Water Baby by Jane Percival

Sunday, November 16, 2014
Jane Percival's creepy story of an orphan girl whose strange behaviour and affinity for water grow gradually more acute as she grows up.

Zoe was an odd little girl, there was no question of that. From the day that she first joined the family - a small scrap of a child with a shock of black hair - she was different. She had such a grave way of looking at the world. Her aunt, uncle and cousins would take turns to try to make her smile, but she would just look back at them neutrally. When she was a toddler, she was content to play by herself, although she did play alongside other children if she had to. And it didn't go unnoticed that she had a habit of staring at people, watching. Jo would often look up and catch her gaze.

Zoe was a collector. In itself, that wasn't unusual. Her father had collected those cardboard coasters that they have in bars, and her mother's childhood stamp collection was still up in the attic. But Zoe collected round river stones and had a pile of small twigs that she'd found somewhere. She'd spend ages sorting the stones and rearranging the twigs into different shapes. When not playing with the twigs, she'd bind them up in her old baby blanket, the one she'd been wrapped in on the day she was rescued.

Another difference was the way she behaved around water. As a tiny child, the only thing that would calm her when she was upset was a deep bath, and she was always trying to put her head under. She'd push back and wriggle in Jo's arms, as slippery as an eel.

And then there was her physical appearance. She was slim and supple, with a heart-shaped face, a small turned up nose, a wide mouth and huge green eyes. Her hair was glossy and straight, and pure black. Both Donna and Carl had been fair.

Despite her being so unlike their other children, Jo and Tom loved Zoe unconditionally and cared for her with the same love and affection they had showered on her older cousins.

When Zoe was four, Jo took her along to the local kindergarten. Her cousins had spent their early years at home until old enough for school, but it seemed that Zoe needed something more than helping in the kitchen or playing with her dolls in a bucket of water in the dusty back yard. It was February, the tail end of summer, and Zoe held Jo's hand as they walked the three blocks to the centre. She allowed herself to be introduced to the teacher and Jo offered to stay with her for a while to keep her company. Zoe watched the busy activities going on around her and didn't seem interested in joining in. She didn't even look up when Jo left.

Attending kindergarten wasn't that much of a success. It wasn't that Zoe didn't mix with the other children, it was more a case of the other children not mixing with her. She was like a small repelling magnet. Despite every attempt to include her in group activities, she remained aloof. She would watch, rather than joining in. When spoken to, she replied as she should. There was nothing measurably wrong with her speech or her cognitive abilities, she was just 'different'.

The only activity she appeared to enjoy was the water bath. She would collect up all the dolls, take off their clothes and line them up under the water with their glassy eyes staring upwards. Sometimes she'd have to weigh them down with heavy stones from the sandpit to stop them from bobbing to the surface. Then she'd take them out and toss them onto the grass. She repeated this activity over and over until the other children complained and the adults became unnerved. How she would manage at school, nobody knew. After a few months, Jo decided to that kindergarten wasn't for Zoe.

At home, her collecting had become something of a problem. It wouldn't have been so bad if she'd just 'collected', but she was always tipping out her cardboard box of stones onto the bedroom floor, sorting and re-sorting. And she disliked being disturbed. As she grew older, she arranged the items into complex patterns. The twigs were always sorted into shapes resembling small people which she'd fan out and link to the river stones. The river stones were sorted into undulating lines that started from a central point. The storage box became tatty and shabby, its corners bursting at the seams.

One day the family heard a sharp cry from Zoe's room. Upon investigation they had found her sitting on the bedroom floor, gazing at her twigs and stones which were in jumbled heaps, the cardboard box torn away at the bottom. For her next birthday she was given two plastic storage containers with wheels underneath. They had lids that could be clipped down and handles for towing and could be cleverly stacked on top of each other or rolled under the bed. But Zoe wouldn't use them. From the day the cardboard box fell apart, the stones were always on her bedroom floor. She just stepped over her complicated arrangements and became upset when it was time to move them aside to vacuum clean. Every night she'd collect up her twigs, wrap them in the old blanket and carefully place the woolly bundle alongside her pillow.

The first day of school caused a minor catastrophe - Zoe refused to be parted from her twigs (still wrapped in her baby blanket)and had insisted that they be packed into her backpack along with her lunch and other school items. She wouldn't leave the house without them and when Jo tried to lift her up, she scratched and bit at her. In the end, Jo managed to squeeze the blanket into the backpack alongside her exercise book and pencils. Zoe had to carry a separate plastic bag with her lunchbox and drink bottle inside.

