Kelpie by Memuii.jpg

THE COLOUR OF WATER

 

The horse was clearly dying.

Carved between the woods was a clearing, with a wide river meandering through its middle. It arrived from over a large drop at one side, and disappeared down another about a hundred feet away. The scene was dressed with the odd scatter of wild flowers, rough grasses peeking infrequently through muddy patches and stretches of gravel, and a single tree which had fallen across the water to form an excessively large bridge. The clearing was totally silent. Empty of life. Apart from the horse.

              It was a stallion with a pure white coat, sprawled sidelong through the water’s edge, not far from the fallen tree. His undercarriage heaved in and out, clouds of condensation sputtering from his nose, eyes glistening in the early morning sun. He was watching something. Something in the thin shimmering steam which rose from out of the deep purpling gashes that scattered his body. It was as though the creeping fever which shivered beneath his skin had begun to carefully cremate the creature from the inside out. Nature was reclaiming his body. Soon he would be washed away, downstream, to settle in the bottom of the lake. Nothing more than silt sleeping beneath the tadpoles and carp.

              Thomas raised the gun from his side.

You need this more than me.

 

The tree fell in the wrong direction.


Creaking, it leant towards the river, turning mid-fall to watch its last sunrise. As it slumped through the air, the leaves hushed its groaning body with a collective sigh. One last lullaby, a final memory for the winds before they resigned to the water. The earth clung to the roots, held the stump like a lover, reluctant to let go. It was unaware that the tree had died prematurely. Hadn’t heard the trunk screaming as it was severed by steel.


              As the tree crashed down across the river, Katherine cursed beneath her breath. She had been trekking through the thick woodland for a number of hours. There were only two conditions she’d had in mind: a break in the thicket, open and wide, free from obstructions. And a single tree. One in particular – unassuming but uncommon – with wonderful flesh to work with. Strong but yielding, able to hold great detail. This particular tree, precariously grown by the water’s edge, was exactly the kind she’d been looking for.

              She’d thought if she was careful enough, she could have brought it down parallel to the river. But despite her best efforts, these calculations were complicated: how does the tree lean? where is the wind? how heavy are the branches from this side to that? where should the cut be made?

              It was a shame, she thought. Had it fallen where she’d intended, she could have made use of the entire thing. Now she’d be limited to whatever she could reach, which much to her dismay, was only the first ten feet of the trunk.


What a waste. Let’s hope it’s enough.

 

D’Artagnan reared up.


Anya desperately tried to settle him. She was acutely aware of the drop behind them, where the river cascaded down a steep rock face some thirty feet high.

              Something in the woods – she couldn’t see what – had startled the horse. He shook his head, shuffled and scuffed his hooves in the dirt, bringing them closer and closer to the edge. Anya didn’t know what to do; D’Artagnan was becoming increasingly distressed despite her best attempts to soothe him and with every whinny and scream he moved further and further back. She tried desperately to redirect him, but riding bareback and with no tack meant relinquishing nearly all control. It was an exercise in trust and she had always trusted D’Artagnan. But today, there was something wrong. Something in the woods. She made one last attempt to calm him. But his eyes remained wild, darting around the river and the trees, scouring the scrubland, terrified. He reared again.

              D’Artagnan toppled as his hind legs buckled and slipped from the ledge, throwing Anya from his back. The pair fell like dolls, rolling down the cliff face and dashing against the rocks, until finally they came to a crumpled halt at the river’s edge.

 

Anya managed to haul her legs out from under D’Artagnan’s body.


Fighting to stay conscious, she slowly got to her feet, shivering viciously, her breathing shallow and erratic; they had landed in the levees and were soaked to the skin.

              Even with the dwindling warmth of D’Artagnan’s body, it hadn’t been enough to keep the late winter air at bay – the two had easily been slumped in the water for more than an hour. Anya winced as the cold briefly subsided to the weeping pains of cuts and gashes which covered her body. Her legs felt weak; she could just about stand.

              D’Artagnan wasn’t in much better shape. He was bloodied from head to tail and Anya was certain he must have broken multiple bones. But he was at least alive. She shushed his soft murmurs, couldn’t help but cry when she saw the look he gave her; D’Artagnan knew he was going to die. It wouldn’t be long. But Anya refused to believe what she too, knew before they fell. She headed towards the treeline, limping and crawling up the bank, hoping to find someone. Anyone.

 

Julien saw D’Artagnan from the edge of the wood.


The contents of his back pocket started buzzing. Minute vibrations murmuring softly. They were calling to him. He placed a hand behind his back to calm them.

              It was an odd sensation, but not unfamiliar. Twice in the last year it had occurred; the first time was during a holiday in Italy, when he had seen a man throw himself from the top of the Colosseum. The second was shortly after his nephew had died, as he watched the child-sized coffin from the back of an empty mortuary.

              Stepping carefully down the steep bank, Julien made his way to the water’s edge. He slung the canvas down from his shoulder and leant it against the stump of the fallen tree. Then he set down the wooden box from under his arm, flicked open the little golden latches and showed the clouds its contents: a plethora of earthy tones, deep reds and cool blues, a few dirtied yellows. He looked between the horse and the box, as if enamoured by the space between them.

