of the world as I knew it. I felt as though something had happened here, right here at this pond by the side of the River Ain, many years before, and I was going to see it all again for the first time.
On the other side of the pond, I stared at this opening between trees, expecting something to happen there. Without really knowing, I was sure that that was where it would happen. And as I expected, I saw something white, perhaps the hem of a dress, fluttering from behind a tree trunk. I couldn’t quite see it. Not really. But there was something there. I stared and stared, but there was nothing more to it than that flicker of white.
Then, is that a hand, perhaps? Yes, you know, I think it is. Clutching at the cloth of a dress, I see a hand.
I stood up and put down my rod on the grass. I felt a little dizzy, and stumbled from side to side before steadying myself. Then I walked around the pond, my eyes fixed on the spot where I saw the hem and hand.
As I approached, a girl stepped out from behind the tree. She was pale all over, but had the pinkest cheeks and nose. She was soaked from head to toe, water running like a waterfall off her forehead in front of her face. It was as though she’d just stepped out of the pond.
‘Hello,’ I said. ‘Are you lost? Can I help?’
She stared at me and after a long pause, just as I thought she wouldn’t say anything, she replied: ‘Hello.’
The coldness in her voice made my skin crawl.
‘Can I take you home?’ I asked. ‘You must be so cold.’
‘Home?’ she asked. ‘Home?’
‘Yes… You must have a home. Can I take you there? I’m sure your mother will get you dry and warm.’
‘M-m-mother?’ She was shivering.
I didn’t say anything further. I looked at her dead in her face, and knew that something was wrong.
‘Let’s take you home,’ I eventually said, stepping forward towards her.
‘No,’ she replied sharply. Her look turned. She was uninviting, almost standoffish. ‘This is my home.’
‘What do you mean? There are no homes near here. Not for a good distance that way.’ I pointed back the way I’d come. I knew this place like the back of my hand because it was a favourite fishing spot of mine.
‘I live here.’
She pointed down at the pond. I looked there and saw the water, with a few fish meandering close to the surface, as they had been earlier.
‘You live in the pond?’
‘What are you talking about? That’s not possible.’
‘I live here,’ she said.
Now it was her turn to step forward, and I felt a little uneasy. She got closer and I saw the paleness in her cheeks. Her eyes were dark, grey, empty. Her hair a wet black.
‘This is where I left the earth and returned as you see me now. I’ve never shown myself to anybody until now. Until you.’
I stepped back but she stepped forward.
‘Take my hand,’ she said.
‘I don’t know you. No. I don’t know you.’
‘I need you to help me. On the 22nd September, 1818, I walked out here and slipped and drowned. The water is deeper than you think. So very deep. And the weeds pulled me in. They clung to me and didn’t let go. They pulled at me and tugged me down and then I had no breath left. And I left your world and entered my own.’
I looked at her as she spoke, her coldness invading me all over. She looked as real as anything. But what she told me was that she had drowned. She was dead.
I felt a sadness take over, like I might cry at any moment.
‘Take my hand,’ she said. And I felt, against my will, my hand rise and her cold, wet hand rest in mine. She smiled at that and I felt as though I had given her something, a gift more powerful, more meaningful than anything I had ever done for anyone before.
‘Come with me.’
She turned towards the pond and stepped forward, one foot in and then the other. One stride forward, deeper and deeper. I followed too. The water was icy cold. The fish dispersed away from me and then circled back around near my legs.
I realised then that we’d reached the middle of the pond. She turned to face me, and took her other hand in mine too. Then we both took a deep breath and submerged ourselves under the water in the pond.
I didn’t open my eyes at first. I was too scared. But when I did it was dark all around. I couldn’t see the girl anywhere. I could just see the murky, dark, dirty water. I was sad and lonely. I looked all around for her, but she was nowhere to be seen. Vague blurs of fish and debris circled me, but no white dress. No pale skin. Nothingness.
I wanted more than anything to stay there with her. I don’t know why. I clung to the weeds there, hoping they too would bring me down into the pond’s depths. But their branches snapped in my hands, their leaves tore apart, and I found myself floating away towards the surface.
When I lifted my head out of the water, my lungs raced to fill with air and I heaved and coughed all the water out of me. I was so cold and shivering and my heart was racing. I scrambled to the side and clawed my way up the bank onto the grass, dirt creeping under my nails.
I laid there with the sun beating down on my back. A butterfly landed on the grass in front of my face, but soon drifted away when I spluttered water in its direction. I rolled onto my back and watched the clouds moving so glacially they may have just been still. And a bird crossed my line of sight, there in a moment and gone in the next.
I closed my eyes and then, for what reason I cannot tell you, I burst out laughing. Hysterically laughing. True, I was coughing at the same time, but I laughed so loudly and thought of the fact that no one could hear me. No one, perhaps, except the girl in the pond.
Two years later, and long after my mother had died, it struck me that I might find that girl’s story somewhere. I spent months speaking to people and searching in whatever time I had. Eventually I found a local newspaper story, archived by the town hall, from 25th September 1818. It described the disappearance of a young girl, with black hair and pale white skin, who had drowned in one of the ponds along the River Ain. Her body was found on 24th September.
Her name was Marguerite Cordonnier and she died at the age of 14 years and 189 days.
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