THE DRAINING LAKE (Chapter 1)
She stood motionless for a long time, staring at the bones as if it should not be possible for them to be there. Any more than for her.
At first she thought it was another sheep that had drowned in the lake, until she moved closer and saw the skull half-buried in the lake bed and the shape of a human skeleton. The ribs protruded from the sand and beneath them could be seen the outlines of the pelvis and thigh bones. The skeleton was lying on its left side so she could see the right side of the skull, the empty eye sockets and three teeth in the upper jaw. One had a large silver filling. There was a wide hole in the skull itself, about the size of a matchbox, which she instinctively thought could have been made by a hammer. She bent down and stared at the skull. With some hesitation she explored the hole with her finger. The skull was full of sand.
The thought of a hammer crossed her mind again and she shuddered at the idea of someone being struck over the head with one. But the hole was too large to have been left by a hammer. She decided not to touch the skeleton again. Instead, she took out her mobile and dialled emergency services.
She wondered what to say. Somehow this was so completely unreal. A skeleton so far out in the lake, buried on its sandy bed. Nor was she on her best form. Visions of hammers and matchboxes. She found it difficult to concentrate. Her thoughts were roaming all over the place and she had great trouble rounding them up again.
It was probably because she was hung-over. After planning to spend the day at home she had changed her mind and gone to the lake. She had persuaded herself that she must check the instruments. She was a scientist. She had always wanted to be a scientist and knew that the measurements had to be monitored carefully. But she had a splitting headache and her thoughts were far from logical. The National Energy Authority had held its annual dinner dance the night before and, as was sometimes the way, she had had too much to drink.
She thought about the man lying in her bed at home and knew that it was on his account that she had hauled herself off to the lake. She did not want to be there when he woke up and hoped that he would be gone when she returned. He had come back to her flat after the dance but was not very exciting. No more than the others she had met since her divorce. He hardly talked about anything except his CD collection and carried on long after she had given up feigning any interest. Then she fell asleep in a living-room chair. When she woke up she saw that he had got into her bed, where he was sleeping with his mouth open, wearing tiny underpants and black socks.
‘Emergency services,’ a voice said over the line.
‘Hello – I’d like to report that I’ve found some bones,’ she said. ‘There’s a skull with a hole in it.’
She grimaced. Bloody hangover! Who says that sort of thing? A skull with a hole in it. She remembered a phrase from a children’s rhyme about a penny with a hole in it. Or was it a shilling?
‘Your name, please,’ said the neutral emergency-services voice.
She straightened out her jumbled thoughts and stated her name.
‘Where is it?’
‘Lake Kleifarvatn. North side.’
‘Did you pull it up in a fishing net?’
‘No. It’s buried on the bed of the lake.’
‘Are you a diver?’
‘No, it’s standing up out of the bed. Ribs and the skull.’
‘It’s on the bottom of the lake?’
‘So how can you see it?’
‘I’m standing here looking at it.’
‘Did you bring it to dry land?’
‘No, I haven’t touched it,’ she lied instinctively.
The voice on the telephone paused.
‘What kind of crap is this?’ the voice said at last, angrily. ‘Is this a hoax? You know what you can get for wasting our time?’
‘It’s not a hoax. I’m standing here looking at it.’
‘So you can walk on water, I suppose?’
‘The lake’s gone,’ she said. ‘There’s no water any more. Just the bed. Where the skeleton is.’
‘What do you mean, the lake’s gone?’
‘It hasn’t all gone, but it’s dry now where I’m standing. I’m a hydrologist with the Energy Authority. I was recording the water level when I discovered this skeleton. There’s a hole in the skull and most of the bones are buried in the sand on the bottom. I thought it was a sheep at first.’
‘We found one the other day that had drowned years ago. When the lake was bigger.’
There was another pause.
‘Wait there,’ said the voice reluctantly. ‘I’ll send a patrol car.’
She stood still by the skeleton for a while, then walked over to the shore and measured the distance. She was certain the bones had not surfaced when she was taking measurements at the same place a fortnight earlier. Otherwise she would have seen them. The water level had dropped by more than a metre since then.
The scientists from the Energy Authority had been puzzling over this conundrum ever since they’d noticed that the water level in Lake Kleifarvatn was falling rapidly. The authority had set up its first automatic surface-level monitor in 1964 and one of the hydrologists’ tasks was to check the measurements. In the summer of 2000 the monitor seemed to have broken. An incredible amount of water was draining from the lake every day, twice the normal volume.
She walked back to the skeleton. She was itching to take a better look, dig it up and brush off the sand, but imagined that the police would be none too pleased at that. She wondered whether it was male or female and vaguely recalled having read somewhere, probably in a detective story, that their skeletons were almost identical: only the pelvises were different. Then she remembered someone telling her not to believe anything she read in detective stories. Since the skeleton was buried in the sand she couldn’t see the pelvis, and it struck her that she would not have known the difference anyway.
Her hangover intensified and she sat down on the sand beside the bones. It was a Sunday morning and the occasional car drove past the lake. She imagined they were families out for a Sunday drive to Herdísarvík and on to Selvogur. That was a popular and scenic route, across the lava field and hills and past the lake down to the sea. She thought about the families in the cars. Her own husband had left her when the doctors ruled out their ever having children together. He remarried shortly afterwards and now had two lovely children. He had found happiness.
All that she had found was a man she barely knew, lying in her bed in his socks. Decent men became harder to find as the years went by. Most of them were either divorced like her or, even worse, had never been in a relationship at all.
She looked woefully at the bones, half-buried in the sand, and was close to tears.
About an hour later a police car approached from Hafnarfjördur. It was in no hurry, lazily threading its way along the road towards the lake. This was May and the sun was high in the sky, reflecting off the smooth surface of the water. She sat on the sand watching the road and when she waved to the car it pulled over. Two police officers got out, looked in her direction and walked towards her.
They stood over the skeleton in silence for a long time until one of them poked a rib with his foot.
‘Do you reckon he was fishing?’ he said to his colleague.
‘On a boat, you mean?’
‘Or waded here.’
‘There’s a hole,’ she said, looking at each of them in turn. ‘In the skull.’
One officer bent down.
‘Well,’ he said.
‘He could have fallen over in the boat and broken his skull,’ his colleague said.
‘It’s full of sand,’ said the first one.
‘Shouldn’t we notify CID?’ the other asked.
‘Aren’t most of them in America?’ his colleague said, looking up into the sky. ‘At a crime conference?’
The other officer nodded. Then they stood quietly over the bones for a while until one of them turned to her.
‘Where’s all the water gone?’ he asked.
‘There are various theories,’ she said. ‘What are you going to do? Can I go home now?’
After exchanging glances they took down her name and thanked her, without apologising for having kept her waiting. She didn’t care. She wasn’t in a hurry. It was a beautiful day by the lake and she would have enjoyed it even more in the company of her hangover if she had not chanced upon the skeleton. She wondered whether the man in the black socks had left her flat and certainly hoped so. Looked forward to renting a video that evening and snuggling up under a blanket in front of the television.
She looked down at the bones and at the hole in the skull.
Maybe she would rent a good detective film.
THE DRAINING LAKE Copyright © 2004 by Arnaldur Indridason.