The last of the river is slipping from her veins, and all she can think is this is why men weep.
“There now,” the doctor says. “Just a few more drops.”
She cannot see him, only an ocean of white fire, like staring into the sun too long. But she can feel his fingers trace the crude veins of her wrist, the pressure as he squeezes her last drop free. The ocean of fire blooms yellow and gold, sparks like so many embers against the membranes of her eyes.
A doctor, he said, a healer of men, not rivers. Yet he promised to purge the sickness, the filth clogging her arteries, the fevered indentations of her brow and the black boils spilling across the puckered flesh of her back. But all that remains within her now is the muck and tangle of debris, the poisons and bloated corpses rotting in stillness.
“There,” he says. “It is done.”
The pressure dies. She mewls, hungry for herself, for cleansing. So dry, her throat tears itself to speak. He lifts her and her skin crackles and breaks at his touch and the ocean of fire flares and burns across her flesh and all she can do is gasp and crack her throat.
She drowns in flames.
* * *
She wakes to a sky so blue she can almost taste the sea in it. A sun so white she cries out and squeezes her eyes shut just to be sure the ocean of fire has not returned. The doctor has left her in the riverbed, mud oozing around her. Her skin is cracked and sunbaked. She presses against it, presses to be the river once more, to careen from bank to bank, from mother to sea. But she is dry, so dry. She cannot break the flesh she has created. Cannot fill the long emptiness of her bones.
But what lies between the banks belongs to her. She slurps the mud through the cracks of her skin, through her lips. Draws the water free and into her veins until a wide circle of dried crust surrounds her. The fish and the eels and the frogs, dead now because she has been separated too long, all these corpses belong to her as well. She cannot change their death, but she can fill her emptiness with it. She hobbles toward the nearest, sets it to her mouth, and sucks the moisture free. Only dust sifts between her fingers when she is done.
And still she is so dry.
She struggles upstream, gaining better use of her human legs with every step, pulling water from the mud beneath her feet, from the death between her toes. She leaves a trail of dust behind her, dry and sifting in the wind. Upstream, past where the flatlands break into ridged plateaus, where the plateaus blunt their fists against the stubs of mountains worn smooth with age, she used to twine her fingers through the pools of her mother and find comfort when the season turned sluggish with silt. She seeks that comfort now, that wet embrace.
She passes over the tracks of crocodiles and water snakes and other creatures that have broken free of her banks. If they were here, alive, she’d suck them dry as well. The living hold sweeter water than the dead.
But as much moisture as she draws into herself, the sun claims an equal share. Nothing but the corruption remains behind. The boils blackening her dried-mud skin stretch their greedy tendrils to her thighs.
She is so distracted by her thirst and the constant act of consumption, she does not notice the man until she is upon him.
All men look alike to her. Dark, sour creatures with their water loosely bound to their flesh. There is no stillness to them. No strength. This man might be the doctor, so alike are they all, but she cannot smell the metal-sharp tang of her purified self on him. But he is in the riverbed and thus belongs to her. And she needs his moisture.
She falls upon his kneeling figure, draws his moaning lips to hers before she notices the slightest dimpling of his flesh where the black boils will soon rise. He is poison. She has drunk enough of his kind to know now.
His lips gape, fish-like. His eyes are curtained in white, seeking hers out in the oceans that drown them. “Laksham? Is that you?”
She can feel his water trembling against her flesh. Unclean, but more abundant than the rotted corpses that have been her diet so far. And the sun beats down so hot against her back. But she can still remember the ocean of white fire gushing across her own eyes, stripping away her sight when the doctor helped her from her banks. The hollow echo in her breast when she realized she could no longer hear her mother’s heartbeat.
“I am not Laksham,” she says. Speaking hurts. She did not make this body to speak. She lets him go and rises. He is not what she is looking for, and she cannot bring herself to draw the rivers from him.
But he grabs her ankle. “Please. Can you take me to the river? It is so hot.”
She has barely made any progress herself this day, and her mother is still so far, farther than she can dream. But she can feel the pulse of the currents in his flesh, see them dancing across his skin, rainbows of motion. All else around her is sun-rot and slime.
“Yes,” she says, and is surprised with the saying of it.
He releases her ankle, holds out his hand as though waiting for something. But when it is apparent she has nothing to give him, he reaches for her leg again, pulls himself up, stopping hunched into himself only when his fingers graze the cracked hollows of her thigh and waist.
“You are not clothed,” he says.
“No.” She saw no reason for clothing when the doctor came. He only asked for human form so that his work might be easier, for veins and arteries to guide the condensed water from her mud-born flesh.
