by Will Cordeiro
Forty years had elapsed since James Lewis Andersen had been cursed. Forty years in which, each evening, he retreated to the attic in the house he had built himself on the edge of town, and wrote by candlelight standing at a small oak desk, intermittently looking out at the pond adjoining his land in back. The pond had been named Black’s Pond, as much for the habitual color of its murky waters as for the long-rumored tale that a runaway slave had met his demise one night, groping his way to freedom, stumbling for signs carved on the trees; when the slave heard what he thought was a shot ring out, he ran, stepping deeper and deeper into the pond’s blind depths.
As Andersen wrote, a barn owl that nested under his Mansard roof would often swoop by, a rush of white feathers, its face like an empty clock’s, with a vole or mouse seized in its talons. It would fly over the pond, a comet-tail across the marbled waters, out into the woods beyond his property line where it would soundlessly stalk its prey.
Frederick Lerner, his young amanuensis, had already collated and transcribed the manuscript his master had scribbled for decades. Andersen sensed that tonight he would complete his life’s work; his pen poised and twitching, he had only to jot the short preface and dedication which would round off his imaginary memoir.
Forty years ago, during a listless Indian summer, he had proposed to his first love, Nera, a pale willowy girl with hazel, twilit eyes and veins running under her skin that gave her a bluish tint. Their passion for each other took the usual path of first loves—awkward young people who idealized their own projections in each other, followed by a puncture to each one’s egoism in the tempering acknowledgment of the other’s mysterious, acrimonious will. Of course, they rendezvoused at every chance, at least at first.
Those warm autumn days, the trees touched with copper, they would abscond to the lake at the edge of town to lounge on the cool verdant grass, sipping wine and feeding each other sweetbreads and apricots. They would sit silently and gaze at the disturbances of shade on the pond, their arms entangled around the other’s breasts or fingering stray locks of hair. And so it was, one evening, Andersen gripped a ring in his palm; revealed it; placed it on her finger.
Andersen’s father had planned for him to wed Elizabeth Morrow, the sole daughter and heiress of the town’s industrialist. Her father, Mr. Morrow, had invested his farming monies in railroads, which increased the family’s already sizable fortunes. A dutiful son, Andersen had courted Elizabeth all that summer. He seemed, even then to Elizabeth, intent on some troubling, fateful event for which he was called to simply endure the present, some distant coronation or sacrifice which would retroactively give his life its trembling significance. Such inwardness and formality, remarkable in a young man, perhaps elicited her ardor the more, and Elizabeth grew almost jealous of his wistful, unspoken ambition while yet increasingly imagining she had some part in it.
That evening, when he placed the ring on her finger, Nera shook free of his grasp, startled by his words. “Marry you? But how? Our parents would never agree to it,” she said.
“No—you misunderstand, my love,” he said. “We would elope and leave town.”
“Because you are ashamed of me?” Nera asked. Impetuously, she grabbed the ring, leaped up, and threw it in the pond, then ran up the horse path into town before Andersen could say anything in reply.
Andersen lay on the grass startled by her outburst, yet, in truth, her moodiness captivated him.
Later that same night, he met Elizabeth at a cotillion ball, where, she observed, he appeared under an aspect of—even for him—unusually impassive melancholy. He would tell her nothing, except with his forlorn gaze that stared past the dancers and musicians into vacant space. She pitied him—or herself perhaps, she wasn’t sure which, but ended by comforting him as they walked home. He bent toward her, and suddenly they embraced in an unrepentant kiss.
The next morning the town was abuzz with the news brought by Mrs. Collins, the former minister’s widow, who had gone down to the pond at the edge of town to swim, as she did every morning, whereupon she discovered the pale body of Nera floating like some Ophelia among the cattails and water lilies. Mrs. Collins, an eccentric old crone with a face like a withered apple, declared that the land—nay, the owner of the land—was cursed, the devil had always lurked in the dark thoughts of that secretive girl, and whomever stepped a-foot in the pond again would write their own death certificate. Ha, she cackled, the end times are nigh, the earth is filled with sin and abomination, even now she suspected the trumpeting archangels would break forth and cleanse the earth of the blood we all spilled of our savior, the galloping horsemen approach, the sun is blotted, the book’s unsealed, and other such squawky whim-wham.
