"Never, ever go to the lake when the moon is full.”
That was what the note said, the note that the caretaker slid under the door of our villa. The note was made out of blue-lined paper and lightly scented with vanilla, and the writing on it was cursive and concise. It read:
Greetings, and welcome to Lake Tamblingan, Bali!
Thank you for choosing to stay at the Silent Lake Villa. I trust that you will find your stay with us pleasant and peaceful.
Tamblingan is one of the three twin lakes in the area, and it is, out of the three, the one that was the most sacred to the ancient Tamblingan civilization. You'll find the lake surrounded by numerous puras (ancient Balinese temples). These temples, though old, are stunning, and will make great photography destinations.
Now, before we proceed, dear traveler(s), here is a fair note of warning: it is now December, and even though December is traditionally the busiest period of the year, the pandemic has badly affected tourism in Bali. As such, there will be very little people in Tamblingan throughout your stay. Most of them are going to be locals, and the closest locals stay a good 20-minutes away from the villa, away from the lake.
December is also a month of heavy rainfall, which means that things are going to be wet, slippery—and potentially dangerous. Therefore, for your own safety, I must ask that you follow three simple house rules:
Number 1: Never go to the lake alone.
Number 2: Never go to the lake when it is raining.
Number 3: And never, ever, go to the lake when the moon is full.
These rules are, once again, concocted for your own safety, and you must follow them throughout your stay.
If you need anything—anything at all, please don't hesitate to give me a call. You'll find my number at the bottom.
I hope that you have a pleasant stay with us at Silent Lake.
Silent Lake Villa
Underneath Wayan's credentials was his signature, and underneath his signature was his phone number. All in all, it was a professionally done welcoming note, written in surprisingly good English. I would never have given it a second thought if it wasn't for the quaint house rules and the slightly ominous tone they had to them.
"Hey Ben, come take a look at this," I said. Ben was my childhood friend and constant travelling companion. We had known each other for a long time, long enough for him to pick up the faint note of worry in my voice. He came at my call and took the note from my hands, squinting as he read. Then he tossed the note aside and proclaimed it, "Superstitious hogwash. You know how the Balinese are. They pray three times a day and worship more gods than I can count."
I couldn't help but laugh. "Good old atheist Ben, jumping at any chance he gets to bash organized religion." Then, in a more serious tone, I said, "The house rules might have nothing to do with superstition, you know. The caretaker might've had trouble with tourists before. You know our lot," I said with a grin. "Nothing but troublemakers; here to have fun, drink beer, and get laid. Still...I suggest we follow the rules. That lake looks beautiful—beautiful but deep. Deep enough for one of us to drown in."
Ben just looked at me. The look he gave me seemed to say, "You and I both know we're strong swimmers, Cal. So what are you really worried about?" Then he shrugged and said, "Fine. let's do it your way, worrywart. Drowned tourists are bad for business." After that, he tossed me the first of our many Bintangs, and the matter of the note was all but forgotten. Would that we had investigated things just a little further, because now that I think of it, my cool-headed rationalization didn't solve one problem: why can't we go to the lake when the moon is full?
Ben and I had taken a month off our studies to come to Bali to have fun, and have fun we did. We drank Balinese coffee in the morning and Balinese beer at night, and in-between drinks Ben and I would scoot around on our rented scooters, taking hundreds of photos wherever we went. Bali is a beautiful place, and it turns out that the Isle of the Gods is even more stunning when it is not over-contaminated with tourists.
Of course, the fact that Ben and I had chosen to stay in Tambinglan didn't help. Tambinglan was the least touristy spot in Bali, and that was why we picked it. Sure, the party town of Seminyak is great, and yes, I'm willing to bet that the beaches of Canggu are still rife with bikini-clad surfers catching waves, even in these pandemic-stricken times. But Ben and I didn’t want to surf or party. We merely wanted to rest, to relax, to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city—to get away from the shared ghosts of our past.
See, about a year ago, Ben’s fiancee, Nelly, was killed in an accident. She was a graduate student, just like us, a nice girl with a very pretty smile. Her loss hit Ben hard—but Ben, as he's wont to do, had put on a brave face. He barely even cried during her funeral. He told me, time and time again, that he was fine. I knew he was not.
