No One is an Enemy to Water | Sandi Leibowitz

20 Aug

(Artwork by Carrion House)

*reprint, originally published in The Shining Cities: An Anthology of Pagan Science Fiction (Bibliotecha Alexandrina)

 

In the dream he drummed with an unearthly power. His hand never tired, his rhythm was flawless, but it was the wildness of it, the way it went on and on and on, that made it so intoxicating. The woman was dancing to it, as wild and perfect as his drumming. It was as if he’d drummed her to him. Her hips swayed to his beat. No, it was her heartbeat he drummed. Her breath came short and fast now, and his hand sped up, matching her rhythm. She danced closer and closer until finally her hot breath fanned his face, her own dark face lit with joy.

He woke from the wet dream, sweating. He reoriented himself to this room and this day, regretful at having to leave the dream world behind. It was Wednesday. Nothing to do until tonight, when he’d join his favorite Hungarian folk band in a café gig. His cell phone rang. It had fallen to the floor beside the bed.

“Andras,” he answered hoarsely.

“It’s gone rogue.”

Andras sat up. “Where?”

“Near Grimsing.” About 90 kilometers from his apartment in Vienna. He got the exact coordinates.

“I’m on my way.” He dressed quickly. On impulse, he threw a small, hand-held drum into the knapsack before he left.

 

*

 

The willows looked feathery gray-and-yellow, like downy chicks. Where there had been wildflower meadows a narrow band of water surged past. It was still raining, though the intense downpours of the past few days were done. The spring runoff from the mountains, combined with this week’s rains, had let the Danube loose, and this was where it had chosen to wander. It would not wander long. Andras Berényi was the river-tamer in this sector of Austria.

In the early 2000s, environmentalists had prevailed and the concrete barriers along the Danube had been demolished, allowing the river to create new meanders like this one. Those using the river for shipping had complained bitterly; the navigable channels silted up, forcing the barges along circuitous, time-costly routes. Over one hundred years later, the bargemen re-won their cause. The Danube was no longer allowed to digress. Now, rather than rebuilding multi-billion-euro construction projects, the various central European governments turned to river-tamers to force the river straight.

Andras opened the hatchback of his Renault and kneeled inside. From his knapsack he took out three candles, one blue, two green, and set them in the wrought-iron candleholder out of the wind. Good thing it wasn’t gusting; the gods liked their candles. In front of that he placed a round silver mirror, a nineteenth-century confection, the rim hand-engraved with ornate swirls. He got a kick out of the fanciful name bestowed on this piece of equipment by those in his profession—a spirit-pond.

The water wasn’t its usual silvery blue but brown and rushing, filled with twigs and debris. Andras sloshed through the mud to fill his canteen. He tipped a small portion of the water onto the spirit-pond. That was to capture the river’s essence in order to force it to take corporeal form.

He lit the candles, rang the Tibetan prayer-bells three times, and chanted over the spirit-pond. He removed his clothes and folded them up. Underneath his T-shirt and jeans he wore a wetsuit. He took off his sneakers and socks and tugged on the boots.

Standing straight and tall in the ritual stance, Andras faced the Danube. An observer would have noted how the wetsuit outlined every muscle of the young man’s frame, how he wore the determined look appropriate to one challenging a god. There were no observers, however, except for a cormorant that had startled when the car pulled up, and now floated unconcernedly downriver.

“Donau,” he called, “come! “Danuvius, come! Donaris, come! Mataos, take flesh and come to me!”

From his jacket he took out a silver flask carved in the form of a fish, unstopped it and doused himself with its contents. He wrinkled his nose just a little; he was used to the smell. The fish-oil would lure the god.

