Deep-Sea Diver

By Simon Larsson

My name is Emily Marsh. I live with my mother in a grey stone house with white casements. All the houses in our village look like our house—the school does, too. There, Mother is Mrs. Marsh. In our house, Mother prepares and corrects tests, and she keeps her hair in a knot. Our house has a garden overgrown with nettles, and there's a pond where there used to be a cherry tree. Our house is full of real things that aren't there.

When I grow up I'm going to be a deep-sea diver. Mother doesn't want me to. When I talk about the sea, she points out that I haven’t yet seen the sea and that there's a good reason why nobody goes down those cold, dark depths. She thinks this will scare me, but it doesn't. It's she who is afraid.

Once every two weeks the book bus parks in the village. Miss Tufton, the librarian, always brings me something she thinks I might like. Among other things, I know that sharks don’t have swimming bladders, which means that they have to keep swimming or drown, and that at one point, millions of years ago, all living things were in the sea.

On the wall above my bed I have fifty-five drawings of myself and the sea, and I've just finished my fifty-sixth. I like best the ones with my atmospheric diving suit—it's orange—and the big helmet with the little window. Mother likes best the ones in which I’m on my ship with my crew. She wants me to draw more of those.

But I'm not lonely—Crooked Rufus was, and that's why he left the village today. I'm not like him, and I'm not going anywhere. Not for quite some time. This is what Mother needs to understand.

Aaron saw him first. This was yesterday. The boys were leaving the schoolyard through the gap in the hedge, the quicker way to the village, when they stopped. Aaron was pointing in the direction of the bench, the one that overlooks the descent onto the lane, but I couldn't see why. They were huddling and peering over shoulders and, although I knew I should be leaving through the gate, I soon found myself in the buzzing crowd in the hedge. Craning my neck and standing on the tips of my toes, I, too, saw the bench, and there I saw him—Crooked Rufus. Hands and chin resting on his cane, he sat with his eyes closed against the wet prickling drive of the wind, and I might have let slip his name when Aaron turned to me and said what we all already knew, “He can’t be here.”

Asleep, not caring about our coming up closer—or perhaps wanting just that—he sat perfectly still, like the devious monkfish.

“He's got warts on his chin like a witch.”

“There are no witches.”

“Yes, there are!”

“No, but there are warlocks.”

“He's only got seven fingers.”

“How do you know?”

“Everyone knows that.”

“He was so hungry he ate them.”

Not even the library bus could make it up the steep lane, so for an old man the climb wouldn't have happened by chance; Rufus had broken the rule and he knew it. What else might he do? We were close, but not too close, and someone nudged Aaron’s shoulder. “Do something.”

Aaron did his best. First, he tried to rouse him from a safe distance, but Rufus paid no attention. Then Aaron raised his voice, and soon he was shouting, waving his arms, the distance between the two of them becoming shorter and shorter, then he was jumping up and down. And to our disbelief, bad words came out of him, and we were buzzing, coming up closer still, all expectation erupting like boiling water in a kettle.

But Crooked Rufus didn’t move. Bent and knotty, he just sat there, more a part of the bench than an old man, and Aaron, having exhausted all his tricks, stopped. Only a few feet from the bench, he stood panting, hands at his sides. Was the old man dead? No. There, under the shabby leather-patched jacket, was the heave of slow breath. Unable to do anything else, we stood there, no longer scared, with a growing sense of disappointment.

That's when the stone came. It hit him in the head, and in one motion, one inward breath, all of us except Aaron pulled back as the cane flung out in a wide arc. Aaron took a few steps, looking confused, and with the thud of a body on wet grass the enchantment broke.

We ran. All elbows and panicky shoes, never through the hedge fast enough, a trampling stampede at the end of which, finally, Mother and Mr. Thompson came striding towards us across the rain-beaten schoolyard.

Mother pulled me down the lane, a padlock grip on my arm, but when we passed the butcher's, which used to be Father's workshop, she swept her arm around my shoulders like a blanket against the sidelong rain. So close and hard did she hold me that I struggled to put one foot in front of the other, and I had to half-run sideways—like a hermit crab—or fall.

When we got home, I told her everything.

Father used to say that a person’s character can be seen in their back. This is why I have to sit properly, especially in school and in church on Sundays. When he turned sick I asked him why we don’t help people like Rufus to straighten up, and he said that some backs—and I knew he meant souls—were beyond helping. He said that some people know they do bad things and still don't stop themselves. Mother says it's not un-Christian to help them anyway. Until yesterday, I couldn't see what harm Rufus could really do to anybody. I knew he smelled bad, and I knew why, but the worst he did was fall asleep where he shouldn’t. I know she helps him still. Wherever she comes across him, she helps him back to the bad side of the river.

Everybody knows about the cottage on the bad side of the river.

