The house was wide open, all the windows lit with yellow light of a warmer shade than he’d ever seen in the city, and the table was laid for one. That was the way my father always told it. It was a strange tale to tell a child at bedtime, but I loved him to recount every detail—each dish set out for him, every floral pattern on every serving spoon. I marvelled at the exacting strength of his memory. As children we know our parents cannot lie to us whom they love so well.
He told me with relish as great as his story-self’s hunger about the owner of the house. A man, sometimes, with a heron’s neck or an otter’s smile or the glittering eyes of a damselfly, the rippling sheen of flowing water on his skin. The river man. My father made him sound beautiful, a creature of unknowable thoughts and unimaginable power, so when he got to the part where he promised this unearthly man to me in marriage, my heart fluttered with desire and excitement, my eyes wide. That was the part I made him repeat the most.
Walking out of the city, I am no longer sure whether I ever believed it was true.
The road to the river becomes greener than all the other roads, like a tributary bleeding slyly up into the city. At first you notice only skinny grass verges mowed to stubble, yellow as hay, and then low-growing daisies begin to gleam through, vying for your eye with litter thrown from car windows. You imagine the council men in fluorescent jackets wandering away with their strimmers, bemused, one by one, as the river man turns them away.
Under the bridge you must cross to get there flows an endless stream of cars instead of water. I hike up my wedding clothes to climb the steps. I’ll just be a flash of white to the people in their cars, a curiosity they’ll forget in a minute.
By the time I get to the river the vegetation is wild, a tangle of plaited sticks and old leaves, scrapes and burrows among the roots. My gloves and damp skirt keep catching my eye, winking like sunlight on snow. He was promised to me like a gift, but I’m the one who’s wrapped up and presentable.
I’m excited for this. But maybe part of all excitement is terror.
The grassy track leads to a garden without walls and a house I know from a lifetime of stories.
There’s a table in the garden barely visible under dishes I’ve spent hours imagining. The only difference between the real table and the story one is that this one is set for two, and my husband is seated there, watching me come into his home with dark animal eyes.
I don’t know how to greet a husband. I don’t know his name, if he has one. I don’t know if he knows mine. He doesn’t look happy to see me. He doesn’t look glad to be mine.
“Sit,” he says, and I almost burst into tears, certain I’ve been tricked somehow. I manage to sit beside him in the wooden chair, perhaps the same chair in which my father sat when he met my husband. The thought calms my shivering a little. “Eat,” says my husband. “This is your home now.”
I have friends with married sisters, who all say a bride can never eat on her wedding day. I thought it was some kind of rule, but now I understand. This whole feast laid out before me, and me in my clean white wedding clothes. It feels like a setup for a photograph, imitation food like the imitation diploma you get photographed with when you graduate so you don’t smudge and crease your real one with your anxious, sweaty hands. A bride doesn’t eat on her wedding day. You wouldn’t remember it anyway.
“What would you like?” asks my husband.
I think I’d like not to be married.
“What is there?” I ask, at a loss. I’m almost too scared to look at the dishes—pies and soups and salads.
He points, my husband, and his fingers are feathered in the black and brown bars and scallops of a female mallard’s plumage. He names every ingredient, many of which I have only heard of from my father’s story, and I choose almost at random. He serves me with a wide wooden spoon. Everything is wood but the knife blades, which are all mismatched in their settings. I’ve never seen so much wood in one place. No plastic or silicon or china, and what metal there is shines strangely, rough-textured.
This is a gift. My father arranged this for me because he loves me and wants me to be happy, and the river man is better than any of the city boys I’ve ever known.
And there’s that feeling again, of being tricked, because if the river man is a gift, then you’d expect I could refuse it, decline it, send it back. But I don’t think I can. And what’s a gift you can’t refuse?
Married life is not what I expected it to be. The river man is somehow never around and everywhere all at once. We eat together, always, and though the table is laden with a wide variety of dishes for me—damp, cool salads, roasted goose legs, roots and berries and dried fruits I don’t recognise—he eats only a little, and different every day. His head might be a cormorant’s, and then he’ll skewer fish on his beak and swallow them down whole, or he might have a fish’s bony plated face, in which case he will immerse his head in a bowl of water and nibble at weeds. Once it was something monstrously insectile. I feared a mosquito’s head on my husband’s body and a meal of blood at our table, but he ate nothing at all. Some short-lived flying creature whose adult form has no mouth, its body designed only to breed.
