Most people who remember the Loksmer Valley sisters think that there were always two of them, up at the Big House. Twins. But I remember back when there was only Anna.
Anna Woodway had skin the colour of cream and thick dark hair, and she came to church every Sunday to sit between her parents in the Big House pew at the front of the aisle, just below the pulpit where my father held forth behind his hour-glass. I would watch her sideways from my place in the choir. Sitting between her parents in her frothy dress, her hands in white kid gloves folded in her lap, she looked like a porcelain doll. When she turned to the side, though, you could see that her nose stuck out, hooked and sharp as a bird’s beak, or a profile on an old Roman coin. I thought it was splendid.
On sunny Sundays, as the service wore on, the congregation sighed and rustled, and the sun rose above the yew trees in the churchyard, a quivering beam of light, dyed red and green and blue by the fragments of medieval stained glass set in the chancel window, would slowly creep across her body. By the time the grown-ups shuffled up the aisle to take communion, Anna would be glowing as if lit from within by a heap of jewels.
Sitting on either side of Anna, Mr and Mrs Woodway looked like dolls as well; the tall carved wooden kind, with hinged mouths. Even back then I knew that that Anna should have been a boy, and that Mrs Woodway’s failure to produce a brother for her in the ten years since her birth made the villagers treat the Woodways with a kind of resentful pity. They were resentful because there had always been Woodways in the Big House. By failing to provide a son and heir for the village, Mr and Mrs Woodway were letting down the village and the valley.
Worst of all, Mr Woodway had bold new ideas for the valley: ideas which grew bolder and newer with every year that passed without a son and heir. He wanted to rebuild the water-mill to the latest design, or plant sugar beet in the Lee Field, or blast a passage through the valley side and let in a branch-line railway. Nothing ever came of these plans, except stacks of paper which my father would bring back from the Big House and tut over, gnawing his lip. But the village resented them nonetheless, and they resented particularly that it was Mrs Woodway’s neat writing all over the plans; that it was she who came down from the Big House to talk seriously at the farmers about crop yields and hedge-building. They nodded at her and sent her away; nothing changed. But the village remembered.
The summer I was nine, I remember that the Corn Doll who was thrown into Loksmer Lake every Lammastide was given great looped plaits piled up on her head like Mrs Woodway. The village was losing patience with the Woodways, and from the look of them as they sat in their special pew, they knew it.
‘It’s hard on the girl,’ my mother said sometimes. But Anna Woodway never looked like she cared. Sitting at the front of the church, the village staring or praying or gently snoring at her back, her face slowly turning red and blue and green, she didn’t look bored or sad or guilty. She looked furious.
When I first met Anna outside church, on Loksmer Lake, I hardly recognised her. She had drawn up a little rowing boat in a shallow inlet, where a small stream trickled down through the trees to join the lake, and she was wading through the water with her skirts held high above her bare knees. The lake around her was dark with the black-green reflections of tall trees, and when she stopped and the water stilled, I could see two Annas, one above and one, whitish and wavering, in the water below.
I was clinging to the side of the little gorge where the stream came down, half wedged behind a bulging sycamore root. Anna did not see me at first; she was murmuring gently under her breath, as if she was talking to the girl in the lake. I did not know, myself, how long she had been there. It was almost summer, and the air under the flowering sycamores was drowsy and thick with pollen. Films of midges drifted above the water.
When Anna saw me, she did not seem surprised. “What are you doing up there, Robert Thirsk?” she asked.
“Collecting fossils,” I said. “Miss Woodway.” I was horribly aware that we had not been properly introduced, and that Anna was in a quite unsuitable state of undress.
“Fossils. Ancient creatures turned to stone.”
“I know what fossils are,” said Anna. She beckoned imperiously. “Come on. Show me.”
The fossils in question were mostly smooth bivalves like fat blonde mussel shells; you could pick them out of the valley’s soft pale limestone like plums from a pudding. I clambered down, a little awkwardly, to the lake’s muddy shore, and held out my handful for Anna’s inspection.
“The valley was once a sea,” she said softly, peering down at the stone shells. Then she looked sharply up at me. “Robert Thirsk,” she said, “are you aware that you are trespassing? The grounds of Woodways Hall don’t end for another fifty yards or so.”
I knew this perfectly well, since I’d climbed over the wall of the Big House grounds to reach my favourite places for fossil-hunting. “I’m sorry,” I said hastily. “I didn’t know.”
