I walk like my father. He has a long, swinging stride with a bounce in the balls of his feet. A cheerful walk but not one that brooks much argument. I am twelve years old and my mother thinks it’s time for me to learn to walk “like a girl.” My dad laughs and says that no one will ever mistake me for a boy. I am smug. I don’t have to be like a girl, I am a girl.
I am two and a half years old. The half is important at this age. I have gone from staggering along like a miniature tipsy sailor to having my own real person walk—you can see it in family videos.
My own real person walk is my dad’s walk writ small.
I am fifteen, and I have walked into the woods by myself to try to stop being angry at the world. There is a stream that isn’t too choked with leaves, even this time of the year. I sit by it and give in to the temptation to stick my fingers in, even though it’s prematurely cold, much colder than the autumn air. The chill distracts me from my anger. I only pull my fingers out when they’re numb.
When I turn around the naiad is there. She is subtly not human, the trailing bits of her fingers, the rippling hair that no stylist could duplicate. “Hello, Armand,” she says.
Armand is my father.
I have spent the years since puberty hearing how much I look like my mother. So much like her mother! I am sick unto death of it. But no one has ever mistaken me for my father, or for any man.
“I’m not Armand, I’m Gigi,” I say. “His daughter. How do you know my dad?”
“He is one of ours, as you are. We know you from your flow.”
“He is?” I stop. “I am?”
More of them join her, quickly. They smell of rain and mud and magic. I recognize the smell of magic immediately when it hits my nostrils, cool and crackly and astringent, like another kind of citrus chillier than lime. They want to talk to me. They tell me things that make my head spin around. I catch my breath with difficulty and they go.
I tell my father. He nods. “It’s not easy,” he tells me, “but it’s right.”
I tell him what they said about knowing me from my flow, blushing, because at fifteen that sounds like menstrual blood, and as close as I am to my dad, I don’t want to talk to him about that. But he smiles and corrects me: they mean how I move. Flow is how water moves, flow is how one river is not another, one brook, one pond. The shape of the currents.
For us, that means how we walk. And I have always walked like my father.
I am excited to be chosen by the naiads. I am proud. I do not think to be frightened, not when the smell of magic permeates everything, not when they ask me to do strange things. Exhilaration drives out fear.
I am sixteen and spending a lot of time in the woods. This makes my mother nervous for more reasons than she wants to articulate, or feels she should have to. She likes that I am spending less time angry. She fears that I will catch cold, get lost, get raped, get a reputation at school for being weird.
My dad has not told her about the naiads, so I don’t tell her either.
“She’ll be fine,” he keeps saying.
“You don’t know,” she keeps saying.
The naiads need things of me—I expect they need different things of dad. We never talk about the details. We just go about our tasks as best we can. Occasionally when I am tired I go and butt my head into his shoulder like I was much smaller. This makes both of us happy I think.
The naiads occasionally headbutt us too. They think it is how humans show affection. They do it hesitantly but with fervor, like trying to get the accent right when you say “I love you” in a foreign language.
I am nineteen. I have personally met thirteen naiads in five different states. Some of them I know pretty well by now. Three I met just once, on vacation or a visit to relatives. And my dad dies. There is a car accident, there is a truck driver who was taking meth to stay awake and runs over my dad’s electric car like it was a piece of newspaper flapping in the street. There is a hole the shape of my dad.
That is not just when I’m nineteen, that’s all the years after.
The naiads do not spend time on comfort. The naiads do not understand comfort. But I have come to understand the naiads. I have come to understand the way the water joins and parts, which waters are one, which are separate. I have even started to understand some of the things they ask of us. They do not want to be choked, and there are difficult elements of that for a human to see, bringing specific shrubs and herbs to plant along their banks, pulling one particular brick out of a decaying park structure. Things that look like messing about. Things that are very hard to explain in the face of someone else’s grief.
But abandoning the naiads is not an option, not now, not any of the nows.
I have my dad’s swift, swinging walk through the woods, and I spend more and more time there now. Apart from them my work is just make-work, keeping body and soul together, buying me the time in the woods, with the water. There is no time to pursue a career away from the naiads, and why would I bother, when I have this.
