River Bride

by Nghi Vo

Locked in the back room of the temple,‭ ‬I had nothing to do but stare at my slippers.‭ ‬A pair of gold phoenixes arched across the red toes,‭ ‬carrying chrysanthemum blooms in their beaks and promising marital joy.‭ ‬The slippers had come from the mayor’s daughter’s wedding chest‭; ‬they were far too fine for a fisherman’s family.

The jade-drop earrings were from the Deng family,‭ ‬who had ties with merchants in the city of Tsang,‭ ‬and the dress itself was made of stiff red silk taken from the home of Chin Zhou,‭ ‬the village’s greatest miser.‭

The mayor’s wife came in with a lacquer box and she opened it to reveal small,‭ ‬secret jars of paint.‭ ‬With white lead,‭ ‬she gave me the perfect pallor of a ghost,‭ ‬and then she swept powdered malachite mixed with mica across my eyelids.‭ ‬She painted my lips black with soft charcoal dust,‭ ‬and when she was done,‭ ‬she held up a a round silver mirror for me to see.

I examined my face in the glass.‭ ‬It was the first time I had seen my reflection in a proper mirror and not the river or a puddle.‭ ‬The paint made me foreign to myself.‭ ‬It erased every line in my face and when I frowned at my reflection,‭ ‬it became a caricature,‭ ‬a mask an actor might wear.

‎“‏You look beautiful,‭” ‬she said encouragingly and I continued to examine my own face without looking up at her.

‎“‏This won’t make me grateful,‭” ‬I told her.

The rain slapped the tin roof like an angry hand.

*

The Hu River flows from the cold mountains to the north and the great city of Tseng sits at the delta where it empties to the sea.‭ ‬Along the river’s twisting black length are dozens,‭ ‬perhaps hundreds of villages like the one I grew up in.‭ ‬We live and die by the river’s floods,‭ ‬and that year,‭ ‬the river would not stop rising.‭

The rains fell and the Hu River,‭ ‬usually as broad and complacent as a water buffalo in its wallow,‭ ‬rose from from its banks.‭ ‬Two young boys drowned in the flood,‭ ‬and it threatened to overwhelm the earthworks.‭ ‬After that,‭ ‬it would be in the streets,‭ ‬driving those who survived it high up into the mountains to starve.

The river needed a bride,‭ ‬our old soothsayer declared,‭ ‬and I felt a chill at the back of my neck when he said it.‭ ‬I had been in disgrace for so long that I had almost forgotten it,‭ ‬but the way that people glanced at me,‭ ‬and then glanced away again very quickly,‭ ‬I could tell that they had not.

My mother sat with me next to the stove for a long time without saying anything.‭ ‬For all we lived in the same house,‭ ‬we hadn’t spoken much over the past year.‭ ‬Now we sat in the darkness together and blindly,‭ ‬I felt her cold hand reach for mine.

‎“‏Well,‭” ‬she said,‭ ‬her voice a dry croak,‭ “‬you will get to wear such beautiful clothes.‭”

I wanted to laugh.‭ ‬It was ridiculous.‭ ‬It was obscene,‭ ‬it was ludicrous,‭ ‬but she was right.‭ ‬I would get to wear beautiful clothes.

I squeezed her hand.‭ ‬We had had so little to say to each other that now there was nothing for us to say at all,‭ ‬so we simply sat in the darkness,‭ ‬holding hands.

*

They brought me to the river’s edge in a sort of parade,‭ ‬with every man,‭ ‬woman and child from the village following along like it was the bridal procession of a princess.‭ ‬Han,‭ ‬the mayor’s eldest son,‭ ‬held a tasseled umbrella over my head against the pelting rain.‭ ‬It was a gesture,‭ ‬like everything else.‭ ‬In the space of eight steps,‭ ‬I was drenched to the bone,‭ ‬and I was spitefully satisfied that,‭ ‬dressed in silk,‭ ‬I was at least warmer than my honor guard.‭ ‬Then I thought of the silk weighed down with river water,‭ ‬carrying me down to the muddy deeps,‭ ‬and I bit the inside of my mouth hard enough to taste blood.‭ ‬Tears would cut through my paint like a knife and I refused to allow my village’s last sight of me be my face streaky with lead and tears.

