I saw her first—a pale, skinny girl lying on a flat rock below the rapids. She was leaning out over the edge, reaching down into a deep pool of still water. Swirls of river foam clung to the bottom of her rolled-up sleeves and the floating ends of her long red hair. She was watching something in the dark river-shadows.
Rob and Euan pulled up beside me by the gap in the trees, their bike tires skidding on the muddy track.
“What you looking at, Callum?” said Rob.
“Someone’s down there,” I said. “A girl.”
Euan pushed away a pine branch to get a better view down to the river. “Who is it?”
“Dunno,” I said. “She’s nuts though. It must be freezing in there.” I looked up and down the river to see if she was with anyone, but there was no one. She was on her own.
The river was fast and swollen from the heavy rains. It came down from the loch in the high glen above us. Late March snow still clung to the mountain gullies. The loch and river were cold as ice.
“She’s on our river,” scowled Rob.
The girl slipped her arm in deeper. Water crept over her sleeve and up to her shoulder.
“What’s she doing?” I said.
Euan dropped his bike onto the ground. “Fishing, that’s what.”
The girl plunged forward in a blur of spray. When she sat back up, she was clutching a massive brown trout. It flapped and thrashed in her wet hands. She flicked her hair back over her head, and for the first time we could clearly see her face.
“I know her,” said Rob.
I turned to look at him. His face was dark and grim.
“Who is she?” I said.
But Rob was already off his bike and marching down the riverbank toward her.
“Rob,” I called.
The girl looked up and saw us, and tried to hide the fish in her arms.
Euan and I ran down to the water’s edge following Rob. A narrow channel of fast water ran between us and the girl.
Rob yelled across at her. “Iona McNair!”
The girl scrambled to her feet.
Rob leaped across to the flat rock and grabbed her arm. “You’re a thief, Iona McNair, just like your ma.”
The girl struggled to hold the slippery fish. “I’m not stealing,” she cried.
Rob pulled the fish from her and jumped back onto the riverbank. “Then what d’you call this?” He held the fish up high. “This is Callum’s river and you’re stealing.”
They all looked at me now.
“What about it, Callum?” said Rob. “What’s the punishment for fishing on your farm without a permit?”
I opened my mouth, but no words came out.
“I don’t need a permit,” spat Iona, “I didn’t use a rod.”
“You’re a thief!” shouted Rob. “And we don’t want you here.”
I looked at Iona and she narrowed her eyes at me.
Rob dropped the thrashing fish on the ground and picked up a plastic bag next to Iona’s coat on the riverbank. “What else have you got in here?”
“Leave it; it’s mine,” yelled Iona.
Rob tipped out a pair of old sneakers and a tatty notebook. He picked up the notebook from the ground and flicked the mud from it.
Iona jumped across to the riverbank and tried to snatch it from him. “Give it back. It’s secret.” She bit her lip, as if she’d said too much.
Her hands were shaking, and her arms and feet were blue with cold.
“Give it back, Rob,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Euan. “Come on, Rob, let’s go.”
“Wait a sec,” said Rob. He started flicking over the pages. “Let’s see what secret she’s trying to hide.”
Iona tried to grab the book, but Rob held it out of reach, laughing.
“What’s your secret, Iona McNair?” he taunted.
The pages fluttered in the breeze. I glimpsed pencil drawings of animals and birds, and lots of scribbled notes. A page hung open on a painting of the loch in deep grays and purples.
Iona jumped and tore the book from his hands. She leaped across to the flat rock and held the book over the water. “I’ll never tell you,” she cried. “Never.”
Rob took a step toward her. “Come on. Let’s see.”
Iona’s face was fierce and set.
“Leave it, Rob,” I shouted.
Euan tried to pull him away, but Rob shook him off.
“What’s the big secret, Iona?” shouted Rob. He lunged toward her.
Iona leaped across the rocks to the far riverbank. It was an impossible leap. She slipped on a wet rock and went tumbling into a deep pool on the far side. The notebook flew from her hand and spun through the air before it hit the fast water and was gone. Iona scrambled out of the river and disappeared up the steep bank into dense pine forest. The river surged down the valley between us, taking the notebook and Iona’s secret away with it.
© 2011 Gill Lewis