In the early dawn, Koha sends Morami out to hunt red-finned roach. She stands knee-deep in cold water as fog hangs in silent drifts over the river. The dry reeds in the shallows collect delicate collars of ice where stem meets eddy. The only break in the stillness is the splash of Morami heaving her long slick body over a sandbar or shallow rock.
Morami swims to Koha, a shining fish grasped in her needle teeth. Koha rewards her hunting eel with a piece of chopped lamprey from the pouch at her hip and drops the roach into the woven basket she’s secured among the icy reeds. Morami darts back out into the wide current.
The water licks the life away from Koha’s sturdy calves, turning them into posts. She thumps her thighs with her fists. Her blood reluctantly revives its flow into her feet; Koha can feel pebbles under her toes again. Twenty feet upstream, Morami’s tail breaks the surface as she thrashes her way under a clot of driftwood in pursuit of a fish.
Koha presses her palm against the chill surface of the water and feels it resist her. How pleasant it would be, to stand atop the water. To command the river’s flow and dictate what drowned and what was buoyed to the surface. How fine to be finished with being wet. When she pulls her hand away from the water it follows her, clinging thickly to her fingers. Koha shakes it away and banishes such reckless desires. Water should stay safely in the river where it belongs.
Koha thumps her thighs again and tilts her head to see Morami under the water’s reflection.
Morami has caught eleven fish and the fog has burned off when Koha sees a figure standing in the center of the river. There the current cuts a deeper groove, twice the height of a man. The figure has long hair, bound into feminine plaits over each ear. She carries no pack.
Koha hears in her mind the sharp voices of her aunts: do not let your sons and daughters walk the rivers—the water will empty them out to the sea.
“Ai, you!” Koha yells. “Come over from there!”
The figure turns and stumbles on nothing. She falls, one hand flung out to catch herself against the water. She hangs there, her body bowed over the river, chest heaving.
Koha hits the water three times to call Morami back to her. Morami is Koha’s favorite hunter, but she will nip at the fingers of strangers. Eel bites, with their many punctures, draw up infection. Eight feet long and as thick around as Koha’s neck, Morami could drown a man if Koha asked her to.
This woman is walking to the sea. Koha looks away, into her floating basket of fish. One roach is still gasping. Its gill covers clench and release against its sides. There is a little blood where Morami tore its scales. The blood matches its red fins.
As the woman walks to the shore, Koha notes her bruised feet. They are bare. One of her toenails is loose and blackened. The surface of the water is gentle, but there are rocks just under the surface, dark and difficult to see.
If your mother, your father chooses the river, there is nothing you can do to save them. To choose the river over the love of a family on the shore is to deserve the sea.
“What do you want?” the river-woman asks.
The river-woman’s voice is dried out, like something has flaked away the meat of it and left only skin and scales. She must be shorter than Koha, but with Koha standing on the riverbed she towers. Koha wants the river-woman to stop and let someone tend to her feet. Koha wants to pour humanity back into this empty woman until she no longer points toward the sea.
The river-woman doesn’t want to hear those things from Koha. She will need a more mundane request.
“Hm, hm, I have a new eel-pond to build. Muddy work for me,” Koha says, making a show of squinting upwards like a wary aunt at the market. “You river-walkers are good for that, yeah? I will feed you stew and let you sleep by the hearth. I can board your hunting eel or your packfish if you have one.”
The river-woman shakes her head. “No eel.”
“Good, cheaper for me,” Koha says, and wades out of the river. The woman follows, her feet patting along the water’s surface. “Your name?”
“Ihiteru,” the woman says. A name like the call of a waterbird.
“Ihiteru,” Koha repeats, and wraps her heart around it like a fist.
Koha’s single-room house is nestled between two eel ponds. It sits on stilts that hold it a foot above the marshy ground to foil the hopping flightless crickets that will chew through any container and eat anything that holds still for long enough. Koha settles Morami in her pond on the north side of the house.
In the center of the house is a stacked cairn of stones that passes through the floor and ceiling to form a hearth and a chimney. Koha gets to work gutting the morning’s fish. Ihiteru folds up in front of the hearth and goes motionless, more like a pile of rags than like a woman.
