I thought I dreamed seeing her. She walked barefoot out of the river. The pale light of the full moon outlined her glistening nude form. Her wet hair, black as coal, hung down her back in tight curls. Eyes of sapphire looked down onto what would soon be my corpse. She knelt down by my side and touched the bleeding wound with her thin, delicate fingers. Each one was as thin as the grass that grows between the smooth round stones of a clear stream. She smelled of the moss that grows on the boulders along the river. Her voice sounded like the water, itself. “Everything is okay,” she said. The pain of fire emanated from her gentle touch.
I’m not a good man. I never hid that from anyone. Hours before I laid bleeding on the bank of the river, I held up a gas station. I only got about $80 or so and a bag of chips. The kid working the counter practically threw the money at me, right after he wet himself. He didn’t fight back. But he called the cops right after I left. When they tell you to stop or they’ll shoot, it’s not a bluff. The bullet hit me just below my ribcage and passed through my gut. Adrenalin, endorphins, and a solid fear of jail drove me into the woods, where I dropped to the ground by the river. I wasn’t about to go back to jail for $80. I don’t know how long I laid there bleeding before I saw her. I thought I was going to die. I should’ve died.
I woke up the next morning on the wet sandy bank, the same place where I collapsed, the night before. Blood still marked my arrival. But the wound was gone. There wasn’t even so much as a mark where screaming lead tore a hole right through me. As far as my body was concerned, last night never happened.
“Lady?” I called out. “Lady? Are you still here?” Nothing responded except the chattering of the animals of the woods and the river, flowing on its course.
It wasn’t like I could just go back to my place. The cops were probably already there, waiting for me. So, I set up camp where I was, hoping to stay for a couple days. I’d done this before, so I already knew the steps. I made a tent out of an old plastic trash bag, hung over a tree branch. And a campfire out of nearby deadwood, laying all over the site. I found a tangled bunch of fishing line that someone tossed aside and spent the time to straighten it out, bit by bit. I made the hook out of a pull-tab from the top of a soda can. And the pole was a long branch that I’d shaved the twigs off of. A giant beetle made for bait, though it had better things to do.
As soon as I cast the line in the river, as if she were waiting on it, the lady from last night walked out of the river. No, that’s not right. The lady came from the river. The waters that made part of the river stopped being a river and became a lady. That’s impossible. Right? I thought I must’ve been hallucinating and rubbed my eyes. I opened them again and she was still there, standing on the sand of the riverbank. Sand covered her bare toes. Tiny drops of water that covered her naked skin sparkled in the evening sun. I opened my mouth to introduce myself, but I couldn’t form any words.
“How dare you?” she demanded. “How dare you lure my children onto your instrument of torture? Do you know what it feels like to have one of these pieces of barbed metal impale your flesh and pull you to your death?” She held up the makeshift hook. Her bright sapphire eyes looked angrier than I thought they could.
“I… was trying to catch a fish. Is that what you mean?”
“Yes, mortal! You will not treat my children with such cruelty!” Her chest heaved with anger.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean any offense. I was just hungry. Who are you?”
“You don’t know who I am?”
“I’m really thinking I should. But no. I would love to know your name.”
She cocked her head and looked at me, curiously. “I am a naiade.” She said the word with a fair amount of pride. “Those in the world of men call me Mira.” I sang her name in my mind.
“What’s a naiade?” I asked, shaking my head. “Are you a goddess?”
“You are a strange one.” She walked up to me and stood, just a few feet away. It might’ve been my imagination, maybe just how I saw her, but I could swear she was at least a good head and shoulders taller than me. I had to focus to keep my knees from buckling. “Yes, I am a goddess. More importantly, I am a river guardian.”
“What’s that like?” I asked, honestly wanting to know. I’d never met a deity, before.
“What is what like?”
“Being a river guardian. What’s it like?” I motioned to the logs around the campfire. “Please. Sit.”
She smiled at me and my heart ceased its rhythmic pounding. She took her seat on the log, crossing her long muscular legs, beneath her. We talked long into the night, well after the sun had gone to its resting place and the full moon laid a blanket of snowy light on the landscape. The campfire seemed to enjoy bathing Mira in flickering amber.
I can’t remember what I said or if I said anything to provoke it. I wish I knew so I can make it happen again. During that clear, warm night, Mira kissed me. I found her soft, full lips on mine and forgot the world. Then it was morning, and she was gone.
