The Water Goblin
The girl's hair is getting long. Braid it like a pretzel, tight so it doesn’t break apart during the day. Name her Abigail, a hardworking name for girls who like hedgehogs and pretending not to understand Czech. Tidy rooms and spelling books and rising at 5:00 to open the shop, one day lines up in front of the other. A life stretches out.
The water goblin has hundreds of teacups, travel souvenirs or ones he bought online. Copenhagen, Disney World, Royal Doultons shipped from England. When do goblins go on vacation? How do they get Internet service all the way down there in the river?
When you break one of the teacups, replace it with another and dispose of the shards in the neighbors’ trash. Unpretzel Abigail’s hair at night and let it fan across the pillow, one wave for each year of her future.
“What a future it will be,” you say. Say it in Czech so she knows what hope sounds like in the old tongue. You have spoken English much of your life, but sometimes, moments like this, it doesn’t have the right weight.
In stories of the vodnik, the water goblin, a girl would go missing and the mother had to search for her. Depending on who told it, the story’s braid was different. The goblin drowned the girl, or he just kept her locked up. Which was worse? He took her down into the river’s cold muck where she had his baby, and when she tried to leave he cut the baby's head off. She found the head floating in the river, bobbing like an apple.
Abigail is fourteen and testing boundaries, same as you did at that age. Tell her the boundaries are there for a reason, so she doesn’t fall off the edge of the earth. So goblins don’t pull her underwater. You don’t want to find her head in a river or the garbage or anywhere.
You don’t say the thing about the goblins out loud, but you think it.
“Relax, Mom,” she says, as if one’s troubles dried up when the muscles of the body loosened. She’s started saying this like the American girl she is. You want to scream at her, but there are two older girls idling in a nearby Volkswagen, listening.
The vodnik doesn’t like people touching his things. His house is packed with teacups with souls trapped under them, and they better not get out. He worked hard to drown them all, to catch them again. The house teems with trapped souls. Every time you enter a room, another one’s rapping on the porcelain, wanting loose. You want to help but you don’t like the thought of those angry souls swirling around you, confused about who killed them, who let them out.
When he can’t find the tiny cup from Istanbul for drinking sweet, sweet coffee, he comes looking for you.
“I know you’ve been breaking them and throwing them out. What I want to know is why.”
That’s when you notice the whole house is a teacup, and you’ve been living in it, you and the girl under the porcelain dome. Has the house always been a dome? With forget-me-nots painted on the floor? Have you always been unable to leave? You remember going to a job, the little bakery downtown. You had to get up so damn early to open the place. You think you’ve driven the girl to gymnastics, to dentist appointments, but these could be memories the goblin placed in your head.
There isn’t money for one of you to move out, but you’re going. You and the girl.
Put yourself between him and her. He says, “No, no, no, no, no,” like you’re holding the box cutter and he’s holding the mail.
You go first, for all the good that does.
“You’ll have to go through me,” you say, so he does. The sound is terrible, you tearing like cardboard. The newspaper story leaves that out but gets hung up on the teacups, hundreds and hundreds of them carted out of there in boxes. People assume they’re your teacups, insult to injury.
You didn’t drown anybody; you wanted to let them out.
Later, people will look for a missing thread, something to isolate the act from their own lives. A struggle over money. You’d wanted to take the girl back to the old country. Nothing they had to worry about. The neighbors don’t fight over money, they aren’t from somewhere else. No language older than memory, nothing to translate this horror into when they tell relatives the story. Nothing lost in the translation, just a tragedy. No piles of teacups in their houses, making deathtraps of the stairwells. Kind of weird, if you ask them, but the whole thing is.
“You never know what’s going on with people,” they’ll say, hugging their live children, shepherding them back into the houses. Thankful everyone they love is still breathing.