This story contains references to the arranged marriage of a minor.
Lisa knelt by the edge of the water as the solstice moon rose far overhead. She checked her watch — not quite midnight — and the shimmer on the water was still just frost for now. She laid the flowers and the box of cinnamon rolls on the bank and stretched. These days, the cold and the late night got to her. Old age.
The minute hand turned and, on cue, the shimmer on the water turned silver and strange. She always thought it looked like— Well, she wasn’t sure. Nothing from this plane of reality. The eddies on the river shifted and solidified into an inky, bottomless shadow. The water twisted, finding its form, and then the current parted and she stepped out. She was beautiful, as a goddess should be. The color of the clearest ice, almost a ghost rising out of the water. There was so much less of the girl in her this year — every year — that it took Lisa’s breath away.
“Hello,” Lisa said, and it stuck in her throat.
The river’s goddess stretched out her arms, embracing the air she only touched once a year, and then she looked down at the woman sitting in the dirt. “Hello, Mom.”
And there it was. The goddess’s features softened and, finally, Lisa saw her daughter in the ice. Every year Sophie’s face grew a little stranger, a little less like the flesh-and-blood girl who went into the river. By now she had sharper cheekbones than any runway model could hope for, and would never suffer a flyaway hair or a skinned knee.
Sophie sat down on the bank, opened the box, and bit into one of the cinnamon rolls. Her eyes closed in ecstasy.
“Your brother had a baby,” Lisa said. “A boy.”
“I’m glad. Last year you said they were trying. And Aunt Yvonne?”
“The cancer’s in remission. We went to Disney World, ate Dole Whips every day.”
Sophie laughed. There was a bit of frosting on her lip, but it vanished as soon as Lisa saw it. Nothing was allowed to mar Sophie’s perfection. That was what she’d been granted when she married the river’s prince.
“Your sister finished her residency. She’s going to stay in New York, she thinks.”
Sophie closed her eyes again. The moment stretched out. “I would have liked to see the city.”
Lisa picked up the flowers, though her hands shook. “I brought these for you. Remember when you made me paper carnations in third grade? Like a hundred of them.”
Sophie took the flowers and, for a moment, their hands nearly brushed against each other. Lisa expected to feel the radiant warmth of another person’s skin, but of course she felt nothing but tonight’s damp chill. She made herself let go, and Sophie held the flowers carefully by the paper. Lisa wondered what her touch would do to them.
“Down below,” Sophie said, “we make bouquets of seaweed and lilies the nixies bring to us.”
Lisa’s whole body tensed, and it wasn’t from the cold. “He’s good to you, isn’t he?”
“The River Prince loves me.” Sophie breathed in the flowers’ scent, keeping her nose away. “He gives me everything I ask. I am his consort. Is he ‘good’ to me? It’s different down there. Being good is a human idea. He is a force of nature. I am a force of nature now. Is the river good to you, up above? Can it be?”
“It hasn’t flooded the town. That’s good in my book.”
“I should hope it hasn’t. That’s the deal, isn’t it? Me for everyone else’s safety?”
Lisa was struck by memory: Sophie, in what should have been her school dance dress, with a crown of wildflowers around her head; the whole town waiting on the bank, watching to make sure their offering was accepted; the water parting for her; the wildflower crown floating back to the surface; the rest of her gone, claimed.
“You told me — you told all of us — that you wanted to be a princess. To be beautiful, powerful.”
“He came and asked for me,” Sophie said, and raised her chin. Defiance, a frozen anger — now her profile was entirely the River Princess, their protector, their bargain to save themselves from the river’s wrath. “And I was thirteen.”
She touched the flowers and they went limp, sodden through. Lisa’s watch pinged; this liminal time was ending. Sophie stood and looked back toward the water. Lisa jumped to her feet, or tried to, and slipped in the slush and mud.
“Someday I won’t be here to see you anymore,” Lisa said, holding back her tears. She could give in to them later, when she was safely in the car. “But the town will still stand — everyone’s homes, everyone’s businesses and family graves and lives — and you will have a long, long life. Far more of it than I could give you up here.”
Sophie turned around. She touched Lisa’s cheek softly, and rivulets ran from her fingertips down her mother’s face. “And when my long life is done, he will ask for another.”
She smiled at her mother one last time and stepped back into the water, letting the river pull her under for its own once again.