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Tuesday, June 06, 2006

River Queen

Category: Short Story Winners, Issue 2

It was dark when the boy awoke. He lay in the warm comfort of his bed, his ears picking up the sounds of dawn. Birds chirped outside his window, a cow bayed from the sheds, demanding to be milked and a rooster crowed from the chook pen. A spoon clinked against a cup in the kitchen and the heavy boots his father wore made the floorboards creak as he left the house to attend to the farm.
And then the boy heard a different sound. A sound that was becoming increasingly familiar. It came from the room next to his, where his mother still lay in bed. It was the sound of sobs being quietened by a pillow.
Unable to listen anymore, the boy quietly rose and dressed. He made his way to the kitchen and quickly packed some bread and cheese into a bag and picked up an apple. He was almost out the door when his mother called to him.
“Jacob, where you be going this early?” He voice was steady, but she couldn’t mask the thick emotion that still sat in her throat.
“I’m just going to the creek Mama,” Jacob called softly.
“Don’t go too far now. And make sure you don’t disturb your daddy. He’s awful busy today.”
Jacob nodded and called out, “I sure won’t. I’ll be back in for lunch.”
“You take Misty with you if you’re going to the creek,” His mother called as he left the house.
The boy looked around the yard and spotted the shepherd lying in her hay bed next to the shed. He whistled sharply and the dog jumped up and ran to him. Together they set off across the yard towards the paddocks.
White clouds raced across the lightening sky as the dawn became more pronounced. A cool breeze ruffled the boys hair as he reached the edge of the first paddock. He crossed the firebreak and climbed over the fence into the back paddock. He stopped and called to Misty, who was busy snuffing at a cow pat. The shepherd jumped the fence easily and the two companions continued on their journey, leaving a trail in the dew behind them.
At the end of the back paddock, bush started and ran towards the back of their property. Jacob liked being in the bush, exploring and pretending to be a settler or a hunter. He also liked playing in and around the creek too. Well, it was actually bigger than a creek but it didn’t scare his mother so much if they called it a creek instead of a river. Creeks were small and harmless: rivers were much more dangerous. Jacob’s mother hadn’t actually seen the river so his father told him that they should refer to it as ‘the creek’ to stop her worrying. She did insist on him taking Misty though whenever he went there.
The element of water added more fun to his games and created thousands of scenarios that trees and dirt just couldn’t provide. Jacob could spend all day at the creek and never get bored.
He did admit however that it had always been more fun with Benjamin though. Ben would always take the time to play with his younger brother at the creek. Although he was eleven, a good three years older than Jacob, he would leave the older boys and come with Jacob to the creek to play.
But that was before Ben went away.
One day he just didn’t want to get out of bed and he kept on coughing. Doctor Wilson came and had a big serious look on his face. He said he’d take Ben away to a place where he would get better, but Ben never came back from there. Then a week ago Jacob and his mother and father went to church on a Thursday. The boy had thought that was strange. They only ever usually went on Sundays. And his mama didn’t stop crying and his daddy had tears too, which Jacob was amazed at. His daddy never cried. And he sat there, being cradled by his mother’s arms, not really knowing what was going on, but too scared to ask. But deep down inside, he knew that it had to do with Ben. Maybe they were all praying for him to get better?
So now Jacob came to the creek alone.
The school holidays had started but he hadn’t seen his friends since Ben went away. But he didn’t mind. If Ben wasn’t going to the creek with him, Jacob preferred to go alone.
Misty ran ahead of the boy when he smelt the water and Jacob hurried after him. He pushed through the bush and emerged at his favorite spot of the whole creek. There was a shallow beach surrounded by large granite rocks that bobbed up out of the water so that, if he was careful, Jacob could use them as stepping stones to get to the other side. The trees hung over the river, letting only beams of sunlight filter through to the water. But just to the right of the beach was a large flat rock overhanging the water that was not blocked by trees, and so it was always warm in the sun.
Jacob settled himself on the rock and started on his breakfast, occasionally throwing some to Misty, and enjoying the warmth.

