The River’s Children
by Shweta Narayan
There once was a prince whose dearest friend was a river.
Now rivers are sometimes girls, quick as lightning; and they are boys sometimes, speeding like arrows. And they are gravid women sometimes, and sometimes they are men, full of poetry and slow as scripture. Most of the time you simply cannot tell, though storytellers will try.
And this prince was sometimes glad to be himself, but other times she was not; and at these times the clothes, the walk, even the freedom of a prince felt like a prison. She tried at first to spend these times in the womens’ quarters, but there she could only be a son, or a brother, or a prince to be flirted with. So she would visit the river, who understood.
One day the Prince came to the river in despair; for he was of age to marry, and that is not a duty that a prince may ignore. “And how could I marry anyone but you, my dearest friend?” he said.
And she came out of the water in humanlike form, and replied, “But you had only to ask.”
So they were wed; and the kingdom rejoiced at the blessing of having a goddess in the palace. And if she seemed sometimes a man full of lightning, or a woman spilling over with poetry, and at other times a being of both and neither, well, that was the way of divinity. So for a time the lovers ran swift with joy; they could be man and wife when they were so, or men together, or women, or something else again. And they had each other.
But then the river came to be with child, and all changed. Her women, who had before been all smiles and blushes when their princess was a man, now wailed and pleaded with him not to be. Even among the gods, they told him, there never had been a pregnant man. What if the baby ceased to be? What if it took harm? “What will it turn into?” the midwife asked. “I’ll not be blamed for so unnatural a patient. If she turns into a dog next, will she give the kingdom puppies?”
Weighted down with their fears and scoldings, the river stopped shifting. But she could not stay a woman without a cost; she grew ill, bone-heavy. Her waters dried to a muddy trickle, and she forgot how to laugh. When the delayed monsoon broke overhead and she gave birth to twins, she died of it, fleeing back to the river’s safe basin and shifting moods and leaving human form behind forever. The prince died soon after, of grief and guilt, and was reborn as one of her tributaries; so in the end they found a measure of peace.
But what of their orphaned river children? They seemed identical, save that one was a boy and one a girl; but nobody in the palace could tell which was which from one day to another; for indeed, they shifted as their mother had, in balance with each other like the light and dark faces of the moon. They lived in the women’s quarters, where they could be either, and nobody quite dared to restrain them; but they knew they made the servants nervous and filled their grandmother with grief. So they grew up confused and frustrated, and often felt imprisoned. But if one went hunting with his friends, and shifted mid-hunt to find herself surrounded by men who were not family, she could tell her other; he would understand, and they would hide her shame and discomfort together. And if one was charmed by a visiting prince, only to see that young man’s face harden into disgust when he found himself courting another boy, then he had the other’s shoulder to cry into. And they always had the comfort of a grassy place near the palace, where two rivers flowed together, where they felt at home. It was not enough, but it was something. Even when they were grown, they lived near each other, and always near rivers, their kin; and their children, and their children’s children, did the same.
And it is said that their descendants walk the world still, following the great rivers’ trails, searching for a place where they can simply be.More stories like this by topic: Authors of color, Authors with chronic illness, Desi authors, Genderqueer authors, Genderqueer characters, Indian authors, Women authors