They walked through the slush single file, she fitted her feet into his large prints, so it looked like he was walking alongside the gushing river on his own. She had always felt safest in his shadow as if nothing bad could find her again. When they first met so very long ago now, he told her his name Cul, was an old family name. It seemed solid and reliable to someone who had known neither thing. Although she was named after her father she told him she was named after Billie Holiday because her mother had loved her song ‘God Bless The Child’. Then she added the half-truth, “It was the only thing she left me. She died when I was two so I can’t really remember her”. Her mother had loved that song but she had left her with so much less than a blessing. Billie was sixteen when she died and unfortunately she could remember everything about her.
Now he had stopped to watch a pair of mallard ducks being swept past as if they were in a cartoon, as she joined him the clamant-capped male seemed to change direction, paddling hard against the current. His dull companion sailed on around the bend. Cul let out a soft sigh and Billie reached up to touched him gently on the back of his neck. Her fingers were cold and he smiled even as he shivered and then he pulled up the collar of his old crackly Barbour jacket and continued on. His stride increased and Billie jumped using his footprints as stepping stones through the snow-shore.
Around the bend of the river, they saw the discarded corpses of about twenty Christmas trees hugging the bank, all in different stages of decomposition. The small brown duck was struggling to free herself from the branches of a tree that still had some tinsel clinging to its green needles. Cul started to move down the bank, his right foot slipped into the river and Billie called out but her voice was pulled away by the noise of the churning water.
After freeing the duck Cul retrieved the flowers he had left at the top of the bank. They looked like a bright bruise against the white ground and brought up all the painful pictures she was trying to duck. When Cul got to the bridge he hesitated for a second but Billie gave him a slight nudge to hurry him on. He felt it like the wind hurrying him out over the water. Taking his phone out of one of the many pockets of his coat he flicked it on with his thumb. The drunken opening notes of ‘God Bless The Child’ were difficult to hear over the tumbling river so he increased the volume as he tipped the purple tulips into the water. She thought she heard him say, “See you next year” as he walked away.
Billie watched. Every anniversary she hoped he would bring their daughter, she would be fifteen now. But Cul only ever brought her favorite flowers and older and older steps. Maybe she had always been broken inside or maybe she had been suffering from post-natal depression, all she knew was she couldn’t bear her crying, the constant crying. It dug a chasm through her so she was separated from her right mind. At first she had only pinched the white skin of her daughter but one day she had picked up a hairbrush then she knew; she was like her mother and Cul would never be able to make her safe.
The river was full from the winter melt and when she reached the bridge she saw a pair of ducks watching her from the bank; they left with her as she was swept away. Now as she stood anchored to the bridge she saw that the brown duck Cul had rescued had reunited with her colorful partner and she smiled at them like they were old friends. To Cul’s retreating back she whispered, “See you next year love. God bless”.