“It’s after us!”
“Who’re you calling ‘it?’” I grumble as the three scraggly teens fumble over themselves, fleeing through the trees.
The icy water of the river rushes around me as I slip back beneath its surface. As always,
this bend of the Taunton is tumultuous. Years had to pass before I came to love the way the way the stars play in the water, their light glittering through hidden currents. Yet tonight, as I watch the familiar fish flit through the shimmering sky above my face, I feel sour about the teens’ reactions. It’s a bit foolish. I should be used to it by now. People come, either enticed by the deceptively calm water or to see the infamous river demon, I chase them away with a few tossed rocks and eerie screams, and they live to see another day. Sometimes I do wish they would stay but it’s better this way.
An unexpected flash chases away the fish, blinding me. The sky is still clear of smoke and clouds. This is no natural light. Acting on instinct, I adopt the guise of the river demon. I stain my tattered lace dress black and let my hair twist into seaweed as I rise from the churning depths to face this newcomer. Though I let my eyes slide back into my head—a surprisingly successful trick I learned about a decade ago—I still see the girl plain before me. She drops the strange lightning-producing box and stumbles back, as so many do, but she doesn’t run. I can almost see a light of victory in her eyes as I rise higher and higher above the waves.
Something about her makes me reluctant to continue. Maybe it’s that she’s no older than I was when I died, trapped in the current of the Taunton on a night not unlike this. No. I’ve scared off many girls even younger than she. I’ve chased them away from the treacherous edge without a second thought. This girl is different. She stares at me with startled eyes, free of fear, and I’m entranced.
She stands. I realize my guise is slipping. She steps forward, closer to me—closer to the river. Panic sparks inside my heart as she stands on the moss-slick stones. In desperation I unhinge my jaw and scream, the bloodcurdling sound strong enough to whip her hair back from her face. There it is. Terror fills her expression and she runs. As I watch her disappear between the trees my heart aches with a loneliness I thought long conquered. Her absence leaves me shaken. This time, as I sink back beneath the river’s surface, I let the weight of the water pull me out into the center of the river. Our encounter leaves me feeling unmoored. There will be no one else tonight.
I rise from the depths of the muddy riverbed just moments before the break of dawn. Even when I was alive, I always loved how the mist of early morning plays on the water, casting soft shadows on the waking fish. In death, I’ve come to know every nook and cranny of this riverbed that shifts endlessly with the pulling of loose mud. I watch a small school of minnows flit by: the Joneses. Each fish has a name, a family, a history of unspeakable drama. The Joneses are my favorite; they have so many scandals. Their little squabbles among the shimmering waters keep me sane as the time passes. Well, sane enough.
The moments before the sun rises are also the only times I seem to find respite from the living. Even after the settlement was built beyond the banks several decades ago, people rarely come to river in the misty morn. Today, however, I notice a shadow moving upon the steaming waves. In spite of my lack of corporeal form, it takes concentrated effort for me to stay completely invisible as I let the current guide me towards the riverbanks. I feel meek this morning, reluctant to abandon to the usual calm that predawn brings.
Peeking up from the shallows, I see the girl from the night before. She wanders slowly along the banks, just far enough from danger that I feel comfortable letting her be. That strange “otherness” is still with her. Throughout the centuries I’ve seen all manner of people emerge from the woods but none like her. Her freckled skin and fiery curls are expected here, her clothes are mundane—the typical blue trouser and bright yellow shirt of the settlement—but she moves with none of the manic chaos that makes the others so dangerously vulnerable. This girl walks with purpose. She seems so sure of every step that I almost trust her to approach the water’s edge without my interference. Almost.
Just as she starts to turn her steps towards the river—just as I start to let my appearance take form to scare her away—she stops. A shallow vibration echoes through the trees and the girl spins around. Her box of light trembles among the leaves where she had dropped it the night before. I fall back just out of sight. The strength of my relief startles me. I know I shouldn’t, but I want her to stay. Scolding myself for the strange attachment, I watch silently as she grabs the glowing box and inspects it carefully. Her furrowed brow smooths with a grin as she abruptly holds the box out towards me.
“I knew I saw you!” Her wandering gaze assuages my fear that I have been spotted.
The girl waits, her triumphant grin fading as I watch her with invisible eyes from the river’s edge. If my heart still beat it would be in my throat. On the small glowing surface of the box is an exact likeness of myself. All color is absent from my once-auburn hair and formerly rosy cheeks. I am nothing more than an outline, a disruption in the rippling of the water, my dress foam upon the waves. With my expression still, my eyes closed, the rendering in the box captures what I truly am: dead. My very essence revolts at the idea. I’m furious at the girl for showing me myself as I am. For the first time since she appeared I want to chase her away, to chase that image away, but again her expression makes me hesitate. She looks so sad.
“Do you want me to get rid of it?” Her melancholy eyes fall to the image once more. Lightly, she runs her finger down the glowing surface, as if to caress that miniature of my corpse’s face.
