February 2, 2019

WHAT THE WATER TAKES by Katherine Kendig

She had eyes the color of the river,
the color of the lakes,
the color of the sea...

In those days the water was the water, whether river, lake, or sea, and it grasped and grasped and grasped. Rain and wave and current took what they could: gardens, boats, bridges, fools. Folk stayed close to home, kept sturdy boots on solid ground, and never, ever swam. Only Dell was different. Dell had eyes the color of the river, the color of the lake, the color of the sea. She soaked up rain like it was the blood in her veins, she floated on her back and let the current take her, she stood at the end of the old half-rotted pier and cast her line – and all might have dined on the bounty she brought in, if only they’d had the courage.

When they were grown, women were expected to choose a man to marry – but Dell had not. “I can’t marry a man who doesn’t love the water,” she said. “I can’t marry a man the water doesn’t love.” A dozen families drew up marriage contracts anyway and sent them to Dell, who tore them all into pieces. Each time, she ran to the end of the pier and tossed the tiny scraps into the water, where no one could reclaim them. They floated, paper stars in a watery sky, and then the water took them.

One day, a gray, wet day only Dell could love, she slipped out to fish. At the edge of the forest the pier stretched pocked and jagged into the mist, a remnant of a bolder time Dell had never seen – and there on the shore, hunched against the rain, feet planted firmly in the mud, was a man. Dell stopped dead, and they stared at each other.

“Dell,” the man said, straightening. “Good morning.”

Dell nodded, wary. The man waited for a word, but none came. He glanced at the forest behind her, gazing as if it might give him courage. Then he looked back at Dell, a little sadly. “I don’t suppose you remember my name,” he said, and he was right. He looked familiar, but Dell often remembered faces as if they were underwater: dim and blurred and shifting. Her silence stretched out, and the man flushed.

“This is for you,” he said abruptly, and he thrust a folded paper at her, creased by his grip, damp at one corner. Another contract. She shook her head and took it and stepped past him, onto the pier, already making the first tear, and the second. His voice followed behind her.
“I know you don’t want to marry,” he said, “but I truly –” Dell could hear his boots on the wood of the pier where none but she dared venture, and felt a shock – “I truly want to know you, Dell, and make you happy, and I hoped you might…” The voice trailed off, but the footsteps kept on, awkward and hesitant. Dell slowed and almost looked back, but what would it matter? She kept on, weaving confidently past the weak wood, her basket bouncing on her arm.
When she reached the pier’s end, she turned. The man was edging past a patch of rotten boards with his arms half-raised for balance, making his determined way forward. She waited until he stood in front of her, panting and sweating, his hood fallen back, face flushed.
“What do you want?” Dell asked. She held his torn-up contract in her fist.
He cocked his head. “You should know I – I would never try to keep you away from the water,” he said. “I know you love it.”
“But you don’t,” Dell remarked. She looked around at the dark water shivering with raindrops and the stark lines of the pier and the smudged shapes of the land they’d come from. She waved a hand. “You don’t find this beautiful.”
He looked at his surroundings, frowning with concentration, and then at her. “I find you beautiful,” he said.
Another fool, Dell thought, disappointed. She flung out her arm and the fragments of contract scattered past the edge of the pier. The man watched the scraps whip into the water, be pelted by the rain, slip under the surface. He bowed his head. “All right,” he said, pulling his hood back up as if he were surrendering. “I understand.” He took a careful step back, and Dell turned to the water to cast her line.
His quiet voice came from behind her. “I find you beautiful,” he said again. “And this – all this – it looks like you. It feels like you. I was going to say, I think I could learn to love it.”
You don’t have to, Dell might have said, gently. Other women will not ask you to. It will be better for you to find someone else. But she stared at the water as the man made his wary way back to the good solid dirt he loved, they all loved, and said nothing.
She stayed on the pier in the murmur-quiet of the rain and pulled up fish for her basket, one after the other, and eventually she stood to go home. By this time the rain had stopped, and the water was mirror-bright and mirror-still, so she couldn’t ignore the flash of white that rose to the surface, eddying with an unseen current, dancing for her notice. A single slip of paper, small and ragged. She frowned at it, but she knelt and reached into the water, trailing her fingers across the surface until the scrap curled into her grasp.
The water did not love people, but it loved Dell. It gave her food, protection, solace, joy. And now it washed up a single word, in ink that should have long since blurred in the wet: the man’s name. Dell held it in her palm and wondered.
She found him sitting against a tree at the woods’ edge not far from the pier with his knees drawn up, gazing fiercely across the water, lost in thought.
“Kaeth,” Dell said. His eyes swung sharply toward her, wary and solemn, surprised and hopeful.
“I could teach you to swim,” she said. “If you wanted to learn.”
Kaeth stood up, slowly, and his glance flicked again to the hungry shifting deeps that held Dell’s heart.
“Yes,” he said. “I want to learn.”
The water lapped at the shore, each wave its own breath, its own yes. Perhaps she would teach him and he would be terrible. Perhaps he would never stop fearing the water. Or perhaps he would learn, and she would learn, and one by one they would dredge the pieces of a shredded contract from the depths, and remake it.
Kaeth smiled. In a certain light, Dell realized, his eyes were the color of the river, the color of the lake, the color of the sea.

Katherine Kendig recently earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Her work has been featured by The Cincinnati Review, PodCastle, and Shimmer Magazine. She lives in Champaign, IL. Twitter: https://twitter.com/kendigles

Amanda Bergloff @AmandaBergloff

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