Family Portrait

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Words: Cara Collins (she/her)
The path to the stream was long and straight. With knees buckling under the fleeting weight of our frenzied urgency, we staggered across the loose stones and pounded downwards towards the crossing. A sheet of dust rose from our heels and settled above our heads like a veil to shield us from the watchful eyes above as we skidded to a halt, flailing our spindly arms for balance amidst the scattered pebbles. The sound of our panting, giddy and irregular, was eclipsed by the biblical current shooting from our left through the leafy earth. We looked at the soft wooden crossing, arching smooth and shining over the stream in the drooping summer sun. Then we looked at each other.
‘The Lagan?’ Saoirse spoke, puzzled. Her head tilted sideways and lolled backwards as her big, curious eyes searched for mine. Her slightly parted lips revealed her gapped teeth; the top half of her hair was separated into two brown streamers that fell down either side of her cheeks, held in place with bobbles decorated with little purple plastics, like grapes.
‘The River Lagan. A river.’
‘Yes. A river.’
‘And where does it go again?’
I rolled my eyes dramatically, sighing loud enough so she could hear my dismissal over the lapping stream. The truth was that I had no idea where it went. I had listened with perked ears and fantastical enthusiasm as Mum and Granny had detailed its path: a spool unwinding, curling around giant sycamore trees with roots coiling into the banks, trickling unnoticed past the red-brick homes glowing with warmth from the families inside, threading its way along the East side of the city until it spiralled out beneath the still lights of the dock. Its journey had always fascinated me, but I was more concerned with the woodland imaginations Granny had painted to us in her stories. Even now, I am unsure where that stream led, and even more unsure if it was the River Lagan at all. Or rather, it was a thrilling lie invented in the excitement of the stream’s existence that I declared to classmates as if it was some evidence of the enchantment of King’s Road.
Without answering, I bounced from the path onto the small bridge and crossed over into the woodland, lightly sprayed from the current below, whooping a ‘Come on!’ to Saoirse before swinging left into the brush. She turned, shielding her face with her hand, to squint up towards the house. It stood enormous and copper atop a green slope, its four grand bay windows hung in each corner, overlooking the flat land that lay wide at the base of the slope before the stream that separated it from the forest. Three figures the size of Saoirse’s fingernail peered over from the peak of the grassy glacier as she gave them a quick wave before scurrying after me.
Crossing that little wooden bridge during the summer months felt like entering a secret world. The busy laurel hedging that ran along the pebble path gave way to huge round sycamore trees, looming dense with colours of olive and emerald and pistachio green that swayed gently to allow drops of sunlight to dance across our pale shoulders. Even the most delicate evening breeze stirred their leaves loose, coating the squelchy ground in layers of little green crowns. Crab apple trees crouched in the shadows, curling their twisted branches around one another and dropping round yellowy-pink bulbs at our feet. Happy brown mushrooms sprouted up to greet us from beneath the sea of twigs and conkers, settling in damp corners in the roots of wide tree trunks. It was a real-life reverie, shades of mustard and lime and almond all blended into our own personal fairytale forest. Saoirse joined me in our hideaway spot, tucked behind the stream and sheltered by a protective weeping tree.
‘How did you get up there so fast?’
‘Huh?’, I called down to her as I scrambled up the limbs of a rotting tree, its branches sticky with sap. Below me, the stream slid silently over glossy stones that lined the shallow bank. Occasionally it splashed against the butt of a log that protruded from the far side of the bank, whispering to itself.
‘I said, how did you get up there so fast?’
I stopped halfway up, one foot on a branch and another jammed into a nook in the trunk for support, and reached my arms up to claw blindly. ‘You have to be quick or the branches will snap,’ I said as my fingers found the chipped corners of a makeshift squirrel feeder, fashioned by Granny out of an old jewellery box and stuffed full of stale walnuts and apple peelings.

By the time our heads emerged at the top of the slope, helicopter seeds nestled in our tousled hair and dried dirt tucked into our nail beds. The sun had almost set in the reflection of the house’s windows. Heaving ourselves onto the flat grass and slumping back onto our elbows, we turned to watch as it dipped happily behind the throng of green, leaving a pink hue drifting in its wake. From the house, our secret forest appeared even bigger; each individual tree supported each other as they softly swayed as one. It looked like they were breathing.
There was a soft click and I turned, craning my neck to see Granny appearing from the front door, the orange-leafed flower embedded in the stained glass like a frame around her curled hair and a tray of butter-sugar sandwiches in her hand. Our brother Odhrán tumbled after her, one hand clasped in Mum’s and the other raised to his face, thumb locked in his mouth. Uncle Steve followed with a book in his hand and took a seat next to Dad, who had been perched on a collapsible wooden chair, listening for myself and Saoirse’s distant whoops and giggles as the breeze carried them from below. The familiarity felt warm and gently carried me from the grass until I was elevated before the slope, watching as myself and my family orbited around the . Granny pulled Saoirse onto her lap and stroked the mess from her hair, letting frail twigs fall down her long purple skirt. Mum sat next to them, grinning as she angled a grey camcorder towards Grandad; he kicked a ball towards Odhrán, scoring through the middle of his bare legs and laughing as he scrambled after it. Auntie Kate was the last to emerge from the arched doorway, surrounded by ivy and singing softly about the countryside. All around us were hydrangea plants, camellia trees, rhododendrons: purple, blue, orange, green and white. I rose to my feet and smiled out to the forest, where my floating spirit smiled right back, like a mirror. In this airborne moment, I was unafraid. The peace of suspension, of the turreted house – it all lives in my dreams.


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