Lucy’s parents never fight. But they have been snarling, sneering and snapping for so long that the quiet at the table tonight feels dangerous. This is the airless heavy silence in which escapes, rebellions, murders and suicides are resolved upon.
Even their eating is slow, as if any mistake could be fatal. Protractedly the forks scrape, the mouths squelch slowly. It sounds less like a silence than like a fight underwater.
They are the only eaters, their eating the only sound. All three children have finished. When she is not watching either seething parent, Lucy’s cleaned round plate looms up at her like a moon. Young Eric has one potato left, and has been holding it, turning it, licking it for ten minutes. He moves not like a child, but like one of the old mad people who don’t get off the bus. And Jenny is not at the table. She hadn’t waited permission to leave. She is away in the corner, half-buried in the calm, warm fur of Wilbur the dog. She looks at anxious Lucy with a kind of scorn, her eyes insisting that this is normal, that they can’t afford to care.
Lucy can’t keep looking at her brother and sister; they make her feel helpless. But they are where her eyes can rest without pain. Not on her mother. The back is hunched, the face pressed down at a cold plate not yet half-emptied. The eyes are not blinking, fixed down at pearly cold gravy. And not on her father. He is the same, but his short hair gives him less excuse to hide. Lucy can feel that he knows when she’s watching. She feels guilty. He blinks, he chews, there is neither silence nor movement, noise nor stillness, and her eyes itch runny and red.
After school the next day, there is something light about the house. Perhaps its spiders and mice have all moved on, a gold coin been hidden in every room, or a curse lifted by the far-off killing of a witch. When the children got home, Lucy had unlocked the front door and they had scuttled to their separate rooms. But now something has made this solitude less necessary.
As children slink with bafflement downstairs, mother and father appear, and the atmosphere in the house makes sense. The two of them step, stand, sit as one; smiling, straight-backed, talking, their eyes engaged in some unendingly important meeting.
The children are eating takeaways straight from the box. Their crime has gone unremarked. Lucy had watched her parents at first with a doggy guilt, wondering why she went unpunished. Now as she licks chip-salt off her fingers she is still looking at them, but with a fiercely investigative wonder.
They have not turned to her once. They are talking in one low tone, legs loosely entwined, eyes tightly bound. Neither of them has eaten, and yet there is a fully satisfied look to them. The house’s new light is theirs, and unlike Lucy they seem entirely undazzled by it.
Lucy collects the rubbish from her brother and sister, stops Jenny feeding Wilbur noodles, and tells the young pair to wash their hands. They ignore her, and she realizes that she is the only person standing up. Space plunges around her. She should feel happy this afternoon, but instead feels displaced. Her parents murmur unending music, and time seems slow.
The family have been in one room all evening, sharing the house’s newly lightened air. But Lucy has been shifting and twitching around, unable to find a comfortable spot amid the sounds of parents, siblings, television, dream-grumbling dog. Suddenly—finally—upon a sharp dwindling of light from the windows, her parents realize that they have children. “Come on up to the sofa,” they say, and Lucy stands happily, rescued, feeling less exposed.
Wilbur jumps up, Eric jumps up, Jenny jumps up. They dig themselves comfy, the legs of children, dog and parents becoming an instant, unslippable knot. There is no space for Lucy, so she leans onto her mother’s lap. “Oof,” comes a groan, “you’re so big, lean down a bit.” Now Lucy’s knees are in her brother’s face, and he squeals. She stands up and looks down at them, at their completed human jigsaw. They look back then turn to each other or the screen. Wilbur holds her eyes the longest.
Slumped onto the floor, Lucy digs her back into the unyielding sofa. Her mother’s hand hooks lightly into her hair, while she wonders what they are all thinking in the deep soft pool of noise. She is quiet and feels like the only one whose mind is turning over question marks. That bright contentment behind her shines distractingly hard like a sun on her back.
When the parents fling the dog and young ones off the sofa, it is yet hardly dark outside. “Lucy, can you put your brother and sister to bed?” They sit unhelpfully still. Jenny scowls into Lucy’s turning eyes.
Her parents have made the sofa their own, limbs sprawled out, father’s head on mother’s lap, gazing up at her face as if it were the night sky. He loves the night sky, and Lucy used to love to watch it with him. She looks at the young ones and knows they won’t obey her. She looks at her parents and knows they won’t help.
