1886 c/o Phoebe Roy

        He sent me down to the water to look for her. I asked him to tell me which man I served that day, but he turned his eyes away and wouldn’t answer. He told me again that he had not seen her since the day he’d said he no longer loved her and there was no telling what she would do. Would I please go to the lagoon to see if she was there.

        ‘Why would she be there?’ I asked. ‘Which lagoon?’

        He paused from filling his pipe and went to his desk where he had to sort through a number of articles - brass shipping instruments, tiny glass glowing vials, a heavy chunk of amber carved into the likeness of a human skull – and at last came up with the day before’s newspaper.

        ‘Lagoon opens,’ it said, and nothing more. I raised my eyes to his. He lit his pipe.

        ‘The water calls to aching hearts. Do not tell the lady your name,’ he said, and shooed me out of the door.

        It was a long walk to the lagoon and a brisk day, but the sun shone and the air was thick with woodsmoke. My breath constricted my throat and I smiled at a child playing with a hoop. The child stared back at me, as if he knew exactly where I was going and what I would find.

        Do you see the young man walking
        As if he doesn’t see the notice; sister, why does he not see the uncanny light
        Why does he not fear the water
        Death to swimmers, the sign could not be clearer
        Death to all swimmers

        The water was fenced off, with a large notice warning death and danger if you chose to swim, but I ignored it and made my way past. The light was different to the light in town – the grass was so clear it was like I’d had an inspecting glass clutched up to my eye. The water was flat but rolled like tugged silk at the centre, moved by its own interior ghost mechanism, and I raked my eyes across it. Twice I was fooled by a bird in the rushes, and once by a branch that had wrenched itself from where it had grown in on itself on the water’s shore and begun to float away, when I saw a wisp of light brown hair, a trailing elegant hand, white as cold moonstone at the bottom of a whiskey glass. Without thinking, I took off my shoes and clothes and waded into the water, the green cold adhering to my skin at once and I sent up a silent prayer to the god that guarded it to forgive my presumption and protect me.

        It’s you

        There the girl was, floating face up, eyes smoothly blank and shut, lips pink and unkissed, an obscene Opheliac parody, half sunk in the lagoon. I curved my arm about her waist, and I began to drag her towards the safety of the shore, and it was only when I’d laid her out under my coat that I dared to find out if she still breathed. She was dead, I thought, and began to mumble a prayer for her soul, while I wondered what I would possibly tell him, or how I would get her body back to town with me without something to transport her, when the eyes opened. Did the drowned take on the colour of the water that killed them, I wondered, as the grey-green swivelled to face me.

        ‘It’s you,’ she whispered.

        ‘Yes, I,’ I said. I wondered if she had gone into shock.

        We jumped in to wash you away
        But back you came, love, like yesterday’s wine
        Just like you, the water, and you drowned us as you said how you loved her
        The sunlight pinches my eyelids
        The water is a villain. You, you are the villain

        ‘I didn’t think you’d come, not this time. But you did, here you are.’

        The water, bottle-green and murmur-thick, lapped against the stone bank, a chorus confirming the girl’s story. She turned her gaze to include it. I did not know how to answer her.

        How much could you burn my lungs until my halo glows as brightly as yours, angel?
        When was it that you saw me, how long did you wait before you reached to pull me out? Did
        you wait until I was half dead, or has the other come for me this time?
        Why did you drag me from the green-fragrant water, why did you warm my eyelids with
        sunlight kisses
        Who are you today, would you bring me back only to murder me again?
        I splutter spit dash from the eyes; the sun blazes
        When was it that you saw me, wrestling with my cruel love in the water

        ‘He sent me,’ I said, reaching forward gingerly to part her hair and check for head wounds. ‘He was concerned when you didn’t write to him or come to visit,’ I said.

        She smiled. The smile was bitter but not blaming. She reached out one finger and trailed it down my cheek, leaving a blaze of stars in its path.

        ‘Can you hear my spirits? They sing to you, and to him.’

        She made no sense and I told her so, but she only smiled again, this time more brightly and honestly, and she wound her arms around my neck and pulled me down beside her. Her lips when she kissed me were cold, then warmed as I yielded and then cold again. She withdrew and narrowed her eyes, those frozen eyes, those staring glass pebbles.

        One tastes of nutmeg, the other blackberries
        You taste only of salt
        Perhaps you are the stranger after all
        ‘I don’t understand. Who are you? There’s only two, not three. Why won’t you tell me your name?’

        I remembered my instructions and shook my head. She disengaged from my arms and sat up. My coat fell away from where the material of her soaked dress clung to her in heavy folds, like a draped statue. She didn’t appear self-conscious, and didn’t glance down at her skin puckering into goose flesh.

        ‘Will you take me back into town?’

        ‘You can’t go like this, you’re wet through.’

        ‘Can’t I wear your coat?’

        I helped her into it, but I doubted that it would be enough not to attract glances as we picked through the lagoon grass back. She appeared not to notice the curious and censorious looks of the others on the road, although I was thankful that the clock was chiming 4 and the streets weren’t as crowded as they would be later on in the afternoon.

        ‘Do not look so worried, the lagoon washed me. I’m clean as a newborn.’ She paused, then asked, ‘are you taking me to see him?’

        ‘No, I thought I would take you back home. You must be frozen.’

        ‘Yes, I’m frozen. Take me to him, or it is death to you as it is to all swimmers,’

        She spoke in such carelessly neutral tones that I wondered if I’d imagined kissing her by the water’s edge. An alarming rush of blood heated my face and neck as I remembered the way she’d clung to me. She looked up sharply as if she could read my thoughts, which wouldn’t have shocked him, not from the things he’d told me. I closed my fingers around her raw-bone wrist, and found that no heart was beating there. She smiled up at me and my fear, and at my quivering lips and chin crumpled and collapsed by cowardice. She said,

        ‘The water stopped this aching heart, and you and he called it back again.’

        I shut my eyes so tightly that tears were wrung out, and I savoured the hot little spike that accompanied each one.

        ‘I’ll take you to him,’ I said.

        ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘You will.’

        And the lady’s spirits said:

        The ghost that saved me looked like you, and talked like you, but it wasn’t you
        We know you, how you smile with your eye-teeth a-glitter
        How is it that you have come to believe in light, when the dark water is everywhere and
        every day creeps closer; you, my little one, are a lamp on its last sputter of oil
        We once met an old woman, and she said that death has two faces and four cold hands
        She lied, its faces and its hands number thousands, and we are nothing but winking buttons
        in death’s black cloak
        Only put your ear to the drowned man’s chilled and stiffened lips, curled blue over glittering
        Listen closely and you will hear, you will hear his whisper
        He whispers ‘I love you’
        He says the same to the doctor as to the butcher.