By Jack Snow
Author of The Magical Mimics in Oz, The Shaggy Man of Oz, and Spectral Snow, etc.
Originally published in Dark Music and Other Spectral Tales, 1947.
Tonight Ailil had rowed to the very center of the lake, and was lying in his tiny boat intoxicating himself with the deep, mad beauty about him. A vast distance over his head, there was a slender crescent moon, and stars glimmered faintly through a thin mist that overhung the lake like a veil, protecting it from ancient eyes that might peer clown through the limitless heavens. Night birds cried out their weird notes, strange half human wails that issued from bird throats and blended with the eerie monotony of the thrumming bass of the frogs.
Ailil lay for a long time, listening and watching, curiously alert. He was acutely conscious of the ancient charm of the things about him. And, as in all things that are purely of the earth, there was something faintly sinister, something that grimaced and threatened ever so gently and subtly. Here was majestic, elemental beauty armed with its primeval, overpowering appeal . . . often are the Pipes of Pan heard in salute of a new devotee.
Ailil loved the lake. He loved it as a part of his own life. The thought of ever leaving it, or of ever going very far from it, wounded him like a physical pain. Every night, he slipped away and lay on its bosom, as he was doing tonight, calm, peaceful and quietly happy as he floated amid the deep beauty. Lachrymal fronds of willows drooped about the shore, and thin wisps of spiraling mist rose slowly from the lake's night blue surface, wavering and gliding.
Occasionally a firefly darted over the water, lighting the scene with the green glow of its cold, phosphorescent fire, and like the symphonic composition of an inspired madman, the base of the frogs and the thin wailing of the swamp birds echoed among the trees.
The soft lapping of the water on the sides of the boat recalled Ailil from his dreaming, and he noticed that his little craft had slowly drifted back toward the shore. Arousing himself, he pulled at the oars which slipped noiselessly through the dark waters, and in a few minutes, he was once more in the center of the lake.
Tonight he was free to dream as long as he wished. He would spend the whole night with this beauty, it would he his first night on the lake. Alone through all the deep hours of the night, and the wan moments of the early dawn, when the sun would mingle mists of grey and gold with the blue of the lake, and the somber green of the trees, he would rest alone and content on the bosom of this wild enchantment that he loved.
Once more in the center of the lake, Ailil lifted an ancient, time-rusted anchor and dropped it over the side of the boat. Silently and quickly it plunged through the dark depths of the water. How deep this ancient well must be! Coil after coil of the rope unwound, jerking and sliding over the side of the boat as if it were being sucked into the depths of a fathomless abyss. Finally, with a slight quiver of the rope, the anchor touched bottom, and Ailil made fast the rope, looping it about a hook on the boat's side.
With a sigh, he leaned back once more in the soft cushions that padded the hard boards of the crude boat. He thought of nothing, he was content merely to lie there with the calm and peace of the beauty about him. How long he remained thus he did not know. It might have been an hour, or merely minutes, for nothing happened to disturb the tranquillity of the scene. There was nothing to claim his attention other than the strange similarity of the lake to a dark mirror, and the curiously twisted shadows of the willows that kneeled about the shore, trailing their branches in the water.
A huge moth, rising seemingly from nowhere, fluttered past his face, its wings brushing his cheek as it passed in silent flight. The great white wings beat the air like frail shadows as the creature fluttered slowly past him in its curious rising and falling flight. These great night moths always impressed Ailil as an ephemeral part of the night; they seemed almost a bit of the night itself, given life for a few brief hours and then sinking into quick dissolution with the rising of the sun. A faint, indescribable odor of mustiness and age-old strangeness was wafted to Ailil as the creature brushed past him, fluttering toward the tiny cabin which sheltered the opposite end of the boat. The door of the cabin was opened, and drawn by the darkness, the moth fluttered through the opening, and as Ailil watched, became a grey ghost, and then was lost in the gloom of the cabin's recesses.
Ailil smiled. He would have an interesting trophy of his night on the lake. The creature must have tired its fragile wings with the long flight across the water, and sought the boat for rest. Ailil thought it strange that he should not have noticed it as it approached; he reflected that it seemed almost to have risen from the water beside the boat, so suddenly did it flutter past him.
And then the moth was forgotten as Ailil once more contemplated the shore and the grotesquely shaped trunks and branches of the willows which his fancy never tired of endowing with gnarled and twisted natures to correspond with their physical shapes of grotesquerie, emphasized in the diffused moonlight that glimmered through the mist of the lake. Again he dreamed, and again he knew not for how long. Time was nothing. For him it had ceased to be, and he existed as might a ripple on the lake's surface, or as the willows weeping on the shore.
Slowly Ailil felt himself returning. Gradually his attention was being drawn back to the captivation of his mind and body, while unaccountably the projection of his thoughts into the nothingness of this dark abyss o£ beauty was being terminated. With something like annoyance, he realized this, and vaguely he wondered why.
Suddenly he knew! He was not alone. His mind was bright, alert and clear, wiped free of the cobwebs of dreams. Quickly he sat up and stared incredibly toward the cabin at the farther end of the boat.
Seated before the entrance of the cabin, was a young girl. She was merely sitting and staring at him with a wan and curious smile on her pale lips. Masses of golden hair floated down her back, and away from her head, mingling and becoming one with the sheen of the moonlight. The faintest of colors tinged the ivory pallor of her cheeks, and about her lips played the wisp of a smile, as tender and appealing as a child's.