The man fumbles his shirt overhead. Small boils lace his spine. His currents dance less steadily between them, their rhythm disrupted. He holds out the shirt and she stares. Clothing is a thing of men, not rivers.
But he shakes it against her. “Here.”
The water of his flesh saturates the cloth, still thick with corruption. She drops it behind her. The man’s brow furrows at the sound, but he says nothing. He grasps her arm, and they walk.
The man is slow. He clutches her arm too tightly, breaks furrows through her skin. His breath stinks of death. And still the sun burns and boils. And her skin bakes and cracks. She winds their path between the rotting fish, sucks them dry between her toes. If the man notices he walks only in dust, he does not ask. Merely stumbles where she leads. Murmurs in the dryness of his breath.
At nightfall, they collapse onto a pile of dying reeds. She did not expect her flesh to tire so quickly.
As the man curls into place, he whimpers, “She said she’d take me to the river. She promised.”
She, too, was promised things. Cannot understand why they have not come to pass. The tongues of men are water, and water cannot lie. He drifts into quiet, and she examines the toll of the sun upon his back. Darker than it should be, even for a man. Bubbling skin between the boils that stretch farther down his spine. An ache swells in the hollow of her breast. Her creatures were not made to walk dry beneath the sun. So she traces the curve of his spine, wills the cool shadows of the nighttime river to flow through her fingertips.
He groans beneath her touch. Awake. “Laksham?”
She pulls her hand away, though she has no reason to feel guilt. He is hers, and she may touch him or not touch him as she pleases. “No,” she says, “I am not Laksham.”
She wonders if all men are like this, asking questions whose answers they already know. As if the asking will change what is. She is not in the habit of speaking to men, though. So she rests her aching cage of flesh and watches the currents dance in his own.
And as all men must, he sleeps.
* * *
The dead bake into the mud, crust beneath the sun’s glare. Even the mud is drying, becoming brittle on its surface. The waters are buried deep, take more effort to reach, provide less sustenance. Beside her, the man shrinks into himself as well. The dry heat has spread across his shoulders. The boils have risen along his neck. And between them all, his currents sigh and cease to dance.
She is so thirsty. She must remind herself he is poison, though she will drink him if she must. Poison is better than death. She has never felt this creeping ache in her throat before. Never had the flesh to feel it. The man must ache as well, though she can feel enough water swimming in his flesh to ease it somewhat. All in the wrong places, though.
Progress is slower this day, and the sun blazes hotter. Corpses of men have begun to pile in the riverbed. Their flesh is indistinguishable from the mud, their eyes empty sockets that watch her from every angle. She avoids their touch but cannot avoid their questioning gazes. What water is here reeks of poison and filth. She will not drink it. By the time the sun has risen to its full height, a new smell, cold metal on her tongue, traces the wind. She forgets the corpses and presses the man faster.
Ahead, a child picks up a fish, places it in a basket. But when the child looks up, it screams and flees upriver. The man on her arm jerks, but says nothing.
They round a bend, and the banks are lined with men. Dead wood, dry and broken, fills their hands. Small huts line the bank as well, their grass thatch walls rustling in the wind. She knows this place. One of many that threw their dead into her waters, mingled the poison of their flesh with her own.
But she cannot smell the poison on them now. Only the heady scent of herself sharp against their skin like knives.
One of the men steps from the bank and into the riverbed. “Demon,” he says, and she wonders of whom he speaks.
Several more men follow behind him. But she can only focus on the first. His water sings to her with every step. So clean. So pure. Her thirst shudders through her shoulders.
As the man raises the dead wood in his arms, she thrusts her man aside and rushes to meet the new man. He tries to scream, but she covers his mouth with her own, sucks the wet words from his lungs. Water slices through her veins. It is so little, though, and only serves to increase her thirst. She tosses down the crumbling husk of the man and strides to the nearby bank. The other men clamber atop each other, scramble backward. How their flesh still sings. But as her foot crosses the bank and touches the land that is not hers, the ocean of white fire flares across her eyes in a tidal wave. She screams and flails and drops back into the riverbed, scratches at her eyes and pushes back the flames.
Behind her, her man cries. “Laksham, Laksham, what is happening?”
The men atop the bank pull back no farther, but neither do they brave her touch again. She could drink them all and still have but a fraction of herself returned. But it is her fraction, and she wants it back so much her own weak currents froth and spin. They belong to her, these men, all of them, so much does her essence fill them. But she cannot face the ocean of fire. Cannot bear to drown in burning whiteness again.
She rarely spoke to men before the doctor came. Now it has become a necessity. “Return to me.” And she calls to their currents, the lines of moisture that belong to her.
