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The Lady of Issyk Kul Lake

She grants a young man three wishes, but her gifts are poisoned.

By Alvin AngPublished 9 months ago 35 min read
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Photo by Noel Nichols on Unsplash

I was drowning in the depths of depression when I first heard of The Lady of the Lake.

Prior to that, my life was good. I was working as a Senior Writer at a well-funded start-up and was well in the running to become Chief Editor. The only other competitor I had was Jessica, a fellow writer who was also a very beautiful woman. Jessica wrote well, spoke well, and looked even better. Her auburn hair matched her eyes and tumbled like a chocolate waterfall past her hips. She was both sophisticated and svelte, possessing two Ivy League degrees as well as slim legs that seemed to go on forever. All in all, she was a formidable opponent, but that being said, I didn't think she was a match for me at all.

Which made it all the more surprising when the boss chose her over me. "Congratulations, Jessica, you got the job! YOU ARE THE ONE!" He roared during one of our monthly staff meetings. The boss's utterance was accompanied by Jessica's excited squeals and the congratulations of half a hundred sycophants. I tried to hide the surprise from my face and failed.

I looked around. Is that all there is? Jessica crying and suck-ups clapping and my boss beaming at her and pointedly ignoring me. I left the room and resigned the very next day.

Work had left my soul very drained but my bank account very fat, so I, in an attempt to right the balance, decided to buy a one-way ticket to Central Asia. I've always wanted to explore the far-flung regions of the world, and in Kyrgyzstan, I got to realize my dream. I got to ride wild horses and sleep in nomadic yurts and even climb the snow-capped Tian Shan Mountains. The untouched nature of the steppes took my breath away. Kyrgyzstan was a big departure from the backstabby politics of my workplace, and I enjoyed every moment I spent there...but still, something felt off. Still, I felt unhappy.

I wasn't even happy when I hooked up with one of the locals. It happened in a ski resort in the mountains. I had just finished a hard day of skiing and was trudging back to my lodge when I bumped into three native Kyrgyzstanis. Their names were Malik, Janice, and Elizabeth. I invited them to walk together with me, in part because I was lonely, and in part because the mountainous region I was in was so remote there were reports of snow leopards in the area. I figured that if we were to get ambushed, four humans would fare better than one.

Malik and Janice were both tall and well-built. They had round, Mongoloid faces and red, ruddy cheeks forever aglow with the cold. They were a couple and they looked like it. Elizabeth was Janice's cousin. She looked much like Janice except she was better looking in every conceivable way. Her hair was a river of overturned ink streaked with honey, her eyes ochre-flecked obsidian set in the depths of a high-cheekboned face—and oh God, her curves. Suffice to say she had the type of body that could end empires and make kings weep.

I couldn't help it. I fell in love with her immediately.

Elizabeth was all I could think about as we made our way back to my lodge, but I thought of her only in that wistful way young men think of women out of their league. And she was out of my league, I thought. I was a mere writer, out of a job, and she was a goddess, a daydream bursting out of her dress. I knew it was impossible for me to have her—so imagine my surprise when, back at the lodge and two bottles of wine later, Elizabeth started making out with me. When her lips met mine my Sartre-state lifted for the first time in weeks, and when our clothes fell off I thought I had died and gone to heaven. "My God," I remember thinking. "My luck is turning around at last!"

Serves me right for thinking this thought, because just as things were getting hot and heavy, Elizabeth excused herself from my arms and mumbled through her parted lips, "Sorry, Calvin. I like you. But I can’t. I can’t. I have a boyfriend."

I left the lodge. Malik and Janice had made a fire. They were seated in front of it, holding hands and sharing a bottle of vodka. They were coatless and gloveless even though it was snowing and -15 degrees outside. Russians. When they saw me, they smiled and beckoned me to join them.

"No luck, huh?" Janice said with a knowing smile.

I shrugged, acting nonchalant. "Does she always do this? Make out with guys even though she has a boyfriend?" I asked.

"Only with guys she finds attractive," Janice replied.

