Marc Elias Keller


The Land Beneath the Lake (September 21, 2009. Issue 9.)

from The Sussex County Courier, 25 August 19—

Vivian Joyce Barnes, of Roderick, Essex County

Age 9, daughter of Lester and Judith Barnes, died Friday evening, August 21. Born February 10 in London, Vivian excelled at the Woodbridge Elementary School, where she was in her fourth year. She took ballet lessons, was a member of the Young Ladies Equestrian Club, was an avid reader, and enjoyed nature walks to the nearby Lake Charles. Survived by her parents, maternal aunt Janice Templeton of Bath, paternal uncle Harold Barnes of London, paternal grandfather L. G. Barnes of London, and other members of the extended family. Funeral services Saturday, August 29, 2:00 p.m., St. Francis Catholic Church, Roderick. Contributions to the Vivian J. Barnes Memorial Fund, c/o the Roderick Public Library.

* * *

Lake Charles was a small body of water adjacent to the Tudor-style house where Lester Barnes, his wife Judith, and their daughter Vivian lived, in the town of Roderick, Essex County, England. Under a kilometer from the house, and accessible through a narrow pathway lined with white rosebushes, the lake was not officially on private property, but nevertheless, because of its relative isolation, it was used almost exclusively by one person. From her early childhood, Vivian had visited the lake nearly every day, and now, at nine years of age, her attraction to Lake Charles had not waned in the slightest. During the winter she especially relished her solitary excursions, for the skeletal trees surrounding the lake were most aesthetically appealing, and there was always the chance, however slight it might be, that the lake would freeze and allow her a few tremulous steps onto the surface. In the summer the water was warm enough for swimming, but just barely, so throughout the seasons Vivian maintained her usual position, at the edge of the lake, sitting with her legs tucked back under her bottom, trailing her fingers along the water.

Their daughter’s attachment to Lake Charles had always been somewhat inscrutable to her parents, especially Lester. It seemed insufficient to attribute it to a simple love of serenity and natural beauty, for other than Lake Charles, the girl showed no striking interest in nature or outdoor activities. She was more content to visit libraries and bookshops, or just to stay inside, in her bedroom. And further obscuring the matter was her constant reluctance to discuss the lake or her fondness for it. “It’s just a nice place to be, isn’t it?” she would respond, automatically, and then evade all further inquiries.

For years Judith had grudgingly tolerated her daughter’s reclusiveness, labeling it the normal shyness of little girls, but as Vivian had grown older, this behavior became increasingly troublesome. Vivian never expressed the least interest in clubs, or outings, or even “play dates.” She would speak about her school subjects and the storybooks that the teacher read aloud, but unless prodded, Vivian never mentioned any of her classmates and seemed not to know any of their names.

The teacher had noticed Vivian’s withdrawn demeanor, of course, but being disinclined to meddle, and given that Vivian was a conscientious student, she had only sent a mild letter to Judith and Lester relaying that their daughter was especially quiet during class and spent every recess period by her lonesome, meandering near the woods or reading on the swing set. Was there anything specific bothering her? Did the girl need more stimulation? Perhaps her self-esteem needed boosting? If the parents desired, the school could recommend some highly regarded counselors that specialized in children…and so forth.

This note was most displeasing to both parents, though for diverging reasons.

“You really don’t care, do you?” Judith complained to Lester. “It doesn’t bother you that she has no playmates? It doesn’t bother you that she says hardly anything to anyone? Do you think that’s normal? Obviously her teacher doesn’t!”

Lester scoffed, folded the note, and dropped it into the bin. “Yes, well, perhaps her teacher should stick to being concerned with Vivian’s schoolwork and not fuss over her personality. That bothers me. Now, really, Judith, just let the girl be. She’ll come out of her shell when she’s ready, and that’s all there is to it. Pushing her is only going to make things more difficult later on.”