The floor below Lucy rocks slowly, side to side. The water gasps and claps each shift.
The boat is narrow, and as the young ones run from end to end, Lucy must lean back or step sideways. They make the floor rock to a madder rhythm. Mother and father are easy and unwobbled, filling the little sofa that makes the cramped galley a lounge where it’s not a kitchen.
The first morning on board, Lucy had tried to wedge herself into their calm talk: “Mum, Dad, I wanted to know, why are we here?”
Their twin eyes rolled over her, innocent as suns that give life without question. “It’s a little celebration, we need to start doing things together.” The eyes turned inward to meet again. Not to Lucy, not to Eric, not to Jenny. Not to Wilbur, left with friends. As the eyes met, the mouths smiled. As the ground rolled, the water slapped. Lucy swayed and could not smile.
Now at the table, the parents make low music out of whatever subject their mouths share. Lucy can’t focus on the words, only the woozy rhythm, the soft laughs like brushed drums. The boat rolls to their tune.
The young ones though are arguing, grappling, unmelodic, unstopped. Eric’s elbow comes down into his plate. He calls Jenny a “rat-face fool.” The parents don’t stop talking, though they turn. Lucy, who would be punished for such words, is almost angry, itched by the blanket of noise and motion that restrains her, but which she can’t quite get beneath.
She wonders if she is the one who should be punishing. The young ones ignore her. Her parents’ unsearching eyes sweep back over her to find each other.
The inside of the boat is thick with a silence that has trickled downward from the darkening deck. In the heavy air the rocking boat rolls that dewy quiet back and forth over the seated children’s skin. Mothers rock babies for sleep, but this boat wants to keep Lucy on edge, over-awake. She has to deal with a brother and sister who are silent when she wants to talk and riotous when her head needs rest.
She and they are playing a board game in the small room that they share on the water. Their parents float on the deck, wrapped in low evening sky, warm inside each other’s eyes. They sent Lucy downstairs, told her to look after the kids: not to play with, but to look after. They give this responsibility each time like a gift, but it’s no pleasure to her; it’s like kissing the grinning grandmother for Christmas.
The little electric light’s one ice-white beam casts shadows blue as dead lips, but the air is hot with it, their shared breath making things worse. Just as Lucy’s parents cannot fit her into their talk, so she blocks her siblings from happy play. Jenny has already said that she is a bored gamer, and explained the joke to Eric. Until he laughed, she made sure play was stopped. It is not that Lucy so enjoys the game, but she needs them to play smoothly, freely: that is vital.
She wonders when her sister began to dislike her, to act against her, to feel a difference between them and to want it ever wider. She wants to stamp this rebellion out but understands that, if she tries, the conflict will harden into hate—a rough scab over the now bleeding wound.
Somehow Eric has managed to win the game. There is no celebration. He and Jenny merely look to Lucy with intimidating expectation. She looks at her watch. If her parents would help… But she imagines their faces up there, locked into chill pale masks by the moon.
“The moonlight poured into the clearing. Tolipson could see the sword’s blade shining white. But the same light flickered in amber circles, and he knew these were the wolf’s eyes. It circled the sword. How would the tree-elf get to his weapon before he was attacked? At that moment he saw Clynendra burst out of the dark…”
“She’s the pearl-elf I mentioned at the start. Who was in the cage of ice and…”
“Another stupid elf. Lucy, this is just—You’re way worse at stories than Dad.” Jenny rolls her eyes and Lucy’s begin to hurt.
“Yeah, well, he’s not here, so…” Lucy looks down into shadows, at the half-smile on Eric’s face, his half-closed eyes. “Just because you think you’re too grown-up for stories, Jen... Why don’t you try to entertain us? It was good enough for Eric, wasn’t it, Eric?”
The boy opens his eyes and peers from sister to sister. Jenny is mouthing something to him. “Boring,” he says when he understands then he smiles as if he has won a prize. His eyes fall down and glimmer under the shadow.
“It’s not me who wants to be grown up,” Jenny grins viciously.
Lucy leaves them to plot against her, closing the door and making her way to sit on the empty sofa. The muffled voices through the roof, like the muffled voices through the door, fail to offer her one friendly word.
