All that summer, she long-jumped over wide gaps in the harvested bog. There was nothing to do. Her skin was a vessel for the sun, a honeycomb of cells filled with nectar, the throbbing of insects, the humming of bees.
She begins a good way back. She can usually find some sort of a clear run, bar the odd rogue heather. She feels the prickle of dried grass and lichen against her bare feet as she makes her precipitous approach to the bank edge. She launches her body as a missile into the air. It cuts through the shimmering heat, making it warp and buckle. Then, in the slicing of time she is held, suspended, over the watery hollow, its cool pools pressed against the dank muddy cheeks of black turf. Then she is over – five or six feet across – coming to rest on pointed toes; her breath hitting the back of her lungs; her muscles slackening until her heels drop to earth, her thin arms dangling by her sides.
It is August, a round-bellied month, slow with heaviness and heat. She sees them coming – three local boys – stocky trolls with thick wrists and necks, square pallid faces and muddy eyes. She recognises them from school. They lumber across the bog in her direction.
She watches them move with the same slow nonchalance as cattle, the same resignation. She remembers that first day, her introduction to the class – the bright, kindly faces of black-haired girls with boyish crew cuts, cheeky freckle-faced siblings suppressing smirks. And them, a solid bulk of muddy-eyed menace; their arms resolutely folded; their mass stretched across the back wall of the classroom like a buttress against outside forces. Now they heave themselves out of hollows, step between hummocks. One stumbles over a piece of bog deal wedged into the ground. He gives it a mean sideways kick, sending splinters spraying. She's afraid they are bored.
Tick, tick, tick, go water crickets lazy in the heat. In the schoolyard, the boys lean against the low stone wall that marks the periphery, beyond which nettles and brambles thrive. The girls approach her, hesitant, demonstrating an alien game where there are four corners and the fifth person is somehow the odd one out. She stands, uncertain in the centre, unsure if she is in or is already excluded. Confusion overwhelms her, she retreats into a space, a kind of dip between the yard and the back wall of the school, a runoff where the water gushes in damp weather. She pulls back lank wisps of pale hair from in front of her eyes and twists chewed ends around her index finger.
Across the yard, she can hear the boys mutter, they travel between breakaway groups of tag and spies spreading Chinese whispers. She stands, twisting her foot into the dust and sees the children of her age laugh and turn away. Only the younger ones – tumbleweed-sized bundles with rolling shoulders – remain. They hold the pleats of her cotton dress, its exotic pinks and reds the only flashes of colour among their more serviceable clothing, their faded denim and unravelling cord trousers. She is a butterfly that has come unexpectedly among them. When the bell rings, they chase her to the classroom door then let her go.
Behind the teacher's head are tall windows, through which the sun comes blindingly in the mornings, carving lemon meringue slices into the dark oak desks with their obsolete inkwells and blackened grooves dug out with HB pencils. She watches the slow parade of cotton wool cumulus against the sapphire sky and feels the words 'out there'.
The repetitive drone of spellings and tables stagnates the air. Under her chair and down at the small of her back is the gradual accumulation of tiny, rolled-up balls of paper; the punctuation of the afternoon's slow unfurling. She feels the pip of another missile, hears a snigger covered under the rustling of pages. The teacher raises her voice, says her name. She has been asked a question. She cannot bluff it. Her mind is at the back wall, being rolled in the plump palm of the Ringleader. She hears a clap, hands slapped together. She is sent into the corner on the raised dais beside the teacher's desk. She sees them in her periphery, their faces jolly, their shoulders shaking with mirth. She rocks from her round solid heel onto the ball of her foot. From time to time, she lifts and balances on her toes, staring at the wood panel, ready to dance or fly. Somewhere else. A fly ricochets against the window and drops to the floor beside her, his thread legs flailing.
Now the heat of the bog radiates into her feet. She waits. She sees them, the boys from school, pick their way across the adjacent sawn-out banks where turf is footed and stands to attention in three-sided spires. She is poised, like a hare, tendons on a spring, tightly coiled. They reach her now, roll to a stop, a wall of weatherworn boulders. The Ringleader is broad, block solid, his lips the colour of crushed blackberries, swollen like the fruit.
"What are you doing?" he asks.
Jumping, she says, the soft tones of her blow-in accent lightening the initial vowel, giving the impression of weightless flight.
"Jumping," repeats the Sidekick, the emphasis on the middle consonants, making the word heavy, indicating somehow, the thud of landing.
The third boy, the Follower, laughs. He has the nose of a fox, the keen bright eye and wiry build of a hound. They say more then, between each other. She can't pick it up, her ears are attuned to a different pitch. They wait for an answer, she doesn't know the question. They are insulted, she thinks herself too good. She tries smiling but that too seems to be a foreign dialect, they think themselves mocked. She recognises their sullen stirrings, like a stick in quicksand. She sees a sprig of yellow tormentil, tiny but tenacious, trailing over a rock. She says something to them, about the heat, or the holidays. The softer her voice becomes, rustling like rushes, the more it angers them. The sun, devoid of malice soaks into all of them, gently.
