This story is inspired by the myths and legends of the country I am now living in: India. Here rivers are goddesses and are worshipped by all hindus. They are said to have magic powers, cleansing souls and giving the departed easy passage to the afterlife.
There is always the river, and the people crossing it. My grandmother would say that rivers were the black locks of the goddess’ twisting, growing, and winding silky hair; pathways to the valley of the dead, and the lands of the unborn. Chaos and creation came washing down like cold floods from the Himalayas, cleansing and taking, drowning and sustaining. After a good storm my brother and I would search the banks for pieces of debris, be it a washed up fish or the green pieces of a broken bottle. My brother knew the best crabbing and fishing spots, I knew the best places to swim. “Don’t disturb the goddess!” my grandmother would shout after us, waving her fist for effect, but we, young as we were, took no notice. Every morning the ladies released their flower rafts into the river after the men had taken their morning bath. What they prayed for we never asked. “Maybe it is the goddess that makes them do it, ” said my brother. “Or maybe it is the dead,” I grinned and pulled a grimace trying to resemble a ghost. My brother air-boxed me and we started laughing.
The river carries stories, mother used to say. The whispers of the goddess Yamuna and the prayers of millions of people. But for us children, it was all about a good swim. “Look out for the sharks!” my father would say. The sharks came to release the souls of the dead from their bodies. “We aint dead!” protested my brother. My father sighed. The sharks were real enough, we saw them sometimes, lurking in the dark, but it never crossed our minds that they would bother about us living people. One day my brother found a shark tooth in the river. He fashioned it into a good luck charm and wore it around his neck. All the other children were mad with jealousy, why had the goddess favored him and not them? It became his most precious possession. “It aint right,” protested grandmother, “a shark tooth is a bad thing. it can carry black magic.” But my brother just pulled a face and ignored her. We all ignored grandmother, she was too old to matter.
Right at the edge of the river there is a place we call Sarayu, it means tear of the goddess. The river has taken an unexpected turn and carved a pool into the bank, a pool shaped like a tear. Women in saffron colored saris and naked toddlers, darkly tanned by the burning sun, come to bathe and wash clothes here. But after a storm it is always empty, the men say that the walls of the pool can cave in and suck up whoever is in the pool. The currents are always stronger after a storm. The goddess is wild, she cannot be tamed by people or river banks, and she does what she pleases, not bothering too much about the river people. Father says it is our job to respect her, not her job to respect us. It was a day like that, in the aftermath of a storm, my brother and I came to the pool to fish for crabs. From the pool you can see for miles and miles across the bank. The fields are burnt amber by the heat and the sky is grey and misty and colorless. On such days the river is black. The red sun makes no difference. The goddess is moody and throws her anger tantrums as she pleases. But she is often eerily still after a storm. “Don’t let her meekness fool you, ” says father, “underneath she is hiding her other aspect, the rageful Kala, she can pull you in faster than you can say tomato.”
“Look, the monkeys have beat us to it!” shouted my brother angrily, and he was right. A band of five monkeys were gathered by the tawny pool, carefully hovering their tiny red hands over the water. “Shooosh!” we roared, and started picking up stones from the ground throwing them at the monkeys. They screamed in anger and fear, but eventually after sustaining a few hard hitting blows they ran away, climbing hurriedly up the nearby coconut trees, still watching us suspiciously as we approached the pool. “Heeeey!!” shouted my brother as a coconut thumped and landed dangerously close to his head. He waved his clenched fist at the monkeys in the tree, and I had to laugh because he looked so much like grandmother. We quickly understood why the monkeys had been so reluctant to give up their hunting ground, the pool was teaming with crabs! We tried fishing them out with our hands, but many of them got away, hiding in the many nooks and corners of the pool. “I’ll go in,” said my brother. I felt a bit nervous, remembering my father’s warning, but I didn’t want to show that I was scared so I didn’t say anything. As soon as my brother was in the pool I knew it was a bad idea. He seemed to struggle to stand up right, his body was being pulled towards the mouth of the river by invisible hands. But he fought against the anger of the goddess, and by using all the muscles in his arms and legs he managed to sustain his position in the water, and he started grabbing crabs from underneath him. It was an easy game, now the crabs had nowhere to run where he could not reach them. Overjoyed by the prospect of the delicious meal we would have, I failed to see what was about to happen. As my brother reached even deeper into the water something grabbed hold of the thread around his neck bearing his precious shark tooth, and he went under. I screamed. I called his name over and over again. But he was gone. I began to climb down towards the river, desperate to save my brother, but something held me back, it was my father. He had heard my screams and had rushed from his work in the fields to come to my aid. “Where is he? Where is he?” he shouted. “He went into the river,” was all I could say. My father ran for help and soon the river was full of people in small canoes stabbing the water with sticks and calling my brother’s name. But he was gone. Vanished from sight, as though the goddess had swallowed him whole and left not a single ripple to prove that he was ever there.
Three days my father and his friends searched for my brother while the women in the village cried and begged Yamuna to release him. I was left to myself. “They blame me, ” I thought, as they should. Why had I not stopped him, why had I let my pride win over the warning my fear had given me?
On the fourth day after my brother’s disappearance there was a horrible storm. The roof of our hut almost blew into the river and everyone in the village huddled together for comfort. The goddess spat her anger at us, floading our crops and spraying our faces with cold foul smelling water. The women started praying, and for once the men joined them. But the goddess would not be appeased. For two days she raged, until our entire village was left in ruins. Then she calmed down and a sudden inspiration came to me. The debris after a storm like this must be stupendous! I walked on my bare feet down to the messy banks where sand and soil and torn off plants were piled together like a garbage dumpster, and there he sat: my brother, by that messy bank with a coconut in his hands. His face was pale and his eyes glassy. I started laughing and crying at the same time, pulling him desperately into my arms. “She took my shark tooth,” he said weakly. “I fought her for it, but she won. It’s gone, see! ” He pointed to the place around his neck where the chain with the shark tooth had been. “It’s gone!” He started crying bitterly, as though he had parted with his own soul.
There was a celebration in our village that day, to give thanks to Yamuna for giving us my brother back. But my brother took no part in honoring his enemy. He grieved the loss of his beloved shark tooth for a long time, and he never got over his grudge against the goddess, he avoided the river like the plague, but I was happy for it, at least I never had to fear losing him to the angry Yamuna ever again