“Look at that lake,” Cecil said as he and his fiancée, Eleanore, came to an opening in the forest to see the sparkling water.
“It’s beautiful,” she said with rapt eyes as she saw how the light of the summer sun danced on the gentle waves.
“Let’s go in for a swim,” he said, beginning to take off his shirt.
“Hey, you kids, I wouldn’t do that if I was you,” slurred a man’s voice from behind them.
The couple looked back and saw a middle-aged man standing a few feet behind them, holding a bottle of whiskey in his right hand. He staggered a bit and belched.
“Who are you?” Cecil asked. “And why can’t we go in the water? Will we become drunkards, like you?”
“The name’s Nelson, and if you go in that water, you won’t come back out,” he said, then took another swig from his bottle.
“We can swim all right,” Cecil said.
“It ain’t about if you can swim or not,” Nelson said. “That’s Lake Real. It’s cursed with witchcraft.”
Both Cecil and Eleanore laughed.
“I recommend you leave that rotgut alone,” Cecil said. “It’s affecting your brain.”
“I began drinkin’ because people were dyin’ in that lake. I saw ’em all die with my own two, sober eyes. I also know the story of how a witch turned Lake Real into the deathtrap it is now.”
“Oh, this I gotta hear,” Cecil said.
“No, honey,” Eleanore said, pulling on Cecil’s arm. “Let’s just go. He don’t want us swimmin’ here, so we’ll go, alright?”
“No, no,” Cecil said. “I wanna hear the ghost story. You ain’t too drunk to tell it, are ya?”
“Actually, the drinkin’ will prob’ly help me tell it,” Nelson said, then took another swig. “Have a seat.”
He sat on a rock, and Cecil and Eleanore sat on two rocks facing him, all three of them shaded from the summer heat of the early afternoon by the overhanging trees.
“Well, it all began back in 1857 with the passing of the Gradual Civilization Act in the Province of Canada.”
“What does that have to with us here in the Colony of British Columbia?” Cecil asked.
“Well, back in the Province of Canada, they wanted to get the Indians here to be a part of our Christian society. Some Catholics living near here learned about this idea to purify the Indians, cleanse them of their heathen ways, and teach ’em about Christ. They liked the idea, and used their money to set up a school by this lake.” Nelson pointed with his bottle to an abandoned building several yards behind Cecil and Eleanore, a small, wooden building obscured mostly by the bushes and trees of the forest, but visible enough for the couple to see it. “In 1860, St. Peter’s Residential School was established for Indian children…not those livin’ ’round here in the Fraser Valley area, mind you, but for those livin’ further away.”
“Why not Indian children from here?” Eleanore asked.
“‘Cause the idea was to take the kids far from their families, and from their heathen influence,” Nelson said, then took another swig. “Best way to make ’em Christian…or so the Catholics thought.”
“So anyway, what happened?” Cecil asked. “Did the Catholics make the Indians all Christian in that school?”
“Not exactly,” Nelson said. “There were stories that the priests and nuns were abusing the kids, punishing them for being defiant and refusing to accept Christ.”
“Did they beat the kids really hard?” Eleanore asked.
“Worse than that. The priests, being celibate and therefore denied the society of women, did filthy things with many of the kids, the sorta thing you don’t wanna say in front of a lady. Sometimes, to keep things quiet, they even killed many of the kids.”
Cecil and Eleanore gasped at these words.
“The bodies were buried out by the school, not far from the lake. One woman, who was a teacher at the school named Audrey Wilson, got so infuriated at how the priests and nuns were mistreating the Indian kids that she not only quit the school, but she also gave up on her Christian faith…assuming she ever even was Christian to begin with.”
“What makes you think she wasn’t Christian?” Eleanore asked.
“Well, Miss Wilson was a white lady, so I assume she was originally Christian, but if she was, and lost her faith, I’ll get into the reasons for that soon enough.”
“In any case, giving up on her faith sounds excessive to me,” Eleanore said. “We all know there are some bad apples out there among the Christian flock, but that doesn’t mean there’s no Jesus looking down on us from heaven.”
