By: Deirdre Gainor
The gull cried out as it swooped down in front of the child. She jumped back on the hard wet sand, tripped and landed on her bottom without taking her eyes from the bird. It dove its beak into the sand once, then lifted its wings and with one step was back in the air, heading toward the pier. The girl felt the air move against her cheek as the silent wings lifted the bird. She watched it go then scrambled over to see what the bird had been looking for, but could find nothing.
The sun was low in the sky. Usually her family would have gathered at the picnic shelter near their tent for dinner but her father had arrived from the city and would use up every ray of sunlight on the boat before announcing it was time to eat. The child was hungry and without a purpose. She wasn’t considered a reliable co-pilot in the boat, having forgotten earlier in the day to mention to the driver that the skier was down. She had been too busy watching the light refract off the spray of water along the side of the boat. Her lack of attention to the sport at hand had caused her to be off-loaded at the next fuel stop.
Since the marsh had encroached farther out into the lake on the south side where the free campground was situated, their mother had forbidden shore-water play to protect her five children from leeches. She had instituted swim time in the middle of the lake, life jackets for everyone and ski ropes attached to the boat to catch if her children started to drift away; but not while Father was there, not on a Saturday. Saturdays were for going over the ski jump, for weaving in and out of the slalom course, and for trying new stunts on the trick skis. Saturdays were not for small children.
Her brother had been placed in charge of her. She wanted to play with the frogs he had captured, their little bodies calling out to her as their legs scrambled over and over against the glass in the jar, but he had refused. He wanted her to stand in the shallow water until the leeches attached themselves to her feet and ankles, so he could pull them off for his collection. He had offered her a bite of his candy bar hidden in his bag in the tent if she would cooperate, but even with such a tempting offer she had refused, running off to her place in the sand where she now sat. She wanted to have something for her own, but there was nothing for her.
She watched her brother wade under the dock in search of his treasures and with the fury of a four year old ran from him. Hiding behind the first sand dune, she thought of the large pot of beans sitting on the edge of the camp stove. She considered the walk back to the campground where the food waited.
She crested the second sand dune toward the campground, when something in the shrubbery of the marsh, a movement, a flash of light, caught her attention. Curiosity turned her as she saw the glint again through the branches of a creosote bush. The girl followed the beacon, the air still as she stepped down onto the spongy soil. It was cool on the bottoms of her feet and she used her hands to push away the spindly branches and make a path. She liked having something to explore and for a moment her hunger was forgotten. She saw the glint of light again and quickly climbed over a rotting log that had wedged itself in during a winter storm. Several sharp branches scratched at the girl in her hurry to catch the sparkle that now was lost from her view.
When drops of blood appeared on the side of her leg, she stopped to examine the phenomenon. She caught a drop on her finger and placed it on her tongue. The salty warmth tasted delicious. She wiped the remaining drops onto her finger and popped it in her mouth, disappointed to see no more of the sticky substance oozing from her leg.
The sun slid behind the hills at the far end of the lake and cast the marsh in shadow; the girl glanced up and turned slowly to find her bearings. A log sticking up beyond the scrub trees reminded her of the one she had crossed and she ran to it, but this one stuck out at an angle across a small pool of water.
Several frogs jumped away from her as she drew close and she crouched, gathering all her movement inside, to observe. The little ones kept jumping until they were out of sight but a large one stopped; his back to her. She held her breath, wishing her brother could witness the brown and green lumps on its back. She called out in a quiet whisper, “Hoo-yay! Hoo-yay!” so the frog would know she was a friend.
She stayed still, letting the quiet hoo-yay’s slip off her tongue and play in the air, her message rewarded when one of the smaller frogs returned to the edge of the puddle. It called out to friends and several frogs replied as they jumped back into view, confirming that she did know their language.
The girl rested in her crouch and watched as the frogs splashed back into the pond, the tiny ripples rolling out to the edge. These were her frogs. She imagined herself swimming with them, not even needing an inflatable jacket to hold her up, her legs propelling her with ease across the water.
Suddenly the frogs hopped away. The girl turned and saw the man, standing ten feet behind her. His hunting cap just like her uncle’s, except for the silver cross on the side. He watched her and made no sound or movement when she turned to face him.
After waiting for him to speak, she said, “Hello,” surprised at the smallness of her voice and aware of the cool breeze across her naked back. She touched the bit of fabric that made up her bikini top and remembered her sister forcing her to find it in the big tent, hidden amid the clothes and sleeping bags, before she would let her come down to the beach. Her skin prickled; the downy hairs on her arms and legs erect. She wished she had a cloth to wrap up in. Maybe her sister would remember to bring her purple towel from the boat.
The man held out his hand and the child stared at it, not wanting to go to him. How many times today had she had to do what the adults wanted? Her head drooped and she watched first one toe come into view and then another, as her feet slowly moved her forward. She stopped in front of him and looked up.
He tilted his head toward his outstretched palm and her hand tentatively rose. His fingers were dry, the skin hardened and cracked. His smell reminded her of when she hid under her big brother’s bunk bed. She closed her nose from the inside and started to withdraw her hand, but he held it firmly. As they walked deeper into the marsh the ground squished between her toes and a flock of gulls flew low over their heads, silent in the crimson sky.
The man used his free hand to keep the branches back so they did not scratch. She thought about her blood, understanding now why the leeches loved it.
You have captured a child’s voice and mind with such eloquence and the terrifying vulnerability of this moment. So powerful.