They passed around the bottle. I felt better and better with every swallow, and feeling better I started bitching to them about the state of my life. I told them all about it: the story of how I lost my promotion to Jessica, of how I came to Kyrgyzstan on a whim, and of how Elizabeth wouldn't continue making out with me even though she was seated on my lap and all our clothes were on the floor.

The bottle grew emptier, the fire roared higher, and the night started to deepen and take on a magical quality. There was a feeling of pregnant possibility in the air. It felt like the type of night where anything could happen, anything at all. Then Malik stood up, drained the rest of the bottle in one gulp, then came over and wrapped me in a comradely hug. He belched and said, “Sounds like you've had a string of bad luck. I'm sorry you're so unhappy, bro.” Then, suddenly changing tact, he asked, "Are you superstitious, Calvin?”

"Not really. Why?" I answered.

"Well, there's an old Kyrgyz tale—more of an urban legend, really. It's about—" Before Malik could go on Janice interrupted him with a sharp word. She took his arm and pulled him aside, where they proceeded to have a brief but heated discussion. At the end of it, Janice left in a huff. She opened the lodge door, entered, then slammed it shut behind her. Malik and I just sat there watching her go.

Sheepishly, Malik said, "Sorry about that. Janice doesn't like it when I talk about it, is all."

My curiosity was piqued. "Talk about what?" I asked.

"The Lady," he said.

"The lady?"

"Yes, the Lady of Issyk Kul Lake."

Issyk Kul. Issyk Kul. Where have I heard that name before? As drunk as I was, I almost didn't remember, and then it came to me. Issyk Kul was a large lake in Kyrgyzstan, and a famous one at that. There were three unique things about the lake. Firstly, it was situated high up in the mountains. Secondly, it was salty. And lastly, Issyk Kul Lake never, ever froze, not even during the winter. That was what its name meant: Issyk Kul literally means, "Hot Lake” in Kyrgyz.

"Well," Malik continued. "There's a legend about how Lake Issyk Kul was formed. It is a tale of tragic love and terrible vengeance, and it goes as follows. Once upon a time, near where Lake Issyk Kul is situated today, there was a great and beautiful city. A powerful khan ruled over the city, and the inhabitants lived in fear and awe of him. One day, the khan was told that one of the nomads had a daughter of incomparable beauty. His lust thus piqued, the khan sent his soldiers to bring her to him with an offer of marriage. But the lady rejected his offer. She was in love with a common shepherd and wanted to marry him instead. She tried to escape from the city but was captured by the vengeful khan, who imprisoned her in the highest tower of his fortress and tried various means to possess her. All eventually failed. But even though the lady would never be the khan's wife, she was trapped, and preferring to kill herself rather than remain an eternal captive, she, crying tears of burning salt, flung herself head-first from the tower. As punishment for the girl’s death, the walls shook, the earth split, and hot, salty water so much like the lady's tears came out of a crevice, washing the entire city away. And this, my friend, was how Issyk Kul Lake was created."

All of this was intoned to me in a loud and melodious voice. The gravitas of what Malik said was made even stronger by the puffs of white cloud emitting from his mouth and the play of fire across his face. Then Malik leaned closer to me and said, "Now...this is the part of the story they don't tell you." He looked left and right, then smiled as if he were about to tell me a great and terrible secret. "The lady, the beautiful lady who threw herself from the great khan's tower? She's still in the lake."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"I mean, she's dead, obviously, but her spirit has survived the passing of time. She has become sort of a guardian ghost of the lake. Legends say she has a soft spot for young men, and that she grants them three wishes in return for something they hold dear. It has become a custom for men who are down on their luck to drive to the lake and offer her something so she could turn their lives around."

At this, I had to laugh, but I stopped when I realized that Malik was being completely serious. He turned away from me, fingers playing with the empty vodka bottle, features awash in the light of snow and shadow. “How do you think I got together with Janice?” he asked me in a soft whisper, so soft I might have imagined it.

“You don’t mean…?”