I sat awake in my room that night, wondering if he would be overcome by that other frenetic appetite, but I slept alone (when I slept at last), as I always did.
He speaks little. Sometimes out of necessity, when he is beaked or billed, when his throat has no vocal chords or his fangs get in the way. But even when his head is the head of a man or woman he keeps his words to himself, speaking only to ask me the barest question or tell me what I may or may not do.
“You can roam as you will,” he tells me at breakfast as I’m picking eggshell off the table. “You can swim in any water except the place beneath the alders.”
I know that alders are a kind of tree but not where they grow. “Why?” I ask, of all the questions.
“It doesn’t matter to you why,” he says.
How can he know without asking me? This is my home too. “You’re my husband,” I find myself saying, the lightest emphasis on the possessive.
He quiets me with a look. Today his eyes are amber, the pupils round and sharply delineated. I can’t recognise them. I think he might speak, but he doesn’t. He’s angry, though his eyes only continue to bore into me and his body ripples like an endless flow of water, a river in vaguely human shape. There is no body language there to read. But I know.
Because I questioned him? Because I won’t be denied my freedom? I’m beginning to understand the kind of life I’ve fallen into. There are places I may not go, and this outrages me in a way I can barely give shape to in my own mind.
I discover the little marsh by swimming.
I associate swimming with the smell of chlorine, blue-tiled pools, the feel of cold lycra. There’s none of that here. Just me and water.
No; me and water and mud and stones, and soft caressing weed like hair, and floating leaves and skimming insects and tiny darts of fish. There are waterbirds that dive beneath me and bob around my shoulders and kick water in my face when they decide they’ve had enough of me. Sometimes when something touches me I pull away, like a leg under a restaurant table opposite a stranger. Sometimes I reach out with open fingers and touch back, curious, unfurling.
I enjoy being changeable like this. I can be difficult and fickle here in my own private place, in a way I have never been able to do anywhere else.
The city was crammed with other people. You could see them through windows, or walking down the street. You could hear them through the walls. You could smell where they had been in perfume and sweat. And you knew that in all of these ways your own life was laid bare to anyone who wanted to see it.
I can feel the difference in the water as it gets more intimate with the land, the grittiness of it, a murkiness I can feel as well as see. I might be swimming in an entirely different river. The trees are different too, their skeletons spindlier. Woody brown things drift on the surface like petrified flowers. I begin to wade waist-deep, moving slow and dreamlike. The water has left brown tidemarks and stains on my collarbone and arms.
I’ve never seen another footprint by the river. I’ve never heard distant voices beyond the trees. No voice but my husband’s. No print but his mutable feet. The birdsong is mine and the current is mine. The thorns on the branches and the shells in the pebbles and the hard, sticky buds waiting for spring.
I don’t think this is how rivers are supposed to run, so cold and clear over their stones and then spread out luxuriously around a corner into this tree-studded water meadow. All of this is his wedding gift to me, and I think, capriciously, that maybe this could be enough for me to stay and be happy.
Something inside me that I’ve never known was empty is suddenly full. I wade past strange small flowers and wonder have I been so starved of privacy? Have I only wanted to be reassured that there are still places that we haven’t touched? The shape of this new fullness is too complicated; I can’t get it all in my head at once.
There are marks in some of the tree trunks, scrapes and splinters like they were gouged by teeth. Birds flicker at the edges of my vision. Flies skim silently over the water, making ripples like raindrops. Nothing’s ever quiet like this without a reason.
Something splashes and I pause my own splashing. A dark, low shape glides along the blurry bank. The teeth marks on the trees. Beavers. But—
There’s a sound that I wasn’t expecting and can’t parse. It might be vegetable or animal, tearing or growling. Something else moves among the trees. It looks black and heavy, strong. A boar when it turns in just the right way. It looks like it would sink faster than a stone. It snuffles closer so I stand taller and try to project my energy outwards—Go away. Don’t bother me. It takes no interest in me.
The next visitors are dogs, and they are very interested.
