Swamp Water Boy was first published in The Critical Pass Review Summer 2015 issue on 7th July 2015 and praised because it “demonstrates an exceptional dedication to craft”.
Swamp Water Boy
She was alone. She was always alone. While this provided her with plenty of time to think and reflect on the world, other people and life, it was inconvenient when it came to taking holidays. And this was why she found herself on an organised tour out to one of the islands that was not actually inhabited.
It had been a long academic term. Losing little Mike Skinner had been the point from which she didn’t think she could recover, but she had dealt with the assembly without breaking down herself and her closest colleagues had praised her fortitude and the gentle way she had told the other children. For many, it was their first experience of death so she was relieved to have handled it well. She had dealt sympathetically, gently, with the stone-faced Mr Skinner and the watery Mrs Skinner – it had been her idea to give them as much of Mike’s work as his teachers could find. As a school, they had offered counselling for the staff, but there was a general attitude of stiff Englishness about it and she had been the only person to sign up, partly because she thought that they should be seen to be making some effort to behave as the outside agencies expected.
She tried not to feel awkward as the tour group collected by the pick-up point outside the airport. Inevitably there were couples of all ages. Sometimes it seemed to her as though the whole world had paired off, leaving no one, apart from her, untwinned. And at these times she tried very hard not to feel sorry for herself.
She didn’t really envy them. She liked her life – in which there was no one else to control her. She was the authority at work, a responsibility she bore with seriousness and kindness. She had dispensed with anger – it was a blunt and often ineffective tool – and she had noted that over the years the other staff had grown more like her, until the whole school was a calm place to work. She didn’t have to cater for anyone else at home either, so her house – with its neat femininity – reflected perfectly her own studious and aesthetic sense. She had plenty of time to work on her yoga and tend to her garden and read all manner of novels so that she was always up to date. And all this pleased her. It was just the holidays that she found difficult and, even then, it was only the difficulty of going away and not having anyone with whom to go away.
She sat next to an elderly lady in the coach – small and bird-like and frail. Mari realised with a little internal jolt that for all the lady’s frailty, she was probably not that many years older than Mari. It was just that no one could guess at Mari’s age, because she insisted upon taking such good care of herself.
The ferry port was tiny. And the floating hut that they called a ferry was alarmingly rudimentary, but Mari took this all in her stride, giving away none of her own discomfort. She listened attentively to a guide giving a careful description of the island in formal language that was amusingly flowery and foreign-sounding even in its accuracy. She looked dutifully at the stone slabs protruding like newly cut teeth from the gummy, grassed surrounds, trying to imagine them as they might once have been long ago as a temple or fort or house. Her concentration was failing her and the colour of the sky was alluringly blue – she could feel her eyes being drawn up into it and her thoughts being drawn away from the accented speech of the official tour guide.
At lunchtime they were encouraged to explore on their own.
“The island, it is not very large. You will have no fear of getting lost on it yourself,” the guide assured them. “Enjoy – for today the island is yours.”
It was the least awkward time for Mari and she felt her freedom like relief. The tension of being alone in a group of about thirty people troubled her, made her feel somehow less whole. She took herself off swiftly, past the line of bulbous trees and beyond.
Soon the path, which had needed to narrow to circumnavigate the trees, opened out before her stretching with a brilliant green, the perfect companion to the stretch of royal blue that was the sky. She felt as though she had been transported into one of the children’s drawings with their over-reliance on the primary colours that felt tip pens could afford. For children there was little of the gradations of colour which seemed to make up Mari’s own mind.
It was refreshing, as though she had regressed to a simpler time.
Out, beyond the trees, she couldn’t even hear the chatter of the others on the tour. She felt, deliciously, as though she was completely alone.
It was as she was sitting on a small protuberance of stone and unpacking the lunch the hotel had provided that she saw the boy. He was small and she warmed instantly to the neat, careful way that he walked towards her over the lumpy ground. She was puzzled to see him because there hadn’t been any children on her tour and she knew the island to be uninhabited. But she had seen, when they first arrived, that they were not far from the mainland or a variety of other small islands which seemed to dot this area of ocean. The small boy stopped in front of her, just a few feet away. Looking carefully at him Mari was able to estimate that he was about seven years old. Naturally, from working in a school, she was adept at guessing children’s ages. In fact, she often used the skill as a sort of party trick.
“Hello,” she said, using her best professional voice and smiling just enough to seem inviting. “How are you enjoying your trip to the island?”
He said nothing in response and his face did not change. He just went on looking at her with the large greyness of his eyes.
Not English, then, she thought, although his clothes would not have been out of place on a non-uniform day in her own school.
“Bonjour, est-ce que tu aime l’isle?” Again, there was nothing in response from the boy, except that he shuffled just a little bit closer with his trainers squeaking as they rubbed together. Mari smile again, more broadly this time, and scanned the area for signs of his family. Her eyes just brought her back images of green and blue and she could feel the hot sun beating down on the backs of her arms.
“Donde esta mama?” Mari said, as her Spanish failed her and she was forced to ask less and less precise and prosaic questions as she moved her way through Greek and German.
Mari didn’t know what more she could do. The boy clearly didn’t understand her. She was getting hungry and unsettled by his unspeaking proximity, so she slapped the stone next to her with the flat of her hand and offered the boy half of her sandwich. He looked at her carefully before perching near her and taking the food from her hand. Side by side, he did not look at her.
After lunch Mari beckoned the boy back with her through the trees to where she was due to meet the others. As they emerged from the other side, Mari could see that only a few people were gathered together. She felt awkward and looked down at the boy to see if he would dart off to meet anyone without her having to intervene on his behalf. She was more and more convinced that the boy had never been a part of her group, not least because they all spoke English.
“Hi,” she said to a white-haired couple both dressed alike in beige trousers and white shirts. “Did you see this little boy with anyone when we came over on the ferry?” Two pairs of pale blue eyes regarded her vaguely and they too did not speak.
“Okay, not to worry,” Mari said, prickling a little at their rudeness. She moved on to the woman with chestnut hair and her curly-haired daughter.
“Hello, this young man joined me for lunch but he doesn’t speak English and I don’t know who he belongs to. Did you see him with us on the way over?” The woman cleared her throat and the girl rolled her large, black eyes and then peered demurely at the boy from beneath her long eyelashes.
Feeling frustrated she looked down at the boy who looked back at her – the grey of his eyes seeming sad now and maybe a little frightened.
“It’s okay,” she said to him, aware that he wouldn’t understand her words but hoping to hit on just the right tone to soothe him. “We’ll find out where you belong.” It was as she was contemplating breaking into conversation with the tall blond family that the little boy took her hand. She looked down at him again and smiled. And that was when he began to tug at her.
“Okay, I’ll come with you. We’re supposed to be all joining up here but I can come with you,” she said to him, as he pulled her gently back through the trees, towards the place where they had eaten lunch.
As soon as they were out from the tangle of trees, Mari could see the stone on which they had sat to eat lunch. They didn’t stop there, though, the boy continued walking, still pulling at her with a mild tension between their two arms, both outstretched.
“Where are we going?” she asked him, even though she knew he would not be able to understand her anymore than he had before, but somehow it seemed right to keep talking, to fill the warm silence that surrounded them. Soon they were over a small ridge of land. To their left, Mari could see swampy patches in the grass and she marvelled that the ground could be so wet while the air and day were so hot. To their right, Mari could see the way the land had been eaten away in a sheer drop. They were standing on a cliff, looking out over the sea, which rose in peaks as the wind skimmed across the surface. They were more exposed here than they had been in the basin of land where they had eaten lunch and, while the air was still warm, the breeze had a refreshing edge to it.
He started to run, then, to their left, towards the swampy ground and Mari had to drop his grip so that he would not drag her into the soft, watery land. He continued running and Mari watched as waves set themselves up in the marshy places, giving to the rhythm of his run.
“Be careful,” she called after him, scanning the area again for some sign of to whom he might belong. But he ran on. And then, just as suddenly as he had started, he stopped and bopped down, looking into the water and playing across the surface with his hand.
“What are you doing?” Mari asked, stepping carefully over the tufts of grass and feeling the squelch of her trainers as thin, muddy water filled them. “Yuck,” she said. “I don’t know if you should play in that. It doesn’t look very clean.” The boy looked up at her, the ghost of a smile playing around the corners of his mouth. He scooped up a handful of swamp water and lifted it to his lips.
“Don’t drink it!” Mari said, louder than she had intended in her alarm. But the boy just peered at her steadily over his tipping palm. “Oh, dear. Oh no. Let’s get you out of here,” Mari said, taking the boy firmly by the wrist and glancing around again for anyone who could claim him. “You can’t just go around drinking any water you find. It’s not safe. It’s not safe to drink from a swamp,” she said, her voice becoming quieter with each word, as she realised that there was no way he would understand any of it.
