A short story based on the theme of Journeys and very relevant to my part of the world, where the River Wye is in serious trouble.
A visceral urgency goads her through the swells, a magnetic draw luring her to the place of her conception. This voyage was fated the day she abandoned her natal river to flourish in the ocean’s vastness.
Fay squeezes the steering wheel, squints through sunglasses against a lowering sun burnishing the hilly horizon.
‘It’ll be so good to see you, love.’ Her mother, gently encouraging. ‘He’s been asking after you ever since …’
Ever since he fell from the roof, where at eighty he should never have been. Fay’s stomach clenches as it had when first told the news.
This is a journey she rarely makes. She has outgrown the village, matured into the woman she craved to be when she fled dubious rural joys. London sang its siren song, and Fay hurried to be prey.
Saltless water kisses her skin. It washes away the playful silver blue which reflected sunlit surf. She sheds her brightness, donning sombre hues apt for this last momentous voyage. Her muscles too, bend to changing needs – a ship under full sail swapped for a fast, agile skiff. Her course is set. Every nerve pulls her upstream.
Fay’s heart skips despite itself when a valley reveals the span of the great bridge, that liminal space between lives. She crosses over into her old world, sensing the new slough away. She shifts in her seat, grimacing at the loss. It’s not for long. A mere few days.
She swims past banks where willows trail leafless branches in the water like hands in drifting leisure boats. Autumn leaves carpet sandy coves before being scoured by the tide. Blackberries hang heavy over the running stream. Other images play at the edge of her consciousness: the blue and green iridescent flash of spawning shad; of coiling lamprey with mouths clamped to rocks; of dimpled surfaces, the fleeting perches of dragonflies.
The drive along the river is a scarlet and old gold spectacle as shadows deepen with the sinking sun. A kaleidoscope of images crowd Fay’s brain: of hiking with her mother through glades white with ramson, picking her way across fallen logs and along paths zig zagging rocks balanced on steep hillsides. She smiles. Of afternoon teas with visiting aunts and cousins, her mother pouring from the white pot, herself offering hefty slices of cake or piled plates of scones.
She slows, stops, gills straining. Beneath her, the river bed is weedless, its colours faded like sepia prints. Above her, thick green algae blooms a garish green. The current is turgid, tugging at fibrous dark clumps which float, languorous, as if they belonged.
Rain falls, the water rises and she is freed, the journey resumed.
Home is minutes away when Fay sees ahead a circle of women standing on the river bank. They have lit candles, flames in glass jars proof against a light breeze. She slows, curious. Some wiccan cult, perhaps. A pagan tradition marking a transition point in the passage of the year.
She has swum the rapids and conquered the foaming water of the falls to rise at last to her birth place. Her fins scrape the gravelled bed, moulding a nest for her young. A hook-jawed mate hovers, guarding, encouraging.
Fay stops the car. Uncertain of her welcome, she steps quietly, lingering near enough to hear snatches of poetry, solemn and heartfelt.
Barren. Suffocating. Stagnant. Words to mourn a dying river.
More memories crowd her: of her father threading bait on her line, a net scooping up the catch from clear, running water; of paddling in shallows and, later, floating on her back, borne downstream, peering up at green and white cliffs. Her river, her valley.
She thinks of her mother’s forwarded, ignored petitions.
She has spawned, the next generation contained within the nest. She is done with oceans, with rivers. She eases into death, her body an inadequate offering to the faltering life of the river.
Fay pulls onto the gravelled drive.
Her mother stands in the yellow light of the open door, one hand raised in welcome. ‘Here you are,’ she says, with a hug which raises a lump in Fay’s throat.
‘Yes, and here for a while.’ Fay stands back, holds out her hands, palms up. ‘I’m here to help, however long it takes.’