The Pond

They watched the shadows lengthening around the pond: small oaks, reeds, and willows all glowed like lanterns as they absorbed the horizontal sunbeams, while the surface dimmed slowly and grew more reflective. Dragonflies — red, blue and green — zipped around in the last hunt of the day, diving into bunched swarms of gnats, and above them swallows threaded and wove invisible sheets of air. A grass snake slithered across, its nose above the surface; and every now and then you could hear the plop of a leaping fish, spreading glitter-rings over the entire pond. All around, the air buzzed with the song of a billion flies and gnats. It was life devouring life, desperate to bring warmth into the body before darkness rose from the shades.

Then, a few feet away from the bench where they sat,  a grey and white cat crept out of the reeds; its teats were huge, and out of its mouth stuck a mouse tail. Both men stared intensely at the cat. She stared back at them; then, disdainfully, she turned away from them and stalked into the field, where she vanished into a clump of tall brown grass. The older brother sat up and nodded. The younger stroked his grizzled chin, then looked down at his feet. They had both just experienced something like an electric shock.

Keshav said to Simon, who was three years younger, “Did we just have the same flash? That cat. This pond.”

“Brook House I think it was called,” said Simon slowly, “but I don’t really remember the name. I couldn’t find it the last time I googled.”

“Brook, Brookfield, Brooking, something like that. Maybe they changed the name or even demolished the whole thing.”

“It was more than fifty years ago, believe it or not!”

There was a pause as a fish larger than usual jumped out of the water, twisted in the air, and splashed. Keshav said, “I practically haven’t thought about that place. I was ten, you were seven.”

Simon snorted. “Whereas I practically haven’t left it!”

The brothers glanced at each other. Each usually found the other difficult to read, but now Keshav’s face wrinkled in question as memories and questions started to jostle in from a lifetime ago.

 

They can’t have stayed at the mansion for more than a couple of months. The mother was Chinese of Hakka descent, the father a successful Indian Brahmin doctor, and the two boys looked utterly different from one another; one resembled the mother, the other the father. Keshav had been named by the father, Simon by the mother, who, while unbaptized, considered herself Christian. The parents had married against their families’ wishes, breaking their ties to tradition and ethnicity with this daring romantic elopement, and if this had happened anywhere else than in  a British colony like Malaya, the relationship would inevitably have been stamped out, like an unwanted fire. But as it was, they were protected by British law, and the two boys were able to thrive — albeit as outsiders, wherever they would go, for the rest of their lives. When the father followed his path by moving to southern England for a more interesting medical career, the whole family was transplanted to the other side of the world to this legendary kingdom of dismal food and dismal weather. By marrying each other the parents had already chosen to throw in their lot with the modern West, and the migration seemed an unavoidable flight towards new possibilities — but possibilities that would not come from any single culture, because the new family belonged to no culture simply. Thus voluntarily displaced, the parents struggled to plunge roots into the new land, soberly seeking any opportunity that would open the door to a better life, while the sons threw themselves with giddy zest into the adventure of a new country, new friends, new ways.

In one of his professional transitions, the father moved north to a new posting, and had to work to establish a foothold before the rest of the family could follow. In the meantime, the mother and two sons had to find a place to live temporarily, and this place came up in conversation with the mother’s hairdresser — who, it turned out, was a minor baron in possession of a large 18th century mansion that he could not afford to keep up or live in. He liked the mother for her humor and spunkiness, so when he heard of her need he immediately offered to rent her a few rooms. It would be cold, he warned her, but paraffin heaters and thick blankets would be sufficient.

Thus it was that this Chindian family — modern in their cultural displacement, their perplexed identity — found itself living in a vast, empty Georgian mansion, in the early 1970s. The boys did not raise an eyebrow; they had no idea what a mansion was or what it meant in their adopted country, but were simply excited at the prospect of running wild in this large ancient house.

