March Short Story Contest Entry- “The River”
March 8, 2018
Cili immersed herself in the bushes, grasping her bow tightly in anticipation. The forest was clear and vivid; cicadas hummed in unison around small puddles from an earlier downpour, and the deep green trees sagged in some sort of vigil. The deer sat densely in the center of a tiny field surrounded by a daunting circle of trees. Its fur was mottled, but from its sitting position as well as the velocity with which its head swung around in observation, Cili knew it would be a perfect meal.
Cili’s muscled arms tensed as she adjusted her arrow, aiming for a leg; heads and stomachs had gotten far too repetitive. Once the deer’s speed was diminished, she would quickly take a stone to its head. The deer began to rise precariously from its rest as Cili swiftly leaned forward.
Cili flew her arrow at the deer. It lashed in the wind, lacerating the deer’s shoulder. Immediately, Cili bolted after it with a lethal stone, but in shock, she frantically pivoted around. She had come too close to the river.
Sweat rushed from her forehead like a school of fish. The deer staggered over to the river with primitive relief. Cili herself could not venture there — if she immersed herself in the river water, the water would eat her and she would perish beneath the earth. How she knew this she did not know; she only knew that she could not risk angering the water by challenging this knowledge. With disappointment, she began to plod back to her cabin; but suddenly, a horrific shriek scourged the sky, and she whipped her head back around to the river in concern.
A young woman, most likely her own age, was fraughtly flailing her arms around, creating panicked ripples along the river’s surface.
At once, the earth was being prodded, bouncing up and down, and the river was emerging, becoming closer and closer to Cili, but seeming abnormally unthreatening. The water was storming around her body and the young woman’s skin was arriving in her arms. The earth was whirling around in a different direction, and the bank at once embracing both of the women.
Cili snapped her eyes shut in shock and horror, but the woman in her arms squeezed at her dark hair until she pried open her eyes again.
“Thank you so, so, so, so much,” the woman heaved. The woman was gazing at her with reverence, her light blonde locks stumbling onto the earth. “Please tell me if there’s anything I can do for you. I’m so sorry for the inconvenience…”
“I-It’s fine,” Cili stammered. Her eyes nervously jolted elsewhere. She was lost for words; she hadn’t seen anyone in over a month, let alone a pretty woman. ”Your name?” she asked, not knowing what else to say.
“Claudia,” she said softly. “And you?”
“Cili. And, um, you should stay a while. It’s getting dark. Take some of my garments. Trying to walk back out in your state wouldn’t be wise.”
Claudia grinned at the suggestion, and Cili could feel something odd around her chest. “Thank you, Cili,” she repeated. She intently observed Cili’s features. “You seem concerned about something.”
“I’m fine,” Cili mumbled, trying not to draw attention to herself.
“I apologize for the nosiness, but you seem shaken.” She stared earnestly at Cili, and emotion ruptured through her countenance. “Repression isn’t good for the heart. Years and years pass, and throughout the ages, the heart has grown angrier and angrier with each kick from the head. The only way to restore yourself is to release yourself, and you, Cili, are very much in need of release.”
Cili gazed at the near-stranger and began to converse with her further. However sudden it might have been, she derived some sort of primal pleasure from the oration, as if it were an ancient relic she had finally been exposed to after years of desperate search. However, fear tainted this white wine, and after a long conversation, she observed Claudia again, mentioning the faint bruise-marks on her arms and legs. “You’re injured.”
“Oh, it’s nothing horrible,” Claudia remarked. “Just bruises from the rocks.”
“Bruises don’t come from rocks,” Cili replied, but she was too nervous to ask of their origins. Someone had inflicted them, but for what reason? “But your left foot is bleeding. I suppose that’s from the rocks. Yarrow might help,” she posited, fishing her drenched purse for the herb. She thoroughly pressed yarrow-powder to Claudia’s wound. “You’re tired. Rest.”
Claudia laughed as if she were an old friend. “Not until you tell me something! Don’t think you can spend the whole night dancing around your heart.”
“Fine,” Cili replied with an ignorant smirk. A red squirrel scurried abnormally close to the two. “You see that animal? That’s a squirrel.”
“You don’t say! What’s its name? Adora?”
“Of course,” Cili remarked sarcastically. On a whim, she grabbed Claudia’s arm, feeling something. “Just stay until the scrape has healed.”
Claudia beamed, almost teary-eyed. With odd hesitation, she began to wrap her smooth arms around Cili’s back, burying her head in the latter’s chest. Cili could feel her own heartbeat quickening, but for what? Claudia was a mere stranger, but Cili’s concerns about the river had been muted and sent away… Her foreboding returned at once with the realization, and she glanced anxiously at the river.
“I would have been dead had you not stormed in and saved me. I’m so happy that you can swim.” Claudia’s deep green eyes veered sensitively to the right. “Most women who take an interest in it are not allowed to…”
“It’s nothing,” Cili murmured. “Not allowed to?” she asked in confusion.
“Do you live with anyone?” Claudia inquired.
“No, but I do look over a few families,” she replied.
“Oh,” Claudia breathed, glancing down. “You must belong to the Amazons. Some of the men in my village don’t particularly like autonomous women. The men… um… They block the river, so we usually can’t pass… They make up lots of stories about it, and –”
An unnatural roar truncated the conversation. Adora, who had been resting by the two women, rushed back to her shelter along the roots of a young tree.
“No, no, no, no, no,” Claudia gasped. “He’s coming, he’s coming!”
