In the early morning, when the gong in the clock tower reverberates across the surface of the lake, the Gong People drift across the grass on go-softly feet, trailing pale shadows. They hover at the edge of my vision. Looked at directly, they vanish. Then I stare unfocussed at the water until they reappear. I hear them enter the kitchen through the door that is never locked. They help themselves to food from the fridge and get in each other’s way and sit, elbows on the table, dropping crumbs. They light the stove and make hot buttered toast and porridge. The porridge turns their winter-pale skin a healthier hue. I hear warmed-up voices speak of sundered bonds. Of time. Of healing.
They pad about the ancient rooms, rooms that are large and bright and very neat, with high windows that overlook the lake. They climb the muffled stairs, float through a bathroom furnished with bright towels and bath-toys. They stroke the soft white cot quilt, pick up a well-loved bear, run fingertips along photographs and along the spines of books, memorising. A moth-light touch that leaves things as they were.
When the gong sounds at the top of the next hour, the men and women of the Gong People pull on boots and wander, singly or in groups, down to the lake. I gaze beyond them, fixing them at the edge of my mind’s eye.
They set down a towel-wrapped bundle on the grass by the pontoon, and weight it with water-worn stones, so that the contents will not be scattered by the wind. They step into the pewter water, and do not exclaim against the cold. They move forward into the lake so that the water shrinks and distorts them. For a brief time, they tread water. They hold their heads above the surface. Like fronds of river-weed, their limbs undulate. When they are certain that they are not observed, they dive deep to where the sun’s rays cannot reach, beyond the limit of a boatman’s weighted lines, into the dark, cold, silted heart of the bottomless lake. Here they are in their element. It is only on land that they move slowly, vague and disorientated.
When the last of the Gong People has submerged, I leave my observation post at my bedroom window. At the top of the stairs I listen for the hush that falls when my husband and his workers have finished breakfast and gone about the day’s tasks on the farm. Only then do I dress and come down. Toast crumbs speckle the kitchen table, a skin of porridge has dried and glued itself to the surface of pottery bowls, spoons have been left to soak in cold water. I scrape the leftovers into the hen’s dish, wipe down the table and sweep away the crumbs. Down where the water is too deep and too cold for living creatures, far beyond the reach of a gaff or the drag of a hook-weighted net, the Gong People wait.
Down, down in the dark so black it glows in patches white, the Gong People coax awake the lake’s drownlings; surplus litters weighted and tossed away, wee birds with elderberry-eyes. Other creatures, too. All come to rest in the velvet silt at the bottom of the lake, where the Gong People rouse them to a new existence. It is a question of faith.
I focus on the lake, on swans chiggering the bottom and on weary skeins of ducks. Swallows swoop and tumble through the sky, hoovering up insects. They skim the water: rain in the offing. As there was on that day, the day we never speak of. Swallows dart about, and tease, and taunt a child to catch them. They veer away from tiny outstretched hands, leave stubby fingers clutching nothingness, a child teetering on the end of the pontoon. Like Gong People, swallows never drown.
When the tower clock gongs the dinner-hour, I set out food; cold sliced meat, potato salad, buttered bread. I do not stay to eat with my husband and his workers. They do not expect it now.
‘Poor soul,’ they murmur. ‘It takes time.’ They say I should be angry; it is unnatural to be so calm.
I wait in my room, for the end of the meal, for the gong that signals the start of the afternoon work and the little one’s nap-time. I sit in the window seat, waiting for the Gong People. Conjured by the gong, they emerge from the lake. They cross the paddock, their hair heavy with water; they circle round to the back of the house, to the kitchen door that is always open. It is not right, my husband thinks, to shut the door against our neighbours. Locked doors are not our custom.
I unfold the child’s blanket, lay a cushion on my lap and hold him in my arms. His hands are broad across the palm, like his father’s; thick through the wrist, the fingers stubby. In a pup, heavy paws are a sure sign of breeding. It applies to children, too. Our son will grow straight and sturdy. He will follow his father onto the land. He will knead the rich loam of our south-facing fields between his strong hands, lift a fistful close to his face and inhale. He will smell the certainty of heavy crops; beet oozing with sweetness, starchy potatoes, sun-toasted barley.
