You're heading that way, as usual. Soft summer morning, winding down, fall on the horizon, but not quite there. Clear skies above, turning leaves below, around, almost underfoot, but not just yet.
Today is sunny, crisp and warm. The little girl is dressed for colder, a bright jacket, long jeans, multicoloured sneakers. She has a mother who worries about her, who waves goodbye as she skips away, not looking back. Stops at the bus stop, just as you're about to pass yourself. Twirls about a foot, almost dances, in a manner, in place.
You ask her why she doesn't walk, if there's time.
There's time, she says. But I shouldn't walk alone, mom says.
Walk with me, then, you say. Tell me the stories.
She falls in beside you, giggles, and you head on down the road, through the quiet, kept-up neighbourhood, under the thick leaves of the almost turning trees.
She asks you, of course, what stories you mean. But she already knows, in her heart.
Of course she does. You smile. Tell her, it's such a short distance, such a short stretch. Just right down the road, can see all the way, almost. Twenty minutes, hardly even a walk... so what's your mother afraid of? What's the word, as it were?
The little girl laughs again, bright and cheery, like her attire, like the houses and leaves. You mean the witch? she says. The witch in the waves, dancing on the river, takes all the boys away. She finds this last bit hilarious, of course, practically dissolves.
But not the girls? you ask.
She doesn't know. She does say, however, what the witch looks like. Everything, apparently. Everything, and nothing at all. Older than anything, younger than the spring. Dancing, always dancing.
She dances a bit herself, just for emphasis. So much energy, in such a little package.
You talk some more, little nothings. How the town has changed, how the school is, her friends, your own. You compare the places, the pools and corners, the dam on the creek, the fort you'd built so long ago, now crumbled down to rubbish... some of the neighbours. Bowling balls as lawn ornaments. Crystal balls as others. The tractor tire planter.
The river is a sudden intersection, open, treeless. The bridge continues on, to the other side. More neighbourhoods, after the glaring cross-streets along its bank, with their dappled leaflight, bright trim, nice lawns.
A scramble of rocks, huge and jagged, sloping down to the too still waters lapping at their bases. It's dark. Deep. Cold. The kids playing at the broken shore are older boys, throwing rocks, tossing pieces.
The girl stops too, when she sees them. Bounds down, so agile, rock to rock, hopping, sliding. Plants herself between them. Challenges them. They accept.
You almost object, then realise it's just the usual. The familiar. Head down yourself, easing from rock to rock. You're bigger, but you haven't her agility.
The woman stirs, scoots away as you half jump, half fall to her perch, and it wobbles horribly under your butts. Older, greying, weathered, not someone you know, she'd blended almost perfectly into the rocks at first. You reach out to steady her, but she's secure enough, it seems. She waves you away, smiles at you, knowing, content.
You nod at her, and continue past her, down to the girl, and the boys, skipping their rocks so intently into the waves and eddies from the bridge pylons.
Come on, you tell the girl. You'll be late.
She scoffs. The boys rolls their eyes, comment a bit.
She's winning, isn't she? you ask them.
The girls laughs, that same, bright, cheery thing you've come to know so well. I so am! she says.
Good, you say. Better not give them a chance to change the score, eh?
This sways her, finally. She bounds back up, up the rocks and boulders and tires and shelving pavement, not even seeing the woman, and back to the road, there before you even hardly get started, yourself. Kids. Just like goats. So fitting.
As you pass the woman again, you steady her perch, push it back into place, more stable, more... hidden? She gives you a curious look. Sorry, you tell her. I worry.
The girl beams at you when you get back to her. Says, I always win. I'm the best there is.
Good, you say again. Someone's got to be.
On you go. Atop the bridge, under the sun and open sky, the world suddenly seems so much more barren, so much more dry, and cracked, and brittle. The river is a quiet gurgle below, a soft lapping, a whisper. A murmer. Warbling, in the rocks, too distant to hear.
The cars that pass are another matter. Too close, sudden and terrible. Loud, out of place, alien. Too much.
It's a relief when you cross, past the scree on the other side, past the cross road running parallel to the river, back into the trees and houses and quiet and calm. Ahead, the school is in sight, the next opening down the way, the end to the trees, not rock and concrete and sluggish water, but rolling grasses and...
Something. You're not quite sure, anymore, just what the school is. Something you cannot quite recall.