Lady of the Lake

Kyla Stan

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Chepi pushed through the dense underbrush, ignoring the multitude of raw scratches on her legs. She looked over her shoulder as she snuck away with hushed steps. In the early dawn, her Setalcott people were still asleep, waiting for the sun to warm the earth. The cold chill in the November air was a sign. Manitou, the great creator, was warning her that a perilous winter was approaching. Her people barely had enough to eat since the pale faces settled in her land. Stories from other clans in the north, like the Mashantucket Pequot, had their entire villages burned down, with barely any survivors. Others were plagued with disease that disfigured their skin and led to a slow and painful death. Despite the elder’s warnings, this didn’t stop Chepi from seeing the one pale face that mattered the most.

A startled rabbit crossed Chepi’s path before darting off into the thick foliage. The native princess jumped, then continued down the worn path used for fishing and collecting other resources. The trees parted into a clearing that revealed an expanse of pristine lake shore. Through the approaching dawn, a red tail hawk screamed overhead, warning her of the danger she was about to face.

At sixteen years old, Chepi was unsure about love, but she could not deny that the proper English Christian settler, Hugh Birdsall, had stolen her heart. Once the pale-faced men came upon their shores, Chepi’s life had changed for better and worse. Hugh came from a land known as England to help establish new territory and farm the rich soil. Along with the other men, Hugh began a trade relationship with the Setalcotts, exchanging furs, glass beads, and copper cookware for seeds and agricultural knowledge.

As she trudged through the frosted wood, her mind wandered back to their first meeting. Chepi’s father, Warawasen, the chief of the Setalcott people, had warned her to stay inside the wigwam, a shelter made of bent saplings and bark when the pale faces came, but curiosity made her step outside its safety. When Hugh first saw her, she sensed something strange...of connecting to another soul without words, as if their lives were intertwined with one another from that moment on. Under the watchful eye of her father and best warriors, Chepi and Hugh were allowed to meet for brief moments. Warawasen was not only distrusting because Hugh was a pale face, but because he was a young man of twenty-three; one after his daughter’s heart. The Native girl and English settler were the only ones interested in a culture different from their own. Chepi had even learned some English words and had taught Hugh the basics of Algonquian. Before leaving the village, Hugh placed a hand-drawn map of where he lived and pointed to a small square on the Northwest shore of the lake, indicating it was his home. After her first visit to Hugh’s cottage, Chepi became courageous and snuck away almost every night. She had learned how to love someone, both with her body and mind, but appreciated how Hugh did not look at her like the rest of the pale faces. Instead of a savage, he saw a lovely young woman.

But both knew the consequences of this affair. Warawasen had made it clear that she was already in an arranged marriage with the son of a wealthy chief in a nearby clan. She knew the importance of this union. Her people would be stronger in combat and have more supplies during the long winter months ahead. Chepi was saddened when Hugh had encouraged the union, saying he too was in an arranged marriage with the daughter of a farmer.

Her soul called out for him as she let the freezing lake lick at her moccasin-covered feet. Hands curling into fists, Chepi prevented the tears pooling in her eyes from escaping. One more visit to Hugh’s cottage wouldn’t hurt, and then she would say goodbye for good. Her father’s prized canoe, intricately carved with the creation story, rested on the pebbled shore and bid her to climb in to reclaim her love for the last time. Chepi grunted as she pushed the canoe into the near-frozen lake and gasped when she felt some of the icy water swirl around the bare skin of her ankles. The wooden canoe paddle was smooth with age, and she grasped the ancient tool to steady her shaking nerves. The lake parted with every stroke, each breath shaking and unsteady. Chepi’s ears were alert to any sound or movement on shore. Warawasen’s trusted band of warriors could be watching. Here on the lake, silence was her only companion. The shadow of pine trees that lined the lake’s perimeter reminded her of the arrowheads the warriors carved every day in preparation of a good hunt.

As she paddled, Chepi chanted a prayer to Manitou and sprinkled an offering of dried tobacco and fresh corn. She felt a pang of guilt for using her people’s resources without their knowledge, but she needed to make sure the Great Spirit would allow her safe passage across the treacherous lake. The scent of wood smoke coming from Hugh’s cottage made her stomach somersault, like a wave on the great south bay, and she couldn’t help but smile. The harsh curves of his small dwelling made her paddle faster, until she felt the small craft scrape against the lakebed, signaling her arrival on shore.

