APRIL 2023, SHORT STORY, 3500 WORDS
We were fourteen when Edith fell into the millpond, but for years after that I wasn’t really sure if she was dead. We had the funeral, and the next day she showed up at my house just as usual. We continued to hang out together after school and at weekends, winding our bicycles through the narrow, twisted lanes of the fen, mud flicking up our backs, our hair thick with rain and blown insects. I never told my parents. I never told anybody.
Edith stopped wanting to go to the millpond. “It’s boring there,” she’d say, puffing out her thin lips.
I got annoyed with her sometimes. It used to be our favorite place, the millpond, even though we weren’t allowed, or maybe because of that. I loved lying on the concrete wall of the weir in summer, listening to music from Edith’s phone, with the sun hitting and heating my bare stomach.
Edith and I wore different prescription glasses with matching frames. At school, we wore mismatched socks with black pumps so that the socks were visible in their oddness. We wore a wide variety of bracelets and bangles, several at once, always on our right arms, chinking and chattering, and we exchanged the bracelets between us in an endless, unpredictable cycle, so that their constant rotation negated and pluralized our ownership of them. What started as hers became ours. What started as mine became ours.
A year after the funeral, we stayed out late and slept in the underpass below the M11, where a rarely used footpath straggled across farmland and colorless concrete yawned down toward the river. We’d brought blankets, but we were freezing. The black water slapped and echoed against the concrete like frantic hands. Edith snuggled against me in her sleep, leaching my warmth, the warmth that was mine becoming ours. The skin of her face was ghostly cold, and her sweat smelled of river water.
The act of locomotion. The feel of bare legs bouncing on brittle pedals. The stuttered flow of wheels over grit and gravel. Remember, because in remembering, we become.
We found the windmill the next morning. Stiff and snarling at each other with cold, we followed the path beyond the motorway and through fields striated with narrow bands of woodland. Edith grew animated, imagining the wildlife that moved between these bands: foxes, hedgehogs, voles. She pictured them hurrying across open fields that shrieked with predators, always afraid, the woods offering them only a thin strip of safety, a brief haven, when once this whole country was marsh and forest.
“The foxes are the predators, stupid,” I said, and as I said it we came out of the woods and saw ahead of us the abandoned windmill, sinking forgotten into the ground at the edge of a fallow wheat field.
It was short and stumpy, not at all like the elegant white windmills they build these days, the ones as tall as office blocks, with wings that sweep round like ships in sail. This one was black and shapeless, almost ugly but not quite. Its wings were rotting slats. The base of it was distended like a swollen belly, and the walls were quietly moldering, wood peeling away from them in soft, fruit-like curls.
For a while we watched the windmill, as though expecting it to move.
“There’s a door,” Edith said, unnecessarily. There was, in fact, a doorway, dark and gaping, but the door was long gone.
She was always braver than me. She went first, while I hovered behind her hissing about trespassing and unsafe structures. The windmill’s interior was so fresh-smelling, it might have been underwater. Ripples of light swam up the rotting walls. I held Edith’s hand, although I did not remember taking hold of it, and we crept across the packed soil of the floor, over floorboards that had long since turned to dust.
I’d told my parents I was at a sleepover with some other girls from school. It was an unlikely story, but one they wishfully declined to question. They wanted me to have other friends. They thought Edith was gone. When I returned home, I was convinced they would smell the watery tang of the windmill, the stench so old it had become new again, in my hair and in my clothes, the scent of my night with Edith. But they said nothing.
Words are words and doing is doing. In doing, we are undone. When we undo, we are done. There is no solution. There is no way out. Speak as loud as you can, in case anyone is listening.
I said to her: “Why can’t we just be normal, Edith? Why can’t we go to the cinema with the other girls, or drink alcohol bought with fake IDs in the cold of the park late at night with them, or wear matching socks the way they do?”
Edith said, “You can.”
I sucked in my breath and put my hands over my ears and shouted the word no silently inside my head over and over again, until it became a circular sound, rotating on, on, on, devoid of meaning.