The men step forward, surprised that their feet are moving. But she cannot sustain her fight. There is not enough of her to speak across the bank that separates them. The men stumble to a stop. One picks up a stone and flings it at her.
She does not think to duck, of course. Stones have skipped across her flesh for as long as she can remember, then settled beneath her, still again. But they have never caused pain. This stone strikes her thigh. Showers the dust with her brittle skin. She cries out, lets her pain fill the air. Another man picks up a stone, and another.
Before they can throw, her man finds her, steps between the bank and her, wraps her in his arms. She begins to suck him dry in the moment of a breath, but the tang of poison reminds her of what he carries. Her thirst draws back.
The men on the bank seem uncertain now. “Back away, grandfather. The demon is poisoning you.”
But the man shielding her calls back, “No, she is my Laksham. She is taking me to the river.”
Their gazes shift in swirling eddies.
Her man whispers against her flesh, “Take me,” and pushes her from the other men’s voices.
He shields her as they slowly shuffle away, and the other men do not stop them. His flesh is near to one with her own, and so easily she could drink him dry. But she does not.
When the village is behind them, she pulls away. “I am not Laksham.”
The man, her man, does not reply, but merely stares blankly with his white ocean eyes. Then he crumples to his knees. “I am so hot,” he whispers with his throat of stones. “So dry.”
But he is full of water. She can see it. Dancing just beneath his skin, though weaker every day. But the dryness of his throat scratches the air around her. She has so little water in herself. She owes this man nothing. She is the river.
But still she holds him steady and places her lips against his, sends trickles of herself sliding down his throat. He groans until the first drops touch, then shudders in her arms. When she is done, he is panting for breath in the dust, but his flesh has regained a certain coolness, a certain moistness. His breath steadies and he reaches out his hand, finds her leg, and climbs his way upward.
“Come,” she says.
And the man stumbles with her.
* * *
At night, they curl again on a bed of dry reeds. She watches the heat rise along his flesh. The boils have strengthened their hold, sent thick tendrils twisting into his veins. They drink deeply. She can feel them in her own flesh as well, sucking the river dry. She presses her crumbling mud flesh against him, wills the river coolness to wash over him and draw away the sun and flame and dryness. He is so frail. Her own back aches with the heat of effort.
She did not mean to awaken him, but she did.
“Laksham?” he asks. His eternal query.
She is not who he is looking for. Not who he wants her to be. But she is so lonely. She does not answer him, but nor does she pull away.
The man rolls over, shields her with his flesh again. Finds her lips and shares what moisture he has. But he does not know how to give, so she pulls the moisture from him and sends it back. Mixes the rivers between them. The poisons in their flesh writhe and become unseated, fling back and forth between their lips. He fumbles with his trousers. Runs his fingers along the cracks of her thighs as though they were smooth currents.
She has felt the grasping of men and women in her arms before. She knows what is expected. So she draws him into herself, circles the river between them into a string of rapids, rushing wilder and faster until both are left panting in the reeds, mouths gaping like landed fish.
She had thought the man did not know how to give. She was wrong.
* * *
By day she leads the man upriver, passes villages with stones already in hand and flesh smelling as strong and pure as she ever dreamed herself. By night she shares her water with the man, and he shares in return. But each day, there is less to be shared.
“Laksham,” the man mumbles between feeble steps. It is the only word he has spoken for days. His boils fester now. Without her, he’d be dead and rotting in the sun. With her, his skin has taken the texture of mud. His lips smell only of her.
She can feel the boils still digging deep into her own flesh as well, concentrating the poison in bubbles of corruption. Sending tendrils out to suck her moisture away, to push through the surface of her skin like weeds. Her mother is far. So much farther than she imagined. She cannot yet see the plateaus from here. Nor the mountain stubs. Distance meant so little when she was the river entire. Now she is only two weary feet cracking in the dust and a walk that never ends.
There are no more fish. No more stagnating puddles hidden beneath the riverbed crust. What the sun steals, it keeps. Yet still she shares her water with the man. Clings to the comfort of his voice. It is all she has.
At the next village, she stops. The smell is different. Languid and thick, bloated and full of rot. The riverbed is edged with bodies lolling in the heat, putrescence oozing from their skin. There is no pure water here. Only death.
The man tugs at her arm. “Laksham?”
She sits. Pulls the man down with her. “Can you smell it?”
The man says nothing.
As the day bends, the villagers ignore them, consumed by their own dying. By the time evening cools the air, though, she can smell something new on the wind. Pure metal. The doctor is coming.