“Yes.” He said in a voice that was curiously flat. “I was in love with her, you see, but she was so unsure about me. Janice was the prettiest girl I knew, and she had suitors—no end of suitors. I was but a long list of men vying for her affection. Then one night, after a night of heavy drinking, I happened to drive by Lake Issyk Kul.”

Malik continued. “I’ll never forget what happened that night. The moon was full, the stars were out, and I was very, very drunk. On a whim I decided to disembark and head to the lake. There, my breath was stolen away. I’ve seen the lake before, but never like this; never alone, never at night. The night was cold, with temperatures well below freezing, but the lake, true to its name, was not only warm, it was steaming. Wisps of ghost-fog were playing across its shore, and the lake was as calm as a mirror. Not a ripple disturbed its glassy surface. I stood there for a long time, marveling.”

At this Malik became quiet, lost in the memory of that night, and I had to gently prod him. “What happened next? Did you…did you see anything?”

He grunted. “You mean, did I encounter the spirit of the Lady of Issyk Kul Lake?”

“Yeah,” I answered.

He shook his head once, firmly. “No. No, I didn’t. But there was something there that night, I tell you, something different about the lake. I could feel it. There was magic in the air, a childish notion that anything was possible, should you just believe.” Then he laughed a hard laugh. “It sounds silly, now that I’m saying it out loud, but at the time it felt very real. Maybe that’s what made me do what I did.”

Saying this, Malik turned to me, and his face was inscrutable under the soft light of the moon. “I sat there for a long time, admiring the lake. Then I roared out, ‘If you help me get together with Janice, I’ll give you anything you want! I’ll…I’ll give you my good right arm!’

Saying this, Malik scooped up a pile of powdered snow, crushed it between his hands, and in one smooth motion, threw the snowball into the lake. The compact snow hit the steaming water and dissolved into a thousand shimmering droplets, the Many re-joining the One. Then, suddenly feeling silly, Malik laughed, and his laughter dispelled the tension in the air. He got up, brushed the snow from his clothes, and walked back to his car. Without so much as a backward glance, Malik proceeded to drive away…

He got into an accident the very same night. Malik was almost back to his place when his car skidded on black ice and crashed into a tree. When he woke up the next day, he was in the hospital. Janice’s tear-streaked face was looming over him, and his right arm was wrapped in a cast. Malik didn’t know it then, but that snowball was the last thing he would ever throw in his life.

All this was told to me in a matter-of-fact manner. Still, the rational part of me thought he might be lying, or at least over-exaggerating to better impress a gullible tourist. But all such notions were dispelled when Malik rolled his sleeve back to expose his elbow. There was a jagged scar running across the entirety of his right forearm. “My ulna and radius bones were crushed in the crash,” he said softly. “The doctors said I was lucky to leave with my life…but they, in the same breath, also said that I would never compete again.” At this, a single tear rolled down Malik’s face, coming to rest at the corner of his lip. Malik paid it no mind. “I used to be a pretty good Judo player, you see,” Malik explained. “I was in the Kyrgyz national team and all that—but after the accident, my arm was never the same. I can’t grip with it anymore. I can’t do any more throws. No more throws, no more Judo.” He shrugged emphatically. “Still, I can’t complain. Janice took care of me in the months after my accident. We got closer and closer and slowly fell in love. We’ve been together ever since.”

At this, Malik sat down, his tale finally finished. The bonfire that had roared so strongly before was now dying down to embers, and darkness was stealing its way into our makeshift camp. I didn’t know what to say, and not knowing what to say I relied on the tried-and-true logical side of my copywriter’s brain.

“It might have been a coincidence, nothing more,” I said.

“It might have,” Malik replied.

“After all, cars skid on black ice all the time.”

“They do,” Malik agreed.

We grunted once, satisfied. Then, as if by mutual acknowledgment, we walked together to the car, started it, and drove all the way to Issyk Kul Lake.

*

We found a spare bottle of vodka tucked away in the trunk of Malik’s car. We drank from it throughout the rest of our journey.