Even though she’s already seen the real me I feel ashamed. Unwilling to reveal myself, I toss a pebble at her. It connects with a snap against the back of the box, not hard but enough to make a point. She flinches at the impact but continues to hold her ground. Again, she looks towards me. This time her gaze is so direct, so steady, and so disappointed, that I wonder if I’ve let my disguise slip. I focus harder on blending in with the murky waters.
“Okay then.” She nods. Holding the box out, she taps it and the haunting image vanishes before my eyes. “It’s gone.”
I feel no relief as it disappears. The girl’s downcast eyes and the stark reminder of my own demise make me want to sink back into the mud.
“I want something in return.” She looks up, her tone leaving no room for debate. She continues to surprise me. “I want to see you. The real you.”
I quell the rush of joy her words spark inside me. Other humans had, in the past, come to the river and asked me to show myself but none like her. They all wanted me to pay for the people I had scared. They all asked me questions I could never answer. Just because I’m dead doesn’t mean I know the meaning of life. I used to oblige them, at first, but too many of them brought crowds, gawking and chattering and inching too close to the river. Then there were those who couldn’t handle the reality of me. Those whose minds snapped at the sight of me. They are the ones I regret the most. I don’t know if I could forgive myself if anything like that were to happen to this girl. There are too many risks.
Yet, for some reason, I want to show her.
In spite of everything, in spite of all the anger and the horror of my past encounters with the living, I oblige. I let myself become visible. Slowly, I rise up at the edge of the water, wary of startling her by appearing too suddenly. The girl stares at me, her expression unreadable. There is no trace of fear, no shadow of horror, in her face. If it wasn’t impossible, I would call her expression awe. I feel exposed before her. My skin is still translucent, my long lace dress only just visible against the foam of the river waves, but this girl looks at me, absorbed. For the first time in centuries, I feel seen.
I want to disappear.
She reaches out as if to touch my face. I slip deeper into the water, startled. The girl freezes, holding up her hands apologetically. “Don’t be afraid. My name’s Emily. What’s yours?”
There’s something wrong about the words that leave her mouth. Me? Afraid of her? That’s not right. She’s the one who’s too close to the river. Too close to the sharp stones and unforgiving current. She’s the one that should be scared.
The clamor of crackling leaves breaks through the wall of silence between us. Emily turns towards the commotion. I take advantage of her distraction and disappear, using both the darkness of the river and my own transparency to hide myself. If she comes close, I’ll scare her. I can’t let her near the water. I’m relieved, for once, to see a living boy approaching the river.
“Where’ve you been?” An edge of derision in his voice keeps me from leaving.
Emily also bristles. “What do you want?”
“Nothing from you, freak,” the boy kicks a stone into the river, making Emily jump, “but the counselors wanted me to find you. So, stop talking to the trees and let’s get going.”
I can’t help but feel protective of Emily, this girl that refuses to run. I want to throw that stone back at his head.
Heavy footsteps save the boy from my momentary surge of anger. A grown man—one of the so-called counselors, I assume—barges out of the trees carrying a small single-person boat. “Come on cadets, cast off is this way!”
I watch the three of them depart, fighting the temptation to lower my guard as Emily scans the riverbank one last time. As soon as they are gone, I turn my attention up stream. Boating day. Each year people from the settlement pile into dangerously small ships and navigate their way down the river. I dread this day. Seventeen times throughout the years young settlers have ended up overturned in my bend of the river. Thankfully, each of the seventeen were able to make their way to safety with minimal guidance from me. In the beginning I tried to frighten them, to scare the adults so much that they would cancel the trip, or at least cast off farther down stream. Those years were torture. The adults brought forth priests to bless the river and even try to exorcise me. Their rituals kept me weak, burning from the inside, but my ties to the Taunton never broke. I still wonder why.
To prepare, I move to the center of the wide waters and nestle into the bottom of the river. Invisible to the surface, mud and stones break the undercurrent and create waters too treacherous to enter. The year has been dry, so the currents I find below are slower than normal.
My relief is brief, however, as the first oars pierce deep into waves. One after the other the boats pass without incident. The commotion clears away the fish and gives me a clear view from the riverbed. My attention is keen as I wait for any sign of incident above. Filtering through the water, I hear the sound of voices. Laughter, conversation, and the occasional shout warble down through the waves. For a moment I close my eyes and imagine a time, centuries ago, when my friends and I ran through these very woods. We used to play in the trees and skip stones on this very water. That is, until the day I slipped.
The sound of panic churning the water rips me from my memories. A little boy, younger than Emily or any of the others I’ve chased from the river this year, flails beneath an overturned boat. His clothes weigh him down, pulling him closer and closer to me. Desperately, I will myself to appear as harmless to him as possible. A little girl in white silk is what I choose to win over the victims. Rushing over to him, I catch the boy’s attention. However, as I reach out to him, he jerks away. The motion carries him backwards. Helpless against the current, he is pulled too close to the rocks below. No matter how hard I concentrate, my translucent hand slips through the boy’s body. Helpless, I watch as he’s thrown violently against a stone. Blood clouds around his head as he sinks, motionless.