By the time we reached the river,‭ ‬the hems of my skirts were laden with mud,‭ ‬and my makeup was dribbling down my face,‭ ‬tears or no.‭ ‬The river roared like a distant tiger,‭ ‬and when we climbed up to the high bank above the water,‭ ‬I could see the waves,‭ ‬black with dirt from the mountains and green with froth.

My father stepped forward,‭ ‬and it struck me with the force of a thunderbolt how old and frail he looked.‭ ‬He had been an iron giant my entire life,‭ ‬his voice and hand unyielding,‭ ‬but now I could see how he stumbled.‭ ‬My mother,‭ ‬who was only fifteen when she married him,‭ ‬would outlive him,‭ ‬perhaps by decades and I felt a deep pang I had not expected to feel.

He threw a flint knife into the river,‭ ‬one that had been gaily wrapped with red ribbons around the bone handle.‭ ‬It disappeared into the water and then he threw in a small bag of coins.‭ ‬Like my dress and my jewelry,‭ ‬they were taken from the richer families in the village.‭ ‬It might have been the most money he had ever held in his hands.

He turned away and he had to walk past me to return to the crowd behind.‭ ‬I tried not to make a sound,‭ ‬but I found myself reaching for him.‭ ‬He kept his head down as he passed,‭ ‬as he had for the past year,‭ ‬and I snatched my hand back.

I was a bride after all,‭ ‬and I walked stiff-legged to the ledge as the priest called down blessings on my union to the Hu River.‭ ‬I stood on the very tip of the ledge,‭ ‬the water ten feet below me but a single step ahead.‭ ‬A traveling scholar once told us that the characters used to spell‭ ‬hu could variously refer to the dewlap of a water buffalo,‭ ‬to rush forward madly,‭ ‬or to reach far into the distance.‭ ‬I looked down at the fast-moving water,‭ ‬thinking that somewhere south,‭ ‬it flowed out to the ocean,‭ ‬past the mighty city of Tsang.‭ ‬I had always wanted to see Tsang.

The priest was ending his blessing and I thought I felt the breath of the people behind me draw up at once.‭ ‬For a moment,‭ ‬there was a silence where we only heard the roar of the water and the blur of the wind.‭

I started to turn around,‭ ‬perhaps thinking that someone,‭ ‬my mother,‭ ‬my father,‭ ‬would stop this.‭ ‬Perhaps if I begged,‭ ‬perhaps if I screamed.

Then there was a hard shove between my shoulder blades and the dizzying,‭ ‬sickening sensation of the ground giving way before me.‭ ‬My sleeves were so heavy with rain that I could not raise them,‭ ‬and I fell straight to the water like a pebble falling to earth.‭

*

For a moment,‭ ‬the billow of my silk dress held me afloat,‭ ‬skimming on the surface of the water,‭ ‬but I could see nothing with my oiled hair falling into my eyes.‭ ‬I shouted with the shock from the cold,‭ ‬filling my mouth with river water,‭ ‬which I hastily spat instead of swallowing.‭ ‬I could only feel the cold as a lack of feeling,‭ ‬as if I had lost my legs and my arms entire,‭ ‬and then I could feel the power of the current as it whipped me away from the bank,‭ ‬dragging me down as my clothes and my heavy jewelry stopped me from flailing,‭ ‬let alone swimming.

Underneath the water,‭ ‬it was as dark as a cave,‭ ‬and I shut my eyes,‭ ‬keeping my single breath in my mouth as long as I could until my lungs felt as though they tore.‭ ‬I sank in the water,‭ ‬concentrating on holding my breath as only a fisherman’s child can,‭ ‬but then I had to let it go,‭ ‬feeling bubbles rush past my cheeks like soft pearls,‭ ‬escaping me,‭ ‬rising to the surface.

Well,‭ ‬I thought,‭ ‬closing my eyes,‭ ‬at least no one can see me cry.

I distantly felt a bump against my hip,‭ ‬and then there were a pair of terribly strong,‭ ‬terribly thin arms wrapped around my body.‭ ‬If I could have thrashed I would,‭ ‬but the arms turned me around then there were a pair of chilly lips on my own.‭ ‬I realized I was being kissed just as a round,‭ ‬beautifully warm object the size of a marble was pressed into my mouth.