If Koha can save this woman, if she can lower the price the river asks, perhaps she too could—no. Koha looks down at her hands, her short steady fingers, the row of red punctures where she grabbed a torrentfish and was stuck by its dorsal spines. She’s not made for forbidden things.
Koha slips her knife under the gills of a roach and presses the handle with the heel of her hand to crunch through its spine. Then she slides her fingers into the fish’s belly and hooks the guts free in one knot of viscera.
“The back pond is all sludge,” Koha explains as she works. “It needs flushing out and filling with stone or my house will stink. Then I want to dig a new pond closer to the river.”
Ihiteru blinks slowly. Her eyelids shuttering down startle Koha. Ihiteru’s eyes are such flat black that Koha forgot she could close them. Koha spends too much time with fish and not enough with people. She guts another roach and puts the intestines into a bowl to become eel food.
“How long will that take?” Koha asks.
“Three days,” Ihiteru says.
Morami swims to the surface when Koha and Ihiteru pass, hoping for treats. Koha named Morami for the moon. She has a white spot on her head like a thumbprint. In the right light she looks like she’s caught the moon’s reflection in her jaws and is carrying it back to Koha’s basket.
Koha tosses Morami a handful of fish guts, then shows Ihiteru to the back pond. It is choked with algae: soft, thick, and rotting. Brown reeds poke through it like pin bones. The canals that should bring fresh water to the pond are just as clogged.
Ihiteru walks onto the pond, her footprints leaving narrow wells of clear, dark water. She kneels abruptly in the center, dips her cupped hands into the water, and bends her head to drink.
Koha wrinkles her nose. By now the icy dawn has lifted, and even in the cool midday of early spring she can smell the back-of-the-throat dead smell of stagnant pond. But Ihiteru rocks to her feet and tosses her braids back. There’s life in her face.
“What did you do to this pond? Did you mean to ruin it?” Ihiteru asks.
“I raised eels in it. Eels shit. Plants grow in eel shit,” Koha says, flaring with annoyance.
Ihiteru laughs. In that moment, she sounds like a whole woman. Koha loses hold of being cross.
Ihiteru walks down Koha’s canal towards the outlet in the river while Koha follows her on the bank. At the mouth of the canal, Ihiteru raises her hand, palm down. The river leaps up for her like a woodhen eager for grain. Then she closes her fist and pulls. The water follows. Canal-water bursts into the river in a fan of thick green.
“Go to the pond and knock free anything that’s not flowing along,” Ihiteru says, pulling the water again. Her wrists are thin, but when she pulls there’s muscle under her skin and she does not look weak.
Koha strips the branches from a sapling and uses it to prod clumps of algae stuck in the reeds. Ihiteru’s work downstream draws fresh water from upriver and washes away what Koha knocks free.
Gently, Koha sets down her stick. She opens her hand over the pond, like Ihiteru, and calls to the water.
The pond water mounds up obligingly. Koha snatches her hand back like she’s discovered a biting crab instead of eggs in a shorebird burrow. The hump of water falls flat, swirling another clump of algae free.
Koha feeds Ihiteru fish and fiddlehead fern stew for dinner. Ihiteru has gone strange and hollow again after clearing the back pond. She moves in the moments between Koha’s glances. Ihiteru empties her bowl with ravenous speed, but Koha does not see her lift the rim to her lips even one time.
There is an old suspicion that a river-walker can pass on their draw to the sea with a touch. When Ihiteru left no one would have pressed her forehead to their breast. No one grasped her around her waist or by the crook of her arm to keep her on the bank.
After they’ve eaten, Koha cracks open two earthenware jars from the case of strong root-wine she traded for a pair of trained eels. She leads Ihiteru out to the narrow porch around her house and sits with her feet dangling in Morami’s pond. The water tries to leech the warmth from Koha’s body, but she has a heavy quilted shirt stuffed with grebe feathers, and Morami likes the company. Morami bumps Koha’s toes and wraps happily around her ankles. Ihiteru rests her heels on the water, her beaten feet dry.
“I have a salve for mashed nails,” Koha says, pointing her chin at Ihiteru’s toes. “Comes in handy when you build things yourself.”
It’s a stupid suspicion, and one that pushes river-walkers away from their families. The only way to catch water’s love for emptying is to walk above it. People can’t get into you the way a river can.
