THE GIRL IN THE LAKE
“Good afternoon,” the footman, resplendent in his uniform, opened the door of the taxi whilst another attendant opened the boot to retrieve the luggage. “Welcome to Croatia and the Zelesny Gora Palace.”
Mike and Celia got out into the clear blue light. Slipping on their sunglasses they observed the hotel standing resplendent by the edge of the shimmering blue Lake Zelesny Gora, slightly on the edge of the small town of the same name. The surrounding farmland lay somnolent in the summer heat. The footman opened a sun umbrella to escort them the short distance to the front door of the hotel, opened by yet another attendant who bowed politely as the couple passed through followed by their luggage.
“Mr and Mrs. Hatton, a warm welcome from the Palace Hotel. Well, we have for you a room in the old part of the Palace with a view over the lake,” the deputy manager announced. “Very comfortable with more character than the modern wing. We hope you enjoy your stay.”
The room was very comfortable, if a touch dark, furnished in an old style with a large ornate and antique mirror with ornate carvings in its frame taking pride of place over the dressing table; french windows led to a sunny balcony that overlooked the lake. Mike and Celia gazed out over the shimmering blue, their eyes alighting on an island about quarter of a mile offshore with a ruined castle and what seemed to be an ancient monastery and church nestled in its lea.
The next morning, after breakfast and a swim in the hotel pool, the couple decided to walk down to the local village and once again the island caught their eyes sitting quietly in seeming shadow although the sky was a clear with only the odd puff of cloud and the sun was hot making the waters of the lake, with its boats bobbing back and forth, sparkle in the slight breeze. They gazed at the island with its ruined castle standing close to the shore, two towers still standing defiantly and what looked like the remains of a small harbour and landing stage. Next to it stood the old ecclesiastical buildings with a collection of buildings, presumably a monastery, with a large church in the unmistakeable Byzantine style adjoining.
“It seems so peaceful yet with a strange air of mystery,” Celia reflected leaning on the rail adjoining the lakeside wall.
“Yes, and I wonder when it was built,” Mike replied. “Might ask back at the hotel. Wonder if it’s possible to visit it as it looks interesting.”
They thought no more about it as they went off to play golf with some other guests and returned for a slap-up – and rather boozy – dinner before falling into bed later on in the evening.
It was a day or so later when Celia began to notice something odd with the mirror. She and Mike were dressing for dinner and, looking in the mirror, Celia suddenly sensed that her reflection was becoming more distant as the glass was clouding over with swirling grey clouds and something seemingly trying to break through from behind them.
“Mike, quick, come here!” Celia called out to her husband who was in the bathroom.
Mike tumbled out of the bathroom still drying himself from his shower.
“The mirror,” Celia said urgently, “There’s something odd going on with the mirror.”
And Mike looked but could see nothing particularly wrong although the reflection seemed a little unclear, which he attributed to the mirror’s evident age. Old it certainly seemed to be with what appeared to be an oak frame bearing ancient carvings, though whether they were purely decorative or were runic inscriptions, he was unsure.
But the over the following day Celia began to see more fleeting images in the mirror until on their fifth night, as she was getting ready for bed, the images cleared and she saw a young girl emerging from the swirling mist seemingly begging for help. Feeling unaccountably icy cold, she told the story to Mike as she cuddled up to him who tried to reassure her that she was imagining things.
The morning was humid, the sun subdued behind dark clouds with a fog now settled over the lake. The twin towers of the castle on the lake and the tip of the monastery church’s dome peeped through the gloom. Mike and Celia struggled down to breakfast a little later than usual.
“Not very good weather,” Mike remarked to the waiter.
“No sir. Very unusual this time of year. Perhaps a storm threaten.”
“And we can’t properly see the island this morning,” Celia added. “Normally, it’s such a nice sight across the lake.”
“Very bad history,” the waiter replied, his expression suddenly going very gloomy. “We don’t like to talk about the island.” He marched off.
Celia looked at Mike who raised an eyebrow. “I’ll ask the Manager.”
That afternoon, as they sat on the terrace, the weather still murky but by now very hot, Mike espied Piotr the Manager and called him over. He approached smiling and jovial as was his professional way.
“My wife and I were wondering about the island and its castle. Also, it looks as if there is an old monastery or church there. Is it possible to visit?”
Piotr’s face seemed to change, falling into a look bordering on horror.
