The Mist of Lake Halcyon
For the past two years, I walked the two miles to the dock of Lake Halcyon to fish in the early, mist-enshrouded morning. Although gray and dreary, the lake was well-stocked. I brought along with me a tackle-box and fishing rod. The fishing pole was beautiful, professionally made, and the tackle-box was supplied with fifty different kinds of lures. I came to that lake confident that I would depart with an impressive catch of fish. I refused to allow the thick, heavy and constant fog surrounding the lake to bring me down, as I had been warned it had a reputation to do with other would-be fishermen. Every morning, I sat perfectly still for hours, my bait bobbing in the forbidding water. I was unconcerned when I caught nothing that first week. Fishing took patience.
After a month of the same luck, however, I became baffled, and then depressed. For the duration of that month, I had only one companion who fished perhaps even more devotedly than I did. He was an old man who looked as if he had spent the majority of his life aboard sea-vessels. A stocky, well-built individual, he always dressed in a gray slicker, and large black boots. He wore a black knit cap over his iron-colored hair, and sported similarly colored whiskers on his square, wrinkled face. He rarely looked my way, but when he did, I saw that, within the millions of tiny wrinkles on his weather-worn face, he had cutting, steel-gray eyes.
As disconcerting as his eyes were, they were not the problem. It was his cigar. He was constantly smoking a cigar, often clutching it between rows of block-like teeth. I'm not a paranoid man, or naturally suspicious, but something about the old fisherman and his cigar struck me in an odd way from my very first morning on the dock of Lake Halcyon. He always sat on a large, old sea-chest, loosely clutching a weathered wooden pole, and blowing foul-smelling smoke across the lake. I sat near him—I didn't have much choice on such a small dock—and inhaled the smoke from his cigar day after day for those two years. Neither of us ever missed a morning.
I would watch him, as I waited for the fish to take interest in my bait. At first, I only stole glances out of the corner of my eye, so he wouldn't notice. I wondered what he kept in that old sea-chest he sat on, as he billowed smoke and scowled at the lake with those sharp eyes. And I watched as he caught fish—large, beautiful, silvery fish that emerged from the lake into the mist, hanging, twisting, and flopping from the end of his rickety fishing-pole. He always gutted the fish right there on the dock. He brought a sharp knife with him, and would plunge it into the fish's underbelly, starting by the gills, and slicing through to the tail. Then he would give the fish's head a twist, a quick flick of the wrist, and dig into its body with his knife, pulling out with it pink and slimy dark red entrails that dripped and dangled from the dull silver of the blade. After a few months of observing this and catching nothing myself, I naturally grew angry. He knew a secret—the secret to catching the elusive fish of Lake Halcyon.
I certainly wasn't unreasonable. In as polite and friendly a manner as possible, I asked him about his fishing technique. I'd ask simple questions, complicated ones, vague as well as direct ones. I inquired about his pole, his bait, his attire, and even his sprawling posture. But, with every question, he would only respond with a noncommittal, guttural grunt, not even bothering to remove the infernal cigar from his mouth. Day after day, he would grunt at me, and continue puffing smoke out into the lake, adding to the fog and mist.
Maintaining the heroic patience I'm sure only a fisherman can understand, I continued to question him for weeks. I had given up on watching him out of the corner of my eye, and began staring at him outright, hoping the pressure of my gaze would draw a different response out of him. Then, after a few weeks, I gave up on asking and only stared. If he wouldn't tell me the secret, I would discover it for myself. Patiently, I would watch and observe until it was revealed. Sitting perfectly still, I bore my eyes into his profile. He took no notice, or if he did, he didn't care to let me know. He kept his gaze on the lake, always puffing his cigar. But, whenever I gave up watching, whenever I turned my own gaze to the lake, or to my fishing-pole or tackle-box, I would feel the sting of his eyes. Turning, I'd catch them staring icy, cold and hard into mine.
I'd greet him—"Morning"—what else could I do after our eyes had met like that? And he would respond with his usual "Ughn," and turn back to the lake, trailing smoke behind his rotating head, which drifted and joined the mist that layered the surface of the lake, the dock, and lingered around my person. He should stop smoking. I repeated that thought with just about every smoky tendril that left him to join the mist on the lake. He was making it worse. Always making it worse.
