The Undertow by Olivia Rushin
Welsh-born Olivia Rushin lives in Brisbane and is currently studying a Bachelor of Science (Psychology) and Arts (Writing) at the University of Queensland. She’s been a bakery assistant for more years than anyone should, but did spend her gap year traveling and working in Germany, so it’s not all bread.
There’s something about the river. Peg wades out of its grip and runs home.
She runs because she has to, because the sky is turning and the gaslights on this side of the city are few and far between. The rows of terraced houses hum like a hive. Numb old men with leaden tongues are having a pissing contest in the gutter, and a one-armed child squats and strains on the cobblestones nearby. Peg sidesteps sleeping bodies and ducks the cords of neglected clotheslines. She pelts from one lamppost to the next, below factory chimneys that pipe scud into the clouds.
Home is in the west, detached from the city, where the dark gaps between streetlights hide only trellises of jessamines and honey-suckle, and the husks of sleeping carriages. Peg scrabbles onto the slate roof outside her sister’s room, and her wet hands squeal on the sash window as she slips in through the gap. The west wind streams in after her, swills around the walls like freshwater, spits the stale air out onto the street.
There’s movement from the four-poster inside, and Amy’s head lifts into view.
“I’m dripping all over,” says Peg. “Need a blanket.”
She catches the flying bundle with one hand and sops up the puddle at her feet; wrings out her sodden dress.
“You went to the river again,” says Amy.
The river, the river. Her milky little grin floats in the darkness.
“What was it like?”
Peg’s stomach shifts; she can’t stand that awed look.
“Tell me,” says Amy.
The crescents of Peg’s nails are packed stiff with silt the colour of boiled tealeaves, but it tastes like coal and grease and riverweed when she bites it out. The grit crunches between her teeth.
“It’s beautiful,” she says eventually, spitting into her sleeve. “Really.”
“But beautiful how?”
“Beautiful same as last time. You know I can’t describe it how you like.”
“In the morning, maybe,” says Peg. She helps Amy shift onto her side, so the bedsores won’t scab onto the sheets. “You should be asleep. But I have something for you first. For your collection.”
She tips a faceted gem of river-glass, scarlet and glinting, onto her sister’s palm.
Amy is breathless. “Is it a real ruby?”
“Looks that way,” says Peg. “And it was only a shard of old bottle when I threw it in.”
Amy finishes inspecting the thing and solemnly hands it over.
“Put it with the others.”
Peg crosses the room, sets the glass ruby on the shelf. It rolls on its axis and settles beside a whittled coil of wood that hadn’t started out that way at all; the first thing Peg ever fished out of the river’s hungry tongue.
She’d thrown it in up by the overgrown thicket near Cotchett’s old mill, for no reason, really. It was a crude hunk of oak she’d hacked out of a trunk with a sharpened butter knife, and throwing it into the river had just been something to do. She’d chased after it along the bank, past the steep slant of the weir, and fished it out where it surfaced in that eddy down by the millstream, right in the tailrace of Lombe’s silk mill. By then, something about the river had changed the simple thing – found it, drowned it, chewed it up and spat it out – and it was a perfect spiral, carved of oak.
Further along the shelf is what used to be the jawbone of a cow, until the river decided it should be a fine-toothed comb. Beside that is a goatskin pouch that went in empty and resurfaced full of glass marbles, and a broken tile of red brick that came back monogrammed with the letter ‘A’ in cursive. Peg feeds things to the river, they come out better. Changed.
“I want to see it,” says Amy behind her. “Peggy? The river. You have to take me with you.”
The air suddenly seems stale again, stagnant. For a moment, Peg seethes, heaves at the unfairness of all these pretty things destined to die here on the shelf. Better if they’d sunk and stayed like they were supposed to, or been swept all those miles and dumped out at sea. The ruby glares back at her. Peg calms, and turns.
She carries Amy downstairs, outside, and slowly back east. Amy hugs onto her neck at first but falls asleep before they reach the slums. Hollow eyes blink awake, tracking them through the streets, and the fetid air hangs heavy in their wake. Peg’s glad Amy misses it. Her little head is still limp against her chest when they emerge from the thicket by the mill and step out onto the slippery rocks.
The cracked glaze of Amy’s prosthetic gleams pearlescent in the moonlight. Their father used to boast that it was made from Derby’s finest porcelain. A fired composite of ground glass, eggshell, and human ash, he’d said, and Amelia should be proud to have such a pretty thing for a leg. She’ll never be confused for one of those mutilated urchins again.
He might have mentioned how she’d never be able to walk again either, for fear of shattering. How the socket joint of her porcelain knee would shriek and scrape whenever she tried to stand, grinding away at itself like a mortar and pestle. How Peg would have to watch her sister grow smaller and paler with every passing day, living only off second-hand stories about the magic of a black river and a promise that one day she’d see it for herself.
The rapids roar as they take Amy away. Peg pounds along the bank; races them downstream as they surge over the weir and into the eddy by the millstream. She squats there and waits – at the foot of the great waterwheel, always turning, churning – but all that washes up is white porcelain dust that sifts through her fingers and is gone.