This story contains images of self-harm/suicidal ideation and harm to a child.
From water, white-capped, rushing over pebbles and stones, chasing round rocks, my flesh emerges; limbs stick thin and translucent like the freshwater they came from, wings glinting in the late-summer sun. I perch on the river edge, soft grass and slipping mud, listening for footsteps.
There’s water in the ground, even after summer brightness, and through it I can hear the child before she comes into view. I hear soft footsteps on the grass and bare toes curling round the damp soil, soaking in the grainy texture as if it was a sensation she’d been deprived of all her life and yet was as essential to her as breathing.
She wanders over the hill towards the stream, where she has been headed all along even if she doesn’t know it. Her pigtails are pulled so tight they must hurt and yet she shows no sign of distress. Her clothes are all green; her t-shirt and patchwork skirt, and likely her socks and shoes before she lost them, far behind her. She walks in small steps, her feet spread apart, her eyes wide as if this is a new world waiting for her. It’s not magic, just observation; paying attention to these things about her tells me instantly she’s autistic. Many humans would give her less understanding labels.
She sees me. I hold still, careful not to scare her. I pull my wings back, feeling them tremble in the breeze. Like many children, she moves forward with wonderment and curiosity rather than fear. I flutter a little way into the grass to entice her away from the water.
It works for a few moments, but then the pull of the water is too strong. She falls and the undercurrent pulls her down. I fly down, slipping into water, becoming water, and I speak to her.
“Do you want me to save you?” I ask. It’s the beginning of a negotiation. A bargain. Many humans would criticise me, but I am here and they are not.
This child is face-down in the water and does not respond. This is a child who does not speak, perhaps not ever or perhaps not now. I need her agreement if I’m going to save her. I look at her more closely.
I see a child who wants to live. A child who loves her family and the soil beneath her feet and, yes, the water. The fact that she can’t say any of that doesn’t make it any less clear. It does not mean she is not communicating.
Her will to live is a bargain with me, and I will be back one day to claim my part of it. I pull her choking, spluttering, from the river, turn her over, and let her vomit into the grass. There are other footsteps approaching, quick and frantic. I hear the child’s name on the softly-moving summer air, and it sounds like bird-call: Cora, Cora.
Then there’s a woman running, then kneeling beside the child, checking her for breath, for a heartbeat, sobbing with relief or sobbing with fear. Normally I would disappear back into the stream, letting myself flow into it. But this time is different. I look up at the woman holding her daughter tightly, and realise that I recognise her. I know her name.
Rosalind. The woman who paid me a debt before I came to collect.
The first time I saw Rosalind, she was fourteen years old. I’d known she was on her way, sensed her trudging, determined steps through the river to the waterfall. I pulled myself out of the pool below, crashing water refracting rainbows into the winter air. The water was bone cold and the ground cracked with ice, but neither would stop her.
Like so many children, Rosalind had always been drawn to the water, but she grew up playing in parks without fountains and swam in chlorinated pools under the watchful eye of an instructor, learning to keep a panicked child’s head above water or to tow a patient in a rescue tube. But this was later, and she was older. She wasn’t making her way through the river because she loved water. Her face was calligraphed with thick eyeliner, because Rosalind had always liked to make a statement, but the barely-clotted blood on her arms was not art.
Rosalind had her reasons, even if I didn’t know them. She was here to die.
She continued towards the waterfall, clothes heavy-laden with water. I didn’t think she’d do it, thought she’d back out just in time, but she crashed down through the water, bouncing against the rocks, and I swooped down and caught her from the waterfall before she hit the pool below.
“Do you want me to save you?” I asked over and over.
“No,” she said, thrashing against my hold. “Let me die. Let me die.”
I pulled her from the water anyway, carried her all the way to the tourist car park, and left her for others to find.
That was my mistake. She still owed me but, because she had not consented to the bargain, she could fulfil it any way she chose.
“Her debt is mine,” Rosalind says. “But you will not take her. You will not take my daughter.” It’s a bold statement, especially to one of the fair folk. But she’s right. We don’t ask for firstborn these days; when we did, it was almost a blessing. Better to lose a child to us than to the factories that wrench skin from bone, to the blistering wars of imperialism, to illness, or to starvation.
“You?” I say, edging scepticism onto my tongue. “What do you have to offer?”
But the woman gazing back at me could be my equal — one who can play at my own games. She’s in her thirties now, a lawyer, tying knots with a clever turn of phrase as well as I ever could. Cover-up tattoos on her arms have twisted her scars into swaying strands of seaweed, fish swimming between them. Those are arms that have pulled her daughter from water before. At work they are always beneath a blazer, but now it is summer and she has a daughter within them, tapping out a rhythm on her mother’s shoulder.
Rosalind has not been one to cheat me. She could have chosen so many ways to fulfil her debt, but she did not choose the easy ones, the perfunctory ones. She copied out poems on pages torn from her school books, wrapped them in plastic, and dropped them into rivers or off wharfs. She collected coins when she travelled and threw them into the sea as if she were skimming stones. When her grandmother died, Rosalind gave me a necklace she inherited of blue-green stones that glint even through water.
“Time,” she says. She’s gazing just to the right of my face and into the distance, a trick she’s learned to give the impression of eye contact. I don’t mind. “I can give you time.”
I let the silence hang between us and wait for her to continue. I have saved so many from the water — mostly children, some older. I once stayed away from all humans, but those I saved were those who fascinated me. I have emerged in rips at beaches, in lakes and rivers and waterfalls, to drag them from drowning. None have ever been like Rosalind. None have ever bargained like she does.
It is not that I have no feelings for them. But I understand, as so few of them do, that to exist among others is a series of exchanges, of bargains, and I am making another one. It is true that I would prefer these mortals to not drown, not so young, but so many mortals are lost already. Death is simply part of their existence.
“I am told,” she says, when she’s realised I’m not going to respond. “I am told that your kind sometimes want us to give up something of value more than you want to receive it. Your years are long; ours are short, and they are all we have.”
Her voice softens as I listen. She continues.
“Come and spend some time with us. Come and be with us, with me, in the places we go. Let me give you these few short years. They will barely register for you, but for me they are everything.”
I smile despite myself. She’s doing well at making it sound like she’s doing me a favour, and yet I am oddly pleased. I remember that I have kept everything she gave me, hidden behind rocks in a waterfall. I did not know why I kept it until now.
I look up at her and she’s smiling back, standing now. She has no powers of glamour, and yet it’s hard to look away.
The years of mortals are so short. But they can be so beautiful.
I pull myself out from the river and take her hand, feeling the flow of water in the soil below and the summer breeze upon my wings as Cora, now recovered, runs rings around us as we walk.