“It’s of no consequence,” said Anna grandly. “You can make it up to me by showing me where you find the best fossils.” She paused. “Unless you would rather I tell my parents?”
“I’d rather not,” I said. “I’ll show you the places.”
“Good,” said Anna. She looked back at her little rowing boat. “We can search the lakeside from the water, as well, I should think,” she said. “Come on. It isn’t that deep.”
So it was that I waded gingerly after the daughter of the Big House into Loksmer lake, and spent an afternoon getting both wet and muddy as we chipped and tugged at recalcitrant fossils wherever the stone bones of the valley showed through its rich soil.
It was the most fun I'd had with someone my own age for as long as I could remember.
After that day, I met Anna as often as I could. I soon realised that she knew the woods that lined the valley far better than did I: in all likelihood, she had never needed me to show her where to find fossils, or birds' nests, or any of the other little pretexts she thought up in the first months of our acquaintance. I believe, rather, that she was lonely. There was a governess, of course, whose name I never learned, and the staff of the Big House, who were, I knew, not fond of Anna. Naturally, I assumed that it was out of the question for her to play with the village children. And through all that long summer and the autumn and winter after it, while the woods grew rich with rot and rimed with frost, Anna never mentioned her parents. It did not seem to me as though she saw them often.
She did talk, though, every so often, about her invisible friend. She called her Lucy.
At the time, I was embarrassed by her childishness.
Time moved slowly in Loksmer Valley. When the New Calendar was brought in, it took almost a hundred years before the valley deigned to adopt it, and another fifty years before the villagers stopped baking their New Year barley cakes in March.
Coming down into the valley from the hills in summer was like stepping into a bath of milk. Milk and honey, as my father used to say. The air was rich and sour with green growing things, fuzzy with the sound of flies and bees. The great trees of the Home Wood rose over your head, and the far side of the valley rose up before you like a green wave about to break. Smoke rose from the village, a huddle of thatched roofs clustering around the grey stone bulk of the church, and drifted along the valley floor, over the orchards and fields of golden wheat.
Beyond the fields lay Loksmer Lake, flat and green and silent, the trees coming down to its edge on both sides so that it was stitched into the valley by mazy half-reflected loops of roots. Many streams ran into Loksmer Lake, but none ran out of it. Those who thought about such things said that the water must drain away somewhere underground, through the same network of caves which riddled the high hills and the sides of the valley. Beyond the lake, sunk into the trees so that only its cupolas and tall chimneys, or the odd flash from one of its many windows, showed from afar, was the Big House. Woodways Hall.
Everything in Loksmer Valley grew just a little bigger, a little riper, a little sweeter, than it did elsewhere. Our apples were heavier and glossier and heady as wine. Our wheat ripened earlier and its grains were larger than the same strains grown elsewhere. I know this for a fact: as a young man, down from the University for the long vacation, I weighed and measured and compared, apple for apple, grain for grain. Our kitchen table in the rectory looked like a still life, complete with calipers. Anna laughed at me then, though her sister did not.
Back then, I could not have told you how and why. I only knew that the valley’s white cattle never sickened, and that the milk they gave was almost cream. In spring, our fields and hedgerows bulged and swelled with white-pink blossom – apple and cherry, and thick May – until the air was sodden with their sweet rank scent. The villagers grew up strong and healthy, with pink cheeks and hair the colour of ripe corn, although outsiders who married in were, often as not, taken by the ague.
The ague took our people too, every few years: the very young and very old. It came in spring: every few years there would be a rash of new burials in the churchyard, and raw new coffins carried shoulder high under the flowering chestnuts by the village green, through the old lychgate, and under the dusty shade cast by the yews. When someone died who was important enough to be buried in the church, we burned more incense for the next few Sundays. The air inside the church would smell a little damp and sweet, like May blossom mixed with the scent of Loksmer Lake. A green smell, but a sickly kind of green.
One spring, however, the year after I first met Anna in the lake, the ague came and did not go. The chestnut blossoms rose like thick white tapers from the trees, then browned and guttered and went out. The woods thickened and darkened, into deep summer green. And still people were sickening, and coffins coming down the path under the trees. People were whispering, too, standing with pale faces around the village pump, or sitting on the bench outside the ale house, slapping the wood and nodding to each other as they talked. They talked in church as well, between the hymns. Snatches of whispered conversation hung in the air in between the rustle of prayer books and the shuffle of feet as the congregation rose to sing. Even I knew what they were talking about, and if I had not, the pale set faces of the Woodways would have left me in no doubt.
