Unfolding, she emerges through the fog, over the river bank, leaving her brothers and sisters fading from her rebirth. Water droplets cling to her marble fingertips and hair; her eyelashes glisten. Her movements are slow and deliberate and her head tilts in contemplation as if in question mark. Threads of seaweed cascade down her bare skin in waterfall formation, clinging and slick.
Lying on his back, his arms interlaced behind his neck, the artist waits patiently for the stars. He wants to count them, wants to see Vega, luminous and pulsing, suspended between two red moons in the night sky. One descending, the other rising, like a see-saw. He wishes he could reach up and pluck them, bring them down together with Sirius and Arcturus, and he would place them on his tongue; taste the colours. Then he would slip them into his pocket. A collection of constellations to keep him company as darkness falls.
Sometimes he paints them, agitated and feverish in night dreams. Swirls of white and yellow blossoms in a tilted world of reflecting razors and scars which his doctor labels hallucinations. Then they immerse him in cold baths until his teeth chatter and his vivid alien world disappears.
He hears the rushing at his temples, the whispering winds and shifting currents and then the silence. He raises his head. She is looking at him, now. The girl, knitted from pearl and dusk, eyes as green as tender moss punctured by circles of black. His gaze moves down her graceful frame, the small of her waist, the curve of her hips, sinews of thighs and calves, delicate but firm in their solid form. He thinks she is made of water crystals, fashioned together and sculpted before being deposited gracefully on the river bank, in the sediment of the evening tide. He blinks several times, to dispel the leathery humidity from his eyes. Soil fragrances mingle with salt, air chocking with mist.
The last time he saw her, she was crouching by the water’s edge, gazing at the emerald surface, while his skin stung from the slippery cradle of a hundred jellyfish. He swam further into the waters of the Rhône, closer to the wormhole. But the sounds of the carriages with the horses clocking the cobblestones, the shouts of the newspaper boy and the walking crowds, overwhelmed him. When he looked back, she was gone. The time before that she was swaying where the edge of the world meets the river mouth, her torso half submerged as if hovering in anticipation. The water swirled around her. That was the first encounter and she has inhabited his waking dreams with dread and wonder ever since. He did not paint her on the canvas, the girl. Yet here she is, emerging from his beloved Starry Night over the Rhône, like a cruel phantom.
As they dressed him, they told him that she doesn’t exist, is but a figment of his madness but he knows that they lied. He folded over onto the floor and cried.
The river girl glides towards him, now and when she moves, the shadows follow her, leaving behind residues on the ground. Up close, he can see a riot of veins, maps to multiple destinations imbedded beneath her lucent skin. Her body is an atlas of cities and oceans, mountains and streams. Falling on her knees before him, she extends her hand.
With trembling fingers, he traces the lines across her hand to the soft inside of her wrist, marveling at the map of his frenzied world. Sweat and green musk emanate into the night air. Trepidation mixing with damp meadows. He wonders, momentarily if she would let him go and the possibility sparks a flicker of hope.
Lichen tendrils from her finger tips suddenly wind around his neck, across his nose, his lips. He cries out, his face twisting, and the tendrils recede, playful and withholding in their savagery. She seeks to absorb his living memories but for that she requires his permission. She is a scribe, a captivator and a storyteller for her people. Born to weave his recollections over thousands of moon-cycles, she seeks to share them with her people. A race that once inhabited land.
Exiled to the waters, they long with aching yearning for sensations that evade them. The feel of grains of silt between their toes, the warmth of suns on their backs and the softness of moss at their fingertips. The pressure of solid muscle against their own skin, the pleasure of being held and loved. Her people no longer endure touch. Beyond the water, while in humanoid form, their hands and fingers distort into wisps of vine every time they attempt to touch anything or anyone. Even their birthing is cold, stark and void of feeling. All they have are memories of what and who they used to be.
The artist regards the river girl with undisguised horror and draws back slightly, even though he knows the same has happened to his father and to the father before him. He remembers how the thickness of their fear still inhabits every room of his asylum and frequently, it seizes him roughly. Flings him, head first through the wormhole, into a world full of rites of passage that shape new shores and history. This is an agreement which he did not consent to and to which he is expected to submit. He considers mutiny but escape comes with its own brand of terror; a dangerous shift in planetary axes and the shame and loneliness of the material world. His river people control the tides and the revolutions of his moods. He thought he would have courage when the time came, but now, it eludes him.
The outline of the river girl’s face distorts into a milky apparition. Edges waver for an instant, and then she is in focus again. She knows that she is dissipating and at the back of her mind she hears her people’s urging. But she will not take without consent. There are rules and regulations, and she detests bloodshed. They have absorbed memories from unwilling soil dwellers before. Countless souls, whose minds were plundered and torn, and the waters churned with nightmarish agony.
Out of fascination and morbid curiosity, the artist stretches out his hand, runs it down her back, cutting his fingers on flared gills where shoulder blades should be. He winces, his face grimacing with a sudden burst of revulsion and sorrow. He pities her and her kind but he cannot sacrifice himself. All memories would fade; of family, friends, of a French young woman with golden curls and an outrageous smile who makes him think of tender words and breathless starts. He pledged his love to her as he carved it from parts of his body. Sealed and delivered his left ear, as a bloodied, kidney-shaped heart, placed neatly in the palm of her hand. Her threads would disappear from his thoughts and a dark void would take her place. He would lose them all and have to start again. Behind his eyelids he imagines a sudden burst from a distant sun, a dying star but the image is visceral, instant, then detached. The river waters rise with the tide.
The river girl’s contours begin to waver. She extends her hand towards him again, tendrils twisting and reaching out and then, as if in afterthought, immediately draws them back again.
If I give myself to you in this form, she thinks, will you give me your lived history? The artist hears her thoughts inside his head as clear as if she had whispered them in his ear. I am sorry, he mouths and slides further away from her. He suspects that this is not her true form. Staring into the pools of her eyes, he wonders if she would ever allow herself to be seen in authentic configuration. Perhaps she is made of vapours with nocturnal eyes in perpetual haunting.
His chest expands and contracts like bellows, his blood rushes through his body, the adrenalin and fear mingling. He knows her power and her strength, she could easily hold him down and rip his memories from his mind. Shutting his eyes, he prepares himself for the onslaught.
The river girl sits immoveable for a few moments, the atmosphere around her impregnated with anguish, the despair of her people’s cries in her ears. She recalls images of the river bank teeming with violence long ago; the screams and thrashing of soil dwellers. Their hollow stares afterwards, still linger. With a sudden release, she stands up to her full height and slowly makes her way towards the river bank. For a brief moment she glances back at the artist and in her eyes, he sees the sharp glint of consumption, the glimmer of knives. But then she turns, and sliding back into the waters, she disappears below the surface.
Carla writes a few things and reads a great deal more. She has been weaving tales since the age of seven, when she was unduly fascinated by robots and aliens. Speculative fiction has remained a favourite genre, although she also enjoys contemporary and historical fiction. Her short stories and poems have been published in a variety of literary magazines such as All Worlds Wayfarer, Heart of Flesh and Royal Rose.
The Ekphrastic Review
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