Tranquil Waters by Maureen Bowden

Riverside Park Café was crowded and stank of sweat. Plagues of ladybirds hurled themselves at the windows, bashing their small brains to mush in an effort to escape the summer heat. The diners were muttering about global warming and whose fault it was. I was thirteen years old. I hated the world and everyone in it, especially myself.

Earlier that day, at home, over breakfast, I’d asked my mother, “Why do I feel so horrible all the time?”

“It’s your age,” she’d said, pouring herself a cup of tea. “It’ll pass. Cheer up.” I’d felt like screaming, and hurling the teapot through the window. Instead, I’d walked out, leaving her with the dirty dishes.

My brother, Jake, called through the café’s open doorway, “Hey, Polly, some of us are going swimming. You coming?”

I responded with what I considered a superior sneer. “Not with you lot. You pee in the pool.”

He gave me the finger, laughed, and swaggered on his way.

I left the café and strolled through the park, staying in the shade of the trees that lined the picnic area. They led to a remnant of medieval forest, mentioned in the Tourist Center guide books. It was rich in beech and ancient oak, rarely visited because little sunlight penetrated the dense vegetation. The heat was less intense here, which was a relief.

In a clearing among the trees I found a pond, deep and cool, and I submitted to an overwhelming urge to plunge into the welcoming water. The pond sucked me down into its depths, but I was able to breathe and I felt no panic. This must be a dream. Fair enough. Go with the flow. My anger and self-loathing melted away.

I saw a woman sitting on a rocky ledge at the entrance of an underwater cave. Her long, silver hair flowed around her shoulders and her blue and green robe swayed like the waves of a shimmering sea.

“Who are you?” I asked.

“Brigantia, Goddess of Healing, Keeper of Tranquil Waters.”

I remembered the name. She was on the cover of a book: ‘Gods and Goddesses of the Ancient World,’ a present from my mother for my tenth birthday. In the picture she wore a helmet and breastplate. “I thought you were a war goddess,” I said.

She sighed. “A frequent misunderstanding, due to the fact that I was never far from the battlefield, but I was there to heal, not to fight.” She patted the ledge and beckoned me to join her. “What’s your name, little sister?”

“Polly Hamilton.”

“Pretty name. Not much in use these days.”

“It’s short for Hippolyta. My mother’s obsessed with mythology. She called my brother Janus, but he refuses to answer to anything but Jake.”

She chuckled. “Good for him. Mothers can be tedious but she loves you and you love her, just as I love my mother.” She put her arm around me and I felt at peace.

“Who’s your mother?” I asked.


I heard the sorrow in her voice and I understood why. “I’m sorry, Brigantia. Earth’s being hurt and it’s our fault. That’s why it’s so hot. We all deserve to die.”

“I won’t argue with that, but in time she’ll heal herself. Humans can either help or not, but they’re fools if they don’t.”

“Will we survive?”

She shrugged. “Some of you will. Earth is more merciful than her inhabitants. They abuse not only her, but each other. Since your species crawled out of the swamp they have oppressed, persecuted, and butchered each other. Do they obtain some satisfaction from this?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know, I don’t understand it, but we’re not all cruel and murderous.”

“I’m aware of that, Polly. Many of you show kindness and compassion for those in need, and in doing so you find tranquillity and happiness for yourselves.”

“Will I feel better if I do that? I seem to be angry and confused all the time.”

“Try it and see,” she said. “I helped you today because I would never turn away a child suffering the miseries of adolescence, but as you approach adulthood you must take control of your own actions. You might not change the world but you can change the lives of those close to you.”

Her form melted. The water swirled around me, pulling me to the surface. I lay beside the pond while a warm breeze dried my skin and clothes, and I heard Brigantia’s voice in my head. “You were right not to throw your mother’s teapot through the window. It would have made a mess and you would probably have scalded yourself.” For the first time in weeks I laughed out loud, and I knew I hadn’t been dreaming.

I tried to follow Brigantia’s advice. Sometimes I succeeded and I felt good, but over the next few years I was generally preoccupied in lurching from one self-inflicted disaster to the next, due in part to a series of unsavory boyfriends. Looking for a shoulder to cry on, I would search for the pond among the trees, but I never found it. In time I began to believe it had been a figment of my imagination.

After leaving school at eighteen, with respectable exam results, I obtained a place at Riverside Art College. At my mother’s insistence I sought a Saturday job. “It’ll keep you out of mischief on the weekends,” she said.

I turned up with my portfolio at ‘Carmichael’s Pottery.’ Vincent Carmichael was a highly respected artisan with a small family business, producing high quality ceramic pots. I’d seen pictures of them at college. They were stunningly beautiful: elegant, with colorful, delicate decoration.

Vincent, a jovial man, probably in his early fifties, said, “Pleased to meet you, Polly. It’s good to see young people showing initiative instead of sitting on their butts waiting for something to turn up.” He led me into the workshop. It contained two potter’s wheels, and three tables cluttered with paint pots, brushes, mysterious artifacts, and containers of unknown substances. The walls were lined with shelves full of pottery, some newly thrown, others decorated but not glazed, and others both decorated and glazed. I longed to touch them and examine the exquisite artwork, some abstract, some naturalistic, featuring birds and flowers in intricate detail. Vincent introduced me to the young man working at a potter’s wheel and the young woman painting at one of the tables. “Polly, this is my son, William. Call him Will. He does everything: throws the pots, decorates and glazes. The lady with the paintbrush is my daughter-in-law, Leah, who does most of the decoration. We’ll get her to take a look at your work and she’ll tell me if you can be any use to us or not. I just throw the pots.”

