The Dead River, by Erin Cole

Where there is a dead river, there is a wilting echo in time.  All that thrived has dried and vanished, but the fish will return.  The larvae will reclaim sustenance to convert gelatinous bodies into fluttering, gossamer, black velvet wings, and sunlight will find a fractured path down the clear, jade run once more.  There will be no more blood, no more sinew and muscle folding over sand and rock—just bones, camouflaged within the rocky banks of crusted clay and lime.

* * *

“Green Lady?”

The Lady of the Forest lifted her head from a corner of foliage.  “Yes?”  It was Little Fawn again.  So new and unsure of his world, she thought.  She nestled her head back under a fern, counting the striated rows of spores laced along the edges.

“There is a ruckus of a flock down at the Dead River.”

Flock meant only one thing—Raven and her clan.  “Did Raven send for me?”

Fawn nibbled on tender shoots of wild yarrow.  “No, but the girl did.”

“Girl?”  The Lady’s brow creased into a blade of grass.

“Yes, down at the Dead River.”

The Lady stood, tuning her senses past a symphony of June bugs.  There, in the soft emerald of the hills, a whisper drifted.  Why had she not heard it until now? She heard every call, knew of every misplaced spirit, answered to all cries as do the elephants of the prairie.

Fawn sensed her thoughts.  “It is difficult to concentrate with so many requests.”

“No.  It is something else, another reason.”

The Lady slid from a bed of liverwort and traveled through the dark of the forest toward the Dead River.  Fawn bounded close behind her, stumbling over log and rock.  Brush rustled of foxes, and beneath the needles, the night crawlers slinked through the sodden dirt.

Like the first crisp chill of dawn, the Lady sensed a season of change.  Fall was afoot, but it went deeper than that.  There was an ebbing of her spirit, not so much a weakening as it was a turning inward, a need for dormancy.  And to question if her disconnection might be to blame for the girl’s lost spirit settled shadows across her soul.

Cool breeze stirred the Lady’s attention.  The Air Maiden is a delicate power, but tonight, she wrapped frigid gusts between the trunks.  She whipped against the Lady in a ghostly whisper, “She called for you.  Listen—”

The girl’s cry ricocheted from mountain to shore.  It crested like an icy tide against the Lady’s heart, and she ducked against the coldness of truth.

Another gust curled around the Lady.  “She said you were cruel and heartless.”

“She doesn’t understand,” the Lady replied.

Worry tainted the Maiden’s question with a cold bite.  “How can you help her now?”

That the Lady did not know, and she wondered if she even could.

Fawn dipped into a valley to escape the icy current.  The Lady followed.  He paused at the crackling of twigs and turned his head to the side.

Mother Bear’s shadow was a hollow darkness through the trees.  Two specks of light from her eyes centered on Fawn.  He stilled, seemingly to hope that inert silence equated with invisibility.

“Back up, Fawn,” the Lady whispered.

But Fawn would have to learn on his own.  He searched the blackness beyond Bear, perceived safety, and cut past the left of her.  She disliked his rapid movement and proximity to her young.  Her claws stretched out, raking his backside.  He twisted under her strength and kept leaping for deep shadows.

The stench of blood surrounding Bear assured the Lady that she was too gorged to bother with Fawn, so the Lady moved on.  The foreign sense of urgency quickened her pace.  The flora of the forest blinked.  Green Man keeps a watchful gaze, his heart a verdant cauldron of life, but his eyes are sharp as the hawk’s, and he guards the wildlife of the forest with fierce devotion.  He swayed branches in front of the Lady.

“The girl was here, circling around for days,” he groaned.  “She tore at limbs and shrubs and disrupted the animals.  She could not change her outcome.”

“Change is. …” difficult to undertake when forced upon us, the Lady thought.  “Change can be premature.”

The crown of a hemlock bowed toward the Lady.  “And where were you? What is of your nature?”

To deny her state was of no use.  “My nature is wrought with uncertainty, but you know as well as I do that the spiral of life is constant.”

“Even the girl’s?”

“Yes.  The girl’s too.”

Green Man lifted his eyes from the Lady and allowed her passage through a dense grove.  She came into a clearing, the valley of the Dead River.  Fallen trunks crisscrossed through an arid canyon, and boulders were stacked precariously where gravity had expired them.

It was here that Air Maiden called home.  The canyon was a natural, melodic hallway.   The border of evergreens danced in her breeze.

The Lady attuned herself.  Along with the Maiden’s harmonics, there was also the scent of rot—putrid, sweet, and sour.  The Lady knew then that she was close.

Moonlight slipped through the branches and shone upon a trail of a thousand carnivorous beetles.  The Lady noted their direction: south, toward the bottom of the river.  Their journey would lead to sustenance.  To death.

Fawn caught up with the Lady.  It wasn’t long before they found the ruckus of animals circled around a bend in the parched riverbed.  There, tucked in the elbow of a birch, the girl’s body lay.  Concaved flesh decayed, withered into wood and stone, and her cavities were splayed to the hunger of others.

“She will not let us eat,” Raven spat when the Lady approached.

Another black bird, smaller, but just as brave, cawed.  “We’re starving, and the flies are embedding their eggs into the best part!”

A gray shadow flitted near the base of a stump.  It was the ghostly presence of the girl.  Her clothes were soiled and torn, and her dark hair was long and matted.  Her eyes had sunken in, as if empty.

She straightened and marched toward the Lady.  “You did this! You made me lost! I was so cold, delirious, and desperate that I couldn’t find my way out!”  Sobs overcame her will to stop them.

The yelling scared Fawn, and he crouched behind the Lady.  Raven hopped onto a stiff elbow and jerked at exposed flesh.  The girl picked up a handful of rocks and threw them at the scavengers, shooing them away from her tattered body.

“Get out of here!”  She lunged at them, waving her thin arms.

The birds squawked and drummed black wings into the air.  Forlorn, the girl slumped back to the ground, holding her hands up to cover her face.  The Lady wanted to comfort her, tell her that there was more to life than the one she knew, that life was a pattern of many.

Collected in the hollow of a boulder, a small pool of water reflected the dim radiance of the stars above.  The Lady leaned over it.  Lines had deepened into her face, grooved like the bark of a tree.  The time for change had come.  It wasn’t until that moment that the Lady remembered: even answers had their own clock.

“I didn’t hear you, my child, for I wasn’t supposed to.”

The girl looked up.  “I don’t understand.”

The Lady turned to Fawn and wiped her weathered hand across his back, scooping his white spots of ivory-feathered petals into the palm of her hand.  He was too old for them now.

The Lady walked over to the girl.  “In the wheel of life, we cannot remain constant.  Adaptation is in our nature, and the more we oppose it, the further we recede from our destiny.”

The Lady blew the petals over the girl’s body.  A lucent essence lifted from the remains.  Sheer as a dragonfly’s wing, it crossed into the threshold of the lost girl.

She stopped crying and stood.  Brightness filled her eyes.  She reached for the Lady’s hands, who clasped them in her own.  There was a moment of recognition between the Girl of the Woods and the Lady of the Forest.

“Thank you,” the Girl said.

The Lady smiled and let go of her hands.  Her arms lengthened and twisted into timber.  Roots protruded from her feet and burrowed into the ground.  Her hair molded into weeping bows of pine needle, ears and nose into cones, and her crown soared for the eye of Andromeda in the ocean of night above.

Fawn scratched his back against Redwood’s trunk, nudging tender spots at the top of his head where bone was pushing through.  The Girl pulled herself up onto a branch.  Swinging her bare feet from the mossy perch, she listened to a cricket lullaby and watched the universe turn.