Twice that I can remember, the river blossomed up its insides—moisture cleaving every surface, drips of water running like teeth along the edges of walls and ceilings. Afterwards, I would ride my bike, spraying up the muddy streets, my hands wrapped around the handlebars like a lover. The soaked landscape would pour by, a drowning village, a waterlogged dream.
Once, the river took our cattle, the group of them standing together in a haphazard circle, stamping their feet and shaking their heads at the wind and the rain that tunnelled round them. The river swept them all, a jangle of bodies into its rush and roll. It also washed away the birds, their great plumage going under like festival sails. It took our necessary objects: blades, beds, the fires on which we cooked. It stole the warped musical instruments bent by time and earlier floods, the scarce few photographs of children who are now old women and men far beyond recognition.
The river stole the one faded image of my great-great aunt, Carmen. She was a warrior in her time, one who turned away from battle, into what life had left—and like me, she had no children. When she died, those who loved her named her a warrior of peace. I heard she used to ride a bike, motorized, without pedals to make it move. I have her name now, as well as my own that means song-maker and builder. But I find myself wondering if any of this matters now. Because the river will take it all away.
This last time, it took Ella’s baby.
Some days, when I dream of the baby, she is laughing, other days crying. But always she is floating. Her little round legs kicking like puckery fins. Her face as visible to me as the moon.
The women crowded around Ella, weeping. And then they began to cook, spreading rich smells of food into the thickness of new moisture and the billowing clouds of insects. Nothing was dry here. Nothing was without the taste of something just gone.
They say that cries of grief bring us closer to our animal selves. I have come to believe this is true. To care for Ella is to live with a wolf or a nightingale.
They also say sadness dulls the tongue. Even so, or despite this, the women salvaged what they could from their soaked provisions. They went out further, where the waters hadn’t touched, they hunted, and what they brought back they poured into their cooking for Ella’s loss. I confess my tongue burned and leaped with the flavours they created, as I sat quietly, eating with my dancing mouth, and brushing away the little stabs of the mosquitoes that clung to my uncovered skin.
I ate as if I knew this food made by the grieving women would give me the strength to sleep, and it is there that I would meet Ella’s baby in my dreams.
While my plate was filled and passed to me, collecting others’ tears as it went from hand to hand, I watched Ella. She sat close by, but her body was in knots, her face turned away. Every bite of food carried the sensation of being alive.
Over a year ago, she had arrived in our village to take over her brother’s home and care for his few cattle, while he left to find work in a larger town. She stayed a stranger to us, mostly because she was fierce about living on her own. I would glimpse her as I was riding my bike along the riverbank in the evenings. Ella lay on her side on a blanket, pillows of grass under her pregnant belly and between her legs, with an open book held close, reading it in the dying light. Seeing her there, resting intently in her weight on the ground, I almost forgot my legs turning the pedals. She had been working with the other women in the fields since the early morning, but now her body relaxed while her mind laboured and danced. How full, crowded even, she seemed, with something I imagined was pleasure.
It was not too long after this, and about five months before the flood, that Ella gave birth to her daughter.
Most people well enough to work with their bodies have left the village by now, headed for higher ground. I hear stories of what is out there, not so far away, closer to the sea—miles and miles of rusted, peeling, broken structures strewn across the land, hulking shapes like beached whales, their webbed plastic flesh torn away from their ribbed metal frames. Into the giant fruit of industry, the natural world is moving. It disassembles and it fills everything.
Whole cities have fallen, they say. Scattered leftovers, fragmented, flattened, earthbound. Only trees grow tall above us now.
I’ve been asked what I’m still doing here in this village half wrecked by the river, with the old people in their last days, women with young children or babies who are unable to go, and men who can’t afford to leave others behind.
My name is for song-making and for building, I tell them, so that is what I’m here for.
But to myself I think, maybe there’s a hidden part of me afraid to leave, and so my home will take me under with it in the end. Or else I will ride my bike until it weakens and breaks apart beneath me, and then I’ll walk away. The other warriors of peace are gone. I have no family left.
For now, there’s still work for me here in the village. I’m called on to do repairs, to help build and rebuild. As soon as I was old enough, but still a young girl, I started learning how to work with my hands.
Also, I can sing.
I was asked by the women to stay with Ella at night. I confess this was something new to me. My hands shook. Ella lay curled inwards on her sleeping mat, her eyes like cracks slit by pain watering down her face. All I could do was sing to her. When she shook desperately, taking raging, reluctant gulps of air, I sang. As she travelled restless through a long tunnel of haunted sleep, I sang softly, so that she knew someone was still with her.
I was never taught how to read or write. We have no paper. There are so few books left. I listen instead, and I work with my hands. Words are just sounds and the feeling of something. I can memorize stories told aloud, and I make my own songs like writing into the air. I build.
