“Water” by Maura McHugh

This story from Black Static #21 marked Maura McHugh’s second appearance in the magazine, and at approximately 500 words it could well be a contender for the title of shortest ever story published by TTA Press.

It wastes no time, grabbing the attention instantly with an opening line that rocks the reader back on his or her heels – ‘The pot lids hopped and fizzed when Mark’s mother laid the wooden spoon down calmly, opened the back door of the kitchen, disappeared into the overgrown garden, and drowned herself in the river that flowed past their house.’

You’re primed to expect a misery memoir of some sort, an explanation for what appears to be suicide, but McHugh takes things off in an entirely different direction with the return of the mother and, despite the fact that her mouth is filled with water so that ‘foam churned at her lips’ there is an attempt to carry on as normal, with dinner put on the table and the returned husband greeting his wife as if nothing has changed, kissing her so that ‘the river gushed into Dad and filled him up’.

The story is told from the perspective of young Mark, who witnesses these transformations but is ignored when he tries to point out what is happening to his parents, his objections simply brushed aside.

So what is going on here?

There is a hint in the opening phrase, those pot lids that hop and fizz, as if the boiling water has sentience of a kind, is talking to Mark’s mother and telling her to go jump in the river.

More prosaically, it could easily be a zombie tale, with the drowned mother returned to life and then infecting her husband with her condition, water as the medium of change.

I think that McHugh is a bit more canny than that though. Water and air appear to have reversed their roles in the scheme of things. Mark’s mother explains jumping in the river by saying that ‘”I needed some air”‘, and Mark himself feels that he is drowning, ‘as if the air was made of water, and he was suspended, breathless, unable to swim’. At the end of the story he dashes from the room, ‘gulping for air’, and the assumption left to be made by the reader is that he too will plunge into the river.

On the one hand this is a very clever piece, an understated work of surrealism that shows how words shape and define our sense of reality, and perhaps suggesting that we can change that reality by altering our understanding of those words. At the same time, as told from Mark’s perspective, it’s a claustrophobic and tautly written account of reality shift, of somebody who feels totally out of step with his family and his world, and has no idea how that has come about, but while the prose remains calm and steady the boy’s increasing unease and fear is apparent. Something terrible has taken place, and finally Mark too must reinvent his world to take the sting out of that. Only by doing so can he hope to survive.

Life originated in the sea. Two thirds of the world’s surface is covered with water and, when broken down to their chemical constituents, our bodies are mainly water. The story’s title encompasses and encapsulates everything that there is, the narrative hinting at a return to some primal state of purity.


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2 Responses to “Water” by Maura McHugh

  1. Ray says:

    This was one of my favourites. I read it as a metaphor for a woman drowning in her domestic life, so much so that to actually drown is no escape. And then, faced with a father suffering the same, the boy has to flee before such a life can stifle, or drown, him too. Love it, and use it in my teaching.

    • petertennant says:

      Yeah, that makes sense, though I didn’t feel that we saw enough of her domestic life to know that it’s drowning her, and Mark’s reaction seems to be to the change, rather than domesticity itself. Great story, however you interpret it.

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