Ailil could only stare, incredibly. He was overwhelmed in an instant with the loveliness of the picture. It possessed him and filled him with a fascination that held something of awe. He could not speak, and for several minutes he simply sat there and stared at this strange beauty that blended so perfectly with the ancient loveliness of the lake. Here, pictured in the exquisite moldings of human flesh, was a mortal representation of the lake's eternal charm.
And then, a thousand thoughts began whirling in wildest confusion in Ailil's mind. How did she get here? Who was she? Why was she here? The very commonplacencss of these riddles served to bring him closer to reality, and he realized that the girl must have hidden herself in the cabin of the boat. She could easily have escaped notice, since he never used the cabin except in the daytime, and for storage. Once more, he gazed at her. What a lovely stowaway she was! She had risen from her seat at the end of the boat, and was making her way toward him. The touch of her filmy white dress, brushing him, as she seated herself beside him, was like the trailing garment of a water Goddess, an Amphritrite with all the ancient charms of the seas at her command. Her closeness was overpowering, intoxicating to Ailil's beauty-drugged senses.
"You are not angry with me," she was speaking, "for annoying you? I so love the lake, and its beauty . . . and you too love it. That, I know."
Her voice was like the soft, caressing murmur of a thousand little streams, whispering in their hidden channels through night shaded forests of cool and damp depths. Murmuring and rising and falling imperceptibly, her words blended into a monotone of soft music. Ailil could not be sure that she was speaking, except for the exquisite tones that lingered in his mind and seemed to echo from a far distance.
"You are lovely," he breathed, "you are more lovely than the lake can ever be. Never did I dream of finding such beauty, alive and on the earth in this day." Ailil's throat was strangely dry, and he spoke in a husky, low-pitched voice. He could find nothing more to say. He could only stare at her, marveling, and praying that he would not awake from this mad, beautiful dream.
Already, she seemed to have forgotten him, and to have lost herself in the beauty of the night. Smiling faintly, as if all the world's happiness were hers, and she was possessed of a deep, soft joy, she leaned back into the cushions that pillowed the seat. Ailil gasped at the loveliness of her graceful throat and neck, as the moonlight filled the tiny hollows with a bluish glow, and lighted her eyes with wells of deep, glowing light.
And then Ailil's arms were about her, drawing her close to him, and their lips met in a kiss that was pure ecstasy and such wild delight as Ailil had never before known. Throughout the night, they lay there in the small dark boat, floating on the surface of the black lake. To Ailil it might have been the lake of Paradise on which they rested. The hours were tinged with the strangeness of mystery, and the utter loveliness of the surroundings, and the cries of the wild things in the swamp.
A faint greyness was stealing into the sky; the moon shone brightly and the first hush of the dawn light was creeping over the earth, Ailil awoke with a strange feeling of desolation and utter, unbearable loneliness. With wretched apprehension, his eyes immediately sought the loveliness of the creature of the night. She was gone. No trace of her remained, only the memory of her haunting charm.
A chilling illness seized Ailil. A wave of physical suffering and nausea swept over him. All was lost; all this wild beauty that he had loved so madly. Slowly the sun was routing the nocturnal beauties of the lake, and in a short time all the strange loveliness of the night would be gone. Ailil felt that he must flee, that he must hasten and leave the lake far behind him. He would hide away in the depths of the woods where the sun could not shine, where the gloom of the trees prevailed, and the light could not penetrate.
Frenziedly he began pulling up the heavy anchor. God! Would it never end? How deep was this ancient well that dropped into the center of the woodland like a vast cavity! Coil after coil of the rope, he tugged through the resisting waters. It was soaked through and slippery to the touch after the night in the lake. It reminded Ailil of the coils of a thin, brown serpent as it writhed and twisted from the depths of the abyss.
At last he could feel the heavy iron of the anchor swaying at the end of the rope. It was nearing the surface, and with a few more tugs he would be hauling it aboard, and leaving the accursed spot until night fell once more, and he could no longer resist the mad call of the dark waters.
And then Ailil saw that which sent him forever from the lake, never to return. Caught on a fork of the anchor was a human skeleton, dripping with mud and ooze, and long divested of the clothing of flesh which Ailil knew in a terrible moment had once been white, and tinged with the pallor of finely chiseled ivory.
THE FORGETFUL POET
By Ruth Plumly Thompson
Originally published in the Philadelphia Public Ledger, December 16, 1917.
The Forgetful Poet's Riddles
The Forgetful Poet is so busy with his Christmas shopping and sending off parcel post packages that he said he only had time for a spoonful of verse, which is not to be taken seriously. He said he couldn't decide whether to give his great aunt Hester a sled or a dollhouse. I suggested that she might not appreciate such youthful gifts, but he said I had spoiled everything and upset his plans, and how did I know she was grown up inside. I apologized hastily, but he rushed out of the office in a temper, and I dare say Aunt Hester will be sliding down the hill on her new sled at Christmas. And I am sure I cannot help it.
Well, anyway, here are, or is his verse:
? ? ? ?
Part of my body
I found in a tree;
Something a sailor needs
In a rough sea
I found in my hands,
While part of my hat
Is musical--come now,
What make you of that?
Last week's answers are: Pin oak and pine tree and cotton plant. A pole is part of a telegraph system and a crane is used in construction. The places concealed in the sentences were Algiers, Athens, Florence, Pekin, Delaware, New Jersey, Tunis and Nice.
[Answers next time.]
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