Warm returned to my body by degrees,‭ ‬and by the time I was flexing my fingers,‭ ‬I realized I could breathe,‭ ‬and when I realized I could breathe,‭ ‬I saw that I was being pulled through the water at an astonishing speed.

We broke the surface of the water moments later and I got my first look at my rescuer when she dragged me up to shore.‭ ‬She had brought me to a stand of knot trees,‭ ‬where their deep roots dipped bare into the water and the weaving of branches above sheltered us from the rain.‭ ‬I lay gasping and struggling for calm on the hard roots and stared at her in wonder.

She was as tall as a man and entirely naked.‭ ‬Her skin had the color and translucence of blue flint,‭ ‬and her black hair draggled around her body like a scanty pelt.‭ ‬There was a monstrous beauty about her,‭ ‬one that made you catch your breath in disbelief and fear.‭ ‬She dropped me on the bank and I looked up into her narrow face,‭ ‬wondering if her smile would bare sharp teeth like a crocodile.

I spat out the round object from my mouth to my hand,‭ ‬and gaped at a large pink pearl,‭ ‬pale and perfect.‭ ‬The strange woman took it from me and casually chucked it back in the river before I could protest.‭ ‬Then she squatted down next to me on the roots,‭ ‬peering at me with her moon-round eyes.

‎“‏Now what are you meant to be‭?” ‬she asked curiously,‭ ‬pulling at one of my earrings with inquisitive fingers.

Her voice was low and sweet with the distant burr of moving water in it,‭ ‬and I was so startled that the truth came out.

‎“‏A bride,‭’ ‬I said,‭ ‬finding my tongue slow but warming rapidly.‭ “‬A wife for the river.‭”

She laughed like the whoop of a loon,‭ ‬and I recognized her then.‭ ‬I had swam in her waters since I was a toddler,‭ ‬she had killed my older cousin Su,‭ ‬she gave us fish for the cooking pots and water for the rice paddies.‭

“Whatever will I do with a human wife‎?” ‏the river Hu asked me,‭ ‬slapping a long-fingered hand against the roots.‭ “‬What’re wives good for‭?”

“Plenty of things‎!” ‏I responded,‭ ‬stung.

She looked unconvinced and I thought that a river wouldn’t have much use a wife to slop the pigs or tend the garden.‭ ‬It struck me how strange this was,‭ ‬how very odd it was to be chatting with a river while sitting in the mud in a red silk dress,‭ ‬but I shrugged.

Experimentally,‭ ‬I rose to my feet.‭ ‬It was a near thing with my shaking legs,‭ ‬but I stood and then I could strip off the red dress and stood in the white silk shift underneath.‭ ‬My skin was warming by increments,‭ ‬and I rubbed my hands up and down my clammy skin to warm it further.‭ ‬Like a curious child,‭ ‬the river Hu watched my every movement.

‎“‏Why did they send you to me,‭ ‬anyway‭?” ‬she asked.‭ ‬She almost sounded petulant and I smiled with half my mouth,‭ ‬slightly painfully.

‎“‏I suppose they expected me to die for you.‭”

“Why would they do that‎?” ‏the river mused.‭ “‬Whenever I want a death,‭ ‬I can take it.‭”

I shuddered at that,‭ ‬thinking of those long arms wrapping around my chest and pulling down instead of up.

‎“‏Because they don’t know what else to do,‭” ‬I said finally.‭ “‬Because you are going to destroy them if they don’t do something.‭”

“I might destroy them anyway,‎” ‏the river pointed out.‭

The anger and fear that had held me up let go in a bright burst and I slapped her hard across the cheek.‭

The shock of it traveled up my arm and I dropped my hand,‭ ‬stricken by my own temper,‭ ‬but she only stared at me,‭ ‬her round eyes going rounder.

‎“‏You struck me‭!” ‬she complained.‭ “‬Wives aren’t supposed to do that‭!”

“I’m not your wife‎!” ‏I shouted.‭ ‬I was exhausted by the slap and the shouting and my head pounded like the blacksmith’s hammer.

