WHEN SPACE CAME TO THE RIVER
new fiction from Cat Howard
© 2009 gch
It was the murder of the young hag that started it all. I still don’t know where Aubrey got that pair of scissors. I’d have sworn he didn’t have them with him that morning.
We’d left home about three hours beforehand to travel downstream. I had business to attend to in the county seat and Aubrey, well, Aubrey was bored, so he volunteered to come with me as lookout. Normally a lookout wouldn’t be needed, but what with the drought and all, the river was running awfully shallow in places, so I said okay, you can come, but behave yourself. I’m kinda glad he did come along or I’d have probably torn the bottom out of the boat within the first mile. I knew where the hazards usually were and steered around those areas. But, even though the boat only drew two inches with both of us on board, it still got a little noisy as we scraped over some spots that usually had deep water.
Round about ten, we decided to take a break. Navigating with the river this shallow and still with its normal amount of traffic was very hard on the nerves and I for one could use a short break. Everyone seemed to be short tempered that day. Maybe it was the heat; maybe it was that everyone was a little more tense because of the low water. The reason didn’t really matter. All that was necessary was to know that people were touchy. We passed a hydra, busy arguing with itself over the best route, each head threatening the others with physical violence if such-and-such a course wasn’t followed. That wasn’t a problem for us. With our shallow draft, we could go just about anywhere for one thing, and Aubrey was his usual carefree self, which helped relieve the tension.
It was just before the bend where the inn stood that we came upon the two hags. The younger one was playing a musical instrument – playing it well, actually – but Aubrey, being Aubrey, had to make a disparaging comment about her ability. He made the comment to me, but the hags have hearing that puts a dog’s to shame and she heard what he said.
Well, it took a few minutes to thread a way through the other boats tied or anchored off the inn, so by the time I’d made the boat fast, the hags also arrived. Spotting Aubrey, the young hag made straight for him, screaming imprecations at him and threatening to rip his ears off and his tongue out. He just stood there, motionless, until she made the mistake of reaching for his ear. I mean, I’ve known Aubrey all his life and I’ve never seen him move so fast. One second he was standing there, the next he had one arm around that hag’s neck and the other holding a very long and viscous-looking pair of scissors. I don’t know what he said to her, because he was speaking very quietly into her ear, and the older hag, standing beside me, just gasped, but whatever it was, it only served to rile her even more. The young one reached up with her hands in what looked like an attempt to claw his eyes out and the scissors flashed.
He didn’t stab her in the neck. Not Aubrey. He opened the scissors and almost gently inserted one half of the now open blades into her neck, then, “snip, snip!” he cut her throat open that way, much like cutting a piece of cloth. Then he just let the body fall, calmly bent down and wiped the scissors on her clothes and then they vanished back into wherever he’d had them hidden. I didn’t know that boy had such a sadistic streak in him.
With the excitement over, the crowd dispersed, many of them returning to the inn and their refreshments.
We entered the inn and Aubrey excused himself to wash the blood from his hands. I sat down and ordered something light. Since we still had a couple of hours on the river ahead of us, I didn’t want anything too heavy for it might make me sleepy and I couldn’t afford that to happen as we were starting to get a lot of cross-river traffic as well. I knew when Aubrey entered the room, for all conversation stopped for a few seconds.
The old crone who ran the inn walked behind the counter to relieve her daughter for a while. Seeing her, a voice called out “Avenus, when did it start? When did all this violence and indifference to life begin?” A few other voices called out “Tell us, Avenus, you know.”
When I call Avenus “old” I’m not talking seventy or eighty. I’m talking six or seven hundred.
Pouring herself a drink of some sort, she stood quietly for a few minutes. Then, “you want to know when it started? All right, I’ll tell you what I remember.”
There was a sudden spurt of movement as people signalled for refills. She waited until everyone was satisfied and silent again. “I’ll tell you, but I guarantee you won’t believe me.”
She took a sip of her drink then began in a soft voice. “Would you believe that at one time there were no crones, no hags, no hydras, none of the others as well? Would you believe that at one time, there were only humans?”
Glancing around the room, I noticed that very few in attendance looked human, although we all called ourselves by that appellation.
