The River

My mother would not look at me. She would not even raise her head. Her blue eyes were fixed upon her pale, bony hands, which had settled in her lap and lay there, lifeless. I tutted and scolded and pleaded with her, but I might as well have been a ghost.

I knelt at her feet and stared into her face, putting my own in her line of sight. Still she refused to see me. I thought that she looked ill, and told her so. Her skin was so fine it was transparent; I could see blue veins at her temples. Her lips were pale purple like an old bruise.

“I’m going for a walk,” I said. “Don’t let the fire die, or you will get cold.”

I left her there, and let myself out into the night. The sky was clear and the air chill, but I did not worry about my mother. I knew that she would keep the fire burning, though when I returned she would seem not to have moved. She was stubborn my mother, determined to cling to her grief.

The stars were out, their light reflected in the water of the river, but I could not find the moon above the trees. I knew the river path so well I could have walked it with my eyes closed, so the imperfect darkness was nothing to me. I set off at a run, my feet sure on the muddy path, and followed the river south towards the village.

While I ran I could hear nothing but my breath, the beating of my heart, and the thumping of my feet on the soft ground reverberating through me. It was only when I stopped, the orange lights of the village fires ahead of me, that I heard the slopping of river water and knew I was not alone.

I stood very still and the noise ceased. Turning slowly, I saw a black shape out on the water. The villagers, when they dared float upon the river at night, would fix a lantern to their boats. The creature that watched me was not human, but I was not afraid. It was not the first time that one of my mother’s kind had sought me out.

“Speak your piece and go,” I said. “Don’t lurk there in the dark.”

The ripples caught what little light there was as the creature swam towards me, and I followed its course with my eyes. I did not know what sort of sprite it might be, and whether it might delight in surprising me.

It crawled out of the water and rose onto two legs to look down at me. I did not recognise its large scaly body or its domed fish-like head. It had a mane of tangled hair, long whiskers that drooped, and round black eyes.

“What are you?” I asked, but the creature only shook itself, flicking water from its hair into my face.

“This river is dying,” it said, with a voice husky as a drunk’s. “Calder is dying too.”

“Maybe she wants to die,” I said, meaning to sound brave. As soon as the words were out of my mouth I regretted them. No daughter should be so flippant about her mother’s life.

“You can fix this,” it said. “Bring him back and she will thrive again. The river will be saved. The world will be right.”

I folded my arms, feeling suddenly cold. I wished I had found the time to wrap a cloak about me.

“How am I supposed to do that?” I asked. “He could be anywhere. And why would he listen to me anyway? I can’t make him want to come home.”

“Ask Calder,” it said, and leapt backwards into the water, its body bending in ways a human body could never do.

I watched the black water of the river as it settled. It moved so slowly that I could not see the flow, but the stars reflected there wavered and I let them hypnotize me as I thought about what the creature had said.

Last time there had been such a visitor, they had wanted me to join them, to take my mother’s place as guardian of the river. Of course I had refused, though sometimes the water called to me. Sometimes I woke with a start in the middle of the night, sure that it was trying to whisper something through the knotholes in the walls.

I tore my eyes from the river and looked back at the village. When my father had lived with us he had tried to take me to school there, and the teachers had done their best to tolerate me for a while. Once he was gone they gave up the pretense and banished me and my mother. The river scared them, and we scared them more.

I did not look so different from the villagers, and neither had my mother since she had taken my father as her husband and given up her life as a sprite, but people know when something that is not human walks among them. Their skin prickles and their nerves begin to fray. We gave people the shivers.

If there was a way of saving my mother from her misery without taking her place, then I had no choice but to act. Even if that meant facing the man who had cast our lives in such shadow. I turned my back on the village and ran home again, trying not to second guess myself on the way.

“He went to find the fountain,” she said when I asked, the first words I had heard her speak in years. Her voice was as clear and strong as I remembered it.

I scraped my chair across the wooden floor until it was opposite hers, and sat facing her. She remained very still, her head raised and her gaze focused on something only she could see.

“What fountain?” I asked.

“Why do you ask now, when you have refused to talk about him for so long?” she asked, and I felt a pang of guilt. Perhaps that was the only reason she had stopped speaking to me: there was so much I had not wanted to hear.

“I am going to find him and bring him back,” I said. “I am old enough to travel alone. I can bring him back and everything can be as it once was.”

“The fountain of youth,” she said. “That is what he went to find.”

