July 9, 2020

Throwback Thursday: THE NAIAD by Lillie E. Franks

To her, time flowed just as her spring did.
Some gave to her
and others only took...

Editors note: I picked this lovely little flash story to give an example of how well flash fiction can work. It was published in June, 2019. Remember, there’s a Christmas in a July contest happening this month, focusing on flash fiction and poetry. (Christmas is not your only option.) HERE are details. Enjoy!

One day, without warning, her world, which had flowed infinitely into the distance as long as she had been, stopped.

She had been born with the spring. She swam in in it, felt it gather itself when the rain came, felt it flow past the stones and burble out in a gentle trickle where the ground was just low enough. She watched her water off, like a mother watching her children, waving goodbye as it flowed to the river, merged with its fellows, and ran its course down, down, and away to the ocean, where all water dreams of being.

To her, time flowed just as her spring did, with generations coming and going like waves pushed after each other in the deep ocean. Each was different. Some prayed to her, others smiled their thanks. Some gave to her and others only took. Each was perfectly different but overwhelming similar, different water in the same crests. They drank from her spring and her water became a part of them. She felt them with the same mingled faintness that she felt her waters rise into the air and mingle with the waters of the sky.

The ones who came to survey the land seemed no different to her than any around her. She had not worried about them because she had no concept of worry and no idea that anyone would refuse a gift of fresh water.

And then, in a blur, the construction crews and the bulldozers came and finally the cement. It poured down from the truck like a slow trickle of its own. When it had covered her spring, it stopped. To her, it was the first single moment in time, the first event that happened in an instant rather than washing in over just as many years as it took to wash out.

It was her first introduction to the cold, hard, fixed time of the humans who now lived above her.

She swam her twisting way to the thick stone block and laid her hand against it. It was heavy and thick and dead, like the now still water lying beneath it. She had eaten away stones like this in the past, but she wouldn’t eat away this one. The falling waters would find new ways to escape before that. Her spring would never flow again.

She let herself float, still, unmoving, stagnant as the water around her.

As she floated there, they built the houses above her. They were simple houses, many to each building, which would have marveled her if her spring were still flowing. Instead, the information fell into her mind like a dead leaf into a pond, adding nothing, changing nothing, simply being. They painted the walls and carpeted the floors, and she floated. They set up electricity, an invisible river flowing through channels of its own, and she floated. The houses were nearly complete, and still she floated.

Then they turned on the water.

At first she sensed it only as a far away trickle, like she sensed the drops in the clouds before they were dense enough to fall to Earth. She was responsible for the water in the spring and a concrete slab sealed the still spring from the water she sensed flowing above her. That water had nothing to do with her, and she had troubles enough of her own.

But the small tugs at her senses continued. It was lively where she and her spring weren’t. Finally, through boredom as much as anything else, she allowed herself to listen to it. It will be okay if I only listen, she told herself.

As she did, she realized what those tugs had been. The water was scared. It had no nymph to swim through it, and it had been through many strange twists and turns that it didn’t understand. Like her spring, the water above her was constantly pressing against barriers it couldn’t move, until just as suddenly, one of those barriers disappeared, and for just a few seconds, at longest some minutes, it would flow into one of the many tiny channels, over a naked person’s body or past food or into a cup. The water obeyed as it always did, but there was no one to follow alongside it and say “Good! This is your natural course. Keep on, no matter what happens.”
“Was she allowed to go to new waters?” she wondered. She had been born with the spring. She had lived with the spring, and the spring had been a piece of her just as she had been a piece of it. If the spring were still running, it would be obvious treachery to leave it. Wasn’t it a worse treachery to leave when there was only her to remember it?

But even as she told herself this, the water above her needed someone to quicken it and the water around her needed nothing. It would drain in other places and other nymphs would take it along its journeys to the sky and back. Her arguments for what should be could last only so long in the face of what was.

Her choice to leave the stagnant spring did not come in one moment like the cement above it. It came like waves, from an inconsequential ripple to a powerful tide she could ride away on.