The discovery only confirmed the townsfolk, however, in their opinion of Nera, whom they always thought of as a lonely, frail creature with an odd, morbid streak to her—a little cold-blooded, if you asked me, Mr. Morrow privately remarked to his wife.
Andersen, who imagined himself alone in comprehending Nera’s motives, sunk into a further despondency. Most days the following winter he could barely move from bed or eat so much as an oyster cracker. Consequently, his job at the town’s law firm, where he had recently been hired on, fell into jeopardy. Andersen’s father, concerned with his son’s future, negotiated a temporary leave for him and told his son that he must marry Elizabeth immediately, hoping that a honeymoon period would dispel his funk, if not necessary get him out of bed. Elizabeth—and the entire Morrow clan, for that matter—readily agreed, and Andersen was no sooner suited up for his nuptials than the lovers were sent off to Buffalo by railcar for a three week’s respite.
Upon his return, Andersen resumed his clerkship duties. To his own surprise, he found that the first flush of married relations lightened his spirits. He now had inherited a goodly part of the Morrow fortune. With some of his newfound wealth, Andersen chose to buy the land around the pond at the edge of town and construct a house. The choice of property might have been considered perplexing for a prosperous young couple, except that, following the inauspicious events that had transpired there, and the foreboding that surrounded it, the real estate became a shrewd bargain. The following months, indeed, seemed providential, for the sheer work involved in building the house sweated out Andersen’s enervation, and, when he grew tired from the labor, Elizabeth doted on his every need while they still lived with her parents in their stately plantation manor.
Nearly four months into their marriage, the house stood completed. That late afternoon, the couple celebrated with a picnic near the pond. They made love along the shore and then, Andersen, weary of his labors, put on his clothes and retreated back to the house. Elizabeth, still naked and ruddy, idle and spritely, pushed off in a small skiff. She stared past a fiery skyscape to admire her own exultant face through the wrinkles and shadows on its surface. The little boat drifted out to the center of the pond as surely as the clouds drifted languidly overhead. Elizabeth bent down, closer to the ring of light that quivered around her reflection, down a wavering looking glass to some otherworld, as if to kiss her own visage. At that moment, an owl flew above her, blearing her image with its own whiteness. She lost balance, the boat tipped, and she spilled out into the chill depths. In her modest upbringing, she had never learned to swim, and, while she spent her last few breathes shouting for help, her husband, asleep by now, was as good as deaf to her cries.
Andersen awoke the next day, so soundly did he sleep, only when he heard a knock on his door. He faced sour Mrs. Collins, who, he learned, had not quit her morning visits to his pond.
“Your wife, sir” she said, “—Erstwhile wife, excuse me. Found her dead in the pond.”
“Nera? No, no she was never my wife, but yes: I know, I know the story,” Andersen said, mistaking the old woman’s report as a trick of senility in his state of half waking.
“Your wife, sir. Elizabeth. Drowned last night. Found her floating belly up in the horse pond this morning. The devil take it, this whole place is cursed. Cursed something dreadful. ”
Stupefied, Andersen said, “How come you keep turning up with such tales? Why’s that? I’m beginning to think you’re the one who’s cursed, you old crone. Don’t come on my property anymore, you hear? Now—scram!” And with that, she was gone.
As for the townsfolk, many thought the coincidence amounted to at least criminal negligence on Andersen’s part, as owner of the fatal pond. Though at trial he was found innocent by means of pretexts and legal quibbles, the whole to-do caused enough malicious gossip that he had to be dismissed from the firm. This in fact suited Andersen fine. He retired using the Morrow fortune he had inherited. He became a recluse, spending his newfound empty days writing his own version of the ignominious events.
Every cause and motive seemed to point back to another one still further down some bellying abysm and sink. So it was, by gradations, Andersen’s curt apologia mushroomed like a tender furuncle into a mildewed variorum of disquisitive fragments. He tidied and pruned, polished and teased. Eventually he learned that each excision, each zeroing in, suggested more than he could outright state, and, by such means of subtraction, Andersen nonetheless protracted his scraps still further, revolving them into well-rounded, elliptical narratives, so that, over many years, he had a kind of Arabian Nights of fairy stories and ghost tales on his hands, a few of which he would deign to publish without consideration for their pretentions to veracity.
It was at this point, one summer Sunday nearing dusk, when Frederick arrived at his door.
“And—and who may you be, son?” Andersen asked the striking young man who looked to be about twenty. He had sharp, foxish features, but with just a little spoiled plumpness to his cheeks.
