River Song by Emma Johnson-Rivard

by Emma Johnson-Rivard


It starts like this.

The dead girl was not buried. She was stuffed into a burlap sack and thrown from a bridge to float two miles downstream before coming to rest on the bank, thoroughly tangled in weeds. The dog, who had no name, smelled the meat from his den and wandered down to the bank, hunger and curiosity in his heart. He was an old cur, blind in one eye and lame, though once he had been handsome; once, he had looked after a young child who had named him Prince. The child had taken with fever one night, a swift and burning death, and now the dog had no one at all. His coat, once thick and gleaming, had begun to fall out in patches. Such was his grief, and such was his hunger that the dog, once beloved of a young child, ripped into that sack with tooth and claw before he realized what was held within. And such was his hunger that the dog did not hesitate in biting down.

The dead girl didn’t scream. It hadn’t occurred to her that she could.

The dog chewed. It’s best not to think of that part and I admit now that it’s easy to think badly of the dog in the telling here. But I ask you, friend, what do you know about hunger? Stay with that for a moment. Don’t think too hard about what the dog did that night by the river. Such is hunger, my friend. It never comes gently.

Don’t worry about me, either. I’m only telling a story. Call me Nobody, if you must. I’ve always had a soft spot for old Odysseus.

The dead girl never had a chance for books. She got held back in school. The teacher said she was a habitual idiot, utterly beyond help, and that was that. Maybe she would have found the words on her own, given time, but our girl didn’t have much luck with that either.

The dog knew nothing of this. It wouldn’t have changed anything if he had. Later, when it was done and his hunger lessened, the dog laid down next to the sack and the dead girl and thought of kinder times.

The dead girl stared out at the river with her one remaining eye, for which the dog could not be blamed, and thought it was very sad that she had never gone fly-fishing.

“Do you know,” said the dead girl, “I always thought it was strange that fish can’t close their eyes. They have to look at everything, all the time. Even when they’re sleeping.”

It’s a well-known fact that dogs can hear the dead. Or at least well known to the dogs, even if men have forgotten.

The dog was old and half-blind, and you might think that made him wise, but in the end he was only a dog; as hungry and crude as the rest of us. The old dog put his head on the dead girl’s knee, one place he had not tried to eat.

“I don’t think much of fish,” said the dog. “Their bones catch in the throat, and between the teeth.”

“I suppose this is it,” said the dead girl, who found she could do nothing except speak. Her body had already turned; it no longer belonged to her and what it held was nothing more significant than meat and bone, all of it easily missed. “I suppose I’ll be looking out at everything now. All the time.”

Her one eye, though cloudy and cool, would not close. The dead girl felt somewhat put out by that. Of all the indignities great and small she had known in dying, it seemed an awful shame her eye was left open, forced to play witness to the aftermath.

You should know the dog was gentle then, or as gentle as he could be with only words to offer. As I said, it’s easy to think badly of the dog. It wasn’t his teeth that killed her and if one soul is blamed for their hunger−and I mean true, starvation-courting hunger and not whatever metaphor you’re dreaming up, all soft and warm in your chair−if we start blaming the living for what they do to stay that way, then we’re well and truly done with the world. Metaphorically and otherwise.

“I wouldn’t know,” said the dog, who had never once lied and never would, not even to a dead girl. “But the fish never say a word to me, even when their bones tear me ragged.”

“I’m sure they don’t mean that,” the dead girl said politely. Given the chance, she would have had her bones flare and rip apart anything that touched her, but the dead often have this thought at the end, long after the choice has been made, and there was nothing for it now.

I’ll tell you the girl’s name used to be Mary, just as the dog’s used to be Prince. I’ll tell you a man killed Mary with his fists and afterward he thought of her only when he imagined someone might realize what he’d done. I might tell you the man got what he deserved or at least somebody’s justice but like the dog, I never lie. I’ll tell you the dog put his head on dead Mary’s knee, and I’ll tell you how he thought of his own lost dead girl, long since gone. I’ll tell you how he sighed, looking out to the river and feeling the awful weight of years and lost love bearing down on him.

“My father loved to fish,” said the dead girl. “The grace of the cast. The weight of the line in the water. I always meant to go with him.”

“Once I climbed a mountain,” said the dog. “The child took pictures. I don’t understand pictures. But I climbed a mountain once and I will never do it again.”