Several hours later, Jacob was standing in the shallow water of the beach. He had made a small boat out of bark and leaves and was releasing the craft into the water. The small boat wobbled a little and then was slowly pulled into the current. Jacob shouted with joy that his creation had worked and ran up onto the river bank to follow his craft. He ran downstream, past the flat rock and past the small rapids where his boat took a small beating, to the large tree that had fallen across the river. He quickly moved onto the log and eased onto his stomach so he was hanging over the water. He watched the little bark boat with sails made of leaves move quickly towards him. Jacob stretched out and scooped the little boat into his hands. He then clambered to his feet and turned towards shore, ready to go back to the beach so he could release the boat again. Misty was standing on the bank, but instead of looking excited and playful as he usually did when they played ‘chase the boat’, he was cowering on the ground and whining.
“Hey boy, what’s wrong?” Jacob asked, moving quickly towards the dog.
Misty whined again and crawled across the muddy ground towards Jacob. The boy ran his hands through the thick fur to calm the dog, and then stiffened as he realised he was being watched.
He had spent all his years on the farm and instinctively knew when an animal was watching him. Roos and foxes were the most common this far out in the bush, but sometimes a sheep or a goat would wander away, lost and then stumble upon the boy while he was playing. But this was different somehow. This was…bad somehow. Misty never acted like this with any of those animals. He would sometimes bark and chase them, or round them up, but he was never afraid. Maybe it was a wild pig, Jacob thought. He had heard his daddy say that the neighbours had been having trouble with them. A pig might scare Misty. Wild pigs scared almost everyone.
Jacob
The voice came from downriver. It was almost a whisper carried on the wind and for a moment, Jacob thought he was imagining things. Misty whined again, his eyes slightly wild.
Come to me
There was no mistaking this time. Someone was calling to him. Misty yelped and then bolted for the bush, leaving Jacob alone.
“Misty! Come back!” he called, even though the boy knew the dog would not heed his calls.
Torn between curiosity and fear, Jacob stood undecided on the river bank.
Jacob
The boy made a decision. If the person knew his name, they must know him and therefore couldn’t be that bad. He placed his boat carefully on the log and began to follow the river downstream.
He picked his path over slippery rocks and decaying leaves, straining his neck to see around the bend in the river. After a five minute walk, the boy came across the swimming hole, a natural pool in the river that he had only been to once before.
The voice had not called him again and Jacob looked about to determine where the person was.
“Hello,” the boy called. “This is Jacob. Is that you, Mr and Mrs Whittaker?” He called out his neighbours names.
There was no response. Jacob shivered and looked at his watch. It was almost lunchtime. He decided to return home so he wouldn’t worry his mother. He crossed to the pool to wash the dirt from his face and jumped as he looked into the water. Instead of his reflection, a woman was looking up at him. Jacob stumbled and fell backwards, looking around. He wondered if Ben had returned home and was playing a joke on him. There was still no one near.
Cautiously, Jacob peered back into the water. His own scarred reflection stared back. He sighed in relief.
JACOB!
The voice was sharp, almost a command but still a whisper. Jacob looked up and saw the woman standing on the far side of the waterhole.
She was unlike any of the women he had ever seen before. She was tall, with flowing blond hair that was almost green in the dim light. She was dressed in a long white dress, not unlike his cousin Mary’s dress the day of her wedding.  White or not, no one wore dresses on the farm. All the women wore jeans or trousers.
It was her eyes though that caused Jacob’s throat to almost block with fear. They were a bright purple, almost violet and they shone with intensity. All up, she reminded Jacob of a witch he had seen in a horror movie that Ben had let him watch.
This woman was bad. How he knew, the boy couldn’t say, but he knew immediately.
Jacob, come to me
The woman didn’t speak, her lips didn’t move, but Jacob heard her words clearly.
“Who are you? What are you doing on our farm?”
The woman threw her head back and laughed. The sunlight that trickled in from the tress sparkled in the woman’s eyes and her green hair flashed.
“My dear boy, I have lived here for hundreds of years,” She moved her mouth when she spoke this time and that somehow made Jacob a little less scared. “Perhaps I should be asking you what you doing in my home?”
Jacob didn’t know how to answer that and so he stayed quiet. Her statement that she had been here hundreds of years seemed even to Jacob’s eight years, a little hard to believe.
The Woman continued to look at Jacob, a small smile on the mouth. When she didn’t speak for a few minutes, Jacob tried again.
“You seem to know me. Who are you? Do you know my father?”
The woman shook her head. “No Jacob, I do not know your father. I only know you because you come to my home frequently. I rarely leave my waterhole here, so I haven’t seen you in person all that often, but the trees have told me of your frequent visits.”
“The trees talk to you?” Jacob asked, half in disbelief but also amazed.
“They would talk to you if you chose to listen,” The woman replied. She stepped forward and sat lightly on a rock.
“I suppose I have been rather rude Jacob.” She said, looking directly at the boy, her purple eyes flickering. “I am Enalaya, the River Queen. It’s nice to meet you.”
Jacob didn’t know what to think. The woman was absolutely terrifying, but she didn’t seem to be threatening him.
“I’m really sorry Miss, but I have to go home now. My mama is expecting me home for lunch,” Although he was scared, Jacob didn’t want to appear outwardly rude.
Enalaya’s head dropped. “As you wish Jacob. But perhaps you could come and visit me again? It is lonely being the River Queen.”
Jacob hesitated and then nodded, then turned toward the path to leave. He had gone several steps when he turned to look back at Enalaya. The rock was empty. There was no sign of the woman. She had vanished. Jacob frowned and then moved on.
Until next time
The voice floated on the wind and caught up with Jacob as he made his way down the path. He stopped in his tracks. The voice faded with the wind and he carried on until he reached the log. Picking up his boat, he hurried back towards the house.

