From the author: An older woman seeks transformation in order to help her people. But can she successfully complete her pilgrimage and join with the River? Originally published in Alma Alexander's anthology RIVER.
Marthe paused at the Great River’s edge. The cold spring flow delicately tickled her toes as dusk’s shadows crept toward her. An anticipatory shudder ran through her lean, wiry body. River rumbled solemnly by, the steady lapping of waves on the shore a soft, lulling chorus as evening unfolded.
Soon, she thought. Soon I will change.
She didn’t consider the possibility of failure. Those she had left on the Mountain depended on her success.
The distant “ki-ki-ki” of a startled killdeer stirred Marthe into taking the first step into River. Mud and sand billowed around her feet as she slid her feet along the bottom in measured, careful steps. The Great River had deep, treacherous drop offs.
River’s steady current flowed strong, tugging at Marthe’s body as the waters swirled up to her crotch. Her next step found nothing but water beneath it. Marthe stopped. She pulled her foot back, seeking the edge. It was barely an inch in front of her standing leg.
Out here in River, she could hear the mountain river she’d been dedicated to chuckle and roar its way into the Great River. If she turned her eyes upstream, she could see its outflow.
Marthe didn’t look. The river known as the Mountain’s Child was her past. Her present and future lay with the Great River. She kept her eyes focused straight ahead, bracing against the tug of River’s current as it sought to drag her over the waiting edge. She pulled off her snug-fitting, embroidered turtleneck, revealing stringy arm muscles and flabby breasts that lay flat against her chest.
“To you, this gift, O River,” Marthe whispered, and threw the shirt as far as she could out into the River. The current caught the turtleneck. Then, poof! It was gone.
“River gives, River takes,” Marthe muttered through chattering teeth. “Blessed be the name of the River.” She ran her fingers along her bare neck, fingering the gills developing under her skin. The skin moved under her fingers, but showed no sign of separating yet.
“The change will happen soon enough,” she assured herself.
She squatted in the cold water until it pulsed against her chin. She stripped off the rest of her clothing, letting River pull each piece from her fingers as she removed it. At last the only thing she wore was the medallion old Jehan the storekeeper had given her that morning, hanging from a slender black leather thong that seemed too light for the heavy silver disc.
River lifted the medallion slightly off of Marthe’s neck. She covered it with one hand as she faced west, watching the sun ooze behind the western hills.
At last the sun was gone, leaving only a faint golden glow in the sky. A matching glow came from her little fire above the waterline. Marthe sighed. Done for tonight.
She stood and lost her balance, toppling into the water. River pulled Marthe over the drop off. She mastered the brief surge of panic that washed over her as the waters closed over her head.
Can I breathe water yet? she wondered, holding her breath as River pulled her down deep. But she didn’t test her developing gills. If she breathed water now, she’d be no different from any other person lost to River’s wiles, not one of the River-kissed kindred.
The current snatched at her medallion with watery fingers, lifting it off her neck.
No, Marthe thought. Don’t get greedy!
Not yet, Marthe thought. Not this time. Not this place. Be patient. Wait.
River sighed. The current holding Marthe eased. She kicked hard and her head broke the surface of the water, bobbing up a hundred yards downriver from her fire. The medallion settled against her chest as Marthe swam upriver, until her fingers and toes brushed against the sandy bottom.
“Not this time,” Marthe said to River. She gathered up driftwood on her way back to camp, and threw it on the fire all at once so that she could dry herself. Once dry, she rummaged in her pack for another pair of pants and a shirt. Then she ate jerky and dried fruit, washing it down with small mouthfuls of the pint of Old Overshoes she’d bought from Jehan that morning.
River-kissed, River whispered to her in soft gurgles and lappings. River-kissed. Come dance with me.
“Not yet,” Marthe said. She took one last fiery mouthful of Old Overshoes, tucked the bottle away, then settled her pack to use it as a pillow and crawled into her bedroll.
River-kissed, river-kissed, River sang to her as she settled into sleep. Be mine, oh river-kissed.
“I ask for first night’s protection,” Marthe finally murmured
The waves lapped strongly against the shore for four splashes, then eased back into their steady, quiet pattern.
