The River Maid

by Jon Pickering

The small, bubbling brook which tumbled through the garden of our family home was always a special place for me. As a child I would sit for hours on the sun-warmed rocks, reading the same battered, leather-bound book that my grandfather had read before me in that very same spot years ealier, when he was also just a young boy. This little stream was our family paradise. Our Eden.

I remember her, too, the River Maid, that tiny, whimsical, mystical girl-child, beautiful and full of joy. Our family named her Brook, for the stream in which she lived. It was my great-grandmother who named her so, the first time she rose from the water, this petite, playful pixie. We loved her even more than we loved her stream.

I had been told of her, of course, our family secret, long before she appeared to me. That would happen, I was told, only when I proved my devotion to the sanctity of the water. Yes, I know it sounds strange, but this place was holy to us.

It was a warm autumn day, the first time we met. I was nine, I think, and busy clearing fallen leaves which would otherwise choke the brook. Our family always cared for the stream, and that day the duty was mine. I was a serious child, and worked with a frown as I removed the rotting vegetation.

“Why so serious?” a soft, giggling voice asked from behind me.

Turning slowly, I knew what I would see: A tiny girl-child, appearing to be about my age, wearing a simple green and brown dress, her eyes as wild and alive as her hair, and her smile as warm as the sun-kissed rocks.

“I am cleaning your river, I told her solemnly, pointing at the little tumbling stream. “The weekend winds tore down so many leaves, and there are so many in the water!”

Giggling again, she clapped her hands and jumped up and down cutely. “Thank you!” she said happily. She giggled again as I pulled a particularly large clot of leaves free. “Tickles!” she cried, falling on her back and rolling amongst the daisies.

I stopped immediately. “Sorry!” I said, mortified. I didn’t want our first meeting to be our last.

She rolled onto her front, cradling her chin in her hands. “That’s alright,” she replied warmly. “Felt nice!” Glancing down, she saw the book on the rock where I had left it. “Oh! I love that book! Will you sit with me and read it?” Her voice was pleading, and so cute there that there was no chance of denial.

Many times over the years found us reading that book together, giggling where we lay beside the brook. But then it was time for me to leave for a while, to go to university. I worried for her, my Brook. My mother could not look after her any more, and she would be alone until I returned. But Brook assured me time and again in those weeks before my departure that she would be fine, but would count the days until I returned.

She cried the day I finally left, hugging me fiercely, still looking the same as she had on our first meeting nine years earlier.

“Promise you’ll come back!” she demanded, tears flowing freely, the waters of her stream dark and unsettled.

“I promise,” I told her earnestly.

It took me five long years to return to her, life always seeming to interfere with my hopes to visit. And so here I stood on my homecoming, staring at our brook in horror. The water was a sickly green and turquoise, the tumbling stream reduced to a slovenly, syrupy trickle, and the once bubbling water suffocated by an explosion of algae and weed.  And my little Brook was nowhere to be seen.

I walked morosely up stream, I don’t know how far, and finally I found the cause. A farmer had claimed the fields closer to the water, his greed wanting an even greater yield. And either in laziness or ignorance, he had left the bags of fertiliser down by the banks, ready to scatter across his newly ploughed field. But the rains had come first, and Brook had bubbled over as she often did, and the fertiliser had washed into her, choking and poisoning.

As I stared at this sickening sight, I heard crying, weak and terrified, somewhere close by. Laying in the dirt was Brook, pale and fading, her eyes dull and her hair still. She was dying along with her stream. I gathered her up in my arms and wept. But inside I seethed with anger. How dare anyone do this to my Brook! I would do everything I could to save her, to repair this fatal wound. And then I would track down the farmer responsible.

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