With Ihiteru’s feet in her lap, Koha can feel how light she is. Ihiteru doesn’t seem to notice she’s given something away. Koha frowns and digs her thumb into a dark bruise, rubbing in salve. Ihiteru hisses, but doesn’t jerk her foot away. Instead she takes a drink of Koha’s wine and drops a hand over the edge of Koha’s porch to tap Morami on the nose.
The next day Ihiteru uses the river to roll boulders into Koha’s old pond. The great black stones move in unsteady lurches, their heavy, uneven bulk straining against gravity until they fall with booming splashes. The stones’ passage upsets swarms of newly hatched sand flies.
Koha burns a bundle of dried cranesbill leaves to banish the biting flies. A few stragglers land on Koha’s ankles, and she swats at them irritably. Ihiteru is quiet when the work is done. She sits with her back to the hearth, her hands unmoving in her lap, while Koha mends tears in her fine-meshed elving net. The smell of cranesbill lingers through the evening, singed and tangy.
Well after moonrise, Koha wakes up to wring out her bloodcloth in the river. It puts her in a foul mood. If Ihiteru can run streamlets uphill, maybe she can make the blood flow back into Koha’s belly and save her the monthly washing.
Back at the house, Ihiteru is no longer curled up tightly in front of the hearth.
Koha finds her standing on Morami’s pond, facing north towards the sea. Ihiteru is singing lowly, her voice like a stick rasped across gravel.
Walker, walker, stay away from my daughter
You want her, want her, to go on the water
Her kiss in a bucket, her heart in a cup
How many hens has the hawk picked up?
It is a child’s counting game, sung in time while a rock or nut is passed between small hands. In Ihiteru’s voice it sounds broken, like a minnow with a missing fin swimming in circles.
“Come back to the house,” Koha calls.
Ihiteru flinches and falls into the water with a splash. Koha winces, hoping she didn’t wake Morami. With ungainly strokes, Ihiteru swims to shore and hauls herself back onto land. Koha smiles to herself—she is a better swimmer than Ihiteru, stronger and more graceful. She learned to swim with her whole body, like an eel. Ihiteru swims like a drowning cricket: all limbs.
“You can’t sleep wet like that,” Koha says. The night is cold, and Ihiteru shakes.
Koha wraps Ihiteru in a blanket, patterned with red and brown diamonds and warmed by the hearthstone. Ihiteru presses drops of water from the ends of her plaits and flicks them onto the hot stones in front of the hearth, where they sizzle away in an instant.
“What were you going to do about that pond without me?” Ihiteru asks eventually.
“I have a bucket,” Koha says. “You can do anything with a bucket if you’re willing to make a lot of trips.”
Ihiteru laughs softly. “I can do more than a bucket,” she says.
“What can you do?” Koha asks. It’s a dangerous, stupid question. It’s better not to know what could be. But Ihiteru is a vibrant spark, even muted as she is, and Koha must know what she was ablaze.
Ihiteru’s eyes glint back the orange coal-light. “I knew a walker who carved an entire glacier into lace, so delicate and blue it looked as if he had caged the sky. I once braided a river the length of a valley. But mostly I made wells. Deep in the earth there are caverns with lakes so deep and clear they awaken an unquenchable thirst in your heart. I brought water, rivulet by rivulet, back up through the limestone for people: for villages and homesteads and their thirsty plots of lily-tubers.”
“I haven’t ever seen anything like that,” Koha says. If she had, perhaps she and Ihiteru would be walking to the sea together, hand in hand.
Ihiteru’s head turns like a bird’s; her attention is beak-sharp. “No river-walkers live here?”
Ihiteru looks stricken. She brings the back of her hand up to her mouth and bites it, her teeth a flash of white in the dark. “There used to be a community on the delta of this river,” she says from behind her knuckles. “You would have seen them. They had houses of rushes and lapwing nests; they made a living harvesting salt from the estuary. All were great friends of fishermen.”
“Maybe they moved,” Koha suggests.
Ihiteru shakes her head. “They’ve gone. We are diminishing; I shouldn’t have been surprised. We leave earlier and earlier each generation. No one listens when we say that river-walkers used to grow old, it is so obvious—” Ihiteru shuts her eyes. “They think it is better if we leave one by one until we are all gone.”