Chepi jumped out of the canoe and splashed into the cruel, cold shallows. Her long ebony hair swirled behind her with a breeze. She dug her feet into the muddy lakebed as she pulled the canoe up onto shore and threw the paddle aside without a care. A smile graced her pretty features as she trekked the path up to Hugh’s cottage. The approaching winter wind stung her skin, forcing her to pull her deerskin blanket closer around her shoulders.

The native princess ran up the embankment to embrace her lover, but stopped once she saw him standing at the door of his dwelling. His soft wisps of brown hair trailed in a breeze, and his emerald eyes were locked on hers. He was dressed in restrictive colonial garb that confused the Setalcott; a cotton white button down, tight wool trousers, and stockings that had become stained during his summer work as a farmhand. Everything about him looked so beautiful in the morning light, but why did he look so worried? Chepi suddenly noticed the white woman beside him outside the doorway. Her bonnet was fastened tightly around her chin, and her clothes were straightened to perfection.

Chepi couldn’t help the tears falling down her tanned cheeks. “Hugh?” Her voice cracked.

“No, Chepi— It’s not what you think—”

Chepi sprinted down the cliffside toward the lake.

 “I was breaking off the engagement, Chepi!”  Hugh called in vain. His words were lost over the mockery of crows, watching from an old oak barren of autumn leaves.

The native girl didn’t stop when she heard Hugh slip and tumble down the embankment, trying to catch up with her quick movements. Tears blurred her vision, and she finally allowed her sobs to break free. Her knees trembled as she landed at the shoreline. What had she done wrong to deserve such torment? Had she angered Manitou? Was the offering not enough?

The first steps into the iced lake were painful, leaving an unbearable burning sensation on her skin. She almost decided that her actions were foolish, but Chepi realized that she could never force herself to love another. The frost biting her skin wasn’t nearly as painful as the splitting of her heart. Once she was up to her neck, Chepi took her last step into the foreboding lake, lips parting as water replaced the air in her lungs. In her last moments of life, she heard Hugh crying for her to come back. Her vision began to blur as she descended into the depths of the lake, the ever-growing darkness. She summoned the last of her strength into a smile.

A silver object spiraled down into the lake and landed next to her body.

It was a silver engagement ring engraved with the words Chepi, my love.

.~.

Over 300 Years Later

Midnight disguised their hushed steps and movement as they parked their car on the side of an unused side street. The boys pushed aside a dense spruce bush that released a coniferous scent when disturbed. Underbrush yanked at their clothes like clawing fingers, begging them to rethink their foolish quest of untested bravery. Years of wilderness covered the once-pristine path ahead, yet it was shadowed in a foreboding darkness that shook even the most daring who dared to entreat in a slumbering piece of history.

Mike stepped out of the car first and smiled wickedly at the abandoned building in the distance. A chilling lake breeze swept through his brown hair as he followed Alex up the path. The last of the boys, Brian, closed the car door with hesitation, and Mike noticed his shaking hands while he pushed up his dented glasses.

“Guys, this is dumb.”  He clicked on his flashlight and directed the beam down the path Who knows what’s down there? Some psycho could be using this place to hide out!”

“Stop being such a chicken shit and come on!” Alex called over his shoulder. He shielded his blond hair in a black hoodie, blending in with the night.

“We’re not supposed to be here!” Brian squealed.

Alex couldn’t help but scoff at the statement. “God, will you grow a set already?”

“If the cops catch us and my mom gets that call—”

Mike laughed at his two friends, shaking his head in disbelief. “Why don’t you guys both shut up before we get caught?” Growing up with Brian and Alex, he knew they disagreed at the slightest difference in opinion, but all three were there for each other through the smartest and dumbest decisions. Mike reflected on his two friends; their dynamic was complicated and often confusing, but he stayed in the middle when their arguments heated to a boil.

As they headed down the abandoned trail toward Lake Ronkonkoma, Mike noticed an immediate drop in the temperature. His heated exhalations swirled around him as if it were a cold December morning, yet it was the middle of April.

