A narrow, tree-lined path turns off downhill, looking as if it might lead somewhere, so you take it, and think of ducks and swans. It emerges onto a sandy beach, dotted with gnarled trunks and stones. If you were to quicken your pace and jump in the lake, you know a strange kind of alchemy would occur on contact with the water. You would be in a different lake, with your little brother and big sisters, on the first day of the school holidays. After a long and tiring journey, you would have a new kind of freedom, one you’d been dreaming of, behind your desk, all year long.
But you pause before taking the plunge, and dip your hands in the cool water. You need to observe the different stages in the chemical reaction. Now is the time to make a wish, as if you had just seen the new moon. Please may I stay here forever. Please may the summer never end. Please don’t let me become a skater on the ice of a strangely scentless and adult cousin of this lake, its waterlilies and fish all trapped and buried. Please don’t let this ever become barely a memory, barely as solid as the breath which appears as steam.
If, then, you shut your eyes in the lake, you will suddenly feel your brother’s warm tears of rage at having to leave it, when was it?, two years ago, or three, when the promised next visit was too far-flung to be real: empty words, no help making wishes.
What was it that almost brought the alchemy, though, even at a distance? How did we all, as children and then as grown-ups, somehow conjure it into being, wherever we were? A soft voice is reading a story about sailing boats as we drift off to sleep. I don’t mind if you nod off, I just love reading aloud anyway, it reminds me of my own childhood, she said.
No idea. Something about the plastic water bottles in the desert surrounding Amman, the rigid canals of Suzhou, the railway yards along the Rhine, just outside Strasbourg, neither here nor there- even the phone switches networks, and then switches back, as if making a wish.
In your mind’s eye, all water is connected, and has a beloved skyline of great hills beyond, if you squint enough.
Recently, as you have travelled less, those memories have grown. The big sisters have gone on ahead, talking about books, and you’ve lost your little brother. He’s given up saying that he doesn’t want to leave, and just hides. You’ll promise him a story, and tell him he can draw his own illustrations. You half-sigh, but it’s not really a chore to go back and search for him.
After all, your first name was always that of the youngest sibling.