Janet is an ESF junior, completing an Environmental Studies degree and writing novels on the side. She is commonly mistaken for a type of snake when in actuality she is a legless lizard. The distinction is that true snakes do not have eyelids. She subsists off of candy and other people’s approval. After graduation, she hopes to find legislative work preserving the Albany Pine Bush.
S ometimes someone will drown in another part of the river and I can’t help, because the river is large and I am only one person. I once let a man drown because his friends were at the river with him, sprinting along the bank shouting his name, and if I had saved him they would have seen me. I watched from below the surface as he was swept away, clawing the water, terrified and hopeless. I don’t think he saw me watching. He didn’t survive to say if he had.
Now I always help, at least when I’m sure that the humans can’t save themselves. I grab them as their lungs fill and I push and pull and carry them to the shore, to the shallows, to a branch they can grab onto. But they rarely survive. Either I wait too long to intervene, or they can’t recover their lungs, or the river’s cold takes them even once they’re ashore. Whether they live or die, they’re afraid of me. They feel my hands on them in the haze of panic as my river smothers them and they think that I’m doing it to them. Stories about the river woman saving a life are rare compared to those of her taking them.
I must be careful. Because humans fear me, they rarely come close enough for me to speak to them alone. It would be easier if I could go on shore. My legs, so strong that even floods can’t force me downstream, tremble and fail as soon as I step on land. My body becomes so heavy that I must crawl, and then drag myself away from the water’s edge. When I give up and roll my weakened body down the slope into the shallows, my strength returns slowly.
Like my legs don’t work on land, my voice doesn’t work on groups. A single person kneeling by the shore can talk to me, yet if I call out to a cluster of two or three, it hurts them. I don’t know what they hear, but they cover their ears and run away. I have called after them, pleading, but they don’t show any sign of hearing anything resembling a human voice. I think I have made their ears bleed.
I’ve only found the company of men here. The friendship or love of women has always been a distant dream for me. Maybe someday. They don’t walk through the woods along the river alone though: always a friend or child is with them. Men are different. They are often alone. They are often lonely.
Sometimes they find me before I find them. They might hear me singing to myself, or see me reaching for fruit dangling just out of reach over the water. Other times I play games with them, knocking on the undersides of their boats for hours before I show myself, or I’ll play the part of “Lone woman bathing in a forest for some reason.”
Once I pretended I was drowning to make him come to me.
He was my first. I was young and had discovered my limitations. Seeing people together made me desperate to be among them, but I couldn’t escape the water alone, so I waited for someone to pass by and pretended to drown so that he would carry me onto the land.
He couldn’t have been much older than twenty. Handsome, though perhaps anyone would have been to someone as lonely as I was. He asked a lot of questions. Sitting with me, sopping wet, by the water’s edge while I leaned into him, arms clinging to his waist, he was concerned first with finding my clothes. He assumed I must have some, and my evasive answers perplexed him. When he asked where I lived or who my family was, I made up lies that made no sense. I just wanted him to take me where the people were. I couldn’t explain my nakedness or that I had no family.
Finally, at a loss, he put my arm around his shoulder and helped me hobble onto the driest land my feet ever touched. When I collapsed, after realizing it was in earnest, he did his best to carry me. He was good to me, comforting me, calming me as I apologized that I couldn’t walk myself.
As we got further from the river, my body grew heavy. I was becoming numb, and it was difficult first to move, then to breathe. I don’t know what would have happened to me if he had been less attentive, but he saw that I was distressed and laid me down on my side, instructing me how to best cough up the water which he assumed was settling in my chest. Now that I was still, not being taken farther from my home, I was able to concentrate on my lips, mouthing the words that I didn’t have the breath to say, begging to be returned to the river.
He protested at first. He wanted so badly not just to help, but to understand. He wrestled my dead weight back off the ground and walked me back towards the river, pausing when he saw the tears running down my face, wondering if he should take me to his home after all.
Back at the water, my feet dangling in, the rest of my body held fast by my companion, I explained my sad circumstance.
