THE RED IN THE RIVER wasn’t blood, at first. It was iron. Just sediment eroded from mountain rocks that oxidized in the river long before its waters washed down to us. We lived in a small town that existed because of the river. Our forebears had floated logs down it to be hacked into boards by the town’s sawmill. But now that was all over. Now the town existed for no particular reason and we were often bored.
In spring, we waited for the river to get warm enough for swimming. It was good to have this to look forward to. Otherwise, spring gave me the creeps. As the snow retreated, I was forced to see what laid beneath it. Horrible things wait beneath picturesque New England snowdrifts. Months’ worth of roadkill gets released from the deep freeze to recommence decomposition. Strips of fur, disjointed bone and ligament. Human garbage, too. Mangled styrofoam cups and liquor nips.
People consider spring a time of abundant living, but there’s plenty of dying going on. Enter the forest in spring and you’ll breathe deeply the smell of leaf rot. I hate that smell. I hate the way worms lay limp on wet pavement during spring showers.
When we go to the river in spring, there are four of us. We all have poorly cared-for hair that hangs an inch below our shoulders. We all wear bikinis but we’re embarrassed. So over our bikinis we wear white T-shirts that cover us to mid-thigh. At the river, we make a big show about how cold the water is. Dip our toes in, squeal, and run away with comical exaggeration. This way, once we’re fully immersed it’s evident how brave we are. It’s a fake bravery, of course, because we’re all babies. Testy and irritable. It’s hard to be in a good mood in this town. There’s nothing to do except chores. We’re broke and there’s no one interesting to talk to except each other.
All four of us love each other. It’s important to understand that. Everyone else is stupid. If we didn’t have each other, we’d get depressed. Or worse, the town’s boringness would overwhelm and assimilate us. Also, our parents don’t love us. They’re too busy being (variously) drunk, working too many jobs, or drunk and working too many jobs.
Our love was why the dreams drew us closer. In the dreams, we’re still ourselves but we’re beautiful. It’s not that we’re airbrushed: We’re dangerous. I was scared the first time it happened. What I saw when sleeping shook me so much that I couldn’t stay in my bedroom. My father was asleep on the living room couch. So, I took a shower that stretched on for three hours until the sun came up and I could get ready for school.
I couldn’t look my friends in the eyes that day. I’d seen them all naked in my mind. It made me feel dirty because I’d liked it. It was a troubling dream, but still I fell into it the next night. I arrived at school anxious once more. My friends looked anxious, too. “Did you have a dream?” I asked. They nodded.
In the dreams we slip our naked bodies into a river whose water runs as red as blood. It’s a night too dark to be natural. I grew to love these dreams and each night I dreamed a little longer than the last. For a few amusing weeks I joked with my friends all day and dreamed of them all night. They did the same. I fell asleep knowing that I wasn’t blinking out of existence. Instead I adventured on inside my friends’ minds. Our dream-selves began to fly. We flew above the trees that lined the river, always heading toward the source of the blood. We never reached it. The alarm clock cut us off at the pass.
I rode the bus the day when these amusing weeks abruptly ended. I was wondering, ironically, how it all would end. Would the dreams simply peter off? Would we say goodbye to them at graduation? When I arrived at school they were herding all the students into the gym. The teachers wouldn’t say why and avoided eye contact. For a moment, I wondered if they’d started dreaming of us and a gross feeling spread across me like invisible slime. No, that wasn’t why. I recognized their resigned look. This was how they acted when there’d been a school shooting. Some kids mowed down, maybe near here. They’d make us sit for a moment of silence. They’d lower the flag to half-mast and tell us to serpentine when we ran from bullets (it’s more effective than running in a straight line) or give a presentation about how we shouldn’t bully lest the bullied kill us. I didn’t blame the teachers. There was nothing else they could do and they were just as likely to die as us. They were devastated by the idea they may have to give their life so our snot-nosed, academically hopeless lives could continue.
Anyway, that wasn’t the reason either. Instead, the town manager was waiting in the gym to tell us about an environmental disaster. Upstream from the town was an industrial chicken farm—the town’s major employer. The chickens laid eggs in cages until they got too old to lay eggs. Then they were slaughtered. But something went wrong. An outbreak of foodborne illness so bad it made the national news. People dying in several states. The origin was our industrial chicken farm. All the chickens had to be killed early as a precaution. We knew all this. It was the normal order of things. We didn’t understand why the town manager had bothered coming.
I zoned out and scribbled notes to my friends in purple gel pen until the town manager said that the slaughtering had gone wrong. “A tankful of blood,” he said. “There’s a tank where chicken blood is stored. There’s a fill line in the tank and the slaughterers ignored it. They took a hose and attached it to the overfilled tank. They started to spray the blood into a safe receptacle. However, the hose pressure went awry. Blood poured everywhere. We could only watch as the blood flattened the grass and the black-eyed Susans as it moved downhill. You can still see blood clots on the embankment and all the Queen Anne’s Lace looks rusted. The blood barreled down the embankment. It flooded the river.”
“River of blood,” I whispered. My friends understood. We vibrated with anticipation and pleasure at the malice we would soon wield. I tasted something of fate. Finally, I didn’t feel like a wounded animal looking for a bit of clear sky to die under. My birth was an accident, the way my parents calculated it. But perhaps I had been born for some purpose. My dreams were magic, prophetic. I would make them real.
At night, we left the house. No one stopped us from going or even noticed. We met up along a deserted road and walked along the yellow line until we got distracted by the carcass of a porcupine. We each plucked a quill and stuck it behind our ears. We had to practice being unafraid of blood. The quill gave us a way to busy our hands. We tucked and untucked our quills from behind our left ear. We pretended to examine the quill when really we were adrenaline-rushing. We couldn’t focus our eyes on anything, except each other.
We moved down toward the river with urgency. We needed to meet the blood. Other girls waited for the blood further downstream. We mustn’t miss our turn. The river has no bank, only a tangle of bramble and scraggly trees, whose roots shift suddenly into a flat jut of of rock that lines the water’s edge. Even in the dark we could tell the water ran richly red. The river seemed sophisticated, like a well-known fashion model returning to her hometown for charity work.
We felt like well-known fashion models. We weren’t shy like before, instead undressed our bodies as if they were the perfect present. When we were naked we hugged each other. We felt alive. We were ready. We jumped into the river holding hands. Four cannonballs.
The liquid felt heavy on me. Slick but viscous. I lifted my arm high and observed the staining of my skin. I felt around in the life essence of thousands of chickens. Born to never see light. Born to never walk more than a few feet from where it was born. Born to engage in endless reproductive labor without recompense, then get its throat slit. Now escaped. Now destroying the reputation of the industrial farm. Now soaking their murderers’ daughters. It wasn’t revenge. There was too much joy in it. Chickens may be flinchy beasts but they stick together. They fly. I closed my fingers around a clot of feathers. I lifted my arms up to the sky and floated up. Flying, dripping with life essence. I flew knowing I’d never come down. My friends flew with me. Look up, when you can, and see if we’re there.
Meagan Masterman is a queer writer from Maine, living in Massachusetts. She was longlisted for the 2019 PANK Book Contest and shortlisted for the 2018 Metatron Prize. Her work has been featured in Ghost City, Maudlin House, and Queen Mob’s Teahouse. She edits Whiskey Tit Magazine. Find her on Twitter @meaganmasterman or generally online at meaganmasterman.com.