You know my wife from stories, possibly. She's altogether different from how you think. She sees a snake, she's just as liable to whack it with a stick. Or name it with a convoluted name. She likes to think up clever stuff; me, I'm happy with a joke. She's thinking now, while sitting on the river's bank. She gazes up at me, or maybe through me. Her face is long and solemn, lovely as a llama's (that's one I named, a silly Spanish pun). Her bony ankles in the water, she leans and peers into the stream. The current here is muscular: no time to say much but "vergissmeinnicht" before the strong brown water took you down. She should be careful, but I don't say anything. It's up to her.
We've been here quite a while. There's still a lot of work to do. Sometimes we bring it up with him. The beetles, why so many? He shakes his head, and tells us both: I like to see them wriggle.
We portion out the tasks. Our mornings are Linnean. Demotic's for the afternoons. Sometimes we're lazy, sometimes comical. We once lay down to laugh it out, laid flat among the leaves, sides shaking as we snorted out "ear-wig!" "wood-louse!", heehawing through our fingers.
Then something happens. What a fuss. You'd think the world was coming to an end, instead of just beginning, as he'd said. We slink home in disgrace, like beaten children.
The next day I wake early, but she's up before me. She's in the tree again. Her bottom balanced on a branch, she's choosing unripe fruit. She lets them fall against the mossy bole. They drop, they tumble, rolling to the water's edge. When I get up I see the river's full of apples. She has been working hard. They bob and wink among the ripples, while the current sweeps them down.
I see she's working on a plan. She told me yesterday, she doesn't think they'll let us stay here long. She jumps down from a swinging limb, all legs and arms. We stand and watch her handiwork. I don't know what it means yet, but she doesn't act on whims. The water takes the fruit and passes it from hand to hand.
We've never given it a name, she says. She means the river, and she's right. No more we have. It's strange, because we've labelled all the other things. We may leave just this one, for them to puzzle out.
She leads me down a path along the bank. We pass beneath the trees we've given names. Hemlock, shagbark, hornbeam, willow. We head towards the edge of places that we know.
The track ends here: the wall is made of brick. But underneath the wall there is an arch, and into darkness water plunges down, and through. It's loud with echoes and the stones are damp and mossy. The underlip is hung with hartstongue ferns. A breeze blows in, an Eastern wind. It's coming from outside. We can smell spice, desert, emptiness. We each stand still, imagining.
We could just jump in now, she says. They'd never know. I think about it. Let's play it straight, I say. We'll let them do their thing. We're all they have.
And so we go back up the river, picking celandines along the bank. It's getting to be dusk. I think they're coming for us now. I hear the undergrowth ashake with frightened creatures. I see the glimmer of a sword among the trees.
Nigel Britton is a parcel of vain strivings tied by a chance bond together. He lives in London.