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What the Water Takes

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She dreams in languages she’s forgotten, of places that no longer exist and people whose bones are long since dust.


The human mind can only hold so much: it is inevitable that she forgets even those she’s loved. She sees only echoes of them: a lilt of a laugh, the curve of a hip, a slow heated look from a stranger across a busy street. 


Three hundred years after she was born, a man declared that no-one ever steps into the same river twice. But what would he know? She steps in and out of time, following the teachings of a people so long in the ground she sometimes wonders if they ever existed at all. Oath-keeper, truth-teller, swift-rider, she whispers to herself, and tries to remember the cadence of the words as her father had said them. 


She’d found the body of a lover in a river, once. He’d fought in a great battle on the banks of the Euphrates, which wound its way through history from Mesopotamia, over two thousand years before she was born, to modern-day Syria. A Greek man, he’d had thick dark hair and a quiet laugh. She can’t remember his name, but she remembers fighting beside him against the Parthians, or perhaps the Romans, she isn’t sure. They were separated, and afterwards she’d walked the battlefield offering a quick death to the dying. When she’d checked all the bodies on the land she’d waded into the water. The river had smelt of shit and blood, raw and close in a way that modern warfare couldn’t match: only the trenches of the First World War had ever come close to that smell. It took her nearly a day and a night to find him, and when she had his skin was bloated with maggots and filth. Over a thousand years later, she’d lost another lover to the water. 


My body is overflowing with tears and the tides of all the seas should be dry, wrote a woman, a hundred years before Nicky was born. 


Andy had learnt no written words in her mortal life. She couldn’t have even imagined words that stayed still, that didn’t spill, fluid, from her mother’s tongue to be passed from voice to voice. By the time she learnt to write, to hold her words down on a page, she realised that she’d never know how to write her mother tongue: that no alphabet existed to contain it. 


Two thousand years after she’d first put pen to paper, Booker had bought her a beautifully bound notebook. She still has it, half its pages are blank: accusatory. She wonders if she’d have written in it, perhaps Booker wouldn’t have betrayed them. It is still strange to her, even after all this time, to try to arrange her thoughts on a page. Andy thinks that perhaps it’s something you have to be born with and if you’re not, it’s impossible to really understand how to trap your ideas in ink. 


Here is a secret she will never write down: for years, on the anniversary of the last day she saw Quynh she would swim far out to sea for miles until her strength gave out. In those last moments, when she couldn’t fight any more and she pulled in great lungfuls of seawater—that was the only time she could let go of her guilt. 


The first of her people was born from a river, child of a sky-god and the great Dnieper river, on the banks of which she had played with her sisters. She thinks she remembers the river flooding, but it could be one of a hundred memories; one of a thousand rivers. 


Naha smells of the sea. Perhaps the city had another name once—she’ll have to ask Joe, he’s better with names than she is: a scholar through and through. Now it’s a sprawling metropolis, the air heavy exhaust and the tang of salt. They are just passing time, waiting for Joe and Nicky to get in from Malta, a file sent from Copley to an anonymous email account triggering their meeting here.


Nile comes out of Starbucks and puts a hand on her shoulder as she hands her a coffee. She’d spent some time on a base in Western Tokyo, so her Japanese is better than Andy’s. She nods her thanks and thinks that Nile will be old one day, that she’ll forget the names of cities she has lived in. Andy’s not sure if it’s a sad thought or not. 


“You have to bury me in Ukraine,” she tells Nile, as they walk through the busy streets. They have nowhere in particular they need to be until tomorrow, so they walk. 


“You can’t pick somewhere where there isn’t any conflict?” Nile replies, not even glancing in her direction.




“Okay, so when you die I need to hike your body across Russia and into the Ukraine. Anything else?”


“I need to be buried with six horses.”


What? ” Nile looks sideways at her, eyes narrowed. “Are you fucking with me?”


“It’s how my father was buried,” Andy says, keeping her face blank. 


“Well, I guess you want to be mummified too then, huh?”


“Now that you mention it…”


“No, uh-uh. There will be no scraping of insides, okay?”


Andy lets a smile loose and Nile sighs at her in a way that Andy already knows means she is more amused than annoyed. None of the others would let her joke this way but Nile’s sense of humour, which leans towards the morbid, is a relief. 


“Really? The Ukraine?” Nile asks, once they’ve walked a little further. There’s an improbable-looking park that rises above the nearby apartment buildings that seems as good a destination as any. Nile says it has goats, which Andy isn’t sure is true or not, but they’ll soon find out. 


“No, it doesn’t have to be Ukraine. But by a river, fast moving and deep,” Andy looks over the busy street and instead sees water, rushing cold from the mountains. 


Nile bumps their shoulders together, a small touch, but a welcome one, and once again the street is filled with cars and chatter.


“A river, I can do that.”


Andy doesn’t thank her: she knows she doesn't need to.