Fiction

Lake

Translated by: 
JohnMcGlynn

The immense basin entices bees, grasshoppers and birds, and causes the wind to hasten the union of pollen with the pistils of wild plants that circle the lake’s edge. The light reflecting off the surface of its calm waters and the effusive freshness of the surrounding air attract people too. They bring along sturdy old planks and make simple benches on the shore. 

 

After a few months, when the soil that had slid down from surrounding slopes begins to harden, an ever-growing number of visitors recollect the massive landslide and try to calculate how many people had died or were lost; how large an area of land had been displaced; and how many kilometres of asphalt road had been torn up, isolating the area completely. The basin, like an immense earthenware bowl created by nature in just one night, was now filled with water on which lotus flowers would grow, in which fish would come to live, and whose bottom would be covered with algae. 

 

The hills and mountains stand guard around it. Born from the horrific aftermath of an earthquake, the lake would, many years later, become a haven where people would wipe their tears as they remembered the many misfortunes the disaster had brought. 

 

That was approximately the start of the story Zara intended to write for Fayza, one that might take the form of a novel – or perhaps even a trilogy – requiring many years for her to complete. 

 

She had come up with the plan a long time ago: to set aside enough time to compose a story about a lake that had formed after an earthquake or a landslide. The story, as she sees it in her mind, is that of a lone researcher who meets a strong woman – a woman like Fayza. Zara also imagines the final, lonely days of an elderly man, a former dictator, who spends his time reflecting on the results of his oppression and who, one day, when he is at the shore in his wheelchair musing about the past, is pushed into the lake by his faithful nurse. 

 

At the wooden dining table, littered with bread crumbs and grains of sugar fallen from hasty spoons, Zara confides her plan. This isn’t the first time she has spoken of her intent to write a lengthy story. 

 

The restaurant in the small hotel on the outskirts of Amsterdam is theirs, or at least it seems that way to them, this group of researchers who have just ended a long journey. And all their attention is focused on Zara’s plan, which seems so out of place amid the snippets of conversation about changes in the ecosystem, particularly ones resulting from the reclamation, sedimentation, and evaporation of lakes. 

 

It’s still early in the morning, and other guests at the hotel have yet to appear for breakfast. The waitress arranging the breakfast buffet, who yawns from time to time, wears a smile as tart as yoghurt. 

 

One of the group stops stirring his coffee to focus on what Zara is saying. Others continue spreading peanut butter on warm pieces of toast, as Zara begins a conversation about their pending departure with the question, ‘Do any of you have an interesting story about love or life? I want to write a novel in memory of my sister....’ 

 

The long journey they’ve made together has made them very close. One after another revealed to her what was in their minds and hearts. After the research journal was closed each evening, and as sleeping bags were opened in the field at the base of the dark and looming mountain, the buzzing of night bugs became the background sound for the stories they told before falling asleep. Zara listened to her friends talk about husbands, wives, loves, children, and the homes they missed. One talked about his failure to get into military service. Meanwhile, as she thought about Fayza with a deep-seated anxiety, Zara also began to imagine the outlines of the lengthy tale that she wanted to write. 

 

‘After this expedition is over, I am going to write,’ Zara whispered to her friend who was already asleep. She heard in the distance an owl whose call seemed to echo the news of her plan. 

 

And this morning, in the middle of a hastily eaten breakfast, she repeated her wish. 

 

One of the group gave Zara a look of concern, thinking that she might be depressed after all those days she had spent noting in her journal fluctuations in temperature and soil acidity, along with changes in vegetation. Maybe she was under the influence of the miserably cold and persistent northern air that had penetrated their tents and sleeping bags. Or perhaps the many days she had spent traversing the lakelands and plains of Finland, before going to the Netherlands to visit areas where lakes once had been before they disappeared, had instilled in Zara the inspiration to convey a noble message – like a holy man after a long term of meditation. 

