The River

by Layn Palmer (Univ. of Mount Union)

Honorable Mention

A little girl with brown hair and thin limbs sat beside a river. She wore a white summer dress with roses stitched into the body. It was a peaceful river, with clear blue waters gently trickling along over small rocks and pebbles as schools of fish swam down it. She sat on soft grass that was green and plain, unspoiled by weeds, flowers, rocks, or blemishes. Behind the girl was a forest of dark, tangled, and sharp looking tree limbs. The sun shone down brightly on the girl and the grass and the water, but it did not shine into the forest.

There was grass on the other side of the river as well, and another forest. But the grass there stretched on for a great distance, a space that was full of possibilities, and the distant forest was merely a suggestion on the horizon. And, there was the other girl.

The girl across the river was not so little and her hair was brown and blond, the color of sand. Every time she came she would stare at the watery surface before her. She left flowers often, and always cried.

The little girl had tried to call out before, to tell the girl with sandy hair that everything would be okay. Her voice had gone into the air and echoed, echoed until there was nothing left to be heard.

So the little girl sat and watched from her side of the river, eating berries from the bushes at the edge of the forest and drinking cold river water. The sandy haired girl on the other side came alone most often. Sometimes she came with an older woman or a boy that was near her own age. She always stood in the same spot though.

“You look lonely. Would you care if I joined you?” The little girl heard a voice say from behind her.

Behind the little girl was a woman in a black dress. She had dark hair that was tied up in a bun. Her face was soft, heart shaped, though her eyes were hard. They sat there, not narrowed, but watching.

“Are you a witch?” The little girl asked.

The woman in black chuckled. “Some would say yes, some would say no.” The woman sat down beside the girl. “In the end I am harmless enough, whatever you call me.”

The woman pulled two sticks across her lap from nowhere and laid them between herself and the little girl. “Do you fish?”

“I don’t know how,” the little girl said. She looked away from the woman and scrunched the material of her dress with her fingers.

“Oh, it’s easy enough,” the woman said. “You’ll find that most fish can’t find their way onto the hook fast enough.”

The woman in black handed the girl one of the fishing poles. It was a simple tool, no more than a hook on a string tied around a more flexible sort of tree branch. The girl gently wrapped her hand around it and took the fishing pole from the woman.

“What do I do with it?” The girl asked.

“I’ll show you,” said the woman. “It’s so simple you can even do it from where you sit.”

The woman flicked her stick through the air, whipping the string and hook in an arc and into the water where they landed with the slightest of splashes. The woman and the girl both watched the string for some time. Then the line began to tug and shake. The woman waited a moment, then pulled back on the stick.

A small fish came sailing out of the water. It followed the arc of the string through the air and landed in the grass next to the woman. The fish flopped about for a few seconds and then was still.

“Doesn’t he look tasty? Do you think you can do that?” The woman asked.

The little girl nodded and held up her stick. “Good. I’m going to start a little fire. We’ll have dinner ready soon enough.”

The woman turned away and went to look for kindling in the forest, leaving the little girl alone by the river. The girl grasped the base of the stick firmly in her hands. She pulled back, dangling the string over her shoulder, and flung it through the air. The hook landed in the river with a splash and a sound, then was swallowed by the water.

When the first fish came to her some moments later, tugging at her line, the little girl pulled right away. But the fish was not on the hook yet, and the sudden motion scared it off. She scared away the second fish as well, but with the third fish she waited. This fish pulled on the string several times.

She pulled back, as hard as she could. A fish came soaring out of the water and through the air. It landed at her feet and flopped in the grass. Shiny little flecks of water fell off its skin and dampened the nearby earth. Then the fish was still.

The woman in black had been right, the fish were eager to take the hook; all the little girl had to do was put it in their path and wait. The little girl looked down at the fish’s still body as she pulled the hook, as gently as she could, from the creature’s mouth.

She ran the short distance to the woman’s fire, fish in hand, a wide smile on her face.

“Very good. I think it’s even bigger than mine is,” the woman said, taking the little girl’s catch from her.

The woman stabbed a sharpened stick through the fish and situated the stick on top of two y­ shaped branches she had stuck in the ground over her small fire. The fire burned on a pile of wood that was made up of little more than twigs. There was a ring of small rocks around the fire.

The first fish that had been caught was already beginning to tan and blacken; the little girl could smell it and it made her stomach ache. The girl watched as the woman cut open the new fish and removed all of the pieces they would not eat. The woman’s hands were already turning red after working on two fish. Soon the girl’s fish joined the woman’s over top the fire.

The girl brought several more fish to the woman and her fire before doubts entered her mind. But she did not have time to ask before the woman motioned for her to sit. She faced the fire, leaving the river at her back, and ate the fish that she had caught and the woman had prepared.

