I had, of course, read about Lake Hali when I was younger. I had spent a little time in the library of the thirteenth arondissement, which curiously is in London and nowhere near Paris at all, and had acquired a card to their reading rooms and the delicate, difficult-to-read books therein housed. They didn't have most of esoteric tomes that the books they did have referred to, but as I grew older I began to appreciate the wisdom of that. And the sheer difficulty in obtaining a copy of them. There was a tale, little more than a rumour that would occasionally come over over a glass of heady wine late in the evening when sensible people would be going home to their families, or wishing they had families to go home to, that there was a quiet initiative to get some of these books typeset so that they could be printed on demand. Not even remotely an attempt at mass-production, but simply a way to get enough copies available for serious academic study. The problem, if you could call it that, was that finding skilled people mad enough to do this was hard; so the solution, as it were, was to get mad people to do the bulk of the work and then hire skilled people to finish the job, thus exposing them as little as possible. Just a rumour, but I still have a living will lodged with a lawyer to make sure I'm never committed to a madhouse in a certain part of North London.
Having read of it, I knew about its most famous resident, but equally it seemed highly unlikely that this Lake Hali, being in the desert, could be the same one that I'd read of, being rather much elsewhere. I still felt unnerved though by the coincidence of the name though, and it occurred to me that the author of the graffito might have known exactly why they were giving this feature of the desert this name.
I started along the flagged path, trying to step only on the flagstones to keep the music as clear as possible, reasoning that changes to it might alert me to things ahead. I knew that I couldn't turn back from this now without knowing what the desert had to offer here, and I had some small confidence that I'd survived everything the desert had shown me so far, which might yet save me again. But I couldn't quite keep my breathing under control, or my heart from beating strongly, and I was gasping just a little by the time the flags broadened out into a terrace and the desert fell away below it into a valley of some kind.
The music clearly arose from the valley and there were higher notes in there now, that might have been flutes and violins. There was a slightly frantic note every now and then, almost as though a terrified first violinist was sawing at her instrument, trying to reach the end of the piece so that she could flee the orchestra, which I'd actually once seen happen. The terrace was smooth and flat, with wind-blown sand scattered across it and crunching under foot. From the terrace three or four winding paths led down, cutting through rock which quickly left the covering of sand behind. Scrub bushes poked out here and there, clinging tenaciously to the rock, and one or two had obvious bare patches where hands had grabbed hold, either on the way down or the way up. The valley was steep, at least at this end, and quickly fell away, both in terms of land and detail, but at the bottom, glittering in the sunlight, was a large lake of silver water.
"Lake Hali," said a musical voice off to my left, only just audible over the clicking and beating of the drums. I turned, tensing but trying to control my face to an impassive mask, as though I'd been expecting to be addressed. A young man, clearly not out of his teenage years, was stood on the terrace looking back at me. He was wearing shorts, a faded t-shirt with some band's logo on the front, and a white tennis sweat-band around his left wrist. His face was smooth, and looked untroubled by a razor, but his eyes were the things I sought out immediately. Sure enough, they gave him away as being from the desert, for all they were green, nearly turquoise and surrounded by the dark shadows of the chronic insomniac, because they glittered in a way that had nothing to do with the bright sunlight or the reflective sand.
"So the sign said," I said, watching him carefully, ready to back away if he seemed to be approaching. "Not the Lake Hali, I suppose?"
"Depends which one you believe came first," he said. "You don't trust me, do you?"
"Do you trust me?" I replied, an automatic response to buy me time to think.
"No," he said immediately, and smiled in a mostly friendly way. "I've no idea who you are or what you're doing here, but things in the desert that trust you when they meet you are usually powerful enough not to care what you might try and do."
"Don't you live here then?" I was surprised now, I'd seen no signs that any of the things in the desert moved around much, except for the travelling houses of plants that orbited the abyss. I'd concluded early on that unless you were crossing the desert there was no survival value to moving away from known sources of food and water.
"No-one lives here, this is Lake Hali," said the boy. "This is a transition point, a place for things to go to other places. If you stayed here... well, you'd be noticed."
I shivered, and he grinned. "Yeah, that kind of noticed," he said. "You've been here a while then?"
"In the desert?" I didn't wait for his nod. "Longer than I'd realised I think. The graffiti on the stones back there...."
"Seemed a little too familiar? Hah, yes, I've heard that before."
"You've met other travellers? People like me?"
"Not like you, no," he said, and I wondered how he was appraising me. His eyes still glittered, and he hadn't moved towards me, but there was no real warmth in his his tone. We were talking more because we were both there, and I'd not spoken to anyone in several days. "But I've met others. Most of them going to the Lake."
"Did they know what to expect there?"
"I can only hope they didn't," he said. "I'd worry about that kind of madness otherwise, and I prefer to sleep at nights."
"Did you hear that?" I said, my hand cutting through the air to silence him. He tilted his head to one side as though listening hard, and shook his head at me. "The music's stopped," I said.
For a moment he said nothing, and then he seemed to stretch upwards, growing impossibly long and thin, racing to the sky like a stop-motion film of plant-growth. He stayed like that for a couple of seconds, then snapped back so fast there was a tiny pop of displaced air.
"You can go," he said, his eyes now silver pools of light, reminding me of a night I spent with a stranger in my tent. "You should go, in fact. And I think – I hope – you'll leave the desert, too."
"In my own time," I said, and turned away. I only managed six walking pace steps before terror seized me and I ran the rest of the way back along the flagged path, leaving Lake Hali and whatever was coming from it behind.