‎“‏Yes you are,‭” ‬the river said,‭ ‬nodding her head decisively.‭ “‬Your village gave me to you.‭”

We stared at each other for a long moment,‭ ‬the pattering of the rain the only sound.‭ ‬We were like mountain deer that had locked horns and unless we came up with something,‭ ‬we might die there,‭ ‬staring stupidly into each others eyes.

‎“‏Will a wife stop the river’s flooding‭?” ‬I asked cautiously,‭ ‬and she nodded.

‎“‏It is new.‭ ‬I’ve never had a wife before.‭ ‬What does a wife do‭?”

I could have laughed.‭ ‬Instead I thought carefully.‭ ‬She didn’t need someone to slop her pigs or clean her house,‭ ‬and I’ve never been inclined in that direction in the first place.‭

“Wives should be well-educated,‎” ‏I said slowly.‭ “‬They should know things about rivers,‭ ‬and alchemy,‭ ‬and cities.‭ ‬They should be…‭ ‬worldly and wise and clever.‭”

The river Hu considered me for a long moment,‭ ‬and her thoughts swam behind her eyes like fish.

‎“‏Are you all of those things‭?” ‬she asked curiously.

‎‘‏Some of them,‭” ‬I said as confidently as I could.‭ “‬Not all of them.‭”

She looked skeptical,‭ ‬and I hastened ahead.

‎“‏But I could be.‭ ‬Oh,‭ ‬I could be a grand wife for you.‭”

“Could you now‎?” ‏she asked and this time I thought I heard more interest in her husky watery voice.

‎“‏Oh yes,‭” ‬I said,‭ ‬warming to the tale.‭ “‬I could go learn everything the sages had to teach and hear every tale the storytellers sell,‭ ‬and dance every dance that the women in the city know.‭ ‬I could come back and teach them to you.‭”

“You would‎?”

The river was catching my excitement and her eyes lit up like swamp fire.

‎“‏I would bring back fire in paper,‭ ‬and new things to eat,‭ ‬and buckets of captive water from the city fountains.‭”

“Yes,‎ ‏do that‭!” ‬the river said,‭ ‬clapping her hands.‭ “‬That sounds just like what a wife should do‭!”

I laughed in spite of myself,‭ ‬feeling the edges of hysteria and fear fray at my nerves.

‎“‏Let me sleep a while out of the rain,‭” ‬I said,‭ “‬and then take me to Tsang,‭ ‬where you empty out to the Mother Sea.‭ ‬I’ll only be forty or fifty years,‭ ‬and then what a wife I shall make for you.‭”

*

Tsang spread over the delta valley like spilled coals,‭ ‬more people and more light at night than I had ever seen before.‭ ‬On my hip was a pouch full of wedding jewelry to barter for my food and shelter until I could find a living.‭ ‬I had traded the red silk dress for two full sets of linen robes,‭ ‬and the single remaining slipper for a sturdy pack to carry it all in.‭

The river Hu stood by my side,‭ ‬staring down at the city with me.‭ ‬At the delta,‭ ‬far from her source in the mountains,‭ ‬she looked thinner,‭ ‬but there was something exultant in her eyes when she gazed out to sea.‭

“And you’ll return‎? ‏And bring me things and tell me the stories‭?”

“I will,‎” ‏I promised.

‎“‏You’ll be a fine wife when you’re ready,‭” ‬she said proudly.‭ “‬You can tell me everything that a wife does.‭”

“Well,‎ ‏there is one more thing…‭” ‬I said,‭ ‬fiddling with the strap of my pack.‭ “‬One more thing that wives do…‭”

“Oh‎?”

The river looked up eagerly,‭ ‬bright and curious.

In response,‭ ‬I leaned over and gave her a quick kiss on her thin mouth.‭ ‬She tasted of river water,‭ ‬but her mouth was warm and firm underneath my own.‭ ‬It was better than Luli’s kiss,‭ ‬which had gotten me in all that trouble in the first place,‭ ‬and it was a long moment before I drew away.

