HUNGRY WATER • by Jessica George

Down at the edge of the old mill pond, where the water-weeds wait to kiss your calves, stands Kelly with her grubby knees and her new school uniform. The bottoms of her pigtails are soaking wet, drip-drip-dripping endlessly onto her pressed white blouse.

Kelly — a smaller child’s fortuitous mispronunciation — is just what they call her now, of course. She’s had a lot of names, but this one suits the way she looks at the moment. It’s ordinary, and there are at least two girls in school who share it, so when the children in class call out to her, or ask their parents, “Where are Kelly’s mum and dad?” nobody needs to look puzzled or to frown. Kelly likes lessons, which she knows makes her strange, but she doesn’t mind the endless writing in exercise books, or the looming presence of the teacher, or even the wobbly desk at which she sits in the back right-hand corner. The noise and the chatter of the classroom buoy her, bubbling like a summer brook, and she only wishes that she could bring them home each night.

Home is lonely. However many she keeps with her, however hard she holds them in her heart, it’s always lonely. And it’s been a long time since the last, so very long. She’s been so good.

The bell rings for morning break, and she races with them out into the sunny yard. There is one, a girl, who plays games like they are life-or-death adventures, climbing higher than anybody else into the branches of the gnarled old tree by the school gate to peer into the neighbouring gardens. Her face is stern with concentration as she inches up, heedless of her laddered tights and the way her thick plait whips to and fro in the breeze.

“Stephanie!” comes a woman’s exasperated voice, from an open classroom window. “Get down from there this instant!” The girl’s frown breaks then, and she answers with a wicked grin. And, Yes, Kelly thinks, that one.

Enticing her down to the mill pond is easy enough. There are so many stories about the place — about a miller’s drowned daughter (and her ghost), about a pretty horse who vanishes beneath the water, its riders surfacing years later as old bones — that nobody with a drop of curiosity in her could resist. Kelly waits on the swing set in the park.

There is a man sitting on a bench opposite her. He sneaks glances at her from behind his newspaper, and Kelly knows he is eyeing the damp patches on her chest, the places where her dripping pigtails turn her blouse translucent. She could lead him up to the pond easily enough, if she wanted — but when you’re hosting for eternity, you have to choose your company with care. So she glares at him instead, true-faced for an instant, and the man blanches and corrals his gaze behind his Western Mail.

Across the park, Stephanie is approaching. Kelly waves and grins, and when she jumps up droplets fly wild from her hair.

“I’m not scared or nothing,” Stephanie says, as they walk down through the trees, “but won’t your mum and dad be cross? I told mine I was going to yours for my tea.”

“No,” replies Kelly. “Anyway, you’ll meet my family soon.”

Stephanie’s brow furrows, and maybe there’s just the tiniest creeping hint of a doubt in her eyes, but bravado wins out like it always does (because Kelly always chooses well), and she looks at her trainers and plods determinedly on.

The surface of the pond is glassily smooth, reflecting the latticework of trees and sky clear as a photograph. Stephanie stares into it with wonderment. Kelly stands beside her at the water’s edge, looking down, and down further, down beyond the reflections, down into the depths.

“Can you see them?” she asks.

Stephanie frowns at her. Then her eyes widen as they make themselves known; the swirling endlessness that is the truth of the place, and all of those who make it up, the decades, the centuries of souls. Kelly’s family.

And down at the edge of the old mill pond, where the water-weeds wait to kiss your calves, Kelly smiles.

Jessica George is a PhD student from Pontypool, South Wales. She writes what she feels like reading.

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