Mr. Thompson has been invited for dinner and the afternoon hasn't changed that. This is his first time in our house. When he arrives at seven, the rain has stopped, but the skies look uneasy so he's brought his umbrella just in case. He's got friendly brown eyes and furrows in his brow. Mother is in the kitchen and he's standing in the doorway, hands locked behind his back, as he does when he isn't writing on the blackboard. Mother won't let either of us help and since dinner isn't quite ready yet, Mr. Thompson and I go to look at my drawings. He likes my room, my desk, my binoculars, and my shelf of books. (He says that he arranges his books by titles, too.) I knew he was going to like my atmospheric diving suit but, to my surprise, his favourite drawing turns out to be my fifty-sixth, even though it isn't finished. (The octopus is one of his favourite animals.)

“Eight tentacles,” I say.

“No skeleton.” 

“One octopus, many octopi.”  

He says, “Which is yours?”

“Trout.”

“Trout?”

“Yes. Father used to catch trout in the river.”

He thinks about this, his furrows growing deeper, and then he says, “Kin to salmon.”

“Freshwater.”

“And saltwater. They migrate.”

I want to ask him what that means, but I don't, so he says, “My father's was the sea-eagle. I've never seen one, however.”

“I don't think my father had a favourite animal.”

“He didn't?”

“He liked trees, and what he made of them.”

Mr. Thompson nods but doesn't say anything so I say, “He could make anything. He made my desk, my bed, and wood was not all.”

Then dinner is ready.

Mr. Thompson tells us about where he comes from, not too many dales from here. There are sheep where he grew up, too. And there is a little river, just like ours, which, many miles downstream joins the same greater river and eventually the sea. And although I know it's not nice to interrupt somebody who is speaking, because they might think themselves dull and boring, which Mr. Thompson isn't, I come to think of something, and it can't wait.

“Crooked Rufus,” I begin, and Mother puts down her fork not very gently. “What will happen to him? Did the police take him? Is he going to be alright?” Mother and Mr. Thompson look briefly at each other.

“Yes,” says Mother. “He'll be alright. But you should worry about your friend, Aaron Fletcher, instead.”

“How do you know he'll be alright? He was hit in the head as well. With a stone.”

“Emily,” says Mr. Thompson, as he never has before, “I saw him just before I came here. He will have a good bump on his head but the doctor has seen to him. He's going to be fine. So will Aaron Fletcher. I spoke to his father and this is not going to be a matter for the police. You should listen to your mother and pay it no mind.”

I look down into my plate for a moment and then I say, “Is it true he only has seven fingers?”

Mother lays down her cutlery and puts her elbows on the table, which one shouldn't do, and says, “Whereever did you get that idea from?”

“Everyone knows that.”

“I certainly don't know that.”

"Is he a warlock?”

“Where do you get these ideas from?”

"Aaron says so.”

“Well,” says Mother, “not everything he says is true.”

“But it's true, isn't it?”

Mother smiles, shakes her head and says, “I think Mr. Thompson was telling us about a river just like ours. Weren't you?”

Later, when Mr. Thompson is about to leave and Mother is fetching something he forgot in the kitchen, he tells me again to pay it no mind. “But if you do worry, I’ll look in on him. But you have to promise me you won’t make your mother fret. Agreed?”

Then Mother returns and says, “Here, I believe Mr. Thompson's got something for you.”

“Ah, yes. It's not much, and I couldn't find anything nice to wrap it in, but I found it when I was in town last weekend and I thought you might like it.” It's a box of coloured pencils, and he hands it to me, but not quite. “Are we agreed?”

I nod and thank him and he lets go.

I don't yet know that I will disappoint him.

This morning it's raining again but only a drizzle. In school, during mathematics with Mr. Thompson, I am again Miss Marsh, and Aaron’s knees are dirty because the quicker way to school was too slippery, but nobody scolds him; the bandage across his left eye and forehead remind us of what we all saw. On the afternoon break, he tells us about his eyebrow and the stitches, and that the doctor had forgotten to bring anaesthetics. (I don't believe everything that Aaron says.)

On the other side of the schoolyard, Mrs. Marsh and Mr. Thompson are standing by the gate, a big wrought-iron thing with blunted tops in case anybody climbs it. They are leaning against it, talking under his umbrella. She is smiling, which she usually doesn't do, and then she laughs. Then she chides Mr. Thompson, but not quite, and I come to think of honey spilling over the edges of toast.

That's when it stirs in her, like it does when she's in the garden by the pond, or when we pass the butcher's. Her eyes dart over the schoolyard until they find mine, and I wish that I had looked away, but it's too late. As if it were still glowing hot, having barely left the forge, she flinches, pulls her hand from the gate, and starts inside. Mr. Thompson, too, finds my eyes, his furrows as deep as ever, and again I wish I had turned away.