“Sir, Madam, the island is uninhabited with good reason. Many centuries ago the area was part of the Byzantine Empire then the Ottomans conquered it in the fourteenth century and all this area became part of the Sanjak of Zelesnyi Gora ruled by a Pasha sent from the City. They ruled from the castle and some were very cruel so the island has had a bad name for centuries. We have tried to forget but we do not visit the island. It is said bad things happened there”
That evening, as Mike and Celia were dressing for dinner, Celia let out a howl as she was sitting in front of the mirror over the dressing table.
“There’s a face and what seems like a young woman beckoning to me through the mist and the gloom….. But she seems to be struggling, as if she’s trying to swim….. No wait she’s drowning; she’s trapped by something….. She’s calling for help.” Celia sounded terrified.
Mike rushed over but, as before, to him the mirror was blank save for a somewhat dim reflection of Celia and himself obscured by a mist. He started to stare again at the mirror’s frame wondering about the carvings which he now was convinced were runic carvings rather than mere abstract designs.
Having done his best to settle Celia, the couple went for dinner. Seeing Piotr again, Mike asked about the mirror in their room explaining what Celia had seen. Piotr listened carefully and then dismissed the story, politely saying that Madame must have been mistaken, although Mike noticed a worried look on the Manager’s face. But that night, they both awoke to a huge thunderstorm and watched awestruck from their window as the lightning seemed to strike the island itself and the lake around it with the thunder making it sound as though the very heavens above them were being rent asunder before eventually retreating into the distance, still rumbling and flickering vengefully. As they retired back to bed, both Celia and Mike noticed a strange light in the mirror but fading fast but before they could look more closely it was gone.
The next morning, a lingering mist still hung over the lake waiting to be dispersed by the sun. One of the waiters came up to their breakfast table with a flask of fresh coffee and croissants and butter, greeting them cheerily, “Good morning, monsieur and madame. I hope the storm last night did not disturb you too much. We do not often experience storms like that. As my grandfather used to say ‘Enough to waken the dead from their slumbers’. Fortunately no damage to us or the village.”
“You know, I wish we could go and take a look at the island,” Celia said wistfully. “I feel there’s something worth seeing. It seems to have something about it.”
“Are you sure?” Mike sounded somewhat cagey. “I’m beginning to wonder if the mirror in the room is somehow connected to it. I’m probably nuts but…..”
“Oh, come on. If there’s a mystery I’d like like to know the story. You’re not scared are you?” Celia chided him.
And so the couple sought out a boat to take them out to the island but the first two boat owners stoutly refused to take them. Eventually they found someone willing to hire a boat with an outboard for the day and Celia jumped at the offer.
“But do not go near the island,” the owner cautioned darkly. “There can be strange currents there and boats can get in very bad difficulties with small chance of rescue. Stay well away.”
“Understood,” they answered insouciantly. “We wanted to visit some of the villages round the shore. One of the waiters at the hotel was telling us about his childhood.”
So off they set, Mike steering well away from the island so as to allay any suspicion from watchers on the shore before swinging round to approach from the far side, out of sight of the hotel and the village. As they neared the island, the swell seemed to increase with noticeable eddies in the water making the boat buck and tip more. On the far side, the island was protected by one hundred foot cliffs of smooth dark rock at one end with the castle walls at the other end built so as to join seamlessly with the rock presenting a sheer slab of rock and stone about three hundred foot high and casting the area around into dark and chilly gloom.
“It’s no good,” Mike said, “we’ll have to go round to the small harbour we saw from the hotel…”
“….And hope nobody sees us. Although if we take the boat back OK they can’t very well complain.” Celia added.
They found the small harbour and nosed the boat in across the dark inky water heaving somewhat with an unseen tidal force, managing to moor by a low jetty built inside the main harbour wall. Having secured the boat – they thought to rope it both prow and stern on account of the swell – the couple looked up at the forbidding walls of the castle and the broken main gate which was seemingly the only way into the main part of the island. They passed through the huge dark gateway into a huge inner courtyard in which they shivered on account of the lack of sunlight and a cold eerie feeling that seemed to radiate from the castle stonework. Beyond a further gate was a large garden area beyond in which stood the church and monastery buildings now broken and forlorn with signs of ancient destruction committed long ago to the wall paintings and decorations.
