The River Mum

A short story in which a mother comforts her child and safeguards her from a cold, unceasing rain…

by: Sarah Macallister

Ella ran along the river, quick as the silver water, away from home, away from motherhood, if only for a little while. She longed to run further but an invisible chain caught her by the neck and drew her home. As a cold rain fell from the dark sky onto her burning cheeks, she hurried back to where their houseboat bobbed on the water. Fallen leaves plastered the portholes like small hands.  

The cabin door opened and a little girl clambered onto the deck. 

“Mama! Mama!” Her cries sent a shiver down Ella’s spine.

The child jumped on to the towpath but tripped and skinned her hands on the cold gravel. Shrieks rent the air, until Ella hugged and hummed her daughter’s pain away. The rain drove down harder, so they returned below deck. Surrounded by warm, wooden walls, Ella rested her chin on her daughter’s damp hair and they rocked together. Skyla burrowed into her mother’s warm chest, where she drifted into an abyss of sleep. 

When Skyla rolled awake, the pattering rain had ceased. Ella helped Skyla into her waterproof onesie and yellow wellies. Above deck the sun sparkled over a cleaned world of dewy grass and glimmering puddles. Skyla tumbled over tree roots and gathered treasures of acorns and wet leaves, while Ella followed like her shadow. They sniffed wild garlic and listened to poplar leaves whispering above them. Tics crawled in secret after blood meals. She crunched them using a teaspoon from her pocket.

They were moored under a tunnel of white poplars, whose leaves shivered in the wind and seeds flurried like cottony snow. Nearly nobody else lived here. Only one small cottage peered around the riverbend. 

Every day, a gentleman, supported by a cane and hat, strolled along the river and past their boat. Ella supposed he lived alone inside the small, whitewashed cottage. His voice crackled like dry leaves whenever he delivered his good morning or weather commentary. This time he departed from his usual script.

“Is your little one at nursery?” 

“Not yet. We’re visiting tomorrow to see if she likes it.” Ella squinted at the sun.

“She will. Good for her to make friends. Brightening up now, should be a fine day,” he said as he strolled away.

That evening, a pan of jam bubbled on the stove and daubed the air with hot berry sugar. They ate jam sandwiches and Skyla pretended to feed Fox Dog, her favorite toy, then helped Ella sponge the mess from Fox Dog’s nose. Sunlit motes of dust played off the beams and slipped through the floorboards. 

The next day, Ella and Skyla entered by the side-gate into the playground. Concrete boiled in the sun. Glares flashed off hard shiny frames and slides. Skyla dragged Ella over to where other mothers chattered, while their placid babies fingered tassels and stared blankly around.

“Would you like a strawberry?” One mother bent over to Skyla, who nodded yes and accepted the proffered heart-shaped fruit. 

After the nursery tour, Ella hurried her daughter away. 

Gloom fell that evening and Skyla slept curled up against Ella’s chest, flinging one little arm protectively over her mother’s heart. Ella remembered the shifting sand of her own childhood; plastic toys, plastic smiles, and peeling skin by fingernails. Dead spiders trapped between window panes, starved flies inside their glass prison. Knobbly rings of burnt carpet hairs. The shadows of feet walking behind closed doors.

Ella couldn’t sleep. Her memories whirled around, until her eyes winked open and a woman emerged through the door at the foot of the bed. Ella stared at her mother. In the dim glow from the porthole, she could not tell what expression she wore. A blink chased her away and only the shut door remained.  

The next morning, beside the kettle, a handwritten letter caught the shadows of raindrops running down the porthole. There were lines that struck off strings of words. Ella read it through once more.

“Dearest Skyla, I loved you more than anyone, more than I thought I could love. Something broke in me a long time ago. Love couldn’t save me. I’m so sorry for letting you down. Your fate is not mine. We are different people. You are more than me, strong and brave and full of heart. I loved you so much.”

Almost immediately, Ella scrunched the note and flattened it again, in order to rip the thing into tiny meaningless flakes of paper. Skyla joined her. Together they tossed handfuls overboard like snowflakes that did not melt but drifted downstream to feed disappointed fish.

When they returned below deck, Skyla bum-bounced the cabin steps. Clunks ended in a pitter-patter of splashes and giggles. Ella followed warily and bit her lip at the inches of rippling water. A hole betrayed them. 

“It’s sinking,” Ella said. “Quick! Let’s go. Come on!” Ella pulled Skyla into her arms and carried her into the square of sky and they jumped overboard, landing on the crisp river path. 

“Fox Dog! I want my Fox Dog!” Skyla cried.

Their gentleman friend strolled towards them, cane swinging. Ella made eye contact with him. Cotton wool drifted from the poplars. The boat still appeared intact and bobbed peacefully on the river, silently losing itself to the water.

“Ok. Wait here. Just wait! I’ll get him,” said Ella.

As she stumbled back to the flooded cabin, her legs moistened as she rummaged for Fox Dog. Holding her treasure, she waded through the stone green water. Tea towels drifted amid the floating cups. Halfway up the wooden steps, the boat lurched and the back of her head slammed into the door. She felt nothing at all, then sick throbs as she heaved onto the bank, still clutching Fox Dog.

Bleached stones littered the path and grass flowers flickered like silver fire. Ella could hear the boiling angry water behind her. She turned her eyes in one direction and then the other, peering far along the river banks, all the way to where some old man, shrunken by distance, strolled alone.

Skyla was not there. 

She screamed her name as the last of the water hissed over the boat. Grief like a stone goblin crouched in her throat. She ran by the river, searching for wet hair or a little body and seeing nothing but dead leaves and sticks and then snow falling from the white poplar trees.

Then Ella heard, faintly at first, the sound of a beautiful voice crying her name: “Mama – Mama – Mama!” Her head snapped around and she saw her child standing there, helplessly staring. Ella ran as fast as she could into her waiting arms.


Sarah Macallister is a writer and researcher with interests in science, art and literature. Besides academic publications, her short stories and poetry have appeared in Impspired, Literally Stories, Flora Fiction, Shooter Lit and Corvus Review.

0 replies on “The River Mum”