Poems on the River

The night before it had rained, droplets sliding from leaves and onto stone, gurgling in silt rivulets and pattering on reeds. The river had swelled, murmuring to itself almost like a man chuckles into his beard, sitting beside the fire at night.

She had lain awake listening to the sound, blinking slow and heavy in the darkness. Rain soothed the man beside her and the child between them, but did not do the same to her.

She did not know why. She only knew that in the morning her eyes were heavy from lack of sleep and she would have been glad to lay down right then and let the rich sunlight blanket her head to toe.

Instead she gathered her skirt above the knee, tying it with the string that bound her hair, and waded into the stream. The little waterfall was running rapid, bubbles tickling her skin as the current swirled them past. Beneath the fall's wide mouth was a woven trap, broad and wide as a cradle.

Slick silver fish slithered past her hands, but she knew the trick of it. Her fingers hooked their gills and flipped them overhead to the bank behind. By the time she had jerked all five from the water, the first had already grown still on the bank.

She crushed the heads of the others.

Five was a fine haul. Five, especially five so plump, would feed them all. She need not check the other traps.

The springy reeds made a good pillow once they were trampled down. The sun was warm, warm like her man above her in the night. She turned her head and breathed. Fish and moss and water.

Sleep did not come. She opened her eyes and watched the water as it rolled and dashed over rocks. White in the sun, gray in the stills, brown by the bank. Yellow...yellow?

It was not water. It was a flower, caught in the stream. A flower tied by its long stem to a stick wrapped round with paper.

Paper?

It did not look like paper. Then, she had seen paper only once. Crisp and white it had been, brighter even than cotton blooming from the pod. The Writ had banished them from their homes, her family and the families of all the valleysmen living where they had been born and where their graves of their forefathers were weathered near to ruin.

The paper had burned quickly and well when her father fed it to the coals.

She waded back into the stream and caught up the flower and the stick and the paper. It had been marked on one side with the indigo ink she remembered. The ink had smeared so the whole page was stained like slate.

The other side bore three lines written in charcoal.

Ash leaves flutter high

Golden birds caught taking flight

Freedom only in my mind

Meaningless. She read it three times, parsing the words slowly on lips that struggled to remember what each mark meant. But though she grew certain of the words, she was also certain that the words together meant nothing.

Leaves were not birds. No bird was golden. And freedom had nothing to do with either leaves or birds.

She lay the paper on the shore and looked at the lines again. Silly, to waste paper so. Whoever had thrown it into the river must have been a fool. She was no fool. If it dried, she would save it to start the morning fires.

It had burned well.

She anchored it with a stone, gathered the dead fish in her apron, untied her skirt, and walked away.


That night, her mother cooked the fish in oil and salt. She nursed the child. Her man turned potatoes in the coals.

That night he came into her, heavy and grunting and hot. She closed her eyes and kept still and quiet until he too grew still and quiet. He turned away from her without a sound and she rose to wipe what remained from between her thighs.

There was no water in the bowl. Nor in the pitcher. She took both to the riverbank and filled them.

The water sluiced the stickiness from her legs but dampened her shift. She took it off and left it on the bank to dry. The night was cool and still, the full moon bright overhead.

The water rolled over and over itself, always the same no matter how long she watched. Sitting naked on the shore, knees to her chest and chin on her knees, she watched. Clouds blotted out the moon and drifted away.

A sudden breeze gusted fierce, rustling the drying leaves of autumn overhead. Her head turned to follow the sound, and then she saw it.

An ash tree. Leaves so yellow they might have been carved of gold, brilliant even in the milky moonlight. Each leaf fluttering as though it might take flight, a tiny bird leaping skyward, free.

Her heart pounded then as though a wolf had howled at her ear. She had leaped upright, knees trembling, before she realized that there was no threat. Only the words.

The words. The paper.

She stared at the tree. Its leaves had become leaves again, robbed of life and color by the darkness. The vision the words had conjured was gone.

Yet she had seen it.

Hadn't she?


