The fish was dead. Tara knew it even before she poked at its limp body, which was draped across the river rocks like a discarded sock. When she pressed the stick against the fish’s belly, tiny insects rose in a cloud and then fell again onto the rotting flesh. The fish was big, and now that she was closer she saw something had taken bites out of it, exposing the flesh and some of the delicate bones that had given the fish its shape.
She always found dead things by the river. Whenever it happened Tara felt the hard rock of grief she’d been keeping at bay tumble up from wherever she’d managed to hide it. She hated the idea of some animal stranded and dying on the rocks alone. Once she’d found a dead magpie, its feathers starkly black and white against the gray of the shore. Another time a small river otter lay curled in the sun, and for a moment Tara’s heart jigged with hope. But it was dead, too.
Tara poked the fish again, harder this time, and wondered if it had understood it would die. Even if it had understood, what choice did it have?
“What are you doing?”
Her head jerked up at the sound of the girl’s voice. Tara shaded her eyes, scanning the shoreline, but saw nothing.
Tara turned, looking into the branches of the willow tree that drooped over the water and saw a girl, pale and thin with dripping green hair and green eyes. Her toes just grazed the water. The girl shifted her weight, causing the willow branch to dance, dipping its long tendrils into the swift current.
“How long have you been there?” Tara asked.
“I’ve always been here.” The girl shrugged. “What are you doing?” she asked again.
Now Tara shrugged.
“It’s sick,” The girl lifted her hand, and Tara wasn’t quite sure if she meant the fish or the river.
Tara jabbed her stick at the fish. “It’s dead.” She made her voice flat, but she felt bitter bubbles of resentment trying to break the surface of her veneer.
“I’ve seen you before,” the girl said. “I’m Tally.”
Tally tilted her head and gazed at Tara, making her look away and fidget with the stick. “You’re sick, too,” Tally said.
Tara squinted at Tally, who was still in the tree. “No.” She snapped the word off in her mouth. “Why would you say that?”
Tally jumped, and Tara winced when the girl’s bare feet hit the slippery rocks at the edge of the water, but Tally never lost her footing. She took several steps toward Tara, her feet never leaving the wet edge of the river. “Maybe you’re not sick.” The girl scrutinized Tara in a way that made her squirm and shift. “But you know someone who is.”
Tara looked out at the river so she wouldn’t have to meet Tally’s eyes. “My mom,” Tara said. She bit the words back as soon as they were out. She never talked about her mom, about the days she spent lying in bed after treatment, the pale skin of her scalp nearly the same color as the white pillowcase. When her mother was too tired to even sit up and watch a movie with Tara, she would slip out of the house, leaving a note and a glass of water on the table next to the bed. On those days, and there were more and more of them recently, she came to the river. Sometimes she just sat on the shore and watched the current slide by and toss itself over rocks and fallen trees. Once she’d had the odd impulse to walk into the water, to just stroll into the current and let it take her. She could almost feel the relief of it, even as she was sure the water would thrash her against boulders and pull her into its whirls and eddies until she was gone, like the fish or the baby otter.
But most of the time she’d walk the shoreline, wading into the water to get around bushes of fragrant mock orange and twiggy dogwood that grew with their roots in the riverbed. The sun burned her shoulders and the water cooled her feet and for a short time the noise of the river would drown out the part of her brain that was certain her mom wasn’t going to make it.
“Ahhh,” Tally said. “That makes sense.”
Tara peered at the girl. Tally felt familiar, although Tara was sure she’d never seen her before. “How did you –?”
“I just know things. I’m not sure why. I just do.” Tally took another step toward her. “You like it. The river, I mean.”
“I live here,” Tally said.
Tara looked around for a nearby house, but there wasn’t a single structure in sight. “Near here?” she asked.
Tally shook her head. “No. Here,” she said. “Come on. I’ll show you my favorites.”
Tara hesitated. She was used to being alone, had even convinced herself she liked it. But she felt a tug of panic watching Tally’s retreating back, so she followed the strange girl, scrambling across rocks and around boulders, under willow branches and away from poison ivy. She noticed Tally always had at least one foot touching the water. Even when it would have been easier to cut a path away from the river to get around an obstacle, Tally took the water side every time.
“There’s honey in there,” Tally said, pointing at a river birch. Tara scanned the tree and saw honey bees flying in and out of a narrow crack in the trunk. “It’s good, but I don’t go up there.”
“Why not?” Tara asked.
“I don’t like to leave the river.”
Tally led them downstream, picking her way over branches and rocks until she came to a jumbled pile of sticks at the base of a tree. The tree’s roots were half in the water and half on land, and the river raced by lodging dirt and more sticks and debris around the branches that were already there.
“Beaver dam.” Tally pointed at the water where an animal’s head formed a “V” as it swam against the current. “It’s his,” she said. “It’s dry inside.”
“Dry?” Tara glanced at the water spilling over and around the tangle of wood. “But how?”
“It’s a mystery,” Tally said, smiling. She waved at the beaver, then kept going, always skirting the edge where the river met the shore.
They waded along a basalt cliff face, treading carefully on the fallen stones and scree that created a shallow path at the base of the sheer rock. Tally set her chin in the direction of a deep pool shaded by the towering cliff. “That’s where Old Simon lives.”
“Old Simon?” Tara asked.
“He’s big,” Tally said. “Bigger than I am. Well, nearly. But sometimes he’s nice. He’s lived here almost as long as I have. The men try and catch him all the time but Simon’s too smart for them. He has a collection of their fishing poles at the bottom.” She dropped her voice to a whisper. “Sometimes he grants me a wish, but I never ask. It wouldn’t be polite.”
“No, I guess not,” Tara said, and wondered, not for the first time, if Tally might be a little bit odd.
Tara followed Tally as she circled around the rocks. They skirted some rapids and came to a stop at an oxbow bend in the river.
“Here’s where the babies live,” Tally said.
“The baby whats?” Tara asked.
“All the babies.” Tally swept her arm out and all at once Tara could see the ducklings swimming behind their mother next to the grass downstream. She noticed the fingerling trout in the shallows, darting and flashing around their toes. She heard the tweets and squeaks of the fledgling birds as they tried out their untrained wings. Above them a young osprey cried out.
“Oh,” Tara said, but she didn’t have any other words.
Tally laid a cool, damp hand on Tara’s sun-warmed arm. Tara turned to her, meeting the girl’s green-eyed gaze this time. Tara thought how Tally’s eyes were like the moss on the rocks at the edge of the river, or maybe like the stems of the cattails that stood in the slow-moving eddies.
“Maybe she won’t die,” Tally said.
Tara knew without asking that Tally meant her mother.
“I think she won’t,” Tally said. “Sometimes I know things.”
Tara didn’t speak. She didn’t nod, or shake her head, or even shift her weight on the rocks where they stood. She wasn’t willing to question the closest thing to hope anyone had offered her in months. Maybe Tally was wrong. But maybe she was right, too.
“You like the river,” Tally said again.
“Yes.” The word emerged from Tara like a sigh, like she’d been holding her breath against the world.
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