By the River

by Jodi Herlick

Noon ripens, ending morning’s delirious youth. We droop beneath the heavy yellow sky and the swirl of gnats. Your shaggy hair twists against your face, your brown mane turned black from sweat. I am happy to lean against a tree and stare at the flies buzzing in the cotton field, trapped by the drunkenness of the heat, as lazy as a fern by a stagnant pool. But your hands play relentlessly, crabgrass entangled in your fingers, your arms refusing to be still.

You turn to me, your eyes luminous in the glaring sun. Your voice is a cracked whisper, but it swarms into the silence. “They say there’s a crocodile in the river.” Your mouth bends in a snaking smile. “And if it catches you, it drags you under the water where there’s no air, and it holds you until your heart explodes. And after it eats you, it floats along the current with its toothy, blood-red grin.”

I sniff. “You’re a silly child, Jem Tilney.” I stretch my muscles, reaching my legs towards the field, acting pretentiously grown-up, although I’m only ten months older than you.

A bee descends from the leaves above, and you jab at it with a stick. “My brother made a raft out of twigs,” you say. “We could use it. Go find the crocodile.”

“Rafts are for boys.”

You shrug. “You’re just scared of the croc.” When I don’t answer, you poke your stick at the hem of my skirt and glance at me sideways. “The water’s wet. Cold.”

I imagine a breeze skimming across the water and ruffling my hair. “Mother’s going to kill me,” I mutter. But with a grunt, I heave myself to my feet.

You speed ahead as you dodge branches and elude tree roots with sleek agility. I step carefully through the narrow woods, crunching dried leaves. The sweet stench of decaying poppy drifts from the riverside. The anguished call of frogs quivers toward us. You pull the makeshift raft from the dusky water. I pause as I consider the peeling scales of the bark and wonder how the raft even floats when empty.

“I’m not getting on that thing,” I say softly.
“Some day when I’m rich,” you say as you find a sturdy branch to use as a pole, “I’ll buy a big boat. Maybe a barge. And I’ll cover it with orchids and lilacs so it’s pretty enough for you. You’ll be a river queen, and I can be your king.”
“I don’t need a barge. Is that thing stable?”
“Of course. My brother made it. It could survive a tidal wave.”

I snort. But I still allow you to crawl onto the raft. You waver for a moment, balancing on your knees, before extending your hand to me. The raft dips as I follow you on. You thrust the pole into the murky water and drag us to the center of the river.
The river seems to twist on endlessly before us. Our pace is slow, and the air hangs ponderously without a whiff of the expected breeze. Tepid water sloshes over our legs. I see something bumpy floating in the dark and whisper, “Maybe it’s the crocodile.”
“I’m sure it is,” you whisper back. You shove your pole at it. The knotty log disappears for a moment before it pops back up with a gurgle and forms loops in the water.

You pepper the stillness with chatter, fantasizing we are in Australia and the shore is lined with acacia and kiwi fruit. I describe a koala clinging to a limb of eucalyptus. We barely notice the water that bubbles up through the cracks of the raft. “Someday, I’m going to wrestle crocodiles for the circus,” you say, but before the last word has fluttered from your mouth, the raft makes a slurping sound and sinks.

We drop into the river, swallowing gasps of slimy water as our heads duck under. Haze stings my eyes, confusing my sense of direction. My lungs burn, and my mouth tries to open, to breathe. I clamp my lips shut and seek the surface. But I am unsure which direction my flailing arms pull me.

My fingers reach air. I claw upward until my head bursts from the water and oxygen slams into my throat. I shake the mist from my vision and see you laughing. The shore seems eternally far away, and I sling water at you in mock frustration. You sputter but don’t stop cackling. My tongue still tastes of dirt. The muck suctions my feet as I slog toward the shore.

By the time we collapse on the slope of the river, our legs aching from the strain, your laughter has ceased. “Mother’s going to whip me for ruining my dress,” I pant.

You answer by smearing mud on my face. I growl at you, but I’m not really angry. The mud is cool, exhilarating. We coat ourselves with it and lie on the slope until the mud dries and cracks on our skin.

Before we head back, we splash into the river and attempt to scour the muck away with leaves. But as we scramble up the bank, our raw skin scarlet, sludge spatters our legs and seeps through our clothes. Dirt still flecks your cheeks. Green algae drapes your hair. You see my worried glance and wink, a shadow of a smirk lingering on your mouth. I try to forget about my mother’s waiting glare, her eyebrows made fierce by her stretched back hair, and tread through the trees, swiping at the mud on my legs with my hand.

Evening light bleeds through the clouds. I need to be home, to help mother with dinner so she doesn’t spend the night screeching about your contemptible disposition. But the air smothers, bloated with the promise of rain. I trudge through the field as if the river bottom yet sucks at my feet.

