Where These Rivers Start
Fast Joe, I was there the day you began to rain. We were walking home from track practice, a walk that led us down alleys filled with rusting garbage cans, dented and filled with dried weeds. Dry Town was a dusty dry town after all. The rain had not fallen there in years. The only plants that grew were vines covered in black thorns that crept with certainty over things. The vines stretched their thin sharp fingers towards the lids of the garbage cans. Our fathers tried to beat the vines back with their long knives, but could not stay ahead of that searching, sharp darkness. There, in the alley, The Rainmaker sat by one of the garbage cans. He was singing.
“Why do you sing so low, Rainmaker, when you wish to call the thunder?” you asked, Fast Joe. “It’s no surprise that rain never falls on Dry Town.”
Rainmaker pulled at his long black hair. An Eagle fell out of it, and it squawked and preened on the ground before flying off.
“What do you know of making the thunder?” Rainmaker asked. “How would you draw the winds?”
“I am Fast Joe,” you said. “I am the fastest. When I run the wind moves aside for me. If it can’t move quickly enough, it whistles through my hair. The thunder grumbles loudly, but my sonic burst is louder. Lightning cannot strike me. I can weave through raindrops.”
All that you said was true. We had just taken the bus to a town far away from our dried out town for a track meet. You, Fast Joe, stepped slowly to the starting line so that everyone could see you crouch. Someone yelled go. You shot out, tearing holes in the track. Dirt flew from the site of your departure and fell down like rain. You ran so fast that we could not see you. The wind moved around you and you chased the clouds away. You won all of the ribbons.
Hearing your story, Rainmaker stood, covered from head to toe in tinkling silver bells. You mocked him, Fast Joe, and asked him why he could not make it rain when it was his only job.
“Enough,” Rainmaker said. “I can see. You believe that you control the winds because they retreat from you. You believe the thunder grumbles at its own incompetence in your presence? Well, the thunder laughs in your face, Fast Joe, as I do. You do not dodge the lightning. The lightning has bad aim. It falls recklessly about the world, and has little concern for you. And, what’s more, to dodge the rain is folly, because you will never grow without it.”
You only laughed, Fast Joe, and drew a line in the sand with a dried vine.
“Rainmaker,” you said, “if you are certain of this, let’s race all the way around the world, starting an ending at this line.” You pointed to the mark you’d drawn in the alley. “If I win, you will give me the language of the rain, and I will be known as Wind Dodger.”
“And, when you lose?” the Rainmaker asked. He smiled wide, revealing his perfectly sinister teeth.
“If I lose, the punishment will be yours to give,” you said, Fast Joe.
“Agreed,” said Rainmaker.
The race began. You, Fast Joe, you took off toward the East. Your feet beat the Wheat Flats. Tornadoes sprung up behind you. In the East Towns, you kicked up so much wind and ocean that the hurricane sirens blared all through the Sunny-wet Towns. You didn’t care. You believed you were winning, and ran faster. You ran through the Desert Towns, and great squalls of sand destroyed caravans and crushed the cities’ great stone walls. In the North Towns, great fields of ice melted as you passed, and flooded the Shore Towns. Still, there was no sign of Rainmaker, so you ran on to the Tiger Towns, where you were surprised to find the monsoons already happy in the rice fields, and the rivers rising. In the Seal Towns, lightning struck all around you, and then, Fast Joe, you were worried. It was like Rainmaker had already been there, and when you crossed the finish line, back in the hot dry alley, you found out that you were right. Rainmaker had returned before you, and he danced in the dirty alley to honor his victory.
Fast Joe, in disbelief you panted like a dog, and pounded the dirt with your fists until they hurt.
“How did you win?” you asked. “It’s not fair. I am too fast. Too, too fast.”
Rainmaker shook his head and stopped dancing.
“Joe, you are fast, but not in the way that you think,” Rainmaker said. “You are too fast to judge others, and you have judged me wrongly. When you ran across the oceans, I was already there. When the great dust clouds battered the walls in the deserts, I had been underground for years, swelling the monsoons in the grass, and sounding thunder across the world. You cannot beat me, Joe. I am in all places at all times. I finished the race before I even started it. I finished before we began.”
Fast Joe, you wept into your hands. You fell on your knees. You hugged the leg of Rainmaker.
“What will my punishment be?” you asked.
Rainmaker showed you his teeth again.