Issyk Kul was an hour’s drive away from the lodge, but that night, the drive seemed much longer. Part of it had to do with the fact that it was hard to drive fast on the winding mountain roads, but most of it had to do with how drunk we were. Malik was the one driving at first, but when it was obvious he had become too drunk to drive, I took over. The road was long and dark, and streetlights were few and far between. To my left erupted tall mountains piercing the ceiling of the night, to my right was a steep drop down the end of a valley. If we went over it, it would mean certain death. I became worried about what would happen if we were pulled over by the cops, but Malik only grunted and said that there were no police to be found here. And even if there were and they were to pull us over, we could just pay them off.

“How much would that cost?” I asked.

“About five U.S. dollars,” Malik replied.

We drove on. After what seemed like hours, I saw a green sign looming ahead, telling me that Lake Issyk Kul was just around the corner. I followed the sign, turned left where it told me to turn, and parked right at the end of a beach. “Malik,” I slurred. “Malik, we’ve arrived!” Malik didn’t answer. He had fallen asleep. His chin was on his chest, and he was breathing in loud and steady snores. No matter how hard I tried, I could not wake him. I gave up and exited the car, making sure to leave the radiator running so he wouldn’t freeze. Then I made my way towards the lake.

Malik had not lied. Issyk Kul was a sight to behold. Its glassy surface was a mirror reflecting the stars in the overhead sky, and the fog rising from it was thick and ephemeral, its tendril fingers curling around the lake, around my ankles, around me. All around me was falling snow and wonder. For the first time in my life, I believed. I believed in not only in Malik’s tall tale but in all the old wives’ tales I had ever heard and dismissed: tales of ghosts and bumps in the night, of banshees and black cats and banished genies hidden deep inside old lamps, of impossible wishes asked for and magically granted.

Without thinking, I fell to my knees and yelled out loud, “I’m miserable, I’m miserable, I’m miserable!” Then it came out of me in a rush: the entirety of my sad and piteous tale. I told the lake everything: the story of how I had come to Kyrgyzstan, of the job I had so stupidly lost, and the woman who had so callously abandoned me. I wept then, the tears flowing hot and free from my eyes, coming to rest in frozen puddles on my cheeks, an icy testament to the depths of my grief.

When the moment finally passed, there was a sudden chill in the air. I realized, for the first time, how quiet everything was. Issyk Kul was a lake, not an ocean, and therefore it was much quieter. There were no waves to be heard, nor beachgoers to be found. Still, there was something ominous about the silence. I stopped blabbering and looked around. The snow was still falling, still peppering the shore with crystal-white pinpricks, but even the sound of the falling snow seemed muffled somehow. There was not even a gust of wind to disturb the stillness of the night. The world, at that moment, seemed wrapped in a blanket of pure white silence.

Then it happened. Up ahead of me, I heard something. A sound so much like a ripple, though to this day, I am unsure if the ripple I heard was that of laughter or of water. I looked up and beheld an impossible sight.

There was a woman on the lake—and when I mean on the lake, I mean literally on the lake. She was standing on the surface of the lake, and the lake held her up like it was not made out of water but glass. She was a distance away from me, but even as my incredulous eyes watched she started drifting closer and closer. She did not walk but glide, like a ghost made out of mist. I, on the other hand, was rooted on the spot—though I was not frozen out of terror, but out of sheer unadulterated awe.

She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Even now, writing this, words fail to describe the extent of her beauty. Calling her ‘beautiful’ would be like calling Mt. Everest tall or the core of the sun hot. Suffice to say she was all dressed in white. She had on a shimmering white dress that seemed to be woven out of moonlight, and a veil made out of the same luminescent material as her dress framed the perfect oval of her face. When she drifted closer, I could make out her features. They were flawless. Her eyes and nose and lips were so symmetrical they were almost painful to behold, but even as I watched they seemed to shift, to move, to writhe madly in one direction then the other. The expression on her face was placid yet terrible to behold.

She stopped a mere meter or so away from me, and I could not move. My knees were firmly rooted on the ground and my eyes were firmly fixed upon her. I sensed rather than heard what she said to me, and what she said to me was, “Tell me, Calvin. What is your heart’s desire?”

