by Roisin Craig
They say there’s a cow in the dam. It’s supposed to scare children from dipping their feet in the water or being tempted to swim on those hazy, not-quite-warm-enough days. The villagers don’t remember where the cow came from, why it was taken to the dam, if it was already dead, or if it was drowned. It doesn’t matter. Children skip stones and whisper their worries of hitting it to their friends. Birds swim only at the edges, flies keep to the reeds, dogs seem unwilling to wade further than a few feet. The superstition maintains order, it’s a myth that newcomers quickly absorb into the narrative of their conversations, a ritual of the area that spins a sinewy string from the dam to each villager’s heart, creating a bloody, beating web of thickets you must fight through to access the watery expanse.
The gravel path spat dust as Eve tracked between the fields, timing her run via GPS, checking the distance every ten steps. Leaving the village, she had resigned herself to swapping the coconut-biscuit scent of gorse for the rain-hitting-hot-concrete smell of the city, trading her varied social circle for trace-and-cut versions of herself, abandoning a house for a flat share. The expansion of possibilities came at the price of a contraction in both the size of her room and the breadth of her friends. She hadn’t imagined she’d return.
Panting at a pace she would inflate in conversations with others, she realised she’d been back in the village long enough for muscle memory to carry her along her usual route, instinctively holding her breath past the dairy farm, deftly cutting the corner down the bridle path, and avoiding Blackheart Street’s row of grandmothers, who could invariably be found chatting across their fences and always wanted an update on her mum.
“How’s your dear mum, Evie?”
“Yes, how’s poor Rose doing?”
Stubborn teeth, spittle collecting in the corners of their mouths, tongues trying to lick cracked lips back to life. Eve couldn’t stand it. Their age gilded every conversation with death, their elasticated jeans and faux-familiarity angered her. Stay inside. Your skin is too thin for the sun.
Avoiding their gaze, she responded with a shrug and a few muttered words about there being no change. No matter her response they’d carry on standing there, sighing about their grandchildren’s grades, making plans for the summer, packing Rose into the past whilst she sat a few streets away, tutting about how it’s just such a shame. They just wanted to be seen to ask, wanted to be notified when the funeral was announced; they wanted another reason to be outside, still relevant in this world.
Eve’s announcements were guided by habit rather than necessity; no one in the house welcomed her. Irked by the old women outside, she thought about food.
“What do you fancy today? Marmalade on toast?” She moved towards her mother, then dropped her voice.
“Same as yesterday? Same as every day?”
Eve’s words fell to the floor, sharp with frustration. She stepped over them to pick up her mother’s water glass which had spilled on her tray. Even as she pressed forward on her daily runs, pushing herself faster and faster, the feeling that her life had been paused sat heavy in her throat.
With a gentler tone, she started over: “The gorse is in full bloom, Mum, you’d love it. Didn’t see the cow today, I’ll keep you posted if I run by the dam soon. Let me get you lunch.”
The previous words slipped through the floor panelling, replaced by this candyfloss speech. Her mother turned, smiled, and shuffled into the kitchen after her.
Eve placed her plate on the glass table next to Rose’s and sank into a wicker chair. Rose was humming along with the birds, a generic tune like a TV jingle, familiar but not known. Eve sighed. It had been easier when this was a faraway reality, when her brother had time to look after their mother. Then, she could phone with enough regularity to fulfil the concerned daughter role but escape to her real life shortly after. If she didn’t have to see her in person, she could remember her mum as the woman who gleefully announced she would face old age with abandon, determined to be wickedly selfish with a deliciously filthy sense of humour and equally outrageous clothing. She traced this memory of Rose every morning and every night, pressing hard against the edges to emboss it in her mind and overwrite the woman she saw each day. Rose steadied Eve’s hand as she ate:
“Slow down, Eve. There’s no rush. There’s plenty for everyone.”
It was a corkscrew to Eve’s stomach. Twisting deeper with each phrase, with each pat of her hand, with the apology in Rose’s eyes which shone with water as if to say, I’m so sorry about all of this. For a moment, she was back.
In those brief moments, when a flicker of recognition calmed her brow, or she commented on how dark the sky was, or smoothed Eve’s hair as she shuffled past, windows and doors hinged open to a flood of hope and memory and pain. She came back to herself. And then she was gone.
These hauntings came few and far between. It had been months since the last one, when she had automatically picked Eve’s favourite cheese from the fridge to accompany their beans on toast, a reminder that she was still there, that she remembered. Eve longed for these moments but was caught between a desire to see her mother again and the need to protect Rose from what had become of her dazzling plans for old age. Better she slipped away into fantasy than bring her crashing into her reality. Better she existed only in the present with nothing to moor her to the past or future.
Rose knocked over a glass and watched the water drip from the table, puddling on the floor. It settled in the cracks between the stones, mixing with mud and moss; a miniature pond, with a greedy appetite, pooling around anything it could reach and growing thick with algae.
“I’d like to meet the cow in the dam.”
She began to hum again.
Eve stumbled on the sinewy thicket surrounding the water, catching her feet on the latest rumours, tripped up by the newcomers to the village and the lives they’d built. It was her first time running here since her return and she didn’t know how to navigate this territory. She didn’t recognise the men fishing and they didn’t recognise her. In the months she’d been home, she hadn’t re-visited her old friendships. Other than running, she hadn’t toured the village she once knew. She was yet to set foot in the fish shop, the corner shop, or the post office. What if she didn’t know the servers? What if they didn’t recognise her as Rose’s kid? Just as she had left the village behind, what if the village also left her?
It was a tough run. Her calves were tight and her breath caught in her chest like fire. The dam was still whilst her clumsy figure kicked through the muscular reeds. She stopped at a bench, doubled over, and read the graffiti whilst deciding whether to turn back. Something was heavy in the hollows of her feet, as though it was at once pulling her to the ground of this place and pushing her away. The air carried the scent of the gorse, sickly-sweet and stinging Eve’s eyes.
She focused on the cow. The cow to which all the villagers’ heartstrings were tied, from which her own had slackened through too many years spent elsewhere. It had been her decision to move, to leave, and there wasn’t enough time to make up for it now. She’d missed all those years and it would be gone soon. The string had come loose. She’d left. Coming back wasn’t the same.
She let her gaze settle on the mirror sheet of water as she sat on the bench, heartstrings creeping from the dam up her legs and arms. Opposite, she noticed a woman, recognised her the way you recognise an original painting after seeing copies for years – the same, but somehow bolder. The woman shuffled onto a fisherman’s jetty, her slippers following the tug of that bloodied string which reached from her chest to the heart of the dam.
What Eve had intended as a warning emerged as a whispered plea. The sinew ropes were tighter now, weighing her down, refusing the movements she desperately tried to make.
“Mum, please be careful.”
Her panicked voice carried across the water and the woman looked up.
“It’s a lovely day, isn’t it? Funny, this cow thing.” Her toes curled over the edge of the planks. “Every time I think about the dam, I think about that poor cow, as though I knew it, as though it’s part of me.” A strange laugh caught in her throat. “What an odd, odd tale.”
The sinew rope tugged gently at Rose and she lowered herself into the water, flowered dressing gown slowly soaking to the shoulders, white wisps of hair disappearing under the surface, until she was up to her chin.
The water sighed and swallowed.
Eve felt the heartstrings relax and recede.
She scrambled to her feet and began running to the banks, fighting through the bloody, beating reeds.
“I’m coming, Mum!”
“Slow down, Eve. There’s no rush,” her mum gurgled, content.
“I’m so glad that you’re home.”