Not yet for the dance, oh River-kissed, River whispered. But soon you will be mine.
“Soon,” Marthe agreed. “But not here. At Swedetown.”
Not here, River echoed. But we will dance. Soon. At Swedetown.
Marthe turned over and went to sleep.
Next morning, Marthe knelt by the ashes of her fire. She drizzled the last of her cooking oil over a handful of ashes. Then she used a fingertip to trace three wavy parallel lines, sign of the River-kissed, on her forehead and on each cheek.
Marthe waded back into River and rinsed her hands. She checked her marks in River’s faint reflection, pushing back her scraggly, colorless ash-blond hair from her face, scowling. She’d done better than this before.
“Out of practice,” she said aloud. “Too quiet on the Mountain’s Child.”
Good enough for the City, River chuckled at her as he twined around her ankles. This morning he seemed playful, almost smaller and younger. He ran ten feet lower than the night before, revealing a strip of firm, damp sand.
Tide’s going out, Marthe thought, marveling. She wouldn’t see the great ocean, not unless her journey took her past Swedetown. But she had heard of the effect the ocean’s tides had on River even here, a hundred miles inland from the ocean. She’d heard the tide effect lasted a hundred miles more upriver, all the way to the great falls that roared over the remnants of one of the mighty dams that had once tamed River.
She trudged out of the water and up the bank. Her pack and bedroll waited by the exhausted fire. She tucked her boots inside her pack. Best to save them for later. On this bright, sunny morning, while walking next to River, she’d go barefoot. River’s beach provided a nice, sandy path.
A light upriver breeze stirred River’s smooth surface as Marthe shouldered her pack and began walking. Gulls glided around her, looking for food. Marthe ignored them, studying River’s broad, flat expanse. It looked wider than she could swim easily, wide enough to swallow ten of the Mountain’s Child without visible effect.
Her gull companions gave up and flew downriver, joining another pack squabbling over something at River’s edge. Marthe squinted but she couldn’t see what the attraction was. A great bald eagle dived toward the gulls. They complained loudly as they scattered. The eagle landed. It shook itself to settle its feathers, then marched toward what the gulls had found and began to peck at it.
Marthe ventured further up the bank. The eagle spread its wings protectively over its find, a huge spring salmon carcass, screeching as Marthe eased by. The gulls took advantage of her presence to harass the eagle until it took flight and chased them.
The gulls routed, the eagle cut in front of her, dropping a feather. Marthe stooped to pick it up, watching the eagle. It reminded her of the image on her medallion.
“Thank you,” she said as she braided the feather into her hair.
A blessing, she thought. Maybe this quest isn’t hopeless after all. She frowned. Where had that thought come from? A difficult quest, yes, traveling by herself to Swedetown. But hopeless? She hadn’t thought of it that way at the beginning. Yes, the welfare of those she had left behind on the Mountain depended on her. But even Jehan thought she would be successful.
Transformation is always a challenge, she reminded herself. And this transformation is but a part of the Great Dance.
She allowed herself a couple of skipping steps along River’s sands before settling back into her walking stride.
She’d be dancing with River soon enough. Best to husband her strength.
What remained of the City still lay ahead of her. Surviving what might lurk there was important.
Soon enough a low, broken dike intruded upon the sandy river shoreline. Marthe pulled on her boots, then scrambled on top of the dike, following a thin path that grew wider. The only sign of settlement was a field of stumps where someone had been cutting the cottonwood and ash groves near the dike.
That changed. The stump field gave way to the broken, scorched remains of buildings and twisted, scarred lumps of metal that had once been equipment of some sort. Marthe quickened her step, these first signs of the Old Ones making her nervous. She came to a tall, tightly woven wire fence that ran up over the top of the dike and down into River. On the other side of the fence, away from the river, a crude settlement of shacks and lean-tos huddled against the fence, some using the wire as essential framework. A gate sat square on top of the dike, held closed by a loop of wire. Marthe undid the wire.
“Who says you can pass?” A lean, lanky man clad in rags marched out of the nearest lean-to.
“Pilgrim’s right!” Marthe shouted back, pointing to her cheeks and forehead.
