I awoke to the day I died, which was more than I expected. Pungent blades of grass tickled my cheek. I inhaled its moist earthiness, but feared it would disappear and I would be back in the hell I had left behind—along with my life.
Steeled for disappointment, I rolled onto my back, but my eyes were met by blue sky. A small bird flew overhead, followed by another and then another. I sat up. There shouldn’t be birds. Not anymore. Had I truly found my way to heaven? Not only were there grass and clouds and birds, but tree leaves rippled in the breeze and wildflowers speckled the meadow in which I laid.
I had to be dead for I knew no place like this existed anymore. Not where I came from. Not where dust choked the atmosphere on the best of days and dimmed the sun even at midday. Not where we eked out a miserable existence trying to nurture what could not grow without water or light or insects.
This had to be heaven though I doubted my worthiness. Perhaps my last act had delivered me here. The dark cloud had rushed toward me behind a percussion of wind. I knew it would mean my death for there was nowhere to go. I had trapped myself outside the bunker to manually seal it, the remote locking mechanism fouled by the constant dust. I knew the price. My life was the only thing I had left to lose, unlike those huddled inside.
And yet I was alive and unhurt. If the bunker or the scorched earth ever existed here, both were now gone, hidden perhaps by the life around me.
Wood snapped with ominous volume from the nearest stand of trees. A flock of the birds erupted into the sky and a lone deer bolted into the clearing soon after. My inner voice screamed at me to flee from anything that would approach with such disregard. I resisted until a motley group of animals burst through the tree line. They were larger than any animal should be, and their eyes held an eerie, cruel intelligence that told me their intentions were no more admirable than those who had killed me the first time. I ran.
I managed to stay ahead of them, but just. I dodged and darted between trees, not unlike the deer, and with the same urgency. The same fear. A downward slope sped my feet until it leveled out at a wide river. My frayed skirt floated on the water’s surface as I waded in. The river was too swift for me to cross or swim, but I desperately hoped my pursuers would fear it for the same reason. I was wrong. They stepped into the water, forcing me deeper into the grip of the current where something slid against my leg. It occurred to me then that, unlike the dead rivers I knew, this one might be home to creatures far more dangerous than the animals. I prayed the river would take me first.
Instead, the lengthy, undulating body of a serpent surged toward the animals. They fled as if water had turned caustic. The serpent’s bone-pale body coiled back on itself in the shallows as it raised its horned head above the water to survey the prey banished to the shore. And then it spoke.
“If you wish to live, you must come with me.”
The serpent retreated back toward me. As it did so, the animals waded into the water again.
“Hurry,” urged the serpent as it circled me in the water.
I grabbed the horns on either side of its head and dragged myself onto its ridged back, my legs hugging its sides as it surged forward with the river current. The animals were not so easily deterred. They raced along the shoreline, but the serpent easily out-paced them. The land soon fell away as the river emptied into a broad bay.
“You need to take a deep breath and hold on tightly,” said the serpent, looking back at me. “Can you do that?”
I nodded for what choice did I really have.
“Ready?” it asked.
I nodded again and fought panic as it abruptly dove underwater. The water stung my eyes, and my lungs soon burned for air. My grip loosened as darkness crept into the edges of my vision, but it was not the water that embraced me. An arm curled around my waist and pulled me to the surface and from the water.
“You’ll be safe here,” whispered the serpent.
I willed my eyes open just a crack, though they protested even that. A man with the serpent’s eyes crouched beside me. His skin was almost as pale as his white hair, which dripped water on me. As exhaustion at last took me, I surrendered to the realization that no paradise awaited me in this afterlife.
When I finally woke, a stone ceiling greeted me instead of sky. Light seeped into the room from a series of square windows near the ceiling. It wavered like sunlight through a canopy of quivering leaves. I stretched beneath the sheets that enveloped me, savoring the silken texture as it slid against my cracked skin. It was softer than any material I knew and a luxury foreign to me. But it wasn’t just the bed linen. My threadbare, patched clothing had been replaced by a simple tunic similar in substance, but colored a pale blue.
I turned back the sheets and went in search of the light’s source. My footsteps chased a small animal from the shadows of the building’s colonnade. It reminded me of a fox I had seen in a picture book as a child, but with tufted ears and more red brown than orange.
I quickly forgot the creature as I entered the cove chamber for above me sunlight billowed through a ceiling honeycombed with windows just beneath the water’s surface. The shifting light was hypnotic. Something dripped onto my hand, but it had nothing to do with the water above me. I was crying.
