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The River God’s Wife

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If you are coming down from the narrows of the river Kiang,
Please let me know beforehand
And I will come out to meet you
As far as Cho-Fu-Sa.
-from The River Merchant’s Wife by Li-Po, as translated by Ezra Pound.

Her husband only returns on nights when the moon is full. For some time her neighbors assume she was alone – a widow or divorcee, perhaps, but more likely a single mother at that age.

She will bring out the pictures when they speak of this. First, a picture of them where they are young, barely out of their teens. Another with their traditional wedding.. In the third he holds their newborn child, with the gentlest expression she has ever seen on his face.

“He works far away and is always traveling,” she says.

And they understand, or seem to. They have salaryman husbands, they have husbands who spend more of their times overseas than at home with their children. It is a thing of life.

The river is extraordinarily pure and beautiful in these parts.

And when the neighbors are gone and she is left alone, she pulls the albums back out a the plastic jackets above a smile, a laugh.. She always takes as many pictures as she can. She has albums and albums filled with her husband doing the most mundane of things.

In their wedding photos he is tall and handsome beside, her, dressed in a traditional blue kimono tied with a white kaku obi. In the first wedding picture, she wears the shiro-maku and the material is so soft, so pure as to be the color of newly fallen snow. The uchikake in the second, was covered in dragons. Cranes were more traditional, or flowers, but she wanted dragons. The dragons snarl and glare over the sea green brocade. She’d always found the pictures of dragons to be inaccurate. They were always filled with rage like some rabid animal.

Or perhaps the one she knew had been particularly gentle. She’d seen him like that, once, snarling and gasping, but like the story of Tamlin, she held on and won him free, and stole his heart before it was turned to stone.




“I dream about dragons,” her daughter says.

“Oh?” She bends to meet the eyes of Mizuko. Her hair is the same as Haku’s, with moss green bangs flat across her forehead.

“I’ll tell you a secret: I dream of him too. Don’t be afraid, he’s your friend.”

“I know,” Mizuko replies. “He’s nice.”

“Flying is like...” Mizuko closes her eyes and spins with her fingers spread. The wind catches her hair as she twirls like a whirling dervish. She spins until she is stumbling from dizziness, until Chihiro has to steady her lest she fall.

“Like that,” she says.

“Yes, it’s like that,” Chihiro replies.

And she remembers the feeling of the first, the second and third. She remembers clinging tight as the water surged about her. She remembers that moonlit night where he and she first remembered. It took another circle, another cycle of finding and remembrance before she remembered that memory again.

All life is circles, she’s learned. And while memories can slip through one’s hands like water, they can be found again. A lost treasure unearthed from the river silt by a strong current.


Some of the mothers shake their head. Chihiro is so careless.

“She has her father’s blood in her. She can swim like a fish,” Chihiro says. Her voice is casual, without worries.

Mizuko can hold her breath for seven whole minutes if she tries. When she disappears under the pure water her skin shimmers like the silver scales of a fish.

Chihiro does not watch over her daughter fretfully, and worry that malicious river spirits will steal away her child as wives have through the ages. She knows better. Should her daughter ever fall into a part too deep, or hold her breath for two long, there would be a reflection like scales in the sunlight. A strange fish, the neighbors would say. The keeper of the river.

Every river has one. A king, a keeper. People used to think they were dragons but now know better. It was a trick of the light, a large fish that people gave undue authority to.

Nobody believes in the old tales anymore but children and those who know better.



They go almost every day to the river. Even when it is cold and the water is filled with frozen ice flows. It never truly freezes over, for the river has grown too large. Chihiro will press her hands to the ice flow over. It melts under the heat of her fingers. Mizuko tries too, her small palm beside her mother’s.

Mizuko almost never asks to go to the park. She does not want to swing, she wants to swim.
She lives up to her name every single day. Even in the bathtub she holds the water in her palms with such love until it slips from her fingers. When that happens, she starts the game all over again.

And she sings to herself at times. A song her dream-dragon sings to her once he has flown her on his back and she has begged him for more carrying! More! More!

Keep the water, keep it safe, rush rush. The water flows over you, whoosh, whoosh. Rock little one, hush, hush...

A lullaby from ancient times. A song of a river god.


When Haku comes Chihiro runs out to meet him. The moon is bright over him, and his skin is so pale. Soon, she will wake her daughter and watch her stir fitfully. All she has to do is say the magic words Your papa is home before Mizuko’s eyes will spring open and she will fling off the covers and the last traces of her sleepiness.

But before then, she has a few minutes. She is selfish, and steals him away for this time which is only moments but feels like hours. It is always like that when one interacts with the spirit world. She nuzzles against him, forehead to forehead and breathes in the clean scent of him. She kisses him and it still feels as hesitant and new as if they were children again.

She intertwines their fingers and feels the coolness of his skin against hers. With a river to protect, he is never quite warm.


She is like thousand of other wives through the ages, the kind staring out at the river in hopes that their husband’s would return. On flats, on boats, from the army and from across the seas. She is luckier than they, for she knows of his safety. She knows that he will not be stolen away by a ship sinking, or a war. She knows when he will return and x’s mark every day on the calendar that leads up to the full moon. She and Mizuko make a game of crossing them off. Only three more days until papa comes!

But it has been long before Chihiro was anything near helpless. She cleans up litter from the banks and pulls free broken bottles ands twisted bike spines from the mud. Once, when a company notorious for its lax pollution laws came to build a plant, she stayed up late at nights searching through ordinances for loopholes, for a way to avoid this. When protests and normal means failed, she followed a black shadow with a mask, back into the spirit world to find another way to save her husband.

That was how it always went in myths. She stole from the stories and came back triumphant. She was as persistant as she always had been. She’d cross Heaven and Hell Earth in between to keep him safe, even if for only a single day more.

In the end there was a strange fire that razed the skeleton framework of the building.
Sharp paper dolls were found all about the ashes. Certain people saw a dark shape, a wraith with a mask but no face. When they attempted to rebuild, misfortunes happened. Wood disappeared and lunches went missing. Even those who weren’t suspicious assumed that the place was cursed.

The plant was closed and abandoned before it was ever finished.

Jobs were lost, and some of her neighbors could not understand her drive towards this goal. She doesn’t seem the ecological type; her passion only settles to this one river.

A wife always takes care of her husband in whatever ways she can.