The man went back inside his lean-to. Marthe stepped through the gate, fastening it tightly shut behind her. She didn’t blame the man’s challenge. Strange things lived in the Wild, human and animal both, especially if one wasn’t River-kissed or Mountain-embraced.
Yells broke out below her. Marthe quickened her stride, not quite breaking into a run.
No trouble, she told herself. No trouble.
The yells from the settlement grew louder. Marthe broke into a jog trot.
The earth gave way under her feet. Marthe tumbled down the dike, landing in a mud puddle. She staggered back to her feet, shaking her head at the dizziness roiling her and clouding her vision. Don’t remember hitting it. She was vaguely aware of people surrounding her.
“Don’t move.” The man who’d first challenged her jabbed her in the chest with a sharpened, heavy stick.
“Pilgrim’s right,” Marthe gasped. She rested one hand on her knife’s hilt.
The other men laughed. “Pilgrim’s right,” one of them sneered. “Who goes on pilgrimage?”
“I am River-kissed,” Marthe said, touching her cheeks and forehead again. “I go to Swedetown. To Her.”
“Bride of the River!” a younger man yelled. “Woohoo! We’ve got a bride of the River, boys!”
“Let’s do her!”
The pack closed in on Marthe. She pulled her knife, sickeningly aware of the odds against her. Five men. Three were old and frail, possibly enough for her to best in combat, but two were younger. Scraggly-toothed and scrawny, but young. Those two advanced closer, grinning at Marthe.
“Come dance with us, baby,” one crooned, leering at Marthe.
One man lunged at Marthe, grabbing at her pack and spinning her around. She stabbed at the young man, unable to get any blows in beyond quick slashes. Another man jumped on her back. Marthe shook him and her pack off. She twisted free and took off running. Better to leave the pack than risk further attack.
I come to you empty-handed, oh River. It was what she was supposed to do, but her plan to discard her belongings had been more systematic than robbery, a ritual planned around each release. Not anything this crude.
But perhaps it was another test.
Someone tackled Marthe, bringing her down right at the top of the dike. She struck at her attacker with her knife. He overpowered her with his greater weight, grabbing her hands and twisting her knife away. She kicked at him. He kneed her in the gut. Marthe gasped for air. His hands tore at her shirt and ripped it open, sending buttons flying.
“Aha. What’s this?” he asked, picking up her medallion in grimy fingers.
No. Not that!
The man’s fingers tightened greedily. The thong held firm.
“No,” Marthe moaned. “Oh no.” Her fingers desperately scrabbled in the dirt next to her. Her right hand found the hilt of her knife. She grabbed the knife. Thrust it deep into his gut. His eyes widened and his fingers spasmed against her throat. Marthe found the strength to shove him off of her. She pulled her knife free, rolled to her knees, and half-ran, half-fell down the side of the dike, tumbling into River. The footing dropped straight down here, bottom far below her feet as the waters closed over her head.
Marthe gasped at the shock of River’s coldness. Water rushed into her mouth and nose as she struggled to rise. Her lungs choked on the water and panic surged through her limbs. I can’t breathe!
River-kissed she might be, but she wasn’t ready for transformation yet.
I’ve failed. Heartsick at the possible consequences, she fought against the current for a panicky moment. Then her head broke free of the water. She floundered along the surface, coughing, struggling to find her rhythm in the water.
Harmony is broken, something keened inside her. Harmony is broken.
She became aware of the knife still in her hand and let River take it. She felt at her neck for the medallion. It still hung in place. Marthe relaxed as relief flowed over her. The Mountain's token was still hers to pass on. Her arms suddenly, joyously, found River’s rhythm, moving in harmony with her legs. She coughed but even the cough bringing up the last dregs of water in her system was now in harmony with the rest of her body and with River.
But at what cost? No food, no other clothing, no money, nothing but what she stood in. And it was at least another full day’s journey to Swedetown.
River takes and River gives. What happened from here would be in River’s hands.
“Help me,” she whispered to River. “Help me to Swedetown. It’s not time for me to change yet.”
It was too bad she couldn’t swim all the way to Swedetown. After Transformation, she could.
But she wasn’t transformed yet. She kept swimming, though. Better than risking the crowd of men who still cat-called at her from the beach.
