Related to, if not actually a sequel to, They Wear Their Souls On Their Skin.

 

One

What they said doesn’t matter. You know this as sure as you know anything.. They can call you chicken all they want, because chickens are as brave as they are cowards, as stupid as they are smart. The younger kids can dare you to go across the river all they want. You don’t have to go.

But a part of you wants to.

No one crosses the river. Not really. It’s wide and deep, so there’s ferries, but they just take you over. You have to swim it to cross it.

It’s been a week and you keep coming back to here, sand and shingle and clay shore next to the river.

Two

It’s not as if you have anything here. You help on the farm, but you’re not really good at farming. You’re better with the animals, living baby things, or charming the ornery old bull that tries to kill everyone else. It wouldn’t be hard to pack up all your things and leave. You don’t have much, and they’ll barely miss you, in the end.

But maybe you won’t take your things. You’re not really meant to, you know. Crossing the river is like what the preacher talks about. You can’t take things to heaven, neither.

So you take just one.

Three

There’s a fence on the side of the river. Lines of barbed wire. It doesn’t stop any of the kids getting to the shore. Everyone knows there’s a point or three along it where the wire is bent or twisted, rusted and torn. None of the kids ever did it.

There’s no guards, neither.

You walk there at night. Air’s warm, so you don’t bring a coat. You take off your shoes and tie them to your belt. They’ve been soaked through before.

You wade in. The river’s as warm as the air. You’ve never touched it before. The ponds and the lake are always cold. You go deeper, until the river bed slips away under your socked feet. So the choice is made for you.  You start swimming.

Four

You swim.

You’re a decent swimmer, and even though you think you’ve been swimming for ages and the moon is a lot lower in the sky, you’re not tired. You’re halfway, and you can feel the shore you came from pulling at you. Not yanking. Calling, like it wants you to stay but can’t make you, no more than it could make you do anything.

No one can make you do anything, if you don’t want to do it.

You swim.

It’d be easy to go back. The moon would turn on its axis and backpaddle across the sky. If you thought about it long enough, wanted it, you’d be back in minutes. That’s how this works. Going back is easy.

Five

The other bank is steep. You search it for shallows, but there aren’t any. There’s something else, though. Downstream. A couple inches below the water, there’s a stone platform built into the cliff. It’s ragged-edged, maybe three inches wide. Easy to get your toes onto and start climbing.

Bank’s only as tall as you. But when you get up to the top and look back, it seems miles high, the water deep and dark and cold.

You’re wet straight through. Tired, all of a newness. You make a fire surrounded by stones in the safety of deer-cropped grass, sheltered by a boulder. You strip all your clothes off ‘cept your skivvies and your undershirt, and stare at the flames.

Six

It’s still night when you wake up, or night again. Everything’s dry. The fire’s burned out to ash. That’s how you leave it.

This side of the river doesn’t have a fence. Just a wood, even though you’re pretty sure that wasn’t there before. It’s a tall wood, doesn’t have much underbrush. You peer in, howevering on the edge. There could be wolves in there. Woods keep wolves, sometimes.

But you got across the river, chicken. It’s time to walk.

Seven

Your mama used to grow herbs. The garden smelled only of them. Thyme, rosemary, safe. The mints, normal and apple, spear and pepper, cat and lemon. Basil, green and ragged red. Fennel. More beside that, but she liked all those best.

She’d dry them and make teas. Your favourite was the mints, all blended into perfect chaos in your mouth. She didn’t understand it but she’d make it anyway, and smile when you pulled grinning faces.

The wood smells like that.

It’s not something you notice right away. It creeps up on you, thyme then fennel and one by one it builds. In the end it doesn’t matter how or why. You’re walking and remembering and wishing for tea.

Eight

Doesn’t matter, though. Mama’s gone. Garden’s gone. You’re gone now, too. You’re gone and you’re not going back. You’ve got to be brave mama chicken now, but that’s okay. That’s easy.

Nine

As you walk, you dig the thing you brought out of your pocket. It’s a marble. Nothing special, not really. You found it half-buried in the mud on the river shore, once.

The wood’s dark, but there’s rays of dappled moonlight. You hold the marble up, standing in one, to see the sparkles in the glass. It glitters like starlight. You never showed this to mama. This is yours.

Ten

On the other side of the wood is a camp, and food, and water. And daylight, so bright, but it doesn’t hurt you. There’s a note, too, scratched in the dirt. You know your letters. It says ‘for the road’, and there’s no name under it.

You don’t see a road. But you eat, and drink, and warm yourself. You’re not cold, not really, but fire is a comfort.

The sun waits for you.

You’re on the edge of a grassland, tall as your hips. Big, open, friendly. You run through the tassel-heads and flowers for a while.

Eleven

See, your kin weren’t right. Well, your da wasn’t, nor your brothers neither. You always knew it, but not how. Your mama knew it and one day, in the night, she picked you up and carried you out.

She never knew you remembered that.

So you wound up in the town she used to call home, and then you stayed there, and now she’s always going to be the only one of you there.

See, you aren’t right either. Not really. You see all the things no one else wants to admit to.

First night on the farm, after the church and the box and the earth and the stone, you curled up with a blanket from home and a herding dog, and you didn’t cry. Not really.

Twelve

Sun is hot. Killing hot. Hot like da’s farm.

You remember him all right. Not his face but his hands, rough and warm. His voice. He never shouted, not even when mama did. He kissed your forehead and wiped away your tears and whispered goodbyes when mama wasn’t looking, and you stared up at him with your wise, young eyes and clung to his shirt.

He had to put you down on the ground in the end, though. And the night mama walked out, he never stopped her taking you. You saw him there, in the dark. She didn’t.

Thirteen

The grassland ends at water. It looks like sea, but it’s not. You know that, deep as your soul. It’s river. It’s the river, and your great big heart wants to run from the sight of it.

There’s a boat, though. There’s a man in it the boat, tall and lean as corn, and he has an eyepatch. There’s a woman there too, waiting with a satchel next to her.

You walk to the shore.

The woman says, “Did you bring it?”

Her skin’s a maze of leaf and stem. She’s wearing shorts and a t-shirt, but not like she’s showing it all off. More like she’s comfortable.

The marble’s still in your hand, warmed by your palm. You know what to do.

Fourteen

Your mama didn’t like weird things, so you made out you were normal. But she never knew what kids know, that crossing a river ain’t the same as getting to the other side. These are things adults forget. But you never did, no matter how close to adult you came.

These wide open eyes of yours don’t forget anything.

You hold out the marble. The man takes it, and he holds it to the light, and he smiles. He pulls his eyepatch off and tosses it in the river. That part of his face is bone. He presses the marble into the empty socket. It stays there. It starts to glow.

You get in the boat. The only other seat is opposite the woman.

The boat pushes away from shore.

The woman takes your hands and she says, “Welcome home.”

Fourteen

Only kids that dare other kids to cross the river won’t be able to cross it. Not even to try. They don’t get it. Not really. Whole point of the river is, there’s no other side. You’re always crossing it.

You know that, now.

You’ll cross this river one day, but not today. There’s somewhere else to go.