I sat on the foreshore of the Thames with Fluvi and Cemetery Joy. Together we watched the man struggling.
My toes dug deep into the sediment and stones, the accumulated detritus of the filthy city. The tide crept closer in tiny increments. Today I found that its endless cycle exhausted me.
“He’s doing well.”
Fluvi had a big smile on his face, the old undine gripped by the precarious moment.
“Not well enough,” said Cemetery Joy with unbecoming relish. “This one’s mine.”
The flailing figure vanished under the surging grey flume.
Fluvi stood up and stared across the surface of the river with a disturbing intensity. I noticed his fingers twitching. He seemed always on the edge of a frantic dissolution. The condition of his river chafed. Its concrete casket was his to suffer, too.
“What do you think, Arbs?” Entreating me to join in, like my support would make any difference to the outcome.
“I think the Child is an old man. It’s not a game to him.” I wriggled my toes deeper. “Make yourself useful and help him out. He’s praying hard to you right now, whether he knows it or not.”
Cemetery Joy clucked at me, half a scold and half a come-on. “Now now, Arborius, you know the rules. No direct interaction with the Children. Intervention is mercy.”
“What would you know about mercy? All you care about is your garden growing.”
She feigned shock. “I care for the Children, too. Even the misguided ones.”
I ignored her. Fluvi barked a sharp laugh, and I saw that the man’s head had poked above the water again. It looked like a little lost ball, drifting indifferently on its final journey to the sea.
“It’s not over yet!” Fluvi’s fists were balled, mouth set in a rigid line.
I stood up and walked to the water’s edge, the liminal space between earth and water, life and death, the old world and the new. Ran the water through my fingers, just for a moment. Cold and greasy. A light touch, but it would be enough, perhaps. It was important that Fluvi stayed calm.
Cemetery Joy’s gaze was boring into my back. Her suspicions were like claws. I stymied her questions with a little provocation.
“They are all misguided, Joy. That’s why they need mercy.”
She snorted. “Not this one!” She stretched lazily. “Even he knows it. He jumped, after all.”
“I believe he’s changed his mind.”
“The children have little appetite for reality!”
“The Numina either, in my experience.”
“Quiet, you two!” Fluvi’s anger was growing with the realisation that he was going to lose. His restraint would soon be breached, and then all would suffer. Already the current was getting faster.
We both stayed silent for a long moment. The tiny head was gone again. I could hear Joy humming under her breath.
I looked up and saw the driftwood sweeping down the river. An alder bough, branches and leaves still attached. It was moving fast, surfing the current with abandon. As we watched, the flow slackened for a moment, the bough’s progress briefly arrested.
The head resurfaced, and then an arm. The old man pulled himself half onto the wood and rested his head against it. Even across the distance, I could feel his fear and relief entwined.
Fluvi turned to look at me, his body trembling. For a moment his face twisted, and then the features went as still as the surface of a pond. He turned to Cemetery Joy. “Fortune shines on him. I win.” The undine sat down on a block of rubble, his tension seemingly drained away.
Joy looked at me for a long moment. “So it seems.”
After some time, Fluvi started to snore. Even the elements must rest when they can. Out on the river a lifeguard boat was finally roaring towards the old man, still clinging on for his life. He would live a little longer.
I stood at the edge of the water, and Cemetery Joy stood by my side.
“You won’t be able to placate him forever. One day the rage will overpower him and the city will drown, as it must. And I will win. I always win.” She turned away. “Your mercy will count for nothing.”
I stayed silent. She was right. I was just buying more time.
But what else was there?
Rob Francis is an academic and writer based in London.