It stood amidst an overgrown estate: waist-high grass turning yellow, hedges slowly reverting to bushes and trees, a cider orchard crowded with trees bowed low from their weight of ungathered fruit, and the ground carpeted with fermenting green apples. There was a low semi-circular stone wall in front of the house taken over with vines, and the lower half of the house itself had lost its war with the ivy, which was dense on some of the windows and impenetrable everywhere else. To enter the house they had to go through the side door, which led into a musty hallway with threadbare rugs.This in turn led to a long, dark corridor, flanked on either side by gun cabinets still containing rifles behind glass, and above the cabinets hung antlered or toothed heads of animals from exotic places. The doors on both sides of this corridor were locked, keepers of treasures and secrets. At the end of the corridor was the staircase, with its worn red carpet, and on the first landing stood a suit of armor, with closed visor and halberd in hand, apparently guarding the passage to the better lit upper regions. This corridor was dim at the best of times, and the hunting trophies were always frightening. Coming down here at night was unthinkable. The boys never even dared to inspect the gun cabinets, being in too much of a hurry to leave this corridor.

Their improvised suite was on the next floor, at the end: three rooms austerely equipped with three simple beds, some old chairs, a two-ring gas cooker, a dining table, paraffin heaters — the comforting smell of which the boys never forgot. There was no TV reception. The mother would spend her days making a home, sewing, and reading romance novels, a habit that she had cultivated in her homeland; and the boys — when they were not in school, and had finished their homework — would spend the days running around and exploring, mostly outside, for the days were still warm and long enough. They would play outside till twilight, run inside down the dreadful corridor, eat their dinner at table, read their comic books a while, and fall asleep.

The cider orchard was a paradise of plenty. Never before had they seen such a columned vault of gnarled old fruit trees, or found themselves wading ankle-deep through shining, almost perfect fruit. Their first bite was a bite of delighted shock: these apples were not only sweeter than any fruit they had tasted, and so juicy that their chins would run with it and the shirts would end up drenched, but they were also fermenting into cider on the ground. They would eat their fill, and then lie there laughing amid the apples, staring through the branches at the clouds while the green world spun and spun.

It was during one of these sessions of apply inebriation that they noticed the cat, grey and white, crouched at the base of a tree a few feet away, watching them. They both found it funny that a mouse’s tail stuck out of her mouth. They sat up, and after a few minutes managed to coax the cat to come to them. It moved slowly, heavily, over the apples, its teats swollen. The orchard in its current state must have abounded in small mammals hungry for food. The cat would rub itself on their legs and let itself be petted, but the mouse tail would remain poking out of its mouth like a cigarette, giving her a knowing streetwise look. In the days to come, whenever they saw her she would be carrying a mouse, but she would always vanish at the last moment so adroitly that they never found out where she hid her kittens. On more than one occasion they followed her through the orchard and out the other side into a meadow, as she crept and dodged her way through some bushes. There, they stumbled upon a pond, which they would from then on visit every day. This pond, even at midday, would be buzzing, humming, singing, sometimes screeching with birdlife and insect life. As soon as they arrived here they would forget everything and go hunting for treasures — Keshav characteristically looking down at roots and the squirming life on the ground, Simon gazing up at the birds and trying to discern the different birdsongs. Here they would lose all track of time until dusk overtook them, each brother lost in his own kingdom. It might even take them a few minutes to find each other at the end of the day.

 

On wet days they would play inside the house. There were about forty empty rooms above the ground floor — all with wood floors, all with windows that had not been cleaned for decades. They never found anything in the rooms except insect shells and cobwebs. When they played hide and seek, which became almost infinitely fascinating in such a house, it never occurred to them that there might be anything lurking in the old cupboards, or ancient ghosts craving the company of kids. They were new to the culture and hadn’t yet encountered any stories of haunted mansions; the house was just a playground. The brother who hid behind a door or inside a closet listened intensely for the sound of footsteps on the wooden boards, but there was never a thought that the footsteps could belong to anyone but the seeking brother.