It made sense. I had only been a young girl when my father left, but his beard was already grey. Humans aged too quickly, that was the trouble. My mother’s youth would have lasted far longer than his. It would have been forever if she had not married a mortal man, but I doubted he had thought of her sacrifice.

I did not remember my father as a vain man, but my mother had often called him so during her rants, once she had begun to realize that he was not coming back. I understood her better now.

“I will begin my search for him there,” I said, as though it was the simplest thing in the world. “Where is it?”

“I told him and I shall tell you. The only way to find it is to float out to sea and beg the sea nymphs to carry you there. Tell them my name, and they will listen to you. Take them gifts and flatter them, and they might help you.”

“What gift should I take?”

“Something precious.”

“What gift did my father take?”

My mother put her hands up to her skull and ran her fingers through her hair, which fell untidily about her ears.

“He took my hair,” she said, “and my tears for them to taste. Theirs are salty, mine are sweet.”

I remembered the flowing length of her silvery hair, as it had been once, and knew that mine was not precious enough.

“What do I have that’s enough for them?” I asked. “I’m sure I have nothing they would want.”

She did not answer. A single, silver tear flowed down her cheek and I sighed.

“I will set off in the morning,” I said. “Gifts be damned, I’ll make them help me.”

I took my mother by the hand and led her towards the bed. I was determined to leave early in the morning, while she still slept. I did not want to have to say goodbye.

My father’s old ferryboat was still moored downriver from our little house. He had bought another for his journey and left us his own so that we could continue his work. It had been useless of course, since the villagers would not set foot in a boat with my mother.

I had to cut away the weeds that had grown up around it, embracing each other through the holes that had once held his oars. He had been the only villager brave enough to be the ferryman. That was how he had met my mother.

I checked the boat for holes or cracks that might have let the water in, but it seemed sound enough. It was the only thing he had left behind him, and I had not used it since he had gone. I pushed it out onto the water now and found that my legs were shaking. I did not fear the water. I am an excellent swimmer, and half nymph besides, but I feared that boat. I did not want to sit where he had sat so often, and remember floating out upon the water with him.

I gripped the rough wood and forced myself to climb aboard, causing the boat to rock. The oars were in the bottom of the boat and I put them in position and begun to row. It felt natural to do so, and I wondered if such skills could be inherited.

I was traveling the same direction as the river and at times it was so easy that I just pulled the oars out of the water and lay back, letting the current take me. I gazed up at the sky and watched the sky gradually turn orange. The sun was setting by the time I reached the sea.

The air tasted of salt and the wind was rough against my face, but my heart lifted to see that great expanse of water spread about me, until I could see nothing in any direction but waves rising and falling in little peaks, golden in the last of the sunlight. Never had I felt the call quite like this before. I trailed my fingers in the water and wanted to throw myself in, to let the sea caress me, to lose myself in its depths. My chest was tight with excitement, and perhaps a trace of fear. I was at the mercy of the sea nymphs now, and I knew little of their world.

I sucked salt air deep into my lungs and readied myself to call them.

“I am Rea!” I shouted, but my voice was snatched away by the wind. “I am the daughter of Calder, and I ask for your help!”

The sun was very low now, only a sliver of it was visible on the horizon though its blood leaked far and wide over the surface of the water. Then it was as if a candle was put out, the light suddenly dimmed and the sky faded through purple to black. Still no one had answered my call.

“Calder is sick with grief!” I shouted. “I seek to heal her, but I need to find my father, who came asking for your help many years ago! Can you help me?”

I waited, but no one answered. The stars grew bright and the sea grew calmer, but that was all. I leant over the side of the boat and peered into the dark water. I thought about my father and my mother, and about how I was neither one thing nor the other, and I began to cry. My tears fell into the sea, and disappeared.

“Have you brought a gift?”

The voice startled me, because I had not heard any disturbance in the water. I turned to see a pair of bright green eyes peering at me over the other side of the boat.

“I have nothing worthy,” I said.

“But you cannot expect a favour from the sea nymphs, if you do not have a gift.” The voice was that of a man, and the eyes appeared human too, though they were eerily bright. He put his elbows over the side of the boat and pulled himself up until his chin rested on top of the wood. He smiled at me and I smiled back.

“My mother is sick and so her river is sick,” I said. “Her river flows into your sea.”

“Many rivers flow into my sea,” he said.

“Then take of me whatever you wish,” I said. “My fondest memory, my first-born child, or my very soul. I don’t care. I must find my father and so save my mother.”