‎“‏Well‭!” ‬she said in pleased surprise.‭ “‬Go and hurry back then,‭ ‬if that’s part of what wives do.‭”

With a grin,‭ ‬I settled my pack on my shoulders and walked towards the city.‭

Locked in the back room of the temple,‭ ‬I had nothing to do but stare at my slippers.‭ ‬A pair of gold phoenixes arched across the red toes,‭ ‬carrying chrysanthemum blooms in their beaks and promising marital joy.‭ ‬The slippers had come from the mayor’s daughter’s wedding chest‭; ‬they were far too fine for a fisherman’s family.
The jade-drop earrings were from the Deng family,‭ ‬who had ties with merchants in the city of Tsang,‭ ‬and the dress itself was made of stiff red silk taken from the home of Chin Zhou,‭ ‬the village’s greatest miser.‭
The mayor’s wife came in with a lacquer box and she opened it to reveal small,‭ ‬secret jars of paint.‭ ‬With white lead,‭ ‬she gave me the perfect pallor of a ghost,‭ ‬and then she swept powdered malachite mixed with mica across my eyelids.‭ ‬She painted my lips black with soft charcoal dust,‭ ‬and when she was done,‭ ‬she held up a a round silver mirror for me to see.
I examined my face in the glass.‭ ‬It was the first time I had seen my reflection in a proper mirror and not the river or a puddle.‭ ‬The paint made me foreign to myself.‭ ‬It erased every line in my face and when I frowned at my reflection,‭ ‬it became a caricature,‭ ‬a mask an actor might wear.
‎“‏You look beautiful,‭” ‬she said encouragingly and I continued to examine my own face without looking up at her.
‎“‏This won’t make me grateful,‭” ‬I told her.
The rain slapped the tin roof like an angry hand.
*
The Hu River flows from the cold mountains to the north and the great city of Tseng sits at the delta where it empties to the sea.‭ ‬Along the river’s twisting black length are dozens,‭ ‬perhaps hundreds of villages like the one I grew up in.‭ ‬We live and die by the river’s floods,‭ ‬and that year,‭ ‬the river would not stop rising.‭
The rains fell and the Hu River,‭ ‬usually as broad and complacent as a water buffalo in its wallow,‭ ‬rose from from its banks.‭ ‬Two young boys drowned in the flood,‭ ‬and it threatened to overwhelm the earthworks.‭ ‬After that,‭ ‬it would be in the streets,‭ ‬driving those who survived it high up into the mountains to starve.
The river needed a bride,‭ ‬our old soothsayer declared,‭ ‬and I felt a chill at the back of my neck when he said it.‭ ‬I had been in disgrace for so long that I had almost forgotten it,‭ ‬but the way that people glanced at me,‭ ‬and then glanced away again very quickly,‭ ‬I could tell that they had not.
My mother sat with me next to the stove for a long time without saying anything.‭ ‬For all we lived in the same house,‭ ‬we hadn’t spoken much over the past year.‭ ‬Now we sat in the darkness together and blindly,‭ ‬I felt her cold hand reach for mine.
‎“‏Well,‭” ‬she said,‭ ‬her voice a dry croak,‭ “‬you will get to wear such beautiful clothes.‭”
I wanted to laugh.‭ ‬It was ridiculous.‭ ‬It was obscene,‭ ‬it was ludicrous,‭ ‬but she was right.‭ ‬I would get to wear beautiful clothes.
I squeezed her hand.‭ ‬We had had so little to say to each other that now there was nothing for us to say at all,‭ ‬so we simply sat in the darkness,‭ ‬holding hands.
*
They brought me to the river’s edge in a sort of parade,‭ ‬with every man,‭ ‬woman and child from the village following along like it was the bridal procession of a princess.‭ ‬Han,‭ ‬the mayor’s eldest son,‭ ‬held a tasseled umbrella over my head against the pelting rain.‭ ‬It was a gesture,‭ ‬like everything else.‭ ‬In the space of eight steps,‭ ‬I was drenched to the bone,‭ ‬and I was spitefully satisfied that,‭ ‬dressed in silk,‭ ‬I was at least warmer than my honor guard.‭ ‬Then I thought of the silk weighed down with river water,‭ ‬carrying me down to the muddy deeps,‭ ‬and I bit the inside of my mouth hard enough to taste blood.‭ ‬Tears would cut through my paint like a knife and I refused to allow my village’s last sight of me be my face streaky with lead and tears.