Up on deck it is not quite so dark as Lucy had expected. The trees that edge the canal are dark, but between them the sky seems like another waterway, sickly evening green as if the sun was sunk deep with its strangest fish. Light is sinking, but it pushes through. This surprises Lucy. The timeless electric light downstairs had convinced her that outside was the dead of night.
The dripping light paints Lucy’s parents in a few soft outer lines. They are turned against her, arms round shoulders. Voices stir, softer than the light. Slowly towards them she steps, steps as quietly as she can, as if noise would destroy something, a moment. As if, alerted to her, they would flee like forest animals, and their strange new magic would crack, and the sky would turn dark against her.
Behind them now, she feels that she could wait forever to be sensed. “Can you see the stars yet, Dad?”
Heads turn above the shield of backs and arms. “Oh, hello, Lucy. Not yet.”
It isn’t true. Some of the stars are already catching fire, deep in the watery sky.
“I just wanted to see Orion.”
“Maybe later, Luce.” And they are talking again, words barely there for the hearing. A bat ripples the air above. Close up, a bat is a fearsome thing—teeth the size of eyes, crunching insects, hanging head-down like meat in a butcher’s—but out across the dusk it is a brief, beautiful flutter.
“Did you see the bat, Mum?”
“No, Lucy, sorry.” They murmur while the stars scorch the sky black. Lucy watches without sitting down.
“You can see the stars now, Dad.”
“Oh, god, Lucy, it’s been twenty minutes! Can you make sure your brother and sister are okay?”
She can. She has to. She swaps the night sky for a flaky ceiling.
The beds are comfortable, and the water has rocked the young ones to sleep like babies. But in the dark, self-wrapped in tender blankets, Lucy is not asleep. She listens to their breathing like a mother.
Voices tap at the wall, voices in which she cannot make out the words of adulthood. And she is thirsty. It feels like someone is towelling away at the inside of her throat. On and on the water slaps outside.
She feels her way through the narrow dark to the kitchen. Where is the sink? When she turns the tap, it squeaks in protest; it spins but gives her nothing. There is a fridge—they must have some juice. But it is empty; all it contains is its light and its hum. Both seem rude here in the water-lulled gloom.
She stands among the quiet and the dark. The top half of her body is a desert, dry sand rubs the nerves. All that water outside, “and not a drop to drink,” she murmurs. Must be from a song, but she knows it in her father’s voice. Is it too late to disturb them? There must be a switch for the tap. They’ll know.
She creeps to the far end of the boat where their room is. She feels young, like when she used to tiptoe into their room at night, when lightning lit the window and thunder slapped the glass. She turns the door handle. It is locked.
She can hear their voices, awake. They must have heard her twist. But nothing happens, their sound goes on. A silence grows on her side of the door.
She should knock, or call. But she can only imagine them being annoyed. Telling her to look after herself, to look after the young ones. If Eric wanted water he would get it; he is so small. Eyes open in the dark, Lucy sits by the door until they go quiet, then slinks back to bed alone.
The next morning, as Lucy is pouring herself another glass of water, her parents drift downstairs from another soft-voiced hour of hugging on deck.
“Did the kids have their breakfast, Lucy?” Lucy had made toast and buttered it, but Jenny had still found something to complain about. Maybe Lucy could be angry that her parents are doing nothing, or that they sway around in this cloud-soft freedom when the love that floats them is an invention of the last week, when it was never there before. Instead, locked outside it, she is just tired and depressed at what they expect her to manage while they show off. She feels like one of the foreign children on TV who work in mines or factories, whose bosses are adult and workless and rich.
“Good stuff. Now, we’re going for a walk.” Lucy has learned that this “we” does not include her, and she slumps. She hears Jenny and Eric laughing, distant. She feels far from home. “The canal’s so beautiful; the sun’s at this angle so the water’s all green with tree-light, rippling like diamonds. You can smell the world.”
Let me see it, Lucy thinks, let me smell it. But her anger cannot rise as an anchor of sadness sinks through to the depths of her. The parents, meanwhile, laugh up the stairs, rising like clouds into the freedom of the sunny tree-light. “We’re going to leave the kids with you, since you’re doing so well on your own. You can, can’t you?”
It is a while since their parents went. It is longer since breakfast. The empty fridge’s light gets swallowed in the kitchen day. Jenny swings its door back and forth, slams it at last, comes to the table and starts to loudly tap her fingers. Eric—missing Wilbur, Lucy guesses—is hugging a cushion on his chair.
