There Is a Riverbed
by Megan Paris
At the end of each day, Amelia and I stand along the river bank and watch the men dock their boats, unload their cargo. We stand close enough to see them but not close enough to hear their soft animal grunts as they heave boxes and heavy sacks onto the wooden planks. Some days, we remove all our clothes and wade into the green water together, careful to remain shrouded by the outcropping of trees and brush.
I could stay here forever, digging my toes into the silt of the river floor, watching Amelia’s hair move about her in the water, thick and glossy like a thousand tiny water snakes. And I’m sure that she could stay forever, too, feeling the freezing water crawl up her scalp and watching the dockworkers.
Once, after all the wading and watching was through, we laid back down together in the sand of the river bank. It was hot and the water clung to our skin, growing sticky and warm as if it were our own perspiration.
“I’ve heard that the river leads to the ocean,” Amelia said, looking up at the sky, “Somewhere it just bottoms out, it gives up, lets the saltwater consume it.”
She chewed on her tongue, and I watched all the muscles in her jaw clench and release, rippling under her skin. When she got like this, it was best to just let her talk.
“Sometimes, I imagine myself following the water until it empties out. I’d float on my back for days, maybe weeks, and let the sea birds land on my chest and pick at my skin. I wouldn’t get hungry, I wouldn’t get thirsty. I would just float. And all the towns along the river bank would hear about the girl who was drifting out to sea, and they’d come to watch me go by and throw roses into the water for me.” Amelia ceased her tongue chewing and closed her eyes, “Maybe I would get bloated. The river would get jealous of me being inside it for so long, it would finally take a turn at being inside me. It would seep into my skin, make me swallow it, saturate my hair until I got so heavy I might sink if I was not already made up of so much river. And then, finally, I would reach the ocean. The sky would open up and the mouth of the river would drop me into saltwater. And I think, after floating for so long, I wouldn’t be used to it. My body would reject the sea. I would go into shock. And the sea would sense my frailty and swallow me up, sinking me down to the sandy floor and wrapping me up in seaweed and keeping me there forever. Or at least, keeping me there until my eyes turn blue and my skin flakes off in sad, soggy clumps.”
I like to imagine Amelia just as she described, a waterlogged body held captive on the ocean floor. In turn, I imagine that I am the river tide guiding her through every port town. I am the saltwater begging to carry her.
Once, when we were girls, we went swimming in the widest part of our river, where the bank opens up into a great pool. Here, the current of water slows enough for children to safely play in it, swirling softly around the edges of rocks and stuck branches. It was a gray kind of day and the air was heavy, bearing down upon our shoulders like coats. The wetness in it seemed to saturate Amelia’s hair even before we got to the water.
Together we walked out into the middle of the river, embarrassed at the way our dresses billowed up and sat on the surface like the pillowy bodies of ducks. And because it was a gray kind of day, we could tilt our heads back into the current, lift our feet off the floor, and stare at the sky, not worrying about hurting our eyes.