By the time we reached the river,‭ ‬the hems of my skirts were laden with mud,‭ ‬and my makeup was dribbling down my face,‭ ‬tears or no.‭ ‬The river roared like a distant tiger,‭ ‬and when we climbed up to the high bank above the water,‭ ‬I could see the waves,‭ ‬black with dirt from the mountains and green with froth.
My father stepped forward,‭ ‬and it struck me with the force of a thunderbolt how old and frail he looked.‭ ‬He had been an iron giant my entire life,‭ ‬his voice and hand unyielding,‭ ‬but now I could see how he stumbled.‭ ‬My mother,‭ ‬who was only fifteen when she married him,‭ ‬would outlive him,‭ ‬perhaps by decades and I felt a deep pang I had not expected to feel.
He threw a flint knife into the river,‭ ‬one that had been gaily wrapped with red ribbons around the bone handle.‭ ‬It disappeared into the water and then he threw in a small bag of coins.‭ ‬Like my dress and my jewelry,‭ ‬they were taken from the richer families in the village.‭ ‬It might have been the most money he had ever held in his hands.
He turned away and he had to walk past me to return to the crowd behind.‭ ‬I tried not to make a sound,‭ ‬but I found myself reaching for him.‭ ‬He kept his head down as he passed,‭ ‬as he had for the past year,‭ ‬and I snatched my hand back.
I was a bride after all,‭ ‬and I walked stiff-legged to the ledge as the priest called down blessings on my union to the Hu River.‭ ‬I stood on the very tip of the ledge,‭ ‬the water ten feet below me but a single step ahead.‭ ‬A traveling scholar once told us that the characters used to spell‭ ‬hu could variously refer to the dewlap of a water buffalo,‭ ‬to rush forward madly,‭ ‬or to reach far into the distance.‭ ‬I looked down at the fast-moving water,‭ ‬thinking that somewhere south,‭ ‬it flowed out to the ocean,‭ ‬past the mighty city of Tsang.‭ ‬I had always wanted to see Tsang.
The priest was ending his blessing and I thought I felt the breath of the people behind me draw up at once.‭ ‬For a moment,‭ ‬there was a silence where we only heard the roar of the water and the blur of the wind.‭
I started to turn around,‭ ‬perhaps thinking that someone,‭ ‬my mother,‭ ‬my father,‭ ‬would stop this.‭ ‬Perhaps if I begged,‭ ‬perhaps if I screamed.
Then there was a hard shove between my shoulder blades and the dizzying,‭ ‬sickening sensation of the ground giving way before me.‭ ‬My sleeves were so heavy with rain that I could not raise them,‭ ‬and I fell straight to the water like a pebble falling to earth.‭
*
For a moment,‭ ‬the billow of my silk dress held me afloat,‭ ‬skimming on the surface of the water,‭ ‬but I could see nothing with my oiled hair falling into my eyes.‭ ‬I shouted with the shock from the cold,‭ ‬filling my mouth with river water,‭ ‬which I hastily spat instead of swallowing.‭ ‬I could only feel the cold as a lack of feeling,‭ ‬as if I had lost my legs and my arms entire,‭ ‬and then I could feel the power of the current as it whipped me away from the bank,‭ ‬dragging me down as my clothes and my heavy jewelry stopped me from flailing,‭ ‬let alone swimming.
Underneath the water,‭ ‬it was as dark as a cave,‭ ‬and I shut my eyes,‭ ‬keeping my single breath in my mouth as long as I could until my lungs felt as though they tore.‭ ‬I sank in the water,‭ ‬concentrating on holding my breath as only a fisherman’s child can,‭ ‬but then I had to let it go,‭ ‬feeling bubbles rush past my cheeks like soft pearls,‭ ‬escaping me,‭ ‬rising to the surface.
Well,‭ ‬I thought,‭ ‬closing my eyes,‭ ‬at least no one can see me cry.
