The Dark Pond
by Ana Teresa Pereira
I watched the girl open the gate and stare at the house. There was something wrong with her: her red hair seemed even longer, her red dress shapeless. She was barefoot, but she had always liked to be barefoot. Then I realised what it was: her hair was dripping; her dress clung to her slim body; her feet and her ankles were dirty, dust or mud.
I stepped back from the French window. The drawing-room I had known all my life, the mantelpiece, the Turner watercolour on the wall, the curtains and the sofas of a faded peach colour, the old books on the shelves. The smell of the lavender polish and the yellow daffodils in the vases. She had gone away with the bluebells; she was coming back with the daffodils.
The sense of unreality grew sharper as I sat on Tom’s chair, near the fire. April had gone away seven years before, taking the six o’clock train to London. Everybody believed that, even though her clothes were in the wardrobe, and she was supposed to be getting married the next day.
I felt something like claws in my arms and realised it was my own nails, my well-cared-for nails painted in a soft pink that matched my lipstick. April’s hands were dry, with short nails, sometimes a little dirty. She worked in the garden, she climbed trees and walls, swam in every stream or pond.
I thought vaguely that what a person is shows in her hands and her eyes. We were nearly alike, and the difference people noticed first was the hair. Mine: blond and straight; April’s, in a strange shade of red, like a girl in a painting, and curly. But that was for the others. The real difference was in the eyes: mine are a pure blue, April’s darker, almost grey. And in the hands, mine are nice and soft, April’s thinner and scratched, like claws.
But I had resented those hands; they could create things. Every seed they planted would grow. When she put flowers in a vase, her bony fingers touched them absently, and the thing turned into a work of art. I was the one who got good marks at school; I was a good dancer. April didn’t care for studying or dancing; she went for long walks in the wood; she smelt of heather.
Everybody was surprised when Tom fell in love with April, as if the prince had chosen one of the bad sisters. He had lived in London for years (he worked in a publishing house), then came back to the cottage left to him by the aunt he had grown up with. He took the London train on Monday morning and came back on Friday evening.
The first time we met him on the street, he had eyes only for April. It was a new experience, as if someone was enchanted with my shadow and ignoring me. Soon, I realised I was in love with a man who waited at the gate on Saturday mornings to go for a walk, who rang the bell on Saturday evenings to go to the movies, but not with me.
April and I had always slept in the same room. I was born first and often wished she had stayed inside, forgotten in that other world. She was like the last kitten in a litter: the runt, almost unformed, the one we have to take care of with blankets and milk. I felt that she watched me, the way a bird on the branch of a tree watches another bird eating sweet and bitter fruits. But now I was the one watching, quiet and hungry.
* * *
The day before the marriage she went for one of her walks and didn’t come back. I went looking for her. The lonely path in the wood, the rumor of a spring. The pond in the center of a clearing, heather and bluebells: an eerie place. It was by chance I noticed the coat among the flowers. Inside the pocket were her keys and a few coins. I didn’t mention that, even when there were searches and people said a girl with red hair had been seen at the station with a man.
The knock on the glass startled me, as if I had believed that by keeping quiet the ghost would simply disappear. “Go away,” I whispered.
But the thing knocked again, more firmly. I went to the glass door, and for a moment it felt like I was meeting myself in a deformed mirror. I opened the door. The red hair was dirty, moss and slime, the dress was full of stains and faded, as if it had been under water, the ankles and feet covered with mud. The girl looked very young, very skinny, a girl of nineteen with small breasts and colourless lips.
“What do you want?” The question surprised us both.
The girl tried to say something but, as if the effort was too big, she seemed to lose her strength. I only had time to open my arms and receive the wet, bad-smelling body against my chest.
* * *
She had started wearing her old clothes: the jeans and white T-shirts, the loose dresses. Her hair seemed redder, and her eyes, which had wandered between the blue and the grey in a certain light, were almost green. It was not that she was more beautiful; she was more fey, like a girl in a Pre-Raphaelite painting who slept with the painters.
We lived in a strange harmony. After the first evening, when Tom found us kneeling on the floor, holding each other, a twisted Pietà, we hadn’t talked much. Tom had moved his things to the guest room, and April slept in her old bed, near the window.
I felt guilty, as if I had stolen my sister’s fiancé. It had taken years, a shy friendship, our work together: he used to bring manuscripts on weekends, and I read them. I would make a simple dinner (April had always been the cook, she was handy that way) and, once in a while, we went to the movies.
And then one night he looked up from a manuscript and whispered, “You are so beautiful.” It was as if he was seeing me above her shoulder, among those red hairs he seemed to have counted, to know by heart. He went on: “You are made the same way, your face and your body, but you have different colours.” And then we put the manuscripts aside and solemnly kissed.
He moved in the next weekend. I had cleaned the floor and the stairs with lavender polish. I had washed the curtains and, as in a Jaan Kaplinski poem, had felt strangely sad. I had changed the sheets of the beds in my room, and caught daffodils from the garden, even though there were only fourteen; we never cut them before there were sixteen. I felt the old unease when I put them in the vases; I craved April’s hands, the bony fingers and dirty nails among the flowers. At the end of the spring holidays I didn’t go back to college. I started working at the town library. On Friday evening, I went to the station to wait for him.
