Rhea’s hunkered down, cradled by roots of ancient pines that reach riverwards. She’s crawled through dense bracken with the saucepan full of ashes, away from prying eyes to the water’s edge. Held safe, feeling the thrum of the earth alive around her, she takes a deep breath of moss-tanged air so fresh it might have come from pure ice-melt. The smell of the burning lingering around her from the night before washes away, along with the raspberry cat piss fug of her neglected body.
The first tears since Sid left come. She wipes her eyes with her sleeve. The dirty flannel shirt is too thick for summer. After weeks of feeling cold, she’s sweating. Bending to untie her sandals and step into the cool, she sees specks of Vamp Queen nail varnish on her toenails—all that’s left of the pedicure she’d given herself before the Spring Ball. But that was weeks ago and the trees are full green now.
Something moves nearby. Rhea freezes. It’s something big. She clutches the saucepan. Something’s in the trees to her left. Electric fright stings in her belly. Something green and sinuous is draping itself over a low branch. Rhea can’t breathe.
It’s a woman. Not green, but lit by the sun through the trees. At first Rhea thinks she’s hurt, but the woman bares her shoulder, takes her top off, wriggles out of her jeans. Then Rhea sees the man.
High above on the bank, the man’s pointing a camera at the woman, who’s now naked, lying back twisting and turning on the branch. Click, click, click. The woman’s lean, unshaven. A tattoo snakes up from her waist to armpit and seems to be blossoming as the woman moves. The man looms tall above where Rhea crouches—he’s wearing a black leather jacket, has a thick beard. They haven’t seen her yet, in her stale clothes with her sad pan of ashes. The only way out is past the woman, past the man with his camera. They’re silent, engrossed, but sooner or later they’ll see her, even if she doesn’t move.
Suddenly Rhea’s furious. She’s trapped. Can’t she just have this for herself? She’d slipped out just after dawn, the metal saucepan she sacrificed to the burning of her precious hoard of memories wrapped in cling-film to stop the ashes floating away. Tickets, cards, notes, photos, the single faded rose—the last of her and Sid now ashes. She couldn’t bear anyone seeing her, couldn’t bear the questions, couldn’t bear the thought of anything being left behind to continue to contaminate. To give up now—she just couldn’t bear it. She hasn’t eaten or washed, all her clothes are dirty. She’s been calling in sick to work. Nothing’s felt real for a long time.
She’d known when Sid’s favourite song blasted from the radio when she started the car that morning, it’d already been spoilt. Then, for the whole hour’s drive the nagging thought she should’ve gone to the sea, not the source of the river. But by then she was committed, just as she’d been with Sid, couldn’t change her plans, had to play it out—now this. Paralysed, she clenches the pan to her chest—rage building like magma.
A heron screeches. The woman turns her blank gaze towards the bird gliding downstream with its huge grey wings outstretched, and sees Rhea. The spell is broken. The man turns, his mouth moving, lips pale pink in his beard. As he turns he holds the camera in front of him—click, click, click. Panic rushing in her ears, Rhea can’t hear what the man is saying. The heron looks back at her, it winks.
No time for spell-words, Rhea throws the whole pan, scrambles up the bank, tearing her knees on rocks, branches scraping at her arms, catching at her hair. The ashes float down on her feet, on the bank, on tree roots, on the woman—the rest hit the water with the pan, and are borne away like stained confetti as the pan sinks.
A leftover crescent moon is white in the daytime sky as Rhea drives home, car scented with lemon-amber pine resin from the sticky patch on her arm. She hums along with the radio to a pre-Sid song. The purple of the hills makes her want to bite into them—suck their colour. Ravenous she stops to buy chips from a village takeaway, eats them from the paper, sitting in the car. Licks salt and vinegar from her fingers, sees her own steady eyes looking back at her from the rear-view mirror. Winking heron her new talisman, she snorts remembering the expressions on the faces of the pair she’ll call the River Tree People when she can bear to tell the tale.
F. E. Clark lives in Scotland. She writes, paints, and takes photographs—inspired by nature in all its forms. A Pushcart, Best of the Net, and Best Small Fictions nominee, her poetry, flash-fiction, and short stories can be found in anthologies and literary magazines. More details can be found on her website, www.feclarkart.com, and she tweets intermittently at @feclarkart.com.