Later, there will be girls. He will choose the one who makes him laugh, who keeps a good table. Already, at two years old, he has a bold face, freckled like mine. His eyes are blue, defiant; they will get him into trouble with teachers. He will often have to fight with other boys. By thirty, his straw-coloured chimney-brush hair will have thinned and receded. His forearms and the V at his throat will have burned to a farmer’s tan. In time, the scars of near-catastrophes will seam his hands.
Our son will be enterprising. He will anticipate market trends and adapt his farming practice so that he is never at the mercy of the weather or the banks. He will be a success, and build himself a fine house on the high acre that commands a view over three counties and a glimpse of a fourth in good visibility. There, he will live with the girl who makes him laugh, and who keeps a good table. I cannot say whether they will have children, because the having of children is not a matter of decision only; and because it is better not to be greedy and want too much. It will be enough to love and be loved in equal measure, and to have as a companion a girl who makes him laugh. If their union does not produce children, it will not be a tragedy, since their union will be a delight in itself.
I hold my little son snug in the crook of my arm, and I tell him these things. I tell him too of the wild cat, the puma, who escaped from captivity and roamed for a season in the woods across the lake. I tell him how the puma killed a calf, and how the owner of the calf baited a spring-trap with a kid goat to catch the predator. I say that his father took pity on the kid and on the wild creature that would die an agonising death caught between steel jaws; that he took his rifle and stalked the cat and shot it. He hurried from the house carrying the gun in the crook of his arm; he slotted high-velocity bullets into his gun-belt and buckled it on. He took all the necessary precautions. The surplus bullets he locked in the gun-cupboard; he broke the gun so that, if he stumbled, it could not go off by accident. I tell the sleeping child that in his hurry from the house, his father failed to refasten the baby-gate across the open kitchen door; and that lured by the chirrups and darting flight of the swallows, our little son left the house and toddled in pursuit of the swooping swallows to the pontoon that leads out to the centre of the lake, where he drowned. I say that though it was an accident and nobody’s fault, his parents cannot forgive each other.
I speak then of the Gong People, shape-shifters who drift between the cold depths of the lake and the house, summoned by the gong in the clock tower. I tell the child how they nurse back to life the drownlings they find in the lake. I tell him how such creatures live new lives underwater, tended by the Gong People. I tell him that I leave the kitchen door ajar, so that sometimes, when they climb from the muddy floor of the lake, they can carry with them a beloved boy, a child not their own, and leave him for too brief an afternoon time, in his mama’s arms.
The gong strikes in the guts of the clock again; time for me to prepare the evening meal; time for the Gong People to spirit away my child. I drink in the infant smell from the tiny vest, the sweater with a spit-up stain, a pair of dungarees into which his nappy leaked. Each tiny garment rescued from the laundry hamper, his essence preserved in the cloth. Now I bundle them with the teddy-bear in the cot blanket, stow them safe in the chest by my bed, ready for the gonging of midnight. These things are too precious to leave behind.
‘Soon,’ I whisper. We have both, already, been alone too long. I rub from my face the tears that have leaked out, and lay the cushion in a corner of the couch. My breasts tighten with the awful absence of him, but I creep away; I leave my baby for the Gong People. He will never know a girl who makes him laugh, or look on four counties from a house in a high field. He will be forever two years old, in his mama’s arms.
In the kitchen, I tie on an apron and push my sleeves back. I peel the skins from potatoes in long unbroken ribbons. I bone a joint of meat and roll it and tie it with butcher’s twine. The identical knots line up tight, perfect, precisely one inch apart.
On the table by the window that overlooks the lake, I set down matching plates and knives and forks. I stand a glass on the right of each place setting and fold stiff napkins into swans. I follow my evening ritual, imposing order.
My husband returns from his work in the south-facing fields that slope down to the lake. His arms are splotched to above the elbow with barley-coloured freckles. A pulse beats hard in the sunburned notch of his throat. He soaps his hands at the kitchen sink and scrubs the grime from around his nails and from the creases of his knuckles. Then he rinses his hands under the tap and dries each finger separately. His hands are broad and blunt; seamed with souvenirs of careless encounters with machinery. Because the day was sultry, he removed the tractor-cab. Wind has pushed back tears, leaving a tracery of salt crusted in front of his ears.
He sits in his chair and I sit opposite. I smile.
‘All right?’ he asks. He mistakes the symmetry of our domestic scene for progress; the smile for hope, for a future.
‘All right,’ I answer. I avoid his eyes; I serve our food. A final ceremony.
We eat in silence. The span of the table separates us; a current of cool air rises off the lake.