She came to life beneath the river mud, enveloped in her mother’s earthy womb. The refracted radiance of the sun beckoned to her, so she stretched upward until she emerged through the water’s surface.
He was an orphan of no more than fourteen summers, rolled-up pants riddled with holes and fingers scarred from barbed hooks and catfish spines. He was fishing for carp in the riffles, the sawgrass on either side of the river buzzing with insects, when he beheld her: a blush-pink lotus bud growing from the dark mossy river bed.
He did what any wonder-starved orphan does with beautiful things: he plucked the lotus, broke the twining roots, and cradled the blossom in his palms. A cry burst forth from his lips when the bud opened. He dropped the flower, which transformed into a naked girl before his bewildered eyes.
The girl looked about his age, with strawberry blond hair and a flush beneath her smooth brown skin. She was dainty like a teacup and pretty like a kingfisher. The young fisherman and the lotus girl gazed at each other, young love taking root in their hearts.
The orphan boy lived out of his rowboat. When night fell, he covered himself in a dry tarp and reclined against the weathered wood as the lotus girl swam unhurried circles around his anchored boat. He’d dressed her in his spare clothes, and the faded rags trailed behind her in the glassy water like a comet’s tail. Entranced, the fisherman moved to the bow of his boat to watch her better. Both reached for the other at the same time, and their fingertips connected. Their eyes widened as they felt each other’s pulse flutter beneath the skin like moth wings.
He told her stories, about his travels downstream and about what lay beyond the river. Her eyes shone with newfound wanderlust, and her dusky pink lips uttered three words: “Take me there.”
The young fisherman swiftly began the preparations, gathering food, tools and anything else he could scavenge for their new life together. That same night, the eloping couple drifted down the river in the fisherman’s rowboat, carried by a stream of guileless dreams.
They moved into a cozy thatched hut with whitewashed walls and a little herb garden. He lied about his age and found a job at the fish plant, a looming slate-gray factory that belched out putrid smoke into the sky. The plant exported packaged fish to foreign lands and seas neither the orphaned fisherman nor the lotus girl had ever visited.
She waited for him each afternoon, curled in the window-seat that looked out onto the dusty road. They called each other husband and wife, muffling shy giggles behind their palms as they cherished every minute in each other’s company.
Yet instead of blossoming, the lotus girl slowly withered away. She drew a bath every day, sprinkled rose water in her hair, and dipped her toes into puddles of rainwater, but nothing helped. The air was hard to breathe. The blue of the sky was swallowed by a thick veil of smog. Even the rain felt sharp and smoldering against her skin. As time continued to pass, her dreams became aquatic, filled with the memory of moss-rich mud and crystalline waters.
“What do you long for?” the fisherman asked her on the day that marked a year since their first meeting. Lately, she was too exhausted to leave the house, or even step away from her window. He knelt like a supplicant at her feet, waiting for a revelation. “I can tell you’re unhappy. I’ll work more shifts. I’ll buy you perfumes, colorful saris, and jewelry of silver, gold, and precious stones. You’ll look lovelier than all the girls in all the fashion magazines.”
The lotus wife looked at her husband with doleful eyes and placed a hand on his cheek. The adolescent peach-fuzz tickled her palm, and her throat constricted with tears.
“I don’t want jewelry, fine fabrics, or expensive perfume. I don’t dream of seeing my face on a Western magazine cover. It is the mud and the water that I need. My mother, the earth and my father, the river.”
Salt water beaded at the corners of the fisherman’s eyes, for he could see now that his affection for her had blinded him. His heart felt tender like a fresh bruise as he noticed the way her hair had lost its strawberry sheen, her eyes had been stripped of their world-wonder. The pallor of her skin brought to mind a wax figurine.
Deep in the night, he roused her from sleep and wrapped a crocheted blanket around her shoulders. She could barely walk, so he picked her up and carried her in his arms down the winding dirt road, past smoke-stained houses and wilting flower gardens. She weighed almost nothing. He walked unceasingly until they reached the riverbend, and he removed the palm tree fronds covering his flimsy rowboat. It looked like a walnut-shell cradle, and she a frail figure crumpled inside it, small as a thimble, her color fading away.
He rowed and rowed up the river until his arms burned and the oars chafed his palms. At last, they reached their old village where their fates had first entwined.
The deep, dark blue firmament was clear of smoke here, strewn with myriads of stars. Cicadas chirred in the long grass, an ever-rising crescendo. The orphaned fisherman filled his lungs with the brisk nocturnal air before kneeling by the lotus girl’s side.
“Wake up, flower,” he whispered against her veined papery lips.
Her eyelids trembled, then fully opened. He placed one last kiss upon her brow before mooring his rowboat and wading to the shallows with her in his arms. Dewey lotus flowers freckled the moonlit surface. He was careful not to disturb them. When he was up to his waist in water, he gently laid her down in the river, their nightclothes soggy and heavy.
“I’m sorry,” the young fisherman said. “I should never have taken you away from your home and family.”
The lotus girl smiled when the looking-glass water soaked her billowing hair. “It’s not your fault. I was willing. I’m in love.”
“As am I. Which is why I have to let you go.”
They held hands as she sank into the silty mud, returning to her mother’s wet, dark embrace. By the time dawn broke pink and humid over the mango trees, she was gone from his sight. The fisherman collapsed on the bench seat of his boat and looked down at his trembling hands. Rivulets of mud trickled between his fingers. However, when he unfurled his fists, he saw it: a lock of strawberry blond hair that morphed into a blushing lotus petal before turning into a silvery whispered promise.
To meet again, in this very spot, when both of them had reached full bloom.