As the Water Before Her
By Paige Morgan
Photo by Vivian Le
A young girl, no more than seven, sits on the edge of a river. You watch as, her every movement familiar, she reaches into the river and her hands disappear in its spring waters. Into the waters which grab at her fingers, trying to hold the girl, to keep her, but she couldn't bother to pay any mind. She throws back her head laughing, while you stare, taking the sight in. Her hair is piled into a messy red bun atop her head, curls escaping any chance they get. She wears a lopsided grin that reaches her eyes. Little sounds of laughter, almost like chimes and bells, escape her mouth as she sees a small fish swim towards her hand. She falls back from the river, giggling and dirtying the white dress she wears when she lands on her back. That's most definitely going to stain. You call for her. Paying no heed, she reaches back into the water, peering closer and her green eyes widening as she looks for more fish. The river ripples as her breath brushes the surface of the water. You call again.
She doesn’t move, focusing on trying to see the bottom of the deep river. She leans even closer as her hands slide further down the bank. Her muscles tighten, fighting the slide into the river. In your mind, you can almost feel her heart thudding, racking her ribs similar to the way a bird's does. You can see her body stiffen and her joints lock, but it's irrelevant because in seconds, your legs carry you to her, covering the distance between the edge of the woods and the river. Your firm hands grab her little waist in seconds and roughly yank her up. You hug her close. You scold her. You tell her not to scare you and warn her against the river. The river is unpredictable, dangerous, and too strong for her to play near. You will keep her safe from the river. You won’t let her go.
* * * * *
Your little girl sits by the river, looking far older than last time you were here with her; you understand that she is, that becoming a teenager is a hard time. You understand why her eyes fill with tears that ripple similar to the way the current ahead of her does. You mutley observe as she clutches her stomach, red curls cascading around her shoulders, and only stares ahead. Her face is blank. Her expression desolate. The only ornament to her being, the only way of telling she isn't some concrete statue, is her spray of freckles decorating her face, yet they do nothing to brighten her expression. Summer’s warm breeze caresses her, teasing and tugging at her white dress yet she pays no mind. Flowers erupt around her and the grass is a lively green—you can’t help but reminisce of the times where she would have reveled in the earth, back to the days where she would have covered, even buried herself in the dirt and mud if you would have allowed it. The birds sing while river seems to roar, far more malicious than previous years, yet she seems to hear none of it. You call out to her. That she hears. The tears topple over her lashes and drip down towards the ground. You call again and she shakes. You can practically imagine her heart beating her ribs uncontrollably.
You call and emerge from the tree line. Warm, and a little out of breath, though you're unsure as to why, you approach her. Her tears don’t pause as you grab her by the arms to jerk her up. Your mind doesn't pause as you shake her rather roughly, her head bouncing back and forth under your control. Spit flies from your lips and she doesn’t dare meet your eyes. You grab her underneath the chin and force her to meet your gaze. Then you realize what this must look like, what this may feel like. You stop. You pull her close and stroke her hair while murmuring gently. You’re not sure what you are saying, but whatever it is, it all has the same meaning. Placing an arm around her small frame, you guide her from the river.
* * * * *
She sits along the river bank, wearing the signature white dress, although it’s more brown than white now, tarnished and muddied with damp leaves clinging to it. The river winds wildly through the wood, its murky water matching the tone of the muted leaves and bare trees. The grim clouds above stretch on endlessly with the promise of storms hiding in their mass. You hold your ground as gusts of wind force their way around the trees, causing bumps to rise on yours and the girl’s arms. Though she can hardly be called a girl any longer, mere weeks away from being an adult, you can’t help but think of her as anything but—she’s never looked more like a child to you. Her bare feet lie near the edge of the river as the wind pushes the water towards her toes. Her freckles speckle across her face and stand out against the ivory of her skin, while blending in with the rosy stain of her cheeks. Her lips, once the red of her cheeks, are now tinged blue from the cold nipping at her face for too long. You’re confused on why you didn’t search here for her sooner. The blue of her lips compliment the blue and purple hues forming in spots along her arms and legs, mingling with the fading brown and green marks. Leaves tangle themselves in her curls, almost indistinguishable from the subdued red of her hair. And while she sits on that damp, chilled river bank, you call for her. The girl sits, still as stone this time, not allowing her gaze to leave from the river. Your voice rings out once more, louder. You step closer.
The girl rises and takes a step towards the autumn river. You call out her name yet another time. Her toes touch the river and the water dances around them. You warned her to stay away from the river, the river has only gotten bigger. The water is dangerous, unsafe. Leaves crunch beneath you as they are crushed by your feet. She hears, both the leaves and your voice, but she doesn’t look back. The girl’s foot breaks through the water and falls, the rest of her following. You catch a glimpse of her face as it breaks out in a smile and as she lets the raging river take her where it will. The river hugs on to the girl tightly to keep her safe. As you break through the trees, the river keeps its promise and doesn’t let go.