It was during one game of hide-and-seek that Simon, always the cleverer one at hiding because he had no trouble staying still for hours, looked out of one of the inside windows. He was in a narrow lavatory on the third floor, and this lavatory had a window that faced the inner courtyard of the house. It was a surprise to him, peering through the scratched pane, to see below a yard containing two carts, some boxes, a few cages, and straw on the ground. He had enough self-discipline to contain his excitement until Keshav found him, and as soon as he showed him the window the two brothers raced each other downstairs and outside, where they circled the house trying to find a way in. But the ivy covered everything, the stems from decades of growth being now thick and woody, and as strong as iron bars; they couldn’t even see anything through the ivy. It was like a fairy-tale wall of vegetation, but without giant thorns.

After two rounds of the house and trying several times to pull apart the ivy at places where a door seemed plausible, Keshav stood back and looked up at where the wall seemed lowest. “Let’s climb,” he said. They had spent many hundreds of hours climbing trees, so without hesitation both brothers leapt onto the vines, reached their hands in, and pulled themselves vigorously to the top; once there, they dropped lightly to the strawed ground and began to explore.

 

At the center of the courtyard the two carts stood parked at an angle, one four-wheeled, the other a tumbril with its shafts propped on the ground. Empty crates and cages were scattered all over; every metal part was rusted, and moss grew lightly on much of the wood. There were wide doors on three sides of the court, leading into low buildings. Keshav wandered into what must have been stables, which still smelled of horses. The next one was was packed with low tables and shelves, with a selection of rusted cans and jars. In the center stood a trestle table with four rusty cages on it; one cage was still locked, and at the bottom of it were what looked like bird bones. Had the place been abandoned in a hurry, with not enough time even to let the animals out? This was a mystery they were never able to solve. Even the way the carts were left suggested something unfinished. The third building was evidently a workshop. Rusted saws hung from a rack on the wall, and a carpenter’s bench large enough for two men to work at teetered on three legs. On it there was a circular saw, also elegantly rusted. How is it that the workmen never took their tools? — or did these tools belong to the house, and were forgotten along with it? This place still smelled of sawdust, which lay thick at the sides of the room, swirled there by the breezes. Pervading the entire courtyard was the mixed smell of straw, sawdust, and horses, as if the dead past were somehow still there even though unpeopled. It was like climbing into a wholly alien world, one that the two of them had never even read about and therefore had no familiar associations with.

Keshav was a little dazed at this discovery. He walked around, picking up things from the ground — feathers, brown nuts and bolts — before realizing that the light was fading and that he didn’t know where Simon was. He called for him, the echoes called for him: no answer. There was a long silence before Simon appeared from the stables, with a look of brooding perplexity.

You okay?” asked Keshav.

“Yeah. Let’s go.” And they clambered out into the twilight as the last bats of the year flittered around them.

 

In the days that followed Simon became more withdrawn, less eager to play and explore, and he began to disappear for hours at a time. Keshav would search for him, give up, and retreat somewhere to read. Invariably after a few hours Simon would reappear either from some corner of the house or from the trees, but he would never say where he had been or what he had been doing. “Just fooling around” or “I wanted to be by myself.” At first Keshav was a little hurt by what he took to be rejection, but he sensed too that something was not quite right.

One afternoon, in cool autumnal sunshine, Keshav was alone in the orchard munching apples when the cat appeared, smoking a mouse tail as usual. After a bout of petting and leg-rubbing, Keshav tried to pick her up, but she squirmed away and darted into the grass. Lonely, he followed her, and when he came closer to the pond he heard a voice speaking on the other side of a bank of reeds. He couldn’t distinguish the words, but he recognized Simon’s voice — which seemed not to be engaged in a soliloquy but actually addressing someone. There were pauses, as if to listen, and he could catch intonations of questioning or surprise. Disturbed, he pulled away to a distance and called out “Simon!” before approaching cautiously, hoping to catch a glimpse of his interlocutor. The talking stopped immediately, and Simon emerged from the reeds, two green dragonflies whizzing around his head.