While he waited, Andras took out his drum. Music was his hobby—medieval and Hungarian and Romanian folk. Although he sang, it was his skills as a drummer that made him popular among the small ensembles in and around Vienna. He’d gotten his B.A. and most of an M.A in Volkskunde at the University of Vienna. The only things you could do with a folklore degree were to teach, which he didn’t want to do, or work for even less pay in some obscure museum. He’d interned at the Österreichische Museum für Volkskunde before he decided it wasn’t for him and quit. At that point, he hadn’t figured out what he was going to do with his life but expected something would turn up. He would have liked to be a professional musician—he was good enough—but he didn’t want to live like a pauper, scraping together a living with some low-paying day job, living from gig to gig. He’d swum competitively at the University, though he’d had no Olympic ambitions and hadn’t been a slave to practices. So when he’d been approached with the possibility of becoming a river-tamer, he jumped at the chance. The job enabled him to keep musicians’ hours while earning a broker’s salary.

The drum didn’t usually come with him on the job (he usually read or listened to music while he waited), though there were other river-tamers who used drumming in their work. Andras was afraid that would rob his music of its joy. He was also afraid of where such drumming might lead him. Other river-tamers he knew, less skilled musicians than he, had branched off into shamanistic drumming but Andras didn’t want to go there. He didn’t like losing control.

There had been drumming in his dream, though, and Andras was still entangled in the net of lust he’d felt for the unknown woman. Two weeks ago, when Brigitte suggested they move in together, he’d broken up with her. No doubt that’s why the dream had had such a powerful effect on him; two weeks was a long time to go without a woman. The wood-framed drum had a head of real skin rather than the more reliable synthetic kind, so in this weather the sound had gone flabby. But for some reason, this was the drum his fingers craved. The smooth but knobby fish-skin was so pleasing to the touch, it was almost like caressing a woman’s flesh. It was beautiful to look at, too—a pale beige stippled with darker browns like a dappled pony or the mountain ranges on an ancient parchment map.

He started off slowly, the middle finger of his right hand giving a strong downbeat, TOM, the other fingers of both hands wriggling like small fish in answering ticks. TOM- ticka-ticka-ticka, TOM-ticka-ticka-ticka. In his head, he heard what the drum would have sounded like in less humid weather, with the skin taut.

“Let’s go, papa Duna,” he urged the river, using the Hungarian name from his childhood.

Andras chanted some more but it was still too soon. When you’re angling for gods, he knew, you need to be as patient as any other fisherman.

Andras palmed the drum absentmindedly. The rain beating on the car’s roof suggested a faster rhythm. He smiled. The rain and he performed a percussion duet. The river, flowing along with its wet melody, joined them to form a trio.

It is possible while drumming to enter a kind of other-state. Andras closed his eyes, hands still on the drum, and found himself visiting this morning’s dream. There was the woman, red lips parted, dancing closer and closer to him.

The sound of a splash forced him to open his eyes. Swimming towards him, staying out of reach and away from the shallows, was Duna. If this had been a mere man, he might have been anywhere between 45 and 65, though of course Duna was far older than that. He had a dense, formidably muscular build. His hair was a long, vigorous, bluish-grey, with a beard to match. Four nostrils punctuated his long, pointed nose; gills flanked his ears. His bottom half was that of an enormous sturgeon, silver-grey, with spines along the fish-part that continued up the ridge of the humanoid back. A fearsome-looking being was Duna, but Andras had contended with him many times before, and always won. Of course, if he hadn’t won, he wouldn’t be here now; that was why river-tamers were paid so handsomely.

Crafty Duna stayed still far from the shallows, but circling, circling, hungry as a sturgeon for its bait. The spell gave him a dreamy-eyed expression.

Andras struck the bells again. Once, twice, three times. Chanted. Doused himself again with the irresistible fish-oil.

Flexing his arms, he did a few deep-knee bends as a quick warm-up. For some reason, he fingered the drum-skin one more time for luck, then he pulled on his gloves and waded in.

“This is as far as you go, Duna. This new branch you’ve created must dry up, revert to grassland. Behave yourself, Duna.”

When the water reached his knees, Andras stopped. It was cold. That gave the river’s opponent a disadvantage—he could only stay in for so long before succumbing to hypothermia, even with his state-of-the-art dry wetsuit. And the fresh spring runoff rejuvenated old Duna; in the summer, he was more lethargic, easier to control.

The river-tamer had almost reached the god when Duna pulled back, forcing him into the deeper waters. The god observed Andras from drugged eyes, partly closed, round and silver-blue and dispassionate as any fish’s, but with a slight upturn to his lips. It seemed as if Duna was looking forward to going another round and hoped to best him this time.