I, slightly disappointed, resign myself to the truth: that I’ve waded naked into an ordinary scrap of the woodland the city has allowed to remain, where people can walk and shade out the buildings from their view for an hour or two, and pretend they can’t hear cars anymore. I glance upwards, looking for aeroplane trails.
The dogs come closer, trailing no leads and wearing no collars, followed by no echoing voice calling their human-given names.
I move backwards and they watch me from the bank, mud up their legs, as though asking if I’ve realised what they are. One of them lowers its head, then another, and a couple begin to pace as if weighing up the prospect of me. How could I have mistaken them for anything but wolves? I back away, slow and clumsy, clouds of silt caressing my thighs, some strand of weed tightening across my Achilles tendon and snapping in slow, soft motion. The wolves follow me down at a comfortable pace.
I need to get back to the deep running water where I can swim, though I think of my legs, long and trailing like a fishing line off the back of a boat, waiting to be snapped. I must be getting close to home now. I turn my back on the wolves to see the same trees lining this slow, wide flow, with no sign at all of the riverbank I know. There’s a splash, then another, as my mind’s eye recreates perfectly the wolves coming into the water one by one. I rock and sway and no matter how hard I try I can’t move fast enough against this weight of water. The quiet is shattered with splashing now, the wolves’ and mine. My feet get caught in plants and mud, and the little sharp stones find the soft parts of my soles. I lose my footing, fall and keep on falling. I don’t land; my outstretched arms never touch the silty river bottom. I am being carried by the water in an infinite forward motion. Under now, spluttering uselessly.
I break the surface; my lungs take in air and my eyes take in sky in one quick deep gasp before I right myself again. The current is with me, bearing me up and away.
My husband stands on the bank, his eyes on me, and just as I recognise him he bends over and becomes wolf, and when the pack trots up the bank and away, pausing to shake water from their coats, he goes with them.
I stretch my legs to stand and wade indignantly against the current to demand to know whose side he is on, but the river ushers me away. I look over my shoulder to see only the cold waters I’m used to. Around the bend will be our house. I look back to him but the marsh is gone too, swallowed up by clean blue-grey shades of rock and water.
“I told you not to swim under the alders,” says my husband that night.
I don’t waste time being surprised. “I didn’t know those were alders,” I say. “I didn’t know what alders looked like.”
“You could have asked,” says my husband, his eyes like black beads or dark pools. “I would have told you.”
For once my thoughts and words are in harmony. “You can’t just give me all the freedom in the world with one arbitrary restriction.”
“It was not arbitrary,” he says.
“Then you should have told me the reason why when I asked you! I would have understood if there was a reason—”
“There was a reason.”
“—and I would have been more careful!” My voice has got so loud. If he’d answered when I’d asked then I might well have asked what alders look like and where they grow. There’s no way to prove I wouldn’t have.
“Why would your behaviour change?” he asks. “The reason is the same whether you know it or not.”
My feelings are all tangling up inside me now. “If you’d only told me there were wolves—”
“The wolves were not the reason,” he interrupts, because nothing can be easy with him.
And he went with them, not with me. He ran with them, and he left me alone in the mud and cold water. The image of him taking to four legs, waving his tail, sears itself in my mind so I know I’ll see it faint over every other thought I’ll ever have, and this childish jealousy crac
ling beneath it. The words refuse to form. “What was the reason, then?” I force myself to ask.
“The reason does not concern you,” says my husband.
The dam in my mind holds for now. I don’t shout at him the way I want to. I can only look at him and dare him to read all of these unspoken thoughts in my face if he can. Then even looking is too much, and I have to turn away.
“That place was not for you,” he says. I think I can tell the colours of some of his moods. I think he is asking a question of me. I think he is saying different things every time he repeats this thought. He wants me to understand or explain. Well, I can’t.
“I don’t understand,” I say flatly.
“Not everywhere is for everyone,” he says. “No one can have everywhere.”
“Except you.” The words slip past the dam.
“No.” His voice is gentle. I look back up at him, as though I’m looking for something and have almost found it. It isn’t there, whatever it is, in his face. His whiskers twitch a little in the breeze and that’s all. “You know what I am.”
What is it that I think I know? That he’s the river man. That he can’t leave this place any more than I can fly out of my own body. “You know what I am.”