Lucy is thinking. Why did her parents bring them along at all? As guard dogs to watch over the boat more fiercely as they got more hungry? She thinks they needed someone to leave alone, just so they could feel together. They needed someone to miss them so that they could feel free. She sits at the table. She glances into her siblings’ eyes. Eric’s are turned down, Jenny’s fixed forward with such harsh strength that Lucy’s turn down too.
“Not more elves, Luce.”
“The challenge for you to tell us a story of your own is still open.” Lucy hates herself for sounding like a teacher. It could only have been worse if she had said “young lady.”
“Stop being awful.”
Lucy pauses, wishing her parents were here to tamp Jenny down. “Well, what do you want then?” Lucy herself would like some order, some justice, some protection.
“Fresh air.” Jenny stands up. Eric is nodding as if he will never stop.
Lucy looks at the stairs, the open door at the top of them. Light curls down like a finger, saying “come and taste.” The parents hadn’t told her not to go outside. This reluctance, this bad feeling, this urge to say no, is all hers. But she doesn’t want to turn into a teacher.
“Okay, good plan,” she says.
The path had been too damp for them to walk far. Now Eric is crawling on all fours, from bow to stern and back as fast as the boat’s smooth curved roof will support him. His shoes have streaked it with mud and moisture. Jenny sits at one end, swinging a leg and looking from water to sky. Lucy sits at the other, taking pleasure in the air, but watching brother and sister with a scowl.
The trees knit together into a screen. Thin leaves that hang like fingers, leaves that ball up like cauliflowers, wide leaves that drape like tablecloths or shrouds, a hundred greens; all one mesh. From beyond it, road-sounds from down the valley reach Lucy. The noise from this other world deepens the lines of her scowl. If there were just the sounds of nature here—the wind, the water, the birds—then she could believe that they were in some free and perfect place of eternal youth, playing among eternal green. But the cars are like the distant nagging sounds of parents and teachers. “Look after the young ones.” Just because she is the oldest doesn’t mean she’s not young.
She shushes Eric, who smiles, spins and wobbles off again. Maybe the way to treat the young is to let them be free. Always you hear that kids used to play unwatched in the streets for whole days. But didn’t they work in mines as well? She can ask the parents, if they ever stop talking. Their words take them away from her, wrap them against her, hide them like the bandages round a mummy.
She hears the bad silence almost before the noise that caused it. The birds have closed beaks, the wind has fallen, the boy has squawked, the water has shouted and shut up. Only the cars grumble on.
There is a stillness. The roof is empty, Eric’s motion gone.
The quiet breaks like dropped glass. Jenny is yelling now, but it is the smug on-going hum of the cars that moves Lucy. Both girls are on the roof now, unsteady on knees, bending down towards the brown water that topples over and over like a drunk man against the side of the boat. Eric can’t swim, and neither girl can see him.
Jenny’s eyes are no longer on the water. She shouts at Lucy, hammering at the air as if to crack a sheet of ice. Some sort of blame, some sort of accusation. Lucy needs quiet for thinking. She leans down, but her outstretched child-hand waves uselessly, far from the calming murk water. Leaning out farther, she half-wants the brown ripples to swallow her. Instead the water bursts. It coughs up a soaked, sticky boy’s head. Eric’s face rolls over, his hands spurt up and roll through the air. He hangs like a vandalized scarecrow, but in a second he will sink again.
Lucy makes no plan. It is a half-lean, a quarter-jump and something like a dive. She has Eric’s hand, but it is as if he is the one supporting her; she certainly isn’t falling. His weight tugs, she is stretched. So much noise now: shouting, splashing, choking, birdsong, cars. Her heart punching her eardrums. A violent darkness has torn through the green tree screen.
Lucy fights a wish to fall through that darkness. She pulls Eric’s hand towards her. Her legs hurt. A weight. Jenny is clenching them. Teamwork. Lucy is so glad to have a sister. Eric is halfway out of the water, and now, freed from the darkness, he is squalling like a newborn. He clasps the side of the boat.
Lucy lets go of him and pushes herself backwards against Jenny, rising to her own safety.
Lucy sees Jenny tumbling only once her sister is the wrong way up in the air. The water is just a short fall away, but her body hangs briefly as her back hooks over a brass railing and swings her head against the hull. It doesn’t bounce, and as the rail spins her limbs free they slump straight down after it to vanish under milkshake brown.