By six, the book bus is empty except for Miss Tufton. It's a single corridor library, but the shelves rise from the floor to the ceiling and there's even a little space for reading in the back. It smells of mothballs and detergent. Today she is wearing a long knitted shirt the colour of strong currant juice over a black skirt. And there's a yellow pair of high-heeled shoes, which I haven't seen before and I stare, which one shouldn't do.

“Don’t you like them?”

I nod eventually, but she is not convinced. “Well, I can’t drive in them anyway.” She walks over to the end of the bus, to the ragged little mustard armchair, out from under which she pulls her usual pair of shoes, and the high heels come off.

“Do you have something for me?” she asks, and I shake my head. “Two more weeks then, but next time I need them back, mind. In the mean time I have something else for you. Since these might be your first waters.”

She hands me a big but not very heavy book. It is on the Atlantic Ocean. I open it straight in the middle and rummage to and fro. Every other page is a photograph or drawing. There are whales, jellyfish, and a map with blue and red arrows, which are warm and cold currents.

“Thank you,” I say and flip through a few more pages, and then, as I am about to close the book, I come to think of Mr. Thompson, who knows many things—more than I—but probably not more than Miss Tufton.

“The salmon,” I say, “they're in the sea, too?”

“Yes.”

“I thought salmon were only in the rivers.”

“There are salmon in the sea as well.”

While I'm searching for the word, Miss Tufton sits quietly in the armchair, and then I find it.

“What does migrate mean?

“Migrate? It means to travel, to leave one place for another.”

“And salmon migrate?”

The word tastes salty, like strained broth or a nosebleed, and although I want to wipe it off, I have to know.

“Yes. When they grow large enough, they go to the sea. And then, after a while, they go back up the rivers to where they came from. Eels do, too.”

“What about trout?”

“Maybe. Yes, I think they do. Some of them at least.”

“Why?”

“Well, to be with other fish,” she says. “Do you remember when I asked you if you were lonely? Well, you aren’t, I believe that, but certain people are. Fish can be lonely, too.”

“But fish don’t have feelings, do they?”

“No, I suppose they don’t. At least not in the way that we do. But they are driven, you might say, as are most animals, to meet with their like. It’s nature, theirs and ours, not to be lonely.”

That's when the taste comes on too strong, too heavy, and I can't bear it.

There is one thing I have to do, one place I have to go, and although Miss Tufton is still speaking I have to interrupt her.

I land in the square, a few staggering steps, and when I set off down the main street along the river, as fast as I can, I hear Miss Tufton's voice calling out from behind me.

An ambulance drives past and goes further along the bank, but I turn left, over the old stone bridge, and then right, through the willow and out onto the path on the bad side of the river.

On the bad side of the river there's water on one side and on the other thick, sinewy bramble—there is only the one path. First, it pulls me down, and before I can think twice I am shin-deep in mud, shoes filling up. When the nook of the river comes into view, there are still hundreds of yards to go to the drier parts. Wallowing on, I walk farther and become heavier than I’ve ever been before. When I finally come upon the drier parts, where the grip loosens, I am as numb as if I've run up the hill to school three times over, and I struggle to lift my feet over the gnarled roots.

When I arrive, my hands are scratched and sore, and I know I must look far worse than Aaron ever has.

I had imagined it a hut, or perhaps a shack, so I am surprised how decent and comely the little cottage appears. On a little rise above the river, shielded from the other side by fir trees, it is also built of grey stone, only much, much smaller than the houses in the village. Still struggling for breath, I approach the rise. But then I stop. In the corner of my eye, beyond the fir trees, something is moving down by the river. There are three men: two of them are up to their waists in the river, tugging something, a bundle, towards the opposite river bank; the third man is standing on this side, his hands—this time—not locked behind his back but resting upon his head. Then he turns and spots me in between the trees.

All I see over his shoulder, before the far side vanishes from view, are the ambulance and the people crowding on the village side.

It's past midnight. Mother has only looked in on me once to bring me dinner, even though she said I wouldn't have any. Her eyes were red and she said we'd talk in the morning. But I already know more than I did yesterday. According to the book, the salmon go upstream to where they were born, to mate. The trout are not mentioned.

I have finished my fifty-sixth drawing. I have used the pencils that Mr. Thompson gave me, and I think he will like the octopus; it's light blue and it isn't lonely. The difficult thing about Crooked Rufus was his clothes. I don't think he needs the jacket, but Mother wouldn't approve of him being naked.

And I have begun my fifty-seventh—the sketch is done—and it will be my first drawing in a long time that isn't of the sea. It's of me and Mother (and she doesn't like the sea).

In the morning we'll talk.

In the morning I'll know what colours she wants, or if she'd rather wear black.