by Koizumi Shinme (恋墨新芽)
The maidens must learn to spin and weave as their mothers do, but they are not women yet, and need not spend the whole day at it. They have made games of the lightest kitchen chores (for the servants do the rest), and they have appointed themselves the gatherers of flowers and a hundred small, medicinal plants that grow in the great river valley.
Their mothers have taught them well. They know which roots become the slick cream that relieves itching, and which ones for burns; which underbark tastes sharp and sweet, and which rushes will hold their tips long after being cut (the better to apply kohl with as the women across the sea do, instead of with clumsy sticks like girls in the neighboring kingdoms, boorish barbarians all).
They are the queens of elegance and refinement. On this certainty are built their utterly fearless natures, their love of wind on the hilltops and the sound of ocean breakers crashing far below.
No one ever had to tell them they were beautiful.
Their only boundaries are their interests. What bores them they will not touch, so the menfolk and the mothers have grown complacent over the years, thinking their lack of interest in the neighbors would keep them close to home.
Until the day the butterflies came.
The maidens knew them not by name, but saw them as a hundred dazzling flowers, radiant with flight, skittering this way and that on their way towards the river, and the girls followed, laughing. They caught a few, held them in the cage of their fingers and felt the flutter of petal-wings beat against their palms. They released each one in turn, watching it take desperate flight before evening out once more into the strange, aimless-seeming dance down into the valley.
They followed, mesmerized, as with a distant melody one cannot quite hear. When their feet splashed upon the bank they came to themselves; this was neither a crossing nor their bathing pool, which was further up and screened by conifer trees. But there were rocks stretched across like a sieve through which the water flowed white and frothing, and the flight of flowers was across and moving away with every moment.
One by one the maidens lifted their long skirts and skipped across, light-footed and unafraid. Even when they teetered on a slick, round bolder in the center, they laughed. And so it went, with each one but the last.
Let us call her Zlatica, though her true name is far more ancient and difficult to understand. Zlatica, then, for the small, white flowers that grow high in the mountain passes, teetering on the edge of crevices no sheep could reach.
So Zlatica teetered upon that boulder, and in the moment when she might have regained her footing and joined her cousins, a wave of foaming white rose up and swept her feet from under her, bearing her along the river as Venus was once borne on a conch shell to the feet of the startled gods.
Shocked, her cousins did not even cry out. They stood rooted to the spot until a passing imp could have cursed them to trees, until the shadows grew long enough to touch and wake them to make their strange, empty way home.
The maidens had learned loss and were maidens no more.
But what of Zlatica?
Had she drowned, her poor body must surely have been found by the searchers in their desperation, torches held high in that moonless dark, but though they scoured the river bank three days and nights, nothing was discovered between the crossing and the sea.
So she could not have drowned.
What would her family have said if they had known that for one hour on that odd, flying-flower day, the river had run backwards? For that is the direction the foaming wave had gone. Sweeping up its precious burden, it had raced against the current, up past the first crossing and the second, up past the bathing pool and the spring from which water was drawn, up past the narrow rope bridge anchored between two walls of that gorge the river cut through the steep mountains, up to where the water should have frozen her with a touch.
Yet it remained warm, soft and gentle as a cupped hand, cradling her limbs. She lay in the hollow of it and breathed scented air, a perfume of evergreens and snow.
As it travelled, the wave sent out tendrils of water, finger-like, to wash over her body. Her sodden skirt lay heavy over her legs; the currents lifted it and slipped within. They trailed across her shoulders and through her hair. Her head felt heavy; she laid it back upon the surface and felt it buoyed up, though spouts of spray arced up and trickled over her lips. The taste of it was fresh and wild, like first honey from the highest pastures, or wind on a clear day.
She lay nearly submerged now, shoulders and chin upthrust from the surface, though water surged across her neck in frequent caresses. Her skirt billowed out from her body, full now, and liquid warmth stroked her everywhere, so even had she been able to see beyond the churning walls to the scenery beyond, she would not have cared.
And then, as she was lifted upstream through the ever-narrowing gorge, her own soft crevice felt a touch, once, twice, then a slow press of dampness inside, quicksilver and bright, into that place that had never been breached. She gasped at the newness of it, eyes open and unseeing, mouth swallowing great gulps of humid air. Oh, this was-
Her legs scissored languidly around the tongue of heat, which buried itself deeper within until she felt full, swollen, like a flower drawing close its petals to become a fruit. She brought her heels together, trailed her fingers over her own belly, and lost herself to that flicker inside, fast as flame but cooler, hard and soft at once.
She moaned. The sound echoed beneath the river’s roar.
Now the gorge narrowed further, and the wave curled on itself to hold its precious burden, mounting high upon the walls and loosing chunks of rock and pebbles, tiny flowers that had hung from the thinnest ledges their whole lives, and twigs and bits of old birds’ nests. These fell into the flow and become the girl’s unseen companions, though the water held her away from them, jealous of each touch.
Each touch, that now sent heat coursing through her limbs, tightening and expanding, breasts heavy with it, eyes squeezed shut. Her thighs trembled; sweat blossomed on her palms, only to be washed away.
Away from her palms, which for a moment felt as though they brushed something solid. Then it was gone.
She reached after, desiring firmness where until now all had receded from her grasp. Flesh answered, swelling in her palms until she brought them together like a sculptor with clay, and the pieces flowed into one seamless whole, matching her leg for leg, belly for belly, a hard chin then soft lips brushing across her cheek.
Zlatica never even noticed as she began to drown.
She woke with an ache in her chest, cradled in a dark hollow of rock. Her bed was laid of twigs and crushed flowers, white and blue beneath her sun-gold skin, and the air around her lay chill and dry after the sweet touch of water. She made a sound, as deer do when they fall.
Instantly the light was blocked, revealing the shape of a maiden, bare and unashamed. Her skin was dark with what might have been green, though the shadows it cast were blue. Her eyes were dark as a stormy night, her hair a sweep of white falling across familiar shoulders, the angle of them strange in the way they were carried, but the shape as natural as dressing every morning.
Zlatica’s own body, in reverse colors, like the back of a tapestry.
Now the body moved forward and Zlatica realized it could never be hers. Never had she prowled in such a way, stalking flowers in the field. Never had her eyes burned with such a dark light.
She lifted a hand, whether to grasp or push away she could not say, but a hand rose to meet hers as if she’d reached for her reflection in still water. Yet the water was not still. It trickled from beneath her, erupting as the body pressed her down, warming her, stroking her. Lips and tongue, twin to her own, settled restlessly on her cheekbone, her chin, the pulse in her neck. At that touch, she felt an answering throb in the flesh beneath her own hands, felt the coursing blood steady and settle into time with hers.
They were two, they were one, moved entangled with white hair like a curtain all around. Gradually, she felt a pressure as if she lay at the bottom of a waterfall that beat its way in, until two fingers burst inside with a sharp pain that eased just as suddenly. Then she was breathing hard, crying out, suckling frantically at the sharp point of a shoulder not quite her own, as warmth overcame her and flowed outward, once and again.
She settled in a tangle of limbs green and gold, and inadvertently taught the river its human name.