There’s a story about a former town, maybe three towns over from where I grew up, about how the first settlers there were attacked for seven nights around midwinter, by giants with eyes glowing in the moonlight, hurling boulders down the hills, crushing the settlement in the dale. This is an untold part of that story.
The water looks different, mother. I’ve never seen water move so… and at this, her body mimed the actions of a group rolling away a boulder.
And it’s so dirty! How can water be so dirty, mother?
And the touch! It splashed my belly and it was the… the… I don’t even know how to explain it, mother. It was different.
Calm, now, children, their mother’s brother commanded, low and soft, like the rustle of a rabbit through pine needles, come over here with me and I’ll explain everything.
The mother’s brother gathered these children, along with others who also had questions, behind an outcrop of rock away from the serious work of the mothers. The mothers’ brothers were the teachers, the explainers, the ones who made sense of.
This is a river, children; it is a new kind of water to you, and one you must be careful of. Like the runoffs and creeks you’ve seen before, a river is a boundary, laid down by the Great Thrum in the time before, to keep what is on one side away from what is on the other.
Is the river keeping us safe? asked one who, though he was the oldest of this brood, was still a child. I heard mother say something about going over the water. Is that why we’ve stopped here?
Children— the mother’s brother continued— when you cross a throbbing runoff, do you not seek permission of the duck to change sides?
This isn’t like any runoff I’ve ever seen, protested one of the younger children.
No, I suppose it isn’t! Another mother’s brother joined the learning brood, this one was a teacher of how to do things— But explain to me, children, would you have us wade across as we do with a runoff, or would you have us swim it as we do a creek?
The children looked puzzled; a runoff was shallow and you could see the bottom all the way; a creek was small and the other side was large and clear. This river was neither of those— the bottom quickly disappeared from the bank, under the water’s dirt, and the other side was as far from them now as the top of the mountain was from its base. The children stared at each other, and at their teachers, and back again with no response. Then—
The duck will show us! yawlped the youngest of the brood, who, spinning around to find a convenient duck, followed quickly with a gasp— Wow! That duck is bigger than me!— as a heron spread its wings flew out over the muddy waters. Aahhhh! the children all yelled with fear and delight and scattered as the mother’s brother chased them, his arms spread wide, mimicking the giant bird soaring over the giant water.
They set up their camp on the western bank, watching the other side from a safe distance, introducing the children to the new kinds of life that viewed the river as a corridor rather than a boundary. While the mothers’ brothers taught the children new ways for a new land, the mothers petitioned the Keepers of the Great Thrum, and the wise ones spent the long, restless days in council, verifying that they had interpreted the omens correctly.
One of the mothers’ brothers, who had stayed awake with the leaders, poked the one beside him in the ribs, Tomorrow I shall teach you again how to cross the reeds, your mat was like a rat’s would be! and they both laughed softly before catching the glare of one of the older mothers.
The river must be crossed, a wise one insisted to the group, as they stayed awake well past the rising of the sun and deep into the heat of midday, and though it was bright and difficult to see, the leaders knew his face trembled as he repeated, the river must be crossed.
The mother’s brother laughed and bellowed to the one beside him, perhaps it will be you who teaches me, then! I have never yet learned to swim!
They kept camp on the bank of the enormous dun-colored river for many seasons; long enough for the oldest of the children’s broods to age into other roles; long enough for leaders to transition and wise ones to fade; long enough for mothers to consider new lovers who could sire a new brood; long enough for fathers to deliver their children and set out on their own; long enough for the mothers’ brothers to gain the trust of the thunderbirds, to teach the children how to swim, to work late into the day learning to build with wood rather than stone, trying to keep the old ways even in this new kind of land.
They camped at the bank long enough, even, that the truth had time to work its way through the hair and the hides and the bones of every member of the great family, and everyone could feel what the wise ones saw so long ago when they first began their journey— something wrong had crept back into the land where the Great Snake strangled the Black Blood Demon into submission. And they were the last of their kind, and it was their duty to protect, and so the river must be crossed.
After we return from Thunderbird Cliff, let me give you another swimming lesson. Two of the mothers’ brothers walked far up the bank, so early in the night that the sun’s glow was still on the horizon.
You only want to see my hair wet, the other mother’s brother chortled.
Your hair wet and your belly bobbing in the water! the one added, also laughing.
They continued to chortle and laugh, and it took a long time to get to the thunderbirds’ cliff that night, and even longer to get back, as they stopped many times on the way and lay in the cool mud of the river, and laughed, and grunted, and rutted, and laughed some more. And the one recalled that when they’d first set up camp, how he had noticed the other’s arms as he demonstrated the great span of the heron, and how he had made him laugh even then. And the other, too, recalled that night, how he’d tried to stretch his arms so wide, because he wanted to be noticed, that he’d pulled a muscle in his back and was sore for a week. And they once more tumbled with each other through the grass at the river’s edge, long after the Moon had set and light was breaking.
Later— when their kind would finally cross the mighty river— those who were too large to ride on the backs of the thunderbirds— as they swam across— one of the mothers’ brothers would get taken by the undertow, and he would slip under and not come back up, and this one would howl as he watched from the bank, unable to help, and he would fall to the ground, and tear at the mud, and pound his fists against the driftwood until his blood stained all the earth around him, and he would curse this journey, and he would curse this river, and he would swear an eternal curse upon the whole of this land.