“Fast Joe,” Rainmaker said. “You have too much pride in your head. It will be replaced by the rain. See how it falls from your eyes.”
The first tear rolled down your cheek followed by another, then another, and another until the water poured off of your chin. The water kept coming, and it has never stopped. Now, here we are, Fast Joe, and Dry Town is no longer dry. A mighty river flows from your eyes, and we have planted gardens along its banks. The fruits are plentiful and bitter.
The trout wriggling on the end of Sean Whittlebee’s line was as large as any he had ever seen, and white as a lily pedal. He gawked, and then he measured, and then Sean Whittlebee placed the trout in his basket and went home for supper. In his kitchen, he unpacked his many knives. The sharp filet blade was the one he wanted. He removed the fish from the basket and stuck his knife into the fish’s jaw just behind the gills where he could give one tug and separate the fish’s meat from its entrails, but when the knife bit into the fish’s flesh, it began to wail.
“Why?” it screamed, and Sean Whittlebee dropped the fish. It flipped and flapped.
Sean Whittlebee was startled, but seeing the fish open and close its mouth, and flounder in its fishy slime, Sean Whittlebee took heart, and spoke.
“You are a fish,” Sean Whittlebee said. “And my dinner, too. I caught you in the river and you are mine.”
“Never,” the fish stated mildly, “will I be your dinner.”
The fish, having decided and stated firmly that it would not, in fact, be Sean Whittlebee’s dinner, just as decidedly transformed into a tall and shining woman. Her hair was silver, her skin pale even in the candlelight of Sean Whittlebee’s meager kitchen. A bead of blood trickled down from where Sean Whittlebee had stuck her in the neck with his filleting knife. Sean Whittlebee offered a towel, then hungry and confused, went off to bed.
That night Sean Whittlebee pulled the blankets tight up to his chest and wondered what the woman had been doing in the fish in the river, wondered what curse had befallen the woman inside the fish, and when, and for whom. Before long Sean Whittlebee was fantasizing about failed knights and womanly sacrifices. She must have, Sean Whittlbee thought, exchanged her own life for that of some vanquished knight at the foot of some fierce necromancer, where eternity as a fish was the cruel punishment for their righteous love. Sean Whittlebee slept well and dreamed heroic dreams.
In the morning, somewhat tremulously, Sean Whittlebee grabbed his fishing tackle as he did every morning after rising, and set it by the door. He cut two slices from the loaf on the weathered counter, dipped the bread in wine, and wrapped them in a cloth, ever glancing to the corner where the fish-woman watched him with an amused air, as if it were familiar in some sense, this nervous lunch packing. Her hands reached out to him.
“I have no name,” the nameless she-fish said.
“My name is Sean Whittlebee,” Sean Whittlebee said.
“You are going to the river,” the she-fish said
“Do you want to come?” Sean Whittlebee asked.
The day passed pleasantly enough. The birds sang and there were hoppers in the grass for the birds to eat. A mild breeze rolled in the trees and the grasses, and Sean Whittlebee sat on his fishing stump near the deepest pool in the river, where he always sat when he was fishing. However, for the first time in a great while, the fish did not bite that day, even as the woman looked on in anxiousness, leaning forward, her jaw set, every time Sean Whittlebee’s hook, armed with the biggest of the hoppers he had caught, snagged on a submerged root. After that, for days that turned into months, the fish did not bite, and Sean Whittlebee, starving, grew thin and frail, his skin turned hard around his bones.
“Fishlove,” as Sean Whittlebee was wont to call the woman, “you are very bad luck. I am going to starve to death. I will have to throw you back, or eat you, I fear.”
“One more day,” she said. “You will catch a fish tomorrow, or I will be gone, one way or another.”
And so they returned to the river.
That day he got a few bites and near the end, Sean Whittlebee caught a small wounded fish. Teeth had torn the flesh in its back. Sean Whittlebee reeled in, and had not known the guppy was even hooked until Fishlove flew past him and gently removed the minnow from the hook. The fish’s lip bled and the pain of it turned the bitten minnow into a small boy with a crooked limb.
“My boy,” Fishlove cried. Sean Whittlebee took them home.