“It doesn’t matter.” She swiftly buried her face in Cili’s neck, shedding soft tears. “It was wonderful meeting you. It’s been wonderful to meet such a liberating woman… but I might be gone for a long while. Take care, and know thyself.”
Cili’s eyes filled with abrupt concern. “Claudia, what do you mea–”
“Claudia!” a harsh, old voice rumbled, causing her to oscillate wildly. She ripped herself away from Cili and stood up. Only then did the man impose himself upon the trees.
The man was bald and tall with a flimsy build, yet he was mounted on some sort of unpleasant, rowdy machine. The displeasure of hearing the device’s crazed cacophony was only surmounted by the unnatural callousness of his gaze. With an eerie silence, he seized Claudia and thrust her into the steely machine as she yelped, tears rushing forth from her weary green eyes.
Cili immediately jolted up, fixing her legs into a Spartan lunge. How dare he! Her weapons had been lost, but she refused to tremble, and: There it was.
A long, narrow instrument. The architect of her mother’s death. A rifle. Terror swamped Claudia’s weeping face. “No, no, no… Please don’t do anything; don’t do anything; please run…”
The man fastened his aim. “Run!”
A gunshot resonated behind her. She jolted into the wood with furious confusion, the trees fusing into a dashing blur, before flinging herself to a halt.
The man hadn’t followed her.
Cili cringed with a foreign, foreign pain. She whirled her head back to the direction of the river. It must be punishing her for her profanity. The water must be inside her now, gnawing at her heart. She should not have been the one to save Claudia, and now, she was paying the price of her blasphemy. Mournfully, she pondered Claudia; her gentle smile; her poetic expressions; her fair countenance, and the sad impossibility of protecting her. Immediately, however, she expelled the woman from her thoughts. The river would eat both of them if Cili replayed her sins. She trudged back to her cabin and tortured herself for the night, pummelling her memories of the river.
Light danced through the remote cabin the next morning as Cili plodded through the wilderness. Her mind was muddled, filled with blurry thoughts, and for some reason, she could not hunt. Closing her eyes, she galumphed around the woods, but there was no respite from her heart. She was standing deep in the sand of the river. Moaning in horror, she gazed around the vast setting and gasped.
“Claudia!” she screamed. “Claudia!”
The woman on the other side was straining her neck, but the sound did not resonate. Cili’s eyes creased in frustration. Claudia was beckoning to her to swim, but what would happen if she did? She couldn’t risk angering the river again. From what she could observe, Claudia had been deeply bruised… Cili buried her hands in her face and slowly stumbled away. At that moment, she recalled Claudia’s past comment: “They make up stories about it….” Maybe what had occurred hadn’t been a product of the lake, but what could explain it? The men? Her eyes drooped, and she recalled the eldritch figure she had encountered the day before, beginning to sweat fervently. She lobbed her eyes shut. Images of rifles; of bloody mouths by whispering mouths; of a deep sorrow… She opened her eyes, and the images fled somewhere else. No. The river was angry. The river was angry.
Days and weeks passed, and the ritual continued. Cili, devoid of her usual self-discipline, would stumble to the river; the dear Claudia would be too quiet; Cili would be too afraid.
Winter was arriving, and night fell upon the wilderness early. A decent hunt had been performed, and Cili rushed home in anticipation of a brewing storm. A gelid wind shoved her into the stable cabin filled with old instruments and toys. Taking a paltry bite of old autumn berries, she plopped onto her bed and dozed off to sleep.
“Look at me!”
The river was drained. Claudia was in chains. The weak man stood in the center of the river, aggrandizing his figure by standing on top of the machine. A wicked, abnormal smile plastered itself onto his face as he howled.
Cili’s eyes careened around the scene. The tree in which Adora had sheltered for so long had been overturned, exposing its crimson roots. Cili’s heart began to throb wildly, pummelling her ribcage. Her eyes were fixed on Claudia.
Claudia was weeping hysterically. Her lower lip was curled upwards in anguish, her body was marred with bruises and lashes of all kinds, and her eye was gravely swollen, shutting out its glowing green.
Cili began to breathe; her inhales became gasps, her exhales puffs. Her hands began to rattle. The world around her was darkening, obscuring. Something was coming…
Portraits assaulted her. She lurched her head down to soft, small hands and bloodstained grass. A man in odd garments was roaring grotesque proclamations behind a hateful fire.
“Purity!” he exclaimed, his manic eyes shifting to a pair of bloody women. “Purity tames the waters! Purity tames the waters!” The fire crackled with acrimony. Children wailed as the man lurked around them, moving forth with his speech. Its potency deluged Cili’s mind, capitvating her in spite of its sickness like a timeless drug…
Cili threw her eyes open and gazed at nothing. Pain stung her chest with ancient abandon. Something began rumbling in her face, and salty water ruptured her eyes, storming madly along her cheeks and hands. The old memories tore forth as a furious storm. Tasting her tears, Cili thought of Claudia: of her rich smile and wondrous emotionality, and of the sensation of her gentle hands along Cili’s stiff back. Her teeth gritted in angry confusion and she rattled her fist at the ceiling, grabbing something along the counter. She sprinted out of the cabin, her feet pounding the ground as rain whipped her shoulders. The storm had arrived, but she paid no heed.
She lunged towards the river and, with slick, sweaty palms, drove herself into the water, swimming vigorously across the still fluid.
It was warm.
Cili gasped as she threw herself in the direction of the bank, her arms longing for Claudia. A body was treading in the water by the bank. A pair of tender, battered hands caressed her face.