The last time she was on the Fansi, her dad sat by her side. They laughed and talked all day as the small vessel drifted on the restless waves. The day was good, until the catch came in. The heavy waves beat against the side of the vessel tossing it around like a ragdoll. Her dad said the catch was heavier than usual. She tried to help him pull the net in, but the load was too heavy for them. His leg got tangled in a rope and he was dragged into the depths of the water by the heaviness of the catch. She never saw him again. Larai lost her dad to the Lake of Essentia.
That was her life. Everyone Larai loved either died or left her. She was only three when her mom and older sister Santi left in the middle of the night. Her dad woke her up that next morning looking distraught. She could tell he’d been crying and maybe even drinking. That’s just what he did. He showed her the note her mom left, even though she couldn’t read at the time.
Through the years following her mom leaving, her grandparents passed, her friends ran away and never returned, and anytime she had a love interest they’d stop contacting her for no reason at all. She figured she was cursed – maybe the Hera cursed her at birth – so she stopped getting close to others. She didn’t want anyone else leaving her. It was just her and her dad. That was enough for Larai.
“Morning, Larai,” Hect the Merchant greeted her as she entered his shop. “Ya heading to the lake today?” She gave a small nod. “Ya sure ya ready to be out there by yaself?”
“I’ve put it off long enough,” she replied somberly, grazing her green eyes over the fresh bread by the counter. “If I don’t work, I don’t get paid.” She placed a turt sandwich, a jug of hift juice, and a chew of smeer on the counter. Hect the Merchant always gave her a scolding look when she bought smeer. She picked up the bad habit from her dad and it was a hard one to break.
“Here’s the weather note for today.” He handed her a piece of tattered parchment paper. “It’ll be a good day for a big catch!”
“Thanks.” She read the note and the words Terrible storms today were scribbled on it in ink. She crumbled up the paper and tossed it to the ground before she walked out the door.
The aroma of day old muk soup being reheated in cast iron pots drifted through the stale air. The smell made Laira realize she hadn’t eaten much for the day’s first meal. She didn’t want to eat much of anything anyway. She just wanted to get the day over. This was the first time she’d be on the vessel by herself.
Laira kicked the smooth white pebbles as she trekked down the windy path through the dense trees. The thick blades of grass grasped at her ankles as she reluctantly trod along. The path always made her feel uneasy. She remembered the faces, cries, and pleas from the hundreds of people marched down the path to the lake to never return.
Thieves, murderers, rapists, and adulterers were sentenced to perish in the Lake of Essentia. If you were accused of a crime, whether you committed it or not, you had to enter the lake. The lake gave the final judgment. If one’s soul was allowed to surface during a storm, then they were an innocent and their soul was free to move on to the next life. If one’s soul was dragged back down into the depths of the lake by the evils, they were guilty of some wrongdoing and their souls were never allowed to move on.
It was Laira’s job to collect the surfaced souls and help them with their passage. The profession was commissioned to her family generations ago and if she ever chose to marry and bare children, then the profession would be theirs. This was only her third time being on the lake and if she caught any souls today, it would be her first catch.
She kept an eye on the sky as she steered the Fansi onto the middle of the lake. Terrible storms today, the note read. The sky was a piercing sapphire blue and no clouds appeared on the horizon. She always took the weather note with a grain of salt. It didn’t look like she’d catch anything that day.
A half day had gone and Laira stared at her reflection in the mirror-surfaced lake for most of the time. She thought this was the most boring profession ever. Her dad would come home and spin tales of his adventures on the vessel, but she figured they were just stories to keep a little girl entertained.
Black storm clouds barreled in from the north. Tormenting winds slapped waves onto the vessel. Laira had to prepare to cast the net as soon as she saw the first soul nearing the surface. Hail stung her skin like a swarm of angry bees protecting their hive. A swirl of darkness pierced the belly of the lake and she knew it was time for the net to go overboard.
She threw the net into the treacherous water and waited for the first tug. The Fansi violently bounced on top of the waves as if a drunkard dancing to fiddle music. The rain saturated her brown locks and dingy clothes, but she held tightly onto the net. She felt a tug, then another, and another. The net was filling up fast. The weight of the net burned blisters into her hands, but she couldn’t let go. If she failed, she wouldn’t get paid.
She hoisted the rope from the net around the vessel’s pulleys and began to haul in her load. A force jerked the net back with unimaginable strength. Laira’s heart thumped in her chest like a monsoo drum. She fought against the force. Another jerk and she lost her footing on the slippery deck. The rope slid through her bleeding fingers before she caught the end of it.
Laira wrapped the rope around her arm and pulled in the net with all of the strength she could muster. The net broke the water’s surface and she could finally see the souls she was to guide through passage. The lake was still in a fury and the winds battered the Fansi. She fought to get the net out of the grasp of the evils. As she raised the net higher, she saw one more soul hanging on to it.
“Dad!” she yelled as her eyes welled up with tears. He wore his usual jovial smile and his eyes glistened at her. She was so happy to be able to help her dad through the passage.
The vessel wavered and the souls in the net screeched an awful sound. She pulled on the rope as she kept her gaze on her dad. The screeching became almost unbearable and Laira wanted to cover her ears, but that meant she’d have to let go of the rope.
Black waves tossed the boat as the evils tried to climb onboard. Laira needed to get the net on the vessel deck and then they’d be free. The evils grabbed her dad and began to pull him down along with the net. The screeching unsettled Laira.
“Leave him alone,” she yelled at the evils, but they continued to ravage his soul.
He was slowly losing his grip on the net and there was nothing Laira could do. The evils didn’t want to let the others leave. Laira watched while they devoured her dad and dragged what remained of his soul back into the dismal lake.
The sky cleared, the waves calmed, and the lake stilled. The souls in the net were no longer screeching. Laira gathered herself and pulled the net onto the deck. Her mom, grandparents, Santi, her friends, Drek – her first love, and many other faces she mourned appeared in front of her.
Looking at the pain and torment on their faces, she knew what this meant. She knew they didn’t leave her. She knew that her dad belonged in the Lake of Essentia.
About the author: KF Williams is a contributor to nonfiction digital magazines, loves writing flash fiction and short stories, and drinking a hot cup of joe for a quick energy boost. Work can be seen in an upcoming publication of Flash Fiction Magazine and on the author’s soon to be released website. Follow KF Williams on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/kfwilliamswrites/), Twitter (https://twitter.com/kfwilliams1), and Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/kfwilliamswrites/).