May 3, 2016

River Child, By Chanel Earl


There was once a river. It was broad and steady and flowed through a great valley where it brought life to the woods and fields. In the valley, in a modest farmhouse on the river’s banks, lived a farmer and his industrious wife, who had no children.
The farmer’s wife longed for a child, and everyday as she went about the washing and the cooking, the weeding and the churning, she dreamed of the day when she would have a child to assist her.
“Come, girl,” she would say as she carried the wash out to the line, “Help me with this basket.” And she would imagine the girl assisting her.
“Son,” she would call out if she noticed the farmer had forgotten his lunch, “run this out to your father.” And then she would walk out to the fields herself, thinking of how much easier it would be if she could have a child to do the errand for her.
In the evenings, when the day was done and the dinner was ready, as she sat at her small table, she would sigh and imagine a great, noisy table with many chairs.
She did not talk to the farmer about her fantasies. They used to dream of children together, but as the years went on and the children did not come, his dreams withdrew, and eventually gave up. Now the dreams were hers alone, like the deep sadness she saw in her husband’s eyes.
One day after the farmer left for the fields, and after the farmer’s wife finished milking the cows and collecting the eggs, she set out to work in the garden. It was a gray day in early spring, and the sky drizzled rain so slowly the woman wondered if it was really rain at all. As she worked digging dirt and planting peas, she noticed the roar of the river. It was easy to ignore the ever-present sound of water flowing through the valley, but today the woman heard it with increased interest, for among the sounds of water, she heard the soft sound of the rain hitting the river, and with it indecipherable voices speaking, calling, whispering and even singing.
The woman walked to the banks of the river and called out, “Who’s there?” But although she listened intently for a response she heard only more voices. “Hello? Who are you? Are you good? Are you friends?” She asked each question in turn, but was met only with the unwavering rumble of water flowing over rocks, the steady quiet sounds of the rain, and the voices like a haze over her ears.
“I hear you,” the woman said, “and I don’t know who you are, but I know what I want. Can you send me a child?” As she finished her request, the rain started in earnest. It fell like a waterfall from the sky, drenching her through in mere moments. Still she stayed at the river, whose roar was now deafening as the rain beat against it. The river rose, and soon the farmer’s wife was standing ankle deep in water. As she looked through the rain she saw a figure approach her; a young girl wearing a simple white cotton dress came out of the river and took her hand.
“Mother?” the girl asked, and the woman, her tears falling like the rain that surrounded her, led her to the farmhouse.
The River Child was given the name Celia, and she brought joy to the farmer and his wife, who felt renewed life whenever they looked at her. She was at times sweet and helpful, and then it was as if anything were possible. She helped the farmer’s wife with the laundry and it took half the time. She helped the farmer with the planting and the plants grew twice the size expected. At other times, she was defiant and impulsive, and then it seemed there was no end to her energy, and the farmer’s wife wondered how she could ever keep up.
To the farmer and his wife, Celia was their own child, but they lived in fear that any day she would return to the river.
“Celia,” the farmer’s wife told her every morning, “I love you, and I want us to be always together, so I need you to keep one rule for me. “ At this point Celia nodded her ascent, knowing what would come next. “Never go near the river.” The farmer’s wife commanded, and Celia obeyed.
The valley grew hotter and hotter with each passing month, and on one sweltering day, when the sun itself seemed to be melting out of the sky, Celia said to her mother, “It’s so hot, Mother. We should take a short swim in the river, the cool water will revive us both.”
“No,” the farmer’s wife said. “The river is dangerous. You could be carried away or drowned. I never want to talk of this again.”
Celia listened and obeyed, but inside she carried a longing to see the river that had been forbidden to her. And the next day, after a long afternoon of working in the hot sun, she asked once more. “Mother, I am nearly boiling, it is so hot. Please let me swim in the cool river.”
Again, the farmer’s wife said no. Instead they sat in the shade of a willow and fanned each other to cool off.  “I know you want to go to the river,” the farmer’s wife said, “But I’m afraid to let you go. I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
Celia understood, and vowed to herself to obey her mother’s wishes, even as she felt the river pulling her at every moment.
The hot summer months were ending. Celia and her mother put up the vegetables from the garden, then Celia and her father harvested their crops and prepared them for market. The heat began to lessen as the days grew shorter, and the farmer’s wife worried less and less about the pull of the river on her daughter. The small family celebrated the harvest with music and dancing in town, with full meals of ripe berries and sweet corn, and with long picnics under the shady trees.
Celia didn’t ask again if she could go to the river, and when she felt its call, she drowned it out with extended conversations with her mother, singing and dancing and the delicious fruit of their harvest. By the time the leaves began changing and the nights became cold, the farmer and his wife had stopped worrying about Celia’s sudden departure, and only Celia knew that the pull to the river was stronger than it had ever been. At times she would wake up at night shaking and go on walks, not toward the river, but following its course at a distance. She heard voices calling, singing and whispering, but she couldn’t make them out. On these nights she returned home restless and sorrowful.
Then the rains came. The dry summer heat was gone and the autumn weather brought with it heavy rains that fell and fell and fell like they were never going to stop. The fields turned to mud.
The river began to rise. And Celia, at her parent’s request, stayed inside the farmhouse. The water reached the garden, where the last of the pumpkins began to float on the surface like lily pads. The water reached the fields, which sent the livestock to the barn, and then, when the water reached the barn, the farmer and his wife had to go together to find a new home for the cows and chickens.
“Stay here,” Celia’s mother said. “We’ll be back soon. Whatever you do, just stay inside.”
Celia nodded, determined to obey in spite of herself, but she felt it coming for her, chasing her, a chorus of voices insisting it was time to return. She hugged her parents, and whispered goodbye.
The rain increased its relentless beating, and while the farmer and his wife worked to save their chickens and goats, the water advanced toward the farmhouse. The porch was soon buried. Water seeped up through the floorboards, and began to flow into the house. As the water hit Celia’s feet, she vanished into the water from which she had come.
And with that, the rain stopped, the water receded. The farmer and his wife returned to an empty home, where they mourned their lost child, but unlike the long grief of former years, this time they mourned together. The farmer took his wife in an embrace as they remembered the joy Celia had given them.
The next spring, after milking the goats and collecting the eggs, the farmer’s wife began her work in the garden. As she sat, she noticed the roar of the river and felt a soft drizzle of rain on the back of her neck, her hair tingled, and she ran to the river, listening to the sounds of the raindrops hitting the water. There she saw the familiar face of her daughter, smiling. And holding Celia’s hand was a little boy. “Mother?” he asked as the two children reached out to hug the farmer’s wife, tears in her eyes.

Chanel Earl's short story collection What to Say to Someone Who's Dying is available at most online bookstores. You can find out more about her at her blog: chanelstory.blogspot.com. 

Altered image by John Byam Liston Shaw.

5 comments

  1. When I read River Child,I loved the hopefulness it conveyed that our wishes may be so strong that what we wish for maybe being born somewhere--or that the strength of our wishes may ultimately manifest them either to us or that they live somewhere.

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  2. Creative story! It has that traditional fairy tale feel but an unpredictable ending. I enjoyed your simple and straightforward style.

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  3. Lovely story. I especially enjoyed the way the appearance and disappearance of Celia affected the relationship between the farmer and his wife.

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    1. Like all good fairy tales, family dynamics showed up!

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