She took her first bite and it was delicious, certainly better than the berries she was used to eating; the flesh of the fish seemed to melt away in the girl’s mouth.

The little girl looked at the fish in her hands. “Do you think they know they might die just while swimming?”

The woman took a bite of her fish and seemed to ponder the question while she ate. “The fish know only that they must go forward; never when they must stop.”

The girl looked over her shoulder across the river. The girl with sandy hair was there again, and she seemed older now. It was the first time she had been there since the little girl had started fishing. This time there was a man as well as a younger girl—maybe her daughter—with her. The sandy haired girl held on to her daughter’s hand tightly while they were near the river.

“What happens to them when we bring them out of the water?” The girl asked.

“They die,” the woman answered, then took another bite from her fish.

The little girl looked down at her fish, taking in the white flesh and still eyes. Her stomach fought—hunger against disgust—and hunger won. The little girl took a bite.

The little girl swallowed her food. “I mean, do they go somewhere after we take them from the water?”

The woman looked up from her food to watch the little girl. “Are you asking if fish have souls?”

The little girl looked away and down toward the fish in her hands.

“Poor girl,” the woman said. “The truth is that I don’t know whether they have a soul, or where it goes if they have one. Anyone who claims to know anything certain about a soul is a liar.”

“You don’t know if they have souls?” The girl asked.

“I know that they have skin that turns crisp in the fire, that their insides are soft and tasty, that they have little tiny brains that demand they go down river and towards my hooks.”

The woman finished her first fish and pulled another one off of the fire. She juggled the still hot fish around her hands before setting it on her lap to cool. The fire was beginning to slow down a bit now.

“Do you see that pile over there, of little dark and greasy things?” The woman asked, pointing to the pile that was near the rock wall of the fire. The little girl nodded, and the woman spoke, “That is everything I pulled out of these fish. The bones, the guts, the hearts; I do not see anything that looks like a soul."

“So when things die, they’re done?” The little girl said with a slight crack in her voice.

“I do not think that they are done. I only think that they do not know the difference.”

The little girl shook her head, slowly. “How could something not know if it was alive or dead?”

“Did you see the way the fish flop about when you take them?” The woman asked. “Do you think they know what is happening to them as they die? I would imagine that when death comes to them they are thankful, merely to no longer be writhing about in mad confusion. They would not stop to think whether the blue around them was water or air.”

They finished eating as night fell. The forest became even darker, a mass of blackness. The river, which had sparkled in the light of day, was now gray and fearsome. The little girl and the woman sat side by side on the riverbank, the fire burning faintly at their backs.

The sandy haired girl appeared across the river once more. Now she was much older and walked slowly, with a slight stoop. There were lines on her face where there had been none before and her hair was grayer.

“Why are you here with me?” The little girl asked.

“Why are you sitting here, and not continuing on?”

The little girl looked over her shoulder at the forest. “I’m scared,” she said. “I don’t want to go on."

“It is not as bad as you think,” the woman said, her voice trailing off.

The moon was high and darkened by clouds when the sandy haired girl from across the river began to wade into the water.

She crossed through the river, and age slipped away with each step. Lines disappeared, her back straightened, and then she shrunk until she no longer waded, but swam instead. The girl pushed forward through the dark water, fighting for each stroke.

The little girl watching shivered, even though there was a fire at her back.

Finally, the sandy haired girl made it across. She wore a white dress with violets stitched into the body. She held herself and shivered while looking at the fire the woman had made.

“We have a fire,” the woman said, motioning behind her to where a few embers still glowed.

The little girl ran forward and embraced the one who stood sopping wet. “Sister.”

The sandy haired girl looked down at the little girl. “Katie?” She said as she hesitantly returned the embrace. “It’s you.”

The sandy haired girl hugged Katie tighter now. “I missed you,” she said.

Katie took her sister’s wet hand and led her to the fire where they sat down together.

Katie’s sister stared over the fire and into the woods beyond. “What is in there?”

“I don’t know, I haven’t left the riverbank yet,” Katie said.

“The forest holds many things for many people,” the woman said as she watched them over the fire. “It holds foods tastier than berries and fish and dangers more perilous than simple rivers, but then, that is nothing you are not used to now.”

Katie’s sister was beginning to dry out, she looked less and less pale as the fire warmed her. “I think that I’m ready,” she said.

Katie looked at her older sister. “I think I am too.”

The older sister stood and Katie rose after her.

“Hold on,” the woman said. “Neither of you are getting away without helping me carry my things. Besides, it would be better to go in the morning.”

Katie smiled at her sister, and the two girls sat back down to watch the fire burn.

The woman shuffled around the sleeping girls and quietly kept the fire going, shielding them from the cold night air. She looked out across the river and saw that there was nothing to watch anymore, nothing to wait on.

Katie held her older sister, and both girls slept easily and peacefully.