By that point my mother was no longer among the living and so there was no one to warn me about Willow Pond.
I never married or had children, and I suppose Aunt Margot chose to leave her worldly goods to me simply because, like her, I was alone. She could have just as easily given the money to the local dog pound, a place where she had donated her services well into her eighties. Something is to be said for pity, as I was planning an early semi-retirement and her place, an old farmhouse sitting next to a pond surrounded by ancient willows would serve me well.
Upon her attorney mailing me the house keys, I courageously rented a car. I rarely drove and had never driven a manual. So it was my misfortune that the only compact available on the lot was a stick shift. Still my spirits were high as I travelled down small country lanes and through quaint villages still unacquainted by the likes of Walmart or Kentucky Fried Chicken. In fact, I was wondering exactly how desolate the area was when I spotted a gas station complete with a convenience store attached. I heaved a sigh of relief, grateful that some vestiges of civilization remained in this rural outpost. I fuelled up the tank, bought some supplies, and checked my directions to the property. The station attendant gave good directions and within three quarters of an hour I turned into a drive, quite overgrown, but recognizable for the statues of lions guarding the gates on the stone wall.
I hadn’t been there since a young child, and though I remembered that some unpleasantness had unfolded there, I couldn’t remember exactly what. My mother preferred not to discuss my father’s side of the family, understandable after the divorce, and so I never sought out the story of my one visitation with Aunt Margot.
The house was smaller than I remembered it; of course when I was last there I was much smaller. Warned that the front door’s lock was difficult, I headed round the back to the screened in porch facing the glade that revealed the pond. The sun was still high in the sky this late afternoon of a rather warm midsummer’s day. I couldn’t help but to think that all too soon the sun would drop behind those massive willows and the prolonged gloaming would come.
The lands were overgrown, no doubt due to my grand-aunt’s infirmity towards the end. In rural areas there is little that one can keep private and the service station attendant, a thin, bucolic man with a lopsided grin, certainly remembered her. “She was as mad as a hatter towards the end,” he said as he rung me up. “Adult services got called in, but she died before they could place her in a home.” He laughed to himself and shook his head. “She’d tell the darnedest stories, she did. Things in the water, and she wouldn’t drink anything from the well. Came here for bottled water nearly everyday. And when she got too old she asked my cousin to bring her bottled water and groceries.” He sighed. “She was good about recycling, too.”
I smiled. She loved dogs and cared about the environment. And she cared to give me a home, too. I felt bad about not being there for her. But Philadelphia was a world apart, and she never contacted me to let me know she needed help.
I wondered if her dying in her own home was a blessing. My own mother spent several years in a nursing home before her death, and being a dutiful daughter, I visited her twice weekly, listening to her reminisce and regret that she was no longer on her own. I should think it much nicer to die in familiar surroundings than an institution where choice was often removed for the convenience of those who ran the place.
My thoughts continued to ramble. But as I caught my first glimpse of the pond, my stomach turned and I trembled as if my body were covered in fine cobwebs. The trees were still bigger than life, with a couple uprooted and rotting. The pond itself, while not overly large, contained a black stillness, as if the depths were far greater than the length or width. Something in the water…and then the thought fled. The leaves of the willows dangled, giving the impression of being in the South where Spanish moss adorned the boughs of trees. The color of the leaves was a soft sage green, an unnaturally muted shade reminding me of fungus. I felt very cold now, with a shiver heading down my back and spreading through my extremities.
The path to the front door was completely lost in overgrown shrubs. However, the path to the back of the house facing the pond was open and easy to walk in spite of the weeds. I took out the keys and slipped them into the old style lock on the back porch. Piles of newspapers tied for recycling, and never collected, towered all around me. A glance at the date showed that that one particular pile had been awaiting its fate for the past decade. The newspaper canyons filled the back porch, effectively blocking off the natural light. The kitchen door easily swung open, and I prepared myself for a barrage of smells. But there were none. The fridge was unplugged and cleaned out–who had taken the liberty to be so helpful? Perhaps the attorney paid someone, more than likely so. Yet the newspapers had been left–too burdensome to remove? I walked over to the kitchen tap, the style of which was mid-1950s, and turned it on. After a few burbles of air, rusty water gushed out. At the convenience store, I had picked up bottled water along with a can of beef stew and some fresh fruit. In places like this people could get heavy metal poisoning from the water pipes, or become ill from a polluted well. Aunt Margot had been wise enough to take precautions, hadn’t she? Still, I was glad for the running water. I rinsed off my face and patted it on the back of my neck, removing the stickiness accumulated during my long drive. Looking through the window over the kitchen sink, I again spotted the pond through the willows. Already the trees were blocking out the setting sun, leaving the world dark with the sky still a bright light blue.
I walked through the small dining room to the hallway. A cozy living room faced me, and to my left the hall ran back to the stairs for the upper floor. I felt some apprehension about going up those stairs. The original farmhouse was colonial and the ceilings quite low, making me feel claustrophobic. Those stairs were even more cramped and I resisted my curiosity to see the upper floor while the shadows were gathering. Perhaps tomorrow morning I would be in a more suitable frame of mind to explore? I went around turning on the lights. For all the pile up of newspapers, the downstairs was tidy, Spartan even. The living room had a large modern couch, quite out of fashion with the rest of the building, but it was wide and long enough for me to sleep on.
I sat and turned on the television. There was no cable box, and snow rained on the stations. I turned off the set but stayed there. Crickets chirped in my ears, and then a screeching sound, cicadas I thought. Having lived most of my adult life in the city, I could not be sure if the annoying clicking sound was indeed insect made. With the dwindling of the light, the fauna of the area began its evening serenade. Exhausted by the long drive, I closed my eyes and picked out the low sound of bullfrogs calling to each other. People complain of the incessant noise of the cities, but here deep in the country life presented its own racket as every species croaked or shrieked its own cacophony of lust.