The week of Lammastide, the Woodways did not come to church. They were sick, came the word from the Big House. Both of them.
I did not dare ask after Anna. Instead, I set off one morning along the village street, with almost half its houses shuttered, their door-knockers muffled with black cloth, and made my way down past the mill and through the fields to where the road led along the side of the valley, above the still and silent lake. The trees hummed overhead: beeches above me on the high slopes; oak and ash and sycamore lining the road. Willow and hazel, alder and sallow, down by the water’s edge. Wood pigeons cooed and lilted in the trees. The ground was thick with bracken; brambles; enchanter’s nightshade and dog's mercury. Where streams came down, the road hopping across them in little bridges, the wet rock of their cuttings was lined with ferns and hartstongue; moss and liverwort; a scrim of spongy green. The air was spongy too, around me, thick and hot and wet. The tall trees swayed like ropes of weed within an ancient sea.
“There was a sea here yesterday,” said Anna. She was before me in the road. Or was it Anna? There were, I noticed, two of her.
“I’m glad you’re well,” I tried to say. For some reason, I was sitting down. I felt cold all of a sudden, although I knew the sea was warm.
“Not him as well,” said Anna urgently. She was, I noticed, wearing a black dress. “I’ll give you something else for him.”
“You’re very eager to bargain,” said the girl at her side. “If only your father had been this amenable.” She smiled sideways at Anna, and I thought of stone shark teeth hidden in the rocks. “He might yet recover on his own account, after all.”
“Not him,” Anna repeated.
I remember, even in my fever, I was touched. I looked up through some glassy depths of cold-warm water to the two girls standing before me in the road. They were holding hands. All of a sudden, it seemed to me as if I understood. I had been rather rude, I vaguely thought. “Good morning, Lucy,” I told the girl who was not Anna. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“Likewise, I’m sure,” said the girl. She fixed me with her sharp-toothed smile, rather as if I was a curious kind of fossil, half-buried in the rock. “Very well, sister,” she said. “Not him.”
When I was well again, the village all around me had recovered. The valley lay outstretched in harvest green and gold, with poppies spotting the ripe fields of wheat with red in spreading blotches. The Woodways, Mr and Mrs, were buried in the chancel, under a lavishly-engraved new tomb.
I was just well enough to come to the service, in the sweet-sickly smelling church. The village came, of course, in their best blacks, and the twin Woodways sisters sat in their pew together, holding hand.
A blessing that they have each other, people said. Poor little mites.
After the service, the girls stood at the door of the church, under the old Norman arch carved all in zig-zags like an open mouth. They did look very like each other, although Lucy’s hair, like mine and that of most inhabitants of the village, was pale yellow as summer corn.
“I’m very pleased to see you on your feet, Bob Thirsk,” said Lucy.
“It’s Robert,” I said. “I’m sorry for your loss.” I looked at Anna. She did not look as I imagined I would do, if my parents had died. She was still holding Lucy’s hand. For a moment, I wondered if I had ever known her at all, even a little bit. Her nose was sharp as a raven’s beak; by now I knew that this was not how girls should look. Lucy’s was as well, of course. I remembered Anna, in the lake, talking to something. Under the trees. Not him. “Thank you,” I told her. At the time, I meant it most sincerely.
She blinked up at me, surprised. Her eyes flicked from me to Lucy. She seemed about to ask me what I knew, but half the village was waiting behind me in the shadowy church. “You’re quite welcome,” she said at length.
Though I did not know it at the time, that was to be the last we spoke on the subject for a while. “I’m sorry for your loss,” I said again. Lucy gave me a small and secret smile.
No more people in the valley died of the ague. That autumn, we had the best harvest any of us could remember.
The next harvest was even better. And the next. Outsiders sometimes sickened, but the ague passed us locals over for one year, then two, then three. The fields heaved, fat with grain. The woods glowed green and hummed with bees and flies.
No more was said of railways, or a new mill, or fields of sugar beet. Nothing was said concerning any obstacle to Anna’s inheritance of the Big House and the valley. The matter of her sex lay quite forgotten, as if dropped soundlessly into the centre of the lake.
The villagers wove cornflowers and poppies through the Corn Doll’s hair at Lammastide; when it was drowned in Loksmer Lake, they floated like bright jewels upon the water.