Desire…desire…what does my heart desire? My limbs were cold, my thoughts were racing, and my heart was beating out of my chest, yet my lips seemed warm and able to move on their own. They opened and I spoke. “My job,” I said without thinking. “I want my job back.”

“Done,” said the Lady of the Lake. “What is the second thing you desire?”

Her voice was an echo in my mind, a siren song caressing and shredding my senses in equal measure. The second thing you desire…the second thing you desire…What was the second thing I desired? Then, without conscious thought, a series of images sprang unbidden to my mind. I thought of two empty wine bottles in front of a flickering fire, of Elizabeth’s lips so soft and womanly on mine, and of those very same lips telling me that no, no, no, she can’t, she can’t, that she has a boyfriend. “Elizabeth,” I said, almost spitting her name out. “I want Elizabeth.”

“Done,” The Lady of the Lake said. There was an undercurrent of anticipation in her voice. “Now, Calvin. What is the third thing you desire?”

I was on a roll now; I could get anything I wanted. Another string of images came to me, each one grander than the last. An expensive mansion with floor-to-ceiling windows, a fat roll of cash stashed safely away in the bank, all the women I had ever walked past on the streets and dreamt of sleeping with—these images, they came and came, like endless waves buffeting the face of a long weary shore. They showed me all the things I have ever wanted and more—yet I could not, for the life of me, think of another thing that I wanted. Somewhere far behind me and in another world was Malik’s voice whispering, “She has a soft spot for young men and grants them three wishes, but her gifts are poisoned…” and I could not help but think of the terrible price she would exact for the granting of my wishes.

“Calvin,” said the Lady of the Lake again, a touch of impatience coloring her voice, “What is your third wish?”

All at once more visions unbidden came to me, swarming me, faster than they had before. I saw in my mind’s eye a line of supermodels walking down Paris, all of them in bed with me. I saw myself at the top of the tallest penthouse in the world, looking down and laughing as men scurried around my feet like ants. I saw the walls of an impregnable fortress, and a weeping woman locked at the top of it in a dark and doorless tower. And at the end of it all, I saw a fountain of water bursting out of a crack in the earth, spurting out unstoppably like heart’s blood to drown thousands of screaming women and children. Throughout it all was the Lady’s voice booming, the Lady’s voice whispering, “What is your third desire, what is your third desire, your third desire, your third desire, your desire, your desire, your desire…”

Summoning a tremendous strength of will, I scrunched open my eyes to look at The Lady of the Lake. Her face was madness. Shadows were dancing in and out of her frame, in and out of her mouth, and in and out of those impossibly wide eyes. Snow was falling all around us, buffeting me but unaffecting her. It was a storm of epic proportions, but I did not feel the cold as her face morphed in and out of existence, transforming her features into that of all the women I had ever longed for and loved. I caught a glimpse of Jessica and Elizabeth in the nightmare of her face, but that might just have been the workings of my overstimulated mind.

I opened my mouth, and all at once the storm abated. “My third desire…” I croaked. “My third desire…”

“Yes, Calvin?” she said.

“Well, here’s the thing,” I replied, licking my dry lips. “I don’t really have a third desire.”

The last thing I remembered, before the storm overwhelmed me, was the look of surprise on The Lady’s ever-shifting face. Then I did the one thing I thought only horror movie victims did.

I promptly passed out.

*

I woke up in the hospital.

Elizabeth was beside me. When she saw that I was awake she let out a small scream of surprise, then immediately called for the nurses. They arrived soon after, a team of angels clad in white, fussing over me while I lay there, dazed and confused.

Through the general confusion, I managed to surmise that I was suffering from a mix of cold exposure and alcohol poisoning. “You’re very lucky to be alive, young man,” said a nurse in a heavy accent, patting my hand. “When we found you, you were just about dead.” “What happened, Calvin?” Elizabeth asked, cradling my face in her hands. “When we woke up, you and Malik were just gone.”