“Hi!” he said without smiling.

“I was looking for you,” said Keshav, “and heard you talking to someone.”

“I was talking to myself,” Simon said quickly. “I like to do that these days.”

“But you have me!”

“It’s not the same. I’m imagining stories.”

Then they went back to the house quietly together, Keshav perplexed, Simon grim and a little angry at having been disturbed. When they reached the dining room their mother had a special dinner of spaghetti waiting for them, a dish she had learned from a magazine, and she was obviously in a mood to celebrate. “Guess what? Daddy’s found us a house, and got a school for you, and we can leave next week!” She was clearly glad to be leaving this cold, creepy stone edifice that was more a tomb than a home.

 

The boys were less glad about this because they had been enjoying the place and had been expanded by it: the society they had moved to was a new enough world for them, but this house was an opening into mystery and darkness. They did not jump for joy; on the contrary, Simon turned pale at the news, and fell ill the very next day. Until they moved he was unable to get out of bed, babbling away in a week-long fever dream, and had to miss the first few weeks of school. When he recovered, he could remember barely anything from the last few weeks — and he had lost the use of his lower legs.  No doctor could give a satisfactory account of his affliction, and the best they could do was to attribute it to a virus he had caught at the house, perhaps from the pond or playing in the mews or stables. The short stay at the house became distant family history, mentioned from time to time but never discussed..

 

But with important episodes of family history, the fruit can fall only when it is ripe. Now, sixty years on, as they sat there watching the swallows swooping and swerving over the surface of the water in their elegant feast, Keshav took his cue and asked: “What do you mean you haven’t left it? You’ve never really told anyone what happened in those weeks when you would vanish all day.”

“I couldn’t. I had blanked it out, and it only trickled back to me over the years in bits and pieces, and even then it seemed too crazy to be told. Too private, as if telling would be a betrayal.”

“A betrayal of what?”

“Of her.” He paused, and Keshav waited, stunned. “The girl you heard me talking to that day by the pond.”

“But I didn’t see anyone. Was she hiding?”

“Yes, but not in the way you think.” The sun was just going down, and there was an hour left of the long northern twilight. “You remember the time we found the courtyard? When you wandered off to see the building with the cages, I went into the stables and for some reason I walked straight to the back stall. Before I even reached it I heard someone say my name, but I knew it wasn’t your voice. Then I saw her, crouching in the straw — a little Indian girl about my age, with curly hair and big eyes, and a simple white dress. ‘I was wondering where you were, Simon,’ she said, and took my hand and pulled me down beside her.”

“Weren’t you afraid or even disturbed?”

“No, it felt completely natural, as if I had known her every day of my life. I was happy to see her. I wasn’t even surprised that I knew her name. ‘Ananya!’ I said. ‘You’re so good at hiding. It took me so long to find you.’ I could not have explained how I came to be able to say that. And we just talked, or played with the straw, or bits of gravel, I don’t even remember what — but it was all so natural, like two kids who share a fantasy world. Then you called, and the spell was broken, and I left her. I must have looked dazed, because what it felt like was waking up groggy from a dreamless sleep. That day when you showed up by the pond and asked me questions, I knew I wouldn’t be able to answer them even though I wanted to, because I myself had no clue what was happening.”

“Was she a hallucination? She can’t have been real because no one else ever saw such a person.”

“She was real! Not a hallucination. As real as you or me sitting here. As real as this pond. As real as that pond. But she showed herself only to me, evidently.”

“She was a ghost?”

Simon laughed. “You believe in those things?”

“Well, I think it’s quite plausible that the thing that organizes and holds together the physical body is spiritual, and that after this physical body disintegrates the spiritual body can persist a while before it too disintegrates. So yes, if that’s what a ghost is, I think I could believe in them.”