“I know where you can find your father,” he said. “For a kiss I will take you there.”

It took me a moment to understand what he had said. I had never kissed anyone before, but perhaps that was why my kiss was worth so much. I liked his face, and it seemed a very small price to pay for his help.

“All right,” I said. “If that is all you ask.”

I moved to kneel before him, and closed my eyes as we both leaned forward. His lips met mine and they were slick and salty. He tasted of the sea, and I saw great waters churning in the darkness behind my eyes. I felt drawn to him as I had felt drawn to the water, I wanted to be part of him. Then he was gone, and I opened my eyes to see the stars whirling by and I felt dizzy, and had to lie down in the boat to keep from falling out.

“Here we are,” he said, and I realized that we had stopped. I sat up and gasped at the sight of the island. It glowed, and as I stepped out of the boat it was like stepping into a new day, leaving the dark night behind me. I glanced once over my shoulder but my guide had disappeared. I knew that I should worry about being left stranded, but I could not help but stride across the warm, golden sand towards the palm trees. I could see a stone fountain between their trunks, and realizing what it must be I ran to reach it faster, forgetting for a moment that the fountain itself was not my goal.

I was hit from behind and fell forward with a great weight upon my back.

“Get away from that, it’s mine!”

I could only shriek in reply, as rough hands rolled me so that I was face up and exposed, my wrists held tight so I could not move.

My father blinked down at me in surprise, releasing his grip, and I was able to catch my breath. He looked young, as young as me, but I knew it was him. He had the same strong nose, the same narrow, grey eyes.

“Rea, what are you doing here?” he asked.

He clambered off me and backed away. I sat up slowly, drawing my legs up and holding them tight.

“I came to find you,” I said.

He did not reply. His gaze moved from me to the fountain somewhere behind me, and tears shone in his eyes.

“Mother is dying,” I said. “She needs you.”

He did not speak. I became aware of the trickle of water behind me. It was as though the fountain was choosing this moment to be make itself heard, to remind me how much it promised.

“Why didn’t you come home?” I asked.

“Because here I can live forever,” he said. “There, I grow old and die.”

He was still staring at the fountain. I got to my feet and turned so that I could stare too. It was not much to look at. A plain stone fountain, with clear water spurting up from its centre, and falling around the rim of the bowl.

“It gave me back my youth,” he said, “but it does not last unless I keep drinking. Every time I try to leave, I find age catching up with me before I even leave the island.”

“Then you still have something to pay for your passage back?” I asked.

He raised his arm so that the sleeve fell back, and I saw my mother’s silvery hair coiled about his wrist.

“You can take what’s left,” he said, “if you need it to get home.”

“I won’t leave without you,” I said. “Please come with me. Please live what life you have left with my mother.”

He looked at me. His skin was greying and sagging, the tight line of his lips shrinking as I watched. I could see the need in his eyes, the desperation. I knew that he would not leave this place easily.

“I am sorry about your mother,” he said. “I would have brought her with me, but she would never leave her river.”

He walked towards the fountain and left me standing. He was living on borrowed time, when he should not have been living at all. My mother must have known that she would outlive her husband when she married a human, but she would not have told him about the fountain if she had not had hope.

The man who plunged his face into the fountain to drink was not the same man who had raised me. If I found a way to take him home my mother would find him changed, and not just his age. She would realize that she had been waiting for a man who had disappeared forever.

“I am going,” I called to him, but he did not reply, busy as he was with drinking. I would not take my mother’s hair from him. I could not give up the hope that one day he would use it to return home, and live out his final days with us.

I went back to where I had left my boat but there was nothing there, not even an indentation in the sand. I stood with the waves lapping over my toes and looked out to sea. The sky beyond the island was still black. I thought of my mother sat next to an empty fireplace, and wondered how long she would wait for me.

“I am Rea, daughter of Calder the naiad, and daughter of Roland the man,” I said, as I began to walk out into the water. “Calder is sick and so her river is sick, and her river runs into your sea.” The water sucked greedily at my clothes, my shirt billowed out in the water. “If you let me, I will drown,” I said. “But if you receive me as one of you, I will take my mother’s place. I will take care of her river.” The water reached my neck and I kept walking, then lifted my legs and began to swim. I was a strong swimmer, and would swim far before exhaustion took me. Then it was up to the nymphs to decide my fate.

If they did not accept me, then at least I would not have to worry any more, and if they did then at last I would know where I belonged.