It was only distantly that I felt a bump against my hip,‭ ‬and then there were a pair of terribly strong,‭ ‬terribly thin arms wrapped around my body.‭ ‬If I could have thrashed I would,‭ ‬but the arms turned me around then there were a pair of chilly lips on my own.‭ ‬I realized I was being kissed just as a round,‭ ‬beautifully warm object the size of a marble was pressed into my mouth.
Warm returned to my body by degrees,‭ ‬and by the time I was flexing my fingers,‭ ‬I realized I could breathe,‭ ‬and when I realized I could breathe,‭ ‬I saw that I was being pulled through the water at an astonishing speed.
We broke the surface of the water moments later and I got my first look at my rescuer when she dragged me up to shore.‭ ‬She had brought me to a stand of knot trees,‭ ‬where their deep roots dipped bare into the water and the weaving of branches above sheltered us from the rain.‭ ‬I lay gasping and struggling for calm on the hard roots and stared at her in wonder.
She was as tall as a man and entirely naked.‭ ‬Her skin had the color and translucence of blue flint,‭ ‬and her black hair draggled around her body like a scanty pelt.‭ ‬There was a monstrous beauty about her,‭ ‬one that made you catch your breath in disbelief and fear.‭ ‬She dropped me on the bank and I looked up into her narrow face,‭ ‬wondering if her smile would bare sharp teeth like a crocodile.
I spat out the round object from my mouth to my hand,‭ ‬and gaped at a large pink pearl,‭ ‬pale and perfect.‭ ‬The strange woman took it from me and casually chucked it back in the river before I could protest.‭ ‬Then she squatted down next to me on the roots,‭ ‬peering at me with her moon-round eyes.
‎“‏Now what are you meant to be‭?” ‬she asked curiously,‭ ‬pulling at one of my earrings with inquisitive fingers.
Her voice was low and sweet with the distant burr of moving water in it,‭ ‬and I was so startled that the truth came out.
‎“‏A bride,‭’ ‬I said,‭ ‬finding my tongue slow but warming rapidly.‭ “‬A wife for the river.‭”
She laughed like the whoop of a loon,‭ ‬and I recognized her then.‭ ‬I had swam in her waters since I was a toddler,‭ ‬she had killed my older cousin Su,‭ ‬she gave us fish for the cooking pots and water for the rice paddies.‭
“Whatever will I do with a human wife‎?” ‏the river Hu asked me,‭ ‬slapping a long-fingered hand against the roots.‭ “‬What’re wives good for‭?”
“Plenty of things‎!” ‏I responded,‭ ‬stung.
She looked unconvinced and I thought that a river wouldn’t have much use a wife to slop the pigs or tend the garden.‭ ‬It struck me how strange this was,‭ ‬how very odd it was to be chatting with a river while sitting in the mud in a red silk dress,‭ ‬but I shrugged.
Experimentally,‭ ‬I rose to my feet.‭ ‬It was a near thing with my shaking legs,‭ ‬but I stood and then I could strip off the red dress and stood in the white silk shift underneath.‭ ‬My skin was warming by increments,‭ ‬and I rubbed my hands up and down my clammy skin to warm it further.‭ ‬Like a curious child,‭ ‬the river Hu watched my every movement.
‎“‏Why did they send you to me,‭ ‬anyway‭?” ‬she asked.‭ ‬She almost sounded petulant and I smiled with half my mouth,‭ ‬slightly painfully.
‎“‏I suppose they expected me to die for you.‭”
“Why would they do that‎?” ‏the river mused.‭ “‬Whenever I want a death,‭ ‬I can take it.‭”
I shuddered at that,‭ ‬thinking of those long arms wrapping around my chest and pulling down instead of up.
‎“‏Because they don’t know what else to do,‭” ‬I said finally.‭ “‬Because you are going to destroy them if they don’t do something.‭”
“I might destroy them anyway,‎” ‏the river pointed out.‭
The anger and fear that had held me up let go in a bright burst and I slapped her hard across the cheek.‭
The shock of it traveled up my arm and I dropped my hand,‭ ‬stricken by my own temper,‭ ‬but she only stared at me,‭ ‬her round eyes going rounder.
