by Julia Molloy
The water is always calm when I go out at dawn.
I run across Farmer Co’s field, parched grass crackling beneath my feet, and slip under his barbed wire fence. I lose myself in the forest, running and running in the early morning dark.
I keep running until I find the pool. I guess I must take a new path every day, but Ma always said I had a compass in my head. The water is glass. I remember Ma bringing me to this pool for the first time so she could wash a graze on my knee. I remember crying, then falling silent as I heard the birds come to life. Ma said they’d always be my friends. That one day, she’d teach me their song.
At the edge of the pool, I stop and sink my feet in a short stretch of mud. The smell, rich and pungent, fills my nose. I wiggle my toes and watch water-hopping bugs, tadpoles and fish swimming silently. My friends echo in the trees. Once, I told Da I saw a kingfisher. I told him Ma would have believed me even if I only saw it for a second. Da barked a laugh, then told me to wash the dishes.
My eyes skim across the surface of the water. It’s nearly winter now and the liquid is cold on my tongue. I can’t believe how much fresher it tastes than the water from our tap. I smile to think I’m the only one who knows this secret wellspring.
A snap behind me makes me jump. The birdsong falters. I turn around, but I can’t see anything except trees. The sun is struggling; it’s barely risen beyond the horizon. If I hadn’t been to sleep I could mistake this for night dark, not early morning dark. The night dark hides belt buckles and boots and bruises. I look into the forest again. The trees are ancient knobbled pillars, and they blind me.
I shiver and take a step into the water. The numbness calms me. I walk forward, and I’m in. My shirt billows about me in the wet as I reach the centre of the pool. My feet can still touch the bottom and I stop moving so the water returns to glass.
Another snap. Closer this time. I swivel in the water, disturbing the glass and ruining my luck. My father stands next to the trees. His belt buckle gleams.
I watch as he strips off his clothes, right down to the underpants. His tree legs are hairier than I’d thought possible. It’s the most I’ve seen of him and it gives me gooseflesh. His stomach is a solid beer barrel. He strides into the pool. He doesn’t flinch at the cold. He moves towards me and I catch a glimpse of his face. It’s calm like the glass of the water.
I stay still. My heart runs like feet on the ground.
‘Do you come here every day?’ he says. He crouches down so his head is level with mine.
I nod. My eyes flick past him to the belt buckle lying on the grass.
‘I didn’t know that. I guess there are a lot of things I don’t know, eh?’
I don’t say anything. I wonder if the night dark will ever go away.
‘Tell me something else I don’t know?’
His bass voice clashes with the treble among the trees. My heart has slowed now, stalking in its pace. I see the belt buckle again. He is waiting for me to speak, head lilting to one side. I think of Farmer Co’s sheepdog expecting food if she lilts her head like that. Da never gives in to the dog, but Ma did. Ma always gave in.
‘I’m cold now,’ I say.
I move past him, back to the bank. My shirt is a weight but I tell myself I’m building muscles, every day I’m building muscles. I step out of the water and glance back at him. He’s still in the same spot, watching. I wonder how I didn’t notice him following me. He always makes himself known at home.
I stand in the mud beside his clothes. The fresh mud smell cloys against the reek of last night in the material. I bend down and pretend to pick something out from between my toes.
‘I thought we could visit Farmer Co today. Help out on the farm, me and you. What do you think?’ The water groans as he wades towards me. ‘It’s a good skill to learn, farming.’
I hold the belt between my fingertips. I push my thumb against the corner of the buckle and test the strength before it pierces my skin.
‘What do you say?’
The trees seem closer, huddled together for the show. I don’t know where the birds have gone and I feel the fear in my fingers.
He is slow to come out of the water, and I swing the belt fast like he does. I feel the buckle bury in his flesh, right at the temple, where the glass buried in Ma’s flesh too. He steps back. His face twists, and so does mine. I’m not sure if the scream is him or me, or maybe it’s an anguished bird in the distance, its early morning song disturbed.
I run. I keep running through the forest, my heart skidding along with my feet. I run from the water like glass and lose myself in the trees.
Julia Molloy is a short story writer whose work has appeared at The Fiction Pool. She was shortlisted for the Fresher Writing Prize 2016 and longlisted for the Doris Gooderson 2016 short story competition. She graduated from Lancaster University in 2015 with a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing. Learn more at www.juliamolloy.org or Twitter @JRMolloy2.