 

Members of the research group had risen at dawn to pack. Some of them now formed smaller groups, preparing to head off on vacation. A couple of members had chosen to return directly to their own countries – the usual kind of thing that happens at the end of an expedition. 

 

As a cup of Earl Grey tea steeped, Zara gulped down a bowl of cereal at this breakfast-departure meeting. ‘Where are you off to, Zara?’ ‘Jakarta.’ 

 

Zara said her goodbyes. Her friends waved and wished her farewell in various ways and languages before continuing their own breakfasts and conversation. 

 

‘See you at the conference in Montana, Zara! Don’t forget to bring your novel with you!’ 

 

This was the farewell call that stuck in Zara’s mind as the taxi took her to the airport. To her ears, the comment had sounded more like ridicule than serious feeling. 

 

‘Oh, but just you wait! Didn’t Galileo write poetry even in the midst of calculating how rivers flow and building telescopes to study the universe?’ 

 

On the lake bed are a church and the houses that had mysteriously vanished seventy years before. And now the lake had disappeared, in just a single night – like a huge bathtub whose stopper had been pulled and its waters sucked out by a mysterious force. The news that morning had its source in a drowsy-eyed fisherman who had called the police to inform them of the disappearance of the lake in the Russian village of Bolotnikovo. 

 

The inhabitants of the village gathered. Many cancelled the activities they had planned for the day, choosing to pray instead. This was not a good sign. It would be best not to go far. Two young people, who could barely 

 

stand on their own two feet after a drunken night at a bar in the neighbouring town, were muttering, ‘That ghost in the lake is at it again – and this time he’s stolen all the water!’ 

 

Journalists and researchers, arriving at the location at almost the same time, find nothing but a mud-filled lake bottom. A Russian official informs the press that the area is located above a series of underground caves, that seismic activity had caused the walls between the caves to crumble, thereby creating an immense underground cavern that swallowed all the water that had filled the lake’s basin. But what had happened to the fish, the moss, the algae and tadpoles? Where will we go fishing and swimming now, the little children whine as they pull on their mothers’ dresses. An elderly woman says, apathetically, ‘This is all America’s doing!’ 

 

Zara wanted to tell the story about Lake Beloye whose waters had suddenly disappeared and to expound on the superstitions she had recorded in the village of Bolotnikovo: the frightening tale about a church and a row of houses at the edge of the lake which suddenly disappeared tens of years ago but still gave people the shivers. 

 

Would Fayza like her stories of the mysterious beings that lived in the lake and who were said to appear only to abduct human beings? 

 

‘And just what kind of being was it that abducted you, Fayza?’ 

 

Schiphol Airport 

 

In the quiet airport lounge, Zara put together a number of stories in her mind. Around her were three dark-blue sofas with soft cushions; two plasma televisions broadcasting sightseeing ads non-stop; a woman in a flashy­coloured dress, sitting with her head down and trying to stay awake; a man in a wrinkled shirt with sleeves hiked up to his elbows, who had stretched out his legs on a small grey Samsonite suitcase, was reading a book on whose cover were the words ‘The World is Flat’.Beside him was a young woman with a huge North Face knapsack. Zara could picture the girl almost falling over backwards as she entered the plane’s cabin shouldering the knapsack that seemed to hold within it half the contents of the world. 

 

Look at all those people, all dressed differently, yet headed for the same destination and waiting together for the first morning flight. 

 

Zara had never before opened her eyes so wide to observe a group of individuals. For all the countless airports, harbours, and public places she had passed through, this was the first time she had taken the time to focus her attention entirely on the movements of the people around her. 

 

She thought of the two lakes in two different places: one created almost instantly, following an earthquake and massive landslide; the other ingested in an instant by a secret cavern in the Earth’s belly, which had taken into its maw everything that had once been above it, leaving behind on the surface only a concave bowl as wrinkled as an old orange peel. 

 

What kind of stories and people must she create to accompany Fayza’s own horrific tale? 

