There. No, not there. Right there! See it? See the river? That’s where they lived, at the bend. By that brown spot. That moving one. See it moving? Cattails. Puffy bursts of white fluffy stuff on top. Like they’re wagging. Or nodding. Or maybe it’s the wind playing with them, because it’s bored.
See her walking, on the bank? See the cotton dress? Azuline. It has flowers printed on it, forget-me-nots. Her grandmother made it from her father’s old shirt, right after he died. She kept the buttons. The buttons were little pearls. Fake, of course, don’t think they were real. But she thought they were real, the girl, Ilka. She thought they were real, and she thought her dress was made from the sky, and she liked going to the river—a little stream, no more—to that rotting wooden bridge slung over from one side, sandy and flattened, to the other, grassy, and farther off, where the stinging nettles looked at her, nodding.
She knew not to touch them, she knew not to come near. She helped her grandmother snip them off, just right—she sensed their spite—right by the bottom of their thick hairy stalks, and then tear off the leaves in the kitchen, in the aluminum basin, and watch her grandmother make a soup, on the stove, and eat it later, with a bent spoon, puffing up her cheeks and hissing out air, cooling the greenish broth and watching half of the cooked egg float around, winking at her its yellow eye. Yellow like the water she looked into. The water of the stream. Golden. Like liquid sun or weak tea. Her grandmother liked weak tea with cubed sugar. She called it orphan’s piss and cackled and slurped it, her eyes smiling.
Ilka kneeled and flattened herself on the bridge and hung her head, close to water, the moving mirror, and watched pond skaters chase each other, stop, wait, as if for her signal, her weak whistle, then take off, their spindly legs moving so fast, they jerked from place to place. And Ilka thought how she would like to walk on water like that, smooth and cool to touch, like a melted sugar drop. It would hold her up, and she’d make friends, and they would run around and call to each other and escape the toad that croaked every morning—Ilka could hear it from the open vent of her window. Then down below, on the sandy bottom—no, over it—floated a shape. A long black line, shrinking, stretching. A leech. Ilka thrust her hand in the water and missed. She liked to roll them in hot sand with a stick and watch them squirm. The bloodsuckers. They didn’t disgust her like the other girls, and for that Andy next door let her ride his bike.
“Ilka!” Grandmother’s voice floated through the cattails. “Dinner!”
Ilka sighed, stood up, brushed off her hands and knees and skipped along the bank, in that azuline dress that played with the sky. Like it was saying, Look at me, we’re the same color. Aren’t we?
(Painting by Susie Pryor.)