We were at the windmill again, on a picnic blanket stolen from the back of my mother’s car, with snacks and hot tea in a flask that Edith did not touch. The blanket smelled of wet dog. I can’t remember why we were arguing. It had started in some small way and had become something bigger than me, bigger than both of us, an anger that started as mine but became ours. When she wouldn’t relent, I got up and stumbled out of the windmill, into the October gloom, the cold of the river singing out to me from its lair below the motorway. I ran, or tried to run, a little way into the brown-dripping woods and stood there in silence. Around me the prey and the predators alike made shuffling and scratching noises, tiny animal grunts in tiny animal throats, circling each other invisibly, and behind me, in the windmill, I had left Edith alone.
In the millpond—not really a pond, more a loop of the river, widened and bound at one end by the weir—cold lips surface and retreat and surface again. See the flies that speck the water. See them swallowed, one two three, a dance of perfect circles, water rippling outwards from the scene of death in concentric rings. Below, fish and smaller fish and bigger fish glide between alien weeds. Sink down, let loose your breath, and watch them. Watch the eels, barely visible in the murk of silt. They are millions of years old. They inhabited the fen when the fen was a salt marsh, and when the salt marsh was a sea.
We know so little of their lives. An egg in the ocean, a thread of glass twisting in the current. Elvers entering estuaries, growing, silvering, and returning to the sea. They spawn far from here, in the heart of the Atlantic, among golden fronds of seaweed, and begin the cycle anew. A circle, always a circle.
No one ever came to bother us there. No one else seemed to know the windmill existed. When we entered its bloated belly, we were in our own place, our own sanctuary, a treeline safe from pursuit.
I tried to explain it to Michael. I even took him there, once—this was years later— and walked under the motorway with him, where the concrete was dirtied and graffitied. We passed through the bands of trees and found the field, but the windmill was gone. I paced compulsively, looking for signs of bulldozers, for clues as to the destruction that must have taken place. The ground looked utterly undisturbed. Wheat stalks pressed up at me, tickling my legs with their stubbly faces. Michael grew bored and asked where the path went next. I said that there was no path. Eventually he persuaded me back along the riverbank, back to the car, and back home.
I didn’t want him to touch me that night. The wound felt fresh, the place where you were ripped from my body, and he was always stupidly sensitive about it, hated the way I cringed and flinched when he tried to touch me there. It’s not your fault, though. It’s never your fault.
After Michael fell asleep, I returned in my mind to the windmill. I pushed the blankets away to let in the cold and felt again the whisper of Edith’s hands on my skin, the sharp, tingling touch of her many bracelets. I still wore one of hers—one that had been hers and was now ours—on my right wrist, a thin gold chain with a dangling teardrop. I never took it off.
In the dark I reached down and caressed your head, your long neck. You swam up against my palm from your nest. I could never explain it to Michael, the way I felt for you. He just knew that something had happened to me in the past, someone that I had lost, and he tried to accept it, I think. But you can’t accept what you don’t understand.
In the water, I was a child again. I curled and bawled, searching for the safety of a mother’s arms, a way out of the black breathlessness. There was no way out. Regressing through time, I screamed, cried, a wailing infant once more, but at the same time an old woman, faded and frail, at the end of a life long lived. Any life is long, to the one living it. You grow old, become young, and the circle begins again.
We were in the garden of the tearoom. A long, winding garden, filled with twisted apple trees, beneath which languid students read and dreamed and wrote heated poetry. The late summer apples rotting below the deck chairs drew humming squadrons of wasps. Edith had ordered a scone with jam and cream, although she did not eat it. I picked at a cheese sandwich.
When the group of girls from school arrived, I sank low into the canvas of my deck chair and hoped they wouldn’t see me. Edith had no such concerns; arrogantly sure of her place as ever, she sat upright, her hips balanced on the wooden slat, pressing patterns into the cream with the tip of one finger. She didn’t seem to notice them even when they took the table right next to ours.
