The drowned girl wasn’t there when I went down to the dock after lessons. My sister says she doesn’t like it when the light is bright out, but I’ve seen her laughing in the weeds when the sun comes out after a rainstorm. Sometimes it’s hard to tell when my sister doesn’t really know the things she says, or when she makes them up.
Anyway, it was bright except for the mist, which made it brighter, and I’d brought the drowned girl a gray marble I’d stolen out of Talla’s school box, but she wasn’t there so I could give it to her. So I was sitting at the edge of the dock with my toes just brushing the dark water when the boat appeared like a ghost out of the mist.
I almost jumped up and ran away before I saw it was only a low canoe, and not my uncle’s boat, or someone else who’d yell at me for sitting on the dock in school clothes. Instead, the boat came skulking along the bank of the river, with a girl a little older than my sister pushing it along with nothing but a long pole. I’d never seen anyone do that before, but it’s what they say smugglers do, when they need to come in silent someplace too thicketty for oars. She was pretty good at handling the craft, too, and when she got closer I could see a bunch of sacks packed in the hull that could have been full of upland herbs or bird bones. Then a little closer and I saw there was a man lying in the bottom of the boat, big like ballast and not moving, and I wished I weren’t still sitting there in my pale linen tunic that showed up against the dark wood and water.
The girl didn’t look too happy to see me, either, but she didn’t say so. “Whose dock is this, boy?” she asked me, her voice soft like a nightbird on the water.
“Jonwaterman built it,” I said, and looked down at the man in her boat. Close to, I couldn’t even tell if he were breathing. “Is he dead?”
She shook her head, slinging a dark pigtail over her shoulder crossly. “Still makes too much trouble for that.”
The drowned girl had taught me that being dead didn’t stop everyone making trouble, but maybe she didn’t know different. “What’s wrong with him, then?”
“A witch upriver put his soul in a jar. What’s wrong with you for asking?” She jabbed at a knot of reeds with her pole, sending the prow of her boat sliding under the dock an arm’s length from my feet.
An alligator bellowed somewhere out of sight, and we both jumped. I thought about asking if people could really do that, put someone’s soul in a jar, but I knew the kind of look my sister would have given me for asking something like that, so I didn’t. I didn’t ask if she were a smuggler, either. “You come to trade?” I asked, instead, kicking one leg back and forth, casual-like.
“Not unless you’re giving out moonlight ‘n’ diamonds.” She put out a foot and stopped the boat against the dock before she ran into it. “You know a woman ‘round here called Jeannielee? She used to lay cards, when she was younger. Maybe still does.”
My feet stopped swinging. “No.”
“But you know something.” She crossed her arms and looked down at me, one foot still propped on the dock, the pole tucked under her elbow, looking very grown-up.
“I know someone called Jeannielee,” I admitted, “but she’s dead. Still lays cards, though.” It was why I’d stolen the marble for her, after all. The girl didn’t look like she believed me, but that wasn’t my sorrow. “What did you want her for, anyway?”
She tried to shrug like she didn’t care too much, but her pole must have caught on something and she staggered and sat back down on one of the sacks in the boat instead. I was sorry when it didn’t snap like bird bones, but maybe she’d put those in another sack, out of the way. “Nothing.”
Behind her a hand the bluey-gray color of deep swamp mud gripped the side of the canoe, and I grinned, watching.
“If all you wanted was nothing, Jolee, it’s a pity I came out to see you, don’t you think?” The drowned girl has a voice like the river flowing, but you can always hear what she says. I think it’s some kind of magic.
The Jolee girl scrambled around like someone had pitched a rock at her, tangling her feet in the sacks and nearly kicking the big man in the head. “What happened to you?” she asked, staring at the drowned girl with her mouth open. I could tell she recognized her from before, even with the gray-clay skin and pond weed hair. That would be something to tell my sister, who thought the drowned girl was some kind of river spirit and never was alive to begin with.
The drowned girl smiled, and Jolee flinched away from her black teeth and alligator eyes. “You telling me you don’t remember?” She pulled the end of the canoe down a little way, looking into it, and reached out a long arm to poke at the man in the bottom. “Your mother not looking after him, anymore?”
“My mother’s dead, Jea. Some silk-coat from one of the city houses did for her two seasons back, and now I’ve grown up enough, Sanga’s taken an interest. She thinks I’ll go work for her now she’s got him in a jar, all hostage.”
The alligator eyes opened wide, staring at her, and I didn’t dare move in case they noticed and made me leave. The silk-coats didn’t come this far downriver, but we knew about witch’s squabbles sometimes. This was better than smuggling, even.
“You’ve got some trouble for yourself, then,” the drowned girl said, all quiet-like.
“You think I would have come looking for you over any less?” asked Jolee, staring right back like the drowned girl didn’t scare her, one hand on her waist with the elbow cocked out and the other on the pole, so tight her knuckles showed pale. “I know you hated my mother, but I thought maybe you’d still care what happened to him. And I couldn’t just leave him for Sanga, could I?”