The following day, Jacob returned to the river.
The experience of the previous day had unnerved the boy to a great extent and a fear had begun to knaw at the usually happy young boy.
Even Jacob himself could not explain why he went back. Misty had hidden in her kennel and refused to come out at all that night. That in itself should have been enough to keep Jacob away. Added to this was the strange things the woman had said. Jacob had an Uncle Geoff who said things just as strange, but he took pills to keep himself normal. This woman probably needed pills too, Jacob thought.
On top of it all was the fear Jacob had felt during the encounter. Even though Enalaya had not harmed him, she scared Jacob worse than the dark creatures under his bed or the werewolf he had seen in a movie.
So why was he going back?
Jacob could not say exactly. But he did have a feeling that Ben would have gone back. Jacob would have done anything his big brother would have done. Ben loved adventure and was always making up new games for them to play. This would have been just another game to Ben.
Boy, Jacob sure missed Ben. He never told mama that because anytime someone mentioned Ben to her, she would get all teary and quickly leave the room. The last thing he wanted to do was hurt his mama. But the thing he wanted most was to ask her when Ben was coming home.
Jacob neared the river at his favourite spot and sat on his rock in the sun to ponder the situation. He knew that if he told his parents about the woman they would think he was making it all up. Grownups could be silly like that sometimes. They never believed the important things like this, but still acted like Father Christmas was real, years after your older brother told you he wasn’t. So Jacob knew he was the only one who would ever know about this woman.
He also gave some though to what Enalaya wanted. She said she was lonely, but Jacob was only a kid. Why would a grown lady want to talk to a kid? Besides, she had her trees to keep her company.
Even if she was a strange lady who liked to talk to kids, how was Jacob to know when she wanted him to come talk to her? Would she do the funny trick where she sends her voice on the wind, or would she come and find Jacob? Or would he have to go to her and just guess when it would be okay for him to show up? Although he had come back to see her, he was still scared. He didn’t want to make her angry by turning up unexpected.
The boy sat on his rock and thought about the strange lady some more. He lay back and looked at the clouds overhead. They were getting darker and Jacob was sure it would start raining soon. He hoped the lady would be finished with him by then so he wouldn’t get wet. She might be the River Queen who didn’t mind the water but he was still a boy who preferred to stay dry.
Jacob
There was her voice again. He supposed that meant she wanted to see him, so he stood up, brushed off the back of his pants and began walking downstream.
As he went, the boy became more aware of the trees. He used to think of them as just trees, but now he was sure they were aware of him as he passed by. And was that the noise of the wind or was it the trees whispering to each other about him? Jacob grew just a little bit more afraid and tried to walk closer to the river so he wouldn’t be so near the trees.
He came around the bend and reached the waterhole. There she was, looking exactly like she had yesterday. Enalaya was sitting on her rock again, her white dress almost touching the water’s edge.
Hello Jacob
She smiled at him, s strange little smile, and didn’t move her lips as she greeted him.
“Hello ma’am,” Jacob replied, trying to be polite, but wanting to ask her to speak normally since her way of speaking without speaking scared him.
She seemed to sense this and spoke properly. “I am glad you came Jacob. I have longed to speak to someone for such a long time.”