“You could,” the dead girl pointed out. “If you wanted. I don’t see anything stopping you.”

“Not without her,” said the dog.

“Oh,” said the dead girl, and there was an understanding between them.

The dog said, “I ate parts of you.”

“Yes,” said the dead girl.

“I was hungry,” said the dog.

“Worse things have happened to me,” said the dead girl.

The dog closed his one eye. The girl did not, and could not, do the same.

“One day,” the dog offered, “one day I will die, and something will eat me.”

It wasn’t precisely an apology, but it was true. Apologies are for the living.

“I suppose something will,” the dead girl agreed. She thought about reaching out to scratch behind the dog’s ears but couldn’t. “Will you do something for me?”

“If I can do it without hands,” said the dog.

The dead girl thought that was reasonable. She didn’t want to be a bother.

“I would do things for the fish, if they asked,” the dog added hopefully. It is the nature of dogs to love and seek love in return, even in the company of dead things. “If they had words I could hear.”

“You would still eat them,” the dead girl said, though not cruelly. She had never killed a fish before, but she had considered the prospect thoughtfully and more than once. “But I suppose that can’t be helped.”

“Not right now,” said the dog. He opened his one good eye and watched the river twist and churn in the night. The dead girl’s knee had begun to rot under his chin. It smelled like meat and nothing alive. By morning the files would be coming in force. “But maybe it will be better next time.”

The dog believed all souls would eventually be returned to the world through reincarnation. This was a comfort to him. The dead girl hadn’t believed a thing about the afterlife before tonight. She supposed she believed in ghosts now. That was not a comfort.

“There’s no one left to miss me,” said the dead girl. “Nobody will even notice I’m gone.”

“No,” said the dog. “No, that’s not true.”

“Yes,” said the dead girl. She said it gently, and with great kindness. It was important to her that she be kind to someone before the end. She said, “I wasn’t always lonely, but I was today, when I was still alive. I was alone. The people who loved me are all dead and the ones who knew my name, who could describe me if someone asked, they only thought to pity me. Slow, stupid girl. Should have been born pretty to bridge the gap. Should have at least gotten her teeth fixed. They knew I wouldn’t have anything without help, their help, and they never let me try. I’m their project, their Christian charity, or I would’ve been if I’d suffered better, or thanked them the right way. No one knows me and no one will miss me. No one thinks of me unless I walk in front of them, and I’ll never do that again.”

That wasn’t precisely true, I’ll have you know. The man who killed Mary, the one who beat her to death and put her in the sack, he’d thought of her more than once. Sometimes he even thought of the dead girl as you would a person and was sorry. Not for killing her, you understand, but for doing it with his hands. It had taken too long and bloodied his knuckles.

But, in time, the bruises would fade. There would be no scar.

You should know he wasn’t a monster. He was just a man who looked at Mary one day, before she was the dead girl, and thought, would the world be so much easier without people like her cluttering it up?

But, you say, surely he was wracked with guilt. Surely it haunts him. Surely he was punished. Surely our world wouldn’t allow men to do something like that without some part of them, even a tiny, hidden piece, to sour and rot? Surely, at least, we would know what he was.

To which I tell you, he was not wracked by guilt and to which I’ll say, this was not because he was possessed of a chameleon heart or handsome Janus mask to hide the truth from himself; the man was a man, and in the company of men who sympathized. They understood, deep down, and enough of them agreed the dead girl was better as he had made her, nameless and maimed down by the river. Everyone will say it’s a shame when they realize she’s gone. It’ll take a while. What a damn shame, they’ll sigh, and not a soul will say the dead girl is better off gone, but some of them will believe it, deep down, just like the man did. Only the dog was sorry for her passing, and only after her meat filled his belly.

I never said this was a nice story, friend. I never said it would be gentle.

“I wrote music,” said the dead girl. She watched the river with her one good eye, but her vision was starting to cloud, and she knew the moment, this station of the aftermath, was coming to an end. “I was going to leave, go somewhere crowded, and find someone with a good voice, not like mine, and have them sing. They’d play my music, and no one would know me, no one would look, but they would hear my music play. Maybe in a cafe somewhere, a place they sell croissants. I would sit in a back booth and listen, and people would say, wasn’t that a pretty song? And I would sit there and eat croissants and think, I made that song. I was going to do that.”