The canal accepts her quietly and leaves Lucy’s head to throb with noisy shock. The bump of her back against Jenny echoes through her. Eric has hauled himself into the far end of the barge. He is bawling, and through his tears and his mud-water he may not have seen Jenny fall.
But he starts to shout, to point. Lucy’s heart pinballs its way down between her ribs. He points at the rolling water, the ripples of Jenny that seize then swiftly settle, leaving no shape of a girl.
Lucy leans down, poised, breathlessly alert, waiting for her sister to explode from the water, to be spat back out like something that tasted bad. A wind starts up, the sound of one car rises and falls. Eric’s noise ebbs on close by. The water remains flat.
Why have they been arguing so much? The still canal ripples only from the wind. Lucy feels it herself, wet fingers twitching with chill. Someone needs to get Eric warm and dry. But there is only one of Lucy, watching the water.
At the far end of the boat, the sole of a shoe pokes sheepishly up against the surface of the thick water. There is no ripple. It floats still, pale white like the belly of a fish.
When Lucy hauled Jenny out, her sister had moaned, spluttered, twisted, but now that she is laid out flat and freezing on the roof she is still.
Look at the long cut and the wide bump under Jenny’s soaked hair. It was Lucy who put them there.
Lucy wants that voice out of her head. Eric watches. He stands slack, starting to shiver, his screams exhausted into an unending moan. Lucy has told him to get inside, but he stands. He has nothing to hug now, so he clutches at his own shoulders.
Lucy’s numb wet fingers touch Jenny’s face, cannot feel heat or cold. There comes every now and again the tiniest breath, or a twitching through the eyelids. Water runs out from underneath Jenny like sand from an hourglass, dribbling down the sides of the curved roof. The boat, the children are soaking. But Lucy needs a drink; there is that towel in her throat.
The canal path is empty. Eric is the only noise, his madman twitches the only motion. Lucy looks on the half-shut eyes of her bleeding sister, remembering the scorn that burned inside when they were open. When had they stopped being friends, stopped feeling like sisters? Lucy stands. She crouches and slides off the roof.
“Eric, keep her warm, pinch her face.” He does not even turn. “ERIC!” He slouches onto the roof, crawls to Jenny, sags beside her. In his wet clothes he moves like a slug.
“I’m going for help, okay.”
“Nooooo!” he screams. It feels like pain to leave him, like tearing off a finger to escape a snare.
“Just need help,” Lucy calls, throat struggling for volume. Eric does not respond, just lies moaning. Lucy begins to run.
Lucy has heaved her heavy clothes, heavy limbs, ice-heavy blood around two long bends when she finally meets someone.
It is an old woman, hunched, shaking, thin-limbed as a spider. She won’t be much help, but she may have seen the parents.
“Well, young lady, I might indeed have seen them,” she slowly drones. Now that Lucy is still, an ache is rising through her lungs, pushing out into the fingers and toes she could hardly feel before. She prays for the old woman to hurry up. “Yes, maybe indeed. There’s a lovely young couple on a bench about half a mile back.”
“Half a mile?” Lucy can do that no problem, if she doesn’t freeze into place waiting here. It is now that she realizes that the sun has shone all through her struggle.
“So in love they looked, yes, so together, so at one. You are a lucky young woman indeed.”
“I’m not, I’m not. They left us on the boat and my sister fell in and I need help, a doctor, we need help.” Lucy is panting and croaking, and she is somehow unsurprised to feel that she is crying, too.
“Oh, how dreadful. How awful. Dreadful.” A cobweb hand on Lucy’s arm. “Well, it’s terrible, I mean, who was in charge, who should have been looking after her?”
Lucy needs to stop talking to this ancient time-waster. They’re both getting older as they speak. She feels it. Half a mile there, half a mile back. In these clothes, flapping heavy and cold. And Jenny breathing like the opening and closing of fairy wings, something too light to be human… Lucy gets ready to run, but glances back to the woman. With a little resignation and a little anger she sighs, “Who do you think?”
Ali Chetwynd, generically British, is finishing up a PhD on anti-mimetic fiction at the University of Michigan. He started work on the present story, and the linked series of children’s fictions from which it comes, long ago while school teaching in Bulgaria. Read it to a child, if you know one.