One day he just stood there.
I don’t know why I turned around, as I hadn’t heard him coming. In fact, there had been nothing at all to announce his presence. But turn around I did, and there he was.
He was young, like me, though I couldn’t quite guess his age. He wore simple trousers and a simple shirt, and just a light jacket despite the cold. His eyes were blue, and he was looking at me.
I had never seen another person in the hollow before. Nobody came up here; it was remote and hard to reach, and the walk was an uncomfortable one across bare stone and icy slopes.
This was my place, mine and Tyen’s.
Yet I did not mind his presence.
Maybe it was the way he stood there between the pine trees, keeping his distance, one foot turned slightly towards the lake as if he, too, were drawn to it, his life tied to the waters of the mountain pool like that of every living creature in the vale. He belonged here.
He remained silent and so did I, watching him for a few more moments before resuming my quiet contemplation of the lake.
Smooth as a mirror it lay in the centre of the tiny valley, its water emitting the smell of ice that filled the entire hollow even in summer.
This smell was the only thing that hinted at the lake’s deadliness.
The water came from the glaciers that filled the corries of each of the five peaks that surrounded the hollow; in winter they reached down to the very shores of the pool.
Now, in late spring, they had retreated a bit, leaving a stretch of grey rock bare between the green and the white. It was a bare place, the hollow.
Cold and windless and filled with a rigid, empty silence, leaving me alone with my thoughts.
He had closed the distance between us now, standing only a few feet away on the rough pebbles that made up the beach.
His eyes, like mine, were fixed on the lake, gazing thoughtfully into the clear water. They reflected the colour of the lake, just as its surface reflected the sky’s wintry blue.
‘It’s like needles,’ I said, not looking at him. He didn’t look at me either, but I knew he was listening. ‘Like a thousand needles piercing every inch of your skin.’
He turned towards me. His face was blank, showing not a hint of emotion, but his eyes were glowing with warmth. My own eyes were drawn to them like insects to the light.
‘Then you go numb,’ I went on softly. ‘Complete paralysis. You can’t move a single muscle. At this point, it’s only your will that keeps you going. Willpower and strength.’
I didn’t know why I was talking. Talking about this, talking at all. Talking here. All I knew was that it felt right to do so.
‘Some things just need to be told,’ he said gently. I shook my head.
‘Some things should never be told.’
‘Yet all things will, in the end.’ He turned to look up at Michael’s Sword, the highest of the surrounding peaks. The sun was starting to set behind it.
‘Elijah.’ It was his name.
He said it quietly, offhandedly, speaking more to himself than to me, but it was enough to fill me with the warm sensation of familiarity.
His soft voice made me feel like I had always known him, known him so well that we were beyond names.
Even so, perhaps to square things between us, perhaps just to say something in return, I added my own.
It came out in a whisper, a breath. The last breath of a dying child.
‘Laith, look!’ I turn around and see a small figure balancing on a large boulder that lies at the edge of the pool, almost completely surrounded by the icy water.
‘Get down here,’ I say. Tyen ignores me. ‘This one bounced six times!’ he calls proudly. ‘Did you see that? Six!’
‘It totally didn’t,’ I say in mock protest. ‘I was watching and it bounced five times, you little cheat. Now come on, get off that boulder.’
‘It totally did,’ Tyen declares. ‘I can show you!’ He takes another one of the pebbles and throws, leaning forward, putting all his weight on his left foot that is perched precariously on the edge of the slippery rock.
‘Don’t!’ I call, but too late. I know the place – despite its closeness to the shore, the waters are deep there. Too deep for an eight-year-old to stand in.
I closed my eyes as images flooded my brain, desperately trying to tune out the splashes I could hear, the frantic gasps, a child’s high-pitched whimper.
I pulled my eyes away from the lake and looked up at him, Elijah. His eyes had the same colour, the same depth. Yet while the lake emitted cold, he was brimming with warmth.
‘Why are you so afraid of death?’ he asked calmly. ‘Do you know what death is like?’
‘Then how do you know being dead is not better than being alive?’
I looked up into his eyes. Deep and calm they were, so much like the lake beside which we were standing. And, like the frostiness of the lake, their warmth made it hard to look away.