“Woah…are you guys cold or is it just me?”

Alex turned around and smiled. “Looks like we have some “visitors,” don’t we Brian?”

The meek boy’s eyes were full of alarm, but he said nothing.

Mike watched his two friends walk ahead before he caught up. Surrounded in complete darkness with their flashlights as their only guide, he realized how easily one’s mind could play tricks.

Despite the boys’ nervous anticipation, they were excited. Alex had concocted the scheme purely for the thrill of having an encounter with the supernatural, but Brian tagged along just so he could ditch his chicken shit nickname. Mike joined not only to have a good time with his friends, but he loved history. Much to the teasing of his friends, he enjoyed visiting the small museums that dotted Long Island, checking out the cool artifacts that were found in people’s backyards and archaeological sites.

The boys knew the approach of summer promised final memories before they graduated high school and separated for college. This was their last night of sneaking and exploring all the haunted locations on Long Island. Alex had declared it the “Haunted Long Island Scavenger Hunt” and despite protests, Brian and Mike were dragged along. They had broken into King’s Park Asylum, booked a room and made it through a full night of spectral fun at Oheka Castle, and ate lunch at the Gourmet Whaler, begging the head baker to show them the haunted stove that reflected the deceased owner’s face. This was their last stop before they had to buckle down for college applications and final exams. Alex had found out about the lake through hours of online research while Brian chided his inability to focus on the simplest homework assignment.

The decrepit path led to the Bavarian Inn, an abandoned German restaurant that used to be popular amongst the wealthy in the sixties. Sitting on a small patch of land overlooking Lake Ronkonkoma, the inn used to be a local spot for tourists and lakegoers looking for a fantastic meal. Overtime, the restaurant was attacked by sudden flooding that ruined electrical units and made it unsafe for guests. To this day, scientists still don’t understand the sudden rise and fall of the lake nor what caused the flood. Because the deserted inn was now a popular spot for gangs and drug addicts, the building was scheduled for demolition in late September.

A Fowler’s toad screeched a warning to the strangers. Mike shined his flashlight on the little creature just as it disappeared into the thick woods, croaking to a potential mate. Brian yelled like a little girl as a giant horned beetle buzzed and landed on his head. The squirming pest’s legs scurried onto Brian’s forehead, inspecting its new home. Brian swatted the alien-like insect away as he screamed, causing him to drop his flashlight and flee to Mike’s side.

“Chill out, man! What are you so jumpy about?” Mike zipped up his red hoodie to protect himself against the raging mosquitos attacking his ears.

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe because we’re heading to a haunted place where the spirit drowns kids our age!” Brian threw his hands up for emphasis.

Mike grimaced and chewed his lip.

Lake Ronkonkoma used to be the territory of four Native American tribes. No history records can prove it, but legend holds that a young Setalcott princess killed herself after her lover broke her heart. Ever since her death, young men, no matter how cautious or careless, are seized by the lake, never to return to its pebbled shoreline again. While some blame the natural features of the lake, others say it’s the young princess trying to find a new lover.

“You guys seriously need to stop,” Alex snapped. “We’ve visited an asylum for Christ’s sake! It was filled with psychotic ghosts and nothing happened, right? So, keep your asses moving.”

The air was crisp with a fresh breeze that blew off the lake, yet Mike noticed moments of an iced chill that would suddenly seize him from moving. He tried to ignore the way the seductive wind gave him goosebumps, as if someone were standing close to him. Alex pushed away the underbrush, revealing a path that ended toward legendary lake of history.

The trail merged into a forsaken parking lot, cracked and overgrown with an abundance of weeds and new saplings. Exposed to the cold winds of the lake, Mike pulled his hoodie closer around his face, watching the quiet waves lap against the shore. The expanse of pelagic darkness reminded him of a slick oil spill that killed everything it touched. Years of torment from the enclosed sea had caused the parking lot erode, making it treacherous to step near the edge. The lake was filled with mysteries only the drowned understood.

“Watch it, guys. It’s pretty bad over here,” Mike warned.

