Art Pact 76

It wasn't what I'd expected at all. From our homes under the bridge we'd only been able to see the surface of the water, thick and brown, and we hadn't realised quite how shallow it was. In fact it only came up to just above my father's knees, and since he was the shortest of us by a good hand, the rest of us were no worse off. The water was warm, too - I only learnt later that we should have been wary rather than pleased at that discovery, so we splashed happily in it, scooping great handfuls up to fling from one to the other of us. Although it had been dank under the bridge, and far from pleasant in a number of other ways, it had been good at sheltering us from the rain, so we had never had the experience of being properly wet before, not so wet that the water was running off us and our hair slicked to our heads. We laughed and ran around, all the tension of the trip down from our homestead dissipating as we realised that although we could never go back to our homes, we were not about to die. The laughter had a touch of hysteria in it at first, but as we grew more and more confident I began to hear a more relaxed timbre in the voices of my brothers and sisters, my mother and aunts and uncles and cousins. As more and more of us clambered down from the town beneath the bridge and took our first tentative steps into the water our confidence in the new world grew and grew, and even though the more senior adults of the town began to join into a serious-looking cluster at the foot of the great support, the rest of us took on more of an aspect of a festival and looked less and less like what we really were: people abandoning our homes in fear of our lives.

It was while the informal council was underway that my brother said something to me that in retrospect I should have paid more close attention to. We'd wandered further out into the stream, following our cousin - always the bellwether in exploration - almost to the middle of the river, where the water was less sluggish and came up almost to our wastes. Our cousin was fearless about the unknown, and when large dark shapes began to dart around her legs we skipped back in alarm, but she just plunged her hands into the warm water and emerged with a struggling animal that I recognised as a fish. She laughed and tossed it back into the water, then set about trying to catch another.

"I'm going to see if there's something I can do," my brother said, looking back towards the bank where the council were.

I nodded distractedly. Our cousin looked back to see me watching her, and bared her teeth in a bizarre half-smile half-grimace. I took a step forward, almost toppling over as my lead foot slipped on some underwater plant. My cousin laughed.

"Yeah, I'm going to go," my brother said, and began to wade back towards the gathering place. I looked up at the underside of the great bridge and could see that almost all the lights were out now, and beneath the town there were hundreds of little figures making their way down the netting and ladders that our family had completed earlier on. It was definite - the whole town was evacuating, we were no longer Underbridge. We were the town of Underbridge-in-Exile, or (for those who preferred it) the new town of Groundwalk.

I spent the rest of the afternoon cautiously following my cousin as she explored the bounds of the world beneath the town. We could go a long way without losing sight of the others, and my cousin went further, trusting me without explicitly saying so to act as a link between her and the town. As long as she could see me she assumed that I could see the rest of our family and therefore we would be able to get back without any trouble. She was right - I was too nervous to go out of sight of them, even if there had been someone like me to act as a bridge.

It was only when night began to fall and there was some danger of us losing sight of the main camp that I began to reel her in, moving slowly back towards the others until I was within hailing distance, and my cousin ran back to her parents while I returned to my own to discover what we were going to do about food and shelter now.

"Where's your brother?" my father asked, as I greeted them.


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