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An extract of Elle Connel’s DOWN BY THE WATER

Down by the Water banner

26 September 2007


The water is rough but the light is calm.


A cool haar blows inland from the open sea. It seems to hang in lavender rolls above the sea loch, not touching it. A moment ago the loch was grey, bled of colour, but now it has turned a dark violet, blacker in the middle. This is one of its tricks – to change in a second by the lurch of a wave or the passing of a cloud across the sun.


Late summer, early autumn. On a day this beautiful, anything could happen.


She has untied the boat already, and the rope chafes her palm as she drags it towards the water’s edge. A couple of hundred metres out, mussel ropes are marked by three white buoys. She watches them toss in the waves, the currents whipping their rope necks back and forth. Suddenly, she sees beneath the water: skeleton bodies flailing in despair against the undertow.


It is just the buoys, she tells herself. She kissed him goodbye this morning. She saw him sleep. He is still there, sleeping beneath his blankets. She turns her attention quickly to the boat.


As she launches it across the shoreline, she realises she is not wearing the right shoes. Ice water soaks through them, into her soles and up over her ankles. She climbs on board, making the old wood creak. The boat needs painting. She reaches for an oar and pushes off, blade scraping against shingle, the final chime of dry land echoing into the air.


She rows in the direction of the mountains on the other side of the loch. She has grown strong doing this so often and, though her arms still burn, the resistance feels good. Over there are forest-covered peaks where the trees grow so thick and wild that it’s impossible to see where you could moor and enter. She always wanted to go there when she was little – both of them did, but they were always told no. It was too dangerous.


She wonders now what that danger was. Witches? Axemen? Getting lost and contracting hypothermia? Could any of it be as bad as all that she’s seen since, in places she’d expected to feel safe? But she also understands now that desire to protect, to keep a child safe from anything, to never let them know – or even glimpse – danger.


Before she knows it, she is in the middle of the loch. The shore she came from, a sickle-shaped shingle beach backed by friendlier clusters of pine trees, looks strange and plain. She pushes towards the buoys, but despite throwing her body into each stroke, the currents keep heading her off. Her back is towards the horizon. Sea on one side, mountains on the  other. Plain shoreline, ahead of her.


She keeps rowing, and rowing, pulling and sweating as the mauve haar continues to roll in.


The mussels will be fat now, after a summer left alone. As the boat comes alongside the three buoys, it twists, pulled by an undertow, but she has learned, and she uses the oar to hook herself into the right spot.


She leans over the ropes and comes face to face with her reflection in the shining dark surface of the sea loch. Her curls blend into the water’s black ripples. Behind her eyes is something she can’t describe.