              The horse was white and Julien had none left in his palette.

              He supposed he could always make it a blood-bay.

              After all, when was good art ever a true recreation?


He sat with the thought for a second, then reached for his back pocket and withdrew the brushes.

              He began to paint.

 

In the midst of the trees was a woman.


Anya gasped, a hot rush of pain surging through her lower back. The sensation faded as it reached her legs. She tried to call out to the woman, but her throat had started to swell, her words lodged in her oesophagus. Squinting through the thicket, Anya watched the woman. She hadn’t moved. She was sitting there, completely still, silent. Cautiously, Anya began to approach, pushing through the trees towards her. It was then that she realised that it wasn’t a woman. Or rather, that it was, but a woman carved from wood.

              Stumbling out from the trees towards it, Anya moved around to face the figure. It was immaculate. Her naked body was carved with such precision, every curve, every angle, every indentation was seamless. She was sitting hunched, legs tucked into her chest, on the stump of a tree. Her arms wrapped around them, head bowed in the space between, her hair – a series of intricate patterns layered and intertwined – trailed along her neck, down between her broad shoulders to rest at the small of her back. All at once she seemed both hopeless and peaceful.


Anya began to cry.



                            Not because it was beautiful.

              Not because it was sad.


But because all Anya could think of was how cold that woman must have been.


She was naked. Alone. Afraid.

She had been completely abandoned.

              And Anya knew.


                                          She knew that she was going to die.


Anya removed her bloodied coat and placed it over the statue’s shoulders.

              Then she turned, and started back towards the river.

              Back towards D'Artagnan.

 

Thomas held the gun to his head.


It was November. Yet the metal lips pressed an almost warm kiss to his temple. He felt its invisible tongue tentatively lick the sweat from the surface of his skin. An intimate moment. But he didn’t close his eyes.

              He didn’t want to.

He just sat for a while, hand steady as the sunrise, watching the magenta sky begin to bleed from out of the treeline and into the morning.


As the sun peaked the horizon, he looked away. Down at the violin on the floor. He remembered the way the strings would shimmer as the bow was drawn across them. The familiar sound they made; a broken-voiced choir of sad girls with no homes and no names.

              The bow lay beside them, bare as a new-born; no hair – no string.           It was lifeless.


Stillborn.




                                                                                                                                He’d never meant to be a musician.


Thomas closed his eyes.

               

                                          The trigger sighed.

                               

                                                                                    The safety, clicked.

                                                                                                               



                                                                                                                He couldn’t even die right.




Lowering the gun from his head, he flicked the safety switch.

              Began to lift it back to –





                                                                                                                                                               

                                                                                                                                                                                                                 There was a voice.




It was singing. A song Thomas had never heard before.

              It drifted through the branches of the trees and settled like the tips of paintbrushes on the insides of his ears. For some time, he didn’t move. He just listened.

              Thomas lowered the gun, retrieved his violin from the fingers of cold grass. Then he followed the melody, walked through the sunlight and into the woods.



Is this how death sounds?

 

It was then that Julien saw her.


On the far side of the river, a woman stood watching him. She was young, perhaps in her late twenties, with pitch, waist length hair. Her eyes, a deep ivy green, seemed hollow, pupils wide and searching, rubescent sockets glowering. Her skin was pale and she was soaking wet. As she stepped out from the treeline, Julien saw that she was limping, saw the series of dark stains dappled across her white shirt. She stumbled down the bank, lost her footing, and fell, coming to a halt at the bottom of the slope where she lay still.

              Julien stared. For a moment, he simply stood, unmoving.

              He glanced at the fallen tree.


Getting swiftly to his feet, he hoisted himself onto the trunk, mindful of the delicate frost which layered the upside. He called out to the woman, but she offered no response.

              He hastened his step.




As Julien reached the midpoint of the tree, the woman stirred. As she tried to stand, she let out a pained yell, clutching her abdomen.




              The stallion screamed.

Startled, Julien lost his balance, cursing as his legs slipped out from beneath his body, his lower half colliding with the trunk and slinging him backwards, headfirst into the water. Within a second, he was completely submerged. The icy water seemed to strip him of his flesh and all he could feel were his bones, joints creaking as they seized up and refused to move, leaving him paralysed, staring up at the surface, searing wide eyes glazing over, helpless.


              A small leaf drifted over his body and under the tree.

              It blissfully meandered towards the edge of the cliff.

                            Julien was at peace.




                Move.

Panic restored his senses. He was about to drown.

                Move!

He blinked, felt the adrenaline shoot through his arteries. His limbs began flailing, trying to find the floor. But the floor wasn’t there. He thrashed around in the water to look for the bottom. His eyes met with an abyssopelagic darkness. His pupils swallowed his irises in the search for a light source. Writhing and rolling, heart sinking, he looked for the surface. But the surface wasn’t there.


