This musing-style ficlet was inspired by a friend of mine’s recent visit to Finland and a trip to a very specific and significant lake. In his own words it felt ‘oppressive’, which I can all too easily imagine. It got me wondering whether we create atmosphere ourselves, or if it is just there.
Red Sky at Night
Looking back I could no longer see the road or the single lamp post that passed as the bus stop. There had been no other headlights or engine noise since the bus had coughed its way onwards without me. I paused, staring along the path with the breeze fingering the back of my neck, took a breath and carried on.
Even with a breeze, nothing, not even the fingers of the pines, seemed to be moving. The skuds of snow gathered along the edge of the path were frozen solid, unlike in the city where the scraps loosed by ploughs whirled across your path like dancers in a waltz. I shivered, not just from the cold, and wondered again why I’d come.
‘When in Rome,’ I muttered to myself, partly just for the sake of making a noise. But the smallness of the sound just drew more attention to the silence. It was a quality of quiet I’d never known before, like the very air was empty.
I should have waited until morning. But the thought of the late train and night bus had been too intriguing to pass up. At least, at the time it had. Now it had gone eleven pm and the sun still hadn’t set and the dying light painted everything a rusty colour: a colour like drying blood. Dramatic, maybe, but I knew I wasn’t imagining it, despite everything else I seemed to be conjuring up to populate the laden shadows.
I trudged on, boots crunching through the frozen grass, pulling my scarf up around my nose and watching my breath fog in the strained air. The trees ended just ahead. I’d come this far. I at least had to get down to the water.
I watched my boots rather than look ahead as the path tumbled down the last few crunchy feet, only looking up when I stood at the edge of the black water. I pulled my phone out of my pocket but didn’t raise it to take a picture. I swallowed, trying to shake the feeling of being watched. It was just a lake. Sure, the light was odd and it was quiet. But that was it. It was just water.
And history. And silence.
I gazed across the dark water, feeling a chill I could almost see. I thought back to the Scottish lochs I’d biked around, the coasts of the islands in the North Sea I’d explored, walking the edges of Lutvaan in Oslo and tried to make myself see Bodom as I had seen them. But whether it was because of what I knew or whether it was because the place genuinely felt…loaded….I couldn’t. I fiddled with my phone but no longer wanted a picture.
The night bus wasn’t due to make its return journey to the train station for at least another hour, assuming I’d read the timetable right, so I wandered along the shoreline watching the light redden and the water not-ripple. I picked up a stone to throw, almost desperate for movement, but then ended up throwing it back into the trees. I paused at every clearing, looking around at the shadowy spaces and wondering whether I was there.
I managed another half hour of silent trudging before stopping still, looking along the winding path that stretched into the rust-coloured light and decided I’d seen enough. I cut up through the woods rather than turning back down the path with its view across the water to a thousand other shadows clustered between the trees that might or might not be the place. But even with my back to the water I could still feel it, lying deep and silent and black behind me.
It was a relief to escape to the shadows strung between the trees. I told myself the darkness would feel more natural, more like the nights I was used to. But the hope evaporated the further in I moved. It was close to midnight but it was still light enough to see, even if this light was old and grey. Weary, almost.
I made out a break in the trees and went towards it, hoping I’d found a cut-through to the road but five paces later I stopped, heart thudding in my chest.
I turned but of course everything was empty and still. I swallowed. Not only was I creating feelings but now I was making myself hear sounds. I carried on and if I hurried a little faster up the hill, I told myself it was only because of the cold.
The tree break wasn’t the road, just a cleared space with along an overgrown track. I stepped out into the perpetual sunset and made myself take a picture. I told myself it was just a place, after all. The light wasn’t good. The picture was grainy. But as I looked at it on the screen, perfectly capturing the ruddy, stained colour of the air, I suppressed another shudder.
I followed the track uphill, hoping it lead back toward the road and hoping more that I had imagined everything.