Janie stared into the swirling, brown water, looking for a trace of the carcass. Her blond bangs stuck to her damp forehead, ponytails limp and unkempt in the summer sun. Below her, murky water ran fast and high in the deep canal, the result of generous end-of-spring rainstorms in an otherwise dry and dusty climate. Branching off to the small farming community, the canal spread through the fields like veins pumping life through the body.
Hot pebbles and dirt scratched against Janie’s stomach as she scooted closer to the edge of the tunnel that ran under the road where she lay. The edge of the rusty metal conduit pressed sharply against her chest as she reached down toward the water while frothy white bubbles teased her fingers as she stretched.
“Kevin said it’s a sheep,” bragged Nathan. Two years older than Janie, he was eager to impress his new neighbor with his nine-year-old knowledge. He laid next to her with his arms tucked under his chest so that just his head looked over the drop.
Nathan’s shoulder bumped Janie and she scooted away, to give herself space. He may be a neighbor but he was not a friend. Not yet anyway. Besides, she already had a best friend at her old home, and no one could take Holly’s place. Janie squinted against the reflected sun.
“How’d a sheep get in the canal?” Janie scanned the water for a sign of the rotting animal that lay beneath the surface. Perhaps a protruding bone or dark shadow lurking just out of sight.
“A farmer just dragged it there after it died. It’s been there for a long time.” Nathan looked at Janie sideways. “You want to jump in and see it?”
“You scared?” Nathan taunted. His brown eyes stared at her so hard she felt like a grasshopper under a magnifying glass. She squirmed and blew a puff of air up at her damp bangs.
“No. I just…” Janie bit her lip and stared back. Did she really have to tell the truth, even to a stranger? It was more than bones in water she was afraid of, but he didn’t need to know that. “I don’t know how to swim.” She decided that half the truth would do and then shifted her focus back to the water. “Have you ever seen it?”
“Yeah, I seen it last summer when the water was low. Just a couple of bones sticking up way back in the tunnel.”
“Whoa.” She craned her neck to look underneath the road and into the shadows beneath her. It was dark and from her upside down vantage point, the end of the tunnel seemed to disappear into nothing. What was back there? Her mind reeled with morbid images of skulls and bones and decaying skin. Death had never peaked her interest until Holly’s grandmother died. Janie had peppered her with questions at the time but Holly never wanted to talk about it. In fact, she didn’t talk much at all anymore. Janie sighed and blinked at the water. Was it death that changed her friend? Holly wasn’t dead but she was different. Janie thought she might know what death did to the dead but she couldn’t help but wonder, what did death do to the living? How far did it reach? So many questions. She stared intently into the dark corners of the tunnel and focused on one. What did death look like? The question pulled at her thoughts, forcing her to strain her eyes for a glimpse of the end.
Grasping the edge of the conduit, small rocks pressing painfully into her palms, she inched herself forward to get a better view until she could almost touch the foaming water. A cloud passed in front of the unrelenting sun, casting a shadow on the road where the two children lay, side by side. It might have been a welcome respite from the heat, except for the eerie shadow it cast onto the watery surface.
Janie froze. The sweat on her back turned cold. The grotesque face of the rotting sheep seemed to rise from the furthest corner of the tunnel and rush against the current toward her. Trembling with fear, she knew it must be death. Threatening shadows danced with the wild water, ducking in and out of focus. Sucking in a shuddering breath, Janie opened her mouth to scream. The clouds quickly passed and the ominous shadow faded but it was too late. Janie, bent at the waist and shaking, lost her grip on the metal rim of the conduit and somersaulted into the water.
With no time to react, Nathan watched in horror as the rocks and dirt Janie had been laying on followed her into the rushing water. His cry for help drowned in the force of water that carried Janie away.
Janie flung her arms about wildly, searching for something, anything to grasp. The water surged around her body and seemed to mock her frantic fingers, opening and closing in search of rescue. She managed to push herself to the surface and sucked in a dirty, wet breath of air before the water tossed her into the black tunnel.
It was no use blinking. The tunnel was pitch black. Her breathing, caught somewhere between a sob and a cry for help, echoed off the rusty, metal walls. Janie screamed as her foot caught in something under the water and held her in place against the current. Water splashed over her face in a mad rush. She coughed and struggled against the pull. She was trapped, every second marked by a frantic breath. What unseen demon dwelt beneath her in these dark water? What horrid creature held her in its grip? Janie fought against fear and water. Whatever was down there, she would not let it take her. She kicked with all the fearful fury and force her young body could muster. With one last tremendous kick, her foot slipped from her shoe. She splashed and pulled her legs to her chest, sending her spinning in the churning water. The rapid current pushed her forward and she fought to right herself again, keeping her feet clear of the danger lurking at the bottom of the canal.
