The Oxbow Parenthesis by Anne Howkins

The Oxbow Parenthesis

Anne Howkins


Chloe writes plodding B-grade essays, with correct grammar and punctuation. A teacher once tried to encourage her to expand her vocabulary. ‘It’ll help you use your imagination, Chloe.’ Chloe prefers not to explore her minds-eye or think about certain words. Delight and despair are arrangements of letters that exist in a dictionary she can’t open. She once knew the words father and foolish, but their meaning is scumbled. They sometimes echo in her head, when she walks home along the canal towpath. The days she sees a reined toddler bouncing with excitement as his dad throws bread for the drab ducks. When another man lobs sticks into the water for an exuberant brindled terrier, Chloe gets a hint of tragic and family pet, feels that lump in her chest, and jogs home. She tries not to think of grasping grey water writhing through frosty fields in another place.

Mr Thompson hands out geography worksheets, notes solitary Chloe hunched over the corner table. Her pencil is filling in the sinuous curves of blue on the paper, making them straight. He tells the class to listen to him, answer the questions on the sheet, then finish the diagrams. Chloe pays attention when she hears

‘The river erodes the bank on each side, forming bends.’

Erodes is a word that echoes in the empty vodka bottles mum drops in the recycling bins when there’s no-one around. Bank was crumbling, without handholds. Bends are what mum is slowly navigating.

‘The water flows faster on the outside bends, slower on the inside, changing its course into a meander.’

Chloe contemplates meander. Silently rolls the word around with her tongue. She looks up when Sean raises his hand and asks what meander means.

Mr Thompson says ‘Chloe, do you know?’ Chloe has never answered a question in class before, but he is kind, so she does.

‘Is it to do with wandering about?’ she whispers, as her face flushes the colour of her school cardigan.

‘Well done Chloe.’

She considers her slow reluctant traipse home. Her mother’s shaky-legged return from The Vine with Chloe’s latest uncle.

‘Continual erosion and deposition narrow the neck of the meander.’

Chloe thinks of the things she’s seen deposited in the canal, jostling against the lock gates. Supermarket trolleys, flat tyres, half a bike, sometimes bloated rodent corpses. No matter how often the council clear it away, it always comes back. Deposits are sometimes the things people don’t want any more. Sometimes a deposit is the most valuable thing you possess.

‘During a flood the river cuts through the neck and abandons the meander.’

Chloe wants her water enclosed, straight. Meandering water abandons small children on its eroding banks. It adds human flesh and bones to its deposits, spits out stupid Labradors.

‘The cut-off becomes an oxbow lake that will eventually dry up.’

The worksheet shows a rotated letter C, rocking on its curved spine, without any watery arms reaching for its parent.

Chloe wonders when she’ll eventually dry up.


About the author: Anne discovered flash fiction in her seventieth decade, and gets huge amounts of pleasure playing with the form.

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