I hadn’t cried since I buried my younger brother four months earlier—buried next to our older brother and my husband who died in the war as well as the child my body was too ill to bring into the world. But that was before. They were all gone now. Somehow, I was again spared their fate. I wanted nothing more than to be swallowed up by that blessed oblivion, but life’s hold on me was still too strong. I took a measured breath and willed myself away from those memories.
“Why are you crying?”
I jumped at the unexpected intrusion and quickly wiped the tears from my cheeks.
At the cove’s edge, the serpent-man rested his arms on the pavestones and regarded me with a measure of concern. He brushed back wet strands of hair that kept straying across his green eyes, which faded to yellow around his pupils.
“Just memories,” I said, wondering how long had he been watching me.
“My name is Kenn,” he said.
“Jianna.” It sounded so odd on my tongue. Had it been that long since I spoken my own name? “Am I…dead?”
“Far from it.”
“Then where am I?” I asked as knelt down in front of him, “and why did those beasts chase me?”
“You’re on the other side of the door,” he said.
“Door?” I was confused.
“Those of us here used to live along side your kind,” he explained. “Over time, you came to see us as the creatures of stories…or nightmares. Simply one more thing to be controlled or destroyed. Our worlds began to drift apart, and gradually the door between them closed.”
“If it’s closed, then how…”
“Don’t think of the door as something solid and rigid,” interrupted the serpent-man. “It swells and shrinks for reasons even I don’t understand. And while the opening is generally insignificant, sometimes it’s large enough to allow one of your kind passage to this side.”
“And you into mine?”
“No. We can see your world, but we can’t enter it anymore. The door opens only one way now.”
“Then I can’t go back.”
“Do you have anything to return to?”
“No,” I admitted.
“Those who came before you didn’t either.”
My pulse quickened. “There are other people here then?”
A pained expression flitted across his face.
“Not anymore,” he said. A sad finality tinged his words. “This world changes your kind to be more like us, just as your world changes those of us here.”
“Some of those who chased you were once as human as you.”
He must have seen the horror on my face.
“So long as you stay here, you will remain as you are,” he assured me. “This citadel was built by humans and retains the essence of its creators.”
He gazed up at the windowed ceiling, his eyes darkened by the shadow of memory. “Those here have been tainted by the human world. They remember what they once were and hate what they now are. That, in turn, corrupts those of your kind who make it here, changing them into the physical manifestation of their despair and hate. And the cycle repeats.”
There was little I could say in our defense. We had done so many horrible things to ourselves and to everyone and everything simply caught in between.
“What is this place?” I asked.
“The builders intended to wait out the schism, thinking our worlds would merge again,” he explained. “They were wrong, of course, and soon realized they had three choices: stay and change, stay isolated in this citadel, or return to the human world.”
“They all left then.”
“Most did, but some chose to remain, and others accepted the change willingly,” he said. “It was a long time ago.”
“You talk as though you were there.”
A fleeting smile played across his lips. “I suggested this underwater cavern as a refuge.”
I considered that for a moment, surveying the chamber. The building had been hewn from the stone itself with pavestones laid to the water’s edge. An ornate bell hung near steps that descend in the water.
“Because the others can’t reach it?” I asked.
“There’s that, but the water also serves as a natural barrier to the madness,” he said. “You’ll be safe here. There are supply closets marked by a blue door scattered throughout the citadel, and the fruit in the arbor is also edible.”
Clearly, he did not mean to stay. I had spent much of my life emotionally alone. We all did as a matter of course, but I wasn’t prepared to be alone with my thoughts.
“Will you come back?” I asked.
“Of course,” he said. “I’ll check back every few days and will bring you fresh fish and eel. But if you ever need me, ring the bell. I’ll hear it and come.”
I nodded for there was something about his eyes that stole away my ability to disagree. Instead, I watched the water swallow him and wondered if he would in fact return.
But Kenn kept his word in the days that followed. I looked forward to those brief visits for I needed something to break the solitude. I passed the time by exploring the abandoned citadel. I easily located the supply rooms, which were well stocked with dried and canned goods preserved in a manner far better than any I knew, and the kitchen with its running water and appliances made light work of cooking. In the arbor, trees heavy with fruit I couldn’t identify grew amid a walking path nearly covered by moss. Vines crept up the white walls to the ceiling where, just as in the cove, water bathed a broad bank of windows.