“Oh no you don’t, daddy.”

Duna never answered; the god spoke only as fish and rivers speak. Instead, he opened his mouth wide as if to better breathe in the scent of the fish-oil, and floated closer.

Andras met him halfway. In order to persuade the river to do his bidding, Andras would have to heft the fish tail into the air and flip the god. The rough-textured gloves would help him grasp the slippery fish-half, but Duna would defend himself fiercely. So far, none of the river-tamers had died, but it was always a possibility.

They circled each other, the man standing in the water hip-high, the god floating. The rhythm of his drumming still echoed in Andras’ mind. With that as background, it felt peculiarly as if he and the god engaged in the prelude to a formal dance.

“Easy, Duna,” Andras said, moving against the current to draw up to the river-god. Now the water came up midway between hip and chest. He reached for the tail, just grazing it; the god flicked it away. “Be a good boy. Retreat.”

The god’s eyes opened wider, as if the contact woke him. He backed further into the deeper water, forcing Andras to swim out to where the gilled one held the advantage. Duna extended his arms, prepared to thrust the human away or underwater, whichever came easiest. Andras surface-dove and grabbed for the creature’s lower half. Even drugged, the god was too quick. On the third try, Andras grappled the fish-tail in a solid hold. Swiftly, he heaved himself upwards, towards the sweet air. Duna whipped his tail in a frenzy, pushing the tamer’s head back underwater. Andras fought for the surface, spitting out the taste of river. Duna bucked like a bronco but his opponent held on. Andras spluttered the chant again.

The spell began to take effect. Duna was tiring. As soon as he got the right angle, Andras would be able to flip him. He took a few deep breaths, gathering his strength. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed a black stork land on a tiny sandbar nearby. Odd. Usually the wildlife fled during these contests. The stork regarded the wrestlers with calm interest.

“Give in! Turn back so everyone wins. Remember, Duna, what it was like in the old days, when you were imprisoned?”

The river-god grimaced. He remembered. He eased up.

“Yes, old man.” Andras maneuvered them towards the shallows again. “Let this new little trickle go and keep to your nice deep channels. Be reasonable.”

That was when the stork did the most extraordinary thing. It dipped its slender legs into the river and walked straight towards them. It shook itself in a wild, palsied motion that sent a flurry of feathers into the air. They landed in the water and were swept downriver. Instead of a stork, there stood a woman, her skin deep brown, her hair a mass of curls that fell in black meanders to her ankles. Some black feathers still clung to her, but even as Andras watched, they turned to peacock feathers. She wore nothing but a gold belt at her waist, from which a small brass mirror was suspended.

“No one is an enemy to water,” she said.

Oshun. Andras had known immediately that this was a goddess, but the peacock feathers and the phrase identified her. The woman in his dream, he realized, had looked something like this. The sight of her stole his concentration. Duna flexed; Andras felt the tail slip away.

“No, Duna, no.” The river-tamer latched onto his prey again, this time coming behind him and pinning his arms. This would keep Duna from harming him. Once he got the god weak enough, he could seize the tail again and win.

“No one is an enemy to water,” the sweet voice repeated. It held within it the sound of water splashing from a height into a placid river golden with sunlight. It lulled Andras into dreamy complacency. He jerked himself to attention.

“Oshun, goddess most beautiful, why are you here? Austria is far from Nigeria, even farther from Cuba. This is not your river.”

“All rivers are my rivers.”

She floated onto her back and lay supine with the ease of an odalisque on a silken cushion. She cupped one hand lazily, filling it with water. When it spilled back into the river, the temperature of the water changed. It was like bathing in a California hot-tub. The tamer’s grasp on Duna loosened.

Andras forced himself alert and regained his hold on the god.

“No one is an enemy to water.” Oshun repeated the Yoruban proverb.

“I’m not his enemy,” Andras insisted. “It’s for his own good.”

“I know what you do, dear shaman.”