When they were out of the swamp she let go of the boy’s wrist and he looked up at her, quite happily, as though he had not minded her leading him away, as though he was not frightened at her distress, as though they were still friends.
“I don’t know what to do with you,” she said, feeling panic rise in her. “I’m going to have to leave with the rest of the group but I don’t know what we should do with you.” They were walking back over the brow of the hill and suddenly he ran from her, dropping down over the brink. When she, too, stood on the brow, she expected to see him down near the stone where they had sat for lunch, but she could see no one. In the basin of the land, nothing moved.
Her conscience nagged at her all the way back on the ferry. Until the island was out of sight, she stared at it, wondering if she would see the boy again, wondering if she had done the right things just leaving him, when he seemed not to belong to anyone.
That night Mari slept badly, dreaming vividly of the boy and waking often, until she felt as though she were merely bobbing along on a thin wave of unconsciousness which could shatter without warning.
As soon as dawn broke she was up and out. Without having to make the plan, the idea to take the same tour back over to the island gripped her like it was a compulsion. She had to wait hours for the tour to start and sat, drinking coffee. On the ferry she found a guide and quizzed him mercilessly for the twenty minutes or so that the journey took.
“Tell me the history,” she said, as though she were a reporter, as though he were one of the lecturers she had worked with while at University all those years ago.
“The isle is locally important in legends. The story has it that the island, so quiet, so empty of people like you and me, is indeed inhabited but inhabited by spirits.” Mari smiled her disbelieving smile.
“But people lived there once?” she asked. “And there are tours like this one everyday?”
“Oh, yes. Oh, yes,” she was assured quickly. “No one would sleep here, though, with all the stories that local legend would have us believe,” said the guide. “You and I are educated people,” he said, seeing her smile. “We do not believe, but there is no accounting for others. They hear the whistling of the wind as it swarms over the contours of the isle and they say they are hearing the voices of spirits, spirits so unsettled that they cannot rest.”
“Yes,” she said, watching the land approach the ferry with exhilarating speed. “It is like you said, just the wind over the contours of the land.”
As quickly as she reasonably could, Mari broke away from the rest of the group, standing apart from them and keeping up a constant scan of the area. She realised she was looking for the boy.
He could have come on a private boat and left the same way, she thought, when she did not see him. Someone had brought him and someone took him home.
At lunchtime, when invited to enjoy the solitude of the island, she cut once more through the trees to the stone where she had eaten lunch with the boy the previous day. In the hollow of land there was no one and nothing moved. She climbed to the brow of the hill and looked out towards the cliff and then over toward the swampy ground. And it was there that she saw two small figures.
She climbed down, finding her way carefully over the tufted and uneven ground. As she approached she could see that one of the small figures was that of the boy and the other was a little girl, smaller and probably younger.
“Hello,” she called as she came closer and the boy and the girl stood up from where they had been squatting and waited for her to approach. “So you came back again today?” she asked. “And so did I,” she explained, as her eyes took in this new child. She looked to be a few years younger – 5 years old, Mari guessed. The two were obviously related because they looked so much alike.
“Hello,” said the boy and Mari felt unbalanced, as though the world spun for a moment around her. “We were playing in the swamp,” he said.
“I didn’t know you could talk to me. I didn’t know, yesterday, that you could understand me,” Mari said to him, in a tone she hoped did not sound cross.
“I could,” he smiled and his eyes with their solemn grey squashed to an amused point at the edges. “And then you spoke to me in all those languages and I thought you were a spirit.”
“A spirit?” Mari asked, thinking back to the guide’s tale.
“Spirits,” he shrugged and she had a tender feeling as she watched his small shoulders rise and fall in the manly gesture. He dropped to his knees in the mud, working his hands in the thin brownness of the water around him and the girl, a moment later, did the same. “They are everywhere. I can hear them. We can hear him,” he corrected himself with a little glance at the girl who looked into his face at the same time. “The strange noises are the spirits,” he said and Mari instantly thought of Caliban’s speech in the Tempest.
“Is this your sister?” she asked and the boy and girl nodded in unison, their unsmiling grey eyes fixed upon Mari’s face. “And who did you come with? Where are your parents?” but they did not respond and Mari had the sudden sense that her words had been carried from her on the gust of wind that muffled her face for a moment.
