The man was talking to the river.
Hester eyed him with piqued curiosity. Talking to the river was her job.
He was tall, and hatless under a hot summer sun. The same breeze which bent the grass of the field behind Hester, wove strands of his black hair in the air above his head. He wore a long black coat which was shiny at the elbows. The coat made her suspect he was, or once was, a gentleman, because she had seen gentlemen on a rare trip to Shiphaven and they had worn long black coats. Hats too, so this gentleman must have fallen on bad times. Hester’s mother had said this about a merchant family in the town whose boat failed to return from its annual pilgrimage and, fallen on bad times, they had to move from their townhouse and sell the fancy carriage.
The man spun about, as if suddenly aware of being watched. When he clasped his hands behind him, he displayed a yellow brocade waistcoat. A fine material, so it was a shame the buttonholes were frayed. Perhaps her mother could mend them, for money, as she did more and more these days. The farm was not enough, despite the long hours Father and her brothers worked.
‘Hello.’ The man touched his fingers to his head as if he had forgotten he was hatless. His hair glistened like raven feathers in the bright sun, and gold flecks glinted warmly in his dark eyes.
Hester needed to put her thumb in her mouth, but Mother had beaten the habit out of her, declaring that at eight years old Hester should have long outgrown thumb sucking. She agreed with Mother, so she folded her arms over her pinafore before the thumb could sneak its own way between her lips.
‘You come here often, don’t you?’ the man said. ‘I’ve seen you here, talking to Sabrina.’
Who, where, was this Sabrina? Hester turned her head so quickly her untidy curls slapped her cheek.
‘Sabrina is the name of the river.’ He gestured at the placid wide stream flowing at this moment down to the sea.
‘That’s not the name of the river.’ She screwed up her nose. ‘It’s got another name …’
‘You mean the name ordinary folk call it?’
‘You and I are not ordinary folk, little mistress. We are wise. We call the river by her goddess name, Sabrina.’
‘No, goddess.’ He brushed strands of hair from his face. ‘Did you know you were talking to a goddess?’
Hester’s thumb twitched. She held it steady, pinned into her armpit. If she were honest, it wasn’t so much that she talked to the river, as it talked to her. When the river was low it whispered, shushing its way over the sandbanks as the silks Mother sewed shushed over Hester’s hands. When the tide came in, the waters swooshed and swirled while the swans hitched fast rides alongside shallow-bottomed trows.
The river told Hester she was a good girl, which was what Father told her when she found the eggs the hens hid or picked blackberries for Mother to make into jam.
She listened for the river’s words. Today, it was silent, hurrying to the sea in a long smooth rush to collect the big ships and bring them up with the turning of the tide.
The man came nearer, his shadow falling over Hester’s bonnetless head. ‘May I walk with you?’ He offered his hand for her to take, if she wished.
The hand was long-fingered and smooth, with pale lines across the palm. A gentleman’s hand. When it didn’t go away, Hester took it and the man led her alongside the hedgerows, away from the river, away from Sabrina. As they walked he told her the names of the flowers growing at the edge of the fields and sprouting from the hedges.
‘Here is yarrow.’ His fingers caressed the froth of fading lilac flowers. ‘Cures colds,’ he said. ‘And toothache.’
He held a feathery cluster the colour of fresh cream to Hester’s nose. Her eyes crinkled. ‘Ah! Meadowsweet. Mother says I’ll carry meadowsweet when I marry.’
‘Marry?’ The man raised a dark eyebrow. ‘Does she now?’
A boisterous wind tangles Hester’s hair and whips her back with its chilly gusts. She shouldn’t be here, on the clifftop above the river. She should be hurrying back across the fields to milking – a task with which she was entrusted on her recent fourteenth birthday.
‘Old enough to take on more,’ Mother said, bequeathing Hester the roughest of her own tasks while adding that she herself needs to keep her hands clean for sewing, given the fancy merchants’ wives of Shiphaven have no desire for streaks of pig muck on their lace collars.
Hester ignores the imagined lowing of the cows. Huddled in her thick, woollen shawl, she fixes her gaze on the waters. All life is down there. Fishing boats with their sails furled; barges sunk low with wood and coal and stone; the ferry with its passengers huddled close as puppies in a box, wanting the cold journey to be over.
Busyness and purpose.