“Hoy! Swimmer!” The high-pitched call came from midriver.
Marthe treaded water, looking around. Was this an attack or help? She wasn’t in a good position to protect herself. At last she spotted a canoe downriver, its rider paddling upriver smoothly toward her. She hesitated, then waved a hand.
“Help?” she ventured, taking a chance. The paddler sounded female. Hopefully not another predator from the City.
“Be right there,” the paddler answered.
Marthe sidestroked toward the canoe. She grabbed the bow, hugging it tight.
“You have problems with the Juniors?” the paddler asked. This close, Marthe could see she was, indeed, female.
“They attacked me. Had to leave my pack.”
The woman shook her head ruefully. “Roll on in. You’re River-kissed, aren’t you? River told me that someone needed help.”
“Yes,” Marthe gasped. She carefully climbed in. River gives and River takes. Thank you, River.
“Bastards.” The woman spun the canoe around. “My name’s Rehana, of Swedetown.”
Swedetown reaches out to me already? She breathed more silent thanks to River.
“Marthe,” she said. “On pilgrimage. To Swedetown.”
“Marthe of the Mountain’s Child, right?”
“How did you know?”
Rehana laughed. “Jehan sent Butrille a message. And the Hidden Mother’s waiting. I hoped it was you I’d spotted. But I wasn’t sure.”
Marthe felt her neck. The skin moved more easily under her fingers than it had the night before.
“I thought I had two more days to travel.”
“Oh you would if you were still on land,” Rehana said. “But Hidden Mother wants you. Now. River has lost too many lovers, and will exact a toll soon. Too many of your kin have failed. We need you to keep River happy with us, as well as what the Mountain needs.” She dug in hard with her paddle. “So off to Hidden Mother we go.”
“I’ll help.” Marthe looked around the canoe for a second paddle.
“Sit back and rest. You’ll need your strength soon enough. Hidden Mother’s in a hurry.”
Marthe sprawled against the canoe’s bow, her gut tightening into icy nervous shards. What did it mean that Hidden Mother was in a hurry? Hopefully there was no trouble on the Mountain, with further petitioning for aid.
She pulled the remains of her ruined shirt across her chest to shelter her skin from the Sun, and fingered the medallion. The upriver breeze ruffled her wet hair, and the forgotten eagle feather brushed across Marthe’s fingers, still there despite her battle.
Marthe untangled the feather. Blessing of the eagle. It was miraculous that the feather had managed to remain twined in her hair.
Now she wondered if the feather was meant to relay Hidden Mother’s urgency. A shiver ran through Marthe’s body, and she hugged herself tightly. A creepy-crawlie feeling like maggots working under her skin tickled down her ribs.
The Change is coming, she realized, as the shivers grew stronger. Rehana lay her paddle down and crawled forward, gently pulling Marthe flat, slipping off her pants and shirt before wrapping her body in a tarp.
“Change’s coming fast,” Rehana said. “Hidden Mother’s in a hurry. This’ll keep you safe from the Sun while it happens.”
“Thank you.” Marthe closed her eyes gratefully, clutching the eagle feather in her hand.
The skin moved easily away from the gill slits in Marthe’s neck by the time they reached Swedetown. She still had her feet and could breath air but her sides felt stiff and scaly. The Change was beginning. She wanted to jump into the water and finish it.
Not yet. Not until Hidden Mother pronounced the final blessing.
Butrille himself splashed out from the riverbank, grabbing the canoe’s bow and peering down at Marthe on the canoe’s bottom. Marthe recognized him through blurry eyes, blinking hard as she sat up. It had been years since he’d visited Jehan, but he didn’t seem to have changed.
“It’s her?” he asked Rehana.
“Her,” Rehana said. “Juniors tried to take her. She fled to the River. She’s changing even as we speak.”
“You’ve a token for Her?” Butrille growled at Marthe.
Wordlessly, she offered the feather. Butrille looked at it and nodded. “Give that to Her.” He scooped Marthe into his arms and carried her ashore.
A distant trill of musical notes echoed from the town. A woman’s voice rose high and raspy, containing a liquid fullness that provoked an aching loneliness deep in Marthe’s heart.
“Hear her?” Butrille asked Marthe. “She’s singing for you.”