“Well, whatever her religious leanings had always been, she surely didn’t see it that way,” Nelson went on. “It seems she couldn’t reconcile men of God, presumably guided by the Holy Spirit, readin’ the Good Book and praying every day, allowin’ themselves to stray so far from the right path to be doin’ what they did to those Indian kids. She’d walk by the confessional set up next to the school chapel, and she’d eavesdrop on the confessions of beatings, rapes, and killings. The confessor would advise them to turn themselves in to the law, which the confessing priests and nuns never did; and the sinning priests and nuns continued working in the school, and Miss Wilson knew they continued their abuse of the kids.”
“Well, again, that’s the fault of those priests and nuns, not the fault of their religion,” Cecil said.
“But how do you know all of this?” Eleanore asked. “You live near here, right?”
“Yes, I do,” Nelson said. “And as I said, she didn’t see it as only a matter of sinnin’ priests and nuns, she saw it as a problem of the whole religion. I worked as a janitor for the school, and she and I used to have conversations about the corruption in the faculty. She claimed that faith in Jesus is the ‘theory’ of Christianity; the corrupt ways of the Church are the ‘practice’ of Christianity throughout history, which makes me think she may never have been Christian, but some kind of pagan in secret. She claimed she’d read of, and heard anecdotes of, countless times when the Church–Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant–had committed similar abuses.”
“So anyway, what did Miss Wilson do about the abuse, besides quitting her teaching position?” Eleanore asked.
“Well, a week after she quit–and this was in 1862, so four years ago–I saw her by the lake one evening, after the school closed down for the day. It was still light enough for me to see basically what she was doin’. She was chantin’ something, she had candles lit in a circle all around her, and she was dancin’ around as she chanted. It looked like she was doin’ some kind o’ ritual. That’s why I think she may have been a pagan.”
“And you were getting drunk, and dancing to her music, too, no doubt,” Cecil said with a smart-Alec smirk.
“No, I was stone cold sober!” Nelson snapped. “I didn’t start drinkin’ ’til after the deaths, as I told ya before. And now I’ll get to that part o’ the story.”
“Oh, good,” Cecil said. “Now the story should get interesting.”
“I live near here, as I said before, so I’ve seen it happen every time,” Nelson said, then took another swig from his bottle. “I’ve never known Indians to practice witchcraft, and Miss Wilson was the only white woman I’ve ever known to renounce Christ, or never believe in Him, whichever, so her little ritual must ‘a’ been the witchcraft that caused all the deaths in Lake Real.”
“Very well,” Cecil said. “What about those deaths? You claim you were sober when you saw them.”
“The first couple o’ times, after her ritual, when I saw people go to the lake for a swim, I walked over to the shore to get a better look; for that woman’s ritual looked so intense, combined with her hate o’ that school and the sufferin’ o’ the Indians she so pitied, that I had to see what was goin’ t’ happen.”
“…and what did happen?” Cecil asked, his patience leaving him.
“As soon as the first person to go in was all the way under the water, I saw him freeze in it.”
“Freeze in it?” Eleanore asked. “You mean, go cold?“
“No, not that,” Nelson said with dread in his eyes. “The swimmer just stopped movin’. Completely. I looked down at him in the water. He was facin’ me, so I saw the terror in his eyes. He wouldn’t move. Couldn’t. Then, what I saw got stranger ‘n’ stranger.”
“What was that?” Cecil asked, smirking in disbelief.
“His whole body…his face, trunk, arms ‘n’ legs…they all started…stretchin’ out, like as if he were meltin’, or goin’ fat, or somethin’ like that.”
“What do you mean?” Eleanore asked with a sneer of disbelief.
“It’s like his body was slowly mergin’ with the water, becoming one with it.” He shook, then took another swig.
“How is that even possible?” Cecil scoffed.
“I don’t know, but that’s what I saw,” Nelson said. “And I was completely sober.”
“No offence, my friend,” Cecil said, “but if you saw all that while stone cold sober, then you’re lucky you haven’t been put away somewhere.”
“If you go in that water, you’ll learn the hard way that I ain’t crazy at all!” Nelson shouted, standing up as if ready to have a fistfight with Cecil. “Go on in! You’ll regret it! I warned ya!”
“Sir, we’re sorry,” Eleanore said. “Cecil, watch your tongue!” Then, back to Nelson, “Please, sit back down and finish your story. What happened next?”