A second body impacts with the water. Before I can even think to hide my presence, I recognize Emily and my panic swells. My useless, massless form fills me with shame as I watch Emily cut expertly through the vicious river current. As she grabs the boy from between the rocks, she sees me. Surprise flickers in her eyes and, for a moment, I’m terrified that she thinks I pulled the boy under. I glean nothing from her startled expression as she kicks off from the rocky bottom and pulls the boy to the surface. Hands reach down through the water and the pair disappears. The boats are gone. The voices, now frightened, are distant. The boy’s blood lingers in the water. It is a sign of my failure. I couldn’t protect him. If it weren’t for Emily, that boy would be dead. I watch the blood swirl in the waves. He may still be dead. I could hide myself to peer above the water, but I’m afraid. Even though I know that I can hide myself from Emily— that I already have—the thought that she might blame me for the boy’s accident, that she might look for me in the waves with hatred in her eyes, keeps me rooted to the riverbed.
For centuries I have made the living fear me. It never bothered me until her.
I wait in the mud as the voices fade away.
Hours pass and no one returns. I let myself float by the riverbank, unmoving in spite of the constant flow of water, as the sun shines golden through the trees. Its setting light usually draws the living to the river, but today I suspect there will be no one. I wonder if the boy is alive. I wonder if he is dying. If he does die, will he join me? Will he be tied to the Taunton forever, another soul bound to the water? I wonder: if he dies, will I still be alone?
A wretched seed of hope plants itself in my stomach, driving me down into the mud with the weight of my self-disgust. Maybe I really am a demon. Pulling me from my self-loathing, I sense a small disturbance in the water. I focus my gaze on a shadow, newly arrived. At the base of the figure falls a pebble, dropped lightly into the water by a person sitting at the edge of the river. I don’t have to see her to know it’s Emily waiting just above the surface. This time I hardly even consider hiding myself from her as I rise above the waves.
She glances up, seemingly deep in thought as I sit cross-legged atop the water. Her hair is still damp. She looks exhausted, but I’m grateful to see she’s unhurt. I didn’t realize how worried I had been until I saw her safe. Minutes pass between us. My initial relief fades. Her silence worries me. Has she come back to accuse me? Question me? Has she come back to tell me about the boy? His spirit has yet to join me but I have no way of knowing if that means he’s alive. I want to ask her but something holds me back. I’ve never spoken to one of the living before. Only screamed, wailed, and cried to chase them away. I don’t want to chase her away.
Instead, I float as close to the land as I am able and wait. Nearly half an hour passes before she speaks. “He’s going be okay.”
Her words assuage some of my guilt. My smile is fleeting as she raises her eyes to mine. She is wary.
“You were with him.”
It’s not a question, but I nod.
“Reaching out to him.”
I nod once more, feeling the weight of accusation in her tone.
“Was it you?”
I shake my head fervently, unable to find my voice. Once more, she is looking through me. Her guarded gaze pierces my soul, sees my guilt and helplessness, and I want to run. I want to disappear. Instead, I hold my ground. Slowly, I reach out to her. To my surprise, she doesn’t flinch as I try to place my hand on the fists clenched in her lap. My hand passes through hers with less physicality than a falling feather. Emily stares at her hands, wide-eyed, for a moment before all tension seems to leave her. She lowers her head, shocking me as tears fall against her clasped hands. When at last she looks at me, she smiles.
“I knew it couldn’t be you,” she says through shaking breaths. “They all said it was the river demon but I knew they were wrong. I knew it.”
Her conviction frightens me. She frightens me. This girl who has so much faith in me when everyone else runs, this girl who is so alive and, as such, is so constantly close to death, terrifies me.
“You were trying to protect him, weren’t you?”
I nod again. I shouldn’t be talking to her. I should run and never show myself to her again. Nothing good can come from befriending the living. Only torment and loss. I know that, but still I stay.
“Emily! How many times have we told you about leaving camp by yourself!” The counselor’s voice carries through the trees, startling us both.
With quick focus, I disappear. Emily giggles at my vanishing act, wiping her tears as she stands. Leaning conspiratorially over the edge of the water, she asks, “Won’t you tell me your name?”
Her relief and trust are contagious. I have to answer her. “It’s Lillian.”
“Emily!” The counselor emerges from the trees, panicked. “Get back from there!”
“Sorry!” Emily jumps back from the edge. I know her wide smile is for me. “I thought I saw the bracelet I dropped earlier.”
“Now, just because you can swim doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous.” The counselor leads her away, oblivious to the wink she throws back over her shoulder. Back at me.
Years pass and every year she returns. First, she appears to me as a counselor, but soon her stay becomes permanent. Each year brings us closer together. I no longer hide from her. Emily and I sit by the river and talk day after day. She tells me of her world, of summer camps and telephones, and I tell her of my deathly existence, of fright-filled nights and drama with the Joneses. We stay together, but always apart: me unable to leave the river, she indulging my pleas to never again tempt the greedy waters. She laughs at the “old-fashioned” style of my haunting guises and I weep at the unstoppable greying of her hair and wrinkling skin.
One day I know she won’t return. She knows, too. I’ve seen her eyeing the waters, sitting closer and closer to the edge each time we talk. Her aging body is much too weak to swim now. If, one day, she were to fall into the river, I don’t know if I would have the power to save her.
I shudder. And hope.