“Well, maybe she needs to be pushed,” Judith said, exasperated. “You’re not doing her any good letting her sleep or be idle all day. Besides, I don’t see why we can’t at least try to call someone. We can afford it.”

“That’s not the issue at all,” Lester replied, forcefully. “She’s just too young to be starting in with all that counseling mish-mash. Imagine! a stranger asking her a thousand questions, and then filling her mind with the idea that she’s sick. Is that what you want?”

Judith pursed her lips in smoldering resignation. “I don’t know. But something needs to be done. She’s not getting any better. She’s getting worse.”

“Worse than what?” Lester cried.

Nothing productive ever came about from these quarrels, and Judith, as well as Vivian’s teacher, did not press the suggestion of professional intervention. Under Lester’s insistence, Vivian was never consulted about the matter, so life continued as usual throughout the spring. Judith managed the domestic affairs, Lester fulfilled his editorial duties at the Hollister-Hill publishing house, and Vivian visited Lake Charles daily, noticing along the path the plump white roses that were now in full bloom.

Then June came, ending the school year and bringing the long days of summer. This change was always a precarious one. Despite her detachment from the social milieu of Woodbridge Elementary School, Vivian’s academic successes did bring her some little pleasure, and her health benefited from a steady and fixed routine. Now, without the demand of the school-bell, getting her daughter to depart her bed before noon was a torturous, nerve-wracking task for Judith. Further, by late afternoon, especially when the full glare of the sun made outdoor activities uncomfortable to her pale, sensitive skin, Vivian seemed so possessed with boredom and ennui it was as though years of nothingness passed between each tick of the clock.

Her mother was inclined to take initiative and fill her daughter’s calendar, with or without her say-so, but the girl utterly wilted at the least bit of discipline. The few times that Judith had tried to schedule activities, Vivian had fallen into a morose state, near-comatose, without appetite, unable to sleep, and astonishingly irritated by the tiniest inconvenience. “It’s too hot to do anything, anyway,” she would sigh, so miserably that always at the last minute her mother relented.

In mid-July Judith was preparing for her annual holiday in Bath, to call on her sister. However, being especially concerned about Vivian this year, she had considered postponing the visit, but Lester, who had scheduled his own holiday time from Hollister-Hill to take charge of Vivian for these fifteen days, dissuaded his wife from doing so.

“That’s silly,” he told her. “You need a rest. And you’ll worry Vivian if she suspects why you’re not going.”

Eventually Judith consented to go ahead with her plans, but it was evident that she was apprehensive about leaving Vivian alone with Lester. “You could keep her a little active, couldn’t you, for my sake?” she pleaded on the morning of her departure, as she loaded her suitcase into the car. “…But it doesn’t matter. I know you’ll let her sleep late and dally ’round the lake all day.” She sighed bitterly.

“We’ll be fine,” Lester soothed. “Just enjoy yourself and don’t worry over us.”

Then Judith was gone and a relaxed feeling settled over the house. Lester was pleased to putter around the garage and garden, and in fact, Vivian’s visits to Lake Charles were slightly curtailed, though only because the early evenings were spent dining out in restaurants and browsing extensively through local bookshops with her father. Judith might not have approved of this indulgence, either, but what did Judith approve of, anyway? His wife was so fussy and so bent on Vivian having an “active social life” that Lester felt the girl deserved some time to unwind and be spoiled. This applied to him as well: because of his tenure in the publishing world, exploring bookshops with his daughter had a rejuvenating effect on him, since Vivian had neither an understanding of nor a concern for the commercial aspects of literature.