The foundation sat between her and the water above, but she could swim through any water. Where it reached, she could reach.

She swam deeper into the ground, each stroke taking her into smaller and smaller channels bordered by smaller and smaller rocks. She swam around the houses until she came up in a small garden, meticulously kept to only grasses, with nothing to accept the offers the deeper waters made to life.

She waited in that strange, half-garden until the rain came, when, with nothing to carry her but boldness and the desire to be needed, she swam up and into the air. She passed through the rainfall in the form of a glint of light. As she did, she realized it wasn’t so different to swim in the air than to swim in any flowing water. All you had to do was keep your mind on the flow and forget the individual drops.

Even inside the building, there was still water in the air, thinner only by a little than the rain outside. Through this, she found her way as a feeling of cold and the smell of a forest after a storm.

She expanded through the building until she finally found it: a sink running to wash dishes. She reached her way upstream into the channel of water, and at last, found her place again.

She swam around the pipes and tanks of this new world, exploring every limit and boundary she met. Wherever she swam, the water rejoiced, as if to say “The place I have found is natural. Good or bad, I have followed my own rules to come here and a spirit has seen that and acknowledged it!” The people in their houses that day found some quality of their water fresher, better tasting than usual, but could not say what it was.

As people drank from her strange, many-headed spring, she came to understand them just as she understood the pumps and pipes that surrounded them. She felt their sadnesses and joys almost as vividly as she felt her own. They were like all people always had been: perfectly different and overwhelmingly similar.

In other days, she had known the sorrows of humans too. Just like now, they had been too large and interwoven for her to fix, the way she could help the frightened water. Something was different, though. There was something that made her inability to help these people harder to bear than it had been.

Back then, she had been a miracle. She had been one of the too few times the strange and awesome world granted something to the humans. Even the ones who talked of water tables and groundflow were thankful the immense forces they called natural, had made her spring.

These people were different. The water she swam in now, though its path was well more fantastic than that of rain flowing down, wasn’t a gift from nature. It was another bill to pay, another small obligation among a crushing number. When they drank her water, they were reminded not that water had been given to them, but that they had to fight for and earn it. They took no joy from her water, and she could take no joy in providing it.

She swam through all the houses and their residents, and the story was always the same. Each one was engaged in a battle to the death to keep this small place they had earned and the faucet that satisfied their thirst. Sometimes, one of them lost the battle. They were kicked out of the building, and she had no idea what happened to them next.

Some days, the residents could taste just a little of her sadness, like tears, in their water. They didn’t use it as much those days and weren’t sure why.

Again, she found herself caught between what she knew she was allowed to do and what she needed to do. Like the first time, it was a conflict that could, given time, go only one way.

She asked the water, “Will you join me in this?”

The water rushed and flowed around her, its small way of saying yes.

It wasn’t a perfect action, but it was the one she knew how to take. She was a spring and she wanted to spring forth. She needed to be a spring, and she knew the people in the houses needed a spring for them.

That day, in time as it was recorded by the people, the faucets and pipes all ran together. Pure, fresh water poured out without explanation or cost. It flowed away down its pipes and away to other places.

The people stepped out of their houses and saw the others who lived with them stepping out as well. The halls were filled with the sounds of babbling waters, a kind music all of them knew. The music told them all they needed to know about what was happening.

The naiad flittered with joy as the people in the houses smiled to each other. For that moment at least, they saw they were all alike the recipients of a bounty they could never understand.

Lillie E Franks is a trans playwright and writer from Chicago, Illinois. She believes in ghosts, fairies, and making the world better. You may follow her on Twitter at @onyxaminedlife. Under no circumstances should she be trusted with your true name.

Cover: Amanda Bergloff @AmandaBergloff


Kathleen Jowitt said...

That's a lovely update for a mythical figure.

Katew said...

I know! I thought the same thing!

Maxine said...

Beautiful imagery, you can almost feel and taste the water. It's a lovely story.

Katew said...

Glad you liked it! A new Throwback is going up soon.