All night long, the weary sound of water dripped from the roof into the bucket below, eroding her dreams. Ava woke from a sleep which bore her like an ocean, her mind still filled with the raindrop drum. The moon had veiled its face so that the stars could not see her cry. She woke and saw the street alive. She remembered when the neighborhood was submerged. She remembered when she was ruined by waters, ruined and resurrected by waters that bore spent seeds, the corpses of trees, and times that would never come again. Neither born nor named, time swam lifeless inside her and the lifeless tides swam with her. Ava touched damp garments that clung to her skin, close as guilt.
Watching the early morning walkers with their dogs at their sides, Ava was reminded that she lived among a people who believed in seasons. She lived among those who believed in the story and the song, among people who believed in prayer. Yet she knew nothing but the language of loss in a landscape she no longer recognized.
Ava rubbed her palm across the empty bowl of her stomach. Now she longed for the days when she felt full, when the nausea filled her and all she could taste was the salt from the stale crackers she nibbled on. Longing gnawed at her brain, consumed her waking thoughts. She never had the chance to hold it.
Rain made her anxious. The river swelling outside beyond the bluff filled Ava with dread. The rain fell faster, harder than it had last night. Outside, the walkers had long since scattered. Only the hardcore remained, refused to retreat. All was a sheet of gray steel. Inside, her mind was pitch black, except the brief flashes of light that stung the sky of memory. The couple who came for her, flashlights in hand, the beams reflecting off the violent waters that careened outside her door. Paralyzed, her body was caught in between. Trapped between a birth and a transformation. The old house had become a ship, tossed along the siren’s song. Long after, terror filled her, even on the brightest days, flashbacks of all that she had lost. She was weary, tired of losing what she’d never had.
“Maybe it’s a blessing,” Grandmama said. “Maybe the Lord didn’t want you to have that child. Birthing in the middle of all that strife. The Lord spared him.” Grandmama was convinced the child was a boy.
“You carrying that baby mighty low,” she had said. But that was then, before the first gills came.
“Sometimes, I wish He had spared me.”
Grandmama sucked in air, a tone to freeze eardrums. Her eyes were cool water.
She had loved him. Most nights Ava told herself she had. She missed the way his fingers traced her flesh, the way his eyes widened, marveling at her smooth palms and their missing lifelines. She remembered him tracing the curve of throat, him lingering there until she could not breathe, the simple pleasure before his tongue found the gills. He had drawn away as if her touch had stung him. She never would forget his fear staring back at her, pupils dilated in widening circles, receding like the ripples in the river, him pulling away like the tide of the sea.
That night she drank red merlot, glass after cheap glass, and listened to Aretha, feeling like everything but a natural woman. That night her mind was all rivulets and rock pools. She spent the evening ruminating, returning to the same eye of water. Ava added three teardrops of pokeroot to her glass, and felt her throat constrict and release. Grandmama’s rootwork. She always had a recipe but nothing could fix this, heartbreak. The flesh had grown raw and itchy inside, a wound that would not heal. Suddenly a soul in the lost and found didn’t sound so unnatural to her. She had felt more than good inside, more possible with him. Now she felt undone, in flux. She was turned inside out. It was some time after the third or fourth glass, when the wine dribbled down her chin like ruby drops of blood, that she realized it was not his absence she mourned. It was the willful blindness that his presence helped her hide. Now how would she hide from herself?
When Ava was a child her mother recited poems to her. Fierce poems of fault lines, of rivers turned, of a great tortoise whose back was as wide as the river’s hips, of ancient paths lost and regained. They would emerge from beneath the Old Bridge. Together they dried themselves on the river’s shore and watched the two trains running overhead. The air stung. It would take hours for Ava to perfect the rhythm of breathing. Sometimes drifters would leave piles of driftwood, old bottles, used cans. Her mother would make a fire and with a stick she would carve old signs and symbols in the soil. On those cool, mosquito-filled nights, Ava swatted flies and was warmed by her mother’s company. Comforted by her mother’s voice, her gills receded into her flesh, disappeared with the wind.
Mama kept her secrets close. Tight as water skins. “The Old Bridge is not the first bridge. Another lies in the water below,” Mama had said, motioning with her hand. The thin membrane of webbing had finally dried and dropped away. It lay in scaly piles in the sand. “The first bridge was the river’s spine, the Great Turtle. Our people swam across it, drifting finally into these waters. The first people we met lived up there, high on the hills.” The high bluffs of the quiet river city were Ava’s first glimpse of what would later become her home. Mama kept her secrets close. Ava learned this when she woke and discovered that she was alone. Mama had left her sleeping on the river’s bank.