The Locksmer sisters went through governess after governess; companion after companion. None of their chaperones stayed long. They grew up wild. And I grew up with them.
Now that I could come to the house, we chased each other through the bright kitchen gardens; through the shrubbery planted by Anna’s great-grandfather; under the cedars and swamp cypress shipped in from foreign lands. We whipped through the stands of bamboo Anna’s mother had planted, which grew tall and whispering as weeds in ancient seas. We lost each other in the maze clipped out of box by some ambitious Woodway in the sixteenth century, and when it rained we tumbled, dripping, through the doors and left wet paths along the polished oaken boards.
I had almost forgotten, by then, that there had ever been a time before Lucy came.
Once, when I was laying out my specimen boxes on the library table, carefully nestling fossils and arrowheads and delicate blown birds’ eggs in cotton wool, I felt Lucy watching me over my shoulder.
“Is this all right?” I asked. “Do you mind?” I knew I was not only talking about my use of the library, though I could not have said precisely what it was I meant.
“Of course it is,” said Anna. She was leaning in the doorway, watching us both. “Woodways is mine. I have no objection to you grubbing up old flints and fossils in the grounds.”
Lucy pursed her lips and picked up an arrowhead. You could pick them up from the fields after ploughing, or, sometimes, find them up under the beech trees where the valley slopes were broken up and hummocky. “I don't mind," she said. "There’s plenty more where all this came from. There’ll be more eggs, and more men. There always are.”
“More seashells?” asked Anna, coming forwards and picking up a fossil. She sounded teasing: often the twins needled each other in ways I could not really understand.
“Perhaps,” said Lucy. “Why not?”
Anna carefully slotted the fossil shell back into its place. “Why not indeed,” she said. “I suppose we’ll find out.”
“We’ll find out?” asked Lucy. “You have a high opinion of yourself, sister. Our bargain was for whatever you valued most of all, I thought.”
“I value myself very highly, sister,” said Anna, tossing her black hair. “The Mistress of Woodways Hall is very valuable.”
Lucy laughed. There was a lot of laughter in the valley, in those days.
I should have liked, of course, to study Natural Sciences. As I have said, I came home every holiday from University and continued my studies of the valley, my records of its flora and its fauna, its unique climate and the unplumbed depths of Loksmer Lake.
There was, however, never any question but that I would study Divinity and, in due course, return ordained and adult to the valley, to take up a post as my father’s curate; the vicar of Loksmer in all but name. The benefice, of course, was in the Woodways’ gift.
When I came back for good to Loksmer Valley, I sank back into village life with barely a ripple. This despite the understanding, firm for years, that despite the difference in our stations, Anna and I were to be wed. I can only imagine the scandal caused by the mistress of Woodways Hall marrying the local curate: most likely it kept county society for miles around occupied for weeks. I knew obscurely that in the normal course of things, the villagers would have turned an ugly eye on such a thing. But as it was, this was another thing that dropped, unnoticed, out of the minds of ordinary men. I found it hard to think of it myself as strange.
“You’re lucky I like you, sweet Rob,” Lucy once told me. We were standing in the rose garden, watching as Anna picked great swags of blowsy flowers, cream and pink and red. My ring was already upon Anna’s finger: we were to be married in June.
“It’s Robert,” I said distractedly. Anna amongst the roses was a lovely sight.
“You’re lucky she likes you too,” said Lucy. “You’re lucky I like her best of all.”
“You are her sister,” I said. Suddenly struck, I turned to her in earnest. “I shall not be taking Anna away from you, Lucy,” I told her. “Things will be just as they always have been, here at Woodways Hall.” I still had to make an effort to stop myself from calling it the Big House.
“I should hope so,” said Lucy, dimpling at me in obscure amusement. “Anna and I would not have it otherwise, you know.” She squeezed my arm. “Anna is the best Woodways I’ve met, oh, since arrowheads,” she said. “Do not fear, Bobby. I shall not let her go so easily.”
“We are sisters, after all,” said Anna, a little wryly, coming up with a basket of roses on her arm. “Look,” she said. “I’ve pricked myself.”
“One for sorrow, two for joy,” said Lucy, nipping at the ball of her thumb and darting forwards to press the little wound against Anna’s finger, where a fat bead of blood welled up. “Blood sisters.”
“That’s revolting,” I observed, with a certain amount of resignation. The Loksmer sisters, in my long experience, often were revolting. “And the rhyme is for magpies.”
“Three for a girl,” said Anna, flashing Lucy a sharp smile.