Celia shivered. “Mike, I’m beginning to feel very cold and very nervous. Can we get out of here please?”
They headed back out of the castle to the harbour where clouds were blowing in obscuring the sun and the wind was beginning to pick up making the lake very choppy. The boat was bobbling furiously scraping against the side of the jetty. With difficulty they boarded the boat. Mike started the outboard and began to steer them towards the mouth of the harbour.
It was as they reached the entrance, the boat juddered and the outboard spluttered to a halt.
“Something’s fouled the propeller,” Mike shouted. “There seems to some netting. I’ll try and free it. Hold on to my legs.”
So, with Celia hanging on grimly to Mike’s legs he reached overboard and hauled the net up wondering why it seemed much heavier than it should.
“Oh no!” he exclaimed, looking back at Celia. “There’s a body here…..”
Celia looked over the side at the net and screamed with horror, the blood draining from her face. “My God, it’s the woman I see in the mirror. She’s real for heaven’s sake.”
Celia began to wretch violently as Mike vainly fought with the tangled net as the boat heaved dangerously near the harbour wall with the wind whistling and the first signs of a storm brewing. Mike shouted to Celia to grab the oars and try and steer the boat.
Just then they heard shouting as a fishing boat arrived with three men peering anxiously at them.
“Help. We need help,” Mike cried. “A knife please.” he pointed at the propeller and made a desperate cutting motion.
The men seemed to understand and one of them jumped aboard the bucking dinghy with the agility of a practised fishermen. Looking over the side, he too called out in seeming horror but then set to cutting the net until it was free. The net started to sink beneath the dark waves with the upturned face receding slowly into the water her hands still beseeching a rescue following her to the depths.
The fishermen attached a rope and hauled Mike and Celia’s dinghy back to the village where, very ill and very, very shamefaced, they confronted the owner and other fishermen and boat owners.
“You warned not to go to island. You stir up things best forgotten,” their self-appointed leader, an old man with white hair and yellowing cracked teeth, exclaimed violently. “Shame on you. Settle the damage then go, go quickly….”
Piotr, the manager, was waiting for them in reception, his face anxious, wringing his hands.
“Mr and Mrs.Hatton, may i suggest you go and freshen up and then perhaps I could have a quiet word in private.”
When they got to their room there was no sign of the mirror save for a large dirty oval on the wall to mark its original place. They showered, changed and went down to see Piotr who was waiting in his office.
“Mr and Mrs. Hatton, I expect you will need this.” He proffered two large glasses of brandy which they gratefully accepted. He studied them.
“As you know, I tried to steer you away from your interest in the island but perhaps I should have been more explicit. Long ago there was an Orthodox monastery on the island which flourished although later a small castle had to be established by the Empire both for the monks’ safety and to keep order in this part of the world. Then the Ottomans arrived and killed the monks and the garrison and devastated the monastery before establishing their rule here in the Sanjak. The greatly fortified the castle and it became their base, so to speak. The Pashas sent to rule were mostly cruel by all accounts but one Selim stands out. He ruled here in the eighteenth century and took a liking to Pulcherrima the daughter of a local nobleman who lived in the original Palace here and he wished for her to join his harem. The nobleman was impoverished and Selim sought to take advantage of this but to no avail.”
“Eventually, Selim had Pulcherrima taken by force and she was being transported across to the castle by Selim’s imprisoned in a net when, so legend has it, a violent storm sprang up and to avoid Selim’s embraces the girl managed to throw herself into the lake at the entrance to the castle harbour. But it was rumoured her spirit still haunted the area and her face might be gazed in the mirror in your bedroom.”
“You see that was traditionally Pulcherrima’s bedroom and the mirror was hers. It was through the mirror that she maintained contact with the world beseeching those remaining to set her free. And occasionally she would appear in her net to unsuspecting sailors – which is why we have always avoided the island.”
“What now?” Celia wiped her eyes. “The mirror has gone I notice.”
“Indeed,” said Piotr. ”Probably around the time you and your rescuers cut Pulcherrima’s ghost – it has to be a ghost – from the net there was a huge crack heard throughout the hotel and upon investigation, it was found that the mirror had shattered. You see, I think you and your rescuers have now set her spirit free from her imprisonment and she is gone.”
“I notice the storm has subsided too,” observed Mike.
“Indeed it has,” Piotr replied.