At the end of that first week, when Zoe was sleeping soundly in her bed, Jo crept in and removed the parcel from beside her pillow. She carefully set the twigs aside and cut the blanket up to make a small purse with a Velcro fastener. The next morning, Jo expected Zoe to complain, but she didn't. In fact for the first time, she almost seemed pleased, tucking the purse safely down the front of her sweatshirt.

Zoe was a bright child and managed her school work with ease, and despite being a loner, seemed happy enough. She excelled at water sports and could swim like a fish. She couldn't be persuaded to wear goggles, however, even when the chlorine made her eyes red-rimmed and sore. She fitted in.

As she grew older, she formed no friendships and had few acquaintances. At around the age of thirteen, she complained to Jo that she'd been having trouble sleeping.

"I have these dreams," she said. "I dream that I'm in the water and it's cold. There are two white lights and people all around me are saying 'go, go, go'. Pushing me."

She began to spend her free time walking by the banks of the Hokitika River. She'd been told the story of her parents' death and how she'd been saved, but this didn't deter her.

"Do you think the accident had some kind of lasting effect on her?" Jo asked Tom.

"I doubt it," Tom replied. "She was only a tiny baby."

"Sometimes I wonder, though," Jo reflected, thinking back to the day that Zoe had been rescued from the river.

It had been a tragedy. Jo's sister Donna had given birth to Zoe at the maternity unit at Grey Base Hospital, about 40 km north of Kaniere. Zoe's entry into the world had been straightforward, but the day her parents were due to bring her home had been wild and stormy. Carl had driven to Greymouth to collect them, with the intention of heading back in the early afternoon. On a good day, the drive back to Kaniere usually took less than an hour, and they'd left Hokitika shortly after lunch. There had been a flat tyre and Donna had rung Jo to say they'd be a bit later than they'd originally expected, but other than that, there was no reason to think anything would go wrong. Jo, Tom and the cousins had been looking forward to their return and meeting up with baby Zoe for the first time.

After reaching Hokitika, Carl had taken the slower, Arthurstown Road route. This road ran alongside the Hokitika River for a good part of the trip to Kaniere. Even this should have been without problems, but just as they were on the final straight before crossing the bridge into town, the car swerved sharply to the left, before sliding over the bank and into the river. If it hadn't been for the fact that the accident happened directly across from one of the few houses on that stretch of the road, all three lives would have been lost. But a gentleman by the name of Don Walters was checking his mailbox at that very moment. He heard the screeching of tyres and looked up through the driving rain to see the tail lights disappearing from sight.

The Hokitika River is fast moving, with its source in the Southern Alps. At the time of the accident, it had been raining steadily for most of the day, and the river was swollen. Don had run across the road and stumbled down the bank to where only the boot and back bumper of the car were showing, muddy green water coursing over its roof. Only a few minutes had passed since the accident, but there was no movement, no sign of anyone struggling to get out. Don waded in up to his waist. The water was icy cold. He pulled at the left rear door but it wouldn't budge - the car was already starting to shift due to the pressure of the water. Picking up a rock, he pounded it against the window until it broke, reached in, found the catch and dragged the door open. The front seat was completely submerged. He could just make out the shapes of two bodies still strapped into their seatbelts, the woman's blonde hair swirling, when the car started to move some more.

Floating in the back of the car was something wrapped in a sodden white blanket and Don was startled to see two bright eyes. He quickly grabbed at the bundle and pulled it out. The car shifted in the water, sank further, then started drifting down the river. Dan fell backwards and only just managed not to be swept away himself. Looking at the wet pile of bedding in his arms, he realised he'd rescued a baby. It was wet and cold, but clearly alive.

The rest was history. They found the car the following day. It had been washed up on the sand bar at the mouth of the river, with Carl's body still wedged behind the wheel. Donna's body was never found; most likely she'd been washed out to sea.

Jo shook the feeling off. They'd done the only thing they could, they'd taken baby Zoe into their own home. Not that a new baby was something they'd wanted with the other kids all but grown up, but she wouldn't change a thing. She did still wonder about that day, however. Why had Donna and Carl taken the longer route, and why had the car suddenly swerved? Sure, it had been rainy and windy, but it was a straight road and there had been no other traffic.