I knew this because a couple of months ago we had gone to a local club and got well and truly smashed—and more than that we had also gotten lucky. We had managed to pick up two girls and bring them back to mine, but when the sun rose the next day there was only one girl to kick out, not two. Ben had gone to bed alone, leaving his girl, fully dressed and untouched, on the couch like a bag of unwanted chips. I didn't ask any questions, nor did I need to. Everything I needed to know was written in a sad script across the quiet desolation of his face.
As for my ghost, it was Ben, the Ben I had known before Nelly's untimely death. He haunted me, the old Ben, he who had laughed and danced so brightly through life, and in an effort to rekindle his deadened spark I suggested that we take a month-long trip to a remote region of Bali. "It'll be a place where we could re-centre, forget, and find ourselves again," I told him.
So far, my plan was working. The weeks had flown by on wings, and with the passing of every Balinese day, Ben seemed to grow less despondent and more cheerful. We were soon down to our last night in Bali, and to commemorate the last leg of a well-spent vacation we went out to a nearby restaurant for dinner and drinks. The dinner was delicious, and the drinks were cheap and good, so when we made our way to our bikes we were happy, well-fed, and slightly drunk.
I remember that night clearly. I remember that it was raining, and that our bikes were weaving ever so slightly as we drove them back to our villa under the watchful light of a full and lonely moon.
It was then that we noticed the sign.
Magic Shakes Sold Here!
We pulled over and grinned at each other. Ben and I were both seasoned travellers, and we knew what “Magic Shakes” meant. Mushroom shakes. They were mushroom shakes, psilocybin mushrooms plucked out of the ground and grounded into shakes. When you drank them you got a buzz, saw mild hallucinations, and generally had a pretty good 'trip.' Ben and I had tripped together a handful of times before.
"Well, what do you think?" I asked Ben.
"Aww, it's our last night here. Screw it, let's do it!" He replied.
I turned to the magic-shake vendor and smiled a slow smile to myself. Ben was sounding more and more like his old self. We paid for our shakes, then stowed them safely away before roaring off...
We downed our magic shakes in the villa. Soon, it began to come: the giggling, the wafting away, the bending of space-time accompanied by an extraordinary sense of power. We were gods, free from the chrysalis at last, and the world was nothing but a plaything in our palms. I looked at Ben, and he looked the same as he always did—except he now had strange markings dancing all over his face and skin. They looked like words written in an ancient language I did not know. Sanksrit, perhaps, or maybe a variant of Nahuatl. A tongue that was dead before I was born, killed off by the coming of conquistadors and the passing of time.
The more I stared, the more the words began to look familiar, somehow, and with a start I remember where I had seen them before. They were on the walls of the ruined temples Ben and I had visited, the ancient Balinese temples beside the lake. "They're called puras, that's what the note called them, puras." I mumbled to myself. Somebody, probably Ben, was playing 'Echoes' by Pink Floyd, and even though I tried my best to enjoy the music I found it very strange and haunting. An odd voice was singing in an off-key manner over the melody, and I, for some reason, found myself listening to the lyrics intently:
Overhead the albatross
Hangs motionless upon the air
And deep beneath the rolling waves
In labyrinths of coral caves
The echo of a distant time
Comes willowing across the sand
And everything is green and submarine
And no one showed us to the land
And no one knows the where's or why's
But something stirs and something tries
And starts to climb towards the light
At the conclusion of the song's first stanza, the markings on Ben's body began to glow a dull, sickly green. The colour reminded me of sea-foam gone wrong, of rotting seaweed, of radiation and deep, dead things that have been submerged and sleeping for far too long. I turned towards Ben and asked. "Ben, are you seeing this?" Ben didn't answer. He instead asked me a question in return. "Cal...do you hear that?"
I listened. I didn't hear anything at first; the rain and the music dominated my hearing. But when I finally heard it, I wish I didn't. Every single hair on my body stood up on end, because what I was hearing was an impossible sound, coming faintly but audibly from the rain-soaked wetland outside our window. It consisted of a single syllable and one spoken word. The word was:
"Nelly!" Ben yelled. His voice was loud and full of shock, and his eyes were bright and full of fear—fear, and something far more terrible: hope. Before I could react, Ben ran to the windows and flung them open. The rain fell in, dampening his hair and cheeks, and the moon cast its bone-white glow upon his pale and haunted face. For a moment he just stood there; Ben, my friend, a stranger, a silhouette against the dark.
Then the voice called, "Ben...come..."
