Please note: This is only part of one story in the complete collection.
Summer and the third day of Martin’s field study. Morning, and he is parked at the side of the track, looking out over the rye he will walk through shortly to reach the river. For two days he has been alone, gathering his mud and water samples, but not today.
A boy shouts and sings in the field. His young mother carries him piggyback through the rye. Martin hears their voices, thin through the open window of his car. He keeps still. Watching, waiting for them to pass.
The woman’s legs are hidden in the tall stalks of the crop and the boy’s legs are skinny. He is too big to be carried comfortably, and mother and son giggle as she struggles on through the rye. The boy wears too-large trainers, huge and white, and they hang heavy at his mother’s sides. Brushing the ears of rye as she walks, bumping at her thighs as she jogs an unsteady step or two. Then swinging out wide as she spins on the spot: whirling, stumbling around and around. Twice, three times, four times, laughing, lurching as the boy screams delight on her back.
They fall to the ground and Martin can’t see them anymore. Just the rye and the tops of the trees beyond: where the field slopes down and the river starts its wide arc around the town. Three days Martin has been here. Only another four days to cover the area, pull enough data together for his semester paper, already overdue. The young woman and her child have gone. Martin climbs out of the car, gathers his bags, and locks the doors.
This river begins in the high mountains Martin cannot see but knows lie due south of where he stands. Once it passes the coal and industry of the foothills, it runs almost due west into these flat farming lands, cutting a course through the shallow valley on which his Ph.D. studies are centered. Past the town where he is stay- ing and on through the provincial capital, until it finally mouths in the wide flows which mark the border between Martin’s country and the one he is now in. Not a significant stretch of water historically, commercially, not even especially pretty. But a cause for concern nonetheless: here, and even more so in Martin’s country, linking as it does a chemical plant on the eastern side of the border with a major population center to the west.
Martin has a camera, notebooks, and vials. Some for river water, others for river mud. Back in the town, in his room at the guesthouse, he has chemicals and a microscope. More vials and dishes. The first two days’ samples, still to be analyzed, a laptop on which to record his results.
The dark uneven arc of the trees is visible for miles, marking the path of the river through the yellow-dry countryside. The harvest this year will be early and poor. Drought, and so the water level of the river is low, but the trees along its banks are still full of new growth, thick with leaves, the air beneath them moist.
Martin drinks the first coffee of the day from his flask, by the water’s edge. The river has steep banks, and roots grow in twisted detours down its rocky sides. He has moved steadily west along the river since the beginning of the week, covering about a kilometer each day, with a two-kilometer gap in between. Up until now, the water has been clear, but here it is thick with long fronds of weed. Martin spreads a waterproof liner on the flat rock, lays out vials and spoons in rows. He writes up the labels while he drinks his second coffee, then pulls on his long waterproof gloves. Beyond the branches, the field shimmers yellow-white and the sun is strong; under the trees, Martin is cool. Counting, measuring, writing, photographing. Long sample spoon scratching river grit against the glass of the vials.
Late morning and hot now, even under the trees. The water at this point in the river is almost deep enough to swim. Martin lays out his vials, spoons, and labels for the third time that morning. Wonders a moment or two what it would be like to lie down in the lazy current, the soft weed. Touches his gloved fingertips to the surface and counts up all the toxic substances he will test his samples for later. He rolls up his trouser legs as high as they will go before he pulls on the waders, enjoys the cool pressure of the water against the rubber against his skin as he moves carefully out to about midstream. The weed here is at its thickest, and Martin decides to take a sample of that, too. The protective gauntlets make it difficult to get a grip, but Martin manages to pull one plant from the riverbed with its root system still reasonably intact. He stands awhile, feeling the current tug its way around his legs, watching the fingers of weed slowly folding over the gap he has made. Ahead is a sudden dip, a small waterfall that Martin had noted yesterday evening on the map. The noise of the cascade is loud, held in close by the dense green avenue of trees. Martin wades forward and when he stops again, he hears voices, a laugh-scream.
The bushes grow dense across the top of the drop, but Martin can just see through the leaves: young mother and son, swimming in the pool hollowed out by the waterfall. They are close. He can see the boy take a mouthful of water and spray it at his mother as she swims around the small pool. Can see the mud between her toes when she climbs out and stands on the rock at the water’s edge. The long black-green weed stuck to her thigh. She is not naked, but her underwear is pale, pink-white like her skin, and Martin can also see the darker wet of nipples and pubic hair. He turns quickly and wades back to the bank, weed sample held carefully in gauntleted hands.
He stands for a moment by his bags, then pulls off the waders, pulls on his shoes again. He will walk round them, take a detour across the fields, and they will have no cause to see him. He has gathered enough here already, after all. The pool and waterfall need not fall within his every-hundred-meters remit. No problem.
Martin sleeps an hour when he gets back to the guesthouse. Open window providing an occasional breeze from the small back court and a smell of bread from the kitchen. When he wakes the sun has passed over the top of the building and his room is pleasantly cool and dim.
He works for an hour or two on the first day’s mud and water vials, and what he finds confirms his hypothesis. Everything within normal boundaries, except one particular metal, present in far higher concentrations than one should expect.
His fingers start to itch as he parcels up a selection of samples to send back to the university lab for confirmation. He knows this is psychosomatic, that he has always been careful to wear protection: doesn’t even think that poisoning with this metal is likely to produce such a reaction. He includes the weed sample in his parcel, with instructions that a section be sent on to botany, and a photocopy of the map, with the collection sites clearly marked. In the post office, his lips and the skin around his nostrils burn, and so despite his reasoning, he allows himself another shower before he goes down to eat an early dinner in the guesthouse café.
The boy from the stream is sitting on one of the high stools at the bar, doing his homework, and the waitress who brings Martin his soup is his mother. She wishes him a good appetite in one of the few phrases he understands in this country, and when Martin thanks her using a couple of words picked up on his last visit, he thinks she looks pleased.
Martin watches her son while he eats. Remembers the fountain of river water the boy aimed at his mother, wonders how much he swallowed, if they swim there regularly, how many years they might have done this for. Martin thinks he looks healthy enough, perhaps a little underweight.
His mother brings Martin a glass of wine with his main course, and when he tries to explain that he didn’t order it, she just puts her finger to her lips and winks. She is thin, too, but she looks strong; broad shoulders and palms, long fingers, wide nails. She pulls her hands behind her back, and Martin is aware now that he has been staring. He lowers his eyes to his plate, watches her through his lashes as she moves on to the next table. Notes: Good posture, thick hair. But Martin reasons while he eats that such poisons can take years to make their presence felt; nothing for a decade or two, then suddenly tumors and shortness of breath in middle age.
Copyright © 2004 by Rachel Seiffert. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.