“I’ve read your pieces, Mr. Andersen, and I much admire them. I’m an ardent follower of all your work, sir.”
“Is that right? Well, well… an admirer,” Andersen said, unsure on meeting his first, and as far as he knew, only reader if he should feel abashed or gratified.
“Frederick, sir. I’m so pleased to meet you,” the boy said, stretching forth his spidery hand.
Unaccustomed to visitors of any sort, Andersen met the outstretched hand with a prolonged clasp within both of his own, studying the queer intransigent look on the youth’s face for the underlying purpose of his visit. No writers, no artists held any special place for Andersen: whatever and exactly that which each artist wished to express would be manifested in the fruition of the completed work, if that work was to have any value at all, and thereby, he reasoned, a true artist must be entirely dispensable. To engage in shiftless table-talk with an artist actually seemed the surest way to ruin the perfection of the work itself. And with this grim view, Andersen looked on his guest with a confident suspicion. And yet, to say that Andersen was unwelcoming would not do. He instinctively appreciated the promise of a new point of view, a fresher, less rigid sensibility than his own with which to converse.
That evening, over cordials, Andersen agreed to lodge Frederick in a bedroom that had never been occupied in his big drafty house in exchange for some transcribing, typesetting, dictation, and suchlike miscellaneous duties. Andersen fancied he would take the young man on as a kind of apprentice, as it were, especially as his hand grew shakier, his eyesight dimmer, with increasing age.
Frederick Lerner proved adept at the tasks assigned him.
Now, only now, looking back on all those years—close on two decades it had been, when Frederick occupied the house, took dictation, rewrote the manuscript, swam in the pond, and attended to Andersen’s every little careless habit, did Andersen believe he saw the pattern of Frederick’s motive.
He remembered, standing at that writing desk, of how many summers he had stood in that same spot watching Frederick’s pale young body drifting out on the mirroring water, which indifferently jeweled the luminous forms that spilled above it, the edges around the boy purling and prismatic with the first twilit fangs of star-shine. The small waves dying into a countercurrent of their own vibrations, Frederick would glide further out, out to the center, floating, then he’d lash out his thin arms and kick and plash a crown of milky froth all around him as his white body shot back toward shore.
Years ago, after one such swim, Frederick had discovered the ring Nera tossed aside so many years ago, bright amid the sludge at pond’s edge. Andersen said nothing when he saw his apprentice with this ill-omened heirloom twinkling on his thin finger.
Andersen gazed out at the pond and wrote his dedication: “To Mrs. Collins, a blessing and a forgiveness.” The book, which Andersen was on the verge of completing tonight, was not the story—however fanciful, however evasive—of Andersen’s own life; rather, Andersen had unwittingly become the Boswell of this cunning youth. Every scene, every detail had become more and more about his young servant. By tenuous threads he had been trapped in his own tale.
Perhaps it was only a few minutes later that evening, though it seemed like hours, like ages, Frederick knocked on the study to collect the day’s specimens. Andersen handed over his final pages, noticing, as he did so, that the youth no longer wore the ring. Instead, a deep red impression marked his pale, smooth skin.
Frederick took the pages, bowed, and left unremarkably enough while Andersen continued to gaze out at the black pond. Backlit silhouettes of the trees beyond appeared like prison bars. The barn owl swooped near the window. This time it carried something bright in its talons. It flew over the pond, gliding down in a parabola, and dropped what must have been the ring, which flashed and fell like a gold line—like a golden emblem of his fortune, Andersen thought. The ring touched the water, the water shattered with moonlight. The lingering ripples from the fallen ring at last dissolved in an uncertain shudder. As every distant glimmer faded, the imageless water merged with the air, a liquid indecipherable from the black sky. The surface composed itself; all became mindless and tranquil. The reflected world had been effaced into a placid sheet of darkness.
Forty years after the curse, the evanescent line of the fallen ring appeared like the final stroke of his memoirs. All those brittle, yellowed, fungoid pages; a life squandered in reveries and evasions.
Frederick would leave in the morning, his work done. Andersen’s book was finished.
Will Cordeiro received his MFA and Ph.D. from Cornell University. His work appears or is forthcoming in Copper Nickel, Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, Fiction Southeast, Phoebe, and elsewhere. He lives in Flagstaff, where he is a faculty member in the Honors Program at Northern Arizona University.