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The boy was sitting next to the lake, peering into the depths of the murky water. The air was cold but the sun was hot on his back. He enjoyed the feeling of the water against his fingers. Birds chirruped in the sleepy trees and the deep bite of winter shook the branches of large, golden leaves. The boy had been living in the heart of the countryside for his whole life, not knowing anyone else but the earth under his feet and the rain that fell from the heavens. He was happy for he did not know any other way of living. The animals were his family, the forest his home, and the lake served as his playmate. He had no memory of his mother nor of his father. Instead, his memories were of the seasons whispering to the trees; of climbing up to the tallest tree in the forest and seeing the strange city in the horizon; of finding eggs in the birds’ nests and saying a prayer of thanks before taking them; of swimming in the lake during the summer and trying to catch a fish for his lunch; of studying various plants with wide-eyed fascination; and of seeing the beauty in everything he saw. He was grateful for every day of being alive and as he sat there, on the earth next to the sleeping lake, the boy wished for no other life. He wished that it would be like this for eternity. Peaceful. Happy. Beautiful. He told the lake so, skimming his fingers on the surface of the icy water.
“Nothing is for eternity,” the lake replied.
He sighed and settled back, watching his reflection settle with him as the ripples rolled away into still water. His reflection was strange. When he was younger he thought it was another boy, trapped under the surface of the water. It took him a few days to understand that when the sun was awake, the lake mirrored his physical body through some wonderful kind of natural magic. The boy gazed at the boy trapped under the surface of the water. The boy in the lake looked wistful.
“There was once a boy who gazed at his own reflection in a lake. He was so beautiful, he himself was imprisoned by his own beauty.” The lake sounded sad.
“What happened to him?” the boy asked, running his fingers through the water. The boy in the lake shimmered away.
“He died by his own reflection. Poor boy died on the banks of the lake.”
The boy fell silent, appreciating the warmth on his back and the softness of the earth under his legs.
“To be able to see something so beautiful and to die by it – that is both admirable and pitiful,” he said.
Then he heard something. Something both terrifying and magical. Something impossible.
“I wonder who you are speaking with?”
It was a girl. The boy had never seen a girl before except in his dreams. His dreams seemed to know more about the world than he did. Her hair was the colour of the falling leaves and her eyes were the colour of the lake. She was-
The girl gave him a small smile.
“What is your name?” she asked, kneeling next to him.
The boy didn’t answer. His mouth was too dry and his chest was aching.
“Where is your home?”
“You are already here,” he managed to say.
The girl raised an eyebrow. “What about your parents? Aren’t they worried about you?”
He shook his head, smiling. “I do not have any.”
She looked startled. Then she looked anxious. The girl raised a hand and stroked his cheek, her eyes never leaving his.
“Why are you here?” he whispered, trembling under her touch. He had never been touched by another until now.
“My car broke down. I got lost trying to find help.” Her eyes shimmered like the lake.
“I found you instead.”
Five years passed. The girl became a woman and the boy became a man. In the boy’s mind however, they would both be eternally young. Eternally girl and boy. They lived together in the city on the horizon in a small apartment unit. They were happy for the first couple of years, making love every night and discovering more about each other. The girl worked at the local supermarket all day and come home exhausted when the sun set. The boy eventually found a job working at an Italian restaurant that paid in cash. The owner didn’t question the boy’s lack of identification. Instead, he asked two simple questions.
“Are you strong?”
“Relatively,” the boy replied.
“Can you clean?”
“Then you are hired.”
So the boy spent the next two years washing piles of dirty dishes and stacking boxes in the storage room. He enjoyed the labour and the money was something he looked forward to receiving so that he could spend it on the girl. He worked hard, made friends with the waiters and the pizza makers, and at night, drowned in the arms of the girl in a flurry of love and passion. The owner of the restaurant was impressed with the hard work the boy was doing so enthusiastically. He promoted the boy to waiting on tables and occasionally helping the pizza makers with the pizzas. The boy found the change refreshing and exciting. He started to dream of owning his own restaurant by a serene, grey lake with the silent trees and golden leaves. He confessed this dream to the girl one night, as they lay side by side in bed, panting slightly.
“Let me tell you a secret,” the girl said, turning onto her side and stroking the boy’s cheek.
“When I first met you, I didn’t fall in love with a man. I fell in love with a small child. You were as pure as a tabula rasa. The only thing you had on your tabula rasa was the beauty of your home.”
She settled her head on his shoulder and wrapped an arm around his torso.
“When I brought you back to the city with me, I didn’t realize how much harm it would do you.”
The boy frowned at the girl. “What are you talking about? I love being with you. I have never been happier.”
She was silent.
“I’m telling you the truth,” he said gently.
“Yes,” she said, “but year by year I see the colour in your eyes fade away.”