* * *
Now I felt the house smelt of heather, heather flowers on a rainy day, as it used to, seven years before. April had taken her place; she slept in her bed; she cooked the meals. She seemed to have a deep knowledge of plants and used strange herbs; I had the fantasy she would poison us with the soup, the fish and potatoes, the dark bread. Sometimes I caught her singing, and those songs made me feel afraid, not only the monotonous melodies I had never heard, but the language; it didn’t sound like any language I knew.
April declared she didn’t remember anything. The doctor said she was all right, she needed rest and food, and her memory would come back. He had seen her only after a hot bath, wearing a nightgown and with her hair humid and clean, drinking coffee and eating toast. So people still believed April had left in the six o’clock train with a man, she had lived in London with a man, and it meant nothing that she looked much younger than I. We didn’t receive visitors and, when she started going out, she was her old self, reserved and quiet. Nobody really expected any explanations.
On Friday, Tom came home on an earlier train, as if he couldn’t stand being away from her. He followed her with his eyes, with the old look of amazement. I once caught them listening to their song: Maybe I’m amazed at the way I really need you.
A strange harmony. He went to London, I went to the library, April stayed at home. She had fetched her painting box from the attic. Sometimes, when I arrived, she was drying the paint from her hands in a dirty cloth.
One day, when she had left for a walk, I opened the drawer of her desk. There were a few watercolours: mist, water, and plants, and some indistinct figures. But for a moment, the figures looked the same: a slim girl walking in dark streets, on mountain paths. Things had passed through her, or through water, and were beautiful and vague, remnants of a time when all was mixed together, before separation. I wondered if she had been there, in the place where things didn’t have form.
She entered the room without making any noise, a little grey cat in her arms. “They recognize me,” she said.
“Some of them are not the same.”
“They are. They are born again and again.”
* * *
Two birds, perhaps the skeletons of two birds, on the branch of a tree, one of them watching the other eat a fruit.
I remembered the three of us playing in the garden, hiding in the fog. We sang all the sinister children’s songs from the movies: “Here we go round the mulberry bush”; “We lay, my love and I, beneath the weeping willow.”
But we had never played together. Tom was a village boy; April and I were the children of the old house. Even though our family was ruined, people still treated us with deference. My father spent the days among his books and sold a painting or a piece of furniture from time to time to keep us going. He was the only one who preferred the pale redhead, the ugly duckling as he called her; when I saw him showing her some illustration in an old book, reading her a long passage as if it were a story, I hated the fey creature that smelt of heather and had her knees wounded most of the time.
Tom no longer shared his manuscripts with me. He read some parts to her, though she cared only for children’s books, the stories by Will Scott, where things didn’t really happen, and The Way to Sattin Shore and The Other Side of the Tunnel.
Like Alice, she fell down a hole. I used to sing to her in the old days, even though Lewis Carroll and mirrors had more to do with me. I spent some time getting dressed for parties, combing my hair. Like a cat, she seemed to feel uneasy when in front of a mirror. What had she felt when she approached the pond?
The pond. They, too, had chosen her. All my life I had walked and lain among the bluebells. We were forbidden to cut them; they died before we arrived home. I was aware of the presence of the trees, the bushes, the birds, the water, familiar water; water recognizes us. But nothing else.
“Where have you been?” I cried one evening. We were in the drawing-room: I, leaning against the window; she sitting near the fire, pretending to read a magazine.
For the first time she didn’t give me that startled look I was getting used to. A slight, ironic smile passed her lips and was gone in a moment.
“Who are you?”
April stared at me, and there was no smile this time, only a cautious expression. She looked terrible lately, she didn’t wash or comb her hair, and it was a dirty red mess. Her hands were rough, her nails filthy. I could sense in her that smell she had never really lost, the smell of mud and slime. She looked into the distance and started humming one of her songs, and as if it was a calling, the little cat that was sleeping on the hearthrug woke up and jumped to her knees. She caressed him under the chin, and he began to purr.
That night, Tom arrived just after supper. When I entered the drawing-room, they were kneeling by the fire, his face hidden in her shoulder, a religious image. She stared at me, and there was a warning in her eyes. I turned back and ran upstairs.
I woke up at dawn and saw that her bed hadn’t been touched. I took a shower and combed my hair, which smelt of flowers. I wore a long summer dress, even though it wasn’t warm enough for summer dresses.
His car was still outside. He was in bed, holding the girl with dirty red hair and greenish eyes, the girl that looked like me, except for the hair, the eyes and the hands. I know nothing about hair, but eyes and hands are what make us unique, what doesn’t really change with time. I wondered if she would stay nineteen while I grew mature and then old and died.
It was early for bluebells; there were only a few among the grass and the heather. I walked slowly to the pond. I didn’t remember taking off my shoes, but I was barefoot. Maybe I had left the house that way; my feet hurt. The morning mist seemed to come from the water. I licked my lips to feel the moisture. Like an animal, I was afraid to look at my image. I only whispered, “I’m here.”
I sat on the grass, my arms around my knees, and waited. I had no notion of the time, only of the colours that were changing. There were more and more bluebells, as if they answered to some calling.
The day was like a circle, and it was beginning to close. When the dusk came, I lay on the earth, my nails in my arms like claws, some bird roughly formed and, before I closed my eyes, I had a glimpse of the other bird among the branches of heather, watching me.
Copyright © 2020 by Ana Teresa Pereira