Lithe as a river-dolphin, she swam to them. One hand she placed gently on Andras’ forearm, the other on Duna’s. She exerted the least pressure, and yet Andras found that he could not use force to restrain the river-god; he cradled him in a gentle hug. Meanwhile, Duna neither escaped nor attempted to drown him. The goddess had arranged a stalemate.

“Let the river have its way. Let Duna go. I promise he will not hurt you.”

Oshun’s treble tones resonated like Andras’ Tibetan prayer-bells. Her liquid words drugged him as his own chanting drugged Duna. How much he wanted to listen to her, do as she asked! But he fought the urge to let go of his opponent and simply float, content, in the water. He had a duty to perform. Besides, he never let himself get carried away. Not by rivers, not by women, not even by music.

Oshun swam behind him, put her arms around him in a parody of the hold he had on Danu, but hers was soft and loving. Her tongue played along his neck, a light brushing.

“But I must…” he protested.

“Let him go, my sweet musician,” Oshun cooed. “How beautifully you drum! You called me to you. Someday you must play your drum for me again, let me dance for you. Meanwhile, set my river free.” Her eyes were amber-green-brown. There was no malice in them.

He relaxed his grip on the river-god. Duna darted to the deeps. He plunged beneath the surface and did not rise again.

“It is the nature of rivers to be free, my drummer,” Oshun said. “Would you have me silent, still, constrained? Do not return again to bind my river to your will. Give yourself to me, instead.”

Snared by her voice, her beauty, still Andras resisted. He loved his work. They paid him well. He got to spend his days in beautiful countryside, swimming in the fresh air instead of crowded, chlorine-filled pools. Most of the time he was free to pursue his music. No, he thought, I won’t give it up.

Oshun turned Andras’ head to hers and kissed him. Her lips tasted like honey. He half-heard the buzzing of bees, his mind’s eye seeing a hive suspended from a tree over a honey-gold river.

“Which would you prefer,” the goddess asked, “taming rivers or having me? Let me show you how I could love you!”

She pulled herself away, only to swim so that they faced each other, floating upright. Beneath the water, she wrapped herself around him, twined his legs in hers so he could no longer pump himself afloat.

“Give yourself to me, my musician,” the voice teased in his ear.

Loreleis and sirens rose to his mind, an instant of fear rippling through him. He wasn’t sure he cared if he died. But she didn’t pull him under. Instead she embraced him, so that he felt the entire length of her against him. She undulated for them both; it was as if they were dancing underwater. Her arms around his neck, she kissed him again, this time long and deep.

He gave himself up to that kiss, submerged in it as deeply as if he’d dived to the bottom of the river. When Oshun relinquished his lips, he gasped—desperate not for oxygen but to return to that kiss. Her mouth reclaimed his. He was content never to breathe mere air again.

Yes, he could give himself to her. For an eternity of this, he could give up everything.

When she pulled away, there were tears in her eyes. They fell into the river like rain. It had stopped raining long ago. He hadn’t noticed.

He reached for her. Oshun was the only world he desired.

But she kept him at arms’ length.

“It’s not enough!” she cried. “None of you, not one, can ever love me enough!”

Why didn’t she understand? She was his sole desire.

“But—”

She shook her head, still crying. “Your love is a shallow stream, no river like mine.”

The warmth vanished from the river. Its withdrawal drained him. He struggled to keep himself from sinking. How desperately he wanted to convince her of the depths of his love. But his lips felt numb, incapable of speech, his lungs could barely sustain him.

Oshun swam out to where Duna had disappeared and plunged below.

“No…” He could only manage a whimper.

It took everything he had to pull himself to shore. He lay in the mud, shivering. For the first time in his life, Andras knew what it felt like to drown.

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

 

Sandi Leibowitz is an elementary school librarian, classical singer and writer of speculative fiction and poetry.  Her works appear in Mythic Delirium, Liminality, Metaphorosis, Rose Red Review, Ellen Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year 5 and other magazines and anthologies.  Her poems have been nominated for the Rhysling long and short poems, Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net and Dwarf Star awards, and appear on editors’ lists of recommended reading.  She lives next door to bogles in a raven’s wood right in the middle of New York City.

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