Far from Granny’s house, the air tasted of the
water slicing cool and silent through the sun-baked
land. A group of fly-pestered cows huddled on the
other side, adding their own earthy fragrance as
they ground the edge of their field into mud,
paddling up to their udders in the slow-flowing
green water. They watched the children cautiously
and Alec waved, calling out, “Nice day for it!”

Phoebe sat on the bank and unfastened her patent
leather shoes. She dipped her feet into the cold
flow, giggling as mud oozed between her toes and
small hidden things tickled her soles. Her shoes
bobbed in the shallows like a pair of tiny dinghies.

Tucking her skirt into her knickers, she slipped off
the bank into the river, wading along with gentle
waves lapping at her pale, freckled thighs. She
heard a splash behind her as Alec joined her in the
swirling water. Phoebe led the way, taking care to
put each foot down gingerly to test the depth
before putting her full weight onto it, just as Alec
had shown her.

Alec knew everything there was to know about
animals and nature. He pointed out a heron as it
unfolded into the air from the bank, transforming
from a motionless grey stick into a billowing sheet
like a magic trick.

As they followed the river from one field into the
next, Phoebe saw something caught in the reeds
ahead: a few bright flowers tangling with
something more solid. Intrigued, she walked as
fast as the water allowed, but as she neared it a
small paw was loosened by the current and swung
out. She stepped back in surprise and almost fell.

“What is it?” she asked. “An animal?”

Alec picked up a branch and prodded the small
corpse, turning it so that a neat whiskery face was
revealed: shining, vacant eyes and a pair of
astonishingly long ears. A dark red mass glistened
where the fur of the stomach should have been.

“A hare,” Alec said. “Killed by a fox, I reckon.
Dying, dying, dead and it’s not coming back.”

“Really?” Phoebe asked, disconcerted. Dying was
what Mum said was happening to Granny.

“Dead,” Alec repeated, sounding equally unsettled.
He heaved himself out onto the riverbank. “Come
on, out. That water’s disgusting. We’ll walk back
along the lane. Where are your shoes?”

Phoebe gasped in horror, realizing she’d left them
floating amidst the weeds. Alec took her hand and
they ran back to where they’d entered the river,
but the shoes had disappeared, gone forever, as
surely as the life of the hare.

“Never mind,” Alec said, “You’ll have to go
barefoot. Try not to step on anything nasty.”

They ran back along the empty road, Phoebe filled
with anxiety despite the pleasure of the sun-
warmed tarmac under her heels. As her brother
opened the back door, she braced herself for a
telling-off about the missing shoes, but the house
was still. The pair froze in the kitchen, halted by
the hushed silence, then a door opened above
them, and the soft sound of someone sobbing
filtered down to where they stood.

As though released by the unfamiliar noise, Alec
ran towards the den and Phoebe listened to the
TV bursting into life. Slowly she followed him and
stood in the doorway for a moment, watching
bright animated figures flying around the screen.

“Someone’s crying upstairs,” she said. “Didn’t you
hear?”

He glanced at her, biting his lip and looking
conflicted. “Probably grown up stuff we don’t need
to know about.”

“Don’t you want to know why they’re crying?”

“No. It won’t be something good,” he said firmly,
turning back to the cartoon.

Phoebe frowned at him, and then crept up the
stairs. The door to Granny’s bedroom was ajar,
and she slid through the gap without touching it,
without making a sound. Her mother was sitting
beside the bed. Granny was lying in the bed, but
she looked all wrong—skinny and drawn out, her
face pinched closed. It didn’t seem to be Granny
at all, just something left behind where she’d once
been.

“Mommy?” Phoebe edged closer to the bed until
her mother looked at her.

“Oh, Phoebs.”

“I lost my shoes,” Phoebe said quickly, frightened
by her mother’s empty expression. “Sorry.”

“Your shoes?” her mother said, holding out her
hands to Phoebe, “Oh, it doesn’t matter, love.
Come here.”

Phoebe let herself be enclosed in a hug, feeling
tremors running through her mother’s body. A
sense of relief washed through her. She didn’t
seem to be in trouble.

“Mommy, what’s wrong with Granny?"

Her mother exhaled jaggedly. “Remember we
talked about the cancer, about how sick she’s
been? Well, she died just a few moments ago,
darling. She’s dead. Do you understand what that
means?”

Solemnly Phoebe nodded. “The fox got her. Now
she’s in the water with the hare. She’s dead and
she’s not coming back.”

Her mother looked bewildered, then kissed her
forehead. “Well, you have the last part right.”

She folded Phoebe into another hug, and Phoebe
stood in her arms, staring beyond her to the lane
outside the window. The river glinted beyond, the
sun’s rays hitting its water with a force that
created a flash of light. Phoebe decided she
wouldn’t be going there again, not as long as
Granny and the hare were there.
Gemini Magazine
THE RIVER
by Judy Darley
Judy Darley is a journalist and fiction writer. In her
working life she runs
EssentialWriters.com, a website
for writers, and
SeethenGo.com, a travel review
website. Her stories have published by Quality Fiction
Magazine and Open Magazine, and a short story is
forthcoming in The View From Here.