 

A small house stuffed with memories: that is where the two of them had spent their childhood. In Zara’s young eyes, the sky had always seemed to be so close, as if it had somehow been pulled downward to serve as a backdrop for the small lake visible in the distance from the window in their home. At that lake, Fayza had taken her boating, swimming, fishing, and to pick lotus blooms. But it was not until many years later, after Zara had explored lakes in the northern hemisphere which were frozen in winter and rippled with a brilliant shimmer in summer, that she became truly aware of how close the sky felt; so close, in fact, that it hovered directly above the lake’s surface as if to see its clear reflection better. The sky seemed to be gazing at itself, checking its appearance. One time, that astonishing sight convinced Zara that the lake, with its crystalline surface, was making the lotus blooms and white lilies grow in a reflection of the passing clouds overhead. 

 

Fayza and a thousand related memories passed through her mind, con­stantly swapping places. 

 

‘And what new theory have you come up with today, Miss Lady of the Lakes?’ 

 

With great verve and zest, Zara told Fayza about the lakes in the north – about the rate of evaporation in closed lakes, about sedimentation, pollution, and strangely shaped artificial lakes. 

 

‘What I like about a lake, Zara, is that it is nothing more than a cavity in the middle of a wide space. A lake is not a river that flows to the sea; it’s not the ocean either, which makes one afraid when thinking about where the closest shore might be. A lake is an expanse of water that we can enjoy without being worried about a strong wind that might suddenly come up, or about tides or storms. Because the far edge of a lake is usually visible, even if only faintly, we are less likely to get lost and have to search for a way home. . . .’ 

 

It was Fayza too who had instilled in Zara her love for lakes; it was she who was behind Zara’s early aspiration to become a limnologist. (Such an unfriendly term for something she had been so close to her since childhood!) She studied lakes, ponds, reservoirs – any kind of land-based recess in which fresh water pooled. Fayza, on the other hand, chose to live a life behind resistance banners, leaving behind a life that had been as calm as a lake and a childhood that had been filled with pleasant memories, choosing to forget the feel of the wind as it pushed the boat away from shore and the pleasure to be found plucking lotus blooms. 

 

‘Well, theoretically speaking, Fayza, that body of water where we used to play when we were kids is not, in fact, a lake but a large pond. . . .’ 

 

‘Lake, pond, what’s the difference? Don’t be so serious about everything! Relax in your use of terminology. . . .’ 

 

While Fayza went to the street to clench her fists and unfurl banners, Zara flew to Montana in the USAto join an expedition team. For years, she immersed herself in research, travelling thousands of miles to visit lakes in the northern hemisphere that froze in the winter and sparkled in the summer. 

 

‘Be careful, Fayza....’ 

 

‘You’re the one who should be careful, Zara, living in a foreign country.’ 

 

Schiphol Airport was quiet, with a smattering of drowsy-looking employees on this still dark morning. The terminal shops were still closed. The only busy spot seemed to be a small café from which the smell of coffee emanated. Images of Fayza kept flashing in Zara’s mind, like a string of multi-coloured lights. One memory after another lit up. Oh! The time had come again, the memorial service that always brought her back to Jakarta to meet people who shared the same fate. 

 

In the past, Fayza, the site of Schiphol Airport was a lake. People called it ‘Haarlemmermeer’. It was not a calm and refreshing lake like the one we remember. It was once a fierce and raging battlefield for Dutch and Spanish forces. Who could have imagined that hundreds of years later it would be filled in to become an expanse of shining ceramic floors and glass walls, alive with the din of people coming and going? You once said, Fayza, that a lake 

 

– unlike the ocean – is not a place for the start of an exotic adventure. You said that even from the far side of a lake, you could always see your home shore. You were sure that people boating on the lake were there to go around 

 

it just for pleasure, not planning a distant journey. That’s the reason you gave me for insisting on going out alone in the boat and telling me to stay behind and to wave at you from the shore.’ 

