Short story: The Llyn by Matthew G. Rees
We are pleased to publish an exclusive new story by the winner of this year’s Rhys Davies award.
Matthew G. Rees
He had hunted in the llyn since the first semi-thaw of the year when the ice had melted on some parts of the shoreline but in others – certain inlets and sheltered shallows – its thick glass held fast, and frozen snow patched the steep, sunless slopes of the mountains.
The partial melt permitted several dives in those early, wintry weeks never mind what seemed the defiant density and burdensome weight of the Baltic-grey water. The llyn, however, had yielded little – his craft’s propeller clogging more than once in the sullen, lumpish lake where bergs of ice seemed to lie in wait for its blades, like the stones of an acidic field that bore an age-old grudge against its farmer.
The change in the llyn that had come with spring – most obviously in its colour, from grey water to green, and from jags of ice and the slush of the melt to smoother, clearer water – had been much for the better. He had been able to sink further in the submersible, to see further from the half-globe of glass at its nose.
His finds at this time included wreckage from an RAF bomber that – known from his past research – had collided with the westerly escarpment during the War (its crew lost in cruel weather returning home from a night mission, a shepherd witnessing the plane’s fireball on the mountain).
Eighty years on and a roundel – on a fragment of wing or fuselage – peered like a monstrous fish eye through the murky depths of the llyn, as if still angry at the fate of the plane and its flyers…
Strange real marine creatures, whose existence he wondered if anyone knew, also revealed themselves. Ugly, colourless, squid-like things, which at times adhered to the submersible’s screen via suckers on their tentacles and underbellies.
Much more to his liking had been the mermaids who’d shoaled so very beautifully in sight of the submersible’s glass, their tresses shifting in the deep water of the llyn, like the luxuriantly leafed boughs of chestnut trees in a windswept park. Or, more accurately, the mermaids he thought he had seen – a current in the llyn’s water jolting him to clearer consciousness in his captain’s chair… the scales and tails of the merwomen disappearing into the darkness of the llyn, as if mere creations of a dream.
At other times – when steering through great, towering weeds that rose like the primeval pines of a water-forest underworld – he’d half-expected to be greeted by Belisama, Celtic goddess of lakes and rivers, light and fire…
Come summer and its warmer weather, the llyn had acquired the bright colour of cobalt. It lay in its high cwm like a jewel. Sunlight illuminated its water with lovely neo-Mediterranean pools, their presence masking the llyn’s lingering true coldness. Even in the season’s warmest weeks its waters were chill enough to choke the life from any foolish would-be bather and drag them down to its depths, releasing them – eventually – like the storm-torn trunk of a silver birch or mountain ash.
Exploring at that time the llyn’s southern edge, he’d found the stumps of what seemed an ancient, sunken causeway… which caused him to wonder about those who’d crossed, cast off, or landed there, in centuries past.
Autumn, for its part, had brought new challenges – rainwater running down from the mountains, muddying the llyn, cutting visibility to a matter of mere feet. Torrents sometimes dislodged boulders that tumbled and crashed into the wave-ridged water, as if ordnance from the arsenal of a hostile, circling fleet. In such weather, he kept to the deep middle of the llyn. His finds became fewer in its turbid fathoms. The unsettling sight of the skeleton of a sheep – its ragged, strung bones concertinaing hideously in the clouded water – seeming to sum up his luck.
And so his year of probing and scouring had passed: locked in the small capsule of his submersible, whirring through the water of the llyn. By night as well as day: the vessel sending search beams through the depths, its propeller turning, always turning – like the mind of its commander.
As winter closed-in anew, Evans sensed the season’s long, frosted fingers… clawing through thellyn.
He grew aware of the creep of ice on the surface. With it, an alteration in the quality of the light from up above. Frustrated by what he deemed to be his failure, he increasingly felt himself the prey of a strange (and stalking) force.
He was no longer the llyn’s hunter, but the hunted.
The principal school of thought that surrounded the hoard was that it consisted of treasure that had been hidden in the llyn by Celts keen to keep their valuables from the advancing Romans. Its existence had never been proved, and many took the tales of gold and jewels buried in the llyn’s depths for a myth. Evans had read allusions to it in the chronicles of early-medieval clerics. Their sentences seemed to him a kind of code, hinting at some sort of Atlantis. Particularly compelling were references – albeit in annoyingly vague and florid language – to a garment alleged to have been woven from gold. A kind of cape or cloak that in its splendour seemed not unlike the dreamcoat of Joseph, the vestments of an archbishop, or even the robes of a queen or king.
Evans had known the llyn since boyhood. Sight from the mountain road of its shining surface – his small form held aloft by his father standing on a roadside sward – was perhaps his earliest memory. Much later, he had seen in an archive a drawing of a Celtic longboat. Although there was no direct connection between the vessel and the llyn, the manner in which it had come to Evans’s attention (landing – so very full of suggestion – on his mental shores while he’d been searching for something else at the district library) was sufficient. He was convinced.
He built the submersible in secret, using panels recovered from the derelict site of the former steelworks that stood – like a scheduled ancient monument – at the mouth of the valley (rust belt was the term those who’d never been there used for it now).
He launched the vessel without fanfare one evening in the waters of the purification plant in the upper valley (whose residents and businesses the llyn supplied): the sides of the submersible slipping almost silently into an unattended reservoir, Evans opening (to enable his entry), and then drawing down after him, the craft’s circular lid.
Evans piloted its compact, cigar-like form through a tunnel that ran beneath the south-western escarpment of the llyn for two-and-a-half miles, eventually emerging into the llyn’s waters on the escarpment’s other side.