Brian nodded, but Alex waved him off like a bothersome gnat. The boys focused their flashlights on the building, examining every detail of destruction. Constant flooding from the lake made the inn sag to one side, as if the building was depressed. The brick foundation was exposed, with the mortar cracked and rotting away. Dark scribbles of graffiti, either marking gang territory or tagger names, covered the exterior, leaving little history behind. Mike sighed at the destruction of a potential landmark. It looked like it would’ve been a nice place to have a good meal, and it reminded him of more Long Island history lost to vandalism.

Brian squinted in thought, worry slowly creasing his features. “Do we really have to go in there? It’s ready to fall apart.”

“Don’t worry,” Mike chuckled. “It’s not like were gonna go tearing the place up. We’ll just check it out and call it a night.”

Alex laughed. “Maybe you two won’t, but I’m going to see if anything cool got left behind.” The daring boy had a bad habit of taking “souvenirs” from each haunted location they visited. To the disgust of his two friends, Alex kept a piece of rubble from the asylum, stole a post card from Oheka Castle, and saved his sandwich wrapper from the haunted restaurant. The boys carefully treaded the old parking lot, keeping their eyes out for used heroin needles and broken bottles.

Mike sighed when they approached the front door. “It’s all boarded up, and the windows are blocked off.”

“Hell no, man.” Alex pushed passed him to look at the sign on the front door. ““Warning. This building is condemned due to mold, bacteria, and electrical hazards. Do not enter unless authorized. Pfft,” he shrugged his shoulders. “That’s never stopped us before. Let’s just break it down.”

“Why don’t we find somewhere else, guys? Do you have any idea how dangerous mold is to the lungs?” Brian whined. “You can get permanent damage!”

Alex and Mike smirked at one another, then shoved their combined weight against the boarded front door. “I think I heard it crack,” Alex muttered. “Come on, again.” The boys grunted as they threw themselves against the doors before falling inside with the sound of glass shattering.

“Are you guys okay?” Brian called out.

“Fine,” Mike groaned while rubbing his sore shoulder. “You good, Alex?”

“Yeah. Come on, Chicken Shit! Me and Mike always gotta do the dirty work.”

Brian stepped inside and started coughing. “This place reeks! Oh, God! There are dead rats all over.” He covered his mouth and started gagging.

“So, what? It smells. It’s not like were moving in,” Alex grumbled.

Mike dusted off his crimson hoodie and helped his friend off the floor. The two picked up their flashlights and surveyed the lobby in the small glimpses of light. Besides the smell, the floor was making a squishing sound underfoot, a sign of recent water damage. The place had been robbed of any last-minute valuables, leaving the walls bare and unfurnished. Chairs and tables were turned over, covered in a thick layer of dust and debris. When they passed the bar, Mike noticed that all the liquor bottles were gone or smashed on the floor, covering the cracked tile surface in a dangerous kaleidoscope of green and brown glass.  Brian warned his friends that like the parking lot, there was used needles on the ground and hidden amongst the debris, waiting for a careless victim.

The trio made their way into the main dining hall, a place once filled with memories and celebration. Now, the state of the room was beyond repair. Tables and chairs were broken or rotted by the constant flooding, and the wallpaper was peeling away like a wet scab. Above a decorative fireplace was an old hunting trophy, the head of a buck. The animal’s lifeless eyes chilled the teenagers as they passed by. It seemed to threaten their trespass, staring down with menacing horns like a conniving demon.

Mike studied the floor with careful eyes, eager to find an old newspaper clipping on the wall, or any sign of untouched history. To his dismay, there wasn’t a trace of the restaurant’s former identity, leaving the building a hollow shell of bygone days.

“All right… for my souvenir I choose—”

“Don’t take anything from here. It’s disgusting!” Brian snapped.

“Yeah, for once, I agree with Brian.” Mike nodded. “This place is nastier than the asylum,”

Alex smirked as he grabbed an empty bottle of Scotch before throwing it against the wall. Mike and Brian covered their faces as the tiny shards exploded around the room. “I’ll take this fresh piece of glass—oh, and I’ll jump in the lake! That’ll be our last memory.”

The other two boys shared a look of concern before turning to their friend. “Dude, that’s a really dumb idea,” Mike warned.

“Yeah, after all those drownings last year, you really wanna do that? Cursed or not, something is up with that lake. This place isn’t even haunted and it gives me the creeps!” Brian shivered in disgust as a rat ran by them.

