River Bargain Baby10 min read


K.S. Walker
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There’s reasons not to go sit by the banks of the Dequindre. The mosquitoes bite something fierce this time of year, for one. May through September the air is thick with them. The river swells wide on its way through Wyandott. When the rain comes, the Dequindre spills over its banks in a lazy way, slowing almost to a standstill. Stagnant waters are fertile breeding ground for some.

And that was another reason, most of the time it was more marsh than bank anyway. And even when the wetlands firmed up it wasn’t good fishing. And then, there were the stories. Plenty reasons not to go. But not enough to make Jackie stay away.

There’s a saying for girls like her.

Like mother like daughter, I guess.

I don’t mind makin’ my own trouble. Spice things up. Keep the people-folk on they toes. It is always a nice surprise though, when trouble seeks me out instead. And I know trouble when it comes sniffin’. Trouble sound like four pairs of shoes scuffin’ up a dirt path. It sound like “I betcha won’t.” By the time all y’all came round the front of Miss Loretta’s house, hushed voices like she ain’t already heard you a quarter mile back, I was near giddy. Kid-folk, too? My laughter sent bubbles up through the marsh grasses. Lawd, I can’t help myself sometimes.

Me and Miss Loretta? Me and her come to an understandin’ a long time ago. I let her alone in her little house near my banks, closer than any other people-folk stay. And in turn, she let me peep through her eyes sometimes. I has her lean closer out her rocker so I can get a good look at’cha.

“Y’all not messin’ around by the river are ya?” Miss Loretta hollers out. Hush now, woman. Don’t be a spoil-sport.

“No, ma’am.” Ha! Lies if I ever heard one. Don’t bother me none. I take my time studyin’ each one of y’all. See which one is it ‘bout to make my day. I recognize the look. Lil girl with two plaits and a chin that says she got somethin’ to prove. Girl, you ain’t got nothin’ to prove to them boys you runnin’ round wit! But you c’mon see me anyway. See what we can make of ya.

“Good! The chirrun that go down to that river don’t come back—”

Woman, I said hush! I yank Miss Loretta back down in her rocker, hard. Why go ruinin’ a fun thing before I even get the chance to get started?

“Goodbye, now!” I chirp through Miss Loretta.

Y’all scoot along a lil faster. Don’t worry, I’ll keep Miss Loretta busy long enough for y’alls to come see me. She won’t be callin’ any mommas any time soon. Tattlin’.

Let’s see what good ole Dequindre can do for ya.

All the best stories start with desperation. A want so large it twists like hunger pangs tying your stomach up in knots. Jackie knows a thing or two about that. A want so great she’d do anything to ease the fire of it. Maybe even wade into the Dequindre up to her knees because Marquis dared her to. Even though the fishing is bad, the mosquitoes thick, and they all know the stories. Desire and desperation can do that.

Chile you shouldna’ come here. I’m greedy and proud of it. I been known to reach out a mighty hand and snatch abody just cause I can. But let me tell you somethin’. There’s somethin’ down here with me that got more greed than I do. She been kickin’ up my sandy soil, troublin’ the surface waters something fierce with her want, her need. I’d tell you not to come too close but well, things might be more interestin’ if ya do.

There’s a moment at the end of the dirt path when Jackie hesitates. She can feel Grant, Marquis, and Jamir at her back. Watching. The insects have stopped their buzzing, not a peeper peeping, like the whole river source to mouth, producer to predator, holding its breath watching what she’s about to do next. The thing about Jackie is, there hasn’t been a dare yet she’s backed down from. And she surely isn’t about to start now. Not when she’s got something to prove. If this is the price of acceptance she’ll pay it and say it came cheap. She hasn’t learned yet that acceptance isn’t the same as friendship. That you can be a part and still apart. That’ll come.

Her fists clench and she takes two long steps in.

Did you know I knew your momma? Yessss, chile, and if you ain’t the spittin’ image of her!

Must’ve been about, what, thirteen years ago now? Thirteen years and nine months if we being exact. I seen your momma inch as close as she dare, asking me for a miracle. Her hands clasped tight to her bosom, tears streaking her brown face. She sho wanted a baby but never could find a use for a man. So, she came to me.

She pleaded, tore at her hair, ripped at her skirts, made all sortsa fuss. “I’ll do anything!”

Anything? Chile, she shoulda known better. She was in the marsh up to her ankles already but I bade her come closer still. Anything, she say? She stepped down into me proper. Black muck sucking at her skirts, til my waters could kiss her skin. Til the long grass could wrap around her thighs gentle-like. A lover’s touch. Your momma asked me for a baby. I gave her two. Before she fell asleep that night I sent Ma Skeeter to give her a message. Your momma’s eyes were heavy like pockets full of stones. And Ma Skeeter landed on her right cheek and whispered in her ear for me: One of them babies is for me and only one is for you.

That’s right honey, take one more step in.

The people-folk only come see me when they want somethin’. When they want to keep a lover in they bed, steal one from someone else’s. When they want revenge or riches. When they want somethin’ they just can’t get otherwise. But ain’t none of that what’s on your heart is it? Your mind focused on tryna get them lil ashy-kneed boys to let you be a part of they group. That’s just somebody son! You up to your knees in the divine, honey, and you ain’t even think to ask for nothin’? Nothing? Well. Maybe, just maybe, I got a gift for you anyway.

Shallow waters run warm but a chill rakes down the back of Jackie’s calves anyway. Marquis shouts “time” from the banks and she can’t get out of the water fast enough. She did it! She lifts her foot to run, only to catch it and fall face first into the water. A cloud of mosquitoes puff into the air, angry and seeking. Jackie is shocked to find herself in the river up to her shoulders, to feel the surface she disturbed lapping gently at her neck. She scrambles up as fast as she can. She pulls her foot free. Whatever resistance she’d encountered is gone. Jackie hightails it out the water, onto firm land. She whoops and hollers along with Marquis, Grant, and Jamir all the way home, but she never stops glancing over her shoulder. Like there’s something behind her, just out of sight. She dismisses the feeling with a shrug. It’s like the saying, right? Out of sight out of mind?