They move towards her, a resolute collective. She doesn't resist. She has anticipated this moment in her stomach's mutinous churnings on school-day mornings, the reckless thudding of her fist-enclosed heart. It had to happen. They scoop her up in their shovel hands, hold her aloft between them. Like pallbearers they struggle and stumble over the rough grass, their faces contorting with exertion, their teeth clamped together. She is clasped by one around the legs, by another around the middle, just below her straining ribs, his hand resting on her solar plexus. Then finally, by the Ringleader, around her long flimsy neck, fright visible in the throbbing of veins under her thin skin.
They descend into the watery hollow into which she never fell while jumping. She sees a dragonfly arc above her, tracing the path of her exquisite flight. She smells the stewing soil, fibrous yet yielding. For a moment she loves it.
They feed her, face down, into the bog. Into
her mouth and nostrils swill the bog's rank ale. She tastes its foul decay: dead wood, the remains of crawling, creeping things, luminescent moss, pungent fungus, gelatinous lichen. Above her, as they heave and tussle, their forms obliterate the sun, bathing her in heavy shadow. They work methodically, with industry and intent, the nod and murmur of well-rehearsed practise, the culling of poultry, the dipping of sheep.
Through time she feels the weight of the bog, the strata of eons pressing upon her, the thin prehistoric cries of the ritually slain, outcasts and villains. She becomes accustomed to the taste of iron. In dusky evenings, after the sun slips behind round honey-crested hills, long dark shadows finger-paint her resting place. The corncrake skulks in the sedge, guarding secrets. In the languorous night she dreams, endlessly impeded journeys, horrific stagnation.
She waits. She watches the world, glassy-eyed, under a film of brown water brimming with the once living. Seasons come and go, summers under the weight of unrelenting mist, clear Januarys, stormy Octobers. Other children grow, form and disband alliances, fatten up, slim down, stretch out, laugh, play, fight, love, win, lose.
She waits. The oblong leaved sundew innocently unfurls its bright white flowers, its spoon-shaped leaves with glistening red tentacles. It lures all manner of foul creatures: flies, midges, beetles and ants into its mucilaginous secretion, dissolves its struggling victims, then digests them. She bides her time. She dreams of osmosis, creeping advancement.
Years into the future, she wrenches herself out of the sucking bog, its desperate mouth fastened round her, the squelch and pop as it releases her like regurgitation. Under the earth she stretched her fragile fingers against the immovable soil, made of living remains but dead, dead weight. Everything she could not do. Now she pushes out, presses her fingerprints against the sagging soggy earth, she makes her mark. The bog bounces back, erases her. She rises up, a ragged mast on the high sea, weather-whipped and pliant. Under her tanned leathery skin, her bones are frail, a luminescent lattice, roped loosely by sinew. She feels the wind behind her, filling up her sails, she readies herself for flight. Above her head a heron makes determined for hill-framed shining water.
She leaps light-footed from the hollow. Moths rise with her. Into the far distance, bog cotton waves like tiny flags of surrender. The ground propels her bounding steps. The end of the bog is marked by three stones with lichen faces, their mouths in startled 'ohs', their eyes fixed and staring towards the wide gap in the bog. Her clod-pressed ears catch the laughter of still undiscovered beings suspended in the soil.
She lays her hands upon them, three stone heads. She feels their pitted resistance at her rough fingertips, ignores it. She begins, one by one to rock them gently forwards and back, back and forth, until the strongly woven moss loosens at their base, its fibres tearing apart. They stand, like the teeth of diseased gums, dislodged and wavering. Her crushed core ignites. Crackling and spitting she hurls the rocks down the springy slope where they lurch and judder. At the edge of the bank they languish, expressions contorted. She gives them one last, considered, benign, smile then drops them into black water, sees them sink and disappear.
She roams now, like a wild animal over rock castles and her hair, once pale, is copper, plaited and matted like a Rastafarian, a sweat shirt tied round her middle under her new breasts, her legs the colour of honey and dung, laddered with old blood. She long-jumps out of the bog, springing from a rainbow mosaic of sphagnum moss, to a long wide bank of solid ground. From there she climbs the honey-crested hill, higher and higher, along ridges swathed with sedge where the wild air makes it ripple like waves. Her ears fill with the euphoric whoosh of wind and water. From here she can see beyond closed valleys into the rest of the world. There is colour, space and light, different people. She opens her winged limbs and waits for the gust that will lift her into the distance. She whoops.
Alison Wells is qualified in communication studies and psychology and worked for several years as a technical writer. She is now a full-time mother of four young children. She has published some short stories and has been featured on RTé's Sunday Miscellany.
Beautiful images. I can feel the heat on my soles...