The word is stopped by the water

The boy squats by the canal. His clothes are flecked with spray. In his hands he holds something slick and alive, like a bomb. It is struggling so he holds it out, away from his face. He laughs. The water in the canal is smooth and deep and muscular. The thing that is alive is fighting for its life. It is struggling. As it moves it nearly slips out of the boy’s grasp and its centre of balance shifts out, away, toward the water. The boy’s voice goes high with delight. It is a shriek with a small intake of breath in it, in the middle. Adults do not make this sound. Without knowing it the boy adjusts to the thrashing weight he holds, as everyone adjusts without knowing it. His hands go out further, he leans forward. He leans forward too fast and topples into the water without a sound. The water carries him away swiftly. He cannot be seen. The thing that he was holding, the thing that is alive, leaps briefly out of the water. Then it is a shape, moving arrowly away, holding against the current. The boy cannot be seen. The canal is long and straight. On one side is wildness and on the other the buildings come down right to the edge. The boy comes to the surface for a moment. He is far down the canal, further than one might think. His arms are out in front of him. They only just come above the surface of the water. His fingers are rigid and clutching. He cries out. The word is stopped by the water. The frail sound disappears fast. It is difficult to tell where he is because of the turbulence. Eddies, foam. He comes up again. His limbs are pale and thin or maybe the stretching water makes its look so.  He turns, burbles. He turns and his face shows. He is not paralysed but the panic and terror of it is pure. He tries to see through the water and his hair. His hair is long and one eye is covered with a wet sheen of it. He cries out but the water grayly pulls him under. The movement looks graceful. The boy sees flashes of blind white sky and then black autistic water, bubbles. Sometimes the sides of his body feel the stony bottom. The boy tries to grasp at things but there is nothing to grasp. It is hard to see him in the water. His head looks like a rock beneath the surface. He tries to cry out again and again until he can only breathe and cannot afford any sound. Then the child is at the surface again. This time he does not disappear underneath. The child tries again and a sound comes like a miracle. It is high and bright with terror. It sounds like he is crying but surely a child in this dark water would be too stupefied to cry. The child makes the same sound again and again. A woman comes running down the canal. Her voices rises but not in the way the child’s voice rises. Her shoes make a stony noise against the pavement. Frantic she takes them off. She nearly trips but does not. She does not stop calling for help. Then she calls the child’s name. She says that she is coming. She tells him to wait. The child cannot wait, the water is taking him down the canal, past the buildings and the storm drains. He turns one way and another and he cannot see the woman but he can hear her. The voice of the woman is hoarse. There is an animal inflection to it. The second syllable of the child’s name she draws out. Not a scream, more necessary than it. Someone hears her. The woman points as she runs. She moves her finger as if tearing at the air. The stranger cannot see the child in the water. The woman is infuriated without feeling it because she can see the child very clearly. She can see him every time he comes up. His hair is grey against the current and it shows. There, she shouts, and the stranger runs to a bend and waits and jumps. The stranger swims well. He goes into the canal often. As he comes out of the water the child’s arms are around him. They are cold. They clasp so tight it is frightening coming from a child. The boy’s eyes are very wide. Water comes off him and his clothes and runs down the legs of the stranger. Even though in the canal it is massed and gray it is very clean on the boy. The woman ignores the stranger. She takes the child in her arms and wetness expands over her clothes. There are small pink cuts on the boy’s palms. His clothes stick to him. The stranger stands against the railings and bends over. He puts his hands on his knees. The child speaks. I was not afraid, the child says. His voice is slightly muffled. His feet are bare. The woman is crying and she presses the boy into her chest and she does not hear him as he says, Mother, Mother, I am not afraid.

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