“Are you guys serious? We drove an hour all the way out here and you don’t even wanna try it?”

“It’s also freezing,” Mike added.

“Pssh! Screw this! I’m going in by myself.” Alex stormed past them and climbed over the rubble out the door.

“Alex, wait!” Mike and Brian chased after their foolish companion. Once they left the abandoned inn behind, there was no sign of him until they heard a splash followed by Alex’s scream. Ignoring Mike’s previous warning about the eroded parking lot, Alex had leapt off the edge.

“What the hell!” Mike almost pulled his hair out in worry.

“It’s freezing!” Alex yelled to his friends with a daring grin plastered on his face.

“Come on! You did your challenge. Now get out of there before we have to fish you out,” Brian warned.

“All right, Mommy Chicken Shit. I’m coming.”  Alex swam toward the shore at a slow pace. Mike dipped his hand in and felt the instant sting of ice. He glanced at Alex, watching his strokes become more rigid. Before he could leave the gripping clutches of the lake, a blue hand, tinged the color of a drowned death, emerged from the depths.

Brian screamed until Mike clutched his shoulders. “Alex, stop with the prank! You’re giving us a heart attack.”

“What are you talking about?” Alex grunted as he tried to make his body move faster.

“The hand that just shot up. Did you paint your arm before jumping in?” Mike questioned.

“Guys, I feel something on my—”

Before Alex or his friends could react, the deathly fingers wrapped around his neck and pulled him below the surface. Gurgling bubbles frothed at the surface before the water stilled. Brian and Mike were couldn’t speak, believing their companion had schemed an elaborate practical joke. But when he failed to come up to the surface, they trembled in shock.

“Oh, God!” Mike clutched his stomach and heaved the contents of his early dinner while his body shook uncontrollably.

Brian’s tan skin turned pale as he contemplated his next decision. Fists shaking at his side, he met Mike’s eyes with determination. “I—I know I’ve never been brave to you guys, but I gotta try to save him.”

“Are you kidding me? I’m not letting you go in there!”

“That was our friend that we knew since we were in diapers, Mike! I gotta try.”

“No—!” Before Mike grasped his best friend’s arm, Brian leapt off the embankment and sank below the surface. Shivering from the chilled air and panic, Mike sat on the edge of the parking lot, waiting for the nightmare to be over. He tried to reason that his friends were okay, that this was all a crazy dream. Mute with fear, he sat at the edge of the crumbling parking lot, silently waiting, hoping for a sign of life. He checked his watch and realized he had been waiting for an hour. As he ran down the sandy path to get help, his head was filled with the awful sound of a woman chanting.

.~.

“Now look, son…I know your friends are missing. I know you’re scared. But you guys were foolin’ around and they’re just pulling a prank on you. I’m sure they’ll call or text tomorrow.”

Mike squinted at the policemen who hovered over him at the station’s questioning room. After exploring the vast outdoors for so long, the room, filled with three other large men, felt like a stifling closet. The small lamp hovered over him, shining its fluorescent beam as if he was the predator who caused his friend’s disappearance. He knew they were suspecting this was a prank or Mike was involved in something shady, but he had to remain calm and rational.

“Tell us what happened again, son.” The first officer asked. Another officer, a larger, heavyset man who breathed out of his mouth, flipped open his notebook.

“My friends and I went to the Bavarian Inn to have a little fun. We’ve been exploring haunted locations all over the island, like a senior scavenger hunt. We… broke in, looked around, and then my friend Alex jumped into the lake. A hand—or something— came out of nowhere and pulled him under. My other friend Brian went in after him, but they didn’t come back up!”

“I see. Now do you realize that trespassing is a serious offense?”

Mike gritted his jaw and looked away from the officer’s intense stare. “Yes, but you’re missing the point here. My friends are gone! Please, you gotta help me out. I know what we did was against the law, but I’m telling you, something happened to them.”

“And you said the thing that took them was a…hand? Like the hand of a person?” The officers in the room looked at Mike like he had imagined all of this, and it aggravated him to no end. He had been in the small room for over an hour, and they were in no rush to leave.

