“You must be flipping joking!” I exclaimed, as my sister hurtled through the air and landed with a sizeable splash in the raging torrent below. She squawked something back but her words were swept away as she plummeted to her destiny.
My other siblings huddled closer, a trill of perverse horror and excitement sweeping through us like a breeze through leaves.
“It’s perfectly fine,” my brother Drake proclaimed loudly, with an air of gung-ho self-belief that was getting to be quite annoying. “Lula told us to.”
Lula was our big sister, the one who had just plummeted to oblivion. She was at least two hours older than me, the smallest in the family although none of us were really that big when you came to think about it.
“If Lula told you to jump off a cliff, would you do it?” I stupidly asked before realising that this was exactly what he was about to do.
“It’s okay, sis,” Drake insisted, shuffling his way ever closer to the edge (was that a hint of hesitation in his reedy voice?) “We were born to do this.”
I ignored this kitsch hyperbole. We had spent most of our lives thus far in a fetid little nest, hidden in an overgrown bush, being sat on by our mum. We would squabble, we would squeal and jostle for prominence, with me usually at the bottom of the pile, under everyone else. Even mum would sometimes have enough of us and swan off on her own for a bit.
Having said that, she was an excellent teacher and there had been so much to get to grips with over the past few weeks. From the outset we had to learn how to use our bills, how to strengthen our wings by flapping them about endlessly and above all, to keep a lid on it whenever there was a rank sort of smell about: that usually meant a weasel, or some other big furry being with sharp teeth like the one that nobbled poor old Shelly. That properly frightened us all, I can tell you.
The trouble is you can’t really move about very well on webbed feet. She just could not get away quick enough. We talked about it later, when we had all calmed down a bit. Surely, we thought, there must be more to life than waddling and flapping?
It was shortly after this rather traumatic experience that our mum led us away from our nest for the first time. Weasels are clever devils, she said and once it knew we were there, it would not stop until it had gobbled up every one of us. You might think this was quite a harsh reality for us to accept, young as we were but the world is a harsh place, our mum pointed out and there is no use beating about the bush. We got her point about the weasel but we never really understood why we would want to beat around our bush, it seemed a rather pointless activity.
Mum took us further away from home than we had ever been before and although we were a bit scared, it was exciting too. There were lots of new sounds and things to see but the smells were the best.
There was one particular smell that we all found sort of irresistible. So far, in our short existence, there had been two really important scents that had comforted and relaxed us, one was the smell of our mum and the other always came after the rain, a sort of fresh, clean delicious odour that had the same effect on our mum as it did on us:
“Ahh! Petrichor!” she would sigh as she snuggled into the nest with us beneath her and together we would listen to pattering of the raindrops on the leaves.
Petrichor. That word now materialised collectively into our minds. We each knew instinctively that the other was thinking the same thing. It wasn’t raining though, which was odd. The irresistible scent of Petrichor was coming from a patch of clear, shimmery something-or-other that was trapping the rays of the spring sunshine on its surface like dew drops on a spider’s web. We had never seen anything like it before in our lives.
Our mother led the way, wading out into it and eagerly quacking at us to follow her. Lula dipped her beak into the thing and gave an instant cackle of delight before venturing further in, towards our waiting mother.
‘What is it? What is it?’ I asked, urgently. I desperately wanted to follow but I wasn’t sure I could, it was just so new and strange.
‘It’s Water,’ Mum replied. ‘Come on in, little ‘uns, it’s perfectly safe.’
‘Come on in!’ Lula echoed, splashing about, her downy feathers flecked by droplets of this Water, making her almost camouflaged. We had never seen anyone so happy and excited. It was irresistible, it was contagious.
‘I want some Water too!’ Drake exclaimed. ‘Come on, Wenna, we’re missing out!’
‘But what if I sink?’ I cried, in frustration, as I watched him join the others.
‘You won’t sink,’ Mum promised. ‘You just need to paddle your feet. It’s very simple, you’ll see.’ My other two siblings pushed past me in their rush to get into the Water, splashing me with wetness as they went.
I watched them out there, they were having such a great time, moving about with such elegance, not an ungainly waddle in sight. They were as graceful as the freshly emerged dragonflies that danced overhead. As they splashed and played, the smell of Petrichor rose and spread. I couldn’t take it anymore, I had to be a part of it. I put my fear and nervousness to the back of my mind and waded in.
After that there was no stopping us. How could I ever have been scared to go into the Water? How could I ever been afraid I might sink? It was obvious that we were in our element and it felt magnificent. The only problem was, there wasn’t very much of it and it seemed to be getting less day by day, either that or we were getting bigger. We certainly weren’t as fluffy as we used to be. Perhaps the Water was washing it away.
It was early one morning, after a night of heavy rain that our mother led us away from the Water that had been our home, our food source and our playground. She said that it was time to move on to something else, something better, and something bigger. Wasn’t that exciting?
Lula and Drake thought that it was. I was not so sure. I liked the Water as it was, why couldn’t we stay as we were? Deep down, I knew why, I knew that mum was right, the Water was no longer big enough for us.
Mum led us through dense overgrowth that was sodden with last night’s rain, her movements quick and urgent. We were waddling again and it felt ungainly and slow now that we knew how well we moved in Water.
Soon we could hear a new sound, a kind of roaring. We froze, as we had learned to do whenever something dangerous threatened us. We looked to mum for reassurance but she just kept moving so we did too. We knew that it must be safe, we could smell Petrichor and with it the smell of Water. We knew now that they were both wonderful but in different ways. The smells were stronger than ever and they called to us.
The noise was getting louder and suddenly, we ran out of grass. I know that sounds odd, I didn’t think it was possible, but we did.
Without a word, our mother jumped and then we heard a big splash. We stood there for a few moments, gawping at each other, not knowing what to do next.
‘Quick!’ Lula exclaimed. ‘Follow her! Jump in!’
This is pretty much where my story began and there isn’t much more to tell. One by one, every single one of my siblings jumped off the side of the river bank until it was just me left behind. I had never felt so small and alone and I didn’t like it. Every part of me wanted to jump off the side and join my family, to be in the Water.
I remembered another time not so long ago when I had mastered my fear and trusted my instincts. I knew I had to be brave now if I wanted to be true to myself and to be what I must be. I took a deep breath, and I jumped:
© Rachael Bate, 2018
This was one of six pieces of creative writing shortlisted for UNISON’s 2018 writing competition.