Whatever he expects of me is unfair.
“You won’t cause trouble here,” he says. It isn’t even an order, just a fact.
“I wouldn’t have done anything,” I retort, stung. What does he think I am? What kind of vandal? He’s mine, and he ran with wolves rather than say a word to me, and I’ll never forget that.
“You wouldn’t have known if you did.”
He says nothing.
“If you’d told me,” I begin, but he can’t bear to have it out again, and says, “Your kind can’t be trusted with knowing what isn’t your business. You haven’t changed.”
I swear he doesn’t raise his voice, but it gets louder anyway. The wind, the crash of water, the sound of stones, all of this is behind his words but his voice doesn’t change at all.
Though I know we are of different kinds his words set a fire behind my eyes. “What does my kind have to do with anything? I’m your wife, and if you’re only going to play games with me then why agree to my father’s terms in the first place?”
He doesn’t grow but he is larger all the same; towering, broad and with a kind of dynamic force even though he stands still.
I rise up from my seat, angry but careful. It feels obscene to upset this table, to scuff the chair legs against the ground and make the dishes clatter.
I run into the house, leaving the food to cool on the table. Leave it for the flies, the voles, the riverside foxes. I slam the door of my room and the presence of the walls is a weighted blanket of comfort. I draw the curtains to block out the view of the river, of my husband.
I haven’t thought about my father’s stories for a long time. I’m staring at the door, and it surprises me how safe I feel. He’s never come in here, not once. The table where we eat is outside. The river is outside so he is outside. Not everywhere is for everyone, he said.
I open the door onto the quiet landing, and leave it open all night.
For the next few days I stay inside, almost daring him to come in.
The quiet inside the house is too quiet. There are no other people nestled wall to wall and ceiling to floor with me, their lives spilling out into mine. I never thought I’d miss that constant sound.
I sit at our table in the evening, comfortably cool, the silence pressing in on me but at the same time unbreakable. It would only take a word, but I can’t, until my husband appears through the bushes, as though he’s come out from the river itself, stepped up onto those scattered rocks that stand up, green-bearded, from the water, and onto the hard-packed mud. I don’t know if he’s surprised to see me here waiting for him. He turns his head to look at me out of a cormorant eye, his beak daggerlike.
“I’d like to visit my family,” I say. It’s not really a question but it feels like one. How much of the story was ever true?
My husband’s eyes seem to flicker as he blinks. He comes to the table the long way around, away from me. I watch him walk openly, the way the light plays on the tight, sleek feathers down his neck, the way the leaves and slim vines around his arms quiver stiffly with his movements. Eventually he sits beside me, smelling of fish and sap. He won’t speak tonight. “I’ll go tomorrow,” I say. “I don’t know when I’ll come back, but I will.”
His wordlessness softens my heart towards him. It’s easy to take for a kind of powerlessness.
I find myself reaching out, and I touch him timidly on the arm, brushing a green leaf. He doesn’t move, his eye still fixed on me and his beak pointed away. Emboldened by the freedom waiting for me tomorrow, I reach higher, where his shoulder and neck meet and the feathers grow, and touch them so softly I barely disturb them. They give under my fingers, though they look as though they should be sharp.
His feathers lift all at once in a shudder, and I pull my hand away. They settle again into the sleek unbroken surface, and he doesn’t move, only continues to watch me. I don’t know if I’m allowed to touch him again, or if he wants me to. Either way, my courage has finally run out, and I look away.
I’ve been missing my old life so badly, but once I’m out of my riverside haven and back on the road, I feel like I’ve come to a place I’ve never been before. I’ve never noticed cars were so loud. Above me the sky is streaked with white furred vapour trails and the planes move too straight and steady, glint in the sun. They’re loud too, hissing and roaring above to drown out my own train of thought.
The ground gives way to tarmac, paving stones, concrete that has dried like dough on a kneading board.
I cross the bridge that will take me back home, my husband all but gone from my mind. I rise above the oppressive smell the cars leave in their wake, strong and somehow new to me though I must have been reared in it. It’s only something familiar seen from a new angle, but it’s all the stranger for that.
