It had been a thousand years since he’d seen this lake.
In the far past, the lake had been described in various shades of blue and even light green depending on the account and the person who’d told the tale. Because there were stories of the lake scattered here and there through the various scholarly journals, it couldn’t have been called “undiscovered” but it clearly was undeveloped, with no humans within 10 miles. The corporation that owned it and the land for several miles around it appeared happy to leave it that way and even though the corporation was regularly approached by developers, the land was never offered for sale.
On this summer’s day, there was a small breeze blowing from the west the water was crystal clear and dead calm without a ripple. That smoothness reflected a clear blue sky although an artist might have noticed there were slights shades of grey mixed in with the blue.
The songs of birds echoed out across the water as they flitted in amongst the massive oak trees surrounding the lake on all sides. There was nobody living who could explain why these oaks had survived when every other similar-sized oak in the country had been cut and used for ship’s timbers by one king or other.
A very narrow and poorly defined pathway leading down to the edge of the lake that was only wide enough for a very small car had somehow survived the lack of use. Its center was high with local weeds flowering profusely in the midsummer heat. Only two wagon-wheel tracks remained open and grassed as if there were regular traffic on them.
This day dawned like thousands before it. The sun rose on a cloudless blue sky and the early, morning light filtered through the trees along the easterly edges of the lake. The smooth water bounced the light back to the trees reflecting their images and stretching them out across the lake. All had been silent with the exception of the bird songs, right to this very moment.
As the sound of a small laboring engine reverberated through the still morning air, more and more birds added their voices to the general alarm. Slowly, the engine noise became louder and louder as the tiny sports car, driving directly into the rising sun, approached the lake.
As the sun rose over the tops of the trees to fully light the lake and begin its journey across the sky, the small green and black sports car bumped down the last shallow rise of the ancient track to stop ten yards away from the water.
The car, with two newly battered front fenders and scrapes along the body, stopped with a squeal of the brakes, a shudder, and forward lurch, as if the key had been turned off without disengaging the transmission first. A window rolled down; you could tell it was being hand-cranked because of the stuttering starting and stopping as the window glass disappeared into the door.
A large bony hand appeared and this was immediately followed by a white shirt cuff with large monogrammed studs and a grey-suited arm. The hand patted the door as it reached and searched for the door handle. Finding it, the hand twisted to unlatch the door and the arm snaked back inside. The door flew open, hit the limit of its hinges with a bang and started bouncing back. The firm hand of the driver stopped it in its tracks.
The hand then reached up, turned back towards its owner and grasped the roof of the car in an attempt to aid the driver to swivel and get out of the car. First one shiny black shoe with grey-socked foot appeared. This was followed by a leg encased in light-grey wool pants. Very shortly afterwards, the second shoe and leg appeared as the driver completed the twist to get himself out of the small car. As soon as both legs were on the ground, the driver’s left hand grasped the door jamb. You could tell the driver was not built for getting out of such a small machine as he grunted and strained to pull himself up and out of the car. A head appeared.
Slowly but surely the rest of his body followed the head. Within a few seconds, he stood bent over, breathing deeply, panting with the exertion of getting himself out of the small car. An observer, looking at his height might have wondered how he folded himself into it in the first place. His 6’6″ tall frame was certainly far too large for such a small machine and his broad shoulders did not fit into the seat. He straightened. Stretched out his arms to loosen up his back, felt his neck crack with the sudden release of tension and space.
He smiled. It felt good to be released from the coffin-sized car.
The driver appeared to be an old man with a slight bald patch on the top of his head, but his age was not easily determined. His formerly red hair had given ground to grey and this was neatly trimmed at his shirt collar. In contrast to the grey hair, his sparkling green eyes were topped by generous eyebrows and danced with youthful energy. A closely trimmed grey beard softened the sharp jutting angles of his cheekbones and nose and hid any wrinkles.
He was not a handsome man, but women found him striking and unforgettable while he was with them. Afterward, of course, they forgot him quickly.
He glanced at the forest in front of him, took a step sideways, closed the door of the car with a small slam. He knew it wouldn’t stay shut unless he did.