“Where do you go?”
“Downhill,” Ihiteru says.
“And then?” Koha asks, moved by curiosity to follow the question to its end.
“I don’t know. We don’t come back.”
To make Koha’s new pond, Ihiteru dances up a wave. She sends water in roaring gouts to carve out a canal, then knots it into a wide swirling eddy, plucking dirt and rushes out of the earth and washing them away.
When Ihiteru is done, there are no tasks left for Koha to offer her. Koha can see Ihiteru’s longing for the sea as if it is a cord around her neck.
If Koha only had more time, she could saw through that cord, or loop her fingers in the line and strain until Ihiteru had enough slack to stay. If Koha could do that, maybe she could walk atop the river herself. If she could lessen the cost, it would be a fair trade.
“Stay until the season turns properly,” Koha says. “I will take a boat to catch glass eels on the delta. It is difficult. You could help.”
When an eel fills with eggs, she cannot hunt. She will escape any pond, wriggling over mud and stone until she reaches the river. Then she will swim out to sea.
The eels never come back, but their young return. Miniature eels, as clear as well-water and no longer than Koha’s smallest finger, swim inland from the sea. Koha catches them in nets and grows them into hunters. In her ponds, the larger eels eat the smaller ones, leaving the finest alive for Koha to train. Eels are not sentimental about their siblings.
Someday Morami will grow fat and swim away from Koha’s pond. Someday Koha will collect small transparent eels with white thumbprints on their heads.
“How do you catch them?” Ihiteru asks.
“They roll in on the tide, and I scoop them in a net.” Koha moves her hands to show the placement of the water and the net. “They are bad swimmers, and lazy, so they only reach my net when the water moves, and the tide only comes a few times a day. With you pulling the water instead, I will not spend a week up to my neck in brackish silt.”
Ihiteru is silent. There is a sheen of sweat in the hollow of her throat, from where she exerted herself calling up the river. Koha bites the insides of her cheeks. “Do you want to go to the sea?” Koha asks.
“No,” Ihiteru says, at last, wretched and drained. “I want to stay and fish for eels with you.”
That night, once Ihiteru has lain down to sleep, Koha rises silently and arranges earthenware jars in her doorway where Ihiteru will kick them over if she leaves.
In the morning, the jars are upright. Koha shamefacedly collects them while Ihiteru replaits her hair for the day.
Koha teaches Ihiteru how to mend nets, showing her first how to pull a net taut and count the broken meshes. Koha cleans up stray threads around the edges of each tear with quick twists of her short knife while Ihiteru furrows her brow over simple knots.
For dinner there are whole fish stuffed with dried fruit and sewn shut again with twine, grilled over the hearth fire. When they are finished, Ihiteru fidgets, arranging her leftover fish spine, her knife, and Koha’s wooden net needle in a line. She adjusts them so they all point the same direction.
North, Koha realizes. Ihiteru directs anything placed in her hands towards the sea.
Koha draws Ihiteru away from the leftovers of their meal and engages her with identifying the calls of night birds. Ihiteru says that inland, where she is from, the hopping fanwren says cheet cheet instead of tip tip, and the grebe have red feet. Koha presses her hands together in delight that Ihiteru has noticed birds.
Koha does not mention gulls or terns. She cannot trust Ihiteru enough to remind her of shorebirds.
Again, Koha puts earthenware jars across her threshold, guilt slick like oil in her mouth.
Koha wakes in the blue dawn to the clatter of breaking pottery.
“Wait!” Koha cries, but Ihiteru is darting across Koha’s marsh. Her feet skip over canals and ponds. Koha must run cross-ways from Ihiteru to reach footbridges, and Ihiteru draws farther ahead.
Koha skids to a stop and hauls on the windlass that lifts the gate to Morami’s pond. Morami knows the sound of the start of a hunt and noses impatiently at the gate. As soon as it rises enough for her to wedge her head through she rushes free, toward the river.
By the time Koha reaches the bank she is winded. Ihiteru is well downstream, a solitary figure with no pack. She moves like it hurts. All around, the river is broad and silver. A bellbird hops through the branches overhanging the river, searching for insects. It sings with a pure, piercing voice. Ihiteru said she didn’t want to go, but she is still going.
