I was a river, once. Fish-filled, smooth-pebbled, with currents to snare the unwary and weeds that undulated like the hair of the drowned. Boats travelled me, while birds and small creatures lived and died on my banks. I was a world.
What am I now? Insect-crawled, lizard-basked, dust-dry-parched-dirt. Tepid water draws me back to the old man who kneels on what was once an island. He leans out from the tree’s shade to pour hoarded rain onto my cracked bed, and I drink it greedily.
“Won’t be long until the rains,” he says. “Things will be better then.”
Better. Briefly, until standing puddles become swamp-sticky mud and even the lizards desert me.
Tennuh has been with me all his life. I remember him as a boy on a raft, fishing for his family.
“I always loved this little island,” he tells me, although I already know. “My father told me never to set foot on it. But then I fell into the water, and you guided me to it. And there I was, right where I shouldn’t be. With no raft.”
I remember. Faced with the choice—stay on the island until someone came to find him, or brave the current—he’d chosen to swim. I couldn’t say what prompted me to save him, except that I enjoyed the way he sang as he poled, his heron stillness as he waited for fish. He’d had a pet heron, for a time.
“I found Norri here, too,” he muses. “Barely fledged, and both her parents gone to that wildcat.” He smiles a little at the memory of the bird, his face as crack-lined as a dead riverbed. “I miss her.”
So do I. I miss all the herons, the little quick-paddling ducks, the brown-pelted otters who passed river-rounded rocks down through generations.
I don’t miss men, because they haven’t gone anywhere.
Tennuh looks up as he hears singing from upriver. Men walk where they once sailed, all heavy-shoe-thumping where tiny shrimp grazed.
It was men who made me this thing I am now. I forget, when they’re not here. I only remember being a river. But then they come with fox-mating-shrillness, and I remember the dam they built and how the water slowed to a trickle and stopped.
If I were still a river I could kill them. If I were still a river I wouldn’t want to, not more than the handful that are my due as the heron-eats-the-fish-eats-the-shrimp. Sometimes during the rains I can hurt them, send them slip-sliding in mud and tripping over sunken stones. Sometimes, when the rain is torrents, I’m briefly a river again and catch the careless in a flood.
The water is upriver, heavy and expectant like storm clouds, but I can’t reach it. It belongs to men, now. They keep it all for themselves, to water their fields and homes. Even if I could, the resulting flood would kill Tennuh. I’d miss him; he’s more heron than man.
“I won’t be here forever,” Tennuh says. I wonder who will talk to me then.
The singer reaches the island and greets Tennuh, calling him Grandfather although he never mated. I remember her. She’s barely an adult, in a patched dress the colour of daisies. Her sandals dangle from her fingers. “You should come into town, so someone can take care of you.”
Tennuh shrugs. “What would I do in a town?” he asks. “Let me die on the river.”
“But it’s not a river, Grandfather,” the girl replies. “It’s a road.” I try to widen the parched-cracked-earth and swallow her, but it ignores me. She bends and picks up a smooth stone. “See? It even has cobbles.”
“There are better roads,” Tennuh replies. “Paved roads. I’ve seen them. Why do you think I stay here?”
The girl gives a wide smile. “I like this one. I like the little lizards and skittery bugs, and the way it cuts down into the ground like a secret place all overhung with trees. The way the mud squelches between my toes when it rains.”
I remember a barefoot child dancing in the rain, a mother shouting. She’s too young to remember anything but a road.
“It’s a road that remembers being a river,” Tennuh replies. “Just like I remember being a fisherman.” He pours rainwater again to take the sting out of his words.
The girl’s expression becomes sombre. She removes a flask from her bag, removes the stopper and pours. Her water is cool and remembers being underground. “I’d have liked to see it as a river,” she says quietly, “but it is an excellent road.”
She stoppers the flask again and says a farewell to Tennuh. As she heads downriver she starts to sing again, and I follow her all the way.
Spread the word!