Far more intriguing was the immense library I happened upon in my wanderings. It brimmed with books written in languages unknown to me. Their pages crumbled beneath my fingers, and I soon left the books alone, not wanting to inflict more damage than time already had.
As a child, I had wondered how people could abandon the things they cherished. The years had taught me that such things were just that: things. Useless unless useful. Where I came from, we burned books for fuel, their value measured by their ability to keep the cold at bay. Our collective knowledge and imaginative wanderings turned to ash. The library was no better. Neglect, not fire, had relegated its contents to dust—all except a series of blueprints left on a large table at the center of the room. Brushing away a film of dust revealed detailed drawings of the citadel’s floor plan.
My search progressed more quickly with these in hand, but I soon realized that the complex was unfinished. Some corridors ended at a wall; some rooms were missing altogether. Yet one thing was clear: the only way in or out was through the underwater tunnel. This was not the builders’ intent. The drawings clearly showed a tunnel beneath the bay to the mainland, but the corridor was only partially excavated like much of the outer portions of the citadel. A large dust-encrusted machine sat at ready, its serrated maw waiting to bite into the earth. It was a hunger never to be sated.
I often sat in the cove chamber, transfixed by the way the light refracted through the water from above. I would dangle my bare feet in the water and watch small iridescent green fish feed on the algae growing on the underwater surfaces, but the silence was suffocating. I ached to hear the drone of other people’s voices and the muted thrum of people living. And I ached to see the blue sky again in a way that even I didn’t understand.
The fish abruptly fled as a white lithe shape erupted from the depths and transformed into a man. Kenn climbed the stairs out of the water and retrieved the clothing he kept at the bell’s base, for he knew I found his nakedness distracting.
“You’re early,” I said as he dressed. Very early.
“I fear I’ve been neglecting you.”
“You brought me food yesterday.”
“True,” he admitted, “but humans are social creatures. Isolation is not healthy for you.”
Could he sense my loneliness? “Then why keep me here? Surely, there are others like you who would not harm me.”
He sat down next to me as he pulled on the shirt. “Jianna, we’ve discussed this.”
“You talked. I listened. There was no discussion.”
I watched the subtle current his feet made as they swayed in the water.
“You’re free to come and go as you please, but here there is no one,” I said. “Is it really so bad…to change?”
His feet stilled.
“You would lose your humanity,” he said in little more than a whisper. “Not just your physical form, but your mind as well. Is that truly what you want? If it is, then I will honor that.”
Did I? As much as I didn’t want to think the thoughts that wander through my mind, I clearly wasn’t ready to let them go either.
“These walls are the only way I know to protect you,” said Kenn. “I’ve tried other ways. Each has failed.”
I glanced at him, but he stared stoically at the water. “The others who came before me?”
He nodded. “I couldn’t save them.”
I knew his pain, knew it more than once. I placed my hand on his. “I’m sorry.”
His inscrutable gaze regarded me, the irises darkening to a green almost as black as the pupils. I forgot to breathe.
“I found something,” I blurted out.
His fingers wrapped warmly around mine as he fluidly rose and drew me to my feet. “Show me.”
I led him to the library, although I suspected he already knew the way.
“Why did they leave all this behind?” I asked.
Kenn picked up a decaying book I had left on a reading table. “These books were old even then. They didn’t use them much anymore.”
“All the information and knowledge in this library was once available in another format, one less susceptible to decay and more easily accessible,” he said. He placed the book back on the shelf, somehow knowing where it belonged.
“Then why keep the books if they served no use?” I asked. “They take up so much space.”
“Nostalgia mostly,” said Kenn. He gently ran his fingertips over the spines of the books next to the one he had shelved. “It must seem wasteful, given the state of your world, but there is something to be said for holding knowledge in one’s own hands.”
I didn’t really understand, and I think he could tell.
“You can read, yes?”
“Of course,” I said, slightly offended, “but there are so few books left. And these are in languages I don’t even recognize.”
“Dead languages,” said Kenn. “I doubt there are any of your kind left who know them.”
“Many, yes.” He sat on the edge of the reading table. “If you like, I could read those to you, assuming they’re still legible.”
I couldn’t deny that I was curious about what the books might tell me about the people who built the citadel. “I found something else.”
We descended to the center area of the library where I had left most of the blueprints.
“I had forgotten about these,” said Kenn.
I watched him as he traced a line on the topmost diagram with his fingertips. He appeared genuinely surprised and pleased at the discovery, although he didn’t strike me as prone to forgetting. “They’ve been quite useful.”