I still hadn't discovered his secret, however, and I pondered what else I could do to aid my investigation. And so I began to mimic the old fisherman. Something about him made him special. Something drew in the fish. Whatever it was, I would do it too. I stopped shaving and allowed my hair to become long and unruly until I achieved the same unkempt appearance. I purchased a gray slicker, large black boots, and a black knit hat and began to wear them every morning. I even found an old chest to sit on. I loaded it with my fishing supplies, and carried it the two miles every day to the dock. I habitually sharpened my own long, shiny gutting knife, ready for the day that I, too, would find a fish at the end of my line. I could not, however, bring myself to smoke a cigar. Not yet. I would not add to the mist.
I also noticed that the man was always at the dock before me. The mist was always thick and heavy when I woke in the morning and trudged to the lake, half-carrying, half-dragging my chest. I wondered how thick it was when the old man arrived. How much did he add to it before I even woke up in the morning? I began getting up earlier. Each day, I arrived at the dock a little earlier than I did the previous day, and the old seaman was always there, waiting, and puffing on that cigar. He always left after me as well. So I began to leave later and later and later, until I found myself spending an entire day—an entire twenty-four hours—sitting on that dock clutching my fishing pole, slumped forward on my sea-chest, staring at the old man and his never-ending stream of smoke.
My fury had first arisen after that first year of observing, questioning, and even mimicking as I desperately attempted to understand why the fish would go to him, but not me. Why go to him, the cause of all the desolation and misery that surrounded the lake? And throughout the second year that fury grew and grew till it was as tumultuous as the lake's waters on the worst and windiest of stormy days. I could stand it no longer. This morning, I added, among the fishing pole, tackle-box, and knife already present in my chest, a length of thick, sturdy rope.
When I arrived at the dock, the old fisherman was sitting on his chest, fishing and smoking as usual. He did not spare me a single glance when I crept quietly onto the dock behind him. Casual and nonchalant, I stepped over to my usual spot and began unpacking my trunk. I risked a glance at the old seaman, and a cloud of his noxious smoke engulfed my face, stung my eyes, and invaded my nostrils and mouth. I stifled a cough. Still, the man did not stir, ignorant of his coming fate.
Slowly, I drew the coil of rope out of my chest. I reached for my sharpened, unused knife. With these instruments, I crept behind the old man, so deliberate and careful and cautious that my feet made no sound. He continued to sit and puff . . . and puff . . . and puff, adding more and more smoky fog that clung to the surface of the lake and spread out to the shoreline and the dock, enveloping me, the old man, and finally the buildings and roads behind us. But I would put a stop to it. I was behind him now, and he still did not notice. I paused, and he began to turn his head. Before I could see the sharp metallic gray eyes bore into mine, I lunged forward, dropping the knife and wrapping the rope around the seaman's neck, pulling tight. His hands jerked up to the rope, clinging, clawing, grasping. I pulled harder. The cigar fell out of his mouth and rolled across the gray, peeling paint of the dock, a tendril of smoke still curling out of one end. The man began to twitch and flop, like one of the fish he always pulled out of the lake, and I held on, determined. As he grew weaker, I shifted the ropes completely to my left hand, and reached for the knife at my feet. Just as I had watched him do, day after day, I plunged my knife into his throat and slid it down through his stomach, watching the blood gush out, the entrails twisting around and clinging to my knife. He was completely limp now, and as I released him he toppled awkwardly over his large seaman's chest, seemingly floating in the dark red lake—so dark it was nearly black—that was gradually spreading across the dock.
Thankful for the strength I had gained lugging my own chest to the dock every day, I folded the old man's corpse, and heaved him into his chest—which, I was somewhat relieved to see was as empty as my own. After minutes of struggling, I closed the lid with a satisfactory thump, and pushed the chest off the dock and into the lake. Then I stepped over to the cigar, and ground it out with my foot. Then, that too, I kicked into the steely water.
Satisfied, I continued to fish, confident that the mist would recede and I would catch my first, large, beautiful, glistening specimen. But so far, the fog has only grown heavier and heavier, weighing on me, suffocating and blinding me. It's coming from the lake, eerie and ponderous, sneaking over to me, and into my eyes and into my nose and mouth and ears. Invading me. Crushing me. He is sending it up from the bottom of the lake, somehow. He is still there, inside the chest, with his gray hair, eyes, and slicker, and soon-to-be rotting, decaying flesh. And his cigar. I had crushed it. He must have hidden one, kept one with him. Why hadn't I checked his pockets? I can't breathe now, the fog is so thick. I can't see. It's pushing me down to the dock, and I'm forced to crawl on my hands and knees through the sticky black sheet still coating it. I will dive after him; find the chest, and the old seaman. I will take his cigars, every last one of them. Forming this plan, I tumble off of the edge of the dock, colliding into the achingly cold, slate-colored water. I won't come up until I have stopped him, until I have put out every last cigar.