The further into the city I get, the easier my steps become. My feet still know the way. I could walk blindfolded and still get home. I’d have a harder time not ending up at my doorstep.
Some of the shops on the row are new, but I can’t remember what they used to be. The sign of what might have been an old launderette has been taken off to reveal letters bleached into the bricks, a family butcher’s which hasn’t been there since before I was born.
I wonder what day it is. What year. How old am I, or am I a ghost in a muddle of eras?
The door that used to be mine buzzes and opens.
As soon as I see my father’s face it’s as though I’ve never been away.
“Ey, flower,” he says, “you come inside.”
The matter of what story I’ll tell him is half-solved because he’s already chosen what he wants to believe. The kettle is already beginning to hiss before the door closes.
“It’s normal to fight,” he says. “Especially in your circumstances, with no time to get used to each other. I should have—”
“We didn’t fight,” I interrupt, and it doesn’t feel like a lie even though it is, and my cheeks are hot and red. “I just thought I’d visit home. It’s been a long time.”
He doesn’t quite believe me, but he approves of my direction nonetheless. I suppose it shows willing. “And he knows you’re here, does he?” His voice is all sympathy, but I wouldn’t blame him for being wary of the river man’s wrath.
“Of course he knows,” I say.
My father nods and pours the water. “I’m sorry if it’s not everything you hoped it would be.”
“There’s no problem,” I say. “I’ll be going back. Everything’s fine.”
“Does he treat you well?”
“Of course he does.” I don’t know why it would feel like a failure to have come back to say I was unhappy, or at least wasn’t ecstatically happy.
Someone has been lying to me. I take a tiny sip of too-hot tea to give myself a moment. I’ve run through it over and over, and can only believe that my father would lie to save my feelings, familiarise me with my fate, if he couldn’t alter it. He didn’t snare the river man for me.
“You don’t think he wouldn’t treat me well, do you?” I ask, genuine and devious in equal measure. My father slips into the old storytelling posture, and I can see the time that has passed and the changes which have taken place since . . . since when? Since he started telling me those bedtime stories? He changed like the river, slow and constant and beside me. The distance now, between this posture and that, with the larger, fuller outline of him visible around his greying edges in my mind, is like the way the city changes, sudden and jarring.
“You don’t want to hear those old stories,” he says, “and you a grown woman.”
“Why wouldn’t I want to hear about the person my husband was before we met?” I ask sweetly.
“You know him much better than me.”
“What did he say when you offered him marriage to me?” I ask. My suspicions are piling like leaves.
It’s his turn to drink his tea. By the way his eyes look over the rim, half-shadowed, he knows I suspect something.
“Was he pleased?” I ask. “Was he grateful? Has he ever thanked you?”
“Flower,” says my father, “just tell me what’s happened.”
I am telling him; he just doesn’t understand. “Did he ask for me?”
“Did he what?”
“Who made the offer?”
My father looks more comfortable at that, and the more at ease he seems, the more sure I am that he’s hiding something. “He thought he did, all right,” says my father. “That’s the only way to handle someone like your husband. And not bad advice for marriage either, if I say so.”
Perhaps not. And it’s tempting even now to fall back into that narrative, when we were on the same winning side, where my clever father outwitted the river man to make a superb match for his beloved daughter.
“But did he ask for me?” I ask again.
“He didn’t know about you to ask,” says my father, an easy enough sidestep. “How could he have?”
“What did you do that he needed to feel he’d got the best of you?” I ask.
He laughs. “What did I do? He’s a strange beast, is your husband. His rules aren’t ours. You must know that.”
Your kind can’t be trusted. My species or my family?
“I see you’ve learned that lesson,” he says.
His battle of wits was haggling a price.
“Have you offended him?” he asks.
“No.” A pitiful lie.
“No shame in it,” he says. “Like I said.” He gives a sort of shrug which encompasses everything he means; the strangeness of my husband, our inability to see his lines before we cross them. Perhaps I’m just reading into the gesture things that make sense to me, adding a sentence or two to some other story I’m not even aware is being told. That’s always been my father’s way, to give you enough narrative control that whatever you fill those gaps with will seem utterly natural to you, common sense.
“He’s good to me,” I say. Is he? “I’m glad to hear it.”