“No doubt,” he said as he straightened, brushing the dust from his hands. “Is this all of them?”
I shook my head. “I have a few in my room. Ones with less detail than these.”
Kenn leaned against the table, taking in the room before returning his gaze to me. “This place has been empty for far too long.”
“What was it like before they excavated?”
“The cavern? It was filled with water.”
He easily read the surprise on my face.
“The builders used air pressure to force the water to its current level,” he explained. “They broke through the rock from above, through what became the skylights, and pumped in air.”
“But how is it that the water hasn’t flooded back?”
“The mechanics are quite advanced. The system continues to maintain the pressure, adjusting as necessary, just as it manages the plumbing and lighting and sustains the arbor.”
“I was wondering about that,” I admitted.
Kenn chuckled. “That’s what I’ve always admired about your kind. Always wanting to know why things are the way they are.”
“It’s not always a good thing.”
“You could probably blame inquisitiveness for many, if not most, of the problems in your world,” admitted Kenn, “but I learned long ago that human curiosity generally begins with good intentions.”
I couldn’t argue the point. Even though I had seen the worst in people, I had also seen the best, short-lived though it was. Despite all the things we had done, Kenn somehow managed to retain an unwavering faith in our capacity to be better than we were. That thought brought a smile to my face.
“She can smile,” laughed Kenn as he plucked a book from the nearest shelf.
Much to my surprise, I laughed back at him. Perhaps there truly was life left in me.
On those days he visited, Kenn would often read to me under the arbor trees. Many books told the history of people long gone, the context of their lives and deaths confined now to faint print. Others retold myths that predated even their history. I enjoyed these far more. They took me back to a happier time sitting in front of the fire with my brothers while our grandfather told stories of heroes and self-sacrifice. I realized later that such stories were meant to instill hope and courage, especially in times when we struggled to find either.
I climbed to my feet to stretch as Kenn closed the book he was reading. I stopped mid-stretch to gaze at the skylight.
“Where do you go when you leave?” I asked.
“I watch for those like you who come through the door,” he said as he leaned casually back against the tree, “rare though that is.”
“Then why do it?”
“Humans are so alike and yet so unique in your own way,” said Kenn, “and always seeking and striving and reaching. I find that intriguing.”
I rolled my eyes.
“You disagree?” asked Kenn.
I shrugged. “I’m too close to have an unbiased opinion.”
Kenn chuckled. “I have been accused of the same failing.”
“Then there are others of your kind in these waters?”
“Not any more,” replied Kenn. “They left a long before the schism.”
“But not you. You stayed behind.”
“It was an uncomplicated decision,” said Kenn.
“Even after the builders left?”
“Humans aren’t the only ones who cling to what once was.”
His confession was oddly unnerving. Perhaps he wasn’t so different after all. “Couldn’t you have crossed into my world before the door closed?”
“I don’t belong there,” said Kenn. “Not then and certainly not now.”
“None of us belong there anymore,” I sighed. “Perhaps once us humans are gone, the divide between our worlds will close on its own…like in that myth of the great river that endlessly flows into our two worlds, binding them together. In the end, it brings everything back to where it began in a never-ending cycle of rebirth and renewal. Perhaps it is the very river that feeds the bay outside these walls.”
His eyes narrowed ever so slightly. “I should go.”
“Will you return tomorrow?”
“Perhaps,” he said as rose to his feet and handed me the book. “I need to check on something, and it may take more than a day.”
I ran my hand over the book’s faded gold trim as he left. Out of the corner of my eye, a red shape darted behind a tree. I cautiously approached, unsure of what might be lying in wait. To my surprise, it was the fox. I squatted down with the book in my lap. The fox tensed, but didn’t flee.
“I thought I had imagined you,” I said. “Well, there’s plenty of room for the both of us.”
It retreated several paces as I stood and then darted down a dark corridor. I watched until its burgundy pelt merged with the darkness.
I saw the fox sporadically as I continued exploring, but five days passed before Kenn finally returned. He looked paler than usual—exhausted even—but provided no explanation for his prolonged absence. He picked up reading the book where he had left off. Several times, he paused as if wanting to say something, but stopped short. Instead, his mutable eyes studied me intensely, the green hue ebbing and flowing with his private thoughts.
I went to bed that night wondering how I had offended him for he acted more aloof than he had in weeks. Clearly, something had changed, but I was at loss as to what it might be.
