Grams told me beware of the gollum. It comes from the depths of the lake and lurks beneath the swirling mists and glassy water. Its senses are not of this world; it can hear your thoughts, see your intentions, taste your fears.
There’s not much around the lake apart from an ancient willow tree, its fat, twisted roots anchored deep in the mud. Bent over the water, it’s always reminded me of a crooked old woman, her raggedy blanket of leaves floating in clumps. It’s on its thick limbs that we get as close as we can to the lake without touching it or - heaven forbid - falling in.
Toby always gets the furthest. Out of the three of us, he’s the oldest and he’s got the longest arms. Little Jimbo can barely get past the first hump on the trunk let alone the branches that droop over the water. He normally squats in the alcove at the base and picks his nose as he watches us. On a good day I can get to the branch Toby is on, but never to the same dizzying height. He’s practically a monkey. Swinging from one arm just to scare me, his toes skim the water. I yell at him, Toby, no! He just laughs and kicks out, swinging up and around, safe in the tree once more.
Tonight is a very good night. Ma and Pa were very accommodating to our request to come to the lake, their post-supper ale making them slow and smiley. I’m leaning against the trunk, perched on the second highest branch - the one that extends the furthest over the lake. Toby sits within arm’s reach. Moonlight suffuses the mist and the great lake looks like an ethereal sauna.
“Did you see that?” Toby says, spitting out a piece of willow bark. Apparently it gives you magical powers. He’s developed a habit of chewing wads of it every time we climb.
“What?” Jimbo calls from below.
I scan the curling tendrils of mist and the still waters below it. My firm “no” sounds more like a reassurance to myself.
Toby points down. “There. Right there. The water moved.”
“Fishes?” Jimbo says.
“Ain’t no fishes here, Jimbo,” Toby calls back. “It’s the gollum.”
I clutch the rough bark and press my back flush against the trunk. “It’s not real.” I can’t bring myself to say its name aloud. Grams always said that summons it.
“‘Course it’s real,” Toby says. “Why d’you think no one comes here? It’s ‘cus they’re scared.”
I shake my head. “Nuh uh. Pa says it’s just a story.”
“Has Pa ever been here?”
It’s a good point; I can’t recall him ever coming to the lake. Pa was only ever in one of two places: at the shop or in front of the fireplace, pitcher in hand.
I don’t know what to say, so I poke my tongue out and make a fart noise. Below us, Jimbo laughs and blows an even bigger mouth-fart.
“The gollum eats people alive,” Toby says. The sound of its name feels like a fist clenching my heart. I suck in a breath and check the water again - it’s reassuringly still. He carries on, and I recognise Grams’ words, “The gollum comes from the crack in the earth, through the hole in the lake. The gol-”
“Stop,” I blurt out.
Toby’s dark eyes glint in the moonlight as he smirks. I stare sullenly back at him.
“You scared?” he challenges.
“No,” I say, tearing my gaze away and, despite myself, glance down at the water. He’s wearing that smug, cat-got-the-cream expression that makes me want to hit him. I probably would have had he not started scooting backwards away from me.
“Come here,” he taunts from halfway down the branch. “It’s a better view from here.”
“Wahh!” Jimbo cries. “Look!”
I twist so abruptly I almost slip off. There, over by the mossy boulder next to willow tree, ripples shimmer out across the lake’s surface. Something is in the water.
“Could be a bug,” I say. “Or a bird.”
“Nah.” Toby’s smile is so wide it just about leaps off his face. “Gollum.”
We watch with bated breath as the ripples smooth out. The normally murky water looks pretty in the moonlight, all silver and mirror-like. Toby manoeuvres himself so that he’s lying on his stomach, legs wrapped around the branch, and begins crawling out further over the lake.
Without turning around, he calls back, “C’mon!”
I bite my lip, watching him shuffle along. Doesn’t look too hard. I lower myself down and begin squirming along the branch, every movement bringing me one tiny bit closer to the water below.
“Not so bad, is it?” Toby says.
I crane my neck forward to find him draped over the branch, his stomach being the only point of contact with the tree. His arms and legs dangle dangerously close to the water. A single tentacle wrapped around his ankle could easily pull him off and drag him under.
Before I can say anything, Toby gasps. My heartbeat racks up a notch at the small ‘plop’ and another set of ripples, right below Toby’s fingertips.
“Was that you?” I whisper.
He doesn’t answer me; he’s too busy pulling his limbs in and clambering back behind the safety of the thick branch.
“Hey, gollum!” Toby yells down at the water.
“Shhh!” I hiss at him.
“Come and get us, you stinky gollum!” His voice echoes around the lake.
“Toby! It’s not funny!”
“Shut your face!”
Then there’s a splash. A boy-sized splash.
“Jimbo?” I call down.
The silence is deafening.
Toby and I lock eyes, frozen for a moment, before flying into action. We clamber down the tree faster than we’ve ever gone, feet slipping, hands instinctively finding knots to grip. Still it seems too slow.
Toby reaches the ground first. He leaps off from a height at least twice as tall as me, landing knee-deep in mud, and squelches his way over to the water’s edge.
My world narrows down to the rough bark, the next foothold, and my heart ramming against my ribcage. Almost there. Toby keeps calling out Jimbo’s name.
My ankle twinges as I land but I hardly register it; I go to rush to the water’s edge when I hear another great splash.
The lake is serene. Tendrils of mist glide languidly over the surface and seem to call to me, daring me to enter the depths. I stand with my toes curled in the mud, frozen, certain that the fear coursing through my veins is giving off an irresistible scent.
“Toby?” My voice cracks. “Jimbo?”
The air is colder; my words fog up around me. My brain still feels like it’s scrambling down the tree. I can’t breathe. A bone-chilling fear has me in its grip. Toby's the strongest swimmer; he should have come up by now.
I have to go in.
There’s not a ripple in sight. I know that’s where they are, though. The gollum has my brothers. I dislodge a foot from the mud and step into the lake…
I’m drowning. The water burns my nose and eyes and lungs. Something slimy and sinewy clutches my ankle and I’m being dragged down, down, down. Everything is black. I kick and struggle and scream but only the last of my air escapes and I inhale cold, murky lake water.
I can't form a solid thought but all I know is that I don't want to die.
Then, a light. It’s warm and seems to shine up from the depths. My limbs grow heavy. The burning in my waterlogged chest is fading. Whatever has me captive loosens its grip and slowly unwinds itself from my ankles so that I’m floating in the water. I can’t seem to move but I don’t mind; I’m wrapped in a cocoon of warmth, and I want to stay here forever.
The light glows brighter, the warm amber changing to a bright white. A delicate twinkle of music reaches through the light directly into my head. There are no words but I understand what it’s saying: GO AWAY.
It was midnight when the three Gorbee children trudged back to their home in the woods. Their parents were passed out on the couch in front of a dying fire. They peeled off their wet clothes and whispered about how tomorrow they would go to the cave in the valley nearby, to try to catch a glimpse of the dragon that was supposed to dwell in it. They couldn't go too far in, though, they said as they settled themselves in front the warm glow of the fire. The cave led onto a river, and they couldn't swim.
Written for the Muse of March contest: https://steemit.com/contest/@mdbrantingham/contest-the-muse-of-march by @mdbrantingham