He was kind and pitied me. He forgave me for lying, telling me that I was brave for trying to find a way to be free, and clever for coming up with my plan on my own. He let me kiss him, impulsively first, and then decisively, and he kissed me back, holding our bodies out of the water.
That night he slept by the riverside on a cot, having told his parents that he planned on catching the fish that only came out after dark. I caught enough fish to half-fill his bucket, then he came to the edge where water lapped against mud and we talked for hours.
It was the first time I fell in love. I wanted to know everything about him. I thought all of his traits were admirable, and everything he had ever said or done was reasonable. I learned where he lived and what he did for work and that he was lonely because his two older brothers had moved across town. He wanted to know about me, too. What I ate, how I slept, when I remembered first existing in the river.
It was the height of summer when we met. By the end of summer, we were best friends. We joked about how everyone he knew thought he’d become an expert fisherman overnight. We had a gag where one of us would make a face and move our arms pretending to be seaweed, and the other would laugh. We would plan elaborate pranks on people that he brought with him to the river, and we’d revel in our glory together after they’d gone. I was his secret and he was my world.
We knew that winter would mean seeing each other less. The cold weather wouldn’t kill me, the ice just made it hard to reach the surface, and too much of it would force me south or trap me in the deepest part of the river where it never froze. When the ice is several feet thick above my head just drift in the dark, waiting for the thaw. I wasn’t afraid, but the thought of sitting alone in the quiet ice water seemed unbearable after meeting him.
The frost came early that year. It was gone by morning, but it happened a few days in a row, and we grew worried. We waited anxiously to see if the cold would break, and eventually it did, a little.
We feared waiting any longer for the cold to settle in. So, in the early afternoon when the sun made it warm enough that he didn’t need a jacket and the water was as tolerable as it could be that day, he came to visit me, and we enjoyed each other one last time. We stayed in the shallows, just deep enough for him to keep his body under the surface and out of the wind, which he said made his wet skin colder than water alone did.
We kept things brief; the cold was clearly unpleasant and it made things more difficult for him, but we felt it was important to do it one more time before winter came, just to keep from having any regrets. A minute or so after he slid into the water we were done, and I tousled his mostly dry hair, telling him to go warm up. He apologized for not staying longer, kissed my cheek with pale lips, and left.
I didn’t see him the next week. When he finally came, he was bundled under clothes and blankets, and he wasn’t alone. He convinced his companion, his brother, to stay far enough back so that I was able to speak and held my hand in a thick mitten while he explained to me what had happened.
He said he hadn’t stopped feeling breathless from our encounter in the cold water, and he collapsed partway home. No one found him or even looked since he so often spent hours alone by the river. After an hour sprawled on the hard ground with his wet skin, he was able to finish his walk home. He’d had hypothermia and should have gotten help. Instead, he slept for two days and nearly didn’t wake up.
He showed me the hand I didn’t hold, removing the mitten. It was bandaged. He’d lost part of two fingers to frostbite, the first knuckle of his middle finger, and below the second of his ring finger.
He made a joke that he couldn’t marry me now because the ring would fall off. It was a sad joke, and not even he laughed, he just smiled a little. I held his bandaged left hand, thinking of the parts of him that were missing, that I had unknowingly taken away. I felt selfish.
He told me it wasn’t my fault, and that he would still see me in spring, he just might not be able to come before then, lest his family worry. He put his thick mitten against my cheek, and his hand felt very far away.
I never saw him again. In the spring, his brother came to put his ashes in my river. His brother didn’t say it was my fault, but I saw the hate in his eyes, and my first love on the surface of the river.
There have been a few since then. Two drowned themselves to try to be with me, one accidentally, one on purpose. It’s wrong to keep reaching out to them. I can’t leave this river, and men lose their lives trying to join me in it. But without them, with no one to touch or talk to, I am alone. I can’t bear to live like that.
For now, I swim upstream. I hope to meet another like me along the way. If not, I’ll manage. There are always men along the river.