Mila’s hair clung to her neck, rain running down her arched back to meet the loam at the edge of the lake. She stared down over her knees towards it, saw her feet resting in the lap and pull of the water. Her trainers were half submerged in the lenient mud, saturated and stained with a dark maroon. But she took no notice. She was watching the water lilies. Infatuated with the rain beading on their pristine petals and deep green pads; with the way it rolled seamlessly across their faces and into the water. They were unaware of the wind swimming through their colony; musing, undisturbed on the surface of the lake and glistening ornamental in the dawning light. It had been almost five years since she last came here. Five years since she planted the first. The first and only lily in this lake. And now there were hundreds, hundreds of children to that single lily. Her lily; a miracle mother. Creator of the uncreated.
Nature was a beautiful thing, she thought.
The wind briefly lifted into the trees beyond the lakeshore, the leaves whispering behind her ears, comforting the hard steady beat in her chest with a sound like blankets slipping from beds; unseen warmth to wrap her up, to help her forget the creeping cold which drew the damp of her clothes closer to her skin.
If only she could forget. This scene before her. If only she could un-see the girl. Her petite frame, flawless; the pale green halo of her eyes, soft yet keen; her luscious swathe of dark hair blooming around her head, undulating above her shoulders. She was captured. A still; immaculate and unfathomable. Mila knew she should forget. Remembering was wrong, perverse, self-indulgent. But she couldn’t. It was impossible. The image was painted with the precision of a perfect and mesmerising reality, framed forever by her retinas in the gallery of her mind.
Beauty was a disturbing thing, she thought.
Again, the wind took to the trees. Mila frowned, peering sidelong over her shoulder toward the sky-bound branches. Somewhere amidst the thicket, was a low, sometimes high, sometimes in-between hum; metal-song, melting through the canopy to kiss the lake. To kiss the pale green halos closed.
It was wind chimes.
A few minutes wandered away, left her alone with the humming; the rain; the lilies. Mila smiled. Just a curl at the corner of her lips. Just for a moment.
Removing her shoes, Mila got to her feet. She watched her toes. Clenched them therapeutically, kneading the soft paste of wet sand and earth between them. The water washed timid around her ankles, that dark maroon yearning for a step, just a step, deeper. Mila looked up into the rain, blinking away the beads that formed in the corners of her eyes. She took a deep breath. Gazed back across the lake. Began to walk, stepping beyond the strand; out into the lilies.
The rain slowly faded. As Mila reached the girl, it stopped all together, the water left to loll gently at her navel. She looked down at the tiny child before her. She wore a long, lilac nightdress which floated loose around her flat figure, and a pair of peach patterned ankle socks, both gone threadbare at the heels. She couldn’t have been more than six years old.
Mila turned her eyes to the girl’s arms, bare and upturned, deep plumb grooves stretching the length of her forearms. An occasional slow ooze of dark maroon seeped into the water; sleek wisps fading under the lilies and returning to the soft earth of the shoreline. Mila glanced back at the small girl’s face, met with her final expression: eyes still glistening, parted lips blooming, skin glowing in a sunburnt orange as the morning peaked the trees.
She wept until the sunrise had dried her hair.
She couldn’t bring herself to touch the girl, to carry her out of the water. The thought of lifting her from the pall of sanguine felt wrong, almost damaging. Like taking a child from its mother, or picking flowers grown by a stranger’s grave. Instead, Mila returned to the shore. She slipped her feet back into the sodden trainers and ducked back into the woods, following the secret trail she’d carved as a child until she reached the old caravan, where she washed herself of the dried murk water and changed into some fresh clothes.
The caravan had been her grandfather’s once, and much like the man himself, it hadn’t aged well; a lopsided shell, undercarriage rusting away, the interior outdated and prone to mildew. But it was, apparently, hardy; Mila had brought it here the same year she planted her lily, and hidden it behind the Hornbeam. She’d planned to use it as pit-stop, had been preparing a hiking trip for that same year. But in the end, she never found the time to go hiking. Life was in the way.