I thought of my midnight trip to the lake, of the storm and the visions I had there, and wondered how much of it was real and how much of it was a vodka-induced dream. I opened my mouth and croaked, “It’s a long story, Elizabeth.” Then I coughed, and Elizabeth was quick to hand me a glass of water. I sipped from it gratefully, then asked, “Malik. Where’s Malik? He could explain this to you better than I ever could.”

The only response I got to my question was a sob. Elizabeth took me a moment to compose herself, saying, “Malik…Malik he…he…” From the long corridor outside my room, I could hear cries, and a clatter of high heels striking the floor. Then the door was flung open, and Janice threw herself into the room. Her hair was in tremendous disarray, and the makeup on her face was smudged and strewn with tears. When she saw that I was awake she screamed. “YOU! You killed him, you bastard you!” Saying this she flung herself at me, pounding my chest with her fists, and as weak and as shocked as I was I was powerless to resist her.

Elizabeth and the nurse held Janice back, pinning her arms together. There, she unexpectedly burst into tears and buried her face in Elizabeth’s chest. Elizabeth held her, rocking softly. Their eyes were on the far corner of the room. It was the nurse who told me about Malik. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Your friend is dead.” I could only lie there in stunned silence. “We found him frozen inside his car,” she explained. She told me again how sorry she was, before quietly leaving the room.

I was discharged a few days later, just in time for Malik’s funeral. There was a small crowd gathered there, consisting mainly of Malik’s close friends and family. Elizabeth and I stood close together and far apart from the others. When it was my turn to approach Malik’s casket, I did so hesitantly, partially because I was still weak from my ordeal, but mostly because I knew that all eyes were on me.

The casket was open, revealing Malik’s pale and windswept face. The ruddiness had gone out of it, and I noticed that not even the efforts of the mortician could hide the nibbles of frostbite that had appeared on the tips of his nose and ears. “That’s impossible,” I remember whispering to myself. “It’s impossible he could’ve frozen to death, because I left the radiator running. I remember leaving the radiator running.” Before I could freak out and cause a scene, Elizabeth took my hands and led me away from my dead friend’s casket. While I walked I could hear Malik’s words of warning running through my head, “She grants a young man three wishes, but her gifts are poisoned…”

They say there is nothing like a funeral to make you feel alive, and it seems that at least in my case, this much was true. As we drove back to the lodge, I couldn’t help but notice how good Elizabeth looked in mourning black. Her dress was cut out of smooth black satin, and her elbow-length gloves were adorned with a multitude of white gemstones, tiny stars glittering in the cold light of dawn. Her get-up made her look very prim and proper. This made her even more attractive, somehow.

Acting on an impulse, I leaned in close to Elizabeth for a kiss. She surprised me by returning it.

Back at the lodge, Elizabeth and I went at it. The front door had scarcely been kicked close when our hands found each other everywhere. I pulled at her hair, she tore at my coat, and our lips met and unmet in a dizzying frenzy. When our clothes were off, Elizabeth welcomed me into her arms and onto her bed. There, my lips traveled the length of her quivering body. As I entered her the winter air was cold yet alive with the sounds of false love and desperation.

I stayed in Kyrgyzstan for another week before flying back to Singapore. Elizabeth bade me goodbye at the gate, and although I promised I would see her again, her sad eyes crinkled up and told me without words that she knew my promise was a lie.

*

When my plane touched down at Changi Airport, I was greeted by the familiar feeling one always gets after returning to Singapore: a mixture of elation and trepidation.

Here was the prim and proper city of my youth, with its impeccably clean streets and next-to-zero crime rate. Here was my city-state by the sea, complete with its amazing food, stifling laws, and sterile-minded people. I took this all in as I walked through the airport and out of its gates, breathing in the hot tropical air, relishing and hating it in equal measure, a man caught between his twin loves of order and chaos. The green light of a waiting taxi appeared around the corner. I gave the driver my address and got in.

My phone rang before I had the chance to settle myself. I sighed inwardly and picked up. Doubtless it was some mundane call reminding me of the hundred-and-one obligations I had put aside since leaving for Kyrgyzstan. In this, I was half-correct. It was a phone call alright, but the contents of it were far from mundane.