The next morning, I went to retrieve the drawings from the desk in my room, but they were gone. Preoccupied as I had been by Kenn’s lengthy absence, I could easily have left them somewhere. I searched in all the places I frequented. By midday, neither the drawings nor Kenn had made an appearance. On a whim, I checked the library and discovered that the other drawings were missing as well. Only a grey outline lingered where they had rested. Had Kenn moved them?
I opened any cabinet or drawer large enough to hold even one. My efforts only succeeded in disturbing copious amount of dust that reeked of musty, ink-imbued paper. The citadel’s air filtration dealt with most of it, but not before making me sniffle and sneeze.
I pushed away the hair from my eyes with the back of my dust-smudged hands, resigned to one conclusion: Kenn had taken them. What I didn’t understand was why. He could have removed the ones in the library at any point, but not those in my room. Had he returned then without my knowledge?
The dust made me itch so I made my way back to the communal shower near my room. I left my clothes in a filthy heap on the floor and stepped into the shower. Water sprayed automatically down on me, but I barely noticed. I should have known better than to expect things to be different. Kenn’s motivations were as mysterious as him. And the way he looked at me time and again, as if he searched for some novelty in my being. Something he had yet to divine.
Perhaps that was what had changed: he finally saw that I was nothing more than I appeared. Broken. Defeated. Damaged. Nothing that merited his attention.
I rested my forehead against the stone enclosure. It was just as well. How could I live up to his expectations, especially compared to those who built this underwater sanctuary? I was so much less than them.
I picked up the bar of soap and scrubbed my skin red, and then attacked my hair. The effort was a welcome distraction. My stomach growled insistently as I dressed in fresh clothes, but I ignored it. Instead, I stretched out on the arbor’s mossy floor and watched pale moonlight waver and shift with the water.
“Do you wish to see the sky again?” asked a childlike voice from the dark.
Alarmed, I sat up and glanced nervously around. The minutes passed agonizing slowly as I waited for the confrontation that never came. Had I imagined it?
“Who’s there?” I asked.
The fox moved from behind a tree. It sat down and regarded me.
“It’s just you.” I felt relieved yet silly in my paranoia. That is, until it spoke.
“Do you wish to see the sky?” it asked again.
I scrambled to my feet.
The fox looked perplexed. “Why are you afraid?’
“You’re one of them,” I said, “from outside these walls.”
“Why would you fear that?” it asked.
“You want to hurt me.”
“There are those who do,” it admitted. “I am not one of them.”
“But Kenn said…”
“Don’t be so quick to trust what he says,” interrupted the fox. “Kenn does things for his own benefit though it may appear otherwise.”
“He’s protecting me,” I said, “from the madness outside and those who wish me harm.”
“What makes you think Kenn has not been affected by the ‘madness,’ as you call it?” asked the fox. “Or that his presence has not tainted you?”
“These walls protect me as does the water,” I said. “It must do the same for him.”
“And if I told you that Kenn was once as human as you…?
I was speechless. It was not something I had considered.
“We all change here,” said the fox as it curled its long tail around its feet. “But this should not be feared. It is simply the way of things.”
“You were once human.”
I looked away, wanting to melt into the gloaming. “Why should I believe you?”
The fox strayed back into my line of sight. “Sooner or later, you will begin to change. And once you do, Kenn will have no more use for you.”
“He wouldn’t simply abandon me,” I said, although I no longer felt confident in the statement.
“He will, just as he did me.”
I blinked as if someone had slapped me.
“I was a child of ten when I arrived,” said the fox. “Kenn whisked me away to a place not unlike this, but on the mainland. I thought it wondrous. Magical. Just like Kenn. But then I began to change and, when Kenn realized, so did he. He came less and less frequently until, at last, he saw no reason to keep me locked away…changed as I was, and he left me to this world.”
“But you were a child.”
“There are no children here,” said the fox.
I sank down next to the nearest tree for my legs threatened to crumple beneath me. “How many others?”
“There was an old man after me, but he was killed. And then a teenage boy before you. He was the first one Kenn brought here.”
“And he still changed?”
“No,” said the fox. “He drowned himself in the cove.”
I choked on the air. My younger brother had also taken his own life and in the same manner. I squeeze my eyes shut to block out the memory. Was Kenn afraid I might do the same? It would explain why he had begun to visit so often and why he watched me so acutely at times. When I finally glanced up, the fox was gone.
Check back next week for Part 2 of Lisa Langeland’s Where the River Runs.