‎“‏You struck me‭!” ‬she complained.‭ “‬Wives aren’t supposed to do that‭!”
“I’m not your wife‎!” ‏I shouted.‭ ‬I was exhausted by the slap and the shouting and my head pounded like the blacksmith’s hammer.
‎“‏Yes you are,‭” ‬the river said,‭ ‬nodding her head decisively.‭ “‬Your village gave me to you.‭”
We stared at each other for a long moment,‭ ‬the pattering of the rain the only sound.‭ ‬We were like mountain deer that had locked horns and unless we came up with something,‭ ‬we might die there,‭ ‬staring stupidly into each others eyes.
‎“‏Will a wife stop the river’s flooding‭?” ‬I asked cautiously,‭ ‬and she nodded.
‎“‏It is new.‭ ‬I’ve never had a wife before.‭ ‬What does a wife do‭?”
I could have laughed.‭ ‬Instead I thought carefully.‭ ‬She didn’t need someone to slop her pigs or clean her house,‭ ‬and I’ve never been inclined in that direction in the first place.‭
“Wives should be well-educated,‎” ‏I said slowly.‭ “‬They should know things about rivers,‭ ‬and alchemy,‭ ‬and cities.‭ ‬They should be…‭ ‬worldly and wise and clever.‭”
The river Hu considered me for a long moment,‭ ‬and her thoughts swam behind her eyes like fish.
‎“‏Are you all of those things‭?” ‬she asked curiously.
‎‘‏Some of them,‭” ‬I said as confidently as I could.‭ “‬Not all of them.‭”
She looked skeptical,‭ ‬and I hastened ahead.
‎“‏But I could be.‭ ‬Oh,‭ ‬I could be a grand wife for you.‭”
“Could you now‎?” ‏she asked and this time I thought I heard more interest in her husky watery voice.
‎“‏Oh yes,‭” ‬I said,‭ ‬warming to the tale.‭ “‬I could go learn everything the sages had to teach and hear every tale the storytellers sell,‭ ‬and dance every dance that the women in the city know.‭ ‬I could come back and teach them to you.‭”
“You would‎?”
The river was catching my excitement and her eyes lit up like swamp fire.
‎“‏I would bring back fire in paper,‭ ‬and new things to eat,‭ ‬and buckets of captive water from the city fountains.‭”
“Yes,‎ ‏do that‭!” ‬the river said,‭ ‬clapping her hands.‭ “‬That sounds just like what a wife should do‭!”
I laughed in spite of myself,‭ ‬feeling the edges of hysteria and fear fray at my nerves.
‎“‏Let me sleep a while out of the rain,‭” ‬I said,‭ “‬and then take me to Tsang,‭ ‬where you empty out to the Mother Sea.‭ ‬I’ll only be forty or fifty years,‭ ‬and then what a wife I shall make for you.‭”
*
Tsang spread over the delta valley like spilled coals,‭ ‬more people and more light at night than I had ever seen before.‭ ‬On my hip was a pouch full of wedding jewelry to barter for my food and shelter until I could find a living.‭ ‬I had traded the red silk dress for two full sets of linen robes,‭ ‬and the single remaining slipper for a sturdy pack to carry it all in.‭
The river Hu stood by my side,‭ ‬staring down at the city with me.‭ ‬At the delta,‭ ‬far from her source in the mountains,‭ ‬she looked thinner,‭ ‬but there was something exultant in her eyes when she gazed out to sea.‭
“And you’ll return‎? ‏And bring me things and tell me the stories‭?”
“I will,‎” ‏I promised.
‎“‏You’ll be a fine wife when you’re ready,‭” ‬she said proudly.‭ “‬You can tell me everything that a wife does.‭”
“Well,‎ ‏there is one more thing…‭” ‬I said,‭ ‬fiddling with the strap of my pack.‭ “‬One more thing that wives do…‭”
“Oh‎?”
The river looked up eagerly,‭ ‬bright and curious.
In response,‭ ‬I leaned over and gave her a quick kiss on her thin mouth.‭ ‬She tasted of river water,‭ ‬but her mouth was warm and firm underneath my own.‭ ‬It was better than Luli’s kiss,‭ ‬which had gotten me in all that trouble in the first place,‭ ‬and it was a long moment before I drew away.
‎“‏Well‭!” ‬she said in pleased surprise.‭ “‬Go and hurry back then,‭ ‬if that’s part of what wives do.‭”
With a grin,‭ ‬I settled my pack on my shoulders and walked towards the city.‭
More stories like this by topic: , , , , , , ,