They did see me, of course. For a while they pretended they didn’t, which was worse. Their head tilts and stolen glances burned into me. Then one of them flicked a bit of soggy, moldy apple peel at me, and I couldn’t prevent myself shuddering and brushing it away.
“What are you doing?” one of them said to me then.
I didn’t reply. What did it look like we were doing? I tucked my head back down.
Edith stared at them with evident curiosity, as though she didn’t remember them at all.
“Are you here on your own?” said one of the others, cruel laughter lurking below her words.
I glanced at Edith. She grinned. Flecks of jam clung to her teeth like blood.
“Don’t be mean,” muttered one of the girls, and out loud to me she added: “Come and join us.”
I didn’t move.
“Wow,” they all started saying, and, “Rude,” and one of them muttered, “Freak.”
I stood up. I hadn’t finished eating, hadn’t paid, but I walked out of the garden, back toward the river, with my hands balled up in my pockets and my cheeks and neck hot. I could hear Edith following me. As we reached the gate, one of the girls said, in a carrying undertone, “You shouldn’t be mean to her. Her best friend died.”
Somehow that was the worst part.
We got on our bicycles and pelted out of Grantchester. Edith complained, shouting that I was going too fast, that she didn’t want to go near the millpond. I didn’t stop at the millpond, though. We left our bicycles under the motorway and went to the windmill. Only once we were inside, enclosed in the dark hot belly, the smell of decaying wheat surrounding us, did I let out my tears.
Edith held me. “Why do you care,” she kept murmuring. “Why do you care what they say. We don’t care.”
I clung to her. I wished I could not care the way she did.
“Edith,” I said to her, “are you dead?”
She stiffened, her arms lifting away from me. She didn’t answer.
Dead. The thing that happens when the water enters your skin. Do I remember that? Am I dead? We’re just bags of air, it turns out, full of holes, full of weakness. The pressure of the water in your throat hurts so much that you wish for gills. You wonder how it feels to breathe water. To inhale and taste bubbles of oxygen between your pharyngeal teeth. A singular, long fin snaking down your back. Soft, slippery skin and a blunt-nosed snout. To lie on the riverbed and dream, endlessly, of prey.
I don’t know how it happened. Like many things we do with our bodies, it will always seem a mystery to me, though it felt natural at the time. She dried my tears with her tongue and we pressed our faces together. In the dark of the windmill she held me, wrapping her legs around me, her whole body, a long and continuous thing which was sinuous and cold even as the beat of my chest flared to a wild heat. She put her hand to my lower belly, and that was when I first felt you, snake-like and slippery, flicking like a second heartbeat inside me. When she removed her hand, you remained.
I didn’t see Edith again after that. I woke in the moonlit mill, shaking with cold, my thin summer top damp with sweat. I got up and looked for her. The woods, the wheat field, the whole world was huge and empty and full of terror. I was too scared to cycle home in the dark. I sat inside the doorway of the windmill, shivering, clutching my knees, and it was just the two of us then. If I was quiet, if I didn’t move, I could feel your soft, small form swimming round in circles, as though contained in a tiny pool. I pressed my hands to my own skin with wonder.
The next morning, I rode home and got into the bath and lowered my head under the water. I could hear you then. The whisper of your gills, filtering liquid, filtering oxygen from my blood. The beat of your tiny elver heart. I began to cry, and my tears disappeared into the bathwater. I held my breath for as long as I could, until you started to thrash and wriggle in frantic swirls. When my head broke the surface again, the air tasted of river water.
You came with me everywhere. Invisible inside me, you were my accomplice on trips to the cinema, parties, late nights in the park with the other kids from school. I made friends, though I didn’t want them. I had boyfriends, though I didn’t like them. For a long time I refused to have sex, out of concern for you; how would you react to this fleshy intrusion into your underwater world? What if it hurt you?