Still, there are dreams I have. Stories that take on life in my mind. In dreams, Ella lays me down and names things as she draws shapes across my body that I come to realize are letters—one letter into the next, as lips or limbs meet, until they form words as patterns of touch across my skin. Just by the lines she draws, soft and hard, fast and slow, I want to believe I could know all the words that matter to her most by feeling them, their different shapes: names of a sister and two brothers, a mother and a father, words from pages in a book she remembered, and those others she drew—maybe her children yet to come, mine and hers. But the baby’s name, she never speaks aloud, even though all the time it is there inside her to be said. It is the only word I know by her touch alone, not by her voice— her mouth moving silent around the shape of a sound I cannot decipher.
Sometimes, I dream Ella is looking for the baby inside of me. She would go that deep, be gone so far below, searching, holding herself inside, that when she finally comes to surface, she is breathing hard, gasping. Sometimes, in my dreams, she doesn’t know how to stop, and I can sense her diving again and again—this insistent, tender thrust of her search. Sometimes, she pulls me under too, and we search for the baby together. There, in the ebb and pull, wave after wave, when we rise, we are drenched with each other. Our bodies bearing scars, we trace and erase and retrace them.
Eight months after the river stole her baby, Ella walked up behind me in the swinging heat of late afternoon. I had my bike leaning against the thick trunk of a tree and I was crouched down at its back wheel, trying to fix the chain that had come off. When I managed to pry it back on, its links would line up with the ridges of the sprocket like clenched teeth. With that solid friction between them, the chain could transfer the power from the main gear of the turning pedals to the one that propels the back wheel. This single invention of fortunate speed is one I would willingly give my entire life to.
“Never ridden one of those.”
The sound of Ella’s voice made me turn my head, my hands still on the slippery links clotted with muddy grit that also coated the wheels and the frame. I fingered the slackness of the busted chain, looked away and then back at her again, steadying myself.
She stepped closer and spoke again. “Never ridden one.”
“A bicycle,” I answered.
Ella seemed to lean limp on the air, both arms at her sides, her back straightening up against the weight of her hunched shoulders. She wiped at her face and pushed a few loose strands of hair from her eyes, the sudden motion caught by sunlight.
I looked down at her shoes, dusty and patched as these wheels I ride on. In this village, we almost religiously try to keep everything, reusing them again and again even as they fall apart.
But we possess only the tangible. What lasts in our hands makes for a slender archive. Through the scarcity of objects, how we need them. They corral us. Become something sacred. They will also abandon us to ourselves alone. I’ve seen them in their lank trails, floating the way curses ride the air, along the shore after one of the floods, long strands of debris moving in the eerie lapping of the risen riverbank. Sometimes, I see men and young mothers, still brave or hungry enough to wade in up to their chests and scoop up tattered or swollen pieces of things, precious refuse.
I have taught myself to hold onto nothing—nothing but this two-wheeled contraption of mine that knows my body better than any woman or man.
Still crouching, I kept studying the toes of Ella’s shoes, resting there in the dirt in front of me. Then I looked up at her face. Her mouth was slightly open, as though any answer or question she could think to give had already been snatched from her throat. Her eyes were dry, as she stood above me solid against the sun and the sky.
“I’ll take you out. You don’t need to know how to ride,” I said in almost a whisper, still holding the bike’s frame. Its own metal was starting to break down—it had that familiar feel, and a sour scent almost like blood. Most of the metal any of us has ever known is rusted and deteriorating. This destruction is everywhere you look, and denser the closer you get to the sea. Eventually, the bicycle will leave me.
Ella’s voice was like a bowl, round and hollow, its sides smooth. “I can’t.”
“Tonight, we could go.” I found myself persisting, and in that moment I was hardly able to look at her. Could she guess at the dreams I was having? I waited, trying to keep myself still inside.
She shook her head, doubtful.
“Ella, come out tonight. There’s no rain—”
It was her silence, with its glitter of darkness, that caught me first. In its sharpness, I thought I could sense a sudden heat.
What could I take from Ella? I promised myself nothing. What could she take from me? I told myself I had nothing left to give, except the bicycle.
“Just this once,” I said.
“I know they’ve asked you to keep an eye on me,” she said. “But why not get out of here? Find somewhere else to go?” She was telling, not asking me, as she walked away.
“I’ll come by after dark,” I called out.
What I wanted then, most of all, was to swim, to wash away my fears and the heat inside me. But since the last flood, I’ve only let myself go in as far as my thighs, before kneeling down to wash in the shallows, wary of its deeper rivulets and watery song.
This excerpt is from the short story collection Swimmers in Winter. It can be purchased here.