Although a man not given to shows of emotion, this triumph of navigation had pleased him. He was delighted, above all, with the privacy with which his progress had been achieved. His absence would prompt ‘talk’ in his village, he knew: gossip at the post office and the social club; absurd mentions of a woman with whom he was supposed to have been ‘seen’; nods and winks about a room-for-two at a seafront hotel, options available at breakfast and dinner, totals awarded in terms of rosettes and stars.
And yet he was alone… in secret… where no one could possibly imagine he might be.
Bubbles beaded in a chain behind his ‘boat’ in the llyn’s black water… a silver trail of small spheres.
His submersible was well provisioned and Evans seldom, if ever, made trips to the shore, unless to chip ice from the propeller or unwrap weed from its blades in the shallows.
At that altitude, there was little – above water – to be seen: the odd, mewling buzzard or kite; perhaps a mountain fox or hare that had come to lap quietly at the edge of the llyn.
On such occasions, Evans was struck by the stillness and silence of his surroundings. He felt as if he were at the tip of the most remote peninsula, or amid the world’s highest peaks: how, so he imagined, the earth might be in Tierra del Fuego, or Tibet.
And yet he knew that, little more than two miles away, there was – in all probability – ‘life’: Herbie Harris, from Windsor Street, selling ice cream cornets from his van… May Preece’s niece, Bethan, prodding hotdogs and flipping burgers on the grill of May’s stand… in a lay-by of the mountain road where folk stopped to admire the view (or, so it was reported, for a spot of something ‘nocturnal’). More than once, Evans had sensed – or thought he had – the tang of May’s onions on the wind.
Surfacing one day, almost exactly a year since his entry via the tunnel under the escarpment, Evans noted how winter had truly set in.
What scant greenery there’d been on the mountains had vanished. He detected a certain menace – or so it felt to him – in the austerity of the slopes. The mountains cupped the llyn, it seemed, much closer, as if the sides of their cauldron had steepened and tightened (… in the manner of a noose).
Physically, he felt older, colder. His skin, he knew, had acquired a prison-cell pallor, his beard possessing a whiteness and length that made him think of the high falls of frozen water above the llyn that – old misers of the mountain, as they were – refused to pour forth.
Occasionally, some play of winter light on the llyn’s surface, or a reflection provoked by his search beam in the depths, would conjure his faintly druidic form on the glass of the nose cone. Similar projections would occur intermittently on the control screens in the cockpit of the craft. It was as if Evans had the company of a ghostly co-pilot. These ‘apparitions’ would startle him for a moment, until he realised that the presence at which he was staring was his own.
His submersible had begun to creak… and leak. He sensed a loosening of its rivets, also that its once-smooth hull and shark-sharp fins had become barnacled and weeded, like some old tugboat off Tiger Bay… or an ancient dredger of estuarial mud.
Meanwhile, a fogging of the glass in the nose cone, together with moisture on its inner side, meant that, when submerged, Evans now saw much less of the llyn (his efforts to wipe the panes clear only smearing them in a way that rendered them even less penetrable).
As for gold and silver, rubies and emeralds, Evans’s eyes saw none.
At about this time, he remembered another (less spoken) theory concerning the hoard. Which was that the items the Celts had placed in the llyn had not been treasures of the kind sought by gold-diggers (flung there to keep them from Caesar’s legions) but mundane articles from the daily lives of the local inhabitants. Cups, scythes, and other utilitarian things that, in accordance with their beliefs, they had given to the gods in gratitude for the blessing of healthy crops.
One day, though it might have been night (by now it was getting hard for him to tell), Evans at last came upon a glimmer in the depths: a light that seemed to issue from the bed of the llyn.
As he steered towards it, through the heavy, dark water, Evans remembered that moment on the mountain road – when he’d been held aloft by his father’s hands. In particular, the way the surface of the llyn had suddenly shone… like a salver – caught by a shaft of sun amid an abrupt break in the cloud.
Navigating nearer the glimmer, Evans saw that it rose – in a strange and beautiful glow – from what seemed a ravine in the bed of the llyn.
Its aura had the gold and ruby colours of the loveliest late-summer sunset. These glanced against the glass nose cone of the submersible, gradually suffusing the craft – from tip to tail – with a gorgeous, almost volcanic, light.
Enchanted by the glow, which climbed in a kind of spinning, golden outpouring, Evans steered into the light.
Having done this, he piloted the submersible downwards – league after league – in that curious and lovely vortex beneath the llyn.
As he did so, it seemed to him that the ephemera of his life – his cards for clocking on and off at the steelworks, for the union and the institute, for the library and the gas meter, as well as tickets for the Lottery and for matchdays at the Arms Park (later, the Millennium), passes for the bus and for the railway, coupons for the Pools, tokens from the distant days when he smoked cigarettes, Luncheon Vouchers (for meals half-remembered), Green Shield stamps that he’d saved so religiously, small cards of exotic animals and famous people in history that had come with bags and loose leaves of tea, articles that he’d cut from newspapers and had folded in his wallet, postcards he’d been sent from Scotland, Cornwall and Weston-super-Mare, seed packets for cucumbers, dahlias and chrysanthemums, bills from the council, water and electricity boards, certificates for his various vaccinations, and all manner of other paperwork that had in some way been proof of his being – whirled above him… in the style of a magnificent murmuration of starlings.
Till all sense of man and machine were lost, as if – falling, still falling, forever falling – Evans and his voyaging vessel were no more than the tiniest, microscopic grain in the slipping sands of an hourglass.
© Matthew G. Rees, 2023
Matthew G. Rees’ collection, Keyhole is published by Three Impostors and is available via their website.
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