 

(‘I’ll come back for sure!’ you’d say. ‘Don’t worry, Zara. Even if I reach the other side, I’ll still be able to see you waving at me from over there....’) 

 

‘Since time immemorial, Fayza, people have been eliminating the lakes of this planet in order to fulfil their ever more evil and greedy plans. In this country, lakes are filled in to become farmland. Swamps are transformed into industrial zones and toll roads. But when a lake disappears, the landscape’s brilliance also vanishes, bringing tears to the eyes of the hunters of light in these lowlands area. In past centuries, European painters knew that the luminescence around a lake was one of nature’s precious gifts. Stretched out along the horizon and shrouded with a fine spray of water, a lake was something of both incredible and subtle beauty. 

 

Jakarta 

 

Dozens of lowered faces. Tears shining in candlelight. An arrangement of flowers with a ribbon of condolences. And prayers rising into the night sky. A large banner with nine faces unfurled together with memories expressed in quivering voices. For eight years now, the people here had remained trapped in a mysterious tunnel so long that there was no sign of light at its end. Every year, on the day they gather to remember that one tragic day, the ceiling of the tunnel is brilliantly illumined with recollections, but for a moment only. After that, it is dark once more. The walls of the tunnel are etched with heartbreak, despair and revenge. The air that fills their lungs is infused simultaneously with anger, acceptance and hopelessness. It is difficult to breathe. 

 

‘Nothing unusual happened that day. Nobody at home had a premonition or felt that something bad might happen that day. As she always did, Fayza said goodbye when leaving the house, asking only that her room be cleaned before she came home....’ 

 

It was then Zara’s turn to talk about Fayza. The words she spoke, she quoted from Fayza’s diary, a depressing daily record now opened but once a year to be read in public. Year after year, she talked about Fayza saying goodbye, waving as she went out the door. At the gate, she had stopped momentarily to check the protest banners she carried in a cloth bag that was slung over her right shoulder. After that, she disappeared from sight at the end of the street. 

 

Beside Zara, her father and mother held in their arms a photograph of their daughter, a sweetly smiling protestor. The glass frame covering the photograph shimmered with fallen tears, like glistening leaves after a rain. 

 

Zara stepped aside to make room for other people who wished to recount their own memories. 

 

And when the prayers and reflections were complete, when the candles had melted and petals of sorrow been sown on the ground, one of the members of the organising committee of the event shouted out in anger, ‘Tomorrow we will press our demand. It’s been eight years now! And still they’re not willing to express even a token apology! They are heartless! We must put pressure on them! We cannot rest; we must go on. The disappearan­ces must be resolved, once and for all!’ 

 

A man dressed completely in black approached Zara and firmly shook her hand. ‘Fayza was an incredibly brave activist. She was an inspiration. We will never forget her!’ 

 

Zara said nothing. She recalled the lake in Bolotnikovo, which had vanished in the night. The same that had happened to Fayza. 

 

I want to write a story for you, Fayza, one about a lake that disappeared. . . . 

 

‘It’s late. Time to go home,’ Zara’s mother said. 

 

The gently spoken request jolted Zara to attention. The flower basket in her mother’s hand was empty. The mass of petals for Fayza had been scattered on the ground. The black asphalt on which they lay was spotted purple and white. 

 

For eight years now, they had been making the pilgrimage to this spot. There was no tombstone for Fayza because they were sure that the brave young woman had disappeared only for a while.No, she was not dead, even if reality offered nothing but obfuscation and a scar tissue of memory which grew exponentially against the dwindling of hope. 

 

The flowers scattered at that site, in the corner of the city thought to be the final witness to Fayza and other demonstrators, would be gone tomorrow – possibly blown away by the wind or swept up by street cleaners. 

 

‘Be careful, Fayza....’ 

 

‘You’re the one who should be careful, Zara, living in a foreign country.’ 

 

Zara wanted so much to return to the time that conversation took place. She regretted never having really expressed her fear. 

 

‘Fayza, you are the one who should be more careful in our own homeland. . . .’ 

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