He will never tell me the truth. I know this. He’ll change the subject, squirm out of my questions, simply lie. How do you make someone tell you the truth if they don’t want to?
I don’t stay in town long.
Relief again as I get back to the river, where it smells young and full, damp and green after all the smoky smells of the city. Relief tempered with a little disappointment, a little resignation, the same way my relief at being back in the city was mixed with unease. I might never be truly happy in one place again.
My husband’s skin is scaled today, grey-green and black, and I find him spread on the rocks where the sun shines the strongest. Again I feel that urge to touch him though I know I shouldn’t. Not just because he’s a wild thing that doesn’t belong to me, but because of everything else.
His scales shine dry and smooth in the sunshine. I’ve never seen him here before, or scaled this way. Usually his scales are sharp and thin, fish scales. As he matches his meals to all the shapes of his mouths, perhaps his shape brings out other things in him, undertones and highlights of his deep and constant mood.
Unsatisfied with my father’s evasive answers in the city, I do the only thing it makes sense to do. I ask my husband.
“Do you remember my father?”
He looks at me with his snake eyes, slit-pupilled and shiny the way a stone can be shiny. “Yes,” he says.
It’s a bad habit, awful, really, how much of my perception of him is made up of expectations unmet, the things he doesn’t do rather than those he does, the things I’d anticipate from anyone else but him. Anyone other than him, for instance, would have been sure to let me know that they valued the experience of meeting my father particularly, because I’m their wife.
“He didn’t outwit you, did he?” I ask. “You punished him.” And I add, because I can’t expect my inferences to be understood, “Why did you need me?”
“Why did you accept me, then?” There’s no point in being offended by the river.
“He broke my laws,” says my husband. “Over a long period of time, until it was impossible to ignore.”
I’m trying not to show how this unsettles me. “He told me he only met you once.”
My husband nods his agreement slowly. “He only met me once.”
He didn’t realise that every time he saw the river he saw my husband. “What did he do?” I ask, dry-mouthed.
“That is between me and him.” A predictable response.
“So I don’t deserve to know what I’m atoning for?”
“There is no atonement. I didn’t ask for him. I asked for you.”
“I clearly have some purpose.”
“Purpose, atonement, these are your words. I have none for them.” Filmy eyelids slide over my husband’s eyes. “He took more than he needed. He left only damage. I won’t show you the scars. Don’t ask to see them.”
It comes as a surprise to think of there being parts of him I’m not meant to see. He walks naked. I thought that this aspect of him at least I knew. Even after the encounter with the wolves among the alders, when he showed me just how easy it is for him to send me where he wants me to go.
“That’s a crime,” I say quietly. “What he did.”
“It’s between us.”
His actions have put me here, though, haven’t they? I’m the end of a long sequence of other people’s businesses. Duty settles on me, and dread. “What should I do?” I ask.
His mood shifts slowly beneath the surface like currents blowing sand at the bottom of the ocean. I can almost see them. “Nothing,” he says, uncomprehending. As though it has never occurred to him even to expect help.
I open my eyes to nothing. There are no lights here to cheat the night. The air is full of the sound of running water downstairs; it takes me a moment to unravel it. Has the house moved while I was sleeping?
Regardless, I’m warm and dry. My bedroom door is closed. The water keeps running, and it doesn’t take much to pull me along with it.
In the morning, I step down into a dark gleaming skin of water that covers the floor and laps halfway up the chair legs. There’s no way but through it and my feet grow slow and stiff with cold after just a few steps. Some of the furniture is upended, as though the ocean tide came surging in and sucking out.
The water licks icily up my legs the faster I walk, reaching fingers up my calves and daring pinprick touches up my thighs. It feels like old fairytales and saints’ bliss, the shock of it, the shivers.
When I open the front door the water all drains out in a rush, as though this ordinary house was perfectly watertight. My ankles are drying and my toes still numb as I watch the water seep away, running in narrow, determined streams that branch through the grass rather than sinking immediately into the soil. I follow it a few steps, still a little raw from sleep and all my higher judgements lying discarded on the floor of my bedroom with my clothes.
