She couldn’t leave the river, and she was malevolent. Every legend agreed in those two things. She kept us from crossing the river. Ours was the last village before her river impeded northern travel.
No one quite knew what to call her: a naiad, a goddess, an ondine, a rusalka, a demoness…. Most in our area called her simply She.
She took the form of a woman with long hair the color of the sand on the riverbed. Most of us had seen her. She often wore a dress of river water, the fabric—if fabric it was—catching the light in just the way that the river did. Sometimes she wore nothing. It was said that she was at her most dangerous then.
She was not confined to one point in the river. She could follow an adventurer along the waterway to its source, it was said, though no one who had tried to circumnavigate the river had ever returned.
She subsisted on fish mostly, but she was not above insects and waterfowl or an animal that crept to her river to drink. There were tales of children, men, and women whom she had lured to the river, drowned, and eaten, leaving maybe a bone or two on the riverbed as the only evidence to their disappearance.
We drew our water from wells—for ourselves and for our animals. We built fences to keep the animals from wandering too near the river. We taught our children to keep away.
And then came the heat of a long summer, when little rain fell, and our buckets scraped mud and muck instead of fresh water.
The river was low, sluggish, but still ran after the wells were dry.
Some hoped that she would be weakened by the drought. Silas let go a sow of his, and we watched as the squealing pig was dragged off of the bank.
We didn’t see the pig again.
But we still needed water.
“Maybe she can be reasoned with,” Gabe volunteered.
“Maybe she can be caught,” Ron said.
“Catch the river?” Frances scoffed.
“Well, if we build a dam—”
“She can be anywhere in the river.”
“But can she jump a dam?”
And round and round our conversations went, while our throats went drier and our voices grew hoarse and no one could wet his lips.
Marcus slipped outside.
I followed him when I noticed that he was gone.
It had grown near dark while we’d argued. Marcus looked up at the star-seeded sky. Cloudless.
“No rain coming,” he said. He didn’t look at me. I didn’t know how he knew that I was there.
“When did you leave?”
“When they started talking about moving south. We can’t do it, Pryor. We can’t leave the village.”
“We need water.”
“We need water,” Marcus agreed. He started walking. And I hurried after him.
It didn’t take me long to realize where he was going, and when I did, I grabbed his arm. “Marcus, no!”
“We need water,” he repeated.
“We need water.” He twisted his arm out of my grasp, and stalked on. “And I’m not leaving. Not without a fight.”
“You’re going to fight her? Marcus, she’s made of water.”
“And if I kill her there’ll be plenty of it.”
“You can’t kill water.” I emphasized every word as if my sharper tone could penetrate his thick skull.
But he shook off my words like midges around his ears.
He kept walking.
I drew my knife—because if we were going to face her, it was better to be armed, however little it could do—and I followed.
Marcus stopped mere feet from the water’s edge, and we watched her materialize, rising from the water like a burbling spring, slowly taking on form, till she stood, naked in the moonlight. Her long hair rippled, a dark waterfall down her bare back.
She looked up slowly at Marcus.
“I’m so tired,” she mumbled.
“Witch,” Marcus spat, “it’s time to give up.”
“Give up?” she repeated.
“Yes. We need water.”
“And I need water. I am water. You want me to give you myself? Freely?”
“I cannot do that. There’s a price for everything. As you would not give freely of yourself, so I won’t give up myself.”
“So what’s your price?”
She smiled. “You know my price. It’s why you teach your children not to come near me. It’s why you pen your animals to keep them from coming to me.”
“So how many animals?”
“You cannot pay me off.” Her voice sliced through the air like a knife against skin, soaked with enough threat to make me shiver. “The river is always hungry.”
“So what?” Marcus growled. “We die? We flee? What is it you want?”
“No matter what you do, I will continue.”
“Marcus,” I said, putting a hand on his arm. “Let’s go. Nothing will come of this.”
“I’m not leaving the village,” Marcus roared.
“And nor am I,” she said, quiet as rain on the thatched roofs.
“We’re not giving up. We’re not leaving,” Marcus told her.
“No one outlives the river. Nor can you cage water. No net, no trap can hold me. Even a rock prison I would break in time.”
“It only has to hold you till the wells come back.”
Her scimitar smile showed pointed teeth.
We were too near. I grabbed Marcus’ arm again. I tried to pull him back. We shouldn’t be able to see her teeth.
He tore his arm from my hands and took a fatal step away from me.
He was in the water in moments. I still don’t know how. She had him in her arms, wrestling him, his head twisted back, her teeth bared over his neck.
And then I was in the water.
I jumped in before I’d thought it through.
Marcus was thrashing still, churning the water with wheeling arms, and kicking with his feet as if he might be able to launch himself back out onto the dry land, out of her arms.
I heard the shouts, and I heard the hiss ,and I heard the splashing.
I kept pushing forward.
I felt the sting. I felt the fire rake across my arm as she lashed out at me.
I heard the gasp. I saw Marcus pushing away from her. It had been enough. I saw him staring.
She was on me now, and it felt every bit like drowning, like those first disorienting moments when you dive into the pool, and you’re too deep, deeper than you’d thought, and you open your eyes, but you’re not yet above the water, and you can’t figure out at first why you can’t breathe, and you don’t know if you’ll make it back to the surface because you don’t know how far away it really is, and you push, and you pray.
I didn’t push. I didn’t pray. I knew I couldn’t win. You can’t kill water.
She was on me. She had her hand twisted in my hair. She had her arm wrapped around me, pinning my arms to my side as she held a wrist behind my back. And she was pulling me under. Fluidly. As smoothly as if I weighed nothing. And then it was dark, and it was quiet, and I couldn’t hear Marcus screaming anymore. I couldn’t hear the splashing, only the pulse of riverwater.
And it was getting darker. Quieter. And my neck—my neck hurt. My neck seemed to be on fire. Below the water. How was that possible?
I blinked. And blinking hurt.
Breathing hurt. Breathing burnt. And when I did breathe out, a stream of silent bubbles, barely visible in the dark night and the moonlight, left me, like the leaves blowing off of the trees in autumn.
I was drowning.
I was dying.
But Marcus was safe.
She growled. Somehow she could still growl below the water.
“Why don’t you fight?” she asked. She shook me.
“Because you’ll win.” I didn’t know how I’d heard the words. They should have been more silent bubbles. Maybe I was hallucinating now. Maybe I was dead.
She hissed as if my answer somehow displeased her.
Her hands seemed to loosen as we sank deeper into the dark. They were dissolving into murky cloud and grit. She shrieked. Shouldn’t I have been the one shrieking? She feared instead of me.
And my eyes were still open under the water.
And I watched her dissolve, and stayed below long after I’d ceased to feel her holding me down.
The line this week is mine, and I’m rather pleased with this piece, though I’m still not entirely sold on the ending. All in all, though, a good way to start the new legal theft year.
We had a big old gang for this one: