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Mary walked past the lake to the Japanese water garden. She sat in the Pagoda and watched fat Koi carp smack their lips at the surface of the small pond. The pond was full of water lilies in bloom, their lower petals folded back against dark green leaves like white stars, while the smaller petals formed a neat cup around the bright yellow stamens. Bees flew from flower to flower, enjoying the nectar.
Mary closed her eyes and listened to water trickling over rocks into the pond and the distant clatter of bamboo wind chimes. She fancied she felt a hand brush against hers. She caught the faint scent of sandalwood, and felt the seat flex as someone sat down next to her. She thought she heard a well-modulated voice tell her how lovely she looked today and heard herself laugh and protest at the flattery. She sounded carefree, girlish even.
They talked together in the Pagoda for what may have been minutes, or even hours. The man seemed to have known Mary all her life, though he used the Latin form of her name, Maria. She enjoyed the exotic sound of it on his lips. She reached up and stroked his cheek, ran her fingers through his short beard as if she had the right to do so. He told her how he had missed her while he had been so long away.
“We saw sights you would never believe,” he said, and described a lake the colour of sapphires, where the water bubbled and black fish leapt into the air like dolphins. He explained how black and white cranes danced on the frozen water in the winter, their heads cocked in song to the sky, and how at night the forest woke to the shrieks of Fish Owl chicks, while their parents waded in the shallows searching for frogs and water beetles.
“I built a house in the middle of the lake,” he said, “and dreamed of the day when you would come back with me to live there. Will you come with me, Maria?” he asked, his tone as soothing as the sun that filtered through the maple leaves in pencils of green and gold light. Nothing that had passed before seemed to Mary as real as that moment.
“Yes,” she said without hesitation, “yes, I will come with you,” and the man took her hand and they walked past the statue of Jizo, protector of travellers, to the edge of the lake. She walked with him into the water and was surprised how firm the lake bed felt beneath her feet and how easy it was to walk deeper and deeper until the water came up to her mouth. She lifted her legs and allowed the water to hold her. “Don’t be afraid,” the man sang, and Mary felt a great sense of peace as she allowed herself to be pulled down into the depths of the lake.
“Breathe Maria,” the man whispered as he swam beside her, “breathe deeply and we will soon be home”, and Mary breathed deeply and the scent of magnolias surrounded her. Then water flooded her nose and filled her mouth. It was cold and stale and Mary panicked and started to choke. She reached out for the man.
“Breathe Maria,” he sang to her, “breathe and you will be safe,” but she thrashed wildly and struck out for the surface, leaving the man behind. Mary thought she saw a flash of silver scales as he disappeared in the murky water. Her heavy clothes dragged on her small frame, but she forced her legs and arms to pull her up. She focused on reaching the ring of light above her until she finally broke through the surface and gulped air into her lungs.
She swam towards the bank until her feet found solid ground, then stumbled from the lake onto the grass. She had no idea how long she sat there. No one came to help her. She was alone. Eventually, she stood up and walked past the statue of Jizo, protector of travellers, to the Pagoda. She watched the fat Koi carp smack their lips at the surface of the small pond and fancied she felt a hand brush against hers.