“Why wouldn’t you sing?” asked the dog. “Why wouldn’t you step out and say, I made this thing. The song you called beautiful, I made that?”

Here the dead girl would have smiled, if she had still been capable of it.

“Because,” said the dead girl, “the point is the art, beautiful on its own and not because or in spite of me.”

The dog thought that was a sad thing to dream for but didn’t tell her so.

“You wanted something from me,” he said instead. Her knee had long since gone cold under his chin, as dead as the rest of her. The dog knew she was fading in the way dogs often know. Soon she would be nothing but the bones and then, in time, even less than that.

“I’m old,” the dog added. “My teeth are cracked, and my legs ache even when the sun is highest. But I had a girl once who loved me and I loved that girl. And you are not that girl and I do not love you, but I could have, once. I could have laid my head on your living knee and you could have scratched behind my ears just so. I know I will not survive your revenge and I might not kill the one who killed you, but I can bite him once before my teeth go.”

The old dog had never once told a lie. We should take note from that old dog, the one who used to be called Prince.

“Thank you,” said the dead girl. It was the last true kindness she would know. “I’m sure you would bite him very hard.”

“In the hand,” the dog promised. “In both hands.”

“In both hands,” the dead girl agreed. “He’d probably scream.”

“Oh, certainly.”

“But that’s not what I want.”

The dog sighed against her dead, bony knee. “If I were younger…”

“I’m sure you would have done it,” said the dead girl, imagining all the ways the old dog might have avenged her with tooth and claw. “I’m sure it would have been a sight. But he’d probably hit you, he’d certainly hit you and then make you dead somehow.”

And we know she’s right, don’t we, friends? He’d salt the bites so they’d scar and show them off at every chance, recounting his moment of glory to whatever part of the world he might charm. All the while he’d think, look what I did. Look what I did with my fists, my precious bleeding knuckles.

Dogs and dead girls often met. They lie down next to each other and come to understandings. That night was no different. The one-eyed dog looked out at the river with the one-eyed girl and, for the first time in either of their stories, knew their fellow saw the exact same thing as them.

The river sighed. Fish broke the surface, twisting and leaping and living their fish lives with their fish words, secret and precious beneath the current. The river flowed, as the river had done for a hundred years before and would continue to do for a hundred years more, and the old dog lay there with his head on the dead girl’s knee. He was content in a way he hadn’t known for a long time. When it was done, whatever task she put him to and however long it took, the dog thought he would come back to what remained of her and lay down beside it until he too was nothing more than bones.

“If you don’t want me to bite him,” said the dog, “then what shall I do for you?”

“I want you to sing for me,” said the dead girl. Her one eye had gone dark and she knew whatever came next wouldn’t take long. “I can’t teach you my music. I’m sorry, but it wasn’t written for your throat.”

“There’s no need to apologize,” said the dog.

“Even so,” said the dead girl. “Had I known; I would have composed something. But there isn’t time and I would like you to sing for me, one of your dog songs. I want to hear music again, before the end.”

“All right,” said the dog. Dog songs are not written for men. But, sometimes, exceptions are made. The dog sat up slowly, joints stiff and clumsy from the cold, and thought of the songs he had learned at his mother’s belly, the warmth and rhythm of her heart beating against him. For a moment he was young again, milk dumb and small against the enormity of his mother and sprawl of siblings−all hungry, all clamoring−but then the dog remembered the first croaking noise his mother had coaxed out of him; weak at first, barely more than a whine, but then his siblings had joined in, chirping and crying, and then, together, the chorus began to swell. And so the song, passed on from mother to pup, welcomed him to the embrace. He had known what all dogs came to know, the warm grasp of the eternal and the road all things that loved would eventually take to find love again, even when it seemed forever and hopelessly lost. The dog, who had once been called Prince, stood by the dead girl, who had once been called Mary. He threw his head back and began to sing.




About the Author


Emma Johnson-Rivard received her Masters in Creative Writing from Hamline University. She currently lives in Minnesota with her dogs and far too many books. Her work has appeared in Mistake House, the Nixes Mate Review, and Moon City Review. Her chapbook, The Witch’s Cat And Her Fateful Murder Ballads, was released by the Esthetic Apostle.