It was very quiet for a little, and then a bug landed on the back of my hand and I jumped. The drowned girl looked at me, and then back to Jolee, who hadn’t moved. “Some could have. How old are you, girl? Fifteen?”
“Sixteen last month,” said Jolee, her mouth crunkling up like she was cross to admit it.
The drowned girl nodded slowly, and her eyes flicked over to look at me again for some reason. I held my breath until she looked away, and I felt the round shape of the marble press into my hand. “I’ve been in this river ten years, then, wondering if your mother, or Sanga, or any of the others would ever come downriver. And now it’s nothing but a half-trained girl looking for help. I’d been saving up to hate you, but I wasn’t any older than you when I washed up here.”
Jolee didn’t say anything, but she got an expression on her face like she wanted to ask, “So are you going to help me or not?” but knew better than to open her mouth, and the drowned girl laughed at her.
“So, Jolee-girl who I won’t hate, what did you bring with you to tempt your mother’s rival into helping you? Or did you think that big soulless lump in the bottom of your boat would be enough for me?” She grinned the way my sister grinned when she told me I’d got in trouble for something, and looked up at Jolee with her arms crossed over the stern point of the boat, dragging it down a little more.
Jolee hadn’t left off scowling, and I started to feel bad for her. Nobody’d ever said the drowned girl was nice, though she’s never been mean to me. “I brought food and clothing and the bits of my mother’s chest that didn’t go with her. I don’t guess somebody dead is going to want all that, but I don’t know what you want instead.”
“I have a marble,” I said. They both stared at me, so I went on, “It’s cracked glass, and gray like—” this was the important part, how you described things, and I’d been working on this one all day— “the mist on the river at dawn, lying low under the white roots of a ghost-tree, with a secret hidden in its heart. I was going to trade it for a question to ask the cards, but she can have it if she doesn’t have anything else.”
Neither girl said anything, so I went on, “only, if there are bird bones, can I have one of them?”
“Bird bones?” asked Jolee, like I’d just said I wanted to eat river mud, so I guessed she didn’t have any.
“My sister says real smugglers trade bird bones to the witches upriver, and they burn them to make magic.”
She blinked at me. “Maybe the silk-coats do. Only thing I’ve ever done with bird bones is eat the meat off them.”
The drowned girl hadn’t left off staring at me. “Why are you helping her?” she asked.
I shrugged. “You were being mean. And I wanted to see some real magic. If you take my marble, you can’t tell me I’m not allowed to watch.”
“I can,” she said. “But I won’t. Does that sit steady with you, Jolee-girl? You’ll owe a debt to the living instead of the drowning river, and I’m betting you’ll find that easier to pay.”
Jolee looked from her to me and back again, and she muttered something that might have been “bird bones” under her breath, but she nodded.
I held out my hand with the marble in it, and the drowned girl reached out her long fingers and lifted it gently out of my palm, not even touching me with one of her fingernails. She rolled it in her hand for a moment, looking into the misty shadows in the glass, and then swallowed it, grinning almost like she was still human.
“If you want to see magic, boy, come back here in the midnight. Now, your people are looking for you.” Then she slipped back under the water and dragged the canoe upstream into the marshweeds, with Jolee sitting there wide-eyed, staring at the water as her pole caught on things and pulled loose.
I hid one of the winter blankets, rolled-up, where I should have been sleeping and slipped out to go to the outhouse. After that, I just kept going around the back. The hardest part was not being afraid in the shadows under the trees, but I didn’t jump or scream or anything.
When I got down near the river there was a kind of glow, like the moon was shining out of the reeds, so I knew where to go. There was a gap in the reeds I didn’t remember seeing before; my sister would have said it was just the different light, but I thought it was part of the magic. Beyond that, somebody’d laid a plank path down to the edge of the water.
The drowned girl was floating there in the middle of a clear pool just under the surface of the water, as still as if she’d been fresh drowned, except it was her what was glowing as bright and pale as summer sky. The canoe was wedged half-way into the reeds next to the last plank, and Jolee sat in it next to the man who wasn’t dead, looking cross. She looked up when she heard me, and frowned harder, but I didn’t pay her any mind. This was real magic, and I thought I could see the light shifting the same way the marble had been cracked, so maybe I’d helped make it.
We sat there for a long time, and the sounds of the river got very loud but nothing moved except the drowned girl’s hair in a little bit of current, and maybe me, smacking a mosquito. I think Jolee must have had a charm against things biting her, because she didn’t even twitch. Then the moon came up over the reeds a little, and then a little more, and the circle it made in the water moved towards the drowned girl, and maybe she moved towards it.
There was a big splash, and I opened my eyes and tried not to fall off the end of the plank where I’d been sitting. I didn’t even remember closing them, but the moon was at the center of the pool and Jolee had just rolled the big man out of her canoe and into the water.
I couldn’t tell how she’d done it without capsizing, but maybe it was the drowned girl that held the canoe steady as a rock, the same way as she was holding the big man’s head up, with his face just out of the water. I hoped her magic kept away the leeches, because otherwise he was in for a nasty surprise if he got his soul back and started caring. I knew what happened when you went swimming in the slow bits of the river, and it was even worse if you held still too long.
