Before another one of you kneels by my waters and begins your tired song, before you praise again the man who conquered all that you knew of the world, let me tell you the truth. Let me tell you how he left me in the river.
It is no rare thing to know warriors. There were many before him who came to my village. Each with a weapon, a restlessness, a hunger, moving in and out of our town like the water of the river, a bloodline that we, most of us, watched without interest.
Though but a girl then, I could already read in their faces the hours of their deaths and the next meaningless theft of our throne. I would have none of them.
I was sixteen before a man came whose face foretold not his death, but the death of all those around him. Bathing with my sisters in the river, I saw first his reflection caught between the waters of drifting lotus. He was on horseback — not unheard of, not even then, but certainly a sign of some success. I stood without shame, a heron blazing naked in the sunlight. From the opposite bank he watched me, also without shame. His face was smooth, without scars, but he had not grown a beard to hide this fact, so confident was he that time would work this honor on him.
His eyes, blistering coals, told me he would not leave the river without me.
And I knew the man had finally come, the one I dreamed about since I first slept in the arms of the banyan tree, the one who would take me away from the still brown waters of my home and all of its tired farmers, dreamless widows, and forgotten children. The one, I knew, who would give me the world.
Because my father had died long ago in one of the many occupations, it was my mother who negotiated my price. My proud lord scarcely listened, scarcely took his gaze from my face. My mother did not like the bold way he looked at me, the bold way I looked back. When we were alone, gathering my things for my journey, she struck me for immodesty, but confessed I had found my soul’s match.
I left behind me six cattle, a bolt of silk, exotic spices, and a prayer rug woven by a blind priest. I left that, my sisters, and all my memories, and rode into the world with my new lord.
He conquered me in one night. Then he conquered the peninsula.
My joy was boundless. I tasted victory in his mouth like a god’s opiate, dying in anticipation of his next triumph. Every conquered territory a jewel he placed on my body. He swore he would give it all to me and die; this was his ambition. In a weaker man, I would have hated him for it. How foolish to give away power for comfort, affection. False things, purchasable things.
But my lover was no fool. Hatred grew in him like a festering twin. His destiny was to despise the world, its pale cowardice, its slavish failure to lift itself out of mediocrity.
Anything that he could destroy, he would, obliterating where he could the disease that made man ever less than he should have been.
He would trample down the world and give it to me like a bauble. This was his disrespect. This was his ultimate gesture of defiance, of scorn. He would gather up the nations of the world in a gown to dress his insatiable whore.
Victory came so easily then — or perhaps it only seemed so, because we had not yet known failure. Because I expected nothing but his star rising up his, his greatness so unequivocal, the world so unworthy to challenge it, the first scar on his face hit me like a whip.
His beautiful, broken army rode all night, dragging our camp of women and wounded from lights that followed in the hills. I can still smell the sweat of his horse where he had my face pressed down in its mane, for miles, into darkness.
That night he did not stop making love to me. I cried out until I drowned in my silence.
The next morning, his men looked like children. I wanted to strike them, for the cruelty of their cowardice. How dare they let him see such shameful looks. How dare they take his strength away? Such loyalty! Such nobility of spirit! I could have poisoned all their wine and saved the enemy the trouble.
I could see my lover thought much the same thing, and crawling to watch from our tent, I expected to see his sword drawn, bright with their blood. But he did not kill them. Again, my lover was no fool and new better than I. He had no wish to start over. Why begin again with naive men, simple fools who believe in their courage because they have not yet tasted pain or despair? No, these men were tempered now, would fight all the harder, would come together at his feet, ferocious. Loyal. Like dogs.
He brought in a priest. He wanted their faiths in him affirmed. He consulted all night with the old sage, one who had seen fate twist on men like a deadly snake. And always, there was my lover, looking for the angle, the path to destroy destiny, to claim the world.
Stars were burning up holes in the sky when he at last took me into his tent, as if to make love to me, before crossing the river once more, to face the foe that had beaten him. He laid me down in silks — the finest silks he had then, plundered from a caravan of weaker men — and looked at my whole body not with a sigh, but with eyes so dark they plunged one into the final nights of the world. I wondered what those men thought, those generals and priests, who were unfortunate enough to see those depths. Did it mean only death to them? Did they go with rage or with terror? For me, that darkness was the way he loved. It was the oath taken at beginning of a poem, the dedication to a goddess, words that wrapped around and around me before we ever touched. I closed my eyes, awaiting his touch.
But he did not make love to me. He parted my lips with his thumb and placed into my mouth a lotus blossom. I tasted the bitter green stem and accepted it like an offering, moaning.
And the silk wound round. Gently, he wrapped the silk about my body, shaping another, luminescent skin upon my landscape. Willingly I slid into it, its buried scents of spice and incense, its aching, delicate tapestry of nerves, little knowing how it would soon wrap tighter, how it would catch the air in my lungs like a song bird, how everything I knew of my body would become bone, sharply cutting into bound muscle.
At first I was not afraid. It was another one of his cruelties. Before battles, his energy was always dangerous, a tiger on the verge of springing forward. His passions sought release at any cost. With that focus of blood, everything, even I, carried the scent of the darkness of the world. It would be such a night, I thought, that I would sink down into myself, hide my eyes from his furious gaze, and pray to the gods that tomorrow, it would not be his head on the enemy spear, that he would come back again safely with his sorrowful gazes, his slow, apologetic lovemaking, his remaking the world again into something beautiful. Something ours.