So she forgot about it. Until last August, when, after quitting her job and leaving her partner, she remembered the lake, the lily and the caravan. When she remembered that she never did go on that hike. She’d thought the caravan would be gone, reclaimed by the woods and eaten up by ivy, or perhaps discovered by travellers and broken down for parts. But seemingly neither had wanted it – when she returned, over-filled rucksack heavy on her back, it was still there. Still standing, still hidden behind the Hornbeam, rusting quietly.
Reuben bolted into the woods. A shaken stag fleeing the threat of a hunter’s rifle. He darted through the thicket, flashing beyond the Hornbeam, careering through the leaves towards the lake. His father, Henry, had returned; a poignant look in his eye; the trigger-finger in his mouth quivering, swollen with apprehension and regret. But Reuben had left long before he finished his sentence. He was trying and trying to outrun his father’s words, hoping they might run out of breath and get lost on the wind long before they could reach him.
She wasn’t dead. If he didn’t hear it, she wasn’t dead. Reuben could feel the desperate echo of his father pressing at the nape of his neck. So he kept running. Kept running until he reached the lakeside treehouse he’d built as a child.
He hadn’t been there in years. He was far too old to go climbing trees. But he never had dismantled it. He had left it untouched in the hope it would one day bring joy to another. Had even left his mother’s wind chimes. The ones which had kept him safe. Whose songs had kept the tree monsters at bay when he stayed out to play too late at night. But he needed them again. He needed them now. They could stop him from hearing his father. They could keep reality at bay.
Reuben watched the lake from his treehouse. It had always been Isabel’s favourite place to be. Back in the summer, she and Reuben would go swimming in the warm water, diving down to the bottom in search of the elusive freshwater fish. And in the winter, they would rush down from the house, every day, to see if this time it had frozen over. It never did. But every year they hoped that it would. Every day there was a chance it might have been. They hoped that one day they might walk precariously to its middle, and dance together, just because they could.
Reuben scowled; the water was so still now, that in the right light, he could have believed that it was frozen. In fact, he couldn’t remember a time when it had been so still as it was now, of a time it was so close to seeming the way that they had always wanted it to be.
‘No!’ he yelled at the water, ‘that’s not fair! Not now! Why Now? How dare you!’ his cries burst through the cracks of the treehouse walls.
As his voice died in the air, Reuben became suddenly aware of the silence. The wind had secretly subsided and the whole of the lake, all of the trees, everything in this place seemed to be dying. Reuben shook his head, dashed a hand through the sleeping wind chimes – a disharmonious clang of startled metal. He jumped from the treehouse and ran towards the lake, seizing a small rock as he hurtled toward the shore. Screaming, he slung the stone into the air and watched it as it came crashing down into the water, causing an armada of miniature waves to retreat from the impact, to resettle closer to the shore. The wind chimes had settled too, their gentle sway-song drifting out from the treehouse.
Reuben lowered his head, staring into his reflection, the watery eyes shimmering uneasy. It was then that he noticed something in his peripheral. Something different with in water. Something that had never been there before. He stared, enthralled. It was impossible. Beautiful.
Reuben lowered to his knees.
It was a waterlily.
A single, lone waterlily.
‘For how long, Reuben?’
When Reuben reluctantly told his father, he didn’t understand. But how could he? Henry never really understood any of them. Not Reuben, nor his mother, not even his own daughter – and he loved Isabel the most.
When her mother died suddenly, he chose to bring Isabel home. After all those years of lies and deceit, he finally brought her home. He told Reuben’s mother everything, watched her leave them behind, hardly blinking as she faded down the old dirt track. He brought Isabel home because he couldn’t bear to let her go, to leave her alone. Because she reminded him of her mother, the woman he really loved. Because she meant more to him than anyone else. And he thought she loved him as much as he loved her. Thought that she couldn’t love anyone other than him.
But the man never did understand any of them. Not Reuben, nor his lover, not even his own daughter – and he loved her the most.
‘For how long, Reuben?’
‘A lily for every day,’ Reuben whispered, as his hands sunk the rhizome into the water. ‘For every day we loved; for every day we lied; for every day without you.’ The lily settled on the surface, drifted slowly towards the first, nudging against the deep green pads. He sat, in silence, for some time.
