THE LI-LO IN LAKE VENERY (EXCERPT)

          I had to admit Mount Venery wasn’t terribly impressive, as far as mountains and their namesake towns were concerned, but at the top of Mount Venery was Lake Venery and that was worth the four hour drive from the city. Mount Venery had once been an active volcano, hundreds and hundreds of years ago, but now it was home to the largest, deepest crater lake in the whole country. In winter and at times of full cloud cover the lake was a deep gunmetal colour which was faintly gothic and ultimately depressing. On a sunny day, though, the water became a marvellously photogenic jewel-toned green. I could never remember the exact reason why - calcium deposits or algal blooms or something like that - but it attracted tourists from hundreds of miles around. They came, they ascended, they photographed, and they moved onto the next town in time for afternoon tea. Tourists were strange to me, but then I’d never travelled much. It seemed that if you found a place you liked you might as well stay there for a bit.

          In the two weeks since my boyfriend Nick and I had moved to Mount Venery I’d walked around the lake every morning, and it always surprised me how utterly devoid of people it was. At three in the afternoon you might spot a few frozen-looking tourists shuffling about the cobbled lookout towers, but at six in the morning - my preferred walking time - the path around the lake was consistently empty. I think it was my effusive descriptions of solitude that made Nick start coming on the walks with me. We didn’t walk together so much as we walked simultaneously: I was a faster walker than he was, so I’d set off and immediately find myself twenty or thirty paces ahead of him, but from time to time I would pause to admire the view and he would catch up, make a passing remark on some flora or fauna he’d spotted and immediately fall behind again. It was a very pleasant system.

          On the nineteenth day of September I took my fourteenth walk around Lake Venery. We almost didn’t go that day. We had woken up at four thirty to the sound of wind battering through the pines and against our cabin. “Maybe not a good day for a walk,” Nick said.

          “We’ll see,” I said, but I was skeptical. Nick grunted something and pulled me against his chest.

          By the time my alarm went off, though, the wind had stilled to the point where it was no longer an acceptable reason not to leave the cabin. Besides, I was as yet unemployed and had nothing else to fill my day with, and Nick was the same. He eyed me clambering out of bed balefully and started reaching about for the nearest flannel shirt. He had really taken to wearing flannel shirts since we’d arrived, and I couldn’t pretend I hated it.

          The trip around the lake took ninety to one hundred minutes, dependent on the wind that day, and you couldn’t see the lake for the first part of the walk because it was obscured by trees. The wait was almost the best part of all, though. It took a solid fifteen to twenty minutes of walking before you finally got a clear view of the water, and then, without warning, it jolted into view: the perilous drop-off of the crater walls into a distant, faintly threatening pool of jellied, glowing green.

          I lurched around the corner, bracing myself for the pleasure of it, drawing a breath before allowing myself to take it all in: empty-skied, still and crisp.

          There was a lady in the lake.

          Surely sixty feet below, maybe more, lying still in its very centre.

          The lady in Lake Venery was lying on what appeared to be a li-lo or some kind of inflatable mattress, her body relaxed into a sprawl as if she were sleeping. I squinted, trying to make out if her eyes were open. It took a couple of seconds for her face to swim into a recognisable shape, but I eventually managed to make out her mouth, her nose, and finally the shadowy crescents of two closed eyes. I could hear Nick rustling along the path.

          “Nick,” I hissed, “Nick, Nick, Nick, Nick, Nick, Nick.”

          Nick furrowed his eyebrows and was about to say something but, seeing my face, hurried quietly over. He told me later that he thought perhaps I’d seen an interesting goanna, or a hawk in a tree eating a rat. Instead, he followed my gaze down to the water and drew in a breath so sharp I felt it in the back of my own throat.

          “How,” I said, and failed to complete the question. I pulled my phone out of my pocket, readying myself for some kind of action, although I had no idea what.

          “I’m going to call out to her,” said Nick.

          “No-“ I said, “what if you scare her?”

          At that moment a hawk really did unbundle itself from a nearby tree, let out a staggering scream, and launched itself into the greyness above. It shrank into a pinpoint silhouette within seconds, but its cry echoed across the crater. I held my breath, and then it happened: the lady in the lake opened her eyes.

          Nick reached out and silently grabbed my hand.

          The lady on the li-lo moved her head around slightly, stiffly, calmly scanning the perimeter of the crater for the origin of the noise. Eventually, thrillingly, her eyes met mine. I felt as if I were coming face to face with a rare deer, or a giant squid. I felt, strangely, a desire for her to like me.

          We stared at one another for a moment more.

          Then she opened her mouth.

          Then she started screaming.


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