I give credit where credit is due, and your momma, well, she understood the assignment. Y’all were born under a full moon. You know that? I could hear all the hollerin’ and carryin’ on. She birthed y’all by herself on the laminated kitchen floor. Cut through the umbilical cords with a dull butcher’s knife. Soon as she could stand again she wrapped both y’all up in paisley printed towels and brought y’all to meet me. I don’t know how she decided, but she slipped one baby into the tall grass, no basket made of reeds. She put the other baby to her breast and I ain’t seen her since.

But I see you now.

I think parenting look good on me! I make sure my River Daughter stay clothed (robed in algae blooms, crowned in cattails), fed (on rainbow trout and misplaced dreams), safe. I make sure she’s learned. A river with a memory long as mine, huh, my baby knows history alright. Including her own.

That’s right. She see you too, honey.

Pardon, the heron don’t like my laughter. It startles him so he take off in a hurry. He might just have to get used to it. I just been so tickled lately!

There’s that other saying: What the river takes, the river keeps. What the Dequindre gives back is a curse indeed.

 This River Daughter been patient but she ain’t got an ounce of kindness in her. Now usually, what’s mine is mine, honey, but I been feeling gracious and I been thinking to myself: Lawd, won’t it be entertainin’ to see what happens if I



Ma Skeeter told me you ain’t been sleepin’ good. You spend all night tossin’, turnin’, babblin’ like waves breaking against the shore.

Now I wonder why that could be?

The Dequindre’s not the only one shrouded in stories thick like a heavy evening fog. No, no. Jackie’s been listening to conversations not meant for children’s ears and what she heard is that Miss Loretta that stay in that shack down there on the edge of the Dequindre, well, there’s always been something not quite right about her. Or maybe she heard that Miss Loretta knows some things that good Christian folk shouldn’t know a thing about. Or that she keeps company with some unsavory types. What she might have even heard was the word witch. Power. Hushed tones speak louder than the words themselves. Who better to turn to when Jackie finally admits to herself that since she stepped in the Dequindre she’s been seeing things that can’t be and hearing things that shouldn’t speak and she’s having a harder and harder time telling the difference between waking hours and dreams?

Chile you lookin’ like somethin’ troublin’ you. That might be my fault though. Hee! But you go on down to Miss Loretta’s anyway. Tell her your problems.

‘Your shadow don’t keep up with you no more, you say? Well, I’ll be.

And you think you hearin’ someone practice your voice? Watchu mean, baby?

Whispers sound like you but not you? Sound like you but far away? No?

Oh, sound like you but with lungs pushin’ round water ‘steada air? Iiiii’lllll be.’

I keep Miss Loretta’s head bobbin’. Her eyes wide with understanding. Cause I get it. But you know what else? I never did believe in lyin’ to kid-folk.

 Miss Loretta knows the words. Says ‘em without me promptin’: Go make a deal with the Dequindre then. But chiiiiile, you musta not liked that answer! The look on your face!

There’s another saying for what Jackie’s going through as she stumbles off of Miss Loretta’s porch, arms pinwheeling, hands scrabbling for purchase in the dusty yard. Nobody feels the outrage of injustice like a child does. She completed the dare. She proved her point. And she brought back from the river a black-eyed girl that wants to take her place? She’s been told “life ain’t fair” more times than she can count. But she never had reason to take the words to heart until now.

I was disappointed you know. Chile, you run away from Miss Loretta like she the problem. But she not. Gal, you know better. Your problem stand ‘bout your height, your weight, 120 pounds soaking river water wet on the bathroom mat. Your problem show up in your dreams and open her mouth and out flow silt and seaweed. Your problem is a river-sister that’s been down here so long she rememberin’ things she ain’t never had no business knowin’.

That night Jackie wakes up in a cold sweat, choking on hollow rush stems and pondweeds to the weight of someone sitting at the foot of her bed.

She turns on the lights to find herself in a room alone.

With a damp spot on the blankets down past her feet.

I was wonderin’ when you was gon’ come deal with me directly. C’mon down here, chile. The water is finneeeee. I hear you got yo’self a problem. Well, good ole Dequindre can work miracles, don’t you know! Don’t you worry yo’self none bout the stories you may or may not have heard. I can fix anythin’ if you make it worth my while. A spirit, you say? Wantin’ to take your place? Welllll that is a problem. Watchu willin’ to pay? Anythin’? Lawd, like mother like daughter. Why don’t you come on in a lil deeper. Now what if I told you that I already made a bargain with your momma? That I’m a lot of things, but a liar ain’t one of ‘em? I already gave her a baby, you see. I believe “One for me, and only one for you”’ was the words exactly. Nowww you see. It’s only fair, right? River Daughter’ll mind her business mostly. Besides, don’t you wanna see what’s on the other side? Ha! Trouble? Well that’s true too. Still, there’s a lot you could learn from a river like me. Power? Gal, now you talkin’ that talk! That’s two asks now, mind. I’m keepin’ count. Oh, I know a thing or two about power. Yessss, wade a lil closer, chile. These waters is trouble. Trouble and power. Power and trouble indeed.


  • K.S. Walker

    K.S. Walker writes speculative fiction. You can often find them spending time outside with their family or starting a craft project but probably not finishing it. K.S. Walker has previously been published at FIYAH, Uncanny, Fantasy, and elsewhere. They are online at www.kswalker.net or Twitter and Instagram @kswalkerwrites.

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