“Calvin! Where the hell have you been?” came a familiar voice from the other end of the line.

“Jason?” I said.

Jason was my former boss’s personal assistant and a powerful man in the workplace. His call surprised me because we had never been close—we even had something of a minor rivalry going on, but now Jason was speaking to me like all was forgotten and I was his long-lost friend. “Get your ass down to the office, man!” Jason said, laughing.

“What’s this about?” I asked.

“Come on down and I’ll tell you all about it,” he insisted.

I went on down. Jason met me at the door, and he was true to his word. Here was the gist of what he said: it turns out that Jessica, our bright and beautiful Chief Editor, had been sleeping with the boss. There were lurid photographs involved, and the affair had been uncovered by non-other than the boss’s wife. She flew into a rage and proceeded to share the steamy pictures with most of the office. Jessica had been fired, but the boss, as high-powered CEOs won’t to do, managed to smooth things over with both his wife and the office. He did so with promises of a trip to the Bahamas and an increased annual bonus respectively. He came out of it smelling like a bunch of roses. The fact remains, however, that the role of Chief Editor was now up and available for grabs. “And the boss thinks you’re the perfect man for the job.” Jason finishes, beaming. “So,” he continued, offering me his hand. “Whaddya’ say…Chief Editor?”

I hesitated for only a second. Then I took his hand in mine.

My new job and promotion were not without its perks. It came with a stock option and a six-figure salary that was more than double what I used to make. I promptly used a chunk of it to rent a two-story mansion in the heart of Botanic Gardens.

The day I moved in, I almost wept. The first floor of the mansion consisted of three bedrooms. There was teak furniture on the floor and tasteful art on its walls. A wide staircase led to the second floor, where a study was located. The study had French windows that opened to reveal a magnificent view of Swan Lake. True to its name, the lake had many white swans dotting the length of its placid surface. It was in this room that I set up my laptop, along with a multitude of writing instruments.

Here, a man could write, I thought. Here, a man could just look out at the view, at those swans floating gracefully past the surface of the lake, and it would come. Line after line would come dancing their way across the blank page, and my work would be easy. Thinking this, I opened my laptop and began to write.

The problem was, I couldn’t.

For the first time in my life, I couldn’t write. That night I sat there for hours, sweating, racking my brain, trying to come up with words that would never come. At half past midnight, I finally gave up and gave in to the embrace of my new four-poster bed. It must be the moving-in nerves, I thought. Tomorrow, the words would come. Tomorrow for sure. Tomorrow…

The words didn’t come on the morrow, nor the day after that. After three wordless days I began to grow frantic, after a week without writing I was inconsolable indeed. My words, my talent. Where had they gone? Worse than my fears were the very real requirements of my job. Now that I was Chief Editor, I had to write. There simply was no two ways about it. “A writer who doesn’t write is like a pornstar who doesn’t fuck!” was one of my boss’s favorite declarations, and it is one always met with cheers and raucous applause. In my desperation, I even hired the best freelancers I could find off sites like Craigslist and Fiverr, but despite the enormous sums of money I paid I knew that the quality of their work was not up to par with the standards of my exacting company. I knew, deep in my heart of hearts, that I was only buying Time with Money.

I began to drink heavily. I drank in a bid to quell the anxious thoughts in my head, and in the hope that alcohol, the golden nectar so long a friend of poets and artists alike, would in some way help stir the creative juices in my head.

It was a vain hope. Night after night I sat in front of my open laptop, watching as the swans went by and my words stopped dead and writhing at the keyboard.

*

About a month after I moved in, there was a knock on the door. I was drunk as usual, and carrying my drink with me I padded my way to the door. I opened it to reveal Jessica’s beautiful face. After the customary hellos, she made her way in, taking in the expansive living room, the expensive furniture dotting the floor.

“Nice place,” Jessica said, with an arch of her elegant eyebrow.