Sour, gritty water filled her nose and she coughed, trying to catch her breath. Death was here, just beneath her. She was sure of it, and it terrified her. Janie squeezed her eyes shut; the hollow, echoing sound of water in her ears. Please, Heavenly Father, don’t let me see death. And don’t let me touch death either.Looking up, she searched for the roof of the tunnel and pulled her feet as close as she dared without tipping over and let the current carry her underground.. Don’t let death take me. She closed her eyes again and wished she knew how to swim.
The world changed from black to brown as Janie came out the other side of the tunnel. Water, dirt, dead leaves and mud swirled around her in a blur. She tried to look back at the road, at Nathan, but the water and bank towered above her. There was no help to be seen. Although the current was still brisk, the rough, churning motion was behind her now. And she was alone. Hope seeped out of her in staggered breaths and tears mixed with dirty water on her cheeks. Her arms came to a rest on top of the water, the strength of the water far out-matched her own. She took one more breath and raised her head as high as she could, then tilted it back. Above her the sky was a clear blue and sparkly around the edges, like her mother’s eyes after she’d been crying. I’m not scared, she thought and let her eyes close.
A calm pressure rested on Janie’s head, and pushed her under the water. The pressure came with enough peace to allow Janie to let go of the fear of what lay below the surface. She let out a breath and allowed the pressure to push her to the side. Her mind was peaceful and full, not with thoughts, but with feelings. Comfort, trust, love. Her body relaxed in welcome submission.
Janie surfaced in calm water and sucked in a deep breath. She coughed and breathed again as streams of water coursed down her face and into her eyes, blurring her vision. She blinked several times and rubbed her eyes with wet fists as she took in her surroundings. The water still rushed by in the canal, now separated from her by an old piece of wood stretched across the top of the bank, a broken gate to an unused outlet leading to outlying fields. Her chest heaved as she caught her breath, sitting in the outlet, still half-submerged in the water. She wasn’t dead. She was safe.
With her next deep breath, she remembered the pressure. Hands. It felt like two hands had been on her head and pushed her into this quiet outlet. Looking upwards, she scrambled up the side of the bank and searched the landscape on her knees but the dusty horizon was filled with nothing more than sagebrush. No sign of the rescuer with saving hands. Squinting, she could barely make out the gentle rise of the road over the tunnel where she had fallen. She shivered. What if she had ended up like that sheep, somewhere in the bottom of the canal, just wasting away? Dead. She pulled at her ponytails like she was milking a cow and watched the water soak into the dirt where she turned and sat.
But she wasn’t like the dead sheep. Her bones weren’t lying at the bottom of the canal, decaying away in dark shadow. In fact, her bones were very alive, and shaking. She was cold. She stood to face the sun and gave herself a good shake. She was alive. Death reached after her but could not keep her. She had felt the touch of death though, of that she was certain. Janie ran her hands over her arms and legs and came to rest on her bare foot. She squatted and wriggled her toes in the dirt. Although the hot sun had already dried her skin and left a thin layer of silt and salt, she shivered again. Except for the shoeless foot, she felt the same on the outside, but she wasn’t sure. Perhaps there was more to death than bones and shadow. Janie touched the top of her head and felt again the comfort, peace, and love she had felt when the hands were on her head. She did feel different but it was deeper than a bare foot and hands on her head. She felt it in her bones, in the whisper of the Spirit and the flutter in her heart.
Janie stretched her legs and stood tall. She turned in a complete circle until she found the road leading home. Thick clouds cast a heavy shadow across the road. It wasn’t far but the distance seemed daunting to her worn out body. Taking her first shaky step, she saw dust billowing down the road in a fast moving cloud behind a figure running toward her.
“Nathan!” Janie took a few more steps, testing her legs, until she felt stable enough to run. Nathan waved his arms and turned to yell something behind him. Emerging from the dust storm Nathan had created was another figure. Janie’s knees nearly buckled and she stumbled but didn’t fall. “Mom,” she whispered. Dust stung her eyes and mixed with tears as Nathan led her to her mother.
“Are you alright?”
Mother cradled Janie’s face gently and turned it from side to side. She brushed a stiff piece of hair from Janie’s cheek and tucked it behind her ear. Janie couldn’t speak. She nodded her head and pressed her face into her mother’s shoulder. Mother held her tightly. She reached an arm out to Nathan and folded him into her embrace. The sun broke through the clouds and cast away the shadow, surrounding the small group in warmth. Janie sighed and felt a familiar set of hands join their warm embrace.