I dosed off and awoke with a start at the crack of lightning and then the dull roar of thunder. It was the heavy, dense feel of heat lighting rather than an actual storm. I was glad I had turned on the lights before my nap; waking in a strange place in the dark would have worked nerves that were already acting up. I had forgotten how noisy the great outdoors could be, but also how strange to have the awareness that not another person was around for miles.
I headed to the kitchen to make some dinner for myself. Clean plates sat neatly stacked in a rack near the sink. I located a saucepot in a cabinet near the old white porcelain stove and heated up my can of stew. I sat in the dining room wishing that the television worked and regretting that my purse was in the car with the library paperback still inside; I didn’t feel like heading out in the dark to the driveway to find it. Perhaps if I found a flashlight, but then I yawned and realized that the long drive, the excitement of a change of scenery and the fresh air combined to create a sleeping pill far superior than anything put out by the pharmaceutical companies. I wouldn’t need a book to help me sleep after all. As I washed the saucepan and dish, another crack of lightning and roar of thunder hit. In the flash of light, I could have sworn I saw movement out by the pond. The dish fell from my shocked, suddenly numb hands and broke. Swallowing, trying hard not to panic, I turned off the water as my thoughts careened.
My mind presented me with a long-forgotten old nightmare from my childhood: Blackish-brown muddy appendages all tangled with algae reaching up, grabbing my ankles, and then a sharp tug. I fell and was pulled down under the black glass surface. The pond was been shallow at that end, but I remember the light above me retreating as I was towed to the muck below. My parents had only been a few yards away. Recovery was swift and I remember shaking as they put me into an old enameled bathtub filled with hot water. My mother clucked over me, admonishing me that I shouldn’t have gone so close to the edge. Was it a dream or memory? No, it was memory. That part of the visit, so blissfully repressed, became even more strongly felt, bursting through with greater vigor due to the years it has been so deeply submerged.
Movement and the ripples of the deadly black waters taught me that my imagination had not played my memory false. I knew what was down there now: something with silver, reflective eyes, craving my flesh.
Though my flesh was no longer young, I did not hesitate to run from the house as fast as I could. My keys were by the back door and I was loathed to waste the time of trying to go out through the front, even though it meant going nearer to it, them, whatever it was that had waited so patiently for my return.
Stacks of newspaper wobbled, and then fell behind me as I careened through the canyons of paper. The door creaked behind me. Roots and uneven patches of turf nearly tripped me as I made my way through the overgrowth to the drive. The car keys were in my hand as I yanked open the unlocked door, but another crack of lightening showed me further movement coming from the water’s edge. Amorphous shapes crawled along the ground: amphibian-like in their glossy luminosity. I didn’t know how many because the smothering dark had returned after the lightening flash. They might be humanoid and on all fours, but I thought not. The eyes did not seem to be in pairs but rather cast all over their bodies. I kept thinking that it was a host of infernal beings. But what if it was simply one huge mass of flesh covered by eyes.
My hands shook so badly that the keys dropped to the floor of the car. A deadly silence fell, no crickets or frogs made their mating cries. It was too dark to find the keys and I fumbled for the interior light switch, cursing my unfamiliarity with the rental’s dashboard. Another flash of lightning lit up both the sky, again giving me a gut wrenching glimpse at whatever it was out there glistening in the dark. It had already crossed by half the expanse between me and the pond. My fingers touched something metallic and I found the keys. My entire body was palsied with fear and after two attempts I managed to get the keys into the lock.
A sound, a slurping as if one was walking on the gooey thick sludge of a bay at low tide reached me. With the sound came a smell of dead leaves fetid with mold such as one would smell at the end of November. I gagged and ground the key in the lock. I feared that I would flood the unfamiliar car.
My hands refused to obey me as I continued to turn the motor over. The cloying smell of gas and the terror of a potentially flooded engine assailed me. Beyond the sounds and the smell of the car it was out there. I did a quick count and turned the key again. This time the engine caught with a feeble protest, just as something landed on the hood. I whimpered and sent the car crashing into reverse, destroying a forsythia bush or two as I drove at as high a speed as I dared. I hadn’t even put the headlights on—didn’t want to see if they were following. In blind panic, I drove straight backwards until I came to the end of the long driveway. Even then I did not stop to check for cars but slammed into forward and safety.
I wasn’t able to catch my breath even as the miles sped under me, and the tremor in my hands never diminished but rather grew greater until I feared I would lose control of them entirely.
My plans for early, partial retirement are replaced by disability payments. I never returned to Willow Pond and rather than allow others to suffer my fate, I had the building razed, and the pond drained and filled.
Anxiously I awaited reports of what they would find there in the muck. What vile creatures would be revealed? On the phone, my demands to know what they found were met by a polite silence.
The tremors continued to spread through my body, making it nearly impossible to hold a pencil or work on a computer.
I can no longer dress or feed myself. A night attendant helps me navigate the hours after dark. As the illness worsens, I fear I shall have to move to some hospice or institution to live out my days. Perhaps I should kill myself.
I laugh when my doctors tell me I have sudden onset multiple sclerosis.
I know it was the pond. Its miasma contained some toxin that wreaks havoc on the brain and nervous system, creating illness and hallucinations. I have no other explanation since the workers I employed to drain that deadly water found no creatures.
Yet my memories, both from my childhood and that singular night, taunt me. When my eyelids droop from exhaustion, the image of a myriad of shining eyes comes before me and I jerk awake, shrieking.
Days and nights merge, I am never quite awake, and never fully asleep. There is no respite.
“The water, the water…” I scream and grasp her hand, as the visiting nurse sedates me.