Our fathers fish for herring and eels in the estuary and they tell us to stay away from the water. “It’s not safe for women,” they say. “It’s not safe for girls. Just ask your mothers.” But our mothers are not here to ask.
My aunt, never married, lives two doors down. “Stay away from the grocer’s son,” she tells me. “Skin too pale and hair too red. I’ve seen the way he looks at you when he’s buffing his apples.” But I know that women lie and so I do not listen.
Our fathers tell us to stay away from the estuary because of the river-folk, born too close to the water, extremities webbed and puckered. Soft-footed women and daydreaming girls get pulled under by the creatures crouching unseen in the shallows, watching with unblinking eyes, breathing silently through their gills. They return sometimes, the girls, the women; bellies full of what will become the pale-faced, deformed offspring you see limping round the marshlands. “Grocer’s son, prime example,” says my aunt. “But he’s not deformed,” I say, wincing at the word. “You haven’t seen him with his clothes off,” says my aunt and my cheeks burn.
We are told we are weak so I don’t feel too bad when I disobey my father. The truth is we do go down to the water from time to time. There’s a big stone pillar down there, a boundary marker for shipping routes. We are separated from the mainland by a dribble of water, easily swimmable, but only the men are allowed to make the journey. The stone pillar stands out like an alien artefact on this moss-strewn island. Stuck here as we are, we turn it into a truth stone, a wishing stone. We trace our fingers over tiny glittering rocks. We ask it where our mothers went. We wish for escape.
We are haunted by the deaths of our mothers. Jenny is kept awake by the slats of her bed being scratched furtively from beneath. Carol cannot use the bathroom at night because her mother likes to crawl across the hallway, her head hanging limply like a broken doll. Lucy always looks dishevelled; there is not a mirror in her house that hasn’t been smashed or turned around to face the wall. Deborah hears quiet, feather-soft crying on the end of the telephone whenever she tries to make a call. I count myself lucky. I only have to contend with pale-green water seeping under my bedroom door and the spinach-rot stench of life-beneath-the-pebbles that clings to my pillow at night.
It’s not so bad but it’s enough to drive a girl out of her house early in the morning, before her father is awake, before the mist has cleared from the water.
We meet by the water, hidden by black rocks, the red-haired grocer’s son and I. He sits fiddling with his shoelace, hair bright and skin bone-white against the specks of rain that hang in the sky as though suspended there. He glances up and rises elegantly to greet me.
We kiss and the slate-grey pebbles and the lichen-laced steps appear smudged; it feels like water spilling onto a painting as colours bleed out like waves settling into ridges as delicate and definite as those on a sea shell. I do not feel the shame they told me I would.
Later, I wonder whether I cast this thought out into the water as bait, summoning some rotton-toothed horror from beneath the waves. I think this because of the words I hear rushing past as the rock hits my skull and I see my blood pooling and collecting in the tiny whorled shells of sea snails scattered amongst the pebbles where I land: “You should be ashamed of yourself. You should be ashamed.”
All of the broken pieces of my body ended up in the water anyway, despite all of the stories and all of the warnings. I crawled out of the water, in a murmur of dust and ash, and I made my way to the wishing stone, the truth stone. I look out now, my eyes just two out of a thousand tiny glittering rocks, and I see it all: how the danger did not lie in the water but on the island itself, in the hearts of the men we call our fathers.
Now I am made of stone, now I am made of rock. There are voices here to match the thousands of pairs of eyes. We make each other stronger, we women, we girls. In our temple of truth, we wish. We wish for rain-streaked nights and slippery steps as one by one our mothers show us how to wish ourselves from stone into smoke into bone and we make our way to the houses we were born in, to the fathers who have lied, and we lead them down to the water.
Fiona Goggin writes fiction and non-fiction in-between looking after her two small children. Fiona runs a creative writing group for local mums, encouraging women to write. She worked for an audiobook charity for a number of years, providing books in an audio format for people with print impairments. She is passionate about making literature accessible to everyone. @fiona_goggin