The streams begin to converge, and only then, knowing I’m close, do I begin to wonder whether this is a good idea. He was unsettled last night. Unquiet. I can’t imagine him as a wave, roaring from wall to wall and tossing chairs on his foaming crests like boats. How quickly did he flee to leave so much of himself behind? There are so many tiny cracks he could have slipped out of had he wanted to. Then why stay? For me? Then why leave?
Drops of him trickle down my shins.
I follow the streams of water to the rocks and watch them run like glass ropes into the river. So this is how he feels today. I find a comfortable place to sit on the stones, close to the water, and lower my hand in. I’m imagining it because I’m only human, but I almost feel the current flinch at my touch. Sound travels well in water, I think. I hope he can hear me through my bones.
“I’m sorry for bringing up a painful memory yesterday,” I say to the river. It feels good to say. Maybe because he isn’t here looking at me, answering, interrupting. So I go on. “I didn’t give my permission for any of this. I suppose no one does.” I let my sleepy lack of boundaries carry me a little further. “You didn’t either.”
Part of me thinks this will do it, that I’ll get to see him coalesce out of the water and take shape before my eyes. But at the same time it’s not much of a surprise when the river just keeps on running past me.
“I want to be what you hoped I’d be,” I say, but the moment’s gone. If I didn’t get him then I won’t now. “I’ll see you at dinner, I hope.”
It is, as ever, unsettling to see him wear a woman’s body, but I’m only relieved to see him at all tonight. He sits opposite me, shimmering in the warm evening light like gold on a streambed, and lifts his soup bowl to his lips.
He’s larger than me in every way, built to a different scale, and strong. His arms are thick and his thighs muscled. But he’s a swimmer, so the lines of his body are softened by the fat all water mammals need. It’s hard not to be intimidated by how perfectly made he is, impossible not to compare myself to him. Perhaps the other animals and birds of his river feel the same, lusting after him or spurred to rage by instinctive rivalry.
“I hope I didn’t disturb you this morning,” I say.
“I was only waiting for you to get up.”
“I wanted to see if you minded the mess I made.”
If he was human I’d ask, coyly, why it mattered what I thought. “I was only sorry for upsetting you,” I say instead.
“You did nothing.”
“No,” I say. “I did nothing. I did nothing when I should have done something.”
All those years.
He doesn’t understand, but that’s fine. There are rules about being in relationships with other human beings, sensible ones, about boundaries and responsibility and taking care of yourself first. They don’t apply here. His human shape is no disguise. He doesn’t own this land, he is this land. He can’t take care of himself, but he can take care of us, the warblers and otters and herons and me. And we can take care of him.
“Some things can’t be fixed,” he says.
“I don’t believe that.”
“And you’re so small.”
“That’s no excuse.”
His eyes focus on me. I wonder if this is the first time he has ever looked at me. I certainly feel like it is.
“You don’t have to show me what he did,” I say, “but if you don’t, nothing will change.” I know he doesn’t like the thought of not changing, stagnant water and being stuck in one shape. Time is change and therefore time is life. Change is life. Life is change.
“And if I do?” he asks. His shape changes his voice a little. It’s still him, but the throat from which it issues makes it higher, warmer.
“I can’t promise,” I say, “but I’ll try. Something will change.”
He can’t go on living this way. Neither can I. His borders are already so tight against the encroachment of the city, slipping past the sprawl in optical illusions, his ways hidden behind tree branch angles. How much of him have we stolen already?
“It could change for the worse.”
It could. I don’t want to believe that it could. “Tell me what to do, then.” There must be some ordeal, some ritual, some series of symbolic actions which will help.
“There are rules,” he says. “I can’t tell you what to do. I can’t tell you how your actions will change things.”
He is a river. His human voice is no disguise for that.
“I accept your terms,” I say.
“There is nothing to accept,” he replies, because he still doesn’t understand how humans work.
He will open himself to me, every inch of his bank. I will be free to wander and see what is there, try to find what has been done to him. I’ll need all my cleverness, all my knowledge of my own father to try to root out the places he despoiled. I will do something, even if all I can think to do is pick up litter from his banks. Even if all I can do is respect a place I shouldn’t go.
He chose me, and now I choose him.
My bedroom door stands open onto the landing, and with my head on the pillow I hear soft sounds of running water, and then quiet footsteps. My body rolls as the mattress sags beneath him, and I move aside to let him in.