              Julien screamed. He couldn’t help it.

Not even to save the dwindling November air in his lungs.

              This was the end.

He was going to drown.




I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.

 

Someone grabbed the collar of Julien’s shirt.


As his eyes began to close beneath the weight of the freezing water, his relenting body reeled upwards. In a rush of water and air, he surfaced, lungs burning, gasping and coughing. His head felt thick and heavy, ears deaf and full of water. Before long he was blinking frantically as his eyes tried to adjust to the sunlight. He attempted to stand but still couldn’t find the floor; he was treading water. Looking around, he expected to see the woman. But she wasn’t there. Or rather, he wasn’t. Bewildered, Julien tried to remember what had happened.


              He was no longer in the river. He was in the middle of a lake.


Julien’s ears suddenly cleared and he heard the waterfall behind him. He could only assume that he must have been dragged down stream by the current, washed over the edge and somehow landed in the plunge pool without crashing into any of the hundred harsh-edged rocks that jutted from the cliff side. He was alive and frankly it was a miracle. He’d felt for sure he had drowned.

                He swam to the shore, began making his way back to the clearing. The woman still needed his help. He still needed to finish the painting.

 

Darcey wanted to sing.


She needed to clear her head and it was the only way she knew how. Her brother’s funeral had brought with it, a crowd of people she despised. She left the service early, strayed into the nearby woodlands to find somewhere quiet, to mourn in peace; they made it impossible. The way they all spoke about him; poor boy, such a shame, it’s so hard to believe he would do such a thing, so sad. They had no idea. None of them really knew him. She doubted any of them even wanted to attend. They didn’t care, they couldn’t, they were only there as a formality.

                There’s nothing formal about death, she’d thought.




Once she was far from the funeral, somewhere that nobody could hear her, Darcey sang. A song she only knew from her time with Elisha, who had been her singing tutor for several years. She’d never heard it before meeting her, and hadn’t heard it anywhere since. She wondered whether Elisha had written it. She’d never told Darcey if she had. All Elisha said was that she’d never heard anyone else sing it so beautifully.



                                     ...and then the clouds came creeping…

                                                                                                            …as if the sky was cut and bleeding…

                                                    …across the seas and the rivers…

                                                                                                                              …for all of us who weeping…

                                                                                         …stood so silently…



Darcey wandered through the woods. She’d always felt she belonged to nature, hated the urban, civilised world. It was a harsh, uncomfortable place to her, and far too predictable. Unkindness, misunderstanding and mindlessness, set on repeat like a one track broken record. She could imagine already, all of those people stood at his service, phones in their pockets, eager for their thumbs and fingers to start tapping away no sooner than his coffin touched the sixth foot; poor boy, such a shame, it’s so hard to believe he would do such a thing, so sad.

               


                                                   …the clouds came creeping…

                                                                                                           …as if the sky was… bleeding…

                                                   …across the seas and the rivers…

                                                                                                                               …all of us… weeping…

                                                                                      …so silently…



                She thought about what Elisha had said.


If the wind had a voice, Darcey,

                                         it would sound like yours.




The sound of a gunshot burst out of the sky, causing a flock of small birds to scatter into the air like dandelion seeds.

                                Darcey flinched.

 

Thomas grieved for the horse.


Or perhaps for himself. He couldn’t decide which. Maybe it was both. Either way, the silence of the clearing was clawing at them and he couldn’t bear it.

                Thomas took out his pocket knife and cut several lengths of hair from the horse’s tail. Then he began the meticulous process of rehairing his bow. The chill in the air made it all the more difficult, but he’d spent the best part of his life working in his father’s repair shop. This wasn’t the first bow he’d restrung, certainly not the first without proper tools. But it would perhaps, be the last.


                He’d always had a talent for fixing things he’d broken.






                                Once Thomas had finished, he retuned his violin.

                                                       Then, he played; a melody for the dead horse.

                                                                One last lullaby, a final memory before he faded away.

                                                                                          Before he departed forever.

                                                                                                Thomas closed his eyes.






A woman’s voice bled into his mind. It was the same voice he had followed to the clearing. Thomas smiled. He looked for the voice.

                Found the woman stood beside him. She smiled back.





   

                                     ...and then the clouds came creeping…

                                                                                                            …as if the sky was cut and bleeding…

                                                    …across the seas and the rivers…

                                                                                                                              …for all of us who weeping…

                                                                                         …stood so silently…






Thomas left the clearing with Darcey, decided to take the strange abandoned painting they found beside the fallen tree. Couldn’t bring himself to leave it behind.

                He thought it was far too beautiful.

 

The sun had started to set.


When Julien returned to the clearing, he discovered that his painting had gone and the woman was nowhere to be found. But the horse –

                The horse was different.

                               

                                The horse was exactly how he had painted it.

                                               

                                                A dead blood-bay stallion.


                                                                Tiny pale flowers growing from its wounds.









                                                                                                                                Julien took his paint and brushes.

                                                                                                                                                Threw them in the river.




Then he left.

 
 
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©2019 Danny Adams