It is Springtime. The water spider in the river looks toward the five silhouettes on the river bank. From time to time, these silhouettes flow into each other; a leg vanishing into a knee, an arm into a back. Four children are walking in a straight line behind their mother. She lets her shoulders hang and wears a large straw hat which is fraying at the edges. The wind blows their jackets about.
“Come along, kids,” she says without turning, “we need to get everything back together.” The second-eldest daughter runs first in line behind her, running her fingers through her ponytail, a detail likely missed by the spiders. “I don’t want to anymore. I want to go home.” She sighs heavier than the river crashing against the bank.
Her younger sister’s skirt is covered in brown specks of mud. She doesn’t notice; she is distracted by the image of her mother’s hat against the dark purple evening sky, ignoring the mud slinking between her bare toes. Who wears sandals on a trip like this anyway? Taller than the rest, she stares over the Ponytail, holding her brother’s hand firmly.
The oldest daughter lags behind the line. Her left leg is longer than her right, causing her to walk with a limp. The doctor said that within a few years her right leg will have caught up with her left, but she didn’t appreciate the funny tone in his voice, and which wasn’t helped by the Hat laughing along. She got up and limped out of the doctor’s office so as not to have to bear seeing the stammering thanks of the Hat. “I’m just relieved,” she heard the Hat confide in him.
The onlooking spider keeps almost losing sight of the group, because the Hat is making swift progress. She wants to reach the lock at the end of the dyke before the sun sets, where the washed-up planks of wood have built up. Three planks should be enough to shore up against for a fair night’s rest. They will all begin rebuilding their hut the following morning.
The Hat climbs down the dyke and begins picking up the planks floating in the water. The sisters help each other and the Little One down. The slope is steep. It shimmers. “Watch your back, mother,” the Tall One remarks, concerned.
“I’m tired. I want to go to sleep.” The Ponytail lays on top of the dyke, and speaks as if blaming her family for her uncertain night’s rest, while she really only has the river to blame. “I don’t want to be here.”
The Limp rolls her eyes and takes the planks from her mother. The Tall One fishes for cutlery and a woollen scarf from the water and presses them in the Small One’s hands. “Don’t say that, sister. You don’t mean it. This is where we live.”
“I wish it wasn’t.”
“You would miss it.”
“I hate the river”.
The spider blushes at her words and wants to apologise to the river on behalf of the Ponytail. Were it not that her hatred for the river was so deep and sincere, those apologies would sound empty. Moreover, it would be ill-advised for a spider to interfere in human affairs. The Limp lifts the planks onto her shoulders and begins the journey back. The rest have quickly caught up to her, but decide not to disturb her, since they all get to carry much lighter things.
It is Springtime. The Tall one jolts awake with the crying of the Small one and jumps out of bed. She wades through the water toward her and lifts her onto her back. “Hold on tight.” Their mother’s straw hat floats beside them. She looks up and sees the Limp standing at the edge of the broken-open dyke, beckoning them to come back. She follows her lead, while the wind blasts her wet skin.
“Did you get my hat?” The Hat sits hatless in the grass beside the Limp. She chews gently on a blade of grass hanging from the corner of her mouth. The Ponytail sits five metres away, snapping little twigs in half. Here atop the dyke the family has a view of the gaping hole that the river has torn through the dyke this year. The river is bubbling with freshly discharged violence. A plank sinks beneath the surface.
“What awful luck,” says the Tall one hesitantly. The Hat scratches her head. “Chin up, dear. This is where we live.”
“Is there nothing we can do? The Little One has taken it so badly.”
“Rebuild,” answers the Limp abrasively. “That’s all we can do.”
“But don’t you wish things were different?”
The Ponytail stands up and cries, “I want to move!” She kicks the broken twigs into the air and the woodchips whirl down slowly, while the wind breaks her voice into pieces. The Hat is angry.
It is Springtime. Four figures carefully watch their footing, while the fifth is being carried. They walk upstream to get to know the river that has plagued them all these years. Their hut floats once again in pieces in the water. The Tall one wants to find out why the dyke is breaking more and more in the same place, through their place. The Hat grumbles to the Ponytail to hurry up, even though she is right behind her. The Tall one is glad that they are all together as a family under her watchful eye, and reaches for her mother’s hand. She only briefly squeezes her daughter’s fingers, then promptly lets go. With her teeth the Tall One bits the edge of her fingernail. The Ponytail looks at her, disgusted.
“What do you think it could be?”
The Tall One looks back at her. “I don’t know. I think that in the Spring, once everything has melted, the river suddenly has a lot more water to carry.”
“Everything here is a waste of time,” responds the Ponytail. “I want to leave.”
The Tall One bites a second nail, while she watches the Hat grab the Ponytail by her arm and hiss in her ear to stop being so rude, or else there’ll be trouble.
An alder leaf flies over. It sees the thunderstorm approaching, which will very shortly soak the family through to the bone. The leaf is not afraid of that wetness, and flies happily on into the darkness, somersaulting happily at the prospect. Charred by the first bolt of lightning, it disintegrates.