The paper was dry, save for where the stone pressed it to the damp ground. The words had not faded. They were clear and dark, though the coal had flaked a bit in the drying.

She read them again. They came faster to her this time. The words and the meaning.

Leaves in a tree, caught in a breeze. Little magical birds, flying free.

She had seen it. She had.

But she had not made the words. So someone else had seen it too.

Who?

The valleysmen were gone. Her father and brothers had lined up with all the others, marched away from their homesteads with songs and grins. They had never returned.

Her mother had taken her and her sister and walked the other way. Her sister had died on the journey. They had not. They had buried her in the frostbitten dirt and continued on.

Downhill. To the river.

The riversmen were different from the men she remembered. Quick to anger. Spare of speech. Her mother had married one and betrothed her to another, and her lips had fallen at the corners by each passing day.

She touched her own lips and felt the same lines there. Grooved like tree bark, carved deep.

Riversmen did not use paper. They did not sing or make rhymes.

A riversman could not have made what she held in her hand.

She did not know what that meant. All she knew was that her heart was beating fast and her breath was coming short and there were tears in her eyes.

The dried paper folded without cracking, no matter how small she made it.


Her mother and her man both said that she spent too much time by the river.

Winter was coming. The more fish she caught now the more they could salt. And every day she came home with more fish than they needed. Their stores grew and the complaints faded.

She worked hard, weaving new traps in the evening so she was asleep before her man came to her. She left early in the morning to set them farther upstream than she had ever gone. She stayed away at midday, eating berries and steamed fish so she could watch the lines set in the deeps.

For the first time in her life, she counted days.

Sixteen went by before another flower drifted downstream.

The flower was purple. The paper was stained the same color as before. The words were different.

Dance for me in blue

In warm waters 'neath the moon

I will come home to you

Her toes were numb. She had stood in the river, water lapping her thighs, while she read.

Strange. The first words had roused her blood and beat her heart. These made an ache in her chest, a twisting pain akin to hunger, though in a different place.

Was this a man speaking to a woman? Did men speak to women, think of women, like this?


She went to her man that night. The words danced on her breath as she panted, working atop him. Her tongue did not shape them but she felt them all the same.

The ache did not go away.


Three more poems came beneath flowers of pink, blue, and red before the ice closed off the river. As the sun left the sky, it became too cold to stir long from the fire. Everyone grew fretful, everyone seemed to tread on the other in the close quarters.

She kept the papers in a deep dry hollow of a tree out of sight. Ranging abroad for fresh kindling, she passed it once a day to read. The flowers she had pressed between stones and though they had faded, she kept them still.

It had snowed the night before and her feet crunched through the snow. He had written of this, hadn't he? Written of it before he had seen it, this very morning.

Winter closes white

Sharp teeth strong and bared to bite

Shielding you from my sight

She stood with her back to the tree, holding the words in shaking hands, and stared at the stream.

The ache, the ache. It had not gone away, not ever. Each day it seemed only to grow, gnawing away vital parts inside. The thought of the words she kept hidden—breathing, alive—seemed so much more real than her mother and her man, though they sat beside her.

Yet no more would come. Not for too many days to count. Even if flowers could bloom through snow, the narrow throat of the river made the water sing between teeth of ice.

A flower could not survive such a passage.

She was alone.


She knew how to survive. The trick of it. The valleysmen had defied the Writ in the coldest months of winter. Her mother had taken them away the next morning. They had not come to the river for many days thereafter.

Cold and snow and ice she had faced. She knew their dangers and did not fear them.

The sun was high and bright and so pale it seemed to have no more color than the snow underfoot. A strong wind numbed the skin of her face and erased her shallow footsteps. By nightfall, there would be no sign of her passage.

The child was weaned. Her mother was strong. Her man did not need her.

She pressed her hand to the roll of paper that dangled between her breasts, above her heart. It was warm with the heat of her skin, warm and solid and real. Her gifts from the river.

All gifts had a giver. Someone, somewhere, had written them.

She would find him.