As each day crawled by, Reuben became more and more withdrawn. He and his father had never spoken much before, but now they barely uttered a word to one another. Henry still cherished his granddaughter though. Didn’t blame her. It wasn’t her fault.
Emily reminded him of Isabel; a mirror image of her mother when she was just a child. He watched her with Reuben, saw how she adored him in a way that he never could. Saw now how she adored him, just like her mother had. But he also saw Reuben. How his dull eyes were freezing over. How he spent most nights in his treehouse down at the lake. How he spent more time with the lilies than his daughter. It was clear he blamed himself. For failing to say something sooner. For not standing before his father and forcing him to realise what he’d refused to see for so long.
Henry felt just as guilty. He still struggled with all of it. Struggled knowing that Emily would grow up without her mother. Struggled knowing that his beloved Isabel took her own life because she couldn’t bear to tell him the truth.
Because she’d never loved him like he thought she did.
Mila needed to return to the lake. Having been in such a conflicted and peculiar state of mind, her desperation to leave and forget what she’d seen had meant she also forgot to bring back her camera. When she’d first arrived at the lake, first saw the girl amongst the lilies, she’d left it at the edge of the woods, hung it from a tree on a low stunted branch.
Mila had been a keen photographer for some time. It was part of the reason why she left her life behind, why she came back to do the hike she’d never had time for. She brought the camera with her so she could capture every moment. After all, it was an instant camera, and that was exactly what she wanted – perfect reproductions of every vast blue sky, every dusty trail, every gorgeous flower. She wanted, by the end, to have an entire album dedicated to this trip, dedicated to encapsulating every fine detail, every instance. That camera was the only one she had and the rest of her journey was still to be uncovered, still waiting to be pictured perfectly. She wasn’t about to leave it behind.
Mila reached the edge of the thicket. The camera was exactly where she had left it, hanging from the tree, lens glinting in the sunlight. As she lifted it down from the branch, she couldn’t help looking back towards the lake. The girl was still there, floating peacefully. Mila looked back into the trees. She could feel the camera in her hands, warm from the glow of the early morning sun. She shut her eyes, dug her teeth into her bottom lip. The wind chimes were still swaying gently. Still singing solemn.
When Henry awoke that morning, he peered into Emily’s room to see if she was still sleeping. When he saw that Emily wasn’t even in her room, he was surprised. It was unusual, since it was a Sunday, and Emily had always enjoyed sleeping-in on a Sunday.
‘Emily?’ he called, making his way into the living area. He thought that perhaps if she were awake, she may have gone to play with her small wooden figurines. The ones he’d carved for her a few months earlier. She always had loved those little wooden people, the animals too. Said they all lived on a farm together, under the dinner table. But the figurines were still toppled on the floor, untouched from the night before and Emily wasn’t there.
She wasn’t anywhere in the house.
Henry checked the time. Reuben would normally have been up from the treehouse by now. Normally he’d be eating breakfast or changing his clothes before wandering back down to the lake. Before returning to his lilies. Perhaps he was just up earlier than usual today. Maybe they both were. If so, Emily would have seen her father in his morning routine. She would likely have asked to go with him. She always liked to watch Reuben tending to the lilies. Said that they were special. Said that they reminded her of her mother, because she was beautiful too.
A lump was forming in Henry’s throat. It made him feel uneasy. Perhaps he would go down to the lake. Make sure everything was okay.
Henry stood in the small room. The lump in his throat was growing larger. He wasn’t sure just how long the caravan had been here, or how he’d never come across it before. But clearly it had been hiding behind the Hornbeam for some time; everything was faded inside and out, rusting, forgotten. Everything, except for one small, almost imperceptible detail.
When Henry had stumbled upon the caravan, he thought that Emily might have been inside. Thought maybe she knew about it; a secret place for her to visit, just like Reuben’s treehouse. But she wasn’t here either.
She wasn’t here because she was at the lake.
‘Reuben,’ he whispered, ‘what have you done?’
Henry dropped the photo, hands trembling. Then he began to walk.
Stepping beyond the Hornbeam.
Back toward the lilies.