The River Dee, Llangollen Valley
Early Spring 1921
On his sixth birthday, Roddy MacNabb was given a fishing pole by his pa, with promises to teach him how to use it. That was late July 1914, before the Bloody Hun started the war, and his pa had left the village with four of his friends and enlisted. He'd promised to be back before the end of the year, but the war had dragged on, and in 1915, his father had been killed at Bloody Passiondell, wherever that was.
The pole, long since put away, was in his granny's attics, and Roddy had only just found it last week, when he'd gone up there to fetch a box for her. He'd brought it down with him, but his mum had told him to take the Bloody Pole out to the shed and leave it there.
"There's to be no fishing," she'd told him. "Not while you're in school."
He'd watched his granny's mouth tighten at his mother's words. She didn't hold with cursing, but Mum had come from Liverpool, and he'd heard his Aunt May say that she'd been no better than she ought to be. Still, his father had somehow fallen in love with her and brought her home, and she'd stayed.
He didn't remember his real mum, she'd died when he was born. But his pa had told him this was his mum now, and he was to call her that. And so he had, because his pa was the best in the village, and he would have done anything to make him happy.
On Saturday, with no school and the schoolmaster ill with a chest, Roddy slipped away while his mum was having her usual late breakfast, took the fishing pole from the shed, and went off to the river.
The Dee here was within walking distance of the farm, and Roddy found himself thinking about his pa and fishing. He'd gone with his father a few times and still had a vague memory of what to do with the pole, once the hook was affixed to the line and a worm was put on it. He'd surreptitiously dug some worms out of the kitchen garden last night and put them into a tin. Most had crawled out, but there were still three left.
Whistling now, he could glimpse the river shining in the noon sun beyond the line of trees, and he told himself his father would be happy if he could see how tall his son had grown, and only twelve. And off to fish at last.
The sun was warm, but under the trees—their bare branches crossing over his head like the bones of wood holding up the church roof— the air was cooler. Or perhaps it was the water—he could hear it and smell it now. He came out onto the bank, stiff with the dried grasses of winter, and stood looking down at the drifting current. Too steep here to fish, he thought, and moved downstream a little, beyond the Telford Aqueduct soaring high above the valley. Everyone knew the Aqueduct, but unlike the Roman ones he'd read about in school, which were intended to carry drinking water, it bridged the wide gap between two cliffs, and made it possible for the narrowboats traveling along the canal up there to float right across from one side to the other. He'd heard the horses that pulled the narrowboats, the hollow sound their hooves made as they stepped out onto the path that ran beside the trough of water. It echoed, on a quiet day. He'd been afraid the first time he'd heard it, but his pa had told him about the horses, and once had even taken him up there to see the long boats and the ducks too. He barely remembered it now, that trip, but his father had bought him an ice and told him not to tell Mum.
Ahead was a lower spot on the bank, and Roddy moved quickly toward it, eager to try out the pole and catch his fish. He didn't notice what was in the water, not at first. He wasn't interested in the river, only the pole.
After two attempts he got the line on the pole, tied the hook to the end, then pushed the wriggling worm onto the hook. On his first try at casting, he caught the bush behind him, untangled the line finally, and tried again. This time he managed better, and the hook actually sailed out over the water and sank into the sunny depths.
Smiling, he wiggled the pole a little, felt it catch, and burst out laughing. He'd caught a fish, first thing! What would his pa think of that?
But when he tried to pull the line in, it wouldn't come, and as he pulled harder, he saw something move in the water, just below the surface. From where he stood, it appeared to be a rock or even a tangle of roots.
Whatever it was, it bobbed a little as he went on pulling, harder now, desperate to save his only hook, then it suddenly came free from whatever was holding it down.
And as it did, a face rose slowly out of the water. A face unlike any other he'd ever seen, white and torn and no longer human. Like something the water had taken and hadn't ever wanted to give back. The lump of whatever was attached to it rolled a little again, making the head move as well, and for an instant Roddy thought it was coming directly out of the water at him. He screamed as he dropped the pole and ran.
But no one on the narrowboat crossing high above his head heard him.