“It was about, oh, five hundred years ago when it happened. The superstitious called it an omen. The religious claimed it was a sign from whatever deity they worshipped that he/she was displeased with the human race. Those who claimed to be scientists stated it was just a meteor. The lunatic fringe loudly proclaimed it was the beginning of an invasion. Me, I don’t know what it was, but I suspect the loonies were a lot closer to the truth than anyone else.
“Whatever it was apparently came to ground, or rather water, in the lake that feeds the river. People looked for it, but although it had been seen to strike, then sink below, the surface of the lake, nobody could ever find a trace of it. Other than a lot of dead fish, there was no outward sign anything unusual had happened there.
“Keep in mind the river wasn’t as busy as it is now. Over the centuries, we’ve moved away from the roads and used the river more and more. And you know”, she paused and took another sip. “There was no logical reason for that. You all use the river, so you know how dangerous and uncertain even a short voyage can be. And the roads meant we could travel farther and faster carrying heavier loads and more crops. No, I’m afraid whatever fell that day turned us into water people.”
A voice interrupted. “Avenus, what do you mean ‘turned us into water people’?”
“About a year after the Fall, as it came to be known, people began to die. The medical people were puzzled by the sudden spike in the death rate and did some autopsies and other less pleasant things and found strange organisms in the bodies. The stories were always eerily similar: each person or family had been fine until about six months previous and each person got their water supply from the river. So the white coats looked at the river water and sure enough, they found those same organisms, which were unlike anything ever seen before. It took some kid, fresh from college to put two and two together and actually get four. He was a hiker and on one of his trips, he ventured beyond Fall Lake, to use its current name – and now you know why it’s called that – and took water samples from the river feeding the lake. Tests on those samples came back clean. So he deduced that rather than agricultural or industrial pollution causing these alien things in the river, the real cause was whatever had fallen into the lake.”
“Avenus, if these organisms made people die, how are we here? Why isn’t this an unpopulated woodland?” I heard myself say.
She looked straight at me and smiled, almost as if I’d been planted to ask just that question. “Why? How? Because the human body adapted. Granted a lot of people died, but eventually our bodies adapted to these strange organisms and incorporated them into our systems.
“Did you know that people who move away from the river – I mean far away inland, not just away from the riverbanks – usually die within six months? In most cases doctors can’t figure out why a seemingly healthy person just keels over and dies. But, I think I know. It’s because they now have a different water supply that doesn’t contain the organisms.
“We, all of us, have now reached a stage in our development where we need those organisms in order to survive.”
She paused and looked at me, then took another sip of her drink. Looking around the room, she continued.
“Before the Fall, there were just humans, as I said. These alien organisms are the reason we now have hydras, hags, crones and all the rest. Every one of us has some ability not normally found in people. The crones, such as myself, have extreme longevity. I’m five hundred and twenty three years old and expect to live at least that long again. I don’t know why and the doctors can’t explain it, but for some reason, rather than kill me, my body was able to absorb and assimilate the organisms when I was younger.
“The hags, for example, have hearing far beyond the range of most creatures, not just humans. I’ve had a hag tell me she could hear the supersonic sounds a bat makes.
“The hydras have their own unique abilities. One day, right here in this room, one head told me they were telepathic, which the other heads vehemently and promptly denied, of course.”
Looking at Aubrey, she continued, “Some of us have super-human speed. Young man, I’ve been around a long time and I’ve never seen anyone move as fast as you did today, and I’ve seen a lot of fights and other things in my years running this place.”
Aubrey had the good sense to look embarrassed.
“As for the indifference and violence? I’m afraid that is just an old human trait honed over the centuries, from long before I was born. If someone or something looks different from you, they are fair game and their life doesn’t matter. It’s been that way a long, long time and I doubt we’ll ever change it.
“So, was the Fall an invasion? Was the lunatic fringe right? Look around the room and decide for yourselves.”
Scanning the room again, she spoke once more, in a much softer voice than previously “You wanted to know when it all started? You wanted to know when the violence and indifference started? Now you know. It started when space came to the river.”
This story came to me intact one night as I slept. Cat.