Marthe strained in his arms, longing to join the music. Butrille laughed softly.
“I’ll get you there, bride of the River. I’ll get you to her.”
He carried Marthe through the shacks and huts that made up Swedetown. She coughed as a whiff of cedar smoke swirled around them. When she was done coughing, the music rang out stronger than ever. Two guitars and a fiddle sang a haunting, sweet dance, skirling around the steady beat of hand-slapped drums. Marthe twitched in rhythm to the drumbeats that resonated deep throughout her body.
At last they stopped in front of a planked longhouse. Butrille eased Marthe down, holding her steady until she stood without swaying. He pulled the door open as the fiddle keened through an intricate reel. A wave of cedar smoke washed over Marthe as the door opened, but this time she didn’t cough. Instead she picked up the beat of the drums and danced inside, turning to the right and picking up the step as she joined the dancers.
She twirled to the beat. The music and the cedar smoke twined around her like the River’s currents. She weaved in and out with the masked dancers as one by one they stepped into the open space in front of the Fire to perform their solo piece of the Great Work.
Then it was her turn to dance. The slashing joy of the fiddle carried Marthe into the great open space. She danced the simple beginnings of the Mountain’s Child. She danced Jehan’s settlement, and the old highway, now cracked and covered with weeds and trees. She danced her walk to the Great River, danced the eagle chasing the gulls away from the salmon carcass.
She danced her attack, and Rehana’s rescue. She danced the changes she felt throbbing through her body as she rode in the canoe, surging and ebbing like the tides on the river.
She danced her arrival at Swedetown, ending on the high, quavering, trembling final note of the fiddle.
Fiddle and guitars and drums stopped on that single, sharp, hard, high chord. Marthe quivered in front of the Great Fire. She held the eagle feather in the trembling fingers of her left hand. The medallion dangled from her right hand. No sound stirred through the longhouse, save for the soft crackles of the Great Fire.
Hidden Mother came forward. She bowed low to Marthe and eased first the eagle feather, then the medallion from Marthe’s numb fingers. Marthe would have dropped to her knees in front of Hidden Mother, but she could no longer feel them.
“Who are you?” Hidden Mother asked.
“Bride of the River,” Marthe croaked.
Hidden Mother stroked Marthe’s brow with the eagle feather. “And you came from?”
“Mountain’s Child,” Marthe answered, her tongue growing shorter and tighter.
“And what do you seek, Mountain’s Child, Bride of the River?”
“Protection for those along the Child,” Marthe husked, remembering the words Jehan had taught her so many years before. “Protection, and River’s gift to the Mountain.”
Hidden Mother surveyed Marthe. “What price do you offer?”
“Myself,” Marthe breathed, with the last of her voice. Even as she spoke, the final transformation washed over her body. She fell onto the ground in front of Hidden Mother, flapping her tail. Had she timed it right?
Hidden Mother laughed. “We have not seen a River-kissed Mountain’s Child dance this well in ages. Well done.” She knelt next to Marthe and bowed low. Then she raised her hands to the sky, calling out in a high, liquid voice.
Hidden Mother called again. Hands touched Marthe, lifting her body, guiding her out the door and back down the path to River.
Hidden Mother called a third time.
River answered, surging gently through the village to reach Marthe’s twisting, long body.
Come to me, my child, he whispered through Marthe’s whole body. The time to dance has begun.
Marthe yearned to dance with him. But something held her back. She turned her great eye toward Hidden Mother, trying to ask through fins and twist.
Hidden Mother chuckled. “Your request is granted. The people of the Mountain’s Child will live in peace with River’s protection upon them, as long as they walk in harmony with River and the Child. You have done well, oh Mountain’s Child. Go now to River’s depths, and dance in his arms, till we meet again.”
My work is done, Marthe thought. She twisted away from the hands of Swedetown and deep into River’s waiting arms. One fleeting memory of the Mountain and its snows came to her with a faint taste of the Mountain’s Child amongst River’s waters.
But then she tasted more little rivers and creeks in River’s depths. And she was gone amongst River’s song, her voice but a tiny thread amongst the whole.
This story originally appeared in River, edited by Alma Alexander.