The surge. He could feel it. He could feel the deep swimmers retreat up the tributaries, the shelled creepers bury themselves in the mud. Algae, just sprung into bloom, went dormant, waiting for the passing. From the ice to the northern-most sea his senses followed the currents and ebb of the river, and the river knew what was coming. But he did not.
He slipped from the warmth and skin on his pallet, and into the sluggish embrace of the water.
Opening his center, he spilled past the boundaries of himself, tracing the trunk of the river, reaching into the arms and legs and toes and fingers of its expanse. In the warm, thick night the rocks crowding the shores gave slow responses, the shushing of the grasses warning that something was coming.
Water slipped around his ribs on its steady journey toward the great waters, currents strengthening and cooling as they reached his ankles. His toes sank into the rich, cold muck.
The presence surged up the river, filling the air with the pressure of a thunderstorm, a physical density in his chest. He had to take a deep breath to assure himself he still could as he gathered his strength and made a barrier of himself, stretching across the river and through the stony land beyond.
The wave hit him hard, palpable force shuddering the foundations of the riverbed, and found itself blocked.
Everything was still. No night peeper called, no gossamer-winged flyer rubbed its legs to attract its prey.
Only an arm’s length away a body rose from the water, flowing upward, building itself into color and shape, trunk and arms and legs, toes and fingers like the river. Its skin was almost colorless, the hair silvery in the white light of the fading Belt that wove through the stars. But the eyes, the eyes burned.
It was not a woman, or a man. The shape was only form, an illusion. A convenience. The shape could not describe the whole, the whole could not be contained in the shape.
The brightness of the eyes shifted, the crumbling and reforming of coals.
Let me pass.
My family lives on these banks. You will wash them away.
Let me pass.
What are you seeking? he asked. Anything to distract it.
Something was harmed that I meant to care for. It was taken out of my influence. I want to find it.
What was taken from you?
A woman. A woman with no memory of herself who came to me, and then left to die in the grass.
I have heard nothing of her, or seen.
Let me pass.
It pushed against him, testing him, seeping outward, searching for cracks wriggle into and rip him apart.
If you continue like this you will wash us away, drown us, spread our bodies to feed the tiny shrimp of the riverbed.
You cannot hold me. You will die.
It was not a threat. Just an inevitability.
And you will be delayed.
It surged against him, the pressure turning heavier, harder, an anger that no one could stand against and survive. Then the pale mouth twitched upward at one corner, a whole laugh in that single movement. The night felt suddenly bereft of the density of its presence.
Curb your eagerness, he said. Leave the river unchanged, and I will step aside.
It said nothing, and was still, for so long it did not seem real.
Let me pass. I will not reshape the river. I will not destroy.
They stared at each other, the rings of hot coals in its eyes transfixing him.
Slowly, slowly, he relaxed, letting himself slip back inward, along the water-rounded rocks back to the river, to his center. The presence did not rush forward to consume the huts and sleepers on the banks. It held out a hand. Two drops condensed on the tip of a pale finger.
If you see what I mean to find, I will know.
He did not know, immediately, what it meant, but he stayed still, utterly still as its warm hand tipped his head back and let droplets fall into his eyes with cool splashes.
Then it dissolved, leaving barely a ripple. He could see no change in the river, but the air smelled strange. He waded slowly to the bank, naked and dripping, and stared at the black water until the stars had shifted almost a full hand above him.
For days he watched the borders where the color of the water changed, silty and dark, then suddenly clear, almost the color of the sky. It threaded up the river, stretching like bright veins into the branching streams. Long, finned bodies wound through the strange current, guiding heavy, furred shapes that barely broke the surface except to breathe. Winged watchers followed the flow from the air, fish and birds and tiny skittering shells he had never seen before, had never even heard stories of.
His eyes still felt cool where the drops had fallen as he watched, crouching on a muddy bend.
No one touched the water, fishing and washing and drinking only the river. One of the little girls, barely off her sister’s breast, waded out and drank from a bright tendril before anyone could scoop her away. She said it was warm, and sweet.