Sean Whittlebee had caught himself a family, and Fishlove acted everyday more helpful. She split wood, made the beds, turned out the linen, shooed away the multitudes of cats that had started to linger outside Sean Whittlebee’s meager kitchen window. She even started to wear aprons. Her sprightly son, who liked fishing almost as much as Sean Whittlebee himself, gave the fish specific names and liked to taunt them before slowly gutting them. The boy did not have this down yet, and often ruined the fish before throwing the flesh into the fire before which he played games with sticks. Sean, though hungry, often thanked the world for his gifts, and when Fishlove started to sleep in his bed Sean Whittlebee made a fine trundle for the boy.
Sean Whittlebee came to love very deeply his family, but he was so hungry. Sean Whittlebee grew steadily thinner, steadily smaller, and his pants were too big to wear without a rope tied about his waist, the legs rolled up in fat curls. At meals, Sean Whittlebee gagged at the kitchen table when the rest of his family sat down to their plateful of hoppers. He found himself sitting outside the back door at these times, idly chewing handfuls of grass, spitting juice into the dirt and rubbing his hands together.
One night, Sean Whittlebee, ragged and scrawny, almost choked on a splinter he was gnawing. Suddenly aware that he had been mulching sod for some time now, he finally said, “My family, I am starving. Look how thin and black my arms and legs.” And, they were thin and black. His face had wasted away around a jawbone that seemed to have doubled in size. The flesh was drawn tight and thin. Brown juices flew as he spoke. Sean Whittlebee reeled, mad with hunger.
“My family,” Sean Whittlebee moaned. “You are fine, but unlucky.”
He took the axe and heaved it above his head with frail arms. He cast his harrowed eyes upon Fishlove and the boy where they sat at the dinner table. The hunger told Sean Whittlebee to strike, but he could not bring the axe down upon their heads. He imagined their fishy faces gasping for air, separated from their pale wriggling bodies, and the thought hardened him against his pain. Sean Whittlebee dropped the axe and wept, in shame, for forgiveness. Fishlove and the boy gave it to him. They stroked his brow, and Sean Whittlebee hardened further. He shrank smaller. Then he was naught but a singing hopper on the table of his meager kitchen, healthy as far as hoppers go. His family did not eat him then, but took him up, poked holes in the tin lid of a pickle jar and placed Sean Whittlebee inside. They filled the jar with fresh green grass and a stick, and then Fishlove and the boy set the jar on Sean Whittlebee’s old fishing stump, near the deepest pool in the whole river.
The Sky Is a One-Way Mirror
The North was of water. The South was of fire. Both kingdoms were for war. They met on a field of battle. The southern army bore ebony and ivory and bore a forest of spears. Their elephants bellowed, crazed and stampeding. King Jukun, the king of the north, saw how the light played on the southern shields, and he looked at his own fabled hoard, the pounded copper of their helms, the stiffness of their leather jerkins, the swiftness and hunger of the wolves. The sun lit upon them all, shining brightest as it vanished beyond the ocean.
King Bornu, king of the south, raised his hand to the sky and the sky brought flame. The men of the North were afraid. Many men died. King Jukun pointed to the same sky and brought ice to quench the flames. Many men died.
The kings saw that they were evenly matched. They marched forward with flags of treatise.
“By the Sky, we shall become great friends, you and I,” said King Jukun.
“Yes, by the Sky, there will be peace,” said King Bornu.
For a time there was peace, but both kingdoms were for war.
King Bornu sent a burning ember to King Jukun. It was wrapped in moss and bound in the green bark of an ash tree. King Jukun sent the extinguished ember back at the bottom of a sealed jar of water.
The gates opened for war. The kings rode out, but their men did not follow. The Northmen and Southmen did not obey. They would not wear their armor. The steel wanted honing in the forge. The horses were overfed. The soldier’s wives were staid and did not wail in the streets. Instead of drumming, the Northmen and the Southmen stood, their mouths unhinged, their fingers pointing to the horrible sky.
Danilo John Thomas is the author of the chapbooks The Hand Implements, published by The Cupboard Pamphlet, and Murk, fine letterpress printed by book artist AB Gorham (abgorham.com). His fiction won the 2017-18 Ryan R Gibbs Flash Fiction Award from New Delta Review and other work currently (in 2019) appears or is forthcoming in the Matchbook Vol. 5 from Small Fires Press, Tampa Review, Fugue, and High Desert Journal. Danilo earned his PhD in Creative Writing from Florida State University and his MFA from the University of Alabama. He manages Baobab Press (baobabpress.com) in Reno, Nevada.