“I have no idea what she was, but I know she was real. When she grabbed my hand or hugged me, it was physical. I know the timbre of her voice, the exact shade of brown of her eyes, her smell. You realize how Asian our family is? — we’re so restrained, we don’t hug or kiss each other. And it’s as if coming to England made us withdraw more into our own worlds. Well, Ananya broke that, and wasn’t afraid of contact. She could even be boisterous in her contact and punch or shove me in play. She was spontaneous, and both of us could go instantly into whatever fantasy play-world one of us initiated.”

“That sounds magical — pure happiness. In adulthood people dream of having that with someone.”

“Well, over the first week the bond became more intense. She would be with me all the time — even though you and mummy couldn’t see her — and I had to pretend that she wasn’t there. At bedtime she slept in my bed. When mummy announced that we’d be leaving, it broke my heart, because I had told Ananya that we were expecting to leave and asked her to come with us, but she had said with great definiteness that she couldn’t leave Brook House. She needed me to stay. She started to become fierce about it. We were twins, she insisted, and we belonged to each other for ever. I wasn’t scared by all this possessiveness. On the contrary, I loved it that she was so possessive, because I too felt the twinhood — but at the same time I also knew I had to leave. I was lost in two opposed worlds, split apart. And they were two opposed living worlds. It never occurred to me, in the state of mind I was in then, that Ananya might actually be dead. That was in fact not a thought I could have had about her.”

“I can understand that. In one way she wasn’t dead yet, and in the dimension of things where spirits can meet spirits maybe she wasn’t dead at all.”

“What on earth do you mean?”

“Well, one part of us, the normal part, lives in space and time, where things have to be right now and right here for us to be able to perceive them — but there’s another part, the soul, that seems to be able to perceive things remote in space and time, like the time we both woke up at night knowing that Auntie Jaya had just died in India. This part of the soul doesn’t need time and space because it lives some place that doesn’t have them.”

“Ah. So there’s a part of us that doesn’t die — because it isn’t born! So you’re thinking that Ananya only outlived herself in the world of space and time, and in that sense she’s a ghost — but really for her there’s no then or now, or rather it’s all now.”

“Maybe,” said Keshav, snatching a blade of yellowing grass from the side of the bench and putting it between his lips. “But that wouldn’t explain why she’d be so afraid of losing you. Anyway, I’m distracting you from the story. What happened next?”

“To be honest, I don’t remember clearly, but I do remember the feeling. It was as if she started to twine herself about me, like a lover who won’t let go, but the twining wasn’t like a hug or a physical clasping, it was a twining around my innermost core — a bit like the ivy around the house, how it would grip on everything that gave it the slightest purchase, and get a hook in any little crack or hole, and seal everything off from the outside world. She wanted me for herself alone:I felt her inhaling me into her, and my own life slowly becoming hers.”

“That sounds horrible! Like a succubus.”

“Looked at from a third person’s point of view, yes, but for me it was rather pleasant and comforting, like two lovers dying into each other, slipping into the eternity of each other.” Simon laughed again. “Hey, that sounds like what you were saying earlier about the soul.”

“Then what?”

“I suppose then she must have felt that that wasn’t going to work and that I had to go, so she tried to force me to stay by crippling me. First she made me lifeless to my world, then she tried to destroy my ability to locomote — and succeeded. I didn’t figure that part out till years afterwards.”

“Did she follow us when we moved?”

“No. When I regained my right mind, she had gone — or rather, we had gone. I was never visited by her again, unless you count how she made a big hole in me and how ever since then I’ve missed her more than I’ve ever missed anyone.”

The two of them sat there a while in silence and felt the air cooling around them. Another fish splashed, and the first frog  began its song. A breeze rippled the surface of the pond and swayed the reeds and grasses.

Keshav said, “Did you try to find out anything about her?”