Nelson calmed down, sat down with staggering difficulty, and continued: “As I said, his body was merging with the water, and I could see him slowly fading away. His skin turned blue and became the water, and the last thing I saw o’ him was his terrified eyes, ‘n’ they faded away, too.” He took another swig from his bottle.
Cecil and Eleanore just looked at him with confused eyes. They didn’t know what to say to such a crazy story.
“Every other person, man, woman, or child–white people, that is–that I saw goin’ into that lake over the past four years, has met the exact same fate. I put up a sign or two, warnin’ people not to go in the water, but people just ignore it, ’cause the water is so beautiful. Nobody believes there’s anything wrong with the lake.”
“We saw such a sign, remember, Cecil?” she asked him. “We just walked by it as if it wasn’t even there.”
“Because there’s no reason to believe there’s anything wrong with the lake, honey,” Cecil said.
“Because part o’ the witchcraft is to lure you in,” Nelson said. “Miss Wilson told me how much she hated the white man for hurtin’ the Indians so much, so part o’ her avengin’ them musta been to lure as many white Christian folks to their doom as possible. Some priests in the school tried to baptize some Indians in the lake: the priests went in, felt compelled to dip their heads in the water, go all the way in, and died–I saw it, the same way as that first man…but the Indian kids came out o’ the water unhurt.”
Cecil’s and Eleanore’s eyes widened.
“The survivin’ priests and nuns concluded, as I did, that Lake Real is possessed o’ demons, so they closed the school down and tried to warn other people, though everybody was just like you…unbelievin’. Over the past four years, I’ve tried to warn would-be swimmers here not t’ go in, but none of ’em listen to me. They go in and die the same way. And then is when I started drinkin’…out o’ despair.”
“Very well, then,” Cecil said, getting up with Eleanore. “If it’ll make you feel any better, we won’t go in the water.”
“Thank you,” he told the couple, then stood up. “That gives me a peace o’ mind that I rarely have these days. Goodbye.”
“Goodbye,” they said, and walked back into the woods.
They’ll still go in, Nelson thought. Lake Real is callin’ for ’em.
Cecil and Eleanore walked through the forest in a semicircle around the lake before coming out in a clearing on the other side. (Nelson had gone in a semicircle the other way; the equidistant roundness of Lake Real made it easy for him to reach the same area in roughly the same time. He hid behind some bushes before they got there.)
The couple looked around for any signs of Nelson hiding.
“Good,” Cecil said. “That crazy old drunk is gone. Let’s go in the water.”
They stripped down to their undergarments and waded into the water, up to their upper legs. So far, nothing to fear. They ventured in further, up to their waists, and far from sensing any danger, they found the water to be most refreshing. They felt an urge to go in deeper, so they went in with the water up to their necks.
“What do you think, Eleanore?” Cecil asked her.
“The water is lovely,” she said.
“I agree,” he said. “Let’s dip our heads in and swim around some.”
At that point, Nelson came out of the bushes and approached the shore. Here’s where it happens, he thought. As soon as they put their whole bodies under, as those priests who did the baptizing, they who couldn’t resist going all the way under, too. The lake makes them want to.
As soon as Cecil and Eleanore dipped their heads under the water, they froze.
They couldn’t paddle their arms or legs at all.
They just floated, immobile, under the water.
“Mmm!” they both whined repeatedly as they tried to fidget in the water, but neither could budge in the slightest.
Both of them were facing the shore, so they could see Nelson standing there, frowning at them. He took another swig from his almost-empty bottle.
Go on, you old bastard, Cecil thought, scowling. Gloat at us. Shout out, “I told ya so!” Go on. You know you want to.
Eleanore wanted to scream at the top of her lungs, but all she could do was whine as before. Why is this happening to us? she asked herself. Cecil and I never hurt any Indians. Why are they taking their revenge on us?
Because you came here with the rest of the white men, a voice said in her mind’s ear and in that of Cecil. You took our land from us, scorned our religion and culture, and stopped us from practicing it. You all abused us, raped us, beat us, and killed us in massacres and spreading your European diseases onto us. Worst of all, you’ve benefited from our suffering. That’s why you all deserve to die!