I stayed at the campsite for a few more days after that but didn’t see her. She taught me how to make a fishing basket out of twigs, instead of a line and hook. I did a terrible job making one and it fell apart, constantly. I had to keep fixing it and replacing twigs that came off in the current. Somehow, I still caught fish. I’m sure Mira sent a few my way for trying.
One day, I came back to the campsite after a couple hours of gathering deadwood. A man was standing by the side of the river with his own hook and line in the water.
“No!” I screamed, dropping the wood as I ran at him. “Get your line out of the water!”
“Look, buddy,” He started to say. “Don’t give me any crap about his being your spot. You weren’t here when...”
“No! I mean, you can’t fish like that!”
“What are you talking about?”
I grabbed his fishing rod and tried to take it from him. He fought to take it back, I jabbed him in the nose. He let go and fell to the ground. I started pulling in the line.
“What’s wrong with you?” He asked, blood gushing from his nostrils. “I’m just fishing.”
“You can’t fish like that,” I told him. “It’s torture for the fish. And you’ll anger the goddess.”
“You are crazy,” he said pulling himself back up to his feet. He grabbed his fishing rod and jerked it out of my hands. “You need help.” Then he stormed off.
“I’m sorry, Mira. I told him better. I won’t let it happen, again. Can I… would you allow me to see you for just a moment?”
The current around where I stood slowed to the point of a mirror’s reflection. I walked closer to it and had no idea what she would do. I leaned into the water and could see the image of the sky, with its deep blue and wispy clouds. Then as I looked, the reflection of the clouds on the surface of the water came together with the smooth stones along the bottom and formed the image of Mira’s face. She smiled gently and looked into me with sparkling eyes. She let me look at her for a few moments then the current picked up, reverting to its original state.
“Thank you, goddess!” I cried into the air.
Several more days passed. I’d begun to think I was as crazy as that guy said I was. Goddesses don’t come out of the water. And they don’t slow down the current, just so they can smile at you. Maybe that bullet did something to my brain. Maybe I’m hallucinating and seeing my fantasies. My bullet wound was probably still there, I just didn’t want to see it. I was beginning to think it was time to leave this place and check myself into a hospital.
Then one day I went to get more deadwood. I wasn’t gone for more than an hour. When I came back, the same man from before was fishing in the same spot. This time, I watched to see what would happen. I just had to know whether I was really crazy or not. So, I hid behind a tree, keeping my bundle of wood quiet, and watched him.
Beside him was a stump from a fallen tree. On the stump was a long submarine sandwich. I was close enough to see it was full of Lettice, tomatoes, and what looked like ham and some sauces dripping from it. It looked so good, I wanted to go over and steal it from him. I assumed it was his lunch that he just sat there while he fished. That’s what I thought. He looked over at it, surprised like he didn’t know it was there. He looked around to see if anyone was nearby that he didn’t notice, before. There was no one but me. But he didn’t know that.
I thought about coming out from behind the tree and pretending it was mine. But before I could, he’d already picked it up and taken a huge, savoring bite out of it. Some of the sauces dripped onto his chin and shirt. Then as he chewed, he started to choke and dropped the sandwich. He pulled up a clear fishing line that came out of his mouth and led into the river. Then the other end pulled on it, yanking him forward. The man screamed, sounding like he had something caught in his throat, and tried to yank back on the line.
“Hold on!” I screamed, dropping the wood, and running towards him. “Hold on!”
The man strained against the line that kept pulling him into the river and he howled in pain. I grabbed the line and tried to help him pull, but it was no use. The line just kept pulling him further into the water. I could see that he’d swallowed something that it was attached to and he looked like he was in absolute agony. Tears welled up in his eyes. I found a knife in his tackle box and tried to cut the line. When the blade touched it, golden dust shook off of it like birthday glitter. No matter how hard I tried, the blade wouldn’t cut the line. The man was now in the water, up to his knees. I could see a flash of metal, coming out of his throat.
“Please, don’t do this, Mira!” I shouted into the river as I pulled as hard as I could on the fishing line.
The man cried out in pain, gurgling through the blood and spit that built up in his throat. He fell forward. Then in an instant, he was gone. Disappeared into the churning waters.
I waited the rest of the day on the sandy bank of the river. But I never saw Mira, ever again.