The River

Photograph by Guilhem Alandry, Story by Chloë Ashby

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It was early morning when we got to the river, a peachy strip on the horizon beneath a pastel-blue sky. There was no wind, the water glass-like and the overhead power lines still. Not for long. Soon the boys would be here. We had to find him before they did.

    ‘I can’t see anything, Anika.’

    I stopped wrestling with my sleeves and watched my younger sister wading through the murky water. All around her were ripples, ripening in concentric circles like growth rings inside the trunk of an old tree. She’d taken off her linen shirt; her skirt was sopping, damp slinking up her thighs. With her close-cropped hair and flat chest, you’d mistake her for a boy. Her bronze skin was a shade darker than mine. Now I’d never be able to ask Mum why.

    ‘You’re moving too quickly.’ I lifted my own shirt over my head, the collar catching on one earring, wooden beads on wire. Goosebumps prickled across my stomach, the downy hairs on my forearms stood to attention like reeds. What if someone sees? A beam of sunlight skulked across my lower back. ‘Wait for me.’

    I walked to the edge of the bank, which was strewn with rubbish: cardboard packaging, plastic containers, soggy tissues. My mouth filled with saliva when I spotted a dented can of Coke, toothy-white lettering winking in the light. Crawling around it, ants. I swallowed.

    Into the lukewarm water. It was never as cold as I expected, not like our shower – especially when the others beat me to it. When we moved into the tower, we thought things would be better – we’d have proper electricity, heating, plumbing. In fact, things were worse, and louder, brighter: slamming doors, grumbling engines and flashing blues late at night. I’d have gone back to the village, if Mum was still there. But she wasn’t, she’d moved on. We had to live with Nana now.

    ‘Sai, hold on.’ I walked towards her, slowly – a deep gash from broken glass a few weeks back had made me cautious. ‘You have to slow down or you’ll scare him.’

    ‘How do you know it’s a him?’

    ‘I just know.’

    ‘And how do you know he likes rice?’ She eyed me suspiciously as I reached into my pocket and sprinkled a handful of cooked grains across the water, like wild flower seeds in a garden.

    ‘I’ve given it to him before.’

    She wrinkled her nose. ‘Anika, do you love him?’

    I tossed my head back, laughed. ‘No, you dope.’

    ‘But you want to protect him?’ 

    ‘Yes,’ I said, popping a couple of grains in my mouth, lolling on my tongue. ‘He’s my friend.’

    She started wading again, too quickly. Sand swirled.

    ‘Sai, please, you have to slow down.’

    She rolled her eyes. ‘Fine, I’ll follow.’

 

‘There!’

    ‘Where?’

    I raised my arm, pointed to the metallic scales gleaming green, purple and black, like a beetle’s shell. ‘Sai, get the bucket.’

    ‘Me?’

    ‘Yes, you.’

    No need to remind her to be slow this time. She crept to the bank and returned with the plastic bucket in hand, passed it to me.

    ‘Thank you.’

    As I approached, he clocked me with one amber eye. Still, his heart-shaped lips continued to bob open and closed around grains. I dunked the bucket beneath him and scooped it into the air. 

    ‘Did you get him?’ 

    ‘I got him.’

    ‘Yes!’

    Back to the bank. I always expected him to thrash around like a wild animal but, as usual, he was tranquil – translucent fins by his side, forked tail tucked under. The sun was higher, shining on our faces. Sai’s short hair was lying flat against her forehead. 

    ‘What now?’ she asked. 

    I pulled on my shirt, the cotton clinging to my wet skin. ‘We wait.’

 

We found shade beneath a tree with poisonous berries and crinkled leaves. We sat with the bucket between us, like a sacred offering. What would Nana think? She prayed a whole lot more than Mum ever did. 

    Sai was cross-legged, peering over the rim, narrowing her eyes as he ogled her back. ‘Why’s he like this?’

    ‘Like what?’

    She cocked an eyebrow. ‘Anika, he’s a three-eyed fish.’

    Two out of three eyes blinked.  

    ‘You don’t think you’d have three eyes if you lived in this river?’

    ‘I’ve never thought about it.’

    ‘That’s the problem.’

    She huffed, sat upright, pretended to be interested in a fat-bodied fly. A moment later, she was studying him again – the nubby texture of his scales, the glints of red in his fins. ‘What about us, Anika?’ She started scratching the soles of her feet, blackened with oil. ‘Will the river—’

    ‘Sai, they’re here.’ 

 

There were three of them, chuckling and chanting. Two carried sharpened harpoons, the other a stringy net. They were already shirtless, their faded jeans slung loose around their narrow waists. They cracked open three beers, metal caps springing into the grass.

    ‘What if they see us?’ whispered Sai.

    ‘They won’t.’

    They ambled into the water, bottles in hand. Now and then they drove their harpoons into the riverbed, hoisted them heroically into the air. Nothing.

    ‘Will he be ok?’ Sai asked, nodding to the bucket.

    The water seemed shallower.

    ‘He’ll be fine,’ I said, giving him a pinch of rice. 

    ‘Anika!’

    One of the boys was strolling towards us. A couple of metres away he paused, unzipped his flies, began to piss.

    ‘Sai, don’t look.’

 

By the time they’d gone it was midday, the sun ablaze. My shirt was dry but, as we walked towards the bank, sweat trickled down my back, ant-like, making me itch.

    ‘Do you want to let him go, Sai?’

    ‘Me?’

    ‘You.’

    I handed her the bucket and, together, we waded into the river. She looked at me, at him, then tilted it towards the water. He slid forwards and swam, oily scales shimmering before disappearing from view. 

    ‘Free to live another day,’ I said. When I looked at Sai, she was fishing from the water three glass bottles. 

Chloë Ashby is based in London. She’s an associate editor in the Books team at Monocle and has written about art and culture for The Guardian, Apollo, TOAST Magazine and others. She recently graduated from Faber Academy and is at work on her first novel. You can sometimes find her here: @chloelashby

Guilhem Alandry is a London based french photographer and multimedia producer. In 2000 he co-founded Documentography Photographers Collective and is also director of Doculab, a London based Multimedia Production Studio. He’s worked in socially engaged issues for a number of charities, agencies, magazines, newspapers, online publications and galleries. As a pioneer of interactive photographic narratives he is highly accomplished in new-media forms, versatile and comfortable using photography, video, VR technology and sound and always looking for new ways to bring them together. He’s won awards and his work has been shown in forms as varied as print, interactive projects, projections and exhibitions. You can see more of his work here @guilhemalandry

© 2016 A Thousand Word Photos

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