The other side of the lake was so far away that Maria could barely make out the unfinished bridge's sole remaining arch. Yet it was no further than every other time and surely today would be the day when she finally made it. She left her sandals on the grass and winced as the pebbles pressed into her bare feet.
A hands-breadth from the water, she paused. Tiny fish, too small to eat or be of any use – a little like herself, she thought – darted amongst the jagged, white-veined stones in the clear water. What if she failed? How much would one of those rocks hurt?
She stepped forward and imagined the water was a road, a path to her Papa, but the moment her foot touched water, all she could think of was the rocks. Her toes plunged to the bottom and she twisted to avoid the stones' rough edges. She landed on pebbles but, off-balance, splashed face-first into the freezing water.
She pulled herself out to the shore and shivered. Her red dress was soaked through and Mama would be furious, but she could hardly take it off here and let it dry in the sun, when anyone could come by. Instead, she pushed her feet into her sandals and walked home, the river babbling to her right, hoping her dress would dry before anyone saw her.
It did not. A chill wind blew down from the lake and she spent the whole journey with her arms wrapped around herself. The path, then she met the road to the village. Once she passed the first cottage, old Juan's, she hurried on and passed quickly by the baker's. Oh no! Diego was standing in the doorway, a sly smile across his lips. Why did he have to be there, then, when she was all wet and freezing?
"Swimming again?" he said. "I think you want to be a fish."
"No, I do not want to be a fish," she snapped.
He laughed, and she knew that was exactly what he had wanted her to do, to lose her temper. Her face burned with embarrassment and she skulked away.
The three Velasquez sisters came running along the street, knocking the heads off weeds with sticks, when they saw her and stopped. She hoped they would move on but the little one, Elena, stepped forward and touched the hem of Maria's dress. "Why are you so wet?" she asked.
"Because she thinks she can walk on water," the eldest said.
Elena raised one eyebrow. "How?"
"She can't," the middle one said. "Nobody can, except Our Lord. Maria is ... you know..." She pointed towards her temple and traced circles with her finger, "...mad."
"As a bag of cats," the eldest said.
"As a three-legged goat," the middle one said.
"As a paper fire-grate."
"As a summer snowstorm."
"Stop it!" Maria screamed. She pulled her dress from the little one's hand and stomped away.
"As mad as her father," she heard behind her. Papa. If only they'd known, really known him, and all his wonderful stories. She paused, but tears flowed before she could turn. Instead she ran, past women sweeping dust through the doors of their ramshackle cottages, past silent stares and unkind eyes, past children whose play stopped as soon as they saw her. All of them thinking the same things; notions most of them would not dare speak of, not unless they had a younger sister to impress.
She ran into her own house and past her mother, before slamming her bedroom door behind her and throwing herself on her bed. She cried, and cursed herself for crying, and cried for having cursed, until she heard the squeak of her door opening.
"You'll get your sheet all wet," Mama said, her tone reproachful. Her mother's arms were crossed but at least there was a hint of kindness in her eyes.
Maria wiped her eyes and pushed herself off the bed. She took a blue dress from a drawer and started to change.
Mama kept her arms crossed all the time. "You can't keep doing this," she said.
"I want to go to him."
"You could take the road. When the festival is on, I could go –"
"But that's two months away, and it would take days."
"But at least you would get there. This ... this is just a ridiculous idea, and people are talking about you. About me."
Maria shook her head. It always came down to this, to what people thought.
"Papa always told me, if I believed in something hard enough, if I really, really wanted it, I could do magic."
Mama rolled her eyes. "What do you think you are? There are no magicians here, just goatherds and bakers and fishermen and their wives. You need to stop this dreaming and find a nice boy, like that Diego –"
"But Papa said –"
"Papa said," she mocked. "Papa said many things, filling your head with stories of alchemists and djinns, and see where he is now. I have had enough of this, Maria. Go and help Alejandro bring the sheep home, before you give me a headache." She backed out of the room, her glare remaining until she was out of sight.
Maria found a towel and dried her hair, all the time wondering, should she give up? Should she do what her mother wanted just to stop tongues wagging? Should she find a "nice boy, like Diego" – sneering, bullying Diego – or someone else, someone in the next village?
