There was mud on Clara’s ankles snaking its way up to her calves. It seeped, squelched between her toes as she walked further into the marsh, Back there, where the grasses grew in bursts like the clouds in the June sky, she had lost one shoe then the other.
At the loss of the first shoe she’d cursed, delved both hands into the oozing mud and tried to locate what she knew was lost. Lost, buried beneath the dirt. Then she’d looked up at the sky and sobbed, watching the birds gliding above become blurry through her tears. The second time came just a few steps later after she’d wiped her snot away with the back of her hand. She’d felt the familiar pull down, down into the earth and simply kept walking, the shoe slipping off, a lover’s silk nightgown.
The grasses began to graze her thighs beneath her white shift. They whispered against her skin in the same way Martha’s hands had when she was untying Clara’s bootlaces. Martha, the hushed voices of the grasses breathed through the dusk. Water began to spring up between her toes with each step. Soon the water plastered her dress against her legs, then her waist, then her shoulders.
The marsh birds scattered from the trees as she submerged herself in the waters. It felt like puncturing a cake with birthday candles, breaking through the waters. They presented her to the sliver of moon that hung in the sky on a watery plate. On her back she could see the water-drawn insects flitting in and out of vision, could watch the birds return home with their treasures of twigs clasped in their beaks, could feel the weight of the swelling horizon.
The reeds from the depths ran their fingers through her hair in a way she had missed since Martha’s departure. Every other Friday Martha went to her dad’s in the city. Clara watched as she stuffed things into her backpack pausing intermittently to kiss her softly on the forehead. Those days she felt like the lovelorn tide that lapped against the sand, desperate for the most momentary of touches. Today was Saturday evening. Martha would be back tomorrow with stories of her city friends, her vibrant words pooling honey in Clara’s ears.
On these waters where they had skipped stones, where they had dipped their toes in from the wooden path, where the water still tasted of the sweat of Martha’s skin, they were closer. And as her tears slid down Clara’s face they chimed as they joined the pools around her.
The book she’d tucked under her arm floated on the surface like a body. To Clara, and Love Martha, scrawled on the front page. She’d come here to read in the company of the marsh birds. It was the only way to pass the time when Martha was away. Each page flaked away a few moments of absence. Every time the book bobbed on the surface it reminded her of what she’d seen.
To Clara. Love Martha.
She had taken the board path to get to the marsh. Book tucked under her arm, her shoes clicked against the wooden slats. Above her the marsh birds shrieked as they circled. Reeds lined each side of the path, fluttering in the breeze. They grew taller the further into the marsh she went, until she was dwarfed by them. For a second they parted, and there, beneath the weeping willow, she stood. Martha.
She was with a boy from their school, the year above. He had her black hair in a fistful in his hand. Their mouths were joined, open, searching. Against the tree she tilted her neck to the side in a fashion that made bile sting in Clara’s throat. His hands were blindly upon her, rough like he was separating dirty laundry. The reeds closed again.
And now Clara was in the water.
The sounds of the birds overhead morphed into Martha’s laugh, the rustling grasses into her soft voice, the flowing reeds into her fingers. The book splayed apart on the water’s surface. The ink of the first page was running into the waters of the marsh. The word Martha was bleeding. Clara reached listlessly for it. She needed to read it once more, hold onto the the drawn-out vowels for a second longer. She needed one more moment of embrace. The marsh birds cried out as she turned onto her stomach, submerged her face into the rippling water.
The reeds wove around her, twining like ribbons. They pulled her in. Into her arms.