Getting out into the woods is a relief and a trial. Getting out into the woods is a homecoming. The air brightens my eyes, makes me feel more alive. I need brighter eyes and to feel more alive, because my dad is gone, there is no one else who understands about the naiads.
They send me for pine needles from another forest. It takes all evening and my mom is terrified that I have done something drastic out of grief by the time I get back.
I think there must be others, not just me and Dad. Sometimes when I’m walking along a culvert, when I’m planting something in a park, I see the marks of someone just before me, someone else doing their part. But I never meet them.
I am twenty-seven, and it does not feel like a turning point when I get a high fever one night. Working with the naiads scents me with their cool tangy magic, but it doesn’t give me any of my own—I get colds and food poisoning and splinters just like anyone else. One fever, no problem, stay hydrated and rest and get through it.
I do not get through it.
It breaks me.
I try to get out of bed a few days later, and the floor rises to meet me. I crawl to the bathroom, drink some water, take my temperature. It doesn’t feel like I have a fever. I don’t have a fever. But the room spins anyway.
I have no sense of up and down. It’s gone. I feel as though I will fall off the cool tile of the bathroom floor. I cling to it desperately, crying to myself. Eventually I manage to get to my phone and call my mother.
The sinus infection—it was a sinus infection—ruins my inner ears. I can’t walk without falling into walls, tumbling over without warning. I am covered with bruises. I constantly ache from the muscle strains of trying to pull myself upright at the last minute, wrenching myself away from dangerous things when I fall. Familiar places are better, but nowhere is safe. I learn to look at the corners of doorjambs for reference, to wedge myself in the side of the sofa where there will be both the arm and the back to orient me with pressure against my body, to tell me where up is by showing me down. Right-angles are my friends.
There are no right-angles in the woods.
I move back in with my mother. She takes me to the grocery store, the library, the pharmacy. Most of all she takes me to the doctor and the physical therapist. She uses sharp objects and hot objects for me as though I was the two-and-a-half-year-old just learning to stride like her father.
This is all I can manage. The woods, the streams and lakes I know, must wait.
The physical therapy works, mostly. It works, sort of. After most of a year, going twice a week, it works. To my relief and my mother’s, it works: with a cane, I can walk again. I can manage to take a bus or a cab to go places by myself. I almost say “to go places like myself,” which is also true.
Finally I think it must be time. I return to the first stream I ever met. I walk so slowly through the forest, the tip of my cane making unfamiliar sounds against the rocks and the leaf mold of the path. I am exhausted from balancing on such a long walk. There are two naiads sitting by the stream, one of them visiting from a local lake I also know. I greet them eagerly, finding the right place to put my cane to step forward to the banks of the stream.
The stream naiad shrieks. The lake naiad steps in front of her protectively.
“What’s wrong with you?” I ask them.
They don’t answer. They are staring at me with wide, terrified eyes. I haven’t been there in a year, a full turn of the sun and then a little bit. But I didn’t think they would forget so quickly. They didn’t when I was away to college, when I was hanging out with other naiads somewhere else for awhile.
“Guys, come on, what’s your problem?”
The stream naiad quavers, “Who are you?”
The naiads don’t recognize me.
I should have thought of this. I never did. When I was thinking of all the things that had gone wrong, all the things I would have to win back, I never thought of how naiads know people.
This is harder than PT. This is worse than pain.
“I’m Gigi, I’m Armand’s daughter,” I say. They shake their heads, no, no, they know Gigi, I do not have her flow. They wait for the real answer. “I’m Gigi. I’m Gigi.”
They are still cocking their heads and waiting when I flee stumbling through the woods, fall over a tree root, cling to my cane with a gashed-open hand. I can’t stick around them, I have to leave. The astringent smell of magic floats after me.
None of them gave me a headbutt. They really don’t know me at all.
I don’t know myself at all any more either.
The next month is a blur of panic.
I am not drunk very much of the time. I can’t be—the room spins too much all on its own. But my mind does not want to deal with the world as it is now, and I shut down. Conversations are gone as soon as they happen. I try to make dinner for myself and my mother, simple things that don’t take a lot of knife work, don’t require standing at the stove for very long. My mother still takes the hot things out of the oven for me. My mother takes my birthday cake out of the oven for me.