“Jessica,” I replied, trying not to show how drunk I was. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”

I needn’t have bothered. Jessica was drunk too. She was uncertain on her feet, and lurching she sat down on the couch beside me. Her next words confirmed to me the state of her mind. “Hire me, Calvin,” she implored, her words slurry, her eyes made unusually bright and glassy by drink.

“Hire you?” I asked.

“Yes, hire me. As your assistant, as your secretary—as your anything. You’ve got no idea how terrible life has been since my…well, since my firing.”

I had a fleeting image of my time in Kyrgyzstan, of me feeling the mixed feelings of exhilaration and hopelessness at the fact that I was both on vacation and out of a job. I told her solemnly, “I’ve got a better idea than you think, Jessica.”

Without warning, Jessica leapt forward and took my face in her hands. She pressed her mouth against mine, warmly, desperately. I could taste the sweet taste of rum on her lips, the bitter tang of alcohol on her darting, quicksilver tongue. Then she was on me, straddling me with those long legs, holding me close. I returned her kisses with an animal frenzy. It was not until she was naked and moaning on top of me that I came to my senses and pushed her off.

“No, Jessica. No.

“But why? I want to…I want…”

“I know what you want. Leave, Jessica, you got it. You’re hired.”

She gathered up her clothes, dressed quickly, and left. I sat there for a moment, nursing my drink. When the last dregs of liquor were gone, I threw the empty glass aside. It struck the wall and exploded into a thousand shimmering shards. I contemplated the destruction I had wrought for a moment. Then I went upstairs, grabbed my laptop, and made my way to the lake.

The world was familiarly quiet when I arrived. Not a blade of grass stirred, not a single cricket creaked. Even the swans were strangely absent. The willows around the shore were limp and weeping, and I was similarly unsteady on my feet. I stood at the edge of the lake, weaving from side to side, languid in body but never more certain in spirit. I knew suddenly, then, what I must do.

I roared out, “Fine! Fine, Lady, fine! You win. You win! I take it back. I take all my wishes back! You can have it all—the fine dandy job and the fine dame Elizabeth. I don’t care for them anymore!” Saying so, I raised my laptop high, and in one smooth motion tossed it into the lake.

It was my favorite laptop, a Razer Blade 14 I had purchased years ago with my very first writing paycheque. I watched it sail overhead, spinning in mad and endless circles. Right before my laptop touched the water’s surface, however, there was a blur of motion. I watched incredulously as a hand emerged and grabbed my Blade at the tail end of its spin.

For one long, impossible moment the arm hung there, pale and glistening, holding my laptop up like an offering. Then, with horror-movie slowness, the pale hand descended and disappeared from view, taking with it my laptop and what I hoped were the remnants of my curse.

I stumbled back to the mansion. It was gone now, all of it. My high-paying job, my fancy new house, the beautiful women who have so far surrounded me. I would have to find another job; I would have to move back to my crummy old apartment. This thought, I found, strangely did not fill me with grief. I instead felt oddly light and content.

I walked up the stairs to my study to find a laptop-sized space on the desk. Beside it was a mass of notebooks and pens, the numerous writing oddments I had collected over the years but never once used. I grabbed at them now, uncapping a fountain pen and flipping open an empty notebook to expose the blankness of its very first page. Then slowly, ever so slowly, I put the nib of my pen on paper.

I cried when the pen began to move. The first words I wrote were, “I was drowning in the depths of depression when I first heard of The Lady of the Lake.” I sat back, astonished, admiring the play of ink on paper, savoring the taste of small miracles in the air. I told myself that maybe, just maybe, all was not yet lost. I then proceeded to write down the rest of my strange and sordid tale.

My pen did not stop until the sun rose. Outside, the lake started to glisten and take on a magical quality. Overhead, dawn broke, and the white swans unfurled their wings, taking flight across the blue and brightening sky.

fiction
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About the Creator

Alvin Ang

👑 Writer of scandalous stories. Author of "National Service: Confessions of a Skiving Soldier" and "Confessions of a Singaporean Weed Smoker." Buy my books here!

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