“Well,” said Lucy, licking blood off her thumb. “If you insist.”
Our daughter was born the next year, after we had been married almost ten months. She was as healthy as all the babies born in Loksmer Valley were in those days, with Anna’s dark hair and my blue eyes. We called her Belinda.
She was born in early spring, just as the primroses were spangling the churchyard and dog violets and ground ivy were colouring the floor of the wood with splashes of purple. Belinda was a cheerful, complacent child, a great comfort to me when, later that same year, my dear father died and was buried out under the yew trees.
I took up his post, naturally. The villagers turned their pink and healthy faces up towards me in the pulpit like so many cottage sweet-peas, following the sun. The Loksmer sisters watched me from their pew, their solemn faces in their Sunday bonnets turning jewel-coloured with sunlight through stained glass.
I must admit that, when the grief had passed, I rather enjoyed being in charge of my own small domain. I had the church organ repaired, and even stripped a little of the whitewash from the north wall of the church, where a little had already cracked and peeled away, revealing a wall-painting which, I hoped, would be of no small antiquarian interest. Alas, on examination, the paintings thus revealed were, if undeniably ancient, too undeniably un-Christian in conception to be entirely wholesome for my flock. I made a copy - amateurish at best - of their depiction of a lake, a temple, and a thing with teeth, and then had them whitewashed over again before they could be widely seen.
I soothed my frustration by commissioning new stained glass. Since the rigours of the interregnum had touched upon Loksmer Valley, bringing Cromwell’s men into our church to do their worst, only the shattered remnants of our once-fine stained-glass windows had remained. Behind the altar, there was nothing in the east windows but plain glass.
Here, I will acknowledge that, a proud young husband, I indulged myself. Faced with the unwelcome certainty that the dedicatee of our church, St Loksmer, was apocryphal at best, I filled the windows with, one on side, St Lucy, and on the other St Anna, the little Holy Virgin on her knee. My wife and her dear sister were indeed the models: something that I do, now, have reason to regret.
The windows, though, were very fine. Now, when the sun was right, the whole east end lay bathed in many-coloured light. From their front pew, Lucy and Anna looked past me to their doubles; around them, the congregation sat in low whispering rows, content.
Anna and I had no more children, but - given the church windows, in particular - it was a little mortifying when Lucy found herself, as my mother put it, in the family way. Not, perhaps, quite as mortifying as it should have been, true. I could not bring myself to think too harshly - or even too much - about her indiscretion. It was another oddness that was swallowed down; blurred into Loksmer Valley’s richness like a fly churned into butter, or a small drop of blood stirred into milk.
Both mother and child, at least, were healthy. Lucy would give no hint as to the father of her little son, although as he grew up he had the valley’s wheat-fair colouring. Nor would she say more when another boy-child followed, some years later, and then a daughter, all as fair and fat as any Loksmer baby. I used to look out, across the congregation of a Sunday, and wonder which tall village lad might be to blame. Tom Spittal? Adam Wainwright? Ned Brown, or his broad cousin Arnold from the mill? As far as I knew, Lucy never left the valley. The sainted Lucy in the window at my back, depicted as is customary holding the symbol of her martyrdom, her eyes, before her in a dish, looked out as well with her strange doubled sight. But neither of us ever found our man.
Once, walking with Lucy by the lake, I did attempt to broach the question. “I know,” I said, “that many things are difficult, perhaps, for women. Difficult to say, that is.”
Lucy looked up at me. “I wouldn’t really know,” she said. “I haven’t been one for very long. It’s only that dear Anna wanted a sister, and I was bored. And angry, of course. The railway, you know.”
It was clear to me that I had been, perhaps, too delicate. “I think you did not take my meaning, dearest Lucy,” I expostulated. “I meant to say, that, should your little ones ever need a father - ”
“Oh,” said Lucy. “Please don’t concern yourself, sweet Rob. I’m sure you’ll do very well.”
At our feet, in the water, our reflections swayed. Behind us, in the gardens, I could hear the children playing.
When I told Anna, later, what her sister had said, she laughed. A sharper laugh than when we all were young. “She takes what she wants, does my sister,” she said. “I knew it when I found her, after all.”
“When you found her?” I asked. There was an ache behind my temples, as if I’d spent too long swimming underwater.
Anna glanced at me, a little sadly. “When I was just a little girl,” she said, “I found her in the lake.”
“Like I found you,” I said softly.
