She couldn’t leave the river, and she was malevolent. When I was six, I saw her catch something, a horse, maybe, that had ventured too close or never learned to care about the classifications of land and water and shore. She sank her teeth in deep until escape would mean tearing itself into more than one piece, and then she thrashed her head back and forth, rolled, and dragged it deep. The foam on top of the water was red. It was the first time I tried to imagine which had come first: our ancestor’s curse that kept her in the water, or her indifferent fury.
Either way, we won what we had aimed for: a border that nothing on the opposite bank dared to touch. It never seemed important enough to speak out loud how we had trapped ourselves in the dust on our side as well.
It was midnight before Etric arrived, dragging the little boat. It was wide enough to fit him sitting cross-legged, and long enough for me to sit ahead of him, but neither of us even knew if it would hold water. It had been sitting behind his house for an age, the shade we had played under when we were much smaller, and the hideaway for all the things we kept secrets now. I wished, for just a moment, that I had been there a few minutes before, when he had torn the old tarp away and turned it into a boat again.
He didn’t waste time on wishes, just trudged steadily past me while the sharp hull of the boat cut a line in the sand behind him, and shoved the boat down into the water. We watched to see if the shine of the water would seep into the bottom, and we watched to see if the ripples would wake her. Everything else was a moot point.
The boat floated.
The ripples slowly cleared, and the moon turned the river into a moving plate of white glass.
“Well,” Etric said, eyebrows raised. He blinked at the boat, as if he had expected a different answer, as if he knew what question came next but hadn’t expected to get a crack at it. He glanced sideways at me.
I was slowly going over old lessons in my head. About always staying four feet back from the water. About not bothering folk bigger than me with insults. About getting my sleep because the sun would be up soon enough and there was plenty of work to do. About how to pull air in and push air out and just breathe.
“Should we go?” I asked.
It was a better answer than I had. I let the hiss of the dark hang between us.
“It might be a good time to decide how we feel about the ancestors,” Etric murmured.
I nodded slowly. “Well… my grand-da was pretty bearable if you made him keep his sandals on.”
Etric laughed, but hid it from me, still watching the river. I was watching too, expecting her to lift her head above the gleaming surface and stonily blink green eyes at us.
“Do we believe that they were stupid enough to accidentally get us stranded on this side of the river?” Etric asked, just repeating, succinctly, the question we had asked in a hundred other midnights. “Or that they were willing to strand us here for the sake of keeping something else out? Or, that they expected us to be stupid enough to need to be scared into staying where we belong?”
The water sighed in front of our toes. It whispered somewhere farther down the river, and the hoppers chirruped to each other while we considered.
“So, we’re doing this?” I asked.
Reaching down, Etric pulled the boat tight to the shore and held it steady. “Get in,” he said.