“Have you got mud on your knees?” she asked instead. “I think you should come out of the swamp.” And the boy lifted his head from where it had been bent to his play and studied her face carefully, as though looking for signs of anger or distress and, maybe seeing none there, returned to splash his hands in the muddy water.
“You need to drink this,” he said after a while and both the children watched Mari as he cupped his hand full of the dirty water and offered it up to Mari.
“I hardly think I would after telling you not to. I know you don’t have to listen to me but I run a school so I do know the things that children should not do and why they should not drink any old water that they find. It could make your tummy hurt. It could make you sick.”
“But it will keep you safe,” he said with perfect seriousness. “It will keep you safe on the island.”
Mari sighed and glanced behind her and, as she did so, she noticed that the day was thickening into night around them.
“My tour!” she exclaimed. “I must go. What will you do?” she asked the children but they just went on watching her as she hurried as carefully as she could back to the line of trees. But when she had got to the other side, she found no one and nothing. The ferry had gone back to the mainland without her. “Bother,” she said to no one as she looked around herself at the gathering gloom and made her way back through the trees to the children.
“They left, didn’t they?” asked the boy when she returned and, feeling defeated, Mari nodded. “Drink this, then,” the boy said again, holding forth his hands. And Mari shook her head. She was looking past him to the small storm she could see, swelling in the bay below the cliffs. Suddenly she felt worried, although she did not signal this to the children.
She picked her way back over the swampy ground to the cliff edge, where she could see the tide flooding the rest of the sandy bay beneath her.
“Don’t worry,” said the boy, who had come to stand at her elbow and look over the cliff as she did. He looked up at her and took her hand in his. “It will be fine. You can sleep on the island with Rissa and me. We often do it. It will just be like camping, but without a tent.” And Mari smiled at his kindness for it spoke volumes about the way he had been raised.
The little girl joined them on the brink of the cliff and Mari had a sudden impulse to pull them both from the edge.
“We’re too close,” she said and took two paces backwards. The children looked at her with their same plain expressions and serious grey eyes.
“There’s just one thing,” the boy said, glancing quickly at his sister at just the time that his sister glanced quickly at him. “You must drink the swamp water.” Mari could feel her face frown. “It will keep you safe from the spirits,” the boy said. And Mari felt she could tell that he believed his own words. Against her better judgements – against drinking dirty water and against being seen to believe in spirits – she acquiesced.
When she woke to daylight, she was upon the sandy beach, with the cliff they had stood on the night before high above her head. She could not remember how she had come to be where she lay. She sat up, slowly, testing her aged limbs and finding none of the cramp she expected. In her tangled hair her fingers met with seaweed and, rubbing her face, she found her skin under a thin film of sand. The tide was out, further out than she had seen it before. Sand stretched for miles, to the point where there was almost a golden path between the island and the mainland.
At this time of the morning, she thought, we don’t need the ferry.
She looked over her head to the cliff. There was no sign of the boy, but Mari could see the girl standing above her. She was there, unmoving, as Mari waved. And then she stood still for the time it took Mari to climb up, using tufts of grass as footholds and pulling at roots with her hands.
“Good morning,” she said to the silent girl, as she brushed the dirt and sand from her palms. “Where’s…?” she started to ask, before she realised that she knew not the boy’s name.
The girl said nothing, but Mari followed her gaze down to the beach from which she had just clambered. The girl was watching some dark shape lolling in the water, being lulled to and fro on the gentleness of the waves. With the sand stretched before her, Mari realised that the dark, bobbing shape must be quite a distance away.
“Is that him?” Mari asked the girl, her voice high with panic. “Is that the boy out there in the sea?” The girl remained silent and impassive, staring out towards the water and Mari had a sudden, lurching sense that she seemed not to be real.
With fear rising in her, as the tide had risen the night before, Mari scrambled down the cliff again, slipping and falling in places but never coming to serious harm. She ran across the beach, grateful for the solidity of the wet sand, until she came to the gentleness of the water’s edge. From there, squinting her eyes, she could see that the dark, floating shape was probably a body.
Mari started to wade out to the shape, for there was a shelf of sand and the water was not as deep as she had first thought. She reached his body and pulled at his clothes. She closed him in against her body, rocking him carefully as the sea had, holding him tightly as the gulls circled overhead.