“Are you sure you want to talk to me?” the boy asked. “I mean, I’m just a kid. Wouldn’t a grownup be better?”
She laughed and the sound sent chills up Jacob’s spine. He wasn’t sure if that had been a friendly laugh or not.
“Oh no, my dear boy. You’ll do just fine. Besides, no one must know I’m here.”
Jacob wanted to know why she was supposed to be a secret but somehow knew that he didn’t want to know the reason.
“So Jacob, tell me, why do you come here so often?”Enalaya asked, her purple eyes glittering.
“Um, well as I said yesterday, this is our farm. I play down here so I don’t disturb my father.” Jacob hoped that she wouldn’t try and tell him again that it wasn’t his farm. She didn’t, but she stood up and walked to the waters edge.
“But why do you come here alone? I mean, I’m sure you have friends who would want to play here with you.”
“I used to come here with Ben but he’s gone away for a while. I’m sure he’ll come with me when he gets back.”
Enalaya looked at him quickly, as if rethinking what she was about to say.
“I see. So Ben is your brother?”
Jacob nodded. He wasn’t sure how she knew this as he had never told her, but then again, he hadn’t told her his name and he had known that.
“Where exactly do you think Ben has gone?” Enalaya asked.
Jacob looked up as a large raindrop splashed on his cheek. “Why is that important?” he asked.
“I was wondering what makes you think,” Enalaya said, dipping her toes in the water, “that Ben is coming back at all?”
Jacob stood stone still, ignoring the rain that started to fall more heavily on him. He didn’t know what to say. What could she mean by that? Of course Ben was coming back. He had to.
“I’m not sure what you mean,” Jacob told her, starting to turn. “Ben is coming back. I know it. Now, I have to go.” He started walking quickly up the path, leaving the River Queen behind.
Ben isn’t coming back
Jacob tried to block out her voice as he wiped the rain from his face. However, no matter how hard he tried, her voice kept on following him.
Jacob, listen to me
“No!” Jacob yelled. “No, I won’t listen to you. You don’t know what you’re talking about!”
Ben isn’t coming back
Jacob began to run. He reached his spot by the river with his rock and he turned and broke through the bush. Branches caught his face but he knocked them back and kept on running, slowing only when he reached the fence and pulled himself over it
The cows were in the back paddock, but they were huddled on the other side, as far away from the river as possible. If I was a cow, I’d be doing the same thing, Jacob thought.
Jacob, Ben is dead
Her voice stopped Jacob dead in his tracks, and he sank to the ground of the muddy paddock. Rain streamed down his face, mixing with his tears. As clear as day, he knew she was right. He just didn’t want to know it before. Jacob cried as his grief washed over him and his heart filled with emptiness. Enalaya didn’t speak to him again. He guessed she realised he believed her now. Ben wasn’t coming back.
Unlike most eight year olds, Jacob had had a vast experience with death. He had grown up on a farm after all. He knew exactly what death meant. Even though Ben hadn’t been trucked off to be sold as meat, it amounted to the same thing. The cows didn’t come back, and neither would Ben.
After what seemed an eternity, Jacob pulled himself to his feet and wandered back to the house. He only had a distant realisation that his mama was pulling him into the kitchen and toweling off the mud and rain. It seemed like a dream when she picked him up, wrapped in a blanket and took him into his bedroom, anxiously feeling his head for a temperature. And after he had stared at the empty bed next to his for hours, trying to picture Ben sleeping there, Jacob finally fell to sleep too.