“A little like that, I suppose. I was a lonesome little thing, you know. I used to talk to my reflection in the water, and one day she talked back. She’s had an agreement of sorts with the Woodways for some time now, you understand. With all of Loksmer Valley, in a way.
"I don't suppose,” she asked me, "that you've ever heard the stories of old Jenny Greenteeth? She lurks under duckweed in ponds, you know. Pulls children under, when she pleases."
I raised a hand to my throbbing temples, as if I could press away the pain. Anna reached up and cupped my cheek. “Don’t worry, Robert,” she told me. “Let it go.”
She sounded, I thought vaguely, a little like her sister.
Anna was always kind to Lucy’s children. Nevertheless, when they were old enough, to my entire surprise, she sent them, one by one, away. To school, she said. It hurt me, I’ll confess, to see them go.
It was the first breach I had seen between the sisters.
Lucy did not protest outright, but their relations cooled. We did not sit together any longer in the garden, drinking sweet wine and eating bread and cream. Both sisters walked the woods; Lucy almost as if she was out searching for her children. I thought they would return, myself: I lived in daily expectation. But, as with so many things, the valley closed up over their absence like fresh skin across a wound.
“They’ve gone to where their mother came from,” was all Anna would tell me. “My sister dear can only take so much.”
“She came from here,” I said. “Here in the valley.”
“Precisely,” Anna said. She saw my face then, maybe. Saw how I remembered playing with them in the garden; chasing them through the maze. Turning the corner round the tall box hedge, on a summer’s evening, and finding Anna - or was it Lucy? Hearing their voices, calling across the lake. “I can’t trust them,” Anna told me. “There’s too much of their mother in them. Don’t worry,” she said. “They are where they belong. Quite well.”
I heard a sound then, I believe, like stiff silk skirts rustling around the corner. But my head was hurting by then; my thoughts were slippery. I let Lucy - if indeed it was she - slip away.
The children never came, although I sometimes thought I heard them calling, by the lake.
Lucy grew stranger after her children left. Once, as I bent over my drawers of fossils, flints, and perfect hollow eggs, I felt a little coldness at my nape. I spun around.
Lucy, laughing, held up a lock of my still-golden hair. “A keepsake, sweet Robert,” she told me.
“You might have asked,” I said. For some reason Lucy, holding out my hair as her namesake in the church window held out a plate of eyes, sent a long clammy shiver up my spine. For the first time in years, I seemed to see her standing in a road, trees swaying overhead, and Anna at her side saying something in a small, heavy voice. What was it that she said? Not him?
My solace in those years was dear Belinda. She felt her siblings’ loss as keenly as I did myself, and like myself she could not get an answer from the sisters. We’d watch Anna and Lucy walking in the gardens, not hand in hand these days, but heads bowed, whispering together. We were united by their secrets. By their lies.
Despite all this, Belinda grew up more happy than not: a bright, enquiring child. We tramped the woods and caves, and dug for fossils; gleaned the ploughed fields for flint scrapers and arrowheads, and once, a handaxe of black flint, the edge still sharp. There were as many gorgeous speckled eggs waiting in nests as when I was a boy, when I and her mother climbed tall trees together. Rooks still rose in great skirling black-swirled flights from the high woods at evening, and wild strawberries still grew beside the road. The chestnut trees still lit their heavy candles every May, and hawthorn trees still hunkered, hunched under their blossom, in the fields. The valley opened for Belinda like a lake of milk, like honey, like the shade under green trees.
There was, of course, no question of the Church. Nor could Belinda, when she was of age, attend my old college - something that I, at least, felt keenly. There was no obstacle, however, to her taking up the study of Natural Sciences at a woman’s college which, I was assured, was quite respectable, and limited in its ambitions only in deference to the particular talents of the fairer sex.
Before she left, it was my turn to watch Belinda and her mother walking in the gardens, picking armfuls of flowers as they went. What they talked of, I cannot know. After a while, I lost sight of them in the gathering dusk.
Belinda came back from University with new clothes; new hair. She had studied for half a term before changing her studies to, of all things, Engineering - the only girl in all her year to take the course. She returned, eyes gleaming, talking of a new village school. A village hospital. New buildings for the mill. A branch line from the local railway, brought on a tunnel through the hill.
“The rock here’s soft, I know,” she said. “But not too soft. It could be done. It just needs money, and the will to change and try new ways. This family could have both.”
