Innocent if you drown

I

I work for a diving company. Not one of those that teaches people how to dive, but one that works for hire to clean up lakes and moats and things like that.

We were diving in an old lake a few kilometres away from the nearest city. I won’t tell you the name, since I don’t want to tarnish its reputation once it opens to the public. It used to be on private property, but it was recently bought by the city to turn into a recreational area. That’s why we were hired to clean the lake of any dangerous debris.

The water itself wasn’t anything remarkable. It was already murky before we even stepped in it and there was a thin layer of soft organic material on the bottom which was easily stirred up by our flippers.

The rest of the crew grumbled about bad vision as we put on our equipment. Hector (not his real name) complained loudest of all. He’d cut his head badly last time we dove under these conditions.

I, on the other hand, was excited to see what this lake had in store for us. Although the lake looked fairly normal, the area around it spoke of how old this place was.

The trees around the lake were all at least two metres wide, many even wider. The small private forest the lake was located in had been left to itself for years and the forest floor was covered in shrubs and fallen trees.

So yeah, I was in a great mood. The terrible vision wouldn’t deter me. Old places like this always held some interesting secrets.

We started to comb the bottom at the front where we’d set up on the beach and gradually moved further back. Sure enough, the vision was so bad I could hardly see more than a metre in front of me. To my disappointment, we didn’t find anything interesting for the first hour.

Only once we hit deeper water further away from the beach, did we start to find stuff. Mike found a broach, Hector found the shell of a saltwater-snail of all things, and Violet discovered a whole area filled with rare plants.

Of course I didn’t find anything at all in the hours before we left the water for lunch. While eating, we examined the broach and shell. Like Hector said, it was definitely from a salt-water creature. We had a bit of fun speculating how it got here. ‘Theories’ ranged from the lake once having been connected to the ocean, to someone just having thrown it in. I tuned out of the conversation once Violet and Hector began to debate about tectonic movements and shells found on mountains or something.

Instead I asked Mike if I could see that broach. It was quite big. About 8 cm in diameter, nearly covering my whole palm. The edges were a delicate frilly gold, dulled from the muck on the bottom of the lake. In the middle sat a big, oval stone. It glittered in all the colours of the rainbow in the sunlight.

Mike said it was probably Victorian. I’m not an antique jewellery expert, so I took his word on it. Regardless of its age, it was beautiful and a good find whether it was worth something or not.

After lunch, we switched up our formation. I continued where Mike left off, Mike where Hector left off, etc. We found some more trinkets over the next few hours, but nothing big. I complained about being the only one who hadn’t found anything. I guess I shouldn’t have, considering…

Well, about two hours in I saw what I thought was some darkened dead stringy algae. Until I saw the human head it was attached to.

Finding bodies was never pleasant, no matter how many times it happened. It didn’t help that they were often bloated and halfway rotten and or eaten by fish. At times they were nearly unrecognisable as human! But not this one.

It was the body of a woman, floating upright and looking like she just jumped in. Only her clothes looked more normal for a body that’s been underwater for a while, tattered and delicate.

Once I had my heart-rate under control, I notified the others. Mike went out to call the police and Violet promised to keep me company while we waited. We all knew the protocol by now. The most important rule: Never leave the body alone. You never knew where they could drift off and then it could take days or even weeks to find it again.

This is my least favourite part of the job. Staying with a corpse, in the murky waters of some lake, alone. I tried to focus on the water beyond, where Violet would soon be coming from, but the corpse kept grabbing my attention.

It was strange enough that it looked so fresh, but it behaved weirdly as well. I didn’t move, only bobbed in place in the gentle currents created by my flippers. It was like she was stuck in place.

I looked closer, and my movement caused her skirt to move away from her ankle. She was handcuffed to a large rock.

I had to fight the bile rising in my throat. The mere idea of being stuck underwater, free to move but unable to escape, desperately trying to claw up to breathable air… The skin around her ankle was bruised and I’m pretty sure it was twisted, if not broken.

For the first time in years, my breath came short. My mask felt constricting, the tube leading from it too thin. Luckily that’s when Violet showed up. I don’t think I’ve ever been so grateful for some simple human company. She managed to calm me down, and then examined the body herself.

“That’s quite an odd handcuff, isn’t it?” she said.

I had my back to the corpse to prevent myself from panicking again, but her question had me turn around and look at the handcuff again. Violet was right. What I’d failed to notice in my panic, was that the handcuffs were of a very old design.

I’d found handcuffs before on earlier dives, and taken an interest in their history. From what I could tell through the rust, these were from around the 19th century, or more likely, a replica of the 19th-century ones.

Well, that’s what I thought at the time at least.

Looking at them really made me want to take them off. It felt wrong somehow to just leave her be like that, chained to the bottom of the lake. But according to protocol we couldn’t disturb what was a possible crime scene.

The two of us stayed with the corpse for more than half an hour while we waited for the police to arrive. We distracted ourselves by talking. Hector joined in as well from where he was still searching the lake.

When the police arrived, I was very happy to help them hack away the chains tied around the rock. The metal gave way easily to a bit of blunt force. Violet and I helped drag the body out whenever necessary, but left most of it to the people trained for this kind of thing.

When we waded onto the beach and laid her down in the sand, I thought that was the end of it. The police would take her to the coroner and we might or might not hear about it on the news in a few days.

Then the woman coughed.

She convulsed on the ground, her lungs heaving to expel all the water. The police officers moved to help her, but I just stood there, staring. I was sure she was dead, I’d been with her underwater for nearly an hour! There was no way. And yet she was alive.

As her sputtering calmed down, she pulled her knees up to her chest. The movement disturbed the chains still attached to her ankle, causing them to rattle. I could almost feel the full-body shudder that went through her before she started to scream.

I jumped into action, nearly forgetting to pull off my flippers before sprinting to the toolbox where I grabbed a pair of pliers. When I got back, the woman had stopped screaming but was still shaking violently. I was far more out of breath than I should have been from the short distance, and I’m sure I saw the police officers breathe too quickly as well.

She looked at me when I knelt next to her. Her eyes were bright green and clearer than I expected. I didn’t smile at her, or tried to comfort her as I normally would in similar circumstances. I was too freaked out to bother with any of that. I only knew that if I had gone through what she had, I would want those chains off as soon as possible. The cuff broke as easily as the chains. It was rusted through almost completely.

She hissed as I cut it and pulled the thing off and jostled her ankle. It was obviously broken. But she didn’t scream again and her shaking stopped. My breathing came easier as well. When I looked up, she was still watching me, this time calmer, but no less wary. Her eyes were still green, but I had a hard time finding that startling quality they had before.

She was rushed to the hospital soon after. We were left without any information, only able to speculate as to how any of this just happened.

Violet, ever the optimistic, chalked it up to some kind of medical miracle. Hector told her not to be ridiculous, but didn’t offer an explanation himself. Mike was the one who gave voice to my own thoughts, “Reminds me of the witch-hunts.”

I thought of those bright, almost glowing eyes that suddenly dulled to a regular green. I took a deep breath to counter the phantom feeling of tightness in my lungs.

We didn’t hear anything else about the situation. I went to the hospital the next day to see if I could talk to her, but the hospital staff didn’t have a clue who I was talking about. There was nothing about it in the news later either. I’d wonder if it was just a bad dream if the others didn’t remember it as well.

Ink drawing of 19th century handcuffs

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