Will winked at me, “Don’t listen to him, Polly. He cracks the whip and gives the orders. We rattle our chains and obey.”

Leah smiled, “Such fibs my husband tells. The only one he obeys is me.”

They gave me the job. From lovely, gentle Leah I learned more than I learned in college. “You have exceptional talent, Polly,” she said.

Vincent nodded. “She’s right. There’ll always be a place for you here after you graduate, if you’re interested.” Of course I was interested. I loved these people and there was nowhere in the world I’d rather be.

The globe continued to warm. Seven years after the summer of ladybirds we faced the summer of fires. The first one started in Riverside Park. The Fire Service suspected that some lame-brain had dropped a lighted cigarette in the picnic area. The trees caught fire and the sparks spread to the buildings that backed onto the park.

The fires became more frequent, the number of people injured was rising, and there had been two deaths. Vincent pointed to a photo in ‘The Daily Oracle,’ showing ‘The Black-Winged Bird Nightclub’ in flames. “These are no accidents. They’re being started deliberately.”

“Why would anyone do that?” I asked.

Will said, “There’ll always be idiots whose only contribution to life is to destroy something. If you can’t make it, break it.”

A feeling of unease and suspicion spread throughout the city. It was as bad as the heat.

The first Saturday in August that year was the worst day of my life. I turned up at the pottery as usual. Will and Leah hadn’t arrived and Vincent paced the floor, frowning. “They’re not answering their phones, Polly,” he said. “Something’s wrong. I’m going to their house.”

Before he had time to leave, the police arrived. The sergeant said, “I’m afraid I have bad news, Mr. Carmichael. There’s been a fire at your son’s house.”

Vincent’s face paled. His voice trembled. “How bad is it?”

“Your son’s being treated at the North Bank Hospital Burns Unit. Your daughter-in-law—” he shook his head. “I’m very sorry.”

Vincent said, “I have to go to him.”

I said, “You’re too upset to drive. I’ll do it.” He didn’t argue.

I felt like my world had been obliterated but I had to stay calm for Vincent’s sake. Only my rage kept me functioning. We drove to the hospital in silence.

The Ward Sister said, “Are you family members?”

Vincent said, “I’m his father. Miss Hamilton’s a close friend.”

She took him into the ward and beckoned a nurse, who led me into the family waiting room and brought me a coffee. “Your friend’s in very good hands, dear. He’ll be fine. You’ll see.”

I said, “His wife’s dead.”

She blushed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

I sat and waited, calling down curses onto the heads of the cowardly low-lives who did this. I lost track of time until Vincent came in and sat beside me. I held his hand and waited for him to speak.

“He’s conscious,” he said. “The left side of his face and his left arm are covered so I couldn’t see how bad it is. A consultant’s coming to speak to us. Will keeps asking for Leah.” His voice broke and I held him in my arms while he sobbed.

The consultant introduced herself as Doctor Maryam Banerjee. “William’s injuries should respond well to treatment,” she said. “We’ll remove the burned tissue from his face and arm, and replace it with skin grafts, thin layers of skin, shaved from his thigh.”

“Will he be scarred?” I asked.

“The grafted area will be pink in color for a few months, but that will fade, leaving only faint scars. We hope to get a very good result.”

“What about his hand?” Vincent asked. “He’s a potter and an artist. That will matter to him more than a few scars.”

The doctor smiled. “Don’t worry, Mr. Carmichael. His hand is undamaged. I suspect the loss of his wife will be his greatest hurt. He’ll need all the support you can give him, and professional help will be available if he requires it.”

Will was allowed out of hospital for Leah’s funeral. I barely remember it. I’d retreated into a cocoon of fury and pain. I craved my goddess’s tranquil waters.

That night I screamed in my sleep. “Brigantia, where are you? I need you.”

She heard me. “Stop screaming, little sister. I’m not deaf. Come to the pond. I’ll help you.”

“But I can’t find it. I’ve been searching for seven years.”

“I know, and always for the wrong reasons. It’s not my job to sort out the problems you bring upon yourself. This time you seek me for the right reason. You’ll find me.”

Next morning I ran to the pond in spite of the heat. The water sucked me down and she was waiting. She patted my hand. “It was concern for the young man that led you here this time. Bring him to me. I’ll help him.”

“Can you heal his wounds?”

“Not the bodily ones. Leave those to your clever doctors. They know what they’re doing. I can help to heal the deeper wounds: the loss of his wife and the children they would have had, and his anguish for his father. He too is suffering these losses.”

“I know,” I said. “I want to help them both but I don’t know how.”

“Your compassion will lead you. You’ll find the way, and in doing so you’ll find your own happiness.” She wrapped her arms around me. “You asked me seven years ago if your race would survive the damage being done to Earth. I told you that some of you would. You and the young man will be among the survivors because you seek to mend and heal, not to destroy. In time William’s wife will become a memory forever dear to him, but he’ll learn to love again. You will have a future together. Go now. I’ll be waiting for you when you need me.”

The swirling currents carried me to the surface. I stepped out of the pond and felt the weight of anger lift from my shoulders. The sun dried my skin and clothes, and I made my way home knowing what I had to do. This was the beginning.

Maureen Bowden is a Liverpudlian, living with her musician husband in North Wales. She has had 184 stories and poems accepted by paying markets and she was nominated for the 2015 international Pushcart Prize. In 2019 Hiraeth Books published an anthology of her stories, Whispers of Magic, and they will be publishing an anthology of her poems in the near future. She also writes song lyrics, mostly comic political satire, set to traditional melodies. Her husband has performed them in folk music clubs throughout the UK. She loves her family and friends, rock ‘n’ roll, Shakespeare, and cats.