Cecil and Eleanore assumed that, no longer able to hold their breath and forced to inhale, they’d pass out, drown, and be put out of their misery. But when they breathed in the water, a strange thing happened: not only did they not pass out and die, they found themselves breathing the water as if their nostrils and mouths were gills! The Indian spirits possessing the water were keeping Cecil and Eleanore alive…for the moment.
As they breathed in the water–which felt as natural to them as breathing in oxygen–they found their bodies slowly merging with it. Nelson watched with horror–a horror only somewhat mitigated by his drunkenness, and not at all mitigated by having seen the same thing many times before–as the couple’s bodies were melting and mixing with the surrounding water. Their undergarments slipped off and floated to the surface while the peach colour of their naked skin stretched out into the water, merged with each other, and began melding with the blue.
Nelson saw a growing, wavy rectangular form made up of the skin colour of both of their melting, merging bodies. The two pairs of terrified eyes, however, stayed where they were and stared at him. He almost heard what those eyes were saying to him.
That rectangular mass of skin colour was slowly changing into the blue of the lake. Those pairs of eyes, though, remained intact and kept staring at him, pleading with him.
Help us, please.
Save us, if you can.
Could he save them? In his staggering drunkenness, Nelson knew, far off in the back of his mind, that he could.
The voices of the Indian ghosts in the lake had said to him, every time he watched all the other deaths as with these two, that he could have saved them…if he’d had the guts. He still could, this time.
All he had to do was replace the couple in the water.
Nelson had come to hate his life. He hated his cowardice, the cowardice that had kept him from saving the lives of the previous victims. He hated himself for running away from his responsibility, and running towards bottles of whiskey.
Getting drunk was an attempt to escape the pain, of course, but it was a failed attempt, every time. This time, however, he was so drunk that he felt fewer inhibitions about going in the water, so this handsome young couple, young enough to have been his own son and daughter, could come out of the water and live the full lives they should have been allowed to live.
So, Nelson? one of the Indian ghosts’ voices asked him, the voice echoing in his mind’s ear. Do you have the courage, finally, to do it this time? Will you demonstrate the truth of your religious beliefs? Will you be an imitator of Christ, go in the water, and die for these two people?
Nelson watched those fading bodies and shuddered.
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends, the Indian voice said. Isn’t that true, Nelson? Are you ready to redeem yourself, your religion, and your people?
Cecil’s and Eleanore’s bodies continued turning blue, and those pleading eyes kept staring into Nelson’s.
He gulped down the last of the whiskey.
A tear ran down his cheek.
He was shaking all over.
You had better hurry, the Indian voice said. Time is running out for the two of them.
“The hell with it,” he slurred, then tossed the empty bottle to the side. “I’ll do it.”
He waded into the water, staggering and stumbling. By the time he was up to his neck in the water, he turned around to face the shore, took a deep breath, looked down at the pairs of eyes in the water one last time, and dipped his head in.
Cecil and Eleanore felt their bodies slowly materializing: blue turned back into the peach colour of their skin, which condensed and reshaped itself into their naked bodies, and they found their undergarments. They rushed out of the water, so eager were they to get out of it that they didn’t care about their exposed nakedness.
They wrung out their undergarments and put them back on; then they put the rest of their clothes back on. Finally fully dressed, they looked out at Nelson in the water.
As motionless as they had been, he was facing them and smiling at them. Eleanore wondered, at first, if his smile was from the lecherous pleasure of seeing her body. Then she realized it was a smile of peace of mind.
It was his body that was melting and dissolving in the water this time. His eyes looked out at Cecil and Eleanore, who looked back at him teary-eyed.
Eleanore couldn’t bear it. “No!” she said, starting back for the water. “We can’t just leave him there to die! We have to–“
“No, Eleanore, no!” Cecil said, grabbing her by the arm and stopping her. “We ain’t goin’ back in there. I won’t let you experience that hell again. He’s done this for us. He wanted to. Don’t refuse it. Look at his face. He’s found peace.”
Indeed, they saw a dissolving face with a smile and eyes that shone peace of mind, something he hadn’t felt in years.
Soon, all that was left were Nelson’s floating clothes and those peaceful eyes.
Then the eyes faded away, too.