Koha should let her go. A river-walker will not stay for love or wealth or duty, and Koha has only a one-room house and five ponds full of eels.
But she wants so badly to lessen the river’s price. She cannot stand the sight of Ihiteru walking alone toward the sea.
Morami rises behind Ihiteru, a column of wet grey muscle. Her white belly flashes as she lifts half her length out of the water. She takes the collar of Ihiteru’s shirt in her teeth and drags her down, bringing her back for Koha.
Koha holds Ihiteru on the riverbank by both wrists. Ihiteru, soaked and bleeding from a scrape on her thigh, struggles like a wild thing with a hook through its eye.
Morami keeps a watchful patrol in the shallows.
“You don’t want to go, you don’t have to go, stop it, stop thrashing,” Koha says.
“It’s a choice that is already made,” Ihiteru says, still pulling. “I made it when I stepped onto the river and it bore my weight.”
“Come back to the house. Morami will catch you and bring you back as many times as you need, she will. She is a good eel. She will mind her teeth if I tell her.”
Ihiteru tears free and stands at the edge of the water, chest heaving. “I can’t,” she says. “It’s done.” She steps backwards, onto the water. Morami lifts her head, wary.
Far upstream, there are people who let Ihiteru leave them with no supplies to sustain her and no escort for company. Koha imagines them: sad-eyed mothers in skirts woven from mountain-cotton and uncles drinking root-wine. Ihiteru convinced them she died the moment she stepped onto the water.
It would not be so bad, to live a numbered set of years commanding the water. Sitting before the hearth, Ihiteru made it sound magnificent.
Koha presses one foot against the river. The water holds her up. “I have no one to leave behind,” she says. “I could keep you company. I could carve glaciers.”
Ihiteru rushes forward and pushes Koha back onto land. Koha remembers the strength in Ihiteru’s thin arms as she falls on her back in the reeds. Ihiteru’s black eyes are wide with horror. “What do you think you’re doing? You need to stay and farm your beloved eels! There’s no love in glaciers, Koha.”
Koha brings her eels to market in an outrigger canoe with a net strung between the float and the gunwale. Not all eels are as well-behaved as Morami, so they travel in the net while Morami keeps pace alongside the boat. It’s lonely, and would be more lonely without Morami along to hunt with.
“You should not have to go alone,” Koha says. “Without even anyone to tell you to mind your poor feet!”
Ihiteru stands over her, face knotted up. “I won’t let you walk the river,” she insists. “What if you had gone to the sea before me, and I had walked past only an abandoned place in the shape of an eel farm? Who will be kind to the next river-walker, if I take you with me?”
Koha had imagined Ihiteru walking beside her canoe, traveling together to sell Koha’s eels. She wanted to buy Ihiteru skink-leather shoes and bright ribbons to braid into her hair. It hurts that Ihiteru does not know she is already special to Koha.
Ihiteru sees the hurt in Koha’s face and speaks again, more gently. “I needed you to be here. That’s why you have to stay.”
It will be so hard, if Koha has to do this again and again. She imagines a series of eroded-away men and women, all with Ihiteru’s dark eyes. It is not fair that Koha will have to care for each of them and lose them in turn. But no one else is doing it, this thing Ihiteru needs.
“I will take you to the delta, at least,” Koha says stubbornly.
Ihiteru throws her hands out, like she can press Koha back into the bank with only her will. “No!” she says.
“I have a canoe,” Koha explains. “If you will wait for me to rig it, I will take that instead.”
Ihiteru sits down abruptly in the mud and covers her face with her hands. Koha can’t tell if she is shaking from crying or laughing or the cold. Ihiteru is wet all over. It’s likely the cold making her tremble. Still, Koha props herself up and settles a hand on Ihiteru’s knee.
“Maybe the glass eels will come in early this year. I will bring nets, in case.”
Morami’s tail flicks the surface of the river, sending a jewel of water flying over Koha’s canoe. Koha casts her gaze down the river, dreading the sight of the delta ahead. It is not a happy journey.
And yet — beside her, Ihiteru steps over the ripples in the canoe’s wake, her spine unbent and the bruises on her feet starting to heal. The midday sun has melted the ice from the eyelets around the edges of Koha’s elving net. Under the clear water the white spot on Morami’s head flashes as she chases a red-finned roach.