‘I’m not afraid,’ I said truthfully. ‘But Ty was.’
Elijah considered me for a moment, then asked me to walk with him. We made our way along the lake shore in silence, so as not to disturb the perfect stillness that filled the hollow.
After a while, I couldn’t hold back anymore.
‘I didn’t help him,’ I confessed. ‘He was alive when I pulled him out and I didn’t help him.’
I feel the harsh grip of the cold around my heart as I lie on the shore, too numb even to shiver, every inch of me drenched in icy water.
Next to me Tyen is coughing, gurgling, gasping for air as his frozen lungs try to summon the strength to expel the water inside them.
I need to hold him, wrap my arms around his torso and lend him what force I have left, but I can barely move, my muscles rigid with cold.
‘Ty!’ I gasp, flailing helplessly since my muscles refuse to bear my weight. Tyen has stopped coughing, all I hear is a horrible bubbling sound as he’s fighting for breath.
‘Laith,’ he manages to say, which makes him cough weakly again. I can see his narrow chest move, once, twice, then it stops.
My tiny brother is lying dead on the bare stone, water in his lungs and traces of tears frozen on his cheeks.
Warmth on my hand, on my face. Elijah had stepped close to me and taken my hand in his. The other one rested on my cheek, wiping cold tears away. ‘Laith, look at me,’ he murmured.
I raised my head and met his eyes, deep and vast like the sky stretching out so far above, deep and brilliant like the reflection of the starlight on the lake’s calm surface.
Deep and warm, so warm. Under his gaze I felt my insides thaw.
A cage of ice buried at the bottom of my soul was melting, leaving memories and emotions that had been locked away for two years free to rise up to the surface.
And it was too much.
Thoughts, sounds, images, feelings flooded my numb mind, completely overwhelming it after what seemed like an eternity of frozen silence.
All I could do was try to stay afloat as the waves crashed over me, drowned me in sensations.
My knees buckled under the weight of them but Elijah was there, encompassing me, his arms around my waist, his warmth in my heart, his grace in my soul.
He took my face in his hands and I felt his lips brush against my forehead when he whispered, ‘Let go of your guilt. Let go of your pain. Let go. I’ve got you.’
I opened my eyes and realised that we were standing at the edge of the lake. Water pooled around my feet, rippling whenever I shifted my weight.
I watched the tiny waves travel over the otherwise mirror smooth surface. Fascinated, I took a step further, again watching the disturbance of the water.
There was rarely any wind in the hollow, no fish in the lake. Nothing ever moved. I had come to think of the water as a sheet of glass, a hard and unyielding body that wouldn’t be disturbed.
It was liberating to break the perfection of the surface now with my own steps.
On the other hand, if I stayed still for a while until the ripples had died down, I could look down and see my legs and feet and the bottom of the lake as if there was no water at all.
I couldn’t feel the water either. Elijah’s hand on my shoulder filled me with all the warmth I needed to ward off the lake’s frostiness.
I lay back, floating motionlessly and looking up at the night sky.
The night was clear and the sky black, only few white wisps of cloud were gliding through my field of vision like wraiths or spirits, torn and wispy like shreds of memory,
half-forgotten moments that hover at the edge of your consciousness for the shortest instant before being blown away and forgotten again.
I lost myself in the weightlessness as I felt my mind and muscles go numb.
Still I felt Elijah’s hands on my shoulders and his lips on my forehead, and with his loving ‘I’ve got you’ resonating in my mind I let the weight of my memories drag me down into the icy depths.
I stood at the shore of the lake, looking out over its mirrorlike surface.
I could see the boulder Tyen had fallen off of, the ditch we’d collected the pebbles in, the stretch of bare rock we had lain on.
I let it go.
I turned around towards the grove of pine trees behind me. Between them stood Elijah, wings spread wide as if to shelter the flowers beneath them. He smiled at me and reached out his hand.
‘Come on, Laith.’
Slowly, I walked towards him. We looked at each other. I couldn’t resist turning back towards the lake, just once more. On a boulder by the water stood a child, smiling and waving. I waved back.
Then I took Elijah’s hand. And we flew, up into the wispy clouds.