The silk drew tightly, and he pinned it with a silver crescent, pricking my skin. A few drops of blood blossomed under the silk. I opened my mouth to cry out, and the lotus fell deeper into my throat. I feared suffocating. My eyes darted wildly, betraying my panic. But his eyes did not meet mine. He sat kneeling beside me unrolling a bundle of gauze like a prayer scroll. The gauze of funeral masks.
He said, To take the world, the world first takes you.
To give you the world, my soul, my love, I give the world my most precious thing. My soul, my love.
Struggling now to right myself, I thrashed my head from side to side. He took it into his large, murderer’s hands, and, reciting lowly to himself, tenderly, skillfully, wrapped my head in gauze in the manner of priests, preparing idols for burial in the river.
For me it was no different. He left me in the river.
And as he went on to conquer the world, the walls of time closed over me.
Many years passed, and I did not accept it. I refused to dwell in the river as if it owned me, a mere dead thing. I moved in the rushes. I hissed in the breeze. I scattered the reflections of every army that brought its horses across the shallows.
My own death was inconsequential to me, his killing me not the crime that made me stalk the waters like a deadly serpent.
That he left me behind, that every village, every city, every nation he would claim in his years on earth, he would claim without me by his side, without me, afterwards, in his arms when he said, I have taken a piece of the world, and I give it to you.
I will give it to you until there is nowhere left that does not know my name.
That was the betrayal, that was the sin which earned him me, haunting him forever. His soul, his love.
I remembered from the days when I had a body, a name, that there are lakes and pools so sacred and still, that they hold starlight like mirrors. There is nothing of this serenity in a river. No stars reflect in the moving of a river.
I was the star, ruined in the river.
I wondered always where he was. Where he was riding his horse in the dust. Where his next enemy died with his name on his tongue. Where he lay that night in his tent, lying back on the pillows, his hair loose, a dark river. Touched by what lips as he again made peace with the world. Did he remember my name? My heart broke again and again and yet was invisible.
Everything weeps in a river. A river is the world weeping.
At last I found a rock in the middle of the river and settled there. I made it my temple of pain and let everything that moves erode its foundation. Let all memories rush by me. Let him be forgotten to me in the currents.
A river carries a thousand histories. I attempted to learn them, as a substitute. When the fish move with the seasons to spawn and die. When the mountain ices have melted, flooding all with the cold taste of rock salt. When a village has grown up near the shores. When disease flows from it silently, and when the waters clear again, once the plague has lifted — or the village is dead.
But the river carried, too, his history. Unable to stop myself, I guessed where he roamed by clues, snatches of fact from the world, and thereby made a map of his devastation. I knew where the women washed blood and sickness out of cloths from the wounded camps. I knew where the fish grew fat and multiplied because there were no men left to hunt them. I knew the echoes of his warrior cry and how it rippled in the waves.
I knew when he, in the furthest north, collapsed to his knees by the riverbank and dipped his stained blade in the water, calling my name softly. If I could have slowed my own blood, the pulse of a river, I would have stopped to reflect his face. I would have showed him back again a face of hatred. I would not acknowledge his pain.
Instead, I abandoned him as he abandoned me. I chose other sites. Places of uncompromising banality. Children splashing in the water. Old men in skiffs for catching fish. Young lovers clinging to each other and nearly drowning from inept lovemaking.
I went to these places and left him every time he approached my river. Every time he called out to me the name of a city, a dead king.
I found a sanctuary on the bank, hidden from many, far from even his reach. The ascetics came out at sunset to wash their feet. Where the toes dipped in the water, I could taste the soil of all the places they had been, the pilgrimages they had taken through forests, in mountains, on riverbanks. I tasted their weariness and their joy as ghosts do, as something new,something forgotten to one who exists as just one emotion.
In the morning, they sailed lotus blossoms down the river, in thanks.
I was contented in this shared knowledge. I liked how these priests, too, rejected the world of men. I was learning to forget the world of blood, and I was contented.
Then one day there were no lotus blossoms. One day there were bodies. They floated down the river. Bloated and stinking evidence of love. Love poems from a butcher.
My warrior, my lord, my history of flesh. I knew his brutal artistry in an instant. In that moment, I was no longer a star obliterated in water. I became the hard white moon, so hot she burned like knives, cutting up the river in waves.
I flashed everywhere. My fury heaved up upon the banks. I found all of his cities, all the places where the praise of his name hung in the air like pestilence, and I rose. He would have none of this because of me. I drowned them all.
He left me in the river. I left them all in the river.
Triumphant in destruction, I knew him better than I ever did alive. And knowing him, I found him again, after years of pain, twisting in the river.
He was waiting in the priest’s sanctuary. He wore the robes of a king. These fell from his shoulders, and he stood naked, tall and brown in the sunlight. He was much older, the years carving his face more than daggers. Involuntarily, against my anger, I ached to hold his reflection, his dreadful beauty in my palace of waters.
But the river moves.
He knelt at the water’s edge. He cupped a lotus in his hand.
I have taken the world, he said. There was nowhere that did not know my name.
He placed the lotus in the water.
And now you have taken it all from me.
He smiled. And dove into my river. Again, my soul, my love.