She traced a couple of faint lines in his forehead. “You grow lines in your face from worry. As each year goes past I see less of a small child and more of a man.”
They lay in silence for a long while, each deep in thought.
Suddenly, the girl sat up, running her hands through her long, auburn hair.
“This dream of yours,” she said, facing away from him, “is something dangerous. When men begin to dream, it means they are not happy with their lives.”
“I am happy with my life. I told you so before.”
“You say you are telling the truth but your heart lies.”
The girl stood up, wrapping the sheets around her naked body and silently walked out of the bedroom. Before she left, the boy saw tears roll down her cheeks.
Another two years passed. It was the morning before the winter holidays. The boy was lying in bed, awake earlier than he needed to be, staring out the window. The leaves on the tree were red and the sky was blue. Nothing out of ordinary at this time of year. The boy felt something stir in his chest but it died as soon as it began to pain him. He sighed and rolled out of bed, grabbing a pair of jeans off the floor and pulling them on. The girl was at work already so the boy ate breakfast alone. He still dreamed of the restaurant by the lake but as each month dragged past, the dream grew fainter and the boy began to forget what the lake looked like. In his mind, the memories of the lake and the forest was a magical, brilliant blur of colour and light that was fading as time ticked on.
The boy went to work. He worked hard, laughed at all the jokes the pizza makers made, and greeted every customer with a brilliant smile. However, when he went on a bathroom break, the boy stared at himself in the cracked mirror and he wept. He broke the mirror with his fist and he walked into the kitchen, dazed and apologizing for the damage he did to the mirror. The owner was more concerned about the damage the mirror did to the boy.
“What is this darkness?” the boy asked the girl as she bandaged his wounded hand that night.
She didn’t answer his question. She was pale and trembling and the boy’s question made her physically ache.
Later as the boy started to fall asleep, he vaguely heard the girl say something.
The answer to his question came sooner than he expected. Two weeks into the winter season the boy was on his way home from work. Lately, he had been feeling more tired than usual and today, the boy felt the tiredness deep in his bones. As he walked down the meandering road, he saw the local park and decided to take a new route, hoping that a break from the filth of the cars and the painful greyness of civilization would rejuvenate him.
The park was quiet. The boy stood on the grass and watched the skeletal trees shiver under the looming grey clouds. Birds chatted sleepily and the traffic behind him was muted. The boy felt something stir in his chest. Did he remember his home? Did he remember how the trees looked in the winter mornings when the red sun seeped through the dark sky? How the lake seemed to take on a brilliant blue on a warm summer’s day? How the animals would bustle about, foraging for food and playing in the long, untamed grass? Did he remember how free it was? How unbound he was to things such as societal duties? Everything that didn’t seem to exist in this new world he found himself in existed in his old home.
When he finally came back to the apartment, it was dark and the girl was preparing dinner. She asked him why he looked so troubled.
“I want to go back,” was all he said.
He spent the rest of the night in silence, staring out the window and drinking bourbon.
When morning came, the boy finally turned from the window, feeling drunk, and he watched the girl sleeping. The boy felt sad when he realised that she was no longer beautiful to him.
The day was overcast and the skies threatened to rain upon them as they walked, hand in hand, through the trees. The boy’s heart thudded as he glimpsed the lake and he started walking faster, letting go of the girl’s hand, his pace more urgent and his body hot and feverish. Sweat beaded his forehead as he finally came to the edge of the lake.
“I’m here,” he said. “I’m back, old friend.”
But the lake either didn’t recognise him or didn’t want to speak with him for it remained silent.
So the boy waited.
It was beginning to grow dark when the lake finally broke its silence.
The boy knelt down and leant close, trying to hear the faint whispers rising from the murky depths of the water.
“There was once a boy who gazed at his own reflection in a lake.”
The boy saw his own reflection stare back at him and he realized.
The boy realized what the darkness was. The darkness that had been growing in the depth of his chest wasn’t darkness at all.
It was emptiness.
It was a hollow pain so terrible, so terrifying, that he couldn’t move. He felt his cheeks grow damp and a screaming roar attacked his ears as his heart started to pound angrily against his ribcage. He trembled as he thought of what he had lost a long time ago. He was missing something so vital to his own existence; something he knew he couldn’t live without. However, when the girl found him by the lake, he was imprisoned by her beauty. Just like the boy in the lake’s story, he was going to die for beauty. That day, when he signed his own death sentence, the girl took from him his eyesight. The boy came to the sickening realization that he was no longer a boy. He was no longer the boy in his memories; no longer the boy who spoke to the lake that fateful day.
When the boy lost that something that was so very important, he also lost his life next to the lake and now he was too blind to find it.
The man slumped over next to the lake and wept.
Deep inside of him, something withered away and died.