Nighttime was especially pleasant, for Lester allowed Vivian to remain in the sitting room well past ten o’clock while he read aloud to her. How lovely it was to have his daughter dressed in her nightclothes and curled in his lap, in the armchair, her white cheek resting on his breast as she listened to his sonorous voice recite fairy tales, fantasy stories, zoological information, even passages from Melville, Wilde, and Poe. Vivian seemed to appreciate and enjoy everything, which gave Lester much pride. He believed that if his daughter was aloof and detached from her schoolmates, it was not from a deficiency of character, but rather a sensibility that desired something finer than silly children’s games and scholastics tailored toward the average mind. Of course he could never say exactly that to his wife without her thinking him mad, but nevertheless... What other nine-year-old girl was so entranced and sympathetic to even the gloomiest works of Poe?

“Everyone in his stories is so sad,” Vivian once said. “But that’s how it is in real life.”

“Oh? Why do you think that, sweetie?” her father inquired, delighted by her observation.

“All the good stories are about unhappy people,” Vivian had replied.

Yes, how lovely these gentle hours on the armchair... More than once Lester could not help but to wish that Judith’s holiday spanned longer than a fortnight. In fact, to extract as much as he could from this hiatus, he and Vivian often lingered in the armchair well past midnight, waiting for the smoke of the extinguished wick to overwhelm the scent of the candle. Then he would carry his daughter up to her bedroom, tuck her in, and close her window shades so the daylight of early morning would not disturb her. That Vivian could and would sleep until one or two o’clock the next afternoon was of no bother to him.

Nearly every day the two of them visited the Roderick Public Library, which Vivian navigated with startling authority and dexterity. She could always find some new item of interest, though she seemed not to comprehend the mortality of authors and often searched for “new” works by long-deceased writers of the classics. This endeavor typically frustrated her and sent her back to well-worn favorites, —but on this morning, in the literature and poetry section, Vivian came upon a slender volume wedged awkwardly between two much thicker anthologies. She yanked the spine with both of her small hands, dislodging the hardback, and then settled on the thin carpet, sitting crookedly with her legs tucked under her as she examined the book. It was bound in a maroon cover, frayed at the corners, with gold lettering across the front that read Poems for Very Small Children.

“I’ve never seen this one before,” Vivian murmured, in a rarely-heard tone of surprise.

“Neither have I,” said Lester, crouching down and flipping through the soft yellow pages. The title page bore the imprint of a defunct publisher he vaguely recognized, but no author or editor was named. “Let’s give it a try.”

That evening, after settling in the armchair and lighting the candles, Lester began to read the verses aloud. There were ten total in the book, which he found pleasant enough, in a juvenile way, but not especially noteworthy. Vivian listened attentively, but also was not particularly impressed, —until they came upon a story-in-verse called “The Land Beneath the Lake.” After hearing it through once, the girl lifted her head from her father’s breast and demanded an encore recitation. This was unusual: Vivian seldom spoke out while Lester read unless she was responding to a direct question of his, so he happily obliged and repeated the lines:

All beneath the lake was good

Children smiled, as they should

And laughed, and danced, and gathered ’round

And listened to that perfect sound

Of burbles and bubbles that came from the cove

Protecting against the darkness above.

All of the stanzas being written in such diction and meter, Lester was surprised that such a simple and childish poem appealed to Vivian, especially given her affinity for more sophisticated and challenging works. Like her adoration of Lake Charles, Lester could not determine precisely what attracted Vivian to the poem, but she seemed so genuinely joyful that he dared not question her selection. Who was he to dictate her literary taste? He merely confirmed his assumption that left to her own amusements, and without pressure, prodding, or prying, Vivian could be as happy as anyone else. And indeed, for the remainder of the week, Vivian not only implored her father to read the poem every night, but also carried it daily to Lake Charles, which, after all, was a most appropriate place to read “The Land Beneath the Lake.”