When the river came alive, it hungered. It grew teeth and rose from its banks, swallowed the parks, the bending paths, the abandoned cars, the empty lots filled with broken glass, and encircled the bone yard, and the house. Ava woke to the sound of water running, like a faucet left on, and at first she thought it was a dream. She often dreamed of the river, the banks where her mother left her all those years ago, before the tall fishing man discovered her weeping by the still smoldering fire, before he took her home where she met Grandmama. But when Ava opened her eyes she realized the water had joined her, and that if she did not rise it would cover her and all the room. Then the cramps came, thunder deep below her chest. The baby, it was coming too soon. The water had awakened it. The water called to them both. Ava felt the gills open on her neck, the skin lengthen and stretch between her fingers. She needed to get out of the water, she needed to resist its call. Trapped between the birth and her own transformation, she climbed onto the top of the desk, then took a breath, plunged into the water’s oily depths, swam out the door, in search of Grandmama.
It was the blame in their eyes that made Ava shun their company. The silent accusation made her huddle in the staging area on her own. People wanted to know why, couldn’t understand how. The mayor said to go. Staying wasn’t part of anyone’s plan. “Why?” was the question that rested on everyone’s lips. Why did Ava and so many others decide to ride out the storm? How could they not know the storm would ride them?
Grandmama once told Ava that her husband’s heart had just stopped. “It knew Amp wasn’t gon’ never quit working, so his heart just revolted against itself.” She said she found him lying on the floor. He had lain down himself. “He came from a people who always used their hands. Sometimes,” she said, “against themselves. But not my Amp. He built this house when we married, built it before your daddy was even born. I guess it’s good he didn’t know his boy wasn’t gon’ live long as him. In his way your daddy’s heart revolted, too. Sometimes it ain’t good to love so much in this world.” For Ava and Grandmama, the house and its memories were all that they had left.
To keep the house when her husband died, Grandmama cleaned cracked china and porcelain bowls, shined broken mirrors and windows that stayed closed. Her hands cooked meals for dinners she was never invited to, graced tables with straightback chairs where she could not sit. Where she worked she heard haints in the halls and would return in time to make Ava’s late-night dinners, telling her stories that left her amused, enthralled. She complained that there was nothing truly alive in some of those other grander houses, the walls had veins with no blood in them. Grandmama said a house has got to breathe, got to have some soul and a little laughter to make its foundation stay strong, said not every house, not every family can carry the weight. She said what Ava and she shared made their home more beautiful, more sacred than the fanciest castle. Ava believed her, too, right up until the water came and took her past and future, her home and her baby.
Long after they lost their house in the flood, after they moved to another river city, Grandmama stood in line with hollow-faced folks. Worried and weary, she waited like the others to get her pills. The churches collected toothpaste and brushes, brought clothing and prayers. The kindness made the loss less sharp. The city’s humid heat made them feel less naked. “But feeling clean don’t help me sleep,” Grandmama said. The water haunted her dreams, too. So she waited and swallowed pills she knew by color, tried to muster up an appetite to eat. Grandmama missed her garden and her homemade cha cha. Ava missed her baby.
When Ava found Grandmama, she was upstairs still asleep in her bed. The look on her face was pure disbelief. She refused to leave the house without getting herself dressed.
“I’m not going with all my business hanging out,” she cried. “If the Lord gonna take me, I am at least going to have on my good dress.” The pain in Ava’s face made her stop.
“What’s the matter, child?”
“The baby,” Ava managed. “It’s coming, I can’t stop it.”
“Stop calling that boy ‘it,’ and come help me pull down this ladder.” The water was rising up the steps. Framed photos, dishes, and books floated just below them. It took all Ava’s strength to help her Grandmama up into the attic. The pains came so strong, she wanted to lie down in the murky water and let the flood carry her wherever it willed. “Come on, Ava,” her Grandmama said, reaching for her. They waited in the attic, darkness all around them. “We in God’s hands now.”
While the water rose and their lone flashlight faded, Grandmama hummed and sang. She began with the stories Ava heard as a child, the ones that told of a people who came from water, who lived and breathed it, the way the others swallowed air. The infant Ava had loved and feared rested in a worn sheet between them. Its skin felt smooth and warm to Ava’s touch, but she knew when Grandmama first held it, that there was something wrong. The child, a boy, never took its first breath.
It was Grandmama who heard the people screaming below. She called back, thankful already though they had not yet been delivered. Racked with pain so deep it seemed to sear her belly, Ava managed to rise from grief, the blood slick and running down her knees. She took the flashlight and knocked out a hole in the roof. With each strike, the rain came faster, her tears harder.