Rain thundered against the window pane and wind howled around the house. Every now and then, lightning would light up the sky, followed closely by the thunder. During one particularly loud clap of thunder,  Jacob woke suddenly. At the foot of his bed, he saw a shadow. When the lightning came again, it illuminated the face of Enalaya. In the eerie light, her eyes no longer looked purple, but a deep dark black that absorbed all life. Jacob waited for her to say something but by the next lightning strike, she had vanished. He turned over and fell back to sleep.

Jacob awoke suddenly with the sensation of falling. When he felt the pain of hitting the wet earth, he knew he really had fallen. Rain instantly soaked him as he stood unsteadily, trying desperately to recall how he had come to be here. One moment he had been in bed, the next he was outside on a stormy night.
The electric sky brightened the gloom and Jacob recognised where he was. Not far from the river was a small clearing at the bottom of a steep slope. Looking up, he saw broken bushes and small trees. He’d obviously fallen down the slope.
Trying to get his bearings so he could get back home, he turned this way and that. But as he looked around, it seemed the clearing was getting smaller and smaller. The trees leaned in close on either side and the wind shrieked in his ears. Jacob ran towards an open section of trees but when he reached the opening, he found it had closed. Darting back the other way, he tried again. No matter how fast he was, he couldn’t find a way out.
Starting to panic, Jacob’s ears picked up a new sound. Laughter. Evil laughter. Not knowing, or particularly caring who was laughing, just wanting to get away from it, the boy ran straight for the trees ahead. He felt resistance as branches tried to hold their ground, but panic had given Jacob’s tired muscles new strength, and he beat his way through.
Running as fast as his legs could carry him, Jacob ran from the clearing, not knowing where he was headed. Rain washed across his face, obscuring his vision but he blinked it away and kept on running. The sound of his panting was loud in his ears but over it all, the sound of laughter was still following him.
Jacob risked a look over his shoulder. He could see nothing behind him. Still running full pelt, his foot caught in a root and he fell, sprawling onto the ground. Sitting up, wiping blood from his mouth, he saw he had reached the waterhole. Laughter followed him here and the trees seemed to reach for him.
“Enalaya, please help me!” Jacob shouted. Something snagged his foot and he recoiled in horror as a tree root tried to grasp him. Something tugged at his shirt and turning, he saw a branch reaching down from above, trying to grasp him.
Jacob scooted sideways, away from these living branches, and shouted again, “Enalaya, please! I’m scared. Please help me River Queen!”
Jacob
He voice called over the laughter. Jacob turned and crawled across to the waterhole. He looked into the water and her reflection looked up at him. She beckoned him closer.
You will be safe here
Jacob looked around. From every direction tree branches were reaching for him and the laughter was getting louder. He looked at the water. Enalaya didn’t look scary at all now. She looked like a saviour.
Without a backwards glance, Jacob threw himself into the water, towards Enalaya’s open arms. It was suddenly very quiet, the laughter was gone, and Jacob felt peaceful.
Welcome home Jacob