While up here is Hester with a life of milking, unearthing eggs, playing housekeeper to pigs in their sties, and waking in the night to feed motherless lambs. Cows, lambs and hens are all well and good, and Hester understands she has much to be grateful for. Her mind roams across those families in the village where too little money and too many children mean constant hunger and cold. Yet, she has her own hunger. It’s why she has sneaked from the farm to answer the call of the river nymphs, needing to feed the craving for their embrace which lives within her, the elusive memory of a dream.
She shivers, stamps her boots to get feeling into feet chilled by the wet, scrubby grass, and peers downstream. A low bore rears ahead of the tidal flow, a cavalry of white-maned grey steeds galloping away from the ocean with heads held high and steady. Small boats going down pull into the cliffs on the far bank to wait out the surging tide.
As Hester watches, she strains to hear Sabrina’s voice.
When Hester was a little girl, Sabrina murmured she was a good girl. Now the river whispers that Hester must be wise, and strong. And do what she must do, which is a puzzling demand.
Stretching towards the cliff edge, she searches–
There! The nymphs rise on the bow waves of the great barges before plunging beneath fishing boats, playing tag with nets and oars. Their bodies are as supple as spring’s elvers which churn the shallows to a thrashing, black mass, but luminous, more graceful. Wrapped in mud-brown hanks of hair as thick as fishermen’s ropes, they scorn November’s cold.
‘Join us, swim with us, learn with us.’
Their high sweet voices cleave the sailors’ coarse shouts in mimicry of the wind from the fields slicing through Hester’s shawl. They cleave Hester’s heart too, filling her with a yearning to answer their summons, to ride the white horses far upstream, turning with the new tide to journey to the ocean. Hester has never seen the sea, felt only the tug of its salty call as she watches the nymphs on their downstream course.
‘Join us, swim with us, learn with us.’
Sinuous arms wave above the waters, beckoning Hester as they always do.
Sabrina sings. Be wise, be strong, do what you need to do.
Hester’s yearning is too much. Today, she resolves … today at last, she will know the sea in truth.
Along the cliff she runs, scrabbling down the path to the water, digging her heels into the black soil, grabbing at stunted branches to push herself forward. She is a spawning salmon in her urgency to reach the rocks and mudbanks which will soon be drowned in racing water. Stretching out her arms, she begs the nymphs, seeks their wet touch, needing them to take her into the flow. She will learn with them, their strength will be hers. Their wisdom too.
Her boots are drenched as she wades forward to meet the oncoming wave and its soaring, plunging riders–
‘Hey, you there, Miss!’
Hester ignores the call.
A hand on her shoulder wrenches her from the swiftly rising flow. Hester’s heart pounds. Cold, grey water swirls about her ankles. She stumbles backwards, is caught, is pulled and steered, breathless, up the path to the clifftop.
Her rescuer stands before her, breathing as hard as Hester breathes. A glimpse of faded yellow waistcoat, torn remnants of thread where a button should be, shows beneath his open greatcoat. Her memory stirs.
A frown slides across the man’s forehead, as shadowy and fleeting as a night hunting owl.
‘What were you thinking?’ His dark eyes, with their glint of gold, narrow. Something hard, wild in them makes Hester squirm.
Her heart keeps its pounding rhythm. She presses her hand to her chest. Her hand is cold. All of her is cold.
‘Sabrina called me … she wants me–’
He whips his head to the river. Strands of his too-long hair fly out from beneath his beaver hat. His hair is shrivelled at the ends, as if he has bent too close to his cottage fire.
‘Talk to Sabrina from here.’
Hester winces at the harshness of his voice, drops her gaze to the stony ground, away from the man’s cold anger.
‘Far safer,’ he says, waving at the river.
Hester peers up, blurts her excuse. ‘The nymphs invited me.’
The man hisses a sharp breath and Hester dips her chin in embarrassment. He thinks her mad, or fey. She pulls a windswept curl across her face to hide the spring of ashamed tears.
‘I have to go home,’ she tells the ground, scuffing her soaked boot in the grass. ‘There are cows to be milked.’
‘Of course.’ His tone is as coolly polite as if he and Hester are acquaintances passing on a busy street. He offers a stiff bow, reaches up to lift his hat. His fingers are blistered. ‘Good day.’
Hester gathers her shawl around her shaking body and runs across the stubbled field, fleeing the river and the man. When she reaches the gap in the leafless hedge, she glances around. He’s staring into the streaming tide.
She wriggles through the gap, hurries home. Her whirling mind picks at the unfolding memory. He is back.