“I see,” said Lucy. We were sitting in the garden, the air sweet with the smell of fresh-cut grass. It was the start of summer; above the towering trees, the sky was blue. “I see,” said Lucy again. She fingered the four little lockets she wore at her neck, and for a moment, in the hazy air, she did not look anything at all like Anna, or her children, or indeed much like a woman, or a man.
“You see nothing, sister,” snapped Anna. “You see a silly girl building castles in the air, that’s all.”
It was the worst thing, in some ways, she could have said. I do not believe Belinda ever quite forgave her mother, though I can be quite certain that her sin, in the end, was nothing like so grave as mine.
As summer wore on - that long, rich summer - Belinda filled the house with plots and plans. Crates of new books arrived, rattling down into the valley and along the road beside the still green waters of the lake. My student hobbies looked, in comparison, every bit the genteel dabblings which, I suppose, is all that they had ever been. Anna tried talking to her daughter - they had the flaming arguments to prove it. Perhaps, I wonder now, if either one of us had tried to tell her of the summer of the ague; the smell of death under the chestnut trees, and Lucy standing in the road under the wood ... but it was hard for me, at least, to bring those things to mind. And had her mother tried, Belinda would have drawn up new plans for the village hospital, and talked of quinine, of carbolic and of drops of opium. I know she talked, just once in passing, of draining the lake.
That summer, we did not see Lucy at all.
Making the Corn Doll and processing with it to the lake was village business: something on which the vicar was expected to turn an indulgent eye. Every year, in the first belling heat of August, throwing up clouds of dust from the dry roads and fields, the villagers would beat the valley's bounds, then, yelling and playing on the pipes and drums, carry the Corn Doll, dressed with ropes of flowers, shoulder-high down to the lake.
That Lammas-morning, though, I woke up not in my bed but standing almost thigh-deep in the lake, my nightshirt floating out around me on the smooth black water.
Lucy was there, curling my lock of hair around her finger. I think, as well, I may have heard the voices of her dear lost children. My dear lost children, I could almost say. I looked down at the dark water, and Lucy looked up at me. Blood only goes so far, sweet Rob, I heard her say. My sister promised the old ways would stay.
I can remember very little of the day that followed. Only the fierce hot joy of weaving stiff straw into shape beneath the burning sun; the villagers around me, joking as they never did in church. It was a long time since I’d last worked with my hands; since I’d last prised a shell out of the rock, or reached out for a rare and special egg along a nodding branch. I did not think of the two Loksmer sisters. I did not think, even, of their children. I was happier, perhaps, than I had been in years.
Hefting the Corn Doll towards the lake, hearing the pipe music skirl up like crows from a dark wood, that happiness shot through me like light through coloured glass. As, every Sunday, my bowed, obedient, clerical back must have been lit up by the sunlight, stretched and coloured blue and green and red, transformed as it streamed in through the two sisters, St Anna and St Lucy. And on St Anna’s lap, her little child.
As we grew near the lake, the bonfire by the shore already burning, I should have brought those paintings in the church to mind. The fire, the lake, the temple. The thing not like a woman or a man, which grinned with great green teeth. But, of course, I’d had those whitewashed over. And in any case, I thought I heard my children’s voice again, calling quite near me, as if from across the lake.
I hardly even noticed when we heaved the Corn Doll into the water. It was the custom, every year, to weight the corn with stones. This year, the Doll sank quickly; quietly.
I only knew what I had done when Anna in her little boat came with her mouth set in a kind of silent scream, and, swimming down where some battered flowers rested on the water, dragged up our daughter to the bank, quite still and cold, with muddy flowers twisted in her long fair hair.
I do not know what Lucy imagined we would do, after that summer. Perhaps she thought Belinda’s death would make her strong enough to fend off all comers, even the march of time and engines; even dynamite. She is, after all, an old thing, set perhaps in her ways. In its ways, I should say, I suppose.
Certainly, when we did not dispose of Belinda’s documents and plans, the ague came back. Anna dosed the whole village up with quinine and kept going. She moved through Woodways Hall like a raven across a battlefield, tugging with her sharp beak at places where there had once been pain. The valley stilled and smalled around us. The trees grew deeper green and closed on in; we no longer walked the woods, or went beside the lake.
I buried Belinda in the churchyard, under the yews. Anna hired men to survey our cave systems, and drained the lake.