The sun is near setting when the cart creaks into the village. Copper urns weigh down the open back, and through them, she can feel the river crying out to her. Driving the lone ox is the doctor.
He made her a promise. Now it is time for it to be fulfilled.
The villagers swarm the doctor. He fills their cups from the urns. When they drink, the corruption of their flesh bursts and falls away. A miracle, they cry, and bring what riches they have to be piled between the urns. But it is no miracle. She can see now what the doctor has done. The rivers in the urns have been condensed tighter even than what she gave him. The black boils drink, bloat their greedy tendrils, but the water is too strong. Despite this truth, the doctor accepts the cries of miracle and resulting riches with a smile.
Until he drives his ox to the riverbank where those too weak to move have piled themselves. His smile falters then, when he sees her sitting nearby. Still he fills cups, though his eyes never leave her. And all she can feel is her blood singing out to the urns, crying for reunion so loudly the weight of it crushes her. What little of her the doctor has given out to the men is nothing compared to what of her remains in those urns. And that condensed self might be enough to cure the vast sickness dug into her own flesh.
She reaches out a hand. “You promised,” she says, never imagining her voice could be so small.
The doctor licks his lips, fills the last cup put in his hand. And when the cup is filled, he breaks his gaze away, secures the urns, and climbs up to drive his cart once more. He says nothing, but his silence tells her the truth better than his tongue ever did. The doctor is not a doctor of rivers. He cares only for men.
She will not reach her mother. She knows this now. It is too hot, the journey too far. She will die cradled in her riverbed bones. And the doctor will let her and will not care.
The men of the village notice her now their own pain is gone. Stones fill their hands. Despair fills the river’s heart.
The first one strikes, and she grunts at the impact. She waits for her man to shield her. They will not strike him. They never do. But he is unmoving. And she cannot understand it until she pushes away the song drowning her ears and hears the slow death of the currents in his flesh. One by one, they falter and fail, too little water to flow. He belongs to her, all the water of him and all the flesh. If he dies, she will have nothing.
She will not let him die.
“Cure him,” she says to the doctor, and stumbles behind her man, lifts him aright. His body sways like the wind, he is so light in her fingers.
The stones pause.
The doctor’s hand falters on his prod. His grip whitens. But then he shakes his head and stings his ox into movement. As the cart pulls away, the stones begin to fly again, striking both her and the man, and she cannot understand except perhaps her man no longer looks quite like them anymore. Too much water has been shared between them. He whimpers as the stones hit, but does not move. Does not ask her to take him away. So she turns her body about, shields him from the stones, and sucks in a breath with every strike against the dust of her flesh. And still her man is dying.
If the doctor will not cure him, then she will. Her waters are not thick enough to burst the corruption on their own, but she is the river and knows the ways of water better than even the doctor. She will force the boils to drink, now she knows their secret.
Even as the stones break on her, she puts her lips against her man’s and draws forth what river remains in her and pushes it through his lips. A torrent gushes into his frame. He would cry out if she gave him breath, but everything is thrust into him. Nothing released. The boils suck greedily, bulge, then try to stop, but she pushes against them, pours into them, feeding all the corruption in her man’s veins until it cannot hold. And the ocean of fire shoots meteors into her eyes, sears her emptying body to ash. She is drowning, struggling to stay atop the waves of flame long enough to save him.
When she can give no more, she stops. The ashes of her are torn with every touch of the wind. She would scream if she had breath.
Her man pants and clings to her brittle shoulders even as they crumble. His sickness is gone. But she has poisoned him anew. She could not separate the corruption of herself, the muck and tangle and rot of ages, from the river that held it. She is not the doctor.
She wants to tell him this—she needs to tell him this—but the ocean of fire is consuming her. Everything is yellow and gold and exploding, and she is only aware of the man by the singing of his currents and by her need to drain him dry.
“The river,” he gasps. “Laksham, the river.”
And she almost drinks him then to quench the flames. Almost. But instead she thrusts him away and in the thrusting loses her arms to the wind. She can hear his currents searching for her, singing out, but stronger are the waves of fire rolling over her head, and somewhere in them she can hear singing also.
She does not drown in the flames. She embraces them. And the wind scatters her across the riverbed, and the last thing she hears is the hungry mewl of her man’s voice: “Laksham! Laksham!”
Michelle Muenzler’s goal in life is to bring forth the bunny apocalypse and bury the earth with furry-soft goodness. The more carnivorous the bunnies, the better. Her latest short stories can be found in Daily Science Fiction, Crossed Genres, and Electric Velocipede. For more information on how you can help with the bunny apocalypse or any other furry-soft apocalypse of your choice, visit her on Facebook.