Ben looked back. His moonlit face was a mix of longing and despair. He locked eyes with me—then said these seven simple words. "Cal, I love you…and I'm sorry." And with that, Ben turned around and leapt out of the window. I uttered a wordless cry and ran to the window's ledge, half-expecting to see my best friend lying on the ground with a broken leg.
What I saw was far, far worse.
Ben wasn't on the ground at all. He had survived the three-story drop with nary a scratch, and more than that he was up and running, running towards the lake.
And something was there waiting for him.
She—it, was standing on a small boat in the middle of the lake. Its entire being was cast in shadow, and I could make out nothing about its appearance, except that it seemed to have long hair and was shaped like a woman. But it was not a woman, it had never been a woman. I knew that the same way I knew that fire was hot and one should never put his hand in the mouth of a snarling dog.
There came the sound of splashing water. Ben, the poor, sweet, gallant fool, had reached the lake, and he was swimming towards the thing he thought was Nelly. When Ben reached the boat he pulled himself up and enveloped the shadow in a hug. Then he broke free and began to talk. I could hear his voice, clear and plaintive, carried over to the villa through the wind and the rain.
"My God, Nelly, I've missed you. Where have you been?" The lady didn't reply. She just lifted her head. Ben's panicked cry came a moment later. "Oh my God, Nelly...Nelly, what happened to your face, where...oh God, Nelly—where is your face?!"
I couldn't stand to see what happened next. I ducked down and covered my face in my hands. Wet sounds came wafting towards me from the dark, sounds like skin tearing and water splashing and a man screaming and struggling his lungs out against a monster made from the nightmares of men.
When I came to it was already morning. The mushroom-induced madness had passed, and the morning rays were streaming through the open window on sunlight wings. Seeing the sun made me brave, and feeling brave I got up, and carefully, ever so carefully, peered outside the window.
There was nothing on the lake. Not even a ripple remained where Ben and the boat used to be.
It's been exactly a month since Ben disappeared, and I've been busy this entire time. First, I went to the police. They wrote a Missing Person's report and pasted posters of Ben's face all around Bali—but they might as well have been sticking up blank sheets of toilet paper, for all they helped.
Next, I called Wayan the Caretaker, he who had passed the note of warning to me in the first place. A pleasant voice picked up on the fourth ring. "Hello, Wayan speaking, how can I help you?" I told him exactly what had happened and how he could help me. There was a moment of long silence. Then Wayan said in a voice so soft I had to press my phone to my ears to hear it, "You should have followed the rules on the note." He hung up. I called him again, but his phone had been switched off. His phone has been switched off every day since.
I became so desperate I even went to the locals for help, but everybody who lived around the lake seems to have disappeared. When I knocked on their doors nobody answered, and when I opened them I found pots and pans strewn all about, as if the occupants of the house had left in a mad hurry. Not even the animals remained.
So you see, Dear Reader, in the end, I was left with no choice but to do what I am doing now. I am, at the time of this writing, back in Silent Lake Villa, back in the little room overlooking the lake.
A shake bottle lies empty to my right. I had chugged its contents at the start of this note. It's coming now: the giddiness, the giggling to myself, the meaninglessness of space and time, life and reality. The undecipherable markings that first appeared on Ben before he leapt out of the window and swam to his doom are here yet again—except this time, they're not on Ben's body.
They're on mine.
I can hear it now, a far-off sound to my left; a keening, crying, siren-like sound that is steadily getting closer. It was a voice—no, it was many voices cunningly woven together to sound like one. Out of the many, I can pick out two: Ben's strong baritone with Nelly's sweet soprano running underneath it like a stream of cold water. They were calling my name. "Calvin...Cal…Cal…come to me..."
I have to go now. I know I shouldn't, but I must. I walk over to the window and fling it open. I look out. The boat is there again, and the overhead moon illuminates two figures on the deck. One looks male, the other looks female, and they are both facing me, calling my name, beckoning me forward with the blankness of their deep and empty faces. I barely notice it, but I am gibbering as I put one foot out of the window, gibbering like a madman as I make my way towards my old friends in the lake. My gibbers sound to me like the chantings of an old tongue, and the words I speak are a tribute to the pale and bloodless moon.
Before I leap, I let the letter fall out of my hands and zig-zag to the floor. My last words on it are simple, a note of clear-cold warning I should have followed from the start.
Never, ever go to the lake when the moon is full.