  “I know what I saw! I’m not crazy! My friends got taken by this thing! There’s a dangerous creature in that lake, and it’s going to kill someone else if it isn’t stopped.”

“Are you on drugs, kid?  Come on, now. Be honest. You won’t get in trouble unless you have something on you.”

“Oh, for the love of God!” Mike pulled up his sweatshirt sleeves to show the officers he was clean of needle marks.

“You know that old inn is a place for drug addicts to get their fix, right?”

“I’m not on drugs—!”

“Quiet! I’m sick of this nonsense,” an officer barked. “This is obviously some stupid teenage prank. Everyone in this room knows the legend of the Lake Ronkonkoma princess and how she supposedly drowns young men every summer. It’s a silly story to prevent children from drifting off while swimming. Now go home. If your friends don’t return in forty-eight hours, we’ll put out a missing person search on the lake. Got it?”

Mike was escorted out of the building, fighting back tears of grief. Both of his friends did something stupid, and now he would pay for it with looks of suspicion and emotional pain. He slammed the door of his aging car and turned the key in the ignition. The engine sputtered to life, encouraging his next move. He didn’t even think about the lake but automatically sped toward its direction. Other cars laid on their horns as he headed down the streets with carelessness, speeding through red lights and barely stopping for traffic signs. Once he found the path that led to the Bavarian Inn, he ran down the trail without a care if beetles or mosquitos made a nest in his hair.

Mike grabbed a crushed coke can and hurled it at the lake.

“You stupid bitch! Give them back!” He scoured the lot for bottles until the lake bed was covered in fresh debris. Weak and distraught, Mike fell to his knees and sobbed for his friends. He stared at the lake, still in disbelief after what he witnessed.

The distant beat of warm drums reverberated throughout the woods, softly at first, then grew louder until Mike felt each pound against his chest. Glowing lights ran back and forth, darting amongst the trees and using the shadows to trick him. Mike spun around as each light caught his eye, and he desperately tried to follow their pattern of movement. War cries shrieked in the night, as one after another, the spirits called to their leader.

And then she showed herself.

The Setalcott princess of legend rose of out her watery grave and stood upon the lapping waves. Her deerskin dress was soaked and torn, while her dark locks hung in wet tendrils down her back. She was beautiful but corrupted by death. Her flesh had melted away in some parts with bone sticking through the wounds. A blue ethereal glow enshrouded the girl as she rose her death-tinged hands and called upon a wind. She sent her energy forward.

Mike grabbed his chest and fell to the ground. He never felt such grief, even when his friends had vanished. The agonizing emotions toiled at his soul, ripping it to shreds until there was nothing left to keep him alive. Sorrow made his throat close, and he was desperate to keep the pain away, but it intensified until he screamed with anguish. Desperate to free himself, Mike dove into the lake where the lady of the lake was waiting.

 

.~.

Chepi

Home; it used to be a warm bed surrounded by those who loved me. I remember my father’s smile, filled with pride at his beautiful daughter. I remember the scent of wood smoke, and the songs of my people as they danced around a roaring fire.

  Now, it is at the bottom of this sacred lake surrounded by the bones of mortal men. Hugh’s body rests on land, but I keep his ring as a reminder of what happened. Love made me a foolish girl, but death made me wise. The moment Manitou touched my soul and sent me back to this lake, I knew that no mortal man would ever enjoy my home, my resting place. I would hurt them the way Hugh hurt me.

The first boy was an arrogant fool, and the next just a small meal. The last one desecrated my sacred ground with his rubbish. A small object had drifted down with a stream of bubbles pouring out, like my last victim’s final breath. I snarled like a wild beast, then snatched it off the heap of bones that were piled next to me. I traced the strange language with the tip of my nail. It smelled of a vial liquid and I threw it down in disgust. He threw more rubbish, and I could feel his hate seething through every motion. This lake used to be sacred, revered for its bountiful blessings.

They knew the lake was dangerous.

They were all warned.

I felt my face cracking slowly into a smile, my mouth watering with delight. He screamed as blood pooled and bloomed, creating a delicious-scented red fog.

I kissed his lips once, then pulled him down and began my feast. There is still plenty of marrow left in these fresh bones beside me, but I will save them for later.

Manitou tells me this summer will be plentiful with harvest.