The river abhors lovers.
“That’s what my grand-mama always says.”
“Your grand-mama’s a kook,” she tells me. It is spring and she wears blue overalls, with wild flowers wound into her bouncing braids. “I love her and all but she’s so kooky.”
“She says it’s true!” I insist. We tread barefoot along the riverbank, scooping up tadpoles in our hands and looking for turtles to turn over. We are seven and spring lasts forever. “She says heartbroken young lovers used to drown themselves in this river, and eventually the river grew bitter towards all lovers and if you show your love to the river, it will hate you and try to drown you, too.”
She scoffs and throws a handful of rocks and mud into the river. “How’s it gonna do that? It’s only three feet deep.”
She’s right and I can’t argue, so I do what I always do she’s won—I pinch her on the shoulder and run.
“Hey!” She yells, chasing after me. I laugh as our feet pit-pat over the forest floor, until my toes tangle themselves around an upturned root. I fall face first into the thick layers of dirt and half-rotted leaves. A moment later she’s on top of me, laughing and pinching me. She smells like earth and flowers.
“Don’t you ever run from me,” she tells me as she sits on top me, pounding me playfully with her fists. “Don’t you ever!”
“I’m not running from you!”
She tosses her backpack at me, hitting me in the head. “Yes you are! I know you didn’t do your assignment, so get back here!”
I relent. The weather is warm and we are walking home from school. She wears a yellow sundress and her hair is long, hanging down her smooth shoulders like branches of weeping willow. I keep noticing the way she brushes it off her neck. She is serious and stern with me and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
“How do you know I didn’t do it?” I ask her, teasing.
“Because you never do, then you copy mine.” She purses her lips. “Honestly, I don’t know what’s going on in your head. You know how to do all that work, so why don’t you?”
I shrug. “It just doesn’t interest me.”
“Well, if we are going to be partners in class you better pull your weight.” She punches me on the shoulder.
“That didn’t hurt.”
“No, but you hurt my feelings.”
“No, I didn’t.”
Somehow the argument turns into me buying her ice cream. We sit by the river, melting cones in hand, listening to the birds sing and talk about nothing. We are fifteen and summers are too short.
She reaches over to wipe some ice cream off my face. I lean in and kiss her. She doesn’t pull away. I tell her I will never run from her again.
“I don’t see you anymore,” she tells me. Her long hair is cut short to fit into a hairnet. It is autumn and customers in the ice cream shop are beginning to dwindle.
I nod apologetically and agree. I had gone out of town to university, and she had stayed to take classes locally. I don’t come home enough, and when I do we argue often. I can’t say why we argue, or what exactly we argue about, and neither can she. But I know that we miss each other, and sometimes that makes us angry.
“Sometimes I think you changed,” she says, taking off her gloves and hairnet. “Or maybe I changed.” She is older, and a little fuller. She looks like a woman and I wonder what I look like to her. We are twenty going on twenty-one and we don’t know if autumn means the end.
“I haven’t changed,” I tell her. “And I can show you.”
I take her down to the river after her shift. We sit by the water and reminisce about old times. We laugh a little and it’s comfortable and awkward at the same time. I pinch her and run. She runs after me. We roll on the ground, dirt in our hair and leaves all over our clothes. I kiss her and tell her I love her, and she returns it.
But when I leave the next day, I see the chill in her eyes, and feel it in myself. As we stand on the platform of the train station, hands linked, we both know a romp in the woods was not enough to mend the growing gap. We have decisions to make, she tells me as my train comes, and I almost hate her for saying it because it is a fact I do not have the courage to state myself.
The train takes me away, whistling along with the autumn wind. I look back and see her on the platform, growing smaller as the distance between us grows larger. My heart aches.
Tears are falling down her cheeks, pink from the chill. The snow crunches beneath my bent knee as I slide the ring onto her finger. It fits perfectly.
“Yes,” she says again, as if in disbelief. “I’ll marry you.”
I stand and hold her tightly in my arms, knowing I had made the right decision. I chose to return, to come home to her and stay. And she had made the same choice—she waited. Though we spoke little in that final year I spent away, we’d both silently made the same decision.
I take her hand and she leans her head against my shoulder. She’s grown her hair out again and I still notice the way she brushes it off her neck. We walk along the river and point out the places we used to play as kids. She bends down to pick up a rock to skip and the river takes her.
I do not see how she falls, but one moment she’s next to me, and the next she’s under the water. I do not think before diving in after her. The waters are dark, and for a frightening moment I do not see her.
Then my eyes catch her form, sinking fast. How can she sink so fast, when she is such a good swimmer? I kick the water hard as I can, trying to catch her hand.
How can she sink so fast, when the river is only three feet deep?
Then my hand touches hers. I grasp her fingers and for a fraction of a second she resists. Or rather something is resisting for her, the river and its invisible hands. The freezing waters sting me, pull at me, but I fight. I pull her toward the surface. My mind races at the impossible sight before me as I try to swim toward the light.
How can the surface of a river freeze so fast?
Her fingers tighten. I look down and see her eyes open. The darkness of the river seems to swallow her.
“Let go,” her lips say, soundless.
I pull her to me. The river fights me as I lift her above me with the last strength left in my weakening body. I push her above the ice, just as the last hole disappears. The ice closes around my wrist.
She cries and beats at the ice with both fists. I can see the tears falling down her cheeks through the cold, clear barrier that now divides us. She grips my hand, the last connection left between her world and mine. Her hand is very warm. I smile, because I can sleep knowing her warmth will stay to light the Earth another day.
It is winter, and the river abhors lovers.