After graduating from Westland High School, Zoe was accepted into the University of Otago's Bachelor of Science (Marine Science) programme. She moved down south to Dunedin and studied there for a little over two years, managing well enough at the academic side of things. She had good grades but her inability to make friends, combined with her lack of interest in forming relationships of any kind, held her back. Her class mates found her odd and difficult to talk to. And they found her behaviour a bit unnerving at times. She was often found gazing into the specimen pools at the Marine Science facility, and on diving excursions she easily lost her focus and would lie motionless, drifting face down just below the surface, gazing at the swirling strands of golden brown kelp as they moved with the tide. The girls in her class considered her 'weird looking' with her green eyes and her shiny black hair and her aloof and distant manner. The boys found her somewhat scary and gave her a wide berth.

She still carried around her collection of twigs. These were well-worn from handling - smooth and almost pure white from age. She had purchased a small fringed suede pouch from a craft market and kept them there, along with three small stones from the Hokitika River. She wore the pouch on a long leather thong around her neck.

In April of 2010, Zoe upped and left Dunedin, taking the InterCity Bus to Christchurch and the West Coast shuttle across the island to Greymouth. She met up with Jo who was finishing her shift at the Grey Base Hospital where she was employed as a nurse. Zoe's cousins had long since moved away; to Christchurch and Nelson respectively. Tom had drowned in a fishing mishap a few years earlier. Jo was mostly glad to have her back home, but wondered what she'd do with her.

Zoe picked up a part-time job at the Countdown supermarket in Greymouth and once again, took to walking along the banks of the Hokitika River in her spare time. She couldn't remember where she'd found her original twigs and this seemed to bother her. She constantly asked Jo about her parents' accident.

"Why did they drive off the road?"

"Where did they drive off the road?"

"Who found me?"

"How did he get me out?"

An onslaught of questions that Zoe had never raised before.

A couple of months after her return, Zoe went for a walk and didn't come home. The police were alerted, but as she was an adult and the weather was still mild, they weren't unduly worried. Everyone knew Zoe; they knew she was familiar with the area and a strong swimmer. And she did have strange habits.

By the time they began searching in earnest, more than twenty-four hours had elapsed. Tracker dogs found Zoe's clothes folded tidily on the banks of the river, directly opposite the place her parents had met their death, 21 years earlier. On top of the pile of clothes was the fringed suede pouch. Jo's heart sank when she heard this.

One of the search party volunteers was the local GP. He tipped the contents of the small pouch onto the ground, to see if Zoe had left a message or any clue inside, then drew back in surprise.

"Let me look at those!" he exclaimed, hoping he was wrong. He held the small twigs in his large hands, peering at them closely.

"These are bones, and unless I'm mistaken, they are the hand and foot bones of a very small baby."

But there was more to come. The dogs were barking and scratching at the ground below the clothing and the search party decided to investigate what was making them so excited.

It was assumed that Zoe had given up on her solitary life and thrown herself into the river, but her body was never found. What they did discover, however, was a small grave, directly beneath where Zoe's clothes had been left. In the grave they found the skeletal remains of a human baby. The remains had been preserved in muttonbird fat inside a sturdy bag made from bull kelp. The hands and feet had been removed.


  1. Wow! This is a beautiful and fantastical story. For much of it I was drawn into what I thought was a delicate and insightful evocation of a child at the Asperger's end of the autistic spectrum: a child with a fundamentally differently wired brain, and all the more precious for her uniqueness. Towards the end I was spun around and disorientated by the strange and unexpected resolution of your piece. Overall I found your story to compelling and well executed even though it left me chilled and bewildered. Thank you very much, well done,
    Ceinwen Haydon

  2. Very different from the usual short story. Well written and evocative, raising as many questions as it answered. While including the element of fantasy, it wasn't beyond the realms of possibility, which, to me is important. A really good read!

  3. a fascinating story with a chillingly convincing main character, really like the ending, a bit of mystery goes a long way!

    Michael McCarthy

  4. Thanks for the very welcome feedback!

    Jane Percival

  5. Really fantastic character work. This girl with her twigs and her love of deep baths will resonate with me for a very long time. Well done.
    Tim Macy

  6. A sad story that turned mysterious at the end. I thought Zoe would end up with a somewhat decent life, but that was not meant to be. Nice job.

  7. A compelling narrative. Mystical, magical, and it doesn't matter that there's no resolution. I was fascinated by the strong picture of Zoe in her compulsive and obsessional elemental rituals of - what the reader eventually learns is - her return to the riverbed.
    It's a difficult piece to write,and at times I felt that the distant authorial voice made it sound almost like a forensic report. For instance, would the voice not be stronger if it was all written within Jo's point of view? I'm not sure of the answer to that...Nevertheless it didn't impair my enjoyment of the story. Well done!

  8. Thanks Brooke. I'll take what you have written on board - it's so helpful to have constructive feedback.


  9. creepy. I read it twice. loved the ending.