At the Heart of the River
~ Jessie Kwak
I have always loved you.
When you were a little boy, skipping stones across my broad back and plucking fat, splashing tadpoles from my shallows, I clung to you every time you left my banks. I was in the black dirt beneath your nails and the dank reek your mother would yell at you to wash off before dinner. Sometimes I would splash a daub of mud behind your ear and it would stay hidden there for days, weeks. Until you came back to me to play once again.
When you ran to me after your father came home drunk and vengeful, I saw you cry for the first time. The salt stung but I lapped your tears like they were the first fall rains when you heard him calling for you and sat up, stricken, splashing handfuls of me onto your face to hide your crying.
When you first brought her, I eddied and churned as you both slipped naked into me, tasting you both as you tasted each other. I decided quickly I didn’t much care for her girlish giggle or the way she squealed in disgust when her toes squelched into the same black silk you’d smoothed over your boyish face as pretend camouflage years ago. I also didn’t care for the bitter, toxic-tasting cologne you’d worn for her. I drew up icy currents from the deepest places in my heart until she shrieked, shivering, and begged you to go back to the shore. There, you drank cheap, sweet wine and made love for the first time on a blanket while I sulked and swept the bad taste farther downstream.
When you proposed, years later, you told her how much it meant to return to the place you first loved. She assumed where you first made love, but I knew the truth. I am the place you first loved. You tried to get down on a knee, but, no, it’s too dirty, she said. She pulled you back up into her arms, but I seep into the soil, too, and I shifted beneath you both, just enough to make you lose your balance and step back with a yelp to splash your shoe into my shallows. You pulled her down with you and she caught her hand on a sharp rock. Her sun tan lotion smothered me in a greasy sheen, and the acrid metal you’ve put on her finger disgusted me. But I have a weakness for the taste of blood and I sucked at her hand greedily, pushed as much of myself into her wound as I could. You were laughing but she was angry, calling you clumsy, clutching her injured hand. Black silt and red blood dripped off her elbow into my lapping waves and I drank them both.
I have always loved you. And I still love you now, when you’re fresh from her funeral in Sunday black. I’m sorry, my love. Although I won’t lie and say I’m sad she’s gone, you must believe me that this wasn’t my intention. Infections simply have a way of spreading, and my silt is rich and alive.
I love you as you pick up rocks from my bank, examining them just as you did when you were a boy, looking for that perfectly shaped stone to skip across my back. I leap with joy that you might do so again—but, no. You’re not looking for a smooth skipping stone, you’re looking for a jagged one, like the one that tore her hand. Ah. I see.
You find one and cock your arm back to throw, and I will take your rocks hurled in anger just as happily as your rocks skipped in idle joy.
But you don’t throw it.
You slip it into your pocket, instead; its jagged bulk juts against the fabric of your dress trousers. You pick up another stone, directly from my shallows, with no care this time for the stone’s shape. Into your pocket it goes, a damp stain spreading out from your pocket.
You find another, another, reaching farther into my current, no heed paid to the state of your clothes or shoes as you wade in to fill your suit pockets with my stones. You fall to your knees and do not notice the pain, you bend back a fingernail and I taste blood; it’s sweet, my love.
Now I’m too deep for you to crawl and you’re walking, wading farther into me than you’ve ever gone, past the sun-warm swimming hole you built one teenaged summer and into the swift current at my heart.
Isn’t it beautiful, the way the sunlight breaks the surface of the water and ripples in my currents? I lap kisses into your ears and nose, but your steps hesitate, hands clawing at your pockets.
Isn’t it stunning, the way the schools of little silver minnows shatter like glass when you rush through, fingers pulling stones out of pockets to tumble downstream—I’ll make them smooth, eventually.
Your mouth opens for breath and I fill you. Your arms windmill to swim and I dance with you, swirling us both as I’ve wanted to do all these years, tumbling us until you’re dizzy.
Doesn’t it move you, how lonely cold-cold-cold I am at my heart?
You seem tired of dancing, so I shift an ancient, slime-slick stone beneath your foot; your foot slips beneath and I hold you tight.
There’s so much I’ve wanted to show you.
Jessie Kwak has always lived in imaginary lands, from Arrakis and Ankh-Morpork to Earthsea, Tatooine, and now Portland, Oregon. As a writer, she sends readers on their own journeys to immersive worlds filled with fascinating characters, gunfights, explosions, and dinner parties. She is the author of supernatural thriller From Earth and Bone, the Bulari Saga series of gangster sci-fi novels, and productivity guide From Chaos to Creativity.