We did not watch the villagers, as they lined up on the lakeshore and saw the water go. Slowly at first, as it fed through its new course; as it met makeshift locks and drained, beyond the hills, into the nearest river. Then faster and a little faster, leaving a heaving bed of fat black mud, inlaid with silver fish, flopping and jerking in the open air. The smell was terrible; a damp rank sweetness, thick as May blossom or corpses, foul as rotting fish.
At the bottom of the lake, half-sunk in mud, there was a ring of stones, tall as a man. None of the experts Anna brought in would hazard even so much as a guess at their age. As old as arrowheads, perhaps? Or older; as old as vanished seas.
One night, Woodways Hall shook around us, as if the valley itself was giving way.
By the thin light of morning, we saw that this was not far from the case; the lake bed had folded inwards around the stone circle, closing off the new outlet Anna’s dynamite had made.
The lake began to fill.
Still, it was too late for the valley. That year the wheat grew grey with mildew in the fields; apples and cherries rotted on the trees. The great white valley cows gave milk like whey. In spring, the blossoms grew in doubled, twisted, wrongly made. Children grew pale and did not thrive; young women had their courses stop. Old men and women spat bloody phlegm in the streets when I walked by.
The villagers began to pack and leave. I was not sad to see them go; although I told myself that they, like I, had seen nothing but hanks of corn. That they had not heard or seen my daughter, when we dressed her up with flowers and hung her round with stones, and carried her down to the summer-warm waters of Loksmer Lake. She joined her siblings, I suppose. But, unlike them, she could not make the lake her home.
I tried not to hold the villagers to blame, but in my heart of hearts, I hated them. I rejoiced as each Sunday my congregation dwindled, as families heaped all their worldly goods on wagons and creaked off up the steep road under the trees.
The lake kept filling. I do not remember when it was that it passed its original bounds; when the churchyard first began to squelch and smell; the church (empty now, of a Sunday), to send greasy, blackish water oozing up around its flagstones as you walked the aisle.
It took a while to reach the house. When it did, you could open the cellar door on dark still water, climbing inch by inch. The floorboards warped and swelled, and then submerged. The curtains clogged with mould. On windless days, the cupolas and balustrades; even the strapwork border round the doorway, were reflected quite perfectly before the house. A double Woodways Hall, half upside-down, nodding to its opposite as if in dance. The trees were doubled too, growing as if rooted straight in the still shining water. For just a little while, the valley was beautiful again; a fairyland.
But even before then, and worst of all, my Anna missed her sister. She always had been lonely in a way I could not cure.
When I packed up my drawers of specimens, my books of measurements in boyish handwriting, my clothes and drawing tools, Anna stayed sitting by the window, looking out. She was waiting, I know, for her reflection to come.
I left a boat for her, when I rowed away. I'd begged; I'd cried. But when it came to it, perhaps Anna did value herself, or the valley, most of all. At any rate, in the end, the water took them both.
I am an old man now; young people come and sit with me, and feed me biscuits and weak tea, and ask me what kind of things I still remember concerning Loksmer Valley, long since drowned. They are collecting me, I know - packing my memories, blown clean and hollow, away in cotton wool, wax cylinders full of my recorded voice.
I tell them what I can. I tell them, just a little, about Lucy: it would seem strange if I tried to pretend away one Loksmer twin. Her birth is on record, they tell me - present and correct.
They’re planning, I am told, to utilise the water. A natural reservoir, albeit with origins but scantly understood. I turn my tap, these days, and wonder what water it is that pours into the basin. Sometimes I let it fill up to the brim, and stare down past my old thick-knuckled hands. But all I see, those times, is my own face.
Some day, I know, I’ll pack a sandwich in brown paper and go catch a train. There’s still no branch line that goes near Loksmer Valley, but, I’m sure, a motor car will be available for hire. I’ll have the driver drop me where the white skeletal trees still rise up out of the valley, where the green-black water stretches out between the hills.
I’ll have him wait.
I know that then, as darkness falls, I may hear voices calling from the water; may see lights all ablaze from the Big House down below. I may see Woodways Hall, shining up at me through the glassy water, just like a heap of jewels. But although I may look down and see in the water Lucy - or is it Anna? - I know, I know I will not go.
I will tighten my coat around me, and lower my hat, and turn away. The driver will knock the ash out of his pipe, climb in, and start the car. The waters of Loksmer Lake will stretch out into the greying evening, and, perhaps, I’ll hear the sisters whispering behind my back. Laughing together, hand in hand.
I never did know what it was that they were saying.