“We’re here,” Grandmama shouted. Ava did not wait for the reply below. As Grandmama stood up, widening the hole with her shoulders and waving to the couple in the boat, Ava took the silent child, caressed its little winged limbs and released it into the water and the night. It was dark, later they would need a flashlight just to see the food they ate, but then, hovering in the house that was once her shelter, all Ava wanted was to see her child’s face. For a moment Ava thought she saw the tiny body shudder as the water covered it. Inside she felt her heart revolt. He came from a people who always used their hands. Sometimes against themselves. Ava turned away, her face full of tears.
“What did you do?” Grandmama cried. Her eyes were fetid floodwaters, her voice cold enough to stop a heart.
The house they loved was a waterlogged corpse, but the city was not all they left behind. Something had changed. The water between them had darkened and risen like the river and the flood. They spoke in clipped sentences. Grandmama slept as much as she could, while Ava dreamed awake. She replayed each second of memory, trying to recall if she had imagined the infant wriggling, picturing if and how the child might have lived.
The night rain came and invaded her sleep as stealthily as the night of the hurricane, Ava woke with a hangover and one question on her mind. She flung the coverlet back, placed one bare foot on the hardwood floor. Stood in the open door, wearing her good slip, wrinkled and wine-stained. She took a deep breath, inhaled the rain and the sunshower air. Grandmama had answered her call on the first ring.
Now, after making their way to the river’s bank, Ava slipped out of her shoes, stepped into the muddy water. The river whispered around her ankles and her feet.
“Listen,” Grandmama said, the weeds and trees swayed behind her. “The river is trying to tell you something: move, change. If your mama hadn’t gotten lost, if she had stuck to another plan, she never would have met your father.” Grandmama bent and picked up the shoes, shook loose soil from the soles. “Here, at the riverside, is where they began. When she left the last time, she knew your daddy would return to the same place where he first met her. She knew he would never stop searching, never stop remembering. Sometimes it’s dangerous to love that much.”
Ava had peeled off her dress and stood in the open air, the wind brushing her nipples, still plump with mother’s milk. Her daddy had said she had her mother’s face, strong bones, wide nose, wider forehead. Moon-marked, Grandmama had said, so she kept her in the sun. The closer Ava got to the river, the less air her lungs needed to breathe. She felt dizzy, her skin tingled and writhed with thirst. “Being lost helped us find you, Ava. You always thought the river took something from you, took your mama away, broke your daddy’s heart, but maybe the river gave you something more.”
Skin that was once dark and burnished now took on a copper-like sheen. Scales that were barely detectible appeared more pronounced. Ava began to walk into the waters, not far from the strip of sand where her mother had once told her lies and read her poems.
“I’m not mad, Grandmama, not anymore,” Ava said. She unraveled the thick French braids she wore. Her hair puffed around her shoulders in a dark, wavy cloud. “I just need to try to find him. I know what I saw, know what I felt. I think he’s alive.”
Grandmama waved away a witch doctor who hovered near her ear. “If you’re going, you need to listen to the river when you can’t hear me. She ain’t going to tell you nothing wrong. Listen to her now. She is telling you that there ain’t no shame in changing. Baby, you are what you are. You come from this here water, but you also are part of this land. All them years I tried to keep you safe from this,” Grandmama pointed at the Mississippi, “but when I wasn’t looking, the river come to take you back anyway. So find what you love most from both of those things that make you, and then you go on out in this world and make yourself.”
Ava walked deeper into the shallow water, felt the river whispering, pulling all around her. Grandmama clutched the blue sandals, crushed the sundress to her chest. “You don’t want to listen to me, then go ahead, listen to the river. It’s been calling you since you were born. The water is wise. When you feel there ain’t no other way, do like this river do and bend.”
Grandmama stood away from the water, heels planted in the sandbar, as if she was afraid the river would rise and take her, too. Unwilling to leave on bad terms, but unable to stay now that they were good, Ava rushed out of the water to give her Grandmama one final hug.
And then, as if the sky had waited for this moment, the rain stopped. The only echo was Grandmama’s whispered “Be good, girl. I hope to be here when you come back,” and the hush of the river wind. Ava took a deep breath, inhaled the last of the sunshower air. Humidity wrapped around her ankles, pulled her closer to the bank.
on the brown river’s surface
the gold mermaid smiled
© 2015 by Sheree Renée Thomas. Originally published in Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany. Reprinted by permission of the author.