“Of course! I went back about thirty years after, when I had been through quite a lot of therapy and had started to find my own words for what happened. I looked up every record I could find, every church and legal record, every newspaper for about a hundred years, and talked to people who were supposed to possess the communal memory of that village. I found that about 1880 the lord of the manor returned from decades in Bengal bringing his Brahmin doctor, an Ayurvedic healer. The duke had been in poor health for years and could no longer do without the only doctor who had ever managed to give him relief. Along with him came his wife and two small children — twins. Unfortunately the healer wasn’t able to heal the twin who caught pneumonia in this damp and chilly land, and to the terrible grief of all of them she died in acute respiratory distress a few months after arrival. Her name was Ananya Choudhury.”

“Ah.”

“I found out because the controversy about her funeral rites made it into the local paper. Since she was an unbaptized heathen, no church in the county would deign to bury her, and in any case what the family wanted was a Hindu-style cremation. The duke turned a blind eye to it, but it outraged the local pharisees. Guess where they held it? Beside the pond, on the other side of the trees where supposedly no one could see. The father performed the rites, and the ashes were scattered on the water. Then — I don’t know whether from local pressure or from desperation to leave this deadly place — they left, but I never succeeded in tracing them. They probably returned to India.”

“So Ananya…?”

“…longed for her brother. There must have been a powerful, intense bond between these two. She had been waiting for almost a hundred years. And then I came along. I must have been similar enough to her brother for her to latch onto me. It was as if I fell into a hole shaped exactly like me — a hole of hope. And there I was stuck, enveloped by her. She could not leave the world until she had found her brother again, and while I might have been the key that opened the door out of life for her, I might also have been the one who kept her here longer because she couldn’t go anywhere without me. So when we left, she might have been stuck here more deeply. I don’t know which — because when I returned to Brook House as an adult, I felt nothing of her, no pull from any presence. It could be that she had been released. Or it could be that she was in hiding, not recognizing this middle-aged cripple and refusing to show herself to anyone but her brother.”

“What about you —  have you been released?”

“Of course not. I became her brother, don’t you see? I am a twin who lost a twin, and have never been able to enjoy life fully — because the person I should be enjoying with isn’t there. The doctors called it depression, but that’s only a word.” He paused. “The spiritual bond is so much more powerful than the biological bond, isn’t it?”

“From what I’ve seen in my own relationships,I couldn’t agree more,” said Keshav. He brushed a mosquito away from his face. “Come, it’s getting dark, and we’re being eaten alive.” He stood, waiting for his brother to re-position himself so that he could be lifted. Then, putting an arm around him, he hoisted him to his feet, and supported him to the wheelchair positioned precisely behind the bench. The surface of the pond grew dark, reflecting the Evening Star, and now almost roaring with the chorus of frogs, as the older brother pushed the younger brother along the gravel path that led back to civilization.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “The Pond

  1. Hakka women are special even though Hakka society is patriarchal. Without the Hakka women who for generations maintain Hakka identity, traditions and culture. Most Hakkas are Christians without being Christians. Instead of upholding the three pillars of Chinese society, Hakkas have four pillars, adding their Basel Christianity to Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. This is because their famous Hakka leader, Hoong Xiu Chuan, who led them into the Taiping Rebellin against the Manchu Emperor, thought he was Jesus’s younger brother. Sun Yat Sen, another famous Hakka, the founder of the Republic, was married to one of the three famous Hakka Soong Sisters, whose father became a millionaire selling Chinese bibles. Another of the the three Hakka Soong Sisters married Chiang Kai Shek, who lost to the Red Army, of the Long March, led by Zhu De. 80% of the soldiers on the Long March were Hakkas. The most famous Hakka of recent times was Deng Hsiao Peng, who brought about the dual Communist (political)/Capitalist (economic) regime.

    • Yes, that is all wonderful. Are you Hakka too? Jonathan Spence’s book “God’s Chinese Son” (I think it was called that) was a rich investigation of the Taiping Rebellion, the greatest mass movement in modern history (Occupy Nanjing!). Hakka women also didn’t bind their feet, no?

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