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My River

I like the fields. There's never anyone else there, just the occasional cow, looking up as it mindlessly rolls the sweet grass around its mouth. And I don't have to care what they think. I like the river, sludgy and stinking though it is, it's mine. I don't have to share it.

I don't know why, but I always find bottles over the fields. Old bottles, in strange shapes, some with little handles, clear glass worn opaque by time or, better yet, coloured ones, in scuffed blues or browns. I pick them up and rub the mud from their surfaces, revealing their embossed logos or names. Then I tuck them in the pockets of my parka, which are normally straining their stitching by the time I get home. Mum rolls her eyes and tells me to leave the bottles in the garage. She doesn't think they're worth anything, they're just someone else's junk, but I like them. I wish they could tell me where they've been, what they held, who held them.

Yes, I like the fields. There's never anyone else there, except that today, there is. I can see him, huddled by my river. He's hunched over, so hunched that from a distance I can't see his head. I stop for a breathless minute, afraid to approach. What if he doesn't have a head? I don't think I want to see that. But he's by my river, and I so want to be there.

I dither for a long minute. The best bottles I've found were by the river, carried by the tiny but unstoppable stream from who knows where. What if he's looking for bottles too? But this my spot! My river!

I thrust my hands into my pockets and stride along one of the irrigation ditches, my eyes fixed firmly on the stranger's back. I imagine the strength of my stare might be enough to somehow scorch through his coat and frighten him away. It doesn't. He hasn't moved.

As I draw nearer I spot wisps of hair, blown by the excitable breeze. I'm relieved. He must have a head. I hadn't realised how worried I'd been about that. Closer. Don't talk to strangers. All the grown ups say it. I can hear them in my skull now, nagging, imploring. I'm going to talk to this stranger. I'm going to tell him exactly what I think too. This is my bloody river!

I step up beside him, my wellingtons making slurping, slucking noises as I shift them through the mud. The man doesn't move. His head is bowed, as though in sleep. “Hello?” I say. He doesn't even flinch. “Sir?”

I reach down, stretching my hand to his shoulder. Shouldn't touch. Bad enough I spoke to him. He doesn't seem right though. He seems … absent. I touch, just lightly, I swear! The teeniest brush of his shoulder, that was all.

He keels over. Clean bowled, every limb fast in its original position, so that he looks like my Grandma's porcelain lady after I accidentally knocked it over that time. Only his hair moves. I scream, and try to step backwards, but my wellingtons are stuck fast, and I keel over now, not rigid but flailing and sobbing. I flounder like a beetle on its back, until finally my boots are free, and I'm running. Running.

I used to like the fields. There never used to be anyone else there. I never go there now.


© 2011 Kay Lawrence.


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