Along the Heron-Studded River

by Danielle McLaughlin

He gripped the ice-scraper in his gloved hands, pulled it back and forth across the windscreen. A mist of ice particles rose up, settled upon the car bonnet. It was dark yet, but the sun was beginning to rise, tingeing the white fields pink. All around him the land was hard and still, the ditch that separated their property from the farm next door brittle-grassed and silver. In the distance he could see the line of trees that flanked the river, their branches dusted with a light powdering of snow. A heron stood beside the small ornamental pond, stabbing the frozen surface with its beak. The previous Saturday, Cathy had driven to the city and had returned with half a dozen carp, some of them bronze and tea-coloured, others grey. He had watched her release them, dazed and startled, into the pond. Dropping the ice-scraper, he clapped his hands and the heron rose up and flew away.

The house was a dormer, facing south towards the river, set into a hollow in the field. From where he stood in the driveway, it looked like a Christmas ornament, frost clinging to the roof, condensation rounding the squares of light in the windows. He could see Cathy moving about the kitchen in her dressing gown, Gracie on her hip, preparing breakfast. 

‘Did you get any sleep?’ he had asked earlier.

‘Yes,’ she said, ‘plenty,’ but he had felt her slip from their bed during the night, had heard her feet on the floorboards as she went downstairs. He knew she would be on the phone to Martha, her sister, who lived in Castleisland. What Martha made of these late night phone calls, he didn’t know. Martha spoke to him only when matters concerning Cathy or Gracie required it, grudgingly even then, and once a month she posted a cheque for the crèche fees. 

He finished the windscreen, leaving the engine running so the car might heat up, and went back into the house. In the hall he removed his wet gloves and put them to dry on the radiator. He could hear his wife and daughter in the kitchen singing *Incy Wincy Spider*. He watched them through the door, their forms distorted by the patterned glass. Cathy was making porridge. She balanced the wooden spoon on the edge of the pot and shimmied low to the floor, her dressing gown enfolding Gracie like a tent. Gracie screamed and wriggled out, then immediately crawled back in again, pulling the dressing-gown tight about her. She poked her face through a gap between buttons and giggled. And as he entered the room, he felt something seep away, like a slow hiss of air from a puncture.

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