Eventually, though, there was Michael. I was old enough by this point to have started doubting myself. To doubt that there was anything of importance living or unliving inside me. After my first time with Michael, I slipped out of bed and ran on cold bare feet to the bathroom. There I lay panting, naked, in the empty bathtub. I felt a horrible rushing sensation in my stomach and then you moved, slithering, pouring out of me. Your dark skin looked like a slick of oil, a slick of blood on the porcelain enamel. I forgot to breathe. Only when you wriggled, your blunt snout searching the air, your gills bulging, did I realise that you needed me. I pushed the plug into place with my toe and turned on the tap. Cold water shouted down at you, making you jump. We lay there together for a long while, until my skin shrieked with goosebumps. You twined your long body around my legs. I touched your head. You were real. You were mine.
Michael didn’t notice you. For years after that, you slept by my side, coiled and dreaming below the bed, and he never saw you.
I took you to work. I took you out to dinner. Everywhere I went, you were with me. You curled around table legs, twisting through the straps of my handbag. You breathed through your skin. An impossible creature; a miracle. On my lunch break, I walked to the river and let you slip into the dark, dirty water. Every time, my throat grew hard and tight with the worry that you might not come back.
And so, my love, we come to the night in question. Last night, in fact. Michael and I sat facing each other over plates of spaghetti piled with lumpy tomato sauce. His face drew tight as he prepared, once again, to raise the subject. I closed my ears because I already knew what he was going to say. Michael wants children. Michael wants to be a dada, a strong pair of arms, a steadying hand on the back of a child’s first bicycle.
He wants what I have with you.
We fight. It’s a tired fight. We’ve had it many times before. Below the table, I caress your neck, your long finned back, until Michael suddenly raises his head, his eyes burning in their red rims.
“Let go of it,” he says.
The low, controlled voice frightens me.
I say, trying for innocence, “Let go of what?”
And he stands. Somehow, suddenly, he looks at you. I don’t know what he sees. Slick skin, fangs, a nightmare creature, coiled around his wife’s ankles?
He says, and his voice is broken now, pleading, empty: “You have to let go of it.”
He leaves the room.
For a long time I fight against my tears. I don’t want you to see me cry. I’m your rock, your happy person, your smiling protector.
You twine into my lap. In your round, many-colored eyes, only love.
“I know,” I whisper to you. “I know.”
That’s how we came to be here. In the mist of the early-morning riverbank, back at the millpond, back where it began.
The trees are static with water droplets, enshrined in cloud. The colors are every shade of white, green, and purple. The river chuckles and rustles to itself. At the weir, someone has erected safety railings, with an angry red-and-black sign: Danger, No entry, No swimming. Enough people have drowned here on the Environment Agency’s watch.
I hold you close. Your head nuzzles my neck, leaving traces of cold, and of warmth.
With droplets of mist blurring my eyes, I let you go.
There’s no splash. To an eel, the water is not a barrier but a womb, not a surface but a second skin. Your body slips into the millpond and becomes a part of it.
You are not the first lost soul to swim in this pool. Byron swam here, and perhaps also Coleridge, and Rupert Brooke. Shelley, who died by water, though not here. I hold Edith’s bracelet to my chest, the golden teardrop dripping against my skin, and try to tell myself you’re in good company.
Your long body wriggles up out of the water, over the weir. Where are you going? Out into the river, the wide watery world? All the way to the Sargasso Sea? The length of your belly scrapes the low concrete wall where Edith and I used to lie every summer, head to head, bathed in gold. Even in autumn, in frostbitten spring, it was always summer to me here.
The longer I live, the less I think of life as linear—birth to death in a neat, straight line, start to finish. Now I see it more as a curve, unending. That was the way Edith continued her journey, after all: not gone but changing direction, circling round and round, like an eel below water, her life entwining with mine.
The spark that was once Edith, that was once me. What was Edith and what was me has become ours. What was ours has now become other, has become strange to us, and has become just one more of the things we did by the windmill. It goes out into the world and goes beyond us, and then, perhaps, we are free.