She put on a coat and left the house, not pausing to even speak to her mother who was plucking a goose. The air had cooled some more now, and dusk would not be far away. She walked back through the village, not meeting anybody this time. Rather than climb the hill for the lake, she crossed the stepping stones in the river and headed for the high pastures. Soon, she came upon a line of sheep, lazily munching their way back towards the village. Alejandro shuffled behind, leaning on his crook for support.
"Weren't you wearing red this morning?" he asked.
She hugged him tight. "Yes. I changed."
The sheep walked ahead as he put his arm around her and she felt some of his weight on her shoulders. Not that he would admit it, but he hadn't been able to walk easily since the accident.
"And why did you change?" he asked.
She looked up into his craggy face, so like her father's – his brother – and saw nothing but love.
"You can guess why."
He said nothing, only tightened his arm around her shoulder.
It was all she needed to continue. "Papa said I only had to believe."
"Sometimes it takes more. Sometimes you have to believe and you have to give everything that you have. There can be no going back, no escape plan. You have to commit as if your life depends upon it."
She looked up – he was staring ahead to where the sheep had started to cross the river. She pulled away from his arm. "Do you mean –"
"I can take the sheep from here," he said. He bent down and kissed her forehead, and she stood still as he took the first stepping stone. When he had almost made it across, she turned and followed the river up, this time walking along its right bank. It led not to the shallows, but the rocks.
She emerged from the trees at an outcrop the boys called "The Stairs" – a series of rocks rising high above the water – where they dived in the summer. Creeping forward on her hands and knees, the breeze threw her hair about her face. It was so far down, and so deep, that she couldn't see the bottom; only a murky darkness of unknown.
Was this what her uncle had meant? Walk on water or die? Did she want to die?
She remembered her mother's face when she had talked of Papa, and the children laughing at her, and Diego's mockery. Did it matter if she died?
Yes, because the only thing she needed, more than the need to breathe, was to reach Papa. She stepped out, forcing herself to imagine the water beneath her feet, as firm as a board. Imagining walking across.
Her heels splashed down and the surface of the water bowed, but it didn't break. She bent her knees to take her weight and then stood. She had done it! She was actually standing on water! Gentle wavelets broke across her toes, but no more than that.
She stepped forward and her foot fell softly on water. She took another step – she was walking, walking now – and then she was running, sprays of water dampening her knees, hair whipping behind her, mouth open, gulping in delicious fresh air. She ran like she never had before, full of a joy she had forgotten, until the one arch of broken bridge loomed closer, a small pillar beneath stretching up out of the undergrowth.
She turned towards the shingle in front of the arch, her breath becoming ragged now as she tired. Closer to shore, the gravestones were barely visible under the arch. Three stones to mark the graves of the men who had died and the unmarked pillar which Alejandro – as soon as he had been able after the second arch collapsed – had erected for Papa. No gravestone for him, the priest had said. You cannot have a gravestone without a grave, without a body. Each time she'd come here to speak to Papa – to speak into the wind, praying that one day it would speak back – she had cursed that priest. Because there was only the pillar, no name, and –
She plunged into the water and its icy grip wrapped around her. Believe, she thought, but the spell had broken as soon as her thoughts turned to hate.She struggled to raise her arms to pull herself up, but her coat was sodden and dragged her under. Her lungs burned as she tried to keep her mouth closed. But it was too much. Blackness seeped in from the corners of her vision and the water seemed to thicken, pulling her further down.
Something brushed against her leg. She jerked and looked around but only saw blackness. Then something touched her chest and a blur rushed past.
Her legs spasmed, stretching out of their own accord, and they suddenly went numb. Her chest heaved, fighting her, desperate to draw in breath, until she had no choice but to give in.
Water flowed through her mouth, her nostrils, and her vision cleared. The rocks of the lake floor stood out clearly and she could see through the water as far as the shore. Her legs kicked out, pushing her ahead, and she gasped. She was alive! She was underwater, and breathing, and alive! She looked down to see her legs replaced by a muscular tail and fins, covered in shiny blue scales. The tail flexed and she shot up through the water, breaching into the air of a golden sunset.
Another body broke the surface, and she found herself staring into Papa's laughing face.
"Am I a fish?" she gasped.
"Do you want to be a fish?" His voice was as deep and full of joy as she remembered.
"No, I do not want to be a fish."
He smiled. "You can be so much more, if you believe."
He reached out his hand over the water. She shrugged off her coat and grasped his fingers, then they dove beneath the surface together.