Then the fortnight ended and Judith returned home from her sister’s house. She had been most worried about Vivian’s activities and tried to extract every last detail from Lester, who assuaged his wife’s fears as best he could, then resumed his work at the Hollister-Hill publishing house and was glad to be away from the house for ten hours a day. Vivian showed neither pleasure nor discontent at her mother’s return. She merely continued her daily hikes to Lake Charles, observing, but not especially lamenting that the plump white roses along the path had wilted under the summer heat. Poems for Very Small Children was her constant companion, and she especially fancied the stanza in “The Land Beneath the Lake” that described the magic rocks needed to gain admission to the Land. She even collected her own rocks and stored them under a shrub beside the lake, much like her younger days when she had mixed assorted juices and spices together to concoct a lethal “witch’s potion.”

Judith’s unease had not lessened, however. While in Bath, she had confided in her sister, Vivian’s aunt Janice, who was alarmed at her niece’s eccentric behavior and urged strenuously that Judith find some new occupations for Vivian, whether or not Lester approved. “Perhaps ballet would be a nice activity. Isn’t there a school near you?”

“Yes, I’ve thought about that,” Judith had answered. She had brooded over this during her journey home, and now, with August upon her, she resolved to make a change and not be overruled by Vivian’s lethargy or Lester’s insouciance. Another one of her daughter’s summers simply could not pass like the others had passed. She was only asking for one fair go on the girl’s part at something that did not involve books or Lake Charles.

So Judith promptly announced her intention to enroll Vivian in the local ballet class, as well as the Young Ladies Equestrian Club.

Like the note from Vivian’s teacher a few months earlier, this abrupt declaration was most displeasing to Lester. “That’s a lot of money, isn’t it?” he asked in a taut, but restrained tone. “Especially considering Vivian isn’t interested in dancing or horses.”

“And just what is she interested in?” Judith snapped. “Sleeping?”

The quarrel continued through the evening, at times vociferously, but as she had promised herself, Judith would not budge. “I’m enrolling her,” she finally said, before switching off the bedside lamp. “If need be I’ll take a job as a cashier to pay for it. That’s all there is to it.”

The next day Judith made the necessary calls and then relayed to Vivian her newly filled schedule for the balance of the summer. As expected, Vivian tried to resist, but her feeble protests were of little use, especially since Judith had already triumphed over Lester’s more insistent ones.

“It’s very hot, though, isn’t it?” Vivian sighed, dropping into an armchair to accentuate her standard objection.

“Don’t be silly,” Judith answered. “Ballet is inside, in a nice cool room. So don’t bother pouting. You’ve wasted two months already. For once you’re going to do what I say. Monday you have ballet at nine o’clock, and you’re waking up bright and early. Period.”

Judith had also insisted that Vivian go to bed early that night, Saturday, so she could more easily get into a standard regimen, and later that evening, much before her usual summer bedtime, Vivian crawled docilely under her bedcovers. Her mother came in shortly after, tucked the sheets firmly under the mattress, kissed her daughter’s forehead, stroked her brown, stringy hair, and then assured her that she would love learning ballet. “You’ll make new girlfriends, and then, soon enough, you’ll have a recital, and everyone will come and clap for you. Doesn’t that sound nice?”

“Yes,” Vivian answered in a monotone voice.

Judith returned to the master bedroom, calmer than she had felt in quite a while. Contrary to her prediction, Vivian had not been sullen or irritable throughout the day, or at least no more so than usual, which gave her mother hope that perhaps her daughter was at least mildly curious about the new activities. This was her last thought before Judith, exhausted from her recent campaign, fell soundly asleep.

Downstairs, in the dim yellow light of the kitchen, Lester was drinking tea and wearily perusing their finances. The expenses of Vivian’s new hobbies were even more significant than he had at first realized, especially given the seemingly endless battery of fees and supply costs associated with the Equestrian Club. He even had a passing fancy to “forget” to send the cheques, but on further consideration he decided to allow this one trial period. At minimum it would prove once and for all the folly of pushing the girl into these pointless conventions of society.

He continued working until just after ten o’clock, when he heard the banister creak. A moment later, Vivian, still in her nightgown, appeared at the doorway of the kitchen, her face a study of introspection.

Lester smiled and beckoned over his daughter. “Do you want some milk, sweetie?”

