Northwords Now Issue 37

The FREE literary magazine of the North

Lady of the Lake

by Brenda McHale

This is a true story. By which I mean I may not know if it was real, but my telling of it is truthful. It happened three weeks ago. Three weeks from when I’m writing, so that could be six weeks, or nine months or five years or two lifetimes ago, depending when you’re reading it. If I was writing it in real time it would take maybe thirty seconds to jot it all from start to finish. The impression it made though means I need to record it, so that when I look back and wonder I’ll know it was no dream, whatever it was.

It happened in a small town called Mora, on the shores of Lake Siljan, in the centre of Sweden. Lake Siljan is formed on the edge of a crater from a meteorite that impacted a long time ago: I’m not going to pretend I know how long ago. A long time. That violence created true beauty: low hills curving around a big, deep, lake, surrounded by trees, with clearings for villages of red wooden houses, scattered as if handfuls of houses of all sizes were thrown in the air and left where they landed.

Edging the lake at Mora is a wide light-coloured footpath, lovely for walking any day, and especially on that early October day: the sun glistening off the sky-blue lake, the leaves on silver birches all around every shade of orange, yellow, copper, their numbers doubled by reflection; birds coming down like paper planes onto the glassy lake surface; the air still, so still. People were cycling the path, on their “sit up and beg” bikes: men in suits and women in skirts and a teen in torn jeans wearing a t-shirt that said “I’m an anarchist”. Other people were walking, enjoying the day, or maybe not, it’s not always easy to tell and I shouldn’t assume. But the woman – the woman of my story – did seem to be enjoying the day. She appeared from nowhere, maybe just because I was looking elsewhere, I don’t know. She was walking tall and straight, head high and shoulders back, on good terms with the world, with a tiny but perceptible rise and fall with each step. To call it a bounce, though, would be clumsy, it was too elegant for that. But it was as if it might at any second break into something more than a rise and fall – a skip maybe. She was swinging a small black bag, almost throwing it out ahead of her with each step. She was eye catching, but I was the only one whose eye she seemed to have caught.

We were walking across the car park when I saw her, she was directly in my line of sight, between me and the lake. She had on a skirt, a long, very full skirt, down to the ground, brushing the floor. She brushed a hand down it as I looked, to straighten a fold perhaps. It was tweed, a smoke grey colour overlaid with a check of russet brown – just the colour of some of the birch leaves falling with whispers around us. It was a soft tweed, not with the hardness or rough texture of a sheep’s wool Harris tweed, but softer and more pliable, like a wool mixed with angora perhaps. And I’m not sure how I could know that from such a distance, but while I’m writing my hands tingle with the memory of the touch, it’s embedded in the nerves under the skin, as if for a moment, lost to me now, there was no separation of time and place, of her and me, and I had touched the skirt, smoothing my own hands over it and folding the soft fabric into my palm, feeling every thread of the weave. I know that can’t be, and yet it was, and it is the strangest part of all this strangeness. Over the skirt the woman wore a coat, again a russet colour, but of a harder, coarser tweed. It was longer at the back, rounded at the edge and down past where I imagine her knees would be. Like the tailcoat of a morning suit worn by a bridegroom, or by a funeral director. As she walked and her skirt brushed the floor and caught with each step, it made a triangle shape behind her, so that she looked like the figurehead of a ship, or like Kate Winslet in Titanic.

I’ve no real impression of her face, except that it was a smiling, open face, not young but not old, maybe in her thirties, if I had to guess. Her hair was deep-water black, a thick rope of a plait that fell down over one shoulder to sit at the front, down halfway to her waist, skimming the gold military style buttons of her coat.

As I watched her – though it was hardly long enough to be called watching – she slowed her walk and turned her head to two men that were standing close to her as she passed on the path, and she said something and I think laughed. But I didn’t see any acknowledgement from them, not with words, or changing their poses at all, or turning as she passed, which is how I imagine two men would behave if spoken to by a lovely woman, especially one in a long heavy tweed skirt and coat, on a sunny, happy, Autumn day.

And then I was distracted by a car passing in front of us, and when it moved aside, just a second later, she was gone. I wished I’d taken a photo, but you can’t just take photos of people for no reason, and now I wonder what the picture would show, if anything, and I wonder if I would want to know. I didn’t mention it to my partner then, though I wanted to, but it was on my mind and I asked him later that day, casually, tentatively, if he had seen her. He said no. Even though we had been walking holding hands, close together, looking in the same direction, he saw nothing but a sky-blue lake with birds landing like paper planes on its glassy surface.

Now I wonder about the whole thing, but I do know it happened, because it left an impact crater on my mind, the way that memories do.