The storm had died down and the search team was able to move more quickly while looking for the boy. The property was vast, but the team had agreed to search it first, before moving on.
Mike Whittaker scoured the bushes for any sign of Jacob, but saw nothing. He moved away from the main search team, heading down the slope towards the river. Here and there he caught signs of something having been through the bush, broken branches and flattened grass, but until he could be sure it had been the boy, and not a roo, he decided to not alert the rest of the team. There was no point abandoning the rest of the search if it turn out to be a roo trail.
Mike moved downstream, following the path. He passed the rapids and a large log, but still didn’t see any signs of Jacob. He knew he was getting close to the old waterhole and a feeling of dread filled him. Without being aware of it, he picked up his pace.
He came around a bend in the river and the waterhole came into sight. At first glance, he didn’t see anything unusual, but then he looked more closely and saw something at the water’s edge. Mike hurried forwards and saw the limp form of Jacob. All hope left him as he saw the boy was face down in the water. He sighed and picked up his radio.
“This is Mike, I’m at the waterhole. I’ve found the boy.”
The radio crackled and the search leader’s voice seemed loud in the clearing. “What news?”
“I’m afraid we’re too late.” Mike’s voice was filled with sorrow.
“Roger that Mike. I’ll send some men down there to help you while I inform the family.”
Mike had been neighbours with Jacob’s family for fifteen years and knew them well. He didn’t envy the search leader the job of letting Jacob’s parent’s know of the boy’s death. He had only been to the funeral of their eldest son last week and remembered clearly the overwhelming grief they had felt.
He sighed again and waded into the water. Jacob’s limp body was covered in scratches but the water had washed away all traces of blood. Mike turned the body over and let out a shout of surprise.
Jacob’s eyes, usually a dark brown, were now bright purple.

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Old Comments

  • I’ve read this a couple of times now. It leaves me a little confused, but that’s normal, I’m always confused. Enalaya kind of reminds me of a more threatening Tom Bombadil type.
    I think that with some cuts and rewrites, this could end up being a nice little piece.

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/10  at  12:22 PM
  • Are you related to the brothers Grimm?

    ‘Also’ and ‘too’ were both used the same sentence.
    ‘However’ and ‘though’ were also both used in one sentence too (ha ha).
    You misspelled ‘gnaw’.
    “He hadn’t told her his name and he had known that” - I think is supposed to be “...she had known that”

    There are some kinda slow parts, but the writing is very good with nice descriptions.  As I read it, I felt more and more that I would decide whether or not I liked the story depending on the end.  Then the end came and it was not what I wanted (that truth is a force of good), so I decided I didn’t like it.  But the writing was good enough to make me search for a meaning where I had found one I didn’t like.

    I urge other comment readers to do their own thinking before reading about mine just because it’s more fun that way.  Now, I mean.  Go ahead and think about it.  STOP READING!  Ok good enough.  What I came up with is that people will be attracted to whatever shows them the truth.  Whoever can be honest and gentle and blunt enough to give you the bad news straight will be the one you go to.  If Jacob’s parents weren’t going to do it, then he’d get it from somewhere else - and if that somewhere else be the loneliness of a river, then so be it - the parents lose.  So now I’m thinking that since Jacob’s eyes were now purple, this “I’m too scared to teach my children about loss” problem just goes on and on.  I love it when a little reflection shows me something new.  Thanks Nettie!

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  06/11  at  05:58 PM
  • A nice piece, though too long - there is just so much one can read about stumbling and falling etc. The story can do with some real trimming. Still you manage to keep the tension.
    I would have it end, when Jacob jumps into her waiting arms…. skip all the rest (the bit about the search party, grieving family and the totally unnecessary conversation between members of the search party.) Then get on with your “goose-pimple” ending about the purple eyes.

    I’ll remember this story!
    Kind regards
    Ingrid

    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  07/11  at  12:29 PM
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