Manta Ray

Alice has lived with the river all her life. When she was little and the tide was high, she used to lie on its grassy bank and trail her fingers in the water. (Now she is too old to do anything like that, but the bent trees still trail their fingers through the water all the time.) When she was nine or ten, she would call out to the fishing boats that sailed past. Usually they were nearer the far bank than they were to her. She wanted to meet the people in the boats. "Hello," she yodelled at the small figures half a mile or more away.

Occasionally her father would hear and gruffly reprimand her. "They're not going to stop for you," he told her. Yet Alice still hoped that one day a boat would stop. A few times, when the boats came close to the near bank, she thought she could see the men in them smiling at her. But this happened very rarely, and even then she wasn't completely sure.

Now Alice is fifteen, there isn't much for her to do in the cramped house by the water. Sometimes she helps her mother around the house; at other times she looks into the river. This is the nearest thing Alice has to a mirror, the only chance to see herself the way others can. She sees short black hair (her mother considers long hair an indulgence), green eyes and a small frame. Secretly, she hopes the water will absorb her reflection and carry it away across the sea, so that people across the ocean will know of her.

Alice's father and two older brothers are fishermen. Most days, if the weather is fair, they sail away at dawn and return towards sunset. On some days they go down to the sea to fish; on others they head upstream to the town, where they sell their catch. Often Alice asks her brothers what the town is like.

"How do you mean?" they always respond.

"Are there lots of people there?" Alice presses.

"I s'pose you could say that. More than here, anyhow."

"What are the people like? What do they wear?"

"Fancy clothes," her brothers reply disapprovingly. "Clothes for doing nothing useful in."

"What do their fancy clothes look like?"

But by this time her brothers have lost interest or got cross with Alice for asking questions, and made her feel stupid. Alice dearly wishes she could go and see the town - she is sure there is more there than her brothers notice or let on. She wants to go herself, but she knows the town is miles away and can from here be reached only by boat.

Apart from the boat the men go fishing in, the family has another boat that they never use. It is made of beautiful reddish wood, and has ornate carvings around its top. Alice's father found it one day, bobbing unmanned beside the river bank. Now it sits idly by the side of the house, for whenever the men try to launch it, something goes wrong. The craft mysteriously capsizes after only a few yards, and its sodden occupants have to clamber up the bank; or the vessel sticks in the mud and will go no further towards the water. Alice's father has decided that it is jinxed, and talks of chopping it up for firewood. Yet he never does destroy the boat. Perhaps he fears that to do so would bring bad luck. On the vessel's side are carved words in a foreign tongue:

Nur bei Nacht fahre ich
One night Alice cannot sleep. The moon is staring imperiously in through her window, brighter than any sun. And like a sunny day, this night demands action, not sleep. Alice is thinking of the town she has never seen and which her brothers never describe properly. She knows her father will not allow her to go there. So if she wants to see it, she must go by herself, or ride unnoticed in the fishing boat. She wonders if she could hide in the back, beneath the nets. But no - she would soon be discovered and taken home again. Then she remembers the red boat, and quickly devises a plan.

She pulls on some clothes and pads down the stairs. The grandfather clock in the hall reads midnight. Alice edges out of the house and creeps round the side, where the beautiful boat sits beached. Despite a year of neglect, it still looks as good as new, and when Alice pulls it towards the river, it glides easily over the grass as over a soft green sea. It plops gently onto the water and waits like a faithful dog as Alice climbs in.

The night is still, and Alice fears there will not be enough wind to power the boat. But the craft drifts along as if of its own volition, out into the middle of the river. Alice is dismayed to find it is heading down towards the sea, rather than up towards the town. "Turn round," she whispers. Still the boat sails on, and the river widens, until the trees on either distant bank resemble small, moonlit fronds.

Eventually the banks vanish altogether, and Alice knows she must have reached the sea. The boat takes her further and further from the land. Alice begins to feel hungry and thirsty, and wonders where the boat is carrying her. She suspects that her father was right and that the boat is jinxed. Her mother has always said to her, "Never trust pretty things, Alice. They never have any good in them, only evil and deceit." The red boat is certainly pretty. Has she been deceived?

Then, up ahead, she sees the sea's surface spinning in a hypnotic spiral. At the centre of the spiral is a black, gaping hole, down which the water rushes. Alice feels the whirlpool pull on her boat. "No!" she cries, but it is too late to escape. The craft is sucked into the spiral, tilts until it is vertical and plummets into the void. And Alice falls after it.

As she drops, the world appears to slow down. In this hollow in the water, there is pure air to breathe. Perhaps it is just the reflected moonlight, but every tiniest detail of the underwater scene is revealed to Alice: the twisting seaweed, the furling coral, the swerving fish... and something else.

Just below the sea's surface, high above Alice, swims a vast creature. As it nears the whirlpool, it blots out the moonlight. Is it a fish? Alice wonders. It is unlike any fish her father has brought home. Where a fish's tail thrashes, this creature's is thin, still and taut. And where a fish has fins, it has huge, opaque triangles that smoothly undulate. It seems to be flying through the water, Alice thinks. Astonished and fearful, she gazes up at this bird-fish, which is now directly above her. The dark diamond seems to spread, eclipsing everything else. The swoosh of its wing-fins fills Alice's ears, rises to a climax... and then falls silent.

Alice finds herself sitting on a flight of stairs in the dark. What light there is comes from an open door far below her. Alice reaches out to touch the wall to her right, and is surprised to find it stony and curved.

"Hello," she calls softly. Her voice bounces back at her from the building's walls. Peering into the gloom, she can see that the structure is dome-like, and that there is another flight of stairs on the opposite wall leading down to the door. Tentatively, she makes her way up the flight she is on. As she hoped, there is a walkway connecting the two sets of stairs. She crosses it and descends to the open door.

As Alice approaches the doorway, a woman comes through it. In the light from outside, Alice can see her features clearly, and is shocked at how much they resemble her own. The woman has blue-grey eyes, and her dark hair is tangled and wild, the way Alice would have worn hers, had her mother let her.

"Welcome to our city, Alice," the woman says.

"Are you the queen?" Alice stutters, for although the woman is small and slight, she is so beautiful that Alice believes she must be important.

"No," replies the woman, laughing, "we don't have royalty any more. Come outside and let me show you the city."

Alice follows her out into the dazzling sunshine. The streets are thronged with people. All are smiling and richly dressed, but each person's outfit is different from all the others. Some of them stop to greet Alice and the woman. Above the city stands a tall, curving metal pyramid that stretches skyward.

"Is this your city?" Alice presses.

"Well, I had the idea for it," the woman admits shyly. "But it's everyone's city now." Her accent is exotic and warm, and Alice starts to feel less afraid.

Over the rooftops comes a giant, flapping creature like the one in the sea. It turns and heads towards the round building they have just left. Alice quails. The woman puts a reassuring arm around her. "Don't be scared of the rays. They're friendly. We can go feed one if you like."

The two of them set off along the city streets. Suddenly the woman stops as though an idea has occurred to her. "Unless you want to go home. I don't want to keep you from your family."

Alice looks around at the wooden-fronted shops, the contented passers-by, the strange but elegant horseless carriages gliding past along rails and the inviting, tree-filled park at the end of the street. Then she thinks of home: of the cramped house; of the brothers who despise her; of the long, dull days; of her father's temper. She decides.

"I want to stay here. This could be home. I belong here."

© 1998 Matthew Tiller. All copies must include this notice.