Mercedes Mayes: ‘Too Much, Too Late’
My name is Mercedes, I am currently completing an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Exeter. I love magical realism as a literary aesthetic and try to emulate this in my wider work. The following piece explores an Eden lost, for better or for worse, and one young woman’s memories surrounding her small slice of paradise. She looks back on key experiences that took place near her beloved ponds as the environment changes with her. It was inspired by ideas surrounding ecological decline and seeks to uncover parallels between personal relationships and nature.
Our parents always used to scold us for playing in the ponds. Half lectures about our muddied summer dresses and unwomanly behaviour, half treatises on protecting the poor creatures contending with our grubby hands and feet wading through their homes. Maybe the balance was three to one instead. Either way, we weren’t supposed to play there.
I always wondered if that was why we insisted on doing so.
It comes back to me in snapshots. Justice and I racing breathlessly down to the ponds, pigtails flapping, skin and fabric grazed and groped by shoots half our size, all amalgamated into treacherous, sentient weeds by our fertile minds. Her voice, high-pitched, authoritative, explaining what each ingredient of our potion did before ordering me to fetch it. The common denominator seemed to be mud from the bank, runny and repulsive but satisfyingly so between my rebellious fingers, even better if it struggled, teeming with life and magic as it so often did.
When playing pretend became less cool we did what anyone would have, we invited boys round to our sacred spot. This was before we both knew, and I distinctly remember the feeling of John Burke’s hand laying itself on my shorts so that his fingertips fell just below the hem. I’d jumped, startled at the contact, and froze as his fingertips awkwardly brushed my skin. Excitement and disgust coursed through me all at once, and I remember thinking that was how it felt to have unknown slime connect with you below the surface of the water. And all of this while watching Justice, knee deep in the pond, with Matt Howlet mirroring the shape of her body, attempting to catch a fish. It was a thoughtless game to play, but she laughed without a care. At least their noise scared all the fish away.
When we became the kind of people who brought a blanket with them to sit on, it became a summer spot for us in between studying. I’d sit and sketch the plants, poetically marvelling at how much everything had grown and changed over the years, while she’d expound on the facts of it all, name all the plants and creatures that had once seemed so unknowable. The knowing made it magical all over again. She was studying ecology, wanted to go into conservation. I would have followed her to the end of the earth just to hear her talk about nature. I liked to watch her reflection in the murky water as she paced around it.
In time, I started to think about making a difference. Each tired email and wretched protest cry became fuelled by the twinkle in her eyes when she talked to me about birds or bees or trees. I joined an environmental NGO, ran their media campaigns. I strategized, I drove membership, I fought… Part of me hates that that brief spate of time holds some of my proudest moments. Hates that she was the one to bring the best out of me, instead of myself.
I think she tried to warn me about it, in her own mysterious way. Somewhere in the back of my mind I see her lips forming the words.
It’s scary how fragile it all is. We’ve been coming here our whole lives; just think of all the changes it’s been through that we haven’t even noticed. Like the algae, have you seen it? It gets harder to miss each year.
I was confused by the venom in her tone. But it’s vital, isn’t it? I think I read that somewhere.
Yes… It’s an oxygenator. It helps everything in this little ecosystem thrive. She pauses. But look how big it’s gotten.
Well, that’s good, isn’t it? More oxygen, more life. There’s hope yet.
No. There’ll be too much soon.
It’s awful to think about. But it’s like I said, it’s all so fragile. It isn’t enough to promote growth, or to cull it. It isn’t enough to care- hell, it’s too much to care! The only thing that could help is stasis. If we all just stopped.
We couldn’t survive.
We would only survive. But I suppose that’s too much to ask.
That was the first time I saw her cry. I’d seen her angry often. Angry at men, at the world, at humanity, at her parents. No matter what life threw at her she’d never cried, at least not in front of me. I hate to say it now but it’s true that I only understood my love for her after seeing her like that, seeing her tears slowly trace the curves of her cheeks. That was our first kiss.
There were so many things to feel. The shift of the mud through my blanket as I redistributed my weight. Grass poking out between my hands. Stray stalks of wheat brushing past my cheek. I felt her hands on my skirt. Her lips grazing against mine. Her fingernails scratching. My fingernails dirty.
I don’t know if it was doomed from the start. I don’t know if it was doomed at all. But it feels like it was.
Like the algae spread beneath me, choking the life out of the fish and foliage that bore witness to these scenes. It’s one thing to thrive, another to overflow. I never believed you could have too much of a good thing, but I think that was what she was trying to tell me. Our ecosystem, once balanced, became unsettled. We didn’t survive.
This is the last time I’ll ever be able to visit the ponds. A world left behind. It’s the only place she still exists for me.
I worked so hard for this outcome, maybe that’s why it hurts quite this much. There’s pleasure and pain in recalling my tenacity, my ferocity in petitioning for the protection order. But it had to be done. I had to protect it from all the versions of me and her yet to come. Too reckless, too concerned, too incompatible. It was never a place for us. Either overzealously active or obsessively apathetic, such is mankind. All or nothing. Just like her.
At least I can take the memories. The feel of the shoots and weeds grazing and groping my legs as I stroll back. The excitement. The pain. And in my head, it can stay unchanged. An eternal paradise. In perfect balance.
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