At The River

     by John High

        Eight months ago?
        Yes, yes, she says to Hezhen excitedly. I think, yes!
        And are there fish in your mouth! The witch demands.
        Yes, they're fish in my mouth.
        Then tell your story!
        The freighter, of course, once again was without a known destination and he feared for me. That's when it happened. When the soldiers came. He'd try to find the story in the pages, the way the monks had played . . .
        Go on, Hezhen hisses, pulling the woman from her sleep. What about the deception.
        Whenever, for instance, the man grew close to deciphering one of the signs of my death, I started going deeper and deeper into it. This world of dreaming. My father's history. He couldn't imagine, you see . . . he had lost his wife . . . and though he never admitted it to me . . .
        Tell me! Hezhen cries, pulling a minnow from the woman's mouth.
        Though he never told me, I found the orders myself.
        Go on.
        From his unit, the notice ordering him to quit the assignment, not to go through with it-instructing him to return for new orders. See. They knew about his eyes.
        But he went through with the bombing anyway. His way to revenge . . .
        What else! Hezhen demands, pulling another minnow from her mouth. What else! She cries, stumbling in the darkness. Tell me what matters to you!
        He thought he could travel with me then. Cross the border and escape with me. He didn't think I knew . . .
        A little girl, Hezhen says, reaching into the water pouring from her mouth. A little girl! Can you imagine . . . such pain, like yours . . .
        My experience is not yours! Hezhen hisses, slapping her face and lighting the fire by the river.
        It is. It is yours. Yes I know your pain. That is why I have come. I am you.
        Hezhen stumbles, bends over, revealing the scars of her birth. Tell your story! she caws, pulling a three-headed trout from her own mouth.
        No direction. Desire. Amazing. Do you love me? I asked that night when he dragged me from beneath the rubble. The little girl burning in the alley, then the roads, the scorched fields, the monks and Gypsies, I remember . . .
        The girl!
        I forgot her!
        Later he found us tickets on the midnight freighter. I had to help him. Horrible. Danger in the crowd's eye. Like 1917. Like it was for you. They were hungry.
        Hezhen hisses, picks the bones from her teeth.
        I was helpless and he made the mistake of trusting me . . . Otherwise he could have got away I'm sure. He knew about my father. And the soldiers knew about him, but they let us pass. I didn't tell him. Because there was still a price to be paid.
        Your story!
        You didn't tell him, so neither did I.
        Your story!
        I hinted it. I might be . . .
        Remember! When you slept together! Hezhen cries, groping in this darkness on her knees by the river.
        Yes, when we slept together, I accepted Father was dead. They were all dead. But somehow I escaped.
        Hezhen grabs her mouth, searches inside.
        They had been executed at the monastery. It was my husband. You already know.
        The girl!
        My . . .
        That's how you seduced him!
        He knew you weren't who you said you were. Knew you had lied just as he had lied. The Notebooks you smuggled out of the monastery. Why did you lie.
        I forgot.
        Why do you betray me.
        You lied to him too. She was your girl. Are there fish in your mouth!
        There are fish in our mouths!
        Tell me the truth then. Show me!
        She pulls another from her mouth and Hezhen gobbles it quickly.
        Go on!
        All dead. My husband and Father. But Ezekiel and Mika took me through the tunnels. Then the Gypsies came.
        While you were sleeping with the Colonel at the monastery while they shot our monks!
        They took them out into that field and shot them.
        They swore to . . . let me keep the girl, that's how we escaped.
        Are there fish in your mouth?
        I don't want the story.
        Then the partisans came and found you on the road, but you wouldn't tell him. Why?
        He knew! The Gypsies were supposed to take care of her!
        Tell me!
        She ran out into the alley before the bomb exploded. They lied!
        Because you could no longer bear it. But she was your daughter!
        I was sick!
        Wake up! Wake up, the witch screams as she opens her eyes and sees him shaking her own corpse by the river. She hears the last of Hezhen's caw, pulling the last of the octopus from her open mouth.
        Wake up. It's the first day!


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