And then, only then, did he turn to look at the lake. He swiveled his head from left to right and took in the surrounding forests. He smiled softly and a sense of deep calm filled him as he walked toward the water’s edge.
Raising his palm to the lake, he slid his arm sideways as if wiping off a window. He watched his hand move from one side of the lake right across to the other. And wipe off the view he did.
A small island appeared in the very center of the lake. In his current condition he couldn’t tell how large it was, couldn’t tell how far away it was and it was only through the remnants of his power he understood and could see the island itself.
His voice when he spoke was deep, round, and full. It was a voice that would brook no interference, could cow the weak and impress the strong. At the moment, however, he spoke in a soft, respectful way and his only words were, “My Lady.”
Anyone listening might have thought they heard several chickadees singing in unison but the old, grey man, bowed his head and said, “Thank you, my Lady.”
A bluebird, flashing its blue foliage and red breast, flitted in front of him and then around behind him to land on the roof of the car. He turned to it, nodded his head in deference. His deep nod to the bird was clearly that of a servant and not an equal. A soft smile crinkled his face.
“My Lady?” he said.
The bird trilled a sharp song.
He stared directly into the bird’s black eyes. “Indeed, my Lady. I live among men. I have created a rather large fortune and yes, I own this land and have protected you and yours over the years. And yes, I know you know this and are grateful,” he said directly to the bird.
The bird cocked its head but remained silent and the old man continued, “Yes, my Lady of the Lake, I am still yours. After all these centuries, after all these trials, you still own my soul. And I have been your humble and willing servant for the past one thousand years,” He dropped the eye contact to stare at the ground.
A respectful two seconds later, he looked back up to make eye contact with the bird. The bird remained silent but cocked its head in the opposite direction and its black eyes seemed to grow larger as they drilled into the eyes of the old man.
It trilled again with a series of rising notes. The old man nodded in return and then hung his head. The bird flew away in silence. The old man raised his head to watch the bird disappear into a building on the island.
He saw a small unpainted, wooden rowing dory detach itself and silently float towards him. There were no oars, indeed nobody was rowing, but the boat moved of its own accord across the water towards him.
The dory ground itself a few inches up on the sandy shore with a sandpaper-on-wood sound right in front of the old man. On its front seat, a small crystal goblet was half filled with a deep-purple liquid. The old man reached into the boat, picked up the glass and swirled it in front of his nose. A smile from somewhere deep within him grew as the wine’s fragrance almost overpowered his senses.
He hadn’t had wine like this for a very, very long time. Examining the clear crystal, he noted the rising sun sparkling off its facets only to disappear into the dark-purple wine. A soft smile threatened to appear on his broad mouth as the sun, moving through the glass, created rainbows on the hand holding the crystal. He laughed out loud as a chorus of bird song echoed over the water from the island inviting him to take a drink.
He raised the crystal to his lips and slowly tipped the glass so the barest hint of the wine entered his mouth.
He stopped drinking, held the wine up to the sun and laughed with relief and pleasure as the warmth of the liquid spread through his body. He laughed even louder as all of his senses expanded, all of his powers returned, and he could feel the weight and frustrations of this world leaving his shoulders.
Laughing uproariously, he held the glass up to the island in salute and then in one large gulp, drank the rest.
As he did, the chorus of birds was matched by the deep tolling from an unseen bell tower on the island. He had not heard those bells in centuries, indeed ages. He knew the lady had blessed him, had released and forgiven him and had just given her permission for him to reenter and participate in the world.
“Make no mistake about it my old friend,” said the dark, angelic voice in his head. “You are mine and will always be mine. You are mine to do with as I wish, but as long as you stay within the limits of our agreement, you will have full rein to do as you please.”
The old man smiled. It was a gentle smile of acceptance and not the uproarious smile and laughter of a good joke.
Something clicked in his brain, and worked itself down through every pore in his body, every cell of his being and deep into whatever soul he had left. “I am indeed, my Lady,” he said. “I am indeed.”
Restored, Merlin turned back to the world.