Death Comes at Dusk
The sepia hued haze of dusk was setting in as Joanna made herself comfortable in the hide. The golden glowing disc that had brought little warmth to the winter’s day had slipped below the bank on the horizon, but its reach still reflected off the cloud bank above. It gave the water the look of pale honey. The surface of the lake was perfectly still and the mirror images of the greenish grey trunks of the ash trees that lined the bank, slowly stretched out across the water to her. She sighed as she looked out through the long, thin viewing window. The light was soothing and silken at this time of day. It was as if God had etched the world around her onto copper sheeting.
She watched the slow swirl of water around the submerged branches of a long dead tree in the centre of the lake. This was a favoured perch for the halcyon bird. She waited for the flash of brilliant turquoise and flame that would signal the kingfisher’s arrival. She so badly wanted to see it one last time. But it was close to six and it still had not come. She wanted to die in the light.
She poured the coffee from the silver and black tartan Thermos flask into its cup shaped lid and took a sip. It wouldn’t be long now. She went back to her silent vigil. She was confident she wouldn’t be disturbed on a cold winter’s night.
The little grey cygnet had grown into the awkward shape of adolescence over the last few months. Not a perfect white yet, his grey feathers and black beak made him look as if he had been dusted all over with powdered charcoal. His bent head was held in the classic pose of his kind as he drifted in reverent like grace across the water, emerging from the shadow of the bank and into the glorious light. She wondered if that was what Heaven was like.
The young swan slowed as he neared the centre of the lake. With his wings folded against his back, his motionless upper body appeared as a boat under sail. She took another sip of the coffee.
Something about the slow movement of the water around the branches of the tree changed. The water swirled gently in the direction of the swan. There was a slight ripple, which dissipated almost as soon as it had swelled, then nothing. The mirror-like calm returned to the water.
The swan headed out towards the eastern edge of the lake, seeking shadow once more and the succulent, ozone tasting plants that swayed beneath the surface in the current that paced the shallows. It seemed to tilt its head slightly towards her but for a moment, and she could just make out the beady black eye.
Suddenly the majestic bird called out in violent alarm. It was more like an animal than a bird, similar to the shrill and rasping cry of a fox cub. And it was a cry. All majesty and grace was lost in violent panic as the hulking bird tried to heave itself from the water. Its wings crashed against the surface as it upended and tried to break away. There was a spasm of movement and then the swan began to be dragged backwards through the water, back towards the tree. The swan cried again, its water logged wings now spread uselessly across the surface. It writhed and jerked, this time its torso disappearing. Now only its back and neck remained above water. She had never heard the wail of a dying swan before, but now it lifted its head into the air and sang of its death in a haunting single plea to the sky, as it sank down into the darkening water.
Joanna felt her breath catching. She felt light headed and dizzy. A haze of wonder filled her head and for the first time in weeks her skin felt warm to the touch. She swayed back and forth on the bench in the hide. Death was coming.
There was a shadow in the water close to the tree. It sat fatly in the water, but it thinned and tapered towards one end. It began to move, edging towards the hide. Joanna watched it take form as it rolled into the shallows like an inevitable tide.
It was a great fish. Its broad and dappled grey head sat just below the surface of the water. Two flat eyes the shade of river clay stared up at her. Great, sweeping, moustache like barbells spread out from its top and bottom lip. A vast chasm of a mouth opened to reveal a fleshy pink throat. Beyond the massive and disproportioned head, a long and muscular tail stretched away into the depths, a dark and marbled bluish grey in colour.
The slime covered brow of the fish breached the water in a slow, deliberate ascent. Joanna’s eyes fixed on the round, soulless depressions that seemed to emit a gaze equally fixed on her.
I am death Joanna heard. She stopped swaying. There was a chill to the voice that beckoned her. It was distant. She looked towards the dying light of the day against the far bank and thought she understood. As the light faded, so did the voice. It was time to leave.
The old park keeper found the hide door open as he did his rounds in the first light of the dawn. It was there that he found Joanna’s body. In the amber glow of morning, within the cedar boarded hut, the woman’s scarlet shaded cheeks seemed at odds to her porcelain skin and bald scalp. She sat huddled on the bench, a dark brown quilted jacket wrapped around her, her thin legs tucked up beneath and her dead eyes set on the surface of the water. Her mouth was set in a soft smile and her gaze was fixed and far away. The cold and biting air did nothing to erode the look of cosy warmth she radiated.
The old park keeper reached over for the cup of coffee and the flask sitting on the ledge of the open window. The liquid inside was quite cold by now, but there was a warmth to the thick scent that wafted up to him. There was a vanilla like note of sweetness and for a moment he tried to place its familiarity. He sighed as he poured the contents out onto the ground, careful to avoid the water. It was the unmistakable and bitter, coffee tainted smell of burnt almonds.