“Look for a tree, children. We need to take shelter.”
“A tree? Is that really a good idea?”
“In an open field you shouldn’t…”
“This isn’t an open field. Do what I say. Come, under that alder there.”
The other alder leaves are clearly less cheerful in life. They fear adventure, having seen it end in a flash for their brother. They grip tightly to their branches, trembling. The Hat holds the Small One close to her body to keep her warm. The whole family is soaked. The Hat’s long, loose hair sticks to her forehead. The Limp helps the Tall One and the Ponytail press against the bark of the tree, while the rain falls and turns the riverbank into a swamp. Channels of water appear in the mud, merging into each other and draining away into the river below.
The Ponytail curses this godforsaken river that has made her entire life so difficult. Watch her flow. Watch her grow. A brown-green snake slinking through the landscape, she swallows everything in her path. Widening her jaw, she eats calves without flinching, licking her mouth afterwards and growing an extra head. Why does she always blast through the same point in the dyke? The Tall One thinks of this as a question, but to the Ponytail, this is a simple fact. This is just what happens. Beware: Risk of being swallowed whole. Get out of here. But her family never wants to hear it.
It is Springtime. The Small One has drowned.
The Hat is now no longer made of reeds, but of black felt, to better match her black silk blouse. The Tall One had found the clothes in the second-hand shop in town. Reluctantly, the Hat had brought them this morning, her daughters having nodded approvingly. The Limp sits playing with a frog. The farmer’s wife, who would be driving the Hat and the Ponytail to the town hall, drives her van into the yard of the hut.
The Hat drums her fingers on the reception desk. Fifteen minutes ago, the receptionist had disappeared to get the municipal official in charge of the dyke. The Hat’s mouth is dry. Behind the desk sits is a large fuchsia, which bends past her toward the clock. Its leaves are dull. Every afternoon, the receptionist pours her cold coffee into its dry soil.
Behind her, the Ponytail sits slumped in a soft armchair in the waiting room, taking the leaflets that most interest her from the shelves. She unfolds them and refolds them into lilies. On her lap lies a bouquet: “The South-Western Ait. What will change for you?”, “Community Interest”, “The Mayor also does his own shopping”. The chair creaks. Her brother and sisters had stayed at home.
“Thank you for waiting, Madam.”
“Would you like some coffee?”
“No.” She goes to sit at a long table opposite the reception. On the table sits a plastic bunch of flowers, cardboard cups and an empty tin can. The municipal official looks over her shoulder every few minutes.
“So, tell me. What are you here for?”
“The dyke keeps breaking through.”
“Ah, yes. We are aware of the problem. We’re working on it, but at the moment…”
“How so?” The Hat loses her usually unlimited patience.
“We are busy working on the budget, which…”
“It’s the same case every year.”
“Shall we take a look together at the development plan for the next five years?”
“Madam, I want to help you, but you need to tell me what I can do to help out.”
“I told you, the dyke has broken through.”
“Unfortunately, the municipality can’t do everything at the same time. Currently…”
The Ponytail watches from a distance. She clasps her fingers around the back of the chair, clenching her fists until they turn white, breathing in. She stands up and slides into the place next to the municipal official. She shakes her hand without breaking eye contact. “Good morning, I’m her daughter. May I join in the discussion?”
“Of course.” The official brushes a loose lock of hear behind her ear.
“I understand that the municipality has no more money for dyke maintenance, but I wondered if there was a fund for the families who suffer from the breach each year. I want to emphasise that it destroys our house every year. The reconstruction is expensive.”
The municipal official smiles with relief that she is in the company of someone who speaks her language. Her shoulders relax. “I understand.”
“Are there funds on which we can make a claim?”
“Why should there be funds?”
“This happens every year.”
“You are the only ones affected.”
“Why, then, do you keep returning to the same vulnerable place?”
The Ponytail stays silent. The Hat swallows. “That is where we live.”
“We cannot help you, madam, if you deliberately put yourselves in danger.”
The official rubs the table surface, showing off her painted nails. “There are still some nice houses in the area. We are quite willing to accommodate you during the move. At the moment, however, we are working on the project. ‘The Green’…”
With a shrill squeak, the Hat pushes her chair back and grabs her daughter by the arm. “Come, child.”
It is Springtime. The blossoming apple tree happily hangs its shady branches over the family laying on the grass between its roots. The Tall one is talking about the cows in the meadow by the sluice; apparently, they’ve just had calves. The Limp cannot sit still. She drags the soggy planks from the river, lifts them onto her back, letting them clatter to the ground beneath the apple tree. In the middle of her story, the Tall One chokes on a blossom and the Hat laughs at her. With careful strokes, she braids the Ponytail’s hair. “Come sit down for a while, child. I’ll do yours, too.”
In the distance, the wooden planks bob in the swell of the river, which the spider has been surfing upon for a while. It happily greets its favourite silhouettes on the dyke, and dives from the plank to go on the hunt. While it catches its prey underwater, it always drags the captured insect onto land. A spider only eats on dry land.