You bound off toward your cabin, your arms still dancing, and call out to me, “See you by the river tomorrow!” As if your father won’t be as furious as my mother. As if you don’t have a beating coming that will leave bruises throbbing on your flesh for weeks.
My house looms before me, square and yellow with windows that gleam in the sinking sun, allowing no glimpse within. I creak the door open, listening to the pots clanging savagely in the kitchen. Then I slink in, creeping down the dim hallway toward my bedroom. The floral wallpaper curls at the corners from the heat, its printed roses shrunken and lifeless.

The clatter halts and so does my movement. I close my eyes. Pretend to be invisible. But I can hear my mother’s breath. Harsh. Threatening. She stands at the mouth of the corridor, and I don’t need to look to know that her knuckles glare white on her clenched red hands.

She says nothing, and after twenty long seconds, I thrust my feet forward.

“Julia.” The rage in her voice is quiet and expected, but I still cringe. “Turn around.”

I obey, lifting my chin defiantly. Her eyes journey from my clinging hair down my sodden dress to my mud-speckled feet. Her jaw twitches. She hardly speaks above a whisper.

“You were born to a proper house, where we do things in a proper way. But you persist in frisking around the countryside with cabin filth. You’re nothing better than a dog. A flea-ridden cur that nobody wants except cabin filth.”

My nostrils widen. “Jem’s not filth.”

“How are you going to get a decent husband if you’re always with that cur? Or are you going to marry the cabin filth? I won’t visit you with your filthy family in your filthy cabin. I won’t give your little urchins money to buy shoes for their filthy little feet.”

“I don’t care if his daddy is only a farmhand, and they can’t afford enough food. He’s better than you.”

She stares at me, her round, dark eyes as cracked and empty as a crocodile’s. Her smile is vicious, full of jagged teeth. “God will smite you for that slander, girl.”

“God will smite you.”

She stands stiffly, unmoving, the hungry sneer still twisting her face. “You just wait and see, girl. You think heathen cabin filth is better than me, but I’ll whip that notion out of you. Your flesh will tell you who’s right when it’s screaming at you to honor your mother.”

I bite my tongue, squeezing until the tang of blood fills my mouth, and think about punching her. But my fist slams into my own leg instead because I’m only ten, and I can’t live on my own, and fighting back will only make everything worse.

“Change out of that garbage,” my mother says softly. “And get yourself to the parlor so I can whip you.” She spins around and marches toward the kitchen, pausing in the doorway to glare at me once more. “And you’ll be lucky if your father doesn’t give you a whipping too for causing his dinner to be late.”

I slink into my room and peel off my dress, wiping at the mud on my skin with a damp towel, focusing on the grime so I don’t have to think about the agony that awaits. I tug on a different dress and leave the dirty one in a heap on the floor.

My mother is waiting in the parlor, and I wonder if she would be less angry if her collar weren’t so high and tight on her neck. She holds the whipping rod—a thick stick that has been smoothed and varnished until it glimmers. I sit dutifully, backwards on a stiff-backed chair, and wrap my arms around the white upholstery, clenching my teeth.

“This is for cavorting with cabin filth,” she hisses. She grunts as the rod strikes my back, and the scream I try to withhold bursts out of my throat.
“And this is for ruining your dress.” This time my vision turns white.
“And this one because you’ll drive us to poverty if you don’t wisen up, and we’ll be as hungry as the cabin filth.”

I whimper like the dog my mother says I am. She carefully places the rod in the corner of the room and stalks back to the kitchen.

I remain, afraid to move because I know the pain will explode when I do. Eventually, I slide from the chair, hovering on my hands and knees as the stinging cascades through my back. I rise slowly, limping from the room.

Weeping emanates from the kitchen. I pause, listening to my mother’s gasping breath. Does she mourn that she has brought anguish on her only child? Or does she merely lament her only child’s deviant ways? The burning of my back whispers that it doesn’t matter which answer is true.

I rest my hand on the wall and stumble down the hallway. I crash onto my bed and drift in and out of sleep, ignoring the summons to dinner and my father’s angry shouts and the rain that pounds the roof. Dreams of crocodiles shedding rivers of tears fill my night.

And in the morning, I hobble to the riverside, where you join me, the flesh around your eye swollen and purple. You laugh when you see me, and I smile wanly. We lean back on the muddy bank and speak of koalas and crocodiles, imagining ourselves river royalty until the sun sinks low.

Jodi Herlick teaches fiction writing at North Central University in Minneapolis. She is finishing up her MFA in creative writing through National University and lives in St. Paul, Minnesota with her husband, their two children, and two demanding cats.