I am twenty-eight.
I cannot use the past tense about my dad, even though I am not nineteen any more and he is gone and I am changed beyond recognition. My dad walks like a champion. My dad remembers that champion didn’t used to just mean big winner, it meant someone who fought for something.
I blow out the candles and try to figure out what that is.
I have a few good days. I have a lot more bad days.
I go back to school, but not for something practical. Not accounting, which you can do if you cannot walk every single day. Not for any quiet, indoor profession.
I get my background work in geology, and I get myself accepted into a hydrology graduate program.
Everyone is confused.
But my dad is a champion, and I am a champion. (My brain taunts me with the past tense.) And if the naiads won’t tell me their incomprehensible ways of staying alive, keeping the world from choking them, I will do it myself.
I learn more about the water table than I thought there was to know. Chemistry, physics. Flow.
I learn how to recognize so many chaotic details of the flow of water over the land.
I am not naturally good at it. I work hard. I work so hard that my mother worries, my mother cries when she thinks I don’t hear her, because it is all so hard for me and I keep working. You can get better at most things with work, if your body isn’t betraying you, and I do.
My body still betrays me sometimes. I get used to it.
People ignore me at conferences. My mother and all my friends profess surprise that the cane is my cloak of invisibility, that people kick it out from under my hand and don’t even apologize. That I have to talk twice as loud and say things twice as smart to even start to exist. I wonder if all the starships on Star Trek used assistive devices and that’s why they could go invisible.
The naiads need me not to be invisible. Even if they don’t know it any more. Even if they’re still figuring out who I am and why I can see them.
Even on the good days, when I can walk just fine, I am little and I am cute and nobody wants to talk to a hydrologist named Gigi. I am Regina now, more and more. I change how I do my hair, I wear dark, bold colors, and I make my points clearly and firmly, and Regina’s friends all tell her how impatient she is, but Regina has had to have more patience than Gigi ever did. Regina lives patience every day.
Regina goes back to the woods.
Regina learns to walk well enough with a cane that other hikers think it is just a walking stick. She lets them. In the woods, a person with a stick is not invisible any more, not if she moves quickly and quietly. Not if she waits to get home to cry over the bruises and gashes that come when she falls.
I don’t go back to the stream of my teen years. I go to a waterfall, through a granite-floored forest. I don’t know these trees, and the sounds of the mountain brooks just off the path are not familiar to me. I hike all the way out to a waterfall. I have never met the waterfall.
She looks up when she sees me coming, fiercer and more magical than the stream I know.
“Hello,” she says. I am squatted down on my thighs, making my way down the steep slope. My face is twisted in a scowl. But I am getting there.
She watches me coming toward her in this ridiculous, undignified way, stumping my cane along as I squat. But I get there. I get there.
“You’re one of ours,” she says. “I can tell by your flow. What is your name?”
They never asked that before. They thought I was Dad. I had to tell them, they didn’t ask.
Finally, fighting down the slope with sweat pouring off me, salting the magical smell with its humanity, I am me.
I am thirty-three, and I say, “I’m Regina. I’ve always been one of yours.”
“I can tell,” says the waterfall naiad.
She has instructions for me. Of course she does. But I have instructions for her too. I know enough to tell her about her mountain, her woods, things she can’t see, things she doesn’t know. We see in different parts of the spectrum. We flow differently.
It might work.
When it is just one of us, just me or just the naiads, we cannot see what we cannot see. Our vision has been whole, entire, the magic of the forest, the knowledge of hydrology. But when you put them together, all the other places they do not touch start to show up.
Caregiving. Protection. Community. Neither of us sees those, and we need them.
But I know who does see them.
I have always been my father’s daughter in the woods. But this time, when I am myself, I am my mother’s daughter too.
We have been through so much together, I can’t shut her out of this. She deserves to know, even if it will be hard to explain. She has helped me with so much. She doesn’t have to help me with this.
But she might.
I manage a few confident strides on the way back to the trailhead. I falter and lean more heavily on my cane. I fall. I pick the pine needles out of my hands and get up again to go do what the naiads and I didn’t know we needed.