I led her down the unkempt grass slope of the green pasture to walk along by the canal, where the oily black water stared up from the cut like the eyes of a slaughtered horse. The distant thrumming of traffic and the occasional drone of a passing plane disturbed the warm afternoon air but no other footsteps fell upon the worn stone path. A few desultory ducks squatted under the dusty bushes on the opposite bank, grumbling amongst themselves. Above them the broken windows of a disused warehouse gazed out impassively, the reflections of their blind eyes distorted in the imperfect black mirror between us.
She picked up some pebbles from the broken path and tossed them into the lethargic liquid, watching the ripples roll slowly outwards from the epicentre across the greasy surface, their perfect circles disturbing the hidden darkness below, waking unseen nightmares from the ghastly depths. Submerged ghosts of drowned paper and old leaves, stirred from their silence, drifted up towards the sunlight before turning slowly over and sinking back to their muddy tombs. A few old canal barges, once painted in bright colours, now decaying and moribund, were moored in the wide basin just beyond the black lock gates where a spout of water squirted through a gap in the heavy wooden boards into the lower level. The silvery splashes of the little fountain tinkled like tiny Buddhist temple bells, calming the unresolved silence of the afternoon. It was strange how the arc of water emerging from the filthy canal was crystal clear and glittered in the sunlight.
She pointed to a swan that sliced through the still water, guardian of this Tuonela, its cold black eyes glistening like polished jet, its feathers folded like a sail. I thought I heard the faint sound of singing as it passed. An old beer can bobbed up and down on the V-shaped wake as the lugubrious white augur sailed serenely toward the shadows beneath the bridge. It turned its head to look back, as if beckoning us. She followed the swan towards the darkness.
As I walked close to her along the narrow towpath I could hear the watery echo as we approached the bridge. The mephitic stench of ruined years that hung in the dank air beneath the crumbling arch corrupted my nostrils, even so I could still smell her cheap clothes and my sweat. My hand brushed against the coarse material of her shabby dress, with its loose threads and frayed edges. I felt my pulse quicken – just like the last time – in the shadows punctured by flickering reflections under the bridge, where the drip, drip, drip of fetid water from the slimy green bricks washed away the precious seconds of life like a relentless, echoing clock. It was almost time.
Beneath the bridge I put my arm around her small waist and drew her to me as the eclipse of shadows erased us from view. My trembling hand stroked her soft, pale face, brushing away the track of a tear from her cheek. She closed her eyes as if she knew. She didn’t look at me as I took her hand, it was just a single touch but it was enough. She never moved as the sickening spasms shuddered through me and all the wasted years came spilling out, spattering into the water and then swimming away, so many souls lost to salvation. She didn’t hear the ghosts whispering among the echoes, she didn’t feel the end when it came, she didn’t even blink, she just deflated and went soft. It was quick and it was easy. Nobody would know. Her eyes were closed and never opened again as the black sun of feculent water dissolved the last tears and took her putrified black matter down to the others.
I bent down to wash the sin from my hands in the dead water of the canal and then raised them up to dry in the warm afternoon air, as if in supplication to welcome the coming of the fifth Sun. In that moment, the swan returned from the shadows and began to sing once more.