Vivian was silent for a few seconds and then ambled toward the table. “Why do I have to go to ballet class?”

“Oh. Well, your mum just wants you to try something new to see if you like it. If you don’t, you can stop.”

“Mum said she’s not letting me quit.”

“Don’t worry about that just yet. I’ll fix everything up all right. Besides, you might like it. Who knows?”

“Yes,” Vivian replied, again in a monotone voice.

Lester smiled and caressed her cheek. “You should probably get back up to bed.”

Vivian nodded, and then scurried away toward the staircase. Lester watched her for a moment, then smiled tiredly and resumed his calculations.

Back in her bedroom, Vivian closed her door and turned on her bedside lamp, illuminating the room with a soft golden light. She then took a slow, ambling tour around the room, looking over the spines of her books and occasionally selecting one to peruse, and then grazing her fingertips over the row of plush toys atop her old toy chest. A few times she picked up one of the stuffed animals, looking at it with an expression of wistful amusement, as though she found it difficult to imagine ever being interested in playing with such a childish thing. This tour went on for about an hour, until Vivian wound around back to her bedside table, on top of which was sitting Poems for Very Small Children. She picked it up lovingly and crawled into her bed, sitting on her covers, cross-legged, and reading the book yet again, from cover to cover. When she reached the “Land Beneath the Lake” poem, she closed her eyes and tilted her head back slightly, her expression almost sensuous, her face lit by a joyous smile, which she allowed to linger for a long moment, before slowly closing the book and setting it back on the bedside table. Then she flicked off the light and lay back, staring at the ceiling until her eyes closed involuntarily and she drifted off to sleep.

The next morning, as promised, Judith awakened Vivian at precisely nine o’clock, and supervised as her daughter dressed and ate breakfast, although the girl’s appetite was so slight that she would only nibble at a small scone and drink a quarter-glass of orange juice. Vivian was stony silent throughout, her eyes gray and foggy, responding to her mother’s questions only with mumbles and nods. Judith, of course, was displeased at this behavior, but attributed it to a tiredness that would fade as soon as her daughter was occupied and challenged by her new activities.

Once finished breakfast, Vivian announced that she was going to Lake Charles.

“I thought we’d do some shopping today,” Judith replied, with strained jollity. “You want to look pretty for tomorrow, don’t you?”

Lester looked at his wife sharply. “I think you’ve gotten your way quite enough for now.” He turned toward Vivian. “You go ahead, sweetie, but put on your jacket. It’s a little windy out.”

Looking stung, Judith glowered darkly at Lester and then flounced out of the kitchen. Vivian did not seem the least bit affected by this quarrelling between her parents, and she left the kitchen nonchalantly, returning a few minutes wearing her dark blue windbreaker and holding Poems for Very Small Children.

“Why do you have that?” Lester asked.

“You have to return it to the library,” his daughter replied, matter-of-factly, laying the book atop the morning newspaper.

“We can renew it, if you’d like,” he told her.

“That’s all right,” Vivian said. “I don’t need it anymore. I know it by heart, anyway.” She said this last sentence with a touch of boastfulness; and then, in a more forthright gesture than was customary for her, she leaned forward and kissed her father’s cheek. Lester looked at her in delight, but just as quickly as the kiss had come, Vivian darted away and out of the house through the side door.

Once outside, she giggled joyously, skipping along the narrow path, past the shriveled white roses, until Lake Charles came into view. She did not, however, assume her usual position sitting at the edge of the lake with her legs tucked back and her fingers trailing across the surface of the water. Instead she stood upright and perfectly still, staring fixedly at the lake’s surface as it rocked steadily in the wind, until the distant bark of a dog roused her from the daze. Slowly, but assuredly, Vivian dug through the surrounding shrubbery, soon locating the cache of rocks, which she used to fill the pockets of her windbreaker. Then onward she strode, to the land beneath the lake.