The drowned girl was singing. It came up through the sound of the river, and I couldn’t tell what the words meant, but somehow I knew she was singing about sunlight in winter and staying up late to hear the best stories told and the bird that built a nest right outside my window so I could watch its eggs hatch. Even Jolee stopped frowning so much.
Then the singing started to say, “Come here.” I would have, too, but I could tell it wasn’t talking to me. The drowned girl was calling the man’s soul, saying, “Come back to me. See all these good things? You want to be close to them, so come here.”
The glowy light started to swirl around the man, too, until his skin looked as gray-blue as the drowned girl’s. Then it was like the drowned girl’s song came up out of his chest right between the rib-bones, only it was more of the light, and it stretched out in a line heading upriver farther than I could see. For a little bit it was the same bluey moonlight glow, swirling like water in a rapids, and then the part that flowed away started to turn red like a bloodstain, spreading back from upriver down towards the man.
The red bit got all the way to him, and the man gasped and twitched all over, like a dead chicken, only bigger. Jolee made a noise, and then behind the red light, there was a big black shadow, flying like an owl the size of half the sky, and the drowned girl grinned like she’d got oranges for her birthday, and kept on singing.
“Sanga,” she sang, “Come bring me that jar you have, so I can put your heart in it.”
The big shadow came close, and now it was somebody in a raggedy black cloak that looked like a vulture’s wings, hovering over the water like a dragonfly. “Jeannielee Waterwitch, we killed you years ago. You have no business to be meddling in my spells.” Sanga’s voice was croaky like a vulture, too, but even mad she said her words prettier than anybody I knew.
The drowned girl was still grinning, but she stopped singing, and the light around the man faded out. She gave him a shove towards Jolee, who grabbed his head up quick to keep it out of the water. “I’m not meddling,” she told Sanga. “A price got paid the river to give a man his soul back. Wasn’t my lookout who was keeping it.”
“You know the girl who asked for it, and you know full well, or should do, that I was her mother’s heir, and thus the girl and her stepfather both are mine until she proves strong enough to claim her share and independence. Your poor attempt to reclaim a man who preferred another woman when you were alive is no justification for flaunting the laws of custom and magic.”
The drowned girl laughed and shook her head in the water until her hair moved like a nest of snakes. “I’d say the girl’s proved independent enough when she can boat three days downstream without you coming looking for her. But you’ve the wrong fin here; it was the boy-child who bought this magic from me, and the drowning river’s got no need for lovers.” Her arm came out of the water and grabbed Sanga’s ankle. “The drowning river wants revenge.”
Sanga’s cloak-wings flapped like crazy and she kicked with her other foot, but she couldn’t keep the drowned girl from pulling her slowly down. “Come here, boy!” she said, like she thought I’d listen to her.
The drowned girl laughed again, and pulled a little harder until Sanga’s foot touched the water and went under. “I pulled that boy out of the river when he wasn’t old enough to walk, and gave his breath back. Saved his sister a beating, too, and whatever she would’ve felt for letting him fall in. That boy’s the living river, and he won’t listen to anybody ‘less he wants to.”
The cloak-wings had got wet at the ends, and they weren’t flapping so much now. The drowned girl kept pulling, and I wondered if she was going to kill her. I hadn’t seen anybody get drowned before, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to. I didn’t stop watching the magic, though.
Beside me, Jolee’s step-pa had woken up some, and he splashed me as Jolee pulled him into her boat. They still didn’t turn it over, but this time it rocked and sent ripples towards the water where the drowned girl was still dragging Sanga down. She was up to her waist now, and the glowing light made weird ripples around the edges of her, under the water.
Anybody else would have started screaming, but I think Sanga was too proud. She just made a thin cawing noise, sort of like a bird, before the water closed over her head, and the light stopped shining from the drowned girl and went all around her instead.
I was afraid to say anything, but my mouth said, “please don’t kill her” without making any sound, and it was right after that the drowned girl let go. Sanga shot up out of the water like the cork from a good cider bottle, only she wasn’t a woman in a big black wing cloak anymore. Instead the thing that flew off over the rushes was a big black waterbird, sort of like a heron, only darker, and it made the same thin cawing noise that wasn’t a scream over and over until it got too far away to hear.
The drowned girl came back up, and it was harder to see with just the moonlight, but I could tell she was smiling. “Bird bones,” she said to me, and I smiled back. “If the silk-coats do want them, think what they’ll pay for a bird nobody’s ever seen before.” So that was all right.
“Can you teach me how to do that?” I asked. “The glowy magic, at least?” I didn’t think she was going to teach me to turn people into birds anytime soon.
“No,” said the drowned girl. “Drowning river’s ways won’t work for a little live boy. But Jolee can, and she owes you.”
I looked at Jolee, and she shrugged, holding close to her step-pa.
“Well,” he said in a slow deep voice, “we may as well wash up here as anywhere, if there’s work. Nothing for us back upriver, anyway.”
I nodded; there was always work. And maybe, once Jolee’d taught me about making glowy magic, we could find out how to turn people into birds on our own. Just in case we ever met somebody else who needed it.