River and Rot

The day Helene was murdered, the townspeople carried her over their heads to the river, taunting her, insulting her, calling her the Devil's whore. She refused to struggle. If she did, they'd only drop her, kick her, and drag her over thorny brush, so she held herself as stiff, as hard and cold, as the blade she used to cut herbs at the river's edge. She knew she would die very soon, but she pulled into herself the serenity and fortitude of the riverbed's rocks--still and accepting as the water slowly wore them smooth.

Since her husband of less than two years had died in the bed of another woman, Helene had existed at the sharp end of their words. She struggled to find food. They wouldn't allow her to fish with the men at the lake they'd made by damming the river with large rocks, but the men, ever generous, offered to trade their small fish and gristly game for certain favors.

She had complained last week, finally, to the cleric, and he'd sent her away with a frown that crimped his face and quirked his lips into a sneer. It was no surprise when the townspeople finally arrived at her hut. The door could no longer be barred since most of the wood of her home had rotted, but she would have opened it for them anyway. Death would mean freedom from the town that hated her for existing.

When they bound her to a felled tree and dunked her under the shockingly cold water, she fought a moment of panic, but then she heard voices and stilled.

We know her.

Will she make the journey with us?

Does she remember what we whispered to her through doorways?

Helene opened her eyes, and though at first the river's current dragged against them and her nostrils and throat, the voices reminded her body of the way of things, setting her free. The rope fell away, and Helene swam toward the voices.

They whispered from the edges of the darkness below, and when she drifted close enough, she found herself in an underwater world somehow familiar to her. Rocks formed the bottom, but the water stilled and deepened and darkened, and distantly to the left and right of her, giant buildings soared toward the surface. From within those structures, the voices murmured. Shadowed faces peered from windows, and one called to her, beckoned her closer, and she went.

Free us, and we will leave this wretched place together. We will see what lies downstream.

The shadow pointed one long, thin arm toward the wall of rocks the town's men had piled up for a year to create this lake. All that had been here, though, was forest. There had been no buildings that she could remember. Then again, that had been when she was only a child, before her parents had succumbed to the plague, when she had loved to sneak to the river to watch small fish dance among pebbles and pretend-play the trees would tell her secrets.

We freed you from the tree. Will you free us?

Helene thought of the boulders and their weight. The men had used levers and pulleys to wedge the rocks into place--no one could move them now. She drifted closer to the dam and placed a hand to one of the stones.

Nothing was there. Nothing but more water, as if the stone were merely an illusion. Or perhaps her hand was.

We are all illusion, but your desire can move continents.

A ghost, then, Helene realized, and she sagged. How could they possibly destroy this wall? Wandering close to one of the buildings, she contemplated finding a bed and resting. Her soul was suddenly so very tired. But she knew if she went inside one of these buildings, she would never leave. She would merely be a voice murmuring to the next victim of the town's superstitions.

She went to the shore instead, and as her head breached the water, she felt herself change. Water churned inside her invisible skin, giving her form.

It was night now, somehow, and the moon shone on the rocky shore and the dark forest before her, lighting the way down an easy path to the edge of the town, so old and tattered. The villagers had already pillaged her hut, leaving the precious few items she'd owned strewn in front of the door--all but the iron pot, her only valuable possession.

Anger welled up within her, and water churned inside the confines of her form. She stormed to the governor's home. The door was closed, but she pressed herself against the wood, her whole form churning as she passed through, leaving a wet imprint in the door behind her.

The potbellied man lay in bed next to his tiny wife. He snored. She stared in horror at Helene.

Her feet made wet slapping sounds against the floor as she approached the bed. The wife opened her mouth wide to scream, and Helene dove onto the bed, felt herself break apart, and laughed to find she was once again at the center of the lake.

She floated there on her back, enjoying the view of late afternoon sky until storm clouds brewed and wind blustered and dusk fell on the world.

It was time again.

At the lake's edge, she paused and looked at the pebbles. How lovely would it be to hold those smoothed rocks again? But then, she realized she had some, contained neatly in what should be the palm of her hand. She couldn't feel their smooth curves, but they were there all the same.

She willed more into her hands and carried them with her to the governor's house, and as the storm raged around her, she laid the pebbles in an ungodly pattern at the door and went to the house next to his. It belonged to the tanner, who had enjoyed slipping his hand up her skirts and pinching when she complained. Helene went inside, ran at the man seated for dinner as his wife served him and exploded, covering them in river water as both screamed. And once again, she was at the lake.

Each night, she carried more pebbles, more than she should be able to carry. Each night, she shattered over another citizen of the town who had made her life hell, drenching him in river and rot. Each night, she reveled in their terror. She could torture her murderers forever, if only they would live so long.

After she had visited at least half the town, transporting algae poppets and bowls filled with well water and lines of salt along the path, they came to her. The entire town appeared at the edge of the lake as she floated, watching the beautiful world encircling her. Their faces seemed to glare down into the water, and then there was a splash.

She knew, just as the murmurs in the buildings screeched in horror, that the splash had been a girl whose last thoughts, once she realized death was inevitable, were of the boy she would never marry and the father who had bound her with rope.

A sacrifice. An act of barbarity meant to appease the witch in the water. All the years of torture and humiliation and indignity and violation were nothing to this moment. Horror and rage filled her, grew and swelled until everywhere was white-hot and a buzzing filled the air. The murmurs became shouts. Furious currents churned like rapids. The echo of cracking, breaking trees exploded across the lake like thunder, and when Helene could no longer contain her fury, she released it. Waves overtook the wall of boulders and forced them free.

Water roared louder than her fading anger, and the lake drained until the tops of the buildings revealed themselves. They were trees she'd played among as a child. The shouts and murmurs faded as those trapped within were released through doors and windows in the trunks of the trees and floated down river.

The girl was gone, her spirit down river now, and Helene was alone, so she let the current carry her downstream until she came to her old town. The river had not followed its old course. It had instead curved around and destroyed the buildings, carrying away all signs of civilization. The first snows were imminent. Their stores from the crops were gone. Their homes were gone. Those who might have survived were as good as dead.

Helene dipped back into the water and moved upstream to the former lake. Distant voices called to her.

Join us. We will see oceans and other worlds. We